Following in the final footsteps of my father

Reflections on Fusilier George Holmes’  time with the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers (The Faughs).

A visit to eastern Italy in May 2022, an account by Gillian Morrison.

Friday 29th April to Sunday 1st May 2022  – Arrival in Italy

Although my travelling companion, Diana, and I arrived in the Abruzzo region on the Adriatic coast of Italy on Friday 29th April, my major quest, and the main purpose of my visit to this area, didn’t start in earnest until Monday 2nd May.

On the Friday evening, we spent some time at the Sangro River War Cemetery which is not far from where we were staying.

I placed the three poppy crosses that I had prepared, along with photos, on the graves of my father, George Holmes, and Patrick Butler’s father, Lieutenant Colonel Beauchamp Butler, as well as Don Smith’s uncle, Arthur ‘Curly’ Smith, who served with the 25th Battalion, New Zealand Infantry.

I had first met Don in the cemetery in 2013, still reeling from having just met Patrick for the first time. To have actually met the son of my father’s commanding officer in Italy was incredible – if I had been just half an hour later, I would have missed meeting up with Patrick and the only evidence of him being there would have been his signature in the visitors’ book. He was travelling that year with a British Legion group and a ceremony of remembrance was taking place at his father’s graveside.

As if that wasn’t enough for one day, when still with Don, I had encountered an Australian family visiting with their two Italian cousins who lived in nearby Paglieta. The Aussies of Italian descent couldn’t speak the Italian language and, likewise, the two cousins couldn’t speak English so, feeling sorry for them, I endeavoured to have some sort of conversation in my very limited Italian. Thank goodness I did, because it was one of the cousins, Antonino, who put me in touch with his English friend, Evadne – and there lies another story and my ongoing personal connection to Paglieta… and even a link right back to General Montgomery.

What a day that was, way back in September 2013!

It was quite an overwhelming experience for Diana who knew nothing about the details of the war in Italy. As in my own home as a child, the war was never mentioned in hers. In fact, Diana and I had travelled around Europe when we were twenty years of age not realising what had happened just a few years before and I certainly had no idea that my father was buried in Italy and perhaps near to where we had spent a few weeks of leisure time. We are now astounded by our absolute ignorance at the time.

On a Saturday morning in late April of this year, we went back to Paglieta to meet up again with Evadne, who has lived in the area for many years with her Italian husband.

(NA 9196): General Montgomery is seen with a cage of birds bearing the 8th Army crest, outside his mobile caravan. © IWM. 

Of course, this is where Montgomery had set up his headquarters during the extended period leading up to the battles near the river Sangro, and was chosen for the quite excellent views across the valley to the ridge on the other side of the river to where the Germans were situated in their strongly embedded defensive positions. You can look across to Mozzagrogna, Santa Maria, R li Colli, Fossacesia and the Monastery of San Giovanni in Venere, which are spread right along the opposite ridgeline to the north and which runs right down to the Adriatic coast.

With Evadne’s guidance, we then went to an area just outside the town, along a track to where Monty had set up his field headquarters in his (now famous) caravan. This is another excellent vantage point. The sign in that vicinity was erected for the 70th anniversary in 2013 by the Town Council of Paglieta. Evadne was a member at the time and, in fact, I think she was Chairperson.

Evadne had also helped Tom Carver with his research on the book he was writing about his father, Richard Carver, who was Montgomery’s step son and had been captured in Egypt during 1942, and ended up as a prisoner of war in Northern Italy. Tom’s book tells of his father’s escape journey during the summer/autumn of 1943, as he started down the Italian peninsula and through the German lines. Richard had been given food and shelter along the way by brave Italian families and was finally hidden by a wonderful family near Gessopalena, eventually reaching his stepfather’s caravan at Paglieta in December 1943.

The first thing Montgomery said when he met his stepson was, “Where the hell have you been?’” and that’s actually the title of the book.

(NA 8909): The tanks rumbling through Torino Di Sangro. © IWM.  

After leaving Paglieta, we spent some time in Torino di Sangro close to where the men of the Irish Brigade were billeted for about a week while waiting to cross the Sangro at the end of November 1943. The 8th Army had been held up at that time due to the torrential rain which was making it impossible for tanks to cross the cascading river – repeated attempts to bridge the river had led to failure. According to the Faughs’ regimental diary, the battalion were crowded into a large school and a chapel – in all the years I have been going to this area, I have never thought to find these places (perhaps, next time?!).

Again, according to the war diaries, some 105mm shells were dropped during the attacks over the Sangro but the majority failed to explode – possibly because they were fired ‘capped’. For me, it continues to be a strange feeling, with the knowledge that I have now, that I was possibly walking on the same pathway and pavement that my father had trod – he would never have imagined I would one day follow in his footsteps. Nothing seems to have changed in the area for many years.

Monday 2nd May – My mission starts in earnest.

On Monday morning, we drove the 50 miles down to the port of Termoli and where the Irish Brigade had disembarked in October 1943, coming ashore in the middle of the night in the most awful weather and quite unexpectedly finding themselves in the front line.

