During early June 1944, the Irish Brigade advanced towards the next set of defensive lines located near to Lake Trasimene, where they met concentrated German positions at the end of the month. CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan describes some of the experiences of this journey northwards, including a memorable opportunity for selected members of the brigade, including its Commander, to return to Rome for the day for an audience with the Pope at the Vatican..and then it was back to the wars near Lake Trasimene.
“On the 12 June, it was announced that thirty Catholics and Irish Officers and men from the London Irish, plus the pipe band, had been invited to join the first private audience for the Allies with the Pope. We were already some 30 miles or so north of Rome, so it meant that detachments of the Irish Brigade would have to go back to the city. Each company provided six men and I made sure that I was there. We were driven back in TCVs led by Brigadier Scott, an Irish Protestant, who did not intend to miss this singular honour for the brigade.
The audience had been arranged by the Irish Ambassador to the Holy See, the Brigade Major and Father Dan Kelleher. We arrived at Saint Peter’s Square and the detachment of about 130 soldiers, including the composite pipe band, entered the Vatican. In single file, we climbed the carpetted stairway, passing the Swiss Guards in their Michael Angelo uniforms. Papal dignitaries, both clerical and lay, were everywhere in a variety of costumes. We filed into the papal consistory chamber: a hall with walls covered in a rich red material just sufficient to accommodate us. In the front was a small dais upon which the brigadier, Father Kelleher, the brigade major and the ambassador awaited. As each person entered, they were given a rosary and a papal blessing document. I turned to my neighbours and recognised Irish sergeants who were members of the Orange Order.
At 9am, His Holiness Pope Pius XIII walked in with his dignitaries. He was a quite small figure dressed in a white soutain and a white skull cap. The brigadier knelt and kissed the Pope’s ring. This he did a couple of times later. Despite his Protestantism, the brigadier was obviously thrilled that his brigade was making history. Pope Pius addressed us in perfect English with but a trace of accent and declared: ‘Gentlemen of Ireland…’ I do not remember exactly what else he said, as my head was in a whirl. I was thrilled to be there.
Brigadier Scott asked if the Pope would like to hear some pipe music. The massed brigade band in their saffron kilts and caubeens with the various coloured hackles and regimental badges played ‘Killaloe’ followed by ‘The Sash My Father Wore‘. This was probably the first and perhaps the last time one of the signature tunes of the Orange Order was heard in the Vatican. His Holiness tapped his foot to the beat of the martial music and obviously enjoyed the alien sound. He then blessed our rosaries and other objects and each of us mounted the dais to kneel and kiss his ring. The small Orange detachment remained in place. More pipe music was played and the whole assembly was given the pontifical blessing. The Pope walked out to the sound of pipes and we filed out.
By arrangement, the retreat was beat on the steps of St Peter’s on the large flat surface half way to the entrance. Crowds of clergy stood around clapping and, beyond the square, a vast crowd had gathered. The Catholics in the detachment, who were in the majority, and many others went into Mass at the Blessed Sacrament altar. I was the master of ceremonies and there were about 10 other servers. I had served Mass in many strange places, but to do so in St Peter’s Cathedral was beyond belief. The basilica was enormous and I could not wait to see over it. The Pieta (a sculptural masterpiece by Michaelangelo) and the magnificent High Altar will remain in my memory.
At the end of the ceremony, we were dismissed to have the day free until the afternoon. With a couple of others, I toured the cathedral open-mouthed at this splendour in the middle of a war. Rome was untouched having been declared an Open City. Due to my tour, I missed the invitation to visit the Convent of the Irish Franciscan Sisters which was at the top of the Spanish Steps. Instead, I explored Rome on foot, seeing the Coliseum and other famous historical sites. We embussed in the late afternoon and made our way to the battalion which had advanced that day a further 30 miles or so.”
The Irish continued to advance north of Rome towards the strong defensive lines on the western short of Lake Trasimene.
Pat Giles took over company command to give Davies a rest. He was ill and it looked as if Giles had the job for good. On one day, we advanced as much as 28 miles. I sensibly stayed mainly in the jeep. I was so far forward, Pat Giles said jokingly. ‘It’s all right colour, your DCM is quite safe.’ We finished by attacking a farmhouse on a hill where we found the bodies of a grandfather, father and grandson, a mere boy, who had been shot by the Germans for, allegedly, waving at the advancing British tanks. I comforted the grieving women and conveyed the bodies to the nearest cemetery, where they were buried in the walls of the square cemetery. Giles did not last long as E Company commander and was replaced on 17 June by a regular Ulsterman, Captain Ronnie Boyd. Combat was obviously new to him and, as always with new commanders, we did not see eye to eye.
It was still broad daylight when I brought up a cooked meal for the company across country following the route of the forward troops. While it was still light, I was serving it up, helped by the stretcher bearers. As the light faded, a burst of machine gun fire shattered the lintel above my head. I dived for cover behind the insulated food containers and crawled into the building for safety. Any movement brought shellfire down on our farm buildings. The Germans had our range to perfection. I persuaded a party consisting of my driver Corporal Gough and the stretcher bearers to line up and make a dash with the empty containers for the jeep parked some 20 yards away behind an outbuilding. ‘All you have to do is throw them on the ground by the jeep. I’ll pack them on,’ I said. ‘At my command, Run!’ We had started to move when a shell burst right outside the door, killing one and wounding the other of the first pair.
Captain Boyd was on the first floor and he shouted for me. I went to him and reported what had happened.
‘Are you off ?,’ he asked.
I replied: ‘No person will help me to carry the containers, Sir.’
‘Do it yourself, with the driver,’ he said. Already shaken, I was horrified. I saluted him and left.
‘And take the body to the RAP,’ he said. This was an unusual order. Bodies were normally buried where they had fallen, once the identity disc had been removed to be given to BHQ with a map reference.
I persuaded Gough to make the short journey with the containers. Wrapped in a blanket, the corpse was placed on top of the folded windscreen on the bonnet. Both back wheels were punctured and the jeep was running on its back rims. We roared down the 100-yard track from the farm and turned left on to the road. Eyewitnesses said we were followed by heavy fire. The stretch of road was about 600 yards long and forked left to the village where the quartermaster was based. We were tracked by mortar fire. After turning towards the village, we saw, about 100 yards ahead, a wrecked artillery quad that was blocking the road. There was a shallow ditch on its right and we drove along it at a steep angle with the two right hand wheels down the ditch and the other two on the road. I held containers with one hand and the body with the other as we bumped back on to the road. The mortar fire stopped when we were in the shelter of the quad and out of sight of the enemy.
We rattled our way into the village and stopped when we saw Joe Turvey, colour sergeant of H Company. He started to tell me of his experience with his own company with one hand on the body.
‘What’s this?,’ he asked.
‘A stretcher bearer,’ I replied. ‘He was killed carrying containers to the jeep.’
Joe almost jumped with the shock. I proceeded to the RAP. There, I was rebuked by the medical officer for bringing back the body and having a corpse adjacent to food containers. A colour sergeant stood no chance against an officer in command who apparently wanted to take it out on somebody. I was always a ready victim. Perhaps he would learn.”