Edward (Eddie) Mayo, who worked at Ford in Dagenham before the Second World War, was conscripted into the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles (2 LIR) on 18th October 1939 and quickly emerged as one of the the battalion’s star recruits.
Eddie Mayo and Mary Gibbs on their wedding day
During the extended period that the battalion spent on the home front, Eddie married his pre-war sweetheart, Mary Gibbs, and in early July 1942, their son, Edward Alan, was born.
However, it was only a matter of months before 2 LIR left Britain, along with the rest of the Irish Brigade, on route for North Africa and they arrived in Algiers on 22nd November 1942.
Eddie Mayo was wounded for the first time on 20th/21st January 1943 during 2 LIR’s attacks on Hills 286 and 279, north of Bou Arada in Tunisia. After recovering from his injuries, Mayo returned to the battalion in time for the attack on the mountain village of Heidous, to the west of Tunis, on the night of 23th April during which action he earned the Military Medal (MM) but again he was wounded.
The MM citation written by 2 LIR’s commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel TPD Scott said:
“This NCO personally destroyed a German MG (machine gun) post. Later, he rallied his platoon under heavy mortar fire and machine gun fire and, in spite of being wounded in both legs, succeeded in leading a fresh sortie on the enemy. Corporal Mayo had previously distinguished himself at Bou Arada on 20 January in leading his section with great gallantry in an attack on Hill 286, where he was wounded.
He had only been back from hospital two weeks before the attack on Heidous. The way his men followed him on this last occasion was a tribute to his previous courage.”
Mayo’s wounds kept him out of the campaign in Sicily, which ended in mid-August, but he was to rejoin E Company, while they were resting on the north coast of the island, before they moved by sea to Taranto to join the Allied campaign on the mainland of Italy.
The Irish Brigade participated in four major assaults during the autumn Adriatic campaign: the amphibious assault on Termoli and the defence of the town against German counterattacks and the assaults on Petacciato and across the rivers Trigno and Sangro.
Eddie Mayo’s champion recruit watch (left) and the newspaper report on the award of the military medal to Mayo in 1943
Following two months of almost constant front line action, the Brigade was taken out of the line in early December 1943 before taking up defensive positions in the high Apennines. On 30th December, 2 LIR arrived in the mountain village of Montenero and the battalion’s companies were thinly deployed in a landscape that was quickly engulfed with snow. For more than two weeks, units of 2 LIR carried out probing patrols amid sporadic German shelling.
Eddie Mayo is seated and second from the left
E Company Colour Sergeant Edmund O’Sullivan described the conditions in his 2007 book ‘All My Brothers’:
“Snow descended in blizzard strength,” O’Sullivan wrote. “Conditions in the line were appalling. Winter clothing was distributed on an equal basis that did not reflect needs. Even those in billets were given a share. E Company, freezing on a mountain, received its strict ration: one jerkin between six men; one duffel coat between eight; one string vest between two; one pair of boucheron boots for 10 men and white smocks for about half. In the town, there were officers, sergeants and cooks wearing jerkins or duffel coats and sometimes both. I believe the same distribution prevailed even in distant rear areas. The men in the mountains got rest on a strict rotational rest of about three days in the town.
During one of E Company’s rests, we acquired a whole sheep. It was roasted in roughly hewn joints over the open fire in the billet and washed down with hot rum toddy. I remember Eddie Mayo sitting on his blankets and gnawing at a leg of lamb with blood running down his chest.”
On 17th January 1944, E and F Companies relieved G and H in forward positions north of Montenero and that night, they bivouacked in deep snow. At 830am the next day, German ski troops, supported by mortars, swept down from the high ground in a surprise attack that caught E Company unawares.
Dozens of 2 LIR members were taken prisoner including 9 Platoon’s commander Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley. News of the attack filtered back to E Company HQ in Montenero.
“I was told that E Company had been attacked and had suffered heavy casualties,” O’Sullivan wrote in ‘All My Brothers’. “They were cut off by deep snow and I had to rescue them. I was given an escort, a string of mules and about a dozen impressed Italians armed with picks and shovels. We took the usual path up the mountain but soon found it blocked by heavy snowdrifts. I dug down. At one point I was unable to feel the bedrock and, holding my spade above my head, could not reach the top of the drift. At last, we arrived at the company position.”
By that time the battle was over. According to O’Sullivan’s account, Eddie Mayo had played a leading role in liberating some of his E Company comrades:
“Eddie Mayo, 8 Platoon sergeant, had seen what had happened,” he wrote. “He and Charlie Neat, a Bren gunner, shouted a warning to the prisoners and attacked the ski troops with rapid fire, and some of the captured men were rescued, including Mosley.”
Nick Mosley’s more detailed eyewitness account gives E Company commander Mervyn Davies a starring role.
“What had happened, I became aware, was that Mervyn, coming up with the reserve platoon behind, had seen the tail end of the prisoners being marched off over the hill and bringing up the rear, a lone German who then branched off down the slope, so Mervyn 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 after a time, whom I had recognised, waved back.I set off towards him plunging through the snow….”
