Lieutenant (David Herbert) Mervyn Davies joined the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles (2 LIR) at Guelma in Algeria as a (Temporary) Captain on 14th June 1943, while the Battalion was resting after their exertions over the previous six months in Tunisia and about to embark on a round of renewed training in preparation for the upcoming invasion of Sicily.
Captain Davies initially took up a position as Second-in-Command of G Company on 10th July and remained in that position throughout the Sicily campaign as the London Irish Rifles, along with the rest of 38 (Irish) Brigade, advanced along the west side of Mt Etna.
After a few weeks of rest following the final liberation of Sicily, Captain Davies continued with the Battalion during the early stages of fighting on the mainland of Italy, taking part in the landings at Termoli and the advance to Petacciato, before being hospitalised on 20th October.
Captain Davies would rejoin the Battalion on 22nd December, while they rested near Campobasso, and took on the role of Officer Commanding (OC) of E Company before they moved, early in the New Year, to defensive positions in the mountains near Castel de Sangro.
CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan recalled his first meeting with the new OC:
“We had a new company commander: Captain Mervyn Davies from the Welch Regiment, with his own batman. I had not seen the company commander when his batman came to me and said: ‘Major Davies would like a mug of tea.’
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Officers’ tea is served at the officers’ mess.’
‘That’s what the corporal told me.’
He left to return a few minutes later. ‘The company commander wishes to see you.’
For a change, I was correctly wearing my badges of rank. I marched into the company office and saluted this rather severe young man, who stood and towered above me. ‘What’s this about, that I can’t have a miserable mug of tea?’
‘That is quite right, Sir. Officers’ rations are at the mess. We pride ourselves on being the best fed company in the battalion. We are able to do this only because the rations are used strictly at mealtimes and only as part of the meal.’
‘What about the cooks and the sergeant major?,’ Davies asked.
‘I promised Corporal Sadler that, if he maintained his standard and reputation, all rations would be inviolate.’
Davies was not happy with the cooks nor with me…. That evening, Jim excelled himself and produced roast beef, Yorkshire pudding, roast and boiled potatoes, cabbage and thick brown gravy. This was followed by a slice of baked jam roll with a sweet sauce. Davies watched Jim serving the repast in his usual serious manner. I think he was convinced that his men’s food was equal to, if not better, than that served at the officers’ mess…
… As Davies and I became more familiar, we began to respect each other and this turned to us actually becoming friends.”
19th January 1944.
During January 1944, near the small village of Montenero just to the south of Castel de Sangro, there was a surprise German raid, using ski borne troops, on E Company’s positions on the peak of ‘Il Calvario’ and the majority of 7 Platoon were taken prisoner but, due to the prompt actions of their comrades, some were able to get away.
The Platoon Commander, Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley, would later recall how Captain Davies helped him escape from his captors:
“My platoon was being rounded up and put in a line ready, presumably, to be marched down into the valley as prisoners and across the German lines on the further ridge…
…Mervyn, coming up with the reserve platoon had seen the tail end of the prisoners being marched off over the hill and bringing up the rear was a lone German who then branched off down the slope; so Mervyn had shot him – an extraordinary shot, I realised later, some 200 yards with a standard Lee Enfield rifle. Behind my rock, I waited till everything seemed quiet; then I stood up and waved; and, after a time, Mervyn, whom I had recognised, waved back. I set off towards him plunging through the snow.”.
Read Captain Davies’ contemporary account of the German raid on Il Calvario here.
The Battalion’s new second in command, Major John Horsfall, would recall his first meeting in February 1944 with 2 LIR’s Company Commanders, a vivid testimonial to the qualities of the leadership of the London Irish Rifles at that time:
“F Company was commanded by Colin Gibbs, the senior of the company commanders.. Mervyn Davies commanded E Company and Desmond Woods H Company. The three of them had carried the Rifles through Termoli and San Salvo and they had been embattled ever since. Between them, on the solid basis of their experience, and their personalities that matched it, they provided a nucleus which, in my opinion, held the whole battalion together just then.”
