Preparing for Battle – 26 April to 11 May 1944

Major John Horsfall, 2 LIR

The Rifles came back from Castellone at about 0300 in the morning, and reached San Michele at it was getting light. Three hours later, they found themselves twenty miles back from the line in the village of Formicola, surrounded by a maze of wild flowers and the spring blossom of unspoiled country. Here, they were greeted by CSM Hamilton with a draft of thirty reinforcements – just about the number we had lost during the last month’s static campaigning.                                                  

The ensuing fortnight was spent by the brigade in training by day and parties by night, both providing the essential prelude for the coming storm.

The evening after our arrival in this charming village, I was summoned by Jimmy Clarke and Hugh to a party put on by D Company of the Faughs. When I reached their billets, I found they had a huge bonfire going in the adjacent orchard and were running a vino bar, with the pipers making a fine noise beside it. However, vino apart, the main choices of refreshment was rum cocktails and Benevento gin. The welcome was a very warm one, and made more so by my old veterans, who were very much in evidence – Robbie Robinson, now sergeant of 16 Platoon; Colour Sergeant Fred White, now in HQ Company; Murphy, also now a sergeant; Fusilier Sid Smith 05, and quite a number of others. The party continued long after midnight, and my diary recorded that most of the participants were bottled at the end of it.

The following evening, Pat Scott put on a similar performance at Brigade HQ, in which the general was initiated into the mysteries of Irish dancing. The massed drums and pipes of all three regiments also put on a first class performance. Pat said of them, ‘We had been stupid in Africa taking pipers into battle…at the end, we found ourselves badly depleted in musicians and instruments. As I was the only one at Brigade HQ with the necessary knowledge, I found myself with the job of OC drums and pipes….’ Thereafter, they were brigaded whenever circumstances allowed.

Thirty miles back from the line, Formicola was a very pretty Italian village, and relatively clean in spite of being ‘south of Rome’. It was set in delightful surroundings with fruit trees everywhere. I have never known such a profusion of wild flowers, and that and the fruit blossom is my principle memory of the village and the lovely valley to which it belonged.

The whole of the battalion was housed in one place, and living in considerable luxury in comparison with the discomforts, and worse, of their late experiences.

As always out of the line, the first task was to attend to our weapons, and we spent four days dealing with this subject and other essential administrative matters, which included fitting the entire battalion out with their summer clothing. Here in Formicola, we suddenly noticed for the first time the intensity of the heat, and what the Mediterranean sun could do to us. The khaki drill had come just in time, and I must say that the whole brigade looked remarkably smart in its new kit.

It was perhaps just as well that our first training exercise was an assault river crossing – using the nearby Volturno for the purpose. However, I noticed that the brigadier had chosen that moment to go on a day’s leave, and as all three of his battalion’s commanders had done likewise, I was left holding the baby.

The exercise was slightly marred as one of our carriers, unfortunately in my presence, took the side out of the staff car of the Inspector General of Army Equipment. God knows what the good man was doing there anyway, but I recorded that he was much vexed and that he had a surprising vocabulary.

The next scheme had the purpose of furbishing up our street fighting techniques and it was carried out in an expendable part of Capua. The operation began with a demonstration by the Kensingtons (1st Bttn, Princess Louise’s Kensington Regiment) and my diary mentioned, ‘no unit could have been less suited to the job.’ The entry was hardly surprising as the gallant Kensington Regiment were the 78 Division’s support battalion, composed of Vickers’ machine guns and 4.2” mortars. One of their principal tasks was to discourage street fighting rather than indulge in it. Here, I first met Colin Gunner, a very youthful and zealous subaltern of theirs, who became so addicted to the Faughs, after supporting them so often, that eventually he transferred to them. A spry, cocky figure, Colin was one of the chief actors in the demonstration, and my principal recollection of it was the dense clouds of smoke, which prevented anyone from seeing anything. It was probably just as well, and that, anyway, was a lesson in its own right.

I am afraid that I never really got to like the Kensingtons’ 4.2”s in spite of their incredible destructive capacity. Their commander, Harvey Shillidy, was a typical genial cavalier and would never hear a word against them, though he had to put up with a good deal of cross chat owing to the perversity of his armament and their well-known inaccuracy. Close support by Harvey was liable to be alarming, and someone observed that we all felt safer when he was firing across the front of our flanking battalions.

‘None of you understand,’ he lectured, ‘My mortars are area weapons’ – ‘and a mighty large area, too,’ Frankie Lyness retorted unkindly.

None the less, those mortars had their uses and far outranged our own 3” weapons.

The colonel made several postings at this time, all of considerable importance and which were to affect me in the days to come. Among them was Jerry Cole, who became our adjutant. The choice was not an obvious one and certainly Jerry never looked the part. None the less, Ion’s discernment was amply proved, and it stood the test of time like his other postings. Ion was good at judging men.

Writing home later, I said,

‘…my adjutant Jerry Cole too is a delightful person, not particularly efficient but has a “going to the races” attitude, which in those circumstances sees him through everything.’

The other change was the appointment of Jerry Hall to the support company. Faintly surprised at the time, here also I learned that my CO went for durability as the first consideration. Jerry, Captain GG Hall, was soon to be a firm friend also.

The duties of the support company commander were quite different to those of the rifle companies, and the functions were mainly administrative. The units of S Company fought for the most part independently, usually under the direction of the CO himself or the rifle companies that they happened to be supporting. In consequence, as poor Jerry was usually uncommitted personally, he had the disadvantage of being available to cope with emergencies whenever they might arise when the battalion was in action – or even to command his own sub units when battle casualties made that necessary.

The support company at that time consisted of three platoons, made up of four Vickers machine gun detachments, six 3” mortars and six 6 pounder anti-tank guns respectively. The carrier platoon had long since been discarded as such, and its noisy and unreliable vehicles were generally used in battle for the conveyance of the other three. This they did quite well, owing to their tracks and admirable cross country performance.

Jerry, himself, was perfectly cast in that role that he now enjoyed. He presided genially over his diverse command, and he carried out his duties in the manner of an eighteenth century squire supervising his tenancy. His perfection of old world manners was unique in my experience and, sometimes after discussion with him, I wondered at the end if I was dreaming.

4-10 May 1944

On the evening of 4 May, the divisional ADMS, our chief doctor, put on a gigantic cocktail party of a standard, which I doubt was ever exceeded even in peacetime. The Irish Brigade drums and pipers were in attendance and much in evidence and making more noise than ever. The party accelerated as the evening went by and, in view of what I knew was about to happen, I thought, and have often thought, of that other Irish Brigade:

“…they rushed from the revels to join the parade for the right of the van is the Irish Brigade.”

As a party, it ranked with several others that one remembers throughout one’s life, and its nature was hardly surprising when everyone knew everyone else. Among them, I found Kendal Chevasse, whom I had not seen lately. Kendal was making a life career of commanding the divisional reconnaissance regiment, otherwise known as 56 Recce. He, of course, was a Faugh and like all his regiment, could be relied upon never to miss a party which involved them. We were to see quite a lot of him in the days to come. The party, naturally, went on in to the late night. It was not without purpose.

On 10 May, we left Formicola to attend to more important matters, and during the last days, I was able to observe to father, ‘Pat’s leg has now recovered I am glad to say. We were all very relieved as we were terrified at one stage that we were going to lose him…’

It was a nice bit of timing on the part of the brigade commander. That evening, he invited me to tea to celebrate, two months late, the arrival of his birthday cake, manufactured by his wife Biddy in Ireland with the aid of turkeys’ eggs.