The Irish Brigade were soon on the move again and were deployed on Italy’s west coast to support the developing battle of Cassino. After a spell on Monte Castellone overlooking the monastery on Monte Cassino, 2 LIR was withdrawn from the line and readied itself to join the Allied attack on the German line.
The fourth battle of Cassino started with a massive artillery bombardment on the night of 11th May 1944. 2 LIR were embussed from their reserve position near Presenzano at 330am on 14th May and arrived behind Monte Trocchio at 715am, while the 6th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were waiting for Congo bridge over the Gari river to be finished. The battalion remained there for almost eight hours in conditions described by John Horsfall in ‘Fling Your Banner to the Wind’:
“It was a cheerless stunted spot and the hillside looked as though a hurricane had struck it. Seared and torn under the shelling, one would remember the destruction – and the satanic hiss of splinters as they ripped through the olive trees every few seconds. For several hours that afternoon, Monte Trocchio was a screaming madhouse with this, and our own guns, in serried ranks behind it, replying in kind.”
Colour Sergeant Edmund O’Sullivan also remembered the conditions around Congo bridge in ‘All My Brothers’.
“It was about 5pm on 14th May when we moved towards the river (the Gari) and crossed a partly-submerged Bailey bridge (Congo), which was heavily smoked, and passed into the bridgehead. The company went into reserve positions (on the San Angelo ridge near the Via Sant’Appolinare).”
Several plans for the battalion to join the attack were cancelled and an assault planned for the evening of 15th May was postponed following the death of its commanding officer Ion Goff, who was killed by German shells as he was holding an ‘O’ Group conference.
The battalion settled down for the night just east of the Cassino to Pignataro road and during the evening, O’Sullivan brought food and other supplies to E Company.
“I went up to the company in a 15cwt truck driven by “Benny” Goodman,” he recalled in ‘All My Brothers’. “I found that the attack due for the evening had been postponed while the new battalion commander John Horsfall, who had been second in command, took over. Goodman crashed the vehicle and I had to walk the rest of the way. I rejoined E Company and stayed until dawn in a slit trench with my mate, Eddie Mayo.”
Mayo had been wounded a third time and this should have qualified him to be removed from front line duties, but the wound was dressed locally and not officially recorded. He had also been nominated for officer training, but had turned it down. O’Sullivan recalled that Mayo, while fingering a Luger pistol that he had taken from a German officer, had said to him that night: “You know what I’m going to do with this lot. Use this to make a living.” O’Sullivan thought he was only partly joking.
There was a cloudless sky over the front-line on the morning of 16th May. O’Sullivan supervised the distribution of hot food and returned to the battalion’s supply base. In his book, ‘Time at War’, Nick Mosley, who was the officer in command of 9 Platoon, recalled the moment when he had served breakfast to his platoon and was reaching out with a spoon to take the small amount of stew remaining when he felt what was like a wasp sting on his wrist. He had been hit by shrapnel and the wound was serious enough for him to be sent to the ADS for treatment.
Mayo took over command of 9 Platoon.
Horsfall, meanwhile, was scanning no-man’s land. “Slap in front, a quarter mile distant, the Pignataro road stretched away across us. Beyond the road was thick with mines and covered in depth by 88s (German artillery pieces). So I sent the pioneers out…in the half light of dawn to disinfest where possible…Fortunately, the German anti-tank minefields were easily visible at the time, with most of the mines on the surface.”
At 9am, the divisional artillery opened fire on the German lines. They were joined by medium batteries.
“The landscape ahead just vanished under pitch black thunder cloud, pierced by the dancing orange lightning of the shell bursts,” Horsfall wrote. “The crawling bombardment advanced at about 100 metres a minute over German positions about 1,000 metres to the front. It dwelt for 10 minutes on the principal strongpoints in and around Sinagoga. The three advance companies were told to keep as close as possible to the barrage and allow the defenders as little time as possible to recover.”
The start of the bombardment was the Rifles’ signal to attack. The three forward companies rose from their trenches at the appointed time and advanced: H Company in the centre led the attack with E Company on the left and G Coy on the right and all suffered at the hands of the German defensive fire.
E Company’s commander Major Mervyn Davies recalled the advance in an account now held in the London Irish Rifles’ Association archives.
“We went forward with a troop of 16/5 Lancers,” Davies wrote. “The initial advance was through a cornfield. The corn was quite golden and very tall and it was a shame to see the tanks mow it down. On the other hand, the corn afforded useful cover to the infantry. Due to the noise of our own artillery and tanks, we did not realise that we came under enemy fire until we saw the odd man fall.”
Afterwards, Davies decided to check to see where the rest of the Rifles were.E Company’s line of advance was towards a wood that encompassed Sinagoga hamlet and the area to its left. When the barrage ended, E Company found itself still in open ground short of the wood and completely exposed. Davies got up and ran towards the wood, hoping, rightly, that he would be followed by the rest of the company, though they suffered about a dozen casualties in the process. The company took 60 members of the 90th Panzergrenadier Regiment prisoner.
“I walked through the wood to find G Company on our right had kept up with us. In the wood there was a small farm house which I took to be Sinagoga Farm. I went in and in a bedroom on the ground floor there were a very old man and his wife. They were unhurