The assault on Casa Sinagoga, 16th May 1944

Major John Horsfall took over command of the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles (2 LIR) on the afternoon of 15th May 1944 following the death of the battalion’s commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel Ion Goff.

This excerpt, taken from his exceptionally evocative memoir ‘Fling Your Banner To The Wind’, describes the events of 16th May 1944 as 2 LIR took the lead, along with 2 Lancashire Fusiliers, in the 78th Division’s assault on the vaunted Gustav Line.

“From darkness (on the evening of 15th May) onwards, enemy defensive fire began to wane and became spasmodic.

Desmond Woods and Colin Gibbs came in to ask some questions during the late evening and, at one stage. Corporal Telfer appeared, fussing anxiously about feeding us. What he was doing in the front line I cannot think, but I am afraid on this occasion, we were hardly responsive. Rum was adequate for all our requirements just then and I think my companions, Paul Lunn Rockliffe (17th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery) and Jerry Cole (Adjutant 2 LIR), found it a satisfactory diet too, as we discussed what had to be done when the sun rose.

Preliminary action, at least, was not required. Fortunately, our forward companies were already in position, dug in on the start line, and all they had to do was to get up from their posts when the time came and go forward behind the barrage.

Sometime after midnight, we lay up in the command post, formerly the embedded position of a German anti tank gun and slept for an hour or in spite of the racket going on around us. Strangely enough, I recall the slight sounds and chats from our signallers beside me rather than the pandemonium going on outside the dugout. Zero hour was finally fixed for 0900 to allow time for the Lancashire Fusiliers to prepare their part in the operation. They had only come in to the sector at nightfall and had seen nothing of the ground so far. They, also, had to reconnoitre and plan.  

At first light, I called the company commanders in again and we ran over the final details and timings.

Slap in front there, a quarter mile distant, the Pignatoro road stretched away across us. Beyond it, the ground was thick with mines and covered in depth by a ring of 88s. So I sent the pioneers out under their admirable officer, The ‘Guvnor’ (Warrant Officer, PSM, W Fraser), in the half light of dawn, to disinfest where possible. Thereafter, it was his task to follow down the centre line with H Company and ensure that there were gaps for the tanks – and see them safely through, should it be necessary. Fortunately, the German anti tank minefields were easily visible at the time, with most of the mines on the surface.

As the last livid seconds ticked by, true to form, the whole of the divisional artillery’s seventy two guns opened up virtually simultaneously – so perfectly timed that the reports of individual guns were lost in the avalanche of projectiles screaming over our positions. Seconds later, the medium batteries further behind us joined in and the landscape ahead just vanished under pitch black thunder cloud, pierced by the dancing orange lightning of the shell bursts.

In a minute or two, the whole scene in front of us and the blue sky over it were blotted out in smoke and flame and dust. Thereafter for a while, no speech was possible in the open – but thank God for the headphones and Pat Scott’s quiet voice coming through.

H Company after entering Sinagoga.

Seemingly nothing and no one could live in that holocaust but I knew very well that they could. I knew too the resilience of our adversaries tucked away behind their concrete. They would be manning their guns within seconds of the barrage ceasing, those who still lived, as they had shown time and time again in defence of this sector and never more so than in their epic defence of Cassino itself.

It would not do to hang back and I warned all three of the companies to close up on the barrage regardless of what the cost might be.

I was immensely relieved to see H Company and some of E got to their feet and move steadily forward. The rest were beyond my vision. That sight was decisive. Once started, I knew now that all would be well. Pat knew that too, and said so when I reported moments later.

The 16th/5th Lancers did not move until our men reached the first rise several hundred yards ahead. Then, the tanks motored slowly forward to cover them on to the next lot of hummocks. This was the signal for German reaction and the enemy replied with massive concentrations pitched well inside the line of our barrage. It was mostly blind firing on their part, but effective nonetheless, and time after time there were the vicious orange flashes of their 5.9s bursting amongst H Company. However, during this critical period, a lot of the German artillery was shooting long and much of their fire was coming down round the tanks, which were relatively immune save for direct hits. Unfortunately, F got a good many of the overs. As the reserve company at that time, Colin’s men were well in the rear of the others.

The German mortars, including their beastly six barrelled variety, the Nelebwerfer, joined in next, though I never consciously noticed them in the smoke and dust from our own shell explosions. Our barrage was moving forward at about a hundred yards a minute, according to my recollections, but it paused for longer periods on the known German posts. Nonetheless, a number of them were in action immediately our guns lifted and H suffered severely, both from their spandaus and from the shelling. In front of us, there were wrecked buildings scattered across the whole of the battle zone and, as a centrepiece to it, were the loose conglomeration of houses, which formed the hamlet of Sinagoga. All of them were fortified and tracer was streaking across in all directions like jets of fire outlined against the black backdrop of the barrage.

The initial ordeal of the forward companies was brief enough as they raced over the battlefield. To begin with, our opponents in open trenches were easily collared as our men were in to them while they were taking cover. However, the buildings were a different matter and, whenever we saw our men held up, the supporting 16th/5th tanks worked up to them and literally pulverised the opposition by direct fire at very close range.

I must say that the tanks’ 75 was a marvellous gun and a single shell from it was sufficient to bring down a large part of the front wall of a house. Sergeant Edgell had got through half of his ammunition by the time we were in to Sinagoga – doing just this. Also the tactical coordination of the tank troops was very impressive with one of their number hull down and shooting as the others crept forward in the smoke. In a number of instances, the enemy were trapped in their basements and cellars with the tanks on top of them before they knew what was happening. In other cases, I noticed the garrison ran for it after a few direct hits – those of them who were still in a position to do so. Some may have got out unseen but our men were too close on to them in most cases and there they had the first glimpse of triumph – the sight of a flying enemy and knew then, and forever, who had the mastery.

While this stage lasted, I think a great many of our opponents were shot down under the fire of the tanks’ besas. The Lancers were often waiting for them and were on to them in a flash when they ran for it in small parties or gruppes. Sometimes, there was only one or two – racing into the corn or the nearby buildings with our tracer hosing after them.

Unfortunately, the enemy had inflicted heavy damage before the rout started.

Our riflemen in the forward platoons had gone down, one after the other, as H Company closed. Both their commanders, Mike Clark (Lieutenant MOW Clark MC) and Geoffrey Searles (Lieutenant Geoff Searles, who was an American commissioned into the British Army) were among them. Mike lay there dead and Geoffrey gravely wounded in those last few yards. Before H broke in to their village, they had lost over half of their number, including all their company subalterns and most of their NCOs. Desmond, however, remained, though his signaller died on top of him as both dived for cover. Desmond Woods (OC, H Company) concluded his attack on the village supported by a single sergeant and a few remaining corporals.

E Company’s experience was little better. Both of Mervyn Davies’ (OC, E Company) subalterns were hit at the beginning of the attack and a dozen others of his men went down as it ended. Among them were Sergeant Mayo and Corporal O’Reilly who died in the assault – both distinguished veterans and both with the Military Medal.

The German anti tank defence was quite ineffective. We forgot all about their mines and never even noticed them and their guns in the zone of attack were either caught unmanned or with their crews dead or injured under the barrage. I do not think they fired a shot until the last phase of the battle when they showed what might have happened all too conclusively.

When we got up to Sinagoga, the intact garrison on our open left flank, across the Piopetto to the south, made themselves a progressively greater nuisance and we came under heavy and persistent machine gun fire from them. As the barrage tailed off, with our men fighting in the objective, Paul turned the 17th Field on to one target after another on this side, but he only achieved a temporary suppression. As soon as one lot went silent, others opened up. Finally, several German tanks joined in and we had to send one of the Lancers’ tank troops over to deal with them. The rest of the 16th/5th were used to carve our way in to Sinagoga and here we lost several of our machines in rapid succession.

The Germans had some armoured self propelled guns tucked away behind the buildings at the back of the village and the first indication of their presence was a series of colossal explosions as they opened up with their 88s. The scene in front of us changed instantly from smoke and dust to searing sheets of flame as one tank after another took the full impact of German HE fired in to them at short pistol shot. They had clobbered all the leading tanks within moments of our getting in to the place.

Corporal James Barnes.

One of Desmond Wood’s NCOs, Corporal Barnes (Corporal JA Barnes) took his handful of men charging through the village, perhaps unconscious of the nature of his opponents, but just at that moment unsupported. The situation was chaotic anyway with running Germans dodging everywhere and both sides firing like mad with small arms. Barnes and most of his section were shot down before he reached the SP leaving behind him a legend of desperate bravery for the Irish Rifles.

But as more of our men and two or three of our tanks broke in, the garrison began throwing in the towel. By then, a dense pall of oil smoke hung low over Sinagoga and part of village was burning.

As I came up myself, a number of German riflemen came charging through the thickets beside me. Sitting in the turret top, I drew on the nearest with my pistol and, at that moment, his rifle went sailing out of his hands, hit by I know not what. The poor man promptly collapsed on to the ground quite unhurt, but with his last reserves of courage or energy clearly expended. Fortunately, the rest of his friends did likewise, showing again the effect of the herd instinct when men, under duress, are leaderless.

Here, I met a much battered Desmond with the scanty remains of his company. A bare dozen of them were visible – smothered in brick dust and their eyes the only bright thing about them. They were barely indistinguishable from their adversaries who had subsided among them, weapons tossed anywhere. As the minutes ticked by, the firing died away around us and we knew we had discharged the task that Pat had given us.

No one would ever doubt again what our riflemen could do. They had been fighting for over four hours.

I complimented Desmond and, while we were talking, we both of us realised that resistance in the village had ceased. Until then, I had said nothing to Pat since the outset – but Paul had done so continuously to Rollo Baker, his own CO, and Rollo was at Pat’s side throughout. Between the two of them, they could follow the battle without much comment from myself. When I finally got on the air to my brigadier from Sinagoga and told him where we were, I only had his usual laugh – dry cackle really – and he said he didn’t doubt it, but that my next task was to stay there and he warned me that our presence would be swiftly disputed.

I knew, by experience, that any thrust in to the German guts like this one would produce massive reaction but Pat, in fact, had already taken forestalling action. He and Rollo soon had coordinated harassing fire coming down way out across our front on the approaches but the first counter attack came in from our open left, along the Piopetto. It was very quick in getting under way and was driving in well before our counter measures were properly organised.

Our own men were still engaged in ferreting out German survivors under a hail of badly aimed MG fire from the Piopetto and elsewhere. In the thick smoke and dust, I don’t think our new assailants could see much but they had no hesitation in plastering Sinagoga, oblivious of their own men still in the place. On our part, we could hardly breathe or see in that opaque fog of dissolving brick dust.

There were badly injured and dying men from both sides scattered helplessly round the village. A number were burned beyond all hope – tank crews, both lancers and Germans and two of the Vickers teams from the Kensingtons, shattered by direct hits. Enemy medical help arrived unsought and unasked as Rhys-Evan, our MO, and his German opposite number toiled together in the carnage. And their stretcher bearers appeared like magic among our own parties, instructed by no one but equally devoted. Later, when it was possible to get anyone out, the German doctor saw to the carrying parties, snapping out strings of orders impartially to both sides in both languages. That help, too, was willingly given by our late antagonists – if it could be said to be willing, with their NCOs screaming abuse at their men and rushing them off at the double.

Ken Daly brought his mortar detachments careering in behind the tanks. Carrier borne, they were the first necessity, providing mobile close range fire power with an intensity only governed by their gun numbers’ ability to fling the bombs down the barrel. Long together under Ken and his sergeant, Ogilvie, their habits were a way of life and they would have rapid, accurate and destructive fire on its way in minutes from getting their base plates down. By 2pm, they were engaging the intruders.

Then Colin Gunner’s (1 Kensingtons) remaining Vickers’ teams joined in, with his and our own machine guns working together under Charles Bird, the Rifles’ MG platoon commander. Most of the weapons had to be sited in buildings, firing through blown up windows and shell holes, as the corn hid all at ground level. One of Colin’s weapons had already been ground to pulp under a tank and two others destroyed by shell fire together with their crews.

For perhaps an hour, the battle continued across the Piopetto. Then E Company became involved as the jagers crept up through the corn and our riflemen became sniping targets whenever they showed themselves. Finally, the four tanks of the 16th/5th troop joined in and the situation became very confused with both sides mixed up together in the standing corn.

At one stage, Mervyn found it necessary to hammer on one of the tank turrets with a rifle butt before he could interest its preoccupied commander in E Company problems. The real trouble just then was the corn itself. At its full height, nobody could see anything either from a tank or anywhere else and Paul finally confessed that he could do no more with his guns without hitting both sides.

Our assailants came over the river in considerable strength, with a number of tanks to back them but their efforts were not coordinated and their counter attack gradually petered out. Their infantry could have crawled up to us with impunity, had they chosen to, but by then they had had enough. Most of them lay up in the corn, invisible alike to us and to their own feldwebels and beyond the reach of either. The 16th/5th troop did well and from hull down positions, they engaged one target after another as they appeared over the rises. That pleasant waving corn was full of burning wrecks afterwards and the black smoke here too drifted slowly across our vision, obscuring all things beyond it.

Elsewhere, there was a great deal of noise from the Lancashire Fusiliers’ onslaught away on our right.

John Mackenzie’s (2 Lancashire Fusiliers) men were supposed to have gone in parallel with our own attack, but I don’t think it happened and the two operations tended to separate. However, we soon became aware of their presence and, whatever troubles there may have been elsewhere, there was nothing for us to worry about in this, the northern flank.

Due to some quirk of fate, G Company, who was on that side, had escaped most of the enemy defensive barrage that had wrought such havoc with the other companies. In consequence, up to that point, they were relatively unscathed. However, in the closing phases, they began to get cut up by two or three German tanks, which had escaped notice in the long gap between ourselves and the Fusiliers. Again, the Lancers came to the rescue with their No 2 Troop, who spotted one of the German machines in the lee of a burning building and carefully stalked it from behind another one. There were a number of flat reports, one after another, from their 75s, followed by the brazen clang of armour piercing shot striking. Then, the dying German tank commander was adding his funeral pyre to the blazing building alongside. The other machines crept out under cover of the smoke and were away, when our rifleman reached the place.                   

Here, and elsewhere in this battle, the German armour were not in their best form and, save in Sinagoga, they rarely fought to a conclusion. However, perhaps no one would have done so after subjection to the kind of barrage that they had suffered that morning.

With the last of the support weapons mounted and a ring of anti tank guns round the village. H and F Companies resumed the battle and pushed on a further half mile in to the evening twilight. They were covered by Angus and some of the tanks as they did so and the enemy dissolved in front of them. These, the 90th Panzergrenadiers, had only just arrived in the sector, but here in front of us only broken and fragmented sub units remained  – broken moreover in spirit, if only momentarily.

Neither company again suffered their experiences of the morning and the enemy went silent or ran for it as soon as our guns opened on them.

The Faughs moving through H Coy’s positions.

Sinagoga was the heart of the defence in our sector, or so it seemed. Finally, all the long ridge of Colle Monache was in our hands, so we reined in the tanks, put out our pickets and motored slowly back to the village.

Colin Gibbs stayed out there with F Company. Though not in the limelight in this action, his company had just as rough a time as the others had done. His men had suffered heavily from shell fire and they had pulled in a good many prisoners in the wake of the assault as well as being actively engaged in its bloody conclusion.

As the dusk deepened, the battlefield itself quietened, though raging fires erupted wherever the eye could see. There was a scent of victory in the dewy evening air, although a faint one. We had paid dearly enough for it, if cost signifies when great matters are decided. We had lost over a hundred of our NCOs and riflemen, nine of our officers and twenty or more from the tank crews and supporting units. But we had sent back a hundred and twenty prisoners and the pioneers and others had the grim task of burying about a hundred of the enemy, with our own men, on the battlefield. Nine German tanks were also counted – pathetic smouldering wreckage, often enclosing the charred remains of the men who manned them.

Mayo (Sergeant EC Mayo MM) was buried where he fell by his own men of 8 Platoon. They put up a cross there with a tender message of affection scrawled on it for their sergeant.

As we came back in to the cover of our shattered village, I found Clanachan waiting for me in the darkness. He was sitting solemnly in my jeep and prominent in the back of it was a jorum of rum, sent up by Rodney or our devoted quartermaster. Both of them had quick intuition for the essentials – and very necessary too as the black aftermath of battle descended on those who had survived it.

Telfer appeared out of the gloom later. ‘Are you ready for dinner, sir? The adjutant wondered…’

Whatever Jerry might have wondered, I don’t think we did justice to our mess corporal that night. Back behind the village, that excellent man had a snowy white table cloth set out, even if it was draped over a plank perched on a couple of ration boxes. Here, our supporters joined us one after another. Angus came in, having drawn back his squadron at nightfall and talked to his tank crews after afterwards. He staying drinking rum with us and Ivan arrived too on his way back from the companies. He had come up with the battalion’s jeeps as soon as he knew we were in to our objective. In consequence, every man in the forward positions had a hot meal that evening – those that wanted it, and most of them did. They were more case hardened that their temperamental officers. Angus and Paul and I talked on into the night, reflecting on the day’s events – and conscience jabbing at all of us. There was a tinge of reaction somewhere.

Jerry Cole joined us at intervals. For most of the night, he was glued to the radio, as brigade gathered in the news that they wanted and the BM spelled out our new instructions.

The Faughs were cast in the star part for tomorrow.”

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