At the start of May 1944, the Irish Brigade began intensive training exercises near to their rest area at Formicola including practising river crossings over the River Volturno and taking part in joint infantry/tank attack manoeuvres with 16/5 Lancers from 6th Armoured Division.
The brigade moved forward to a concentration area at Presenzano on the afternoon of 11th May just before the Allied Armies started their attack on the Gustav Line later the same day. On the morning of 14th May, they moved forward to an area behind Monte Trocchio before crossing the Gari river in the early afternoon using the newly completed Congo bridge. The Divisional Commander, General Keightley, had set four lines of progress for 78th Division, which was to attack on a two brigade front, and called them ‘Grafton’, ‘Pytchley’, ‘Fernie’ and ‘Bedale’ (named after four English fox hunts). The ultimate divisional objective was to make a complete break through of the Gustav Line and then swing right to cross Highway Six, which was the German supply route for their forces on the Cassino massif.
In the early morning of 15th May and, at very short notice, the Skins were ordered to attack towards the Cassino to Pignatoro road (‘Grafton’ Line) and were able to reach their objective by midday. The Irish Rifles were then called up to attack Colle Monache (‘Pytchley’ Line) immediately but whilst assembling for an ‘O’ Group, Lieut Colonel Goff was killed in a nebelwerfer strike, along with John Loveday, the CO of 16/5 Lancers. Major Horsfall took over command of the battalion, and due to the need to allow time for 2 Lancashire Fusiliers (of 11 Brigade) to move up on their right flank, the attack was postponed until the following morning.
The Rifles began their attack on the heavily defended buildings near Casa Sinagoga at 9am on 16th May and, despite suffering significant levels of casualties, successfully reached Colle Monache just after midday. They spent the rest of the day staving off attacks from direction of the Piopetto river on their left flank, before tank support was able to dampen down these German counter measures. In the evening, the Faughs moved up to prepare to take their part in the battle.
The Faughs’ attack started at 0730 on 17th May and by early afternoon, they had reached Massa Cerro (‘Fernie’ Line) and were moving towards high points, which overlooked Highway Six (‘Bedale’ Line). Whilst these attacks had been going in, there had been some doubt if units of 6 Armoured Division had entered the strongly fortified village of Piumarola and it was hastily decided that the Skins should lead an attack on the village, which they were able to clear within an hour. During this attack, the Skins’ Commanding Officer, Lieut Colonel Bala Bredin, was severely wounded but stayed to observe their successful advance.
By the evening of 17th May, all the Gustav Line defensive positions in the area had been completely overrun. During the night, any remaining German paratroopers were ordered to retreat from the mountain areas and, on the morning of 18th May, the Polish Corps were able to enter the now undefended abbey of Monte Cassino.
Over the next week, the Irish Brigade gained some deserved rest while 36 Brigade took up the advance towards Aquino. On 23rd May, the Canadians attacked the next heavily fortified defensive positions, which was the Hitler (‘Senger’) Line, and after some bitter fighting were able to advance to cross the Liri river at Ceprano.
On 26th May, the brigade was again called forward and had to take a cross country route to avoid German strong points near Arce before they eventually crossed the Liri on 28th May. On the next day, the Faughs moved north of Ceprano and, on the 30th, entered Strangolagalli. Meanwhile the Irish Rifles had undertaken a night attack on Hill 255, which guarded the road to Ripi, before attacking the village of San Giovanni a couple of miles further forward, and this was secured after a whole day of heavy fighting. The road to Ripi was now clear.
This period had now become one of transition with all defensive forces in the area hurriedly retreating towards new positions north of Rome but the spearhead forces of the Irish Brigade continued to be confronted with hard fought encounters and the German rearguard often fighting to the last man. Whilst Allied troops were poised to enter the Eternal City, the Irish Brigade’s only intent at the end of May 1944 was to ensure the total defeat of all German forces in the Italian theatre.
Read Pat Scott’s descriptions of the Irish Brigade’s assault on the Gustav Line and the advance towards Ripi.
Read Mervyn Davies’ accounts of 2 LIR’s attack on Casa Sinagoga on 16th May 1944 and the attack on Hill 255 on 29th May 1944.
Read Major Lawrie Franklyn-Vaile’s letters home to his wife, Olive, during the first part of May 1944.
Read CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan’s recollections of the London Irish Rifles’ movements in the Liri Valley during May 1944.
11th/12th May: The 8th Army assault against the Gustav Line commences.
14th May: The Irish Brigade cross the Gari river via Congo Bridge.
15th May, am: 6 Innisks attack towards the Cassino to Pignatoro road (‘Grafton’) and reach their objectives by 12 noon.
15th May, pm: 2 LIR Commanding Officer, Lieut Colonel Goff killed during an ‘O’ Group.
16th May, am: 2 LIR attack Colle Monache (‘Pytchley’) and reach their objectives by midday.
17th May, am: 1 RIrF advance to Massa Cerro (‘Fernie’) and start to threaten Route Six (‘Bedale’).
17th May, pm: 6 Innisks, supported by 2 LIR, capture the fortified village of Piumarola.
18th May: Abbey of Monte Cassino entered by Polish forces.
28th May: Brigade starts to cross the Liri river near Ceprano.
29th/30th May: 2 LIR attack Hill 255.
30th May: 1 RIrF enter Strangolagalli
30th May: 2 LIR attack on San Giovanni.
May 1944 Roll of Honour:
Links to the transcribed May 1944 war diaries: