Sir Mervyn Davies, a retired High Court judge, spoke this week about his experiences during the period 1943 to 1945 as a company commander with 2 London Irish Rifles (2 LIR).
Sir Mervyn, who lives with his wife Zita in Lincoln’s Inn in central London, served with the battalion in Tunisia, Sicily and mainland Italy before taking part in occupation duties in southern Austria in 1945 and 1946.
“I was very proud to command a bunch of Irishmen,” Sir Mervyn said about his time in the 2 LIR. “It was a unit with a very fine morale. They were keen to fight… and, of course, this was a characteristic of the entire Division.”
David Herbert Mervyn Davies was born in Carmarthen in 1918, and attended Swansea Grammar School and, after qualifying as a solicitor, joined the Territorial Army just before the outbreak of war. After officer training, he was attached to the 18th Battalion of the Welch Regiment, which was used to train reinforcements for units serving in the line, and in May 1943, Captain Davies was dispatched to Tunisia.
The London Irish Rifles were then based in Guelma in eastern Algeria recuperating and undergoing renewed training following the desperate battles north of Medjez-el-Bab in April 1943, and he joined up there with G Company on 14 June 1943. Sir Mervyn said that he was “attracted” to the London Irish Rifles due to their “striking choice of headgear”. On 25 June, the battalion moved back to Tunisia and set up camp at Hammamet south of Tunis, before moving again to Sousse from where they set sail for Sicily at the end of July.
Captain Davies participated in the entire Sicilian campaign which involved the storming of Centuripe and the crossing of the Salso and Simeto rivers and then on the night of 11 August, G Company jointly led the successful attack on the Sperina ridge on the western slopes of Mount Etna, the battalion’s last action in Sicily.
On 25 September, the Irish Brigade was transported by ship to Taranto, and moved by road and sea to the port town of Termoli on Italy’s Adriatic coast, where they landed on the night of 5 October, and during the next day, the brigade repulsed a major German counterattack and was able to secure the bridgehead.
On the night of 19/20 October, 2 LIR advanced a few miles north of Termoli to Petacciato, but later the same day, Captain Davies was admitted to hospital suffering from malaria, and was to be out of the line until 22 December. When he returned to the battalion, he was promoted to become commander of E Company, and by this time, 2 LIR were undertaking defensive duties in the central Apennines near to Castel di Sangro.
It was at a hilltop village, Montenero, that Major Davies met up with Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley, a Rifle Brigade officer, who was, at the time, commanding 7 Platoon within E Company. “We established a friendship through talking about books,” Mosley said in his book Time at War, published in 2006 and dedicated to Sir Mervyn.
The partnership was further consolidated on the morning of 19 January when German ski troops attacked 7 Platoon’s positions near to Montenero. They were being taken prisoner when Major Davies and a reserve platoon came to the rescue – Lieutenant Mosley had feigned death but just as he sensed that he was about to be killed by a frustrated German soldier, the man fell to the ground.
In Time at War, Nicholas Mosley wrote: “…Mervyn had shot him – an extraordinary shot, I realised later, from some 200 yards with a standard Lee-Enfield rifle.”
Speaking this week to the Irish Brigade website, Sir Mervyn said the range was between 50-100 metres. “I was a good shot, but not that good,” he said.
A further twist to the tale emerged 50 years after the Montenero incident when Sir Mervyn told Nicholas that he was about to shoot him in the mistaken belief that he was a German but decided against pulling the trigger. He wrote later, “..perhaps Mervyn had saved my life twice; one by doing his most remarkable shot, and then by not wanting to do any more killing.”
After further rest and recuperation, 2 LIR was assigned to defensive duties near to the River Gari just to the south of Monte Cassino at the end of March, before the battalion was posted for almost four weeks on the summit (pt 771) of Monte Castellone, east of Monastery Hill. “There was no danger there,” Sir Mervyn said. “The rations came up daily and we were screened by the hill.”
After being relieved by the Polish Corps on the night of 25/26 April, the brigade was rested several miles behind the lines in preparation for their participation in the fourth battle of Cassino. The 8th Army’s assault on the Gustav Line began on the night of 11 May, and the Irish Brigade was moved up to the front line before dawn on 14 May and crossed the Gari into the allied bridgehead on the west of the river during the afternoon of the same day. At 9am on 16 May, 2 LIR was ordered to capture the fortified village of Sinagoga, and Major Davies led E Company on the left of their advance and the company finished the day at the hamlet of Pinchera, having repulsed a determined German counterattack during the early afternoon. (Read Sir Mervyn’s account of the attack on Sinagoga here).
Major Davies commanded E Company in further battles with the German rearguard in the upper Liri Valley before being temporarily taken out of the front line. Lt-Colonel John Coldwell-Horsfall, commanding officer of 2 LIR at this point, wrote in his book Fling our Banner to the Wind that the battalion’s medical officer “doubted his ability to keep him alive much longer at his present pace.” Coldwell-Horsfall quoted Lt-Colonel HEN (Bala) Bredin, commanding officer of the 6 Inniskilling Fusiliers during the Cassino battle, as saying that “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.”
In July 1944, Major Davies rejoined the battalion and was able to take part in the Irish Brigade’s parade at the Vatican, and returned as OC of E Company during their period of rest and recuperation near to Alexandria during August.
After their return to Italy in October 1944, Major Davies led E Company in an attack on Casa Spinello south of Monte Spaduro in October 1944. This had followed several days bitter fighting for the whole 78th Division in the mountains near to Castel di Rio.
Lt-Colonel Coldwell-Horsfall wrote in Fling our Banner to the Wind that “…the remaining strength of the Irish Rifles (2 LIR) was expended on Casa Spinello, which they finally carried after extirpating the entire garrison. They broke up one counter attack after another in the last hours of the night (of 22/23 October)…”
Sir Mervyn told the Irish Brigade website that the battle for Casa Spinello was the “toughest action” that he had experienced over his two years of front line service. “The attack on Spinello was a nasty fight,” he said. At one point, E Company, led by Nicholas Mosley, held the loft of the farm building while Germans fired at them through floorboards from the room below.
It was at this point that Major Davies was seriously wounded, and Nicholas Mosley recalled that time in Time at War:
“…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 instantly 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 we had one; but he insisted he was all right, he would 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. …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 mine-field.”
Sir Mervyn further recalled the important parts played by Lieutenant Desmond Fay and Corporal William Farthing in the preparation for the battle, and the deaths of several of his comrades, including Major Ronald Boyd MC.
Major Davies was awarded a Military Cross for his role in the battle for Casa Spinello but his wounds put him out of action for more than two months, but once again, he returned to 2 LIR on 25 January 1945 and continued to serve with the battalion until the end of the war in Italy.
More than 70 years since he joined the London Irish Rifles in Algeria, Sir Mervyn referred with great respect and gratitude to the four 2 LIR commanders that he had served under in Tunisia and Italy: Harry Rogers, Ion Goff who died in the Liri Valley on 15 May, John Coldwell-Horsfall who took over command of 2 LIR following Lt-Colonel Goff’s death, and Bala Bredin, who led the battalion from July 1944 until the end of the war.
He also spoke of the pleasures of leading an infantry company. “It is a very fine appointment being a company commander,” Sir Mervyn said. “You are certainly in the action and also have a bit of control over events as well.”
Sir Mervyn left the army in 1945 and was able to resume his legal career. He was called to the bar in 1947, made a QC in 1967 and became a Bencher in 1974, before becoming a circuit judge in 1978-82. He was knighted in 1982.