Michael Gibbs and Charles Ward with Edmund and Richard O’Sullivan at the London Irish Rifles depot in Camberwell in March 2016
The Irish Brigade website was delighted to join together recently with Michael Gibbs and Charles Ward to remember the time when Michael’s father, Captain (later Major) Gibbs, witnessed the attestations of Charles and Edmund O’Sullivan, both 20 years old, when they joined up with the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles (2 LIR) on 18th October 1939 at Liverpool Street station.
Edmund would later recall that first meeting:
“Captain Gibbs, who was in charge of the reception party, was ready to receive me at his desk which was a blanket-covered table. He was very tall and correct but very pleasant, particularly as I meticulously addressed him as: ‘Sir.’..”
Captain Gibbs had joined the London Irish Rifles before the war and would be a Company Commander on the home front from 1939 to 1942 and an indication of his devotion to duty was later described by Edmund when remembering his training period:
“We had many long and exhausting route marches – Captain Gibbs would then put us through arms drill. We cursed him but learned from his batman Doug Brewer that Gibbs’ boots were often filled with blood. We realised his sole purpose was to train us so that we would not be cannon fodder when our time to fight came.”
Colin Gibbs as OC of ‘G’ Coy at Goodwood House in 1941. Charles Ward is sitting at the front on the left and Edmund O’Sullivan is in the 3rd row, second from the right.
As a Major, Colin Gibbs would command ‘HQ’, ‘G” and ‘F’ Companies during the Irish Brigade’s campaigns across Tunisia and Italy, and was present at some of the most momentous battle periods near Bou Arada, Monte Cassino and Lake Trasimene.
Gibbs was commanding F Company which occupied positions around what was known as Stuka Farm on high ground west of the Bou Araba-Goubellat road that were attacked at around 630am on 26 February 1943. The company was almost overrun in close combat that lasted all the morning. When the attack began, Gibbs was checking company sentries and machine gun posts.
“The area was quiet; dawn was just breaking. It was foggy as I left the dugout to go in search of Gibbs to warn him of the phone message,” F Company Captain Strome Galloway wrote in his account of the events that morning. “I had hardly got out onto the footpath on the hillside ten yards from the dugout when Gibbs came running towards me. He was out of breath and shouted that there were about 30 Bosche in the nullah. He then told me to get the 2” mortars into play on them. We had these little weapons brigaded for just such a task and, after hurriedly rousing the mortarmen and detailing the task, I climbed the slope to O Pip where I found Gibbs organising a counter attack. Some small arms fire was coming from the nullah (ravine) several hundred yards away…”
Strome said he led a contingent in an attack on the buildings at Stuka Farm which he (wrongly) believed had been taken by the Germans. Gibbs led another group north and down the Stuka Farm escarpment into the nullah to attack the Germans there. Galloway held the farm against attacks until reinforced around noon by tanks and a platoon from the Royal Irish Fusiliers.
The next time Galloway said he saw Gibbs was after nightfall that day.
“By 730pm, Gibbs came hobbling in, wounded in the leg and Willcocks was carried in with a bad knee wound,” Galloway wrote. “A number of F Company, who had been captured during Gibbs’ counterattack at 7am, but released by the Faughs’ counter attack also showed up. So did Lieutenant Wade and ten men of the Carrier Platoon, who had all been scuppered before dawn as the enemy stole up on the knoll. Wade and his men joined us in the cactus patch shortly after the second counter attack had cleared the knoll. By 1130pm, two motor ambulances arrived up behind Stuka Ridge and the wounded were evacuated.”
Major Gibbs’ wounds prevented him joining in Irish Brigade attacks on Heidous and Jebel Tanngouocha at the end of April. He rejoined F Company and led the unit with great bravery.
It was at Sanfatucchio, near Trasimene, in June 1944 that he was awarded the Mlitary Cross and his actions are described in the MC citation:
“Throughout the Italian campaign, Major Gibbs has been commanding ‘F’ Company. At all times, he has led his company with great skill and personal courage and his whole company reflect his personal conduct.
The achievements of ‘F’ Company in the Battle of Sanfatucchio from 21st to 24th June ’44 were notable. In the initial attack Major Gibbs had the task of seizing the high ground (in the) rear of the enemy strong points prior to the assault. This difficult job they did in the face of stiff opposition. Major Gibbs personally led the assault on one group of houses which were cleared with bomb, smoke and small arms. After this, the company was pinned down by fire from many MGs short of their objective.
Major Gibbs realised that if he could not get on, the whole attack with H company on the right would be in jeopardy. He rallied his men and personally led them on until they got to grips with the enemy killing many and capturing others. After three hours of hand to hand fighting, crawling up ditches and through the corn they had stormed their objective. Major Gibbs was then ordered to attack the San Felice crossroads. This he did and came under fire immediately from S.Ps and about a company of Germans in that area. Major Gibbs worked his troop of tanks round the left in enfilade and as soon as they open fired, charged with one platoon through the corn. The platoon commander was killed and seventeen of his men hill, but they never stopped and slew many Germans at point blank range and survivors surrendered. If this attack had not succeeded the whole Bttn position and ‘H’ Company holding the cemetery would have been in great danger.
Major Gibbs’ conduct on the next day was of a similar pattern, he organised his depleted Coy admirably and broke into a number of most important buildings on the heels of the enemy. Within an hour he successfully resisted a violent counterattack calling down mortar fire on his own position owing to the closeness of the range. His company was engaged with the Germans at 100 yards range all that night and the next day and the next night. During that time, they accounted for eleven Germans. On the morning of the 24th June when the Irish Fusiliers continued their attack, Major Gibbs was given the option of pulling out as his position was within 100 yds of the barrage opening line. This he refused to do and at zero hour under the barrage was engaging with the enemy with everything he had including A.Tk weapons. This effort made the task of the attackers here a much easier one.
Major Gibbs’ personal conduct throughout has been most gallant and his men never flagged with his cheerfulness to keep them going in spite of their trying and prolonged ordeal aidless.”
Following the conclusion of the Irish Brigade’s part in the battle near to Lake Trasimene and 2 LIR’s withdrawal to Egypt and a transfer to Corps Reserve during July 1944, Major Gibbs was able to take a much-needed period of rest before being reassigned as a staff instructor in Beirut
Perhaps Lt-Colonel Horsfall provides one of the the most vivid and moving testimonies to some of the outstanding attributes of Colin Gibbs when he wrote in June 1944:
“…I asked our padre (Harry Graydon) whether or not he thought that Colin could keep up his present form indefinitely, pointing that he had been embattled for longer than most of us could remember and the last six weeks must have drained most people to the dregs. One of a CO’s responsibilities was to anticipate the mental and spiritual fatigue that overtook most of our star characters eventually…Harry said immediately that my remarks were applicable to most mortals but that he thought that Colin was unique, and the only thing that would ever break up his mental and moral granite was to deprive him of ‘F’ Company.”
After the war, Colin Gibbs would settle in Sussex and would take a leading role in the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association, becoming a Vice President of the Association before his death at the age of 68 in 1982.