For my father, it would have been his first experience of coming under fire. Having joined up in May 1940, he seemed to have spent his time over the following two years in England on various “Special Hardening Courses” before he was posted to the Royal Ulster Rifles in August 1942. On being shipped to Sicily, he was immediately posted on arrival to the 1st Bn Royal Irish Fusiliers  – according to his records, that occurred on 6th September 1943.

(NA 7790): The important Pescara-Termoli road junction. © IWM.

The night of disembarkation, a month later, in Termoli, must have been quite a shock for him as it would have been his first experience of battle. I believe that Brigadier Nelson Russell was comforted by the fact that the Irish battalions were battle-hardened with street-fighting experience, most especially gained during their assaults in August 1943 on the hill top town of Centuripe near Mt Etna in eastern Sicily.

I would always think about that later, and say to myself: ‘not my father’.

It was hard for me to comprehend all those memories fully as we strolled along the port on a calm, sunny day and reflect on what had happened 78 years ago.  Although I had the regimental diaries with me, I opted to carry around for reference Richard Doherty’s ‘Clear the Way!’, and would read passages aloud from it at each point of my journey.

From the port, we drove up to the old brickworks five miles outside Termoli, where there had been a fierce fight the day after the Irish Brigade had arrived by sea, but this time the entry gates to the site were well and truly padlocked so we couldn’t go in as Patrick Butler and I had done back in 2017.

From the brickworks, we made our way along the San Giacomo/Guglionesi ridge and up to the town of Petacciato and, from there, dropped down to the Trigno River where we spent some time contemplating what happened there at the end of October 1943. Again, Richard Doherty’s book was very informative as I read out the accounts of the battle to Diana. It was hard to imagine what it must have been like back then. Remnants of the blown up bridge can still be spotted scattered around the river but the wooded area, which was situated on the north bank in 1943, is no longer there. A gravel works seems to have sprung up in its place!

I had come here with Patrick in 2017 and it is where his father, Beauchamp Butler, had been killed on 27th October 1943, along with so many other good men.

Tuesday 2nd May – A crucial day for me.

I now wanted to try to fit in the last piece of the puzzle surrounding my father’s death and his last movements – and I am pleased to say that I think I have now done so, although some parts are still open to speculation.

Thanks to Janet Dethick, I now have the exact location of his temporary burial place, along with Fusiliers Storr, Martin and Maden who are all now resting side by side at the Sangro River CWGC Cemetery. There had also been two German soldiers buried with them in the original grave, which is significant as I will reveal later in this narrative.

(NA 10099): A Bailey bridge under construction outside San Vito, part of which can be seen on the hill in the background.  © IWM. 

In San Vito, we called in on young Vito, now 92, and his wife Lidia. I had first met Vito by chance in 2010 which proved to be a spine-tingling moment when he had said to me, “I was there – I was there when they came”.

I could hardly believe it.

The following day, Vito drove me to the place just outside San Vito where he had lived as a 12 year old. He remembered soldiers coming up through the vines to a nearby house where a man could speak English and had advised them that the Germans were gathered ahead under the olive trees. Gun fire soon broke out and Vito, along with his brother, sheltered in a nearby house with thirty other men, women and children. After the shooting subsided, they all went outside to find two German soldiers lying dead as well as one Allied soldier, who was under an olive tree. Three others had ran back down through the vines.

I have visited Vito and Lidia every year (sometimes twice annually) since (until the pandemic, of course). We have discussed in detail that awful day and have been back to the scene many times previously including visiting the farmhouse that he lived in with his family as a child. At the time, this was too close to the main Fossacesia road with tanks going up and down so they had all moved across the fields to the house where the shooting had taken place.

Even though I had been to the spot so many times, I couldn’t quite put it in context in relation to ‘what happened’ in San Vito according to the regimental diaries. A few years ago, Vito asked one or two people in the town if they knew what had taken place on 2nd December 1943 but nothing useful came back. He had been told that no fighting had actually broken out in the town itself.  I didn’t like to argue. Perhaps, though, whomever he had asked was too young to know or even had not been not living there at the time. At the age of twenty, Vito had gone to live in Australia and stayed there for many years.

I don’t know how many times I have walked around San Vito wondering where exactly my father was killed. Then, I discovered that the track from the ravine came up into the town square so, during one of my visits, I walked down the steep track right to the bottom where there is an old Napoleonic-era well and imagined that my father, along with the others from Lieutenant John Day’s patrol, would have drank from it.

Of course, it now appears that I was totally wrong and, having gone back to the site with Vito this time, all became absolutely clear.

Vito repeated his story exactly as he had done in 2010 and I can now envisage exactly what did happen on that fateful day. Previously, I hadn’t quite realised that the ravine ran so close to the cottage that the men were all sheltering in on 2nd December 1943.

I now think that (possibly) John Day’s patrol descended down into the ravine from where the headquarters had been set up, turning right along the bottom, eventually coming up into the town square – this all seemed make sense. However, it looks as if, at some stage and not necessarily at the same time as my father, the three other Fusiliers (Jack Storr, Robert Martin and Eric Maden) went down into the ravine and climbed straight up the bank on the other side coming out at the bottom of the vineyard which stretches up to the afore-mentioned houses. It is there where they had encountered the man who could speak English and had warned them that the Germans were positioned nearby.

A final burning question remains for me now and one that I know that I will probably never have the exact answer to – whether it was my father lying dead under that olive tree or was he one of the three who ran off towards the ravine? Nonetheless, all four men were killed that day and, according to the CWGC, a total of thirteen Irish Fusiliers were killed on the north side of the Sangro river on 2nd December 1943.

I am now satisfied that I have done all that I can possibly do in my search.

After we had taken Vito back home and chatted with the family for a while, we went back to the spot and walked through the vines down to the edge of the ravine. We could see where they would have come up but it was too overgrown and steep for two “oldies” to risk clambering down. The house where the headquarters was set up could clearly be seen on the opposite side of the ravine, now renovated and much extended over recent years.

That evening, we spent more time at the Sangro River CWGC cemetery and found Captain Joe Beglin’s grave, an Inniskilling Fusilier, who died at the end of December 1943, and I placed a poppy cross onto his final resting place. Joe Beglin is slightly isolated from other men from the Irish Brigade in the cemetery, as he had been initially buried near to Capracotta where he had succumbed to his wounds and this is about fifty miles inland in the high Apennines. I also placed a cross on John Day’s grave here – he was the young Lieutenant who had led the Faughs’ patrol into San Vito and would be recommended for the Victoria Cross. but, rather sadly, the VC was not awarded to him.

Wednesday 3rd May – We spend the day in Villa Grande and Ortona.

This part of my journey has nothing specifically connected with the Irish Brigade but highlights that another one of my chance meetings has turned into something truly special.

(NA 10590): A blind woman is taken back to her cottage in Villa Grande by her eldest son. © IWM.

A few years ago, I was in Villa Grande with a friend whose uncle, Private James Weller of the 5th Bn Essex Regiment, had been killed in or around this village on 9th January 1944. An old chap was leaning against the wall of his house and asked if we were English or German. On saying we were English, a smile came over his face and he rushed inside the house and came back out with the copy of a certificate sent to him by Field Marshall Alexander and thanking him for his part in helping our soldiers to hide and escape. Not speaking any Italian then, I wrote to him asking if he could write back to me and tell me what happened there and I would somehow translate it.

Much to my surprise, a parcel arrived about two weeks later. In it, was a book sent directly from the author, who was a friend. It’s quite brilliant – in drawings, it tells the whole wartime story of that area and the old man, who I know now is named Donato, is featured in it.

The book is titled ‘1943: THE ROAD TO ORTONA’ by Severio di Tullio and it was published in 1993, in collaboration with the Canadians, to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the battles for Ortona.

I have visited the family every year since – Donato has sadly died but his wife is 96 and still alive. She was 15 at the time of the events of late 1943 and had to hide in a cave near Crecchio, which was her home area. Having got to the cave, she realised that her parents weren’t with her and bravely ran behind a patrol of Germans, who fortunately were facing the other way. She did indeed manage to find her parents.

Anyway, after a superb lunch cooked by Maria, Donato’s daughter, her son Fabbio, Donato’s grandson, took us on a tour around the area and, in particular, to Casa Berardi where there had been a extended stand-off with the Germans and Captain Paul Triquet was promoted in the field to major and later awarded the Victoria Cross. We then went to Ortona and walked around the town, contemplating the winter period of 1943/44 and the fact that the town had been completely flattened in such a desperately difficult and prolonged battle. We ended up at a cafe on the square that is dedicated to the Canadians.

Incidentally, Fabbio has quite a collection of spent British bullets which he has found lying in a straight line right across his olive grove.

So many remarkable connections across the years.

That morning, on the way to Villa Grande we stopped off at the Canadian Cemetery near Ortona to place a cross on the grave of Corporal David Marshall on behalf of his family including his nephew, David, with whom we have been recently in contact. David Marshall had been killed while on patrol with Joe Beglin in late December 1943 but the two had been initially buried in two different locations in the mountains and, when reburied, they were again buried separately at the Sangro river and Ortona CWGC cemeteries.

We spent quite some time at the cemetery in Ortona – like so many around the world, it’s a peaceful haven for tranquil reflection.

Thursday 4th May – Our last full day.

We spent this day in Lanciano which, unfortunately, didn’t give us as much time as I would have liked to spend more time at the CWGC cemetery near the Sangro river. The day was a little bit too rushed but unavoidable.

Usually, when I am over in Italy on my own, I spend a lot of time in the cemetery and manage to place a poppy on every Irish Fusilier grave. However I must not despair and remember what we have achieved during this visit.

The above descriptive narrative is just a tiny pin prick of a story from the Second World War but it is so, so very important to me.

Fusilier George Holmes was with the Faughs in Italy for such a very short time but, as his daughter, I feel so proud of what he did.

I have to say that I couldn’t have wished for a better companion in this quest – my friend Diana. I don’t think anyone else would have stuck to the rigid timetable and intensity of it all.

Thank you Diana – I couldn’t have done it without you.