In April, the Battalion would spend a most trying month on the 771 metre high mountain top of Monte Castellone, which looked down onto the abbey of Monte Cassino before they moved back for rest and training for the final battle period of the Cassino campaign.
On 14th May, the Irish Brigade moved across the Gari River in preparation for their part in the assault on the Gustav Line defensive line. While 2 LIR were awaiting their orders to move forward, their Commanding Officer, Lt-Col Ion Goff, was killed on the afternoon of 15th May and Major John Horsfall would take over command of the battalion. The next day the battalion went into action.
16th May 1944.
Captain Davies led E Company during 2 LIR’s advance on the Gustav Line strong points near Casa Sinagoga, just to the south of the town of Cassino, and his personal account is reproduced below:
“The attack started began at 0920hrs preceded by very heavy artillery fire which began at 0900hrs. We went forward with a troop of 16/5 Lancers (and Derbyshire Yeomanry). The initial advance was through a cornfield. The corn was quite golden and very tall and it was a shame to see tanks mow it down. On the other hand, the corn afforded useful cover to the infantry.
Due to the noise of the artillery and tanks we did not realise that we came under heavy fire until we saw the odd man fall. I remember seeing Lance Sergeant Williams, a young soldier who had come from the 70th Battalion, fall at this point. We were able to approach the wood under the protection of our own artillery fire, which was very accurate. I had an air photograph and this was of the greatest help in enabling us to take advantage of the fire plan.
I remember trying to communicate with the tank commander by using the telephone on the outside of his Sherman tank. Of course, the thing would not work. But the tank commander obligingly opened his turret when I hammered on it with a rifle. I showed him where I supposed some German fire was coming from. The company was, at this time, using what cover there was about 100-200 yards from the wood.
With the ending of the barrage, I realised that the company had to go forward. I got up hoping that those around me would do so too. Every man did so, and we ran for the wood, which we reached despite about a dozen casualties. In the wood, we took 60 prisoners of the 90th (PG) Division.
I walked through the wood to find G Company on our right who had kept up with us. In the wood, there was a small farmhouse, which I took to be Sinagoga Farm. I went in and, in a bedroom on the ground floor, there was a very old man and his wife. They were unhurt and I tried to comfort them.
I returned to the company’s position in the wood as a dreadful Nebelwerfer stonk arrived. This killed the two of the best men in the company, Sergeant Mayo MM and Corporal O’Reilly MM. The men of Mayo’s platoon (No 8) buried him there and then.”
Read Captain Davies’ full account of E Company’s assault on Colle Monache.
30th May 1944.
Following the complete breakthrough of the Gustav Line near to Monte Cassino, 8th Army continued its advance northwards.
A few days later, Captain Davies would lead a night time attack by E Company on Hill 255 on the road to Ripi and Lt-Col Horsfall later recalled the events of that night:
“Mervyn, naturally, had to do the dirty work. I pointed out to him that apart from the mark of confidence and affection, he was the only one who had had a close up of the ground.
Accordingly we assaulted the place with E Company only, at midnight, after a few minutes concentrated fire from Ian’s regiment. The fewer men launched in that kind of attack the better but, in my opinion, the performance of 17th Field was mainly responsible for what happened. It was one of the most accurate that I have ever seen from our splendid gunners and, in view of the scant initial registration, to this day I do not know how they achieved it. They had only got themselves in to their new gun positions in the late afternoon as the whole regiment had been moving forward battery by battery.
The other three companies held the ring while E went in – G sending a standing patrol forward to the road on the north side of 255 and H following E’s attack and stopping off in some houses on the nearside of our objective.
The surprise was total and perhaps improved by the company going off its bearing slightly. In consequence, Mervyn soon found himself through the flank of the enemy positions and behind the Germans before they were aware of his presence. He then turned his men half left, somehow, and made for the top of the hill, colliding with the enemy as he did so.
For a quarter of an hour, there was pandemonium and chaos, with bren guns and schmeissers blazing off in to the night intermixed with grenade explosions and the usual showers of sparks as tracer impacted.
The cessation, when it came, was as sudden as the onset had been. Mervyn then knew that his company had carried the place – and they never lost a man in the process.
The enemy fled. There was no point in a rearguard doing otherwise once an attack had gone home like that….
….A night attack usually ends in a jolly good old mix up but this was less of one than usual. Its brevity helped.
Mervyn cheerfully skated over the loss of direction and no tactless questions were asked. He said afterwards that the only order he gave his platoon commanders was, ‘Charge for the place where the shells are landing.’ He also mentioned that I hadn’t given him time for more elaborate instructions.”
Read Captain Davies’ account of the night time of E Company on Hill 255.
Following these actions, Captain Davies would be hospitalised again and Lt Col Horsfall would note:
“Mervyn left us temporarily after the action of San Giovanni. (Captain) Rhys Evans, the Regimental Medical Officer, having doubted his ability to keep him alive much longer at his present pace. Mervyn’s constitution was not quite so durable as his heart and, like several others of our riflemen, he had propelled himself beyond what he could physically cope with in recent days.
(Lt Col) Bala Bredin said years later, ‘Of course, Mervyn gave his whole heart and soul to the task in hand and he never let up for a minute. No one could keep that up indefinitely.’ So, E Company’s commander had a brief spell in hospital – and was back again to give Bala further service of like quality in the ensuing winter.”
After the Battalion had been relieved from the line after a period of bitter fighting close to Lake Trasimene, Mervyn Davies would return to E Company, now confirmed as Major.
He would go with 2 LIR to Egypt for a well deserved two months break spent near Alexandria before 38 (Irish) Brigade was called back to support the ongoing assaults on the Gothic Line north of Florence. In late September, the Brigade would join up with 5th Army in the mountainous fastness north of Castel del Rio.
23rd October 1944.
After a number of Divisional failures, 2 LIR was ordered to attack German strong points guarding the approaches to the heavily fortified German defensive positions around Monte Spaduro.
Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley would recall Major Davies’ part in consolidating E Company’s positions that day:
“…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…
…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…”
For his actions at Monte Spaduro, Major Davies would be awarded the Military Cross, the citation for which is reproduced here:
“On 23 October ’44, Major Davies’ company was ordered to capture Spinello Farm in the Monte Spaduro area. The attack was carried out over open ground in daylight. Major Davies brought his company very close up under the covering artillery and mortar fire and assaulted the farm, moving himself with the leading platoon. During very close and bitter fighting amongst the farm buildings, he was wounded by a grenade in the legs and arm. Only after the farm had been finally cleared of its very determined garrison and Major Davies had reported its capture on his wireless did he allow himself to be taken to the RAP, after all other wounded had been evacuated.
The success of this operation was largely due to the careful planning and personal gallantry of this officer, and the repercussions of this success were vital to the success of the Divisional attack on Monte Spaduro.”
After recovering from his wounds, Major Davies would return to 2 LIR as OC, E Company on 25th January 1945, as the Battalion were about to move back to Forli for rest after three months in the mountainous front line and would soon lead his company through a renewed period of training in advance of 8th Army’s planned spring offensive, Operation Buckland.
2 LIR, led by Lt-Col Bredin, would form part of the ‘Kangaroo Army’ (a mobile force of de-turreted Sherman tanks) that would help to break all German resistance in the Argenta Gap and the success of this force was a major factor in the achievement of final and complete victory in Italy.
Major Davies, along with the rest of 2 LIR, reached the banks of the River Po on the morning of 25th April where their period of combat operations finally ended.
Final German capitulation in Italy was confirmed a few days later on 2nd May.
At this time and as the Battalion rested near to Udine before they advanced into Austria, Major Davies would leave 2 LIR on an attachment to 13 Corps Headquarters.
Personal memories of Major Sir Mervyn Davies.
‘A Time at War’, Nicholas Mosley.
‘Fling Our Banner to the Wind’, John Horsfall.
‘All My Brothers’, Edmund O’Sullivan.
The National Archives, Kew.