Remembering Rifleman James Murtagh MM

Catania CWGC Cemetery

In July/August 1943, two battalions of the London Irish Rifles were in action in Sicily, their 1st Battalion (1 LIR) with the 50th (Northumbria) Division fighting along the east coast of the island and the 2nd Battalion (2 LIR) with the Irish Brigade on the west side of Mount Etna.

During the thirty eight day campaign, 89 London Irishmen were killed, the vast majority of whom are buried at Catania CWGC cemetery, one man is buried at Syracuse, three men are commemorated on the Cassino Memorial and one man, Rifleman James Murtagh, is buried at Tripoli in Libya.

CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan would remember Rifleman Murtagh very well indeed:

 “I heard sad news. Corporal James Murtagh, my friend and assistant from my stint in the sergeants’ mess, had died of gangrene after sustaining a shrapnel wound earlier. He was a brave man who had been awarded the MM.” 

It’s quite probable that CQMS O’Sullivan was correct in describing Murtagh as a “Corporal” in the Mess as he may have been a Lance Corporal (which was an appointment and not a rank) and may have merely reverted to join a rifle section; or he may have been a full Corporal and then either made the decision to revert or had it made for him.

Reviewing the CWGC entry, it states that James Murtagh died on 15th August 1943 but no reference is made to the award of a Military Medal (MM). When reading the MM citation, which was initiated by Lieut-Col Harry Rogers, the circumstances of how he suffered the wounds that led to his death become clear:

“Rfn Murtagh was the Bren Gunner of the leading section in the attack on Sperina on 12 Aug ’43. His platoon was held up by an enemy MG post halfway up a bare coverless slope. Rfn Murtagh immediately engaged the enemy MG post and, although in a very exposed position, silenced it and enabled the platoon to continue its advance, but in doing so he was wounded.

Rfn Murtagh, though wounded, continued to give covering fire for this section throughout a further advance and only gave up when his platoon had successfully reached their objective.

He showed courage and determination of a high order and was a splendid example to all. I strongly recommend the immediate award of the MM.”    

The award of the Military Medal to Rifleman Murtagh was confirmed in the London Gazette (LG) dated 18th November 1943. The LG entry also stated that James Murtagh came from Lurgan in County Armagh and that he had “since died of his wounds” – this most certain occurred at some stage between boarding a hospital ship in Sicily and arriving at the General Hospital in Libya.

As further background, Richard Doherty, the historian and author of “Clear the Way!”, explained that:

“…the fact that Rifleman Murtagh was awarded the MM posthumously was not down to any confusion at Battalion or Brigade level but due to deliberate withholding of the fact that he had died from those in the chain of command responsible for endorsing and forwarding the commendation. 

Since the action for which Rifleman Murtagh earned the MM occurred on 12 August, three days before his death, it seems that the official records were massaged and this would account for the absence of post-nominals from the CWGC records. A the time, no gallantry awards, other than the VC and MiD, could be awarded posthumously but some COs ensured that other awards were made to dead soldiers by concealing the fact that the man had died from those dealing with the recommendations. 

Thankfully, the need for this kind of behaviour was removed when the decision was made over 20 years ago to allow posthumous awards of all gallantry decorations except the DSO, which then ceased to be a gallantry decoration.”

Tripoli CWGC Cemetery

During our visit to Catania in September we shall be remembering all the men of the Irish Brigade who were killed during the Sicilian campaign and shall also pause for an additional few moments to remember James Murtagh, who is buried 350 miles away across the Mediterranean Sea at Tripoli.

Quis Separabit. 

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