Nick Mosley and Edmund O’Sullivan meet again in 2007 after more than 60 years.
Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley joined the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles (2 LIR) during December 1943 and stayed with the battalion until the end of the war in Italy.
He was platoon commander in E Company during the winter period in the Apennines of central Italy before the battalion moved to the Cassino front in March. Lieutenant Mosley was wounded at the start of the battle at Casa Sinagoga on 16th May 1944 and, after being hospitalised, he rejoined the battalion during July.
When the Irish Brigade returned to Italy from Egypt in September 1944, Mosley continued as platoon commander and in October he led his platoon in an assault on a key German strong point at Casa Spinello, near Monte Spaduro, and for this action he was awarded the Military Cross.
In his memoir, “A Time at War”, Nicholas Mosley recalled his period of service with the London Irish Rifles and in a letter sent later to his sister, Vivien, recalls the actions of his platoon at Casa Spinello.
“When Mervyn (Major Mervyn Davies) was summoned by the colonel and the brigadier to report on his withdrawal, he said that they did not seem to understand the futility of their tactics: we would never take Spinello – nor indeed Spaduro – with cumbersome numbers of men sliding down into a mud trap at night and there remaining hopeless, while they were shot at from Spinello.
What was necessary, he said, was for a small force of men to set off while it was still lightly held, by as direct a route as possible to Spinello, and keeping as far as they could just under the shelter of the spur. Then, when they were as close to Spinello as they could get like this, they could attack, running fast across open ground. This should happen shortly before the regular time of ‘stand to’ at dusk, when it was almost inconceivable that the Germans would be sleeping. Then, if this attack on Spinello was successful, there would be a chance of a major night attack on Spaduro succeeding.
The colonel and the brigadier listened to Mervyn and said: ‘All right, you and your company try it.’
One of the other platoon commanders in our company was the young communist from Liverpool, Desmond Fay, with whom, in Egypt, I had argued amicably about communism and fascism. Desmond had been brave during the advance from Cassino and had been awarded the Military Cross.
Now, when Mervyn gathered us together to tell us of his plans – he suggested that Desmond should go out in the early afternoon with just one or two men and try to find out what was the situation in Spinello and how many Germans were there and what were their defensive positions. If possible, he should bring back a prisoner, who could be questioned. Then, if Desmond’s information was satisfactory, I, with my platoons, would lead an attack to capture the farmhouse and buildings – still in daylight, but just before the time when the Germans could be expected to be standing to. If my attack was successful, the rest of the company would come up and we would hold Spinello during the night while the inevitable German counter attacks came in and, while a large scale Allied attack on Spaduro would go in, this time with a chance of success because the crossfire from Spinello would have been eliminated.
This scheme seemed to me both mad and yet, as it had done to Mervyn, to make some sense. But I wondered. Why has Mervyn chosen me to do the attack? Then – Oh yes, I see.
When I told my sergeant and my section commanders of this plan, they too naturally thought it was mad: had we not been told never to move into the view of the enemy in daylight?
I explained: Yes, but they will not believe that we could be so mad; they will not have properly woken from their daytime sleep; they will think they are dreaming. My section commanders and sergeant looked at me as if they thought they or I might be dreaming.
From a certain vantage point, we could just see, by lifting our heads carefully, the farmhouse about a quarter of a mile away along the spur; some ruined farm buildings were on this side of it. We had a few hours to wait before Desmond set off on his patrol, after which it would almost certainly be our turn to go. We could pass the time by making sure that our weapons were in proper order. I had myself, by this time, acquired a Thompson submachine gun, which had the reputation at critical moments of being likely to jam. But not, surely, if one took enough trouble. There was time also to ruminate on the bizarreness of fate.
When I had been taken prisoner (in January at Montenero) and had succeeded in my decision, at any cost, to try to escape. I had been helped by good fortune and by Mervyn. Then later, when I had been wounded south of Cassino, Sergeant Mayo, who had taken over from me, had been killed. I had thought – All Right, I am very lucky! But sooner or later, there will be payback time. Something further will be demanded of me: either my luck will run out or there will be some test, why should it not.
So is not this now the sort of task that I have wanted or needed, ever since most of my platoon was taken prisoner without firing a shot, even though I had managed to escape? I have needed a chance to show in a positive way a break from the cynical attitudes of my past; from the negative tendencies of my history. When Mervyn had come to tell me of his plans for my attack, he had murmured, ‘This is an MC job’. This was army jargon for an assignment which, if it succeeded, might result in one’s being recommended for a Military Cross: if it failed, one was likely to be dead.
So had Mervyn an instinct for what I might require?
Desmond Fay’s patrol was amazingly successful. He went out with just his sergeant and came back with a prisoner, who had been half asleep in a trench by the farm buildings. The German talked: he said that Spinello was held by about thirty men during the day; at night, they were in contact with troops on the hills behind, who came up with more machine guns.
There was some good news in this in that it seemed the Germans might not be in good heart if the man had been taken and talked so easily; but thirty men was a lot for my depleted platoon to take on and would not the capture of this prisoner mean that his colleagues would now have been alerted? My platoon was down to fifteen men, what with sickness and injury and, when it was time for us to form up, I wondered if there would be any who would say they could not go on. There was, in fact, only one, a senior corporal, who lay in the bottom of his trench and said he could not move. I talked with him for a time and then said – All right, don’t. He would not have been much use in a platoon that was otherwise behaving so admirably. But I think we all felt we might be on a suicide mission.
I had two lance corporals, Tomkinson and McClarnon, who with their sections would go with me into the attack. My sergeant would be with the Bren gun of the third section to give us covering fire. The rest of the company would be ready to give more covering fire, if necessary, from the hill at the back.
Desmond was to start off to show us the way he had reconnoitred, keeping out of sight of the farmhouse by moving under the brow of the spur. But even here, we would be in full view of the Germans on the hills beyond – so was it true they would be sleeping? Then, for the last hundred yards or so, we would have to break from the cover of the spur and run to the farm buildings across open ground; if the Germans had been alerted, this is what was likely to be suicidal.
We moved off in our meagre crocodile quite openly, like people not trying to draw attention to themselves if they show sufficient insouciance. On our right, we could look across the valleys that stretched away towards Imola and the promised land of the northern plain. For the first time in weeks, the rain was holding off; it was almost a beautiful evening.
We got to the place beneath the spur that seemed nearest to the farmhouse and, there, we spread out and lined up. When I told the story later, I used to say that I was frightened, yes, but what I was most frightened of was not being able to stand the fear – and then what would happen? The fabric of the mind would crack and I would fall through? When I had felt close to death in the snow at Montenero, all I had to do was lie still; now I had to run forward. I saw that the Bren gun was in position to give us covering fire; then I gave the order to go.
I had been a fast runner at school and now it was obviously in my interest to get into some sort of cover as soon as possible. The farm buildings were, after all, not much more than eighty yards away, which was not too bad a distance; but I was festooned with tommy guns, spare magazines, grenades; and ….and…..never mind, just keep running. When I had almost reached the farm buildings, I looked back and saw Corporal McClarnon’s section a long way behind. I shouted, ‘Come on McClarnon!’ He, a sturdy man with short legs, shouted, ‘I’m coming as fast as I can!’
By this time, Corporal Tomkinson had caught up with me; then a man with a gun popped up from the rubble of the farm buildings and Tomkinson fired at him and hit him, and I sprayed with my tommy gun the buildings from where he had appeared. Then someone started shouting, ‘Don’t shoot, Johnny! Play the game, Johnny!’ So Tomkinson and I ran on. By this time, grenades thrown from the farmhouse had started landing around us, so I called to McClarnon to take charge of any people in the buildings and Tomkinson and I got to the back wall of the farmhouse. There was now a great deal of machine gun and rifle fire, whether from Germans on the hills beyond or our own people giving us covering fire from the back I could not tell. It was obviously urgent to get inside the cover of the house.
The farmhouse was one of those buildings on a slope which, if you go into it on the ground floor at the back, this turns out to be the first floor at the front. There did not seem to be anyone in this first floor when we came to it; the main body of Germans were evidently sheltering in the ground floor at the front. Grenades were being lobbed from round the sides of the house.
I called to Tomkinson to go with his section round the right side, while I went round on the left. A German had followed me from the farm building with his hands up, smiling. I told him I had no time for him and to go and find McClarnon. Then I came to a hole in the wall of the house; this led to a room that appeared to be empty. There was also a gap in the floor just beyond the hole through which I could see to the ground floor at the front. This room appeared to be empty too. The three Germans appeared through a door at the front; they carried automatic weapons; they saw me through the holes in the floor and wall at the same time as I saw them; I fired and shot two of them in the legs.
The third ran out of the door at the front and one of the others hopped after him holding his leg; the other had fallen and lay where he fell. The magazine of my tommy gun was now empty; I cursed myself for having spent so much ammunition firing blindly at the rubble of the buildings. I sheltered to one side of my hole while I fixed on a new magazine. By the time I had got back to where I could see down to the ground, the second man I had hit in the legs had gone – presumably he had crawled out after the other two. So might I then be glad that I had had no more bullets in my magazine and need not shoot him again? I called to McClarnon to leave two of these men to guard any prisoners from the buildings, then to come up with what was left of his section and go into and occupy the now empty upstairs and downstairs rooms on the left. This he did. Then I went to see how Tomkinson was doing on the right.
This side of the house was covered by the German machine guns from the hills beyond and bullets were flying and chipping bits off the walls. Tomkinson had gone forward and taken shelter behind a wall near the front of the house; his Bren gunner had been hit and two of his men were dragging him back behind the house. I joined Tomkinson by the well but we could see no door into the house except the one on the left, which McClarnon was now guarding. The right front of the house seemed to have collapsed; there was an opening like a hole to a dugout in the rubble. Bullets were chipping bits of stone around our heads, so we threw a couple of grenades at the opening and I retired in haste. Tomkinson stayed by the well and, when someone fired at him from the opening, he stood up and fired what was left in his magazine back at it, before rejoining me in the shelter of the house. Then I sent him with the few men left of his section to join McClarnon, who was occupying the rooms on the left.
The third section had, by this time, come up with my sergeant and I went again with them to the right front corner because I thought we had to clear this – to take prisoner the Germans, who seemed to have barricaded themselves into a basement through the opening in the ground floor rubble, because surely our position would become untenable if they stayed underneath us during the night. My sergeant threw one grenade at the opening and then was hit by a stray bullet from the hills; he and his section retired to the back of the house. I was by the well, firing blindly and absurdly at the German machine gunners on the hill, who were hundreds of yards out of my tommy gun’s range. I turned to the house again to throw one last grenade and there was a German, who had crawled out of the opening like a hole and was facing me holding an automatic weapon and he fired at me at point blank range and somehow missed. My magazine was now empty again so I did a flying leap back round the side of the house and I determined not to go round to the front again. We would have to hold on to what we had got until morning.
It seemed that we were in occupation of most of the farmhouse except the ground floor or basement on the right, which the Germans indeed seemed to have made impregnable. Above this, on the right of the first floor there was a hayloft. From the upstairs room on the left, I and others crawled into this loft to see how it could be occupied and defended; then, the Germans below started firing up through the floorboards. We jumped about like victims in the red hot bull of Phalaris; we fired down through the floorboards; and then there were voices again – ‘Don’t shoot, Johnny!’ I tried to remember my schoolboy German: ‘We will not shoot at you if you will not shoot at us!’ Was there not a special conditional tense? And was I not using the word for ‘shit’ instead of ‘shoot’? But what would be the difference? I seemed anyway to have got the message through, because for the rest of the evening and night, there was no more shooting up or down through the floorboards.
By this time, Mervyn had arrived with the rest of the company and he insisted on going himself to have a look at the right front of the house where there was the opening to where the Germans remained; but he was almost immediately hit in the arm and leg, and was pulled back under cover. I said I would get him back on a stretcher as soon as had one, but he insisted he was all right, he could get back on his own – and it was vital that he should do this, because he could then explain the seriousness of our situation and could get reinforcements sent up. I would be intensely sorry to see him go, because I needed him both personally and someone, who would share the responsibility for defending what he had taken now that night was coming in and there were bound to be counterattacks.
But Desmond had come up with Mervyn and he was a senior lieutenant to me, so he would nominally take over. Then Mervyn went hopping back on one leg by the most direct route to our old positions; and it turned out that he had hopped unharmed straight through a minefield. We became aware of this later when the reinforcements, he sent up, walked into the minefield and many were killed or wounded and the rest never got through. This was a disaster for them; but for us, it seemed that there were already enough of us crammed into the farmhouse and Desmond agreed that it would be crazy to consider digging trenches outside. So we settled down to assess the situation.
We had what was left of the three platoons of our company in the two rooms, one above the other on the left of the farmhouse – some thirty men, ten of whom had wounds of some sort or other – and nine Bren guns. We arranged these on the two floors with a makeshift ladder between. Then we realised it was quite dark.
During the night, three or four counter attacks did come in from the further hills but, by this time, we were experiencing a strange exhilaration. We felt invulnerable, heroic; when we heard Germans approaching, we opened fire with all our weapons from every opening in all directions. I remember one man, who had lost his spectacles and could find no room at a window, firing his rifles repeatedly straight up in the air. We yelled and whooped our war cry – Woo-hoo Mahommet! – and blazed away until the attacks seemed to fade into the thin night air. It was all quite like, yes, an apotheosis of a mad apocalyptic children’s game. Only once, I think, did a German get right up to the wall of the house; he shot one of our men point blank through a window. Grenades usually bounced off the walls and exploded outside. After a time, things quietened down. Our wireless was not working so, at least we were out of touch with headquarters so they could not order us to do anything different.
There was the business of tending to the wounded. Amazingly, none of my platoon seemed to have been killed. The man, who had been shot through a window, was suffering badly and I, and others, took turns to sit with him. Eventually, stretchers arrived from the headquarters and we were able to send him and a few others back; also, the prisoners and the wounded German, who had been in the farm buildings at the back. The stretcher bearers told us of the disaster to the reinforcements, who had walked into the minefield; but extra ammunition had got through, although no food and we had eaten nothing since sodden sandwiches the previous midday. Someone found me a bit of black German bread, which I ate ravenously.
There remained the question of what we would find outside in the morning. There had been a lot of distant firing and explosions and tracers from the hills during the night; presumably the large scale attack on Spaduro had gone in, but to what effect we could not tell. If it had failed, we would be under exposed siege for another whole day. Desmond had set about building up protective rubble in the doors and windows. I seemed to be both too tired and too triumphant to care. Whatever had been attempted, or destined, or hoped for, had come off; and I did not think anything else could really fail.
At first light we were standing to and looking out into the cold mist like people in a Western film wondering if they would see Red Indians or the cavalry. There were figures moving on the further hills: surely they were acting too openly to be enemy? We risked a small cheer. After a while, it seemed safe to step out of the front of the house into the space where, only a few hours ago, there had been such danger: there were some bodies of Germans lying about, one of them blocking the opening into the dugout on the right. We pulled this clear; there was still no sight or sound of anyone inside. I called in my best German again for people to come out; and then, to my surprise, there emerged, one by one, wasps from a hole, twelve men, about half of them wounded. We had not expected so many.
We sent them back under escort. The second in command of our company came up to take over arrangements for further defence; our battalion commander came up to congratulate us, and said that the night attack in Spaduro had been a success, thanks in part to the success on our attack on Spinello. We hung about for the rest of the day, while the situation in the hills became clearer. We were told to dig trenches outside the farmhouse in case the shelling started again, but no one paid much attention.
In the evening, we set about marching back – not just to our precious positions but to somewhere near Castel del Rio, where we could rest. But this was a long march and I and others were suffering both from exhaustion and a reaction of extreme other worldliness.
During a ten minute rest on the march, an officer, who had not been in the battle came along the line and told us to get up and get a move on. I remember telling him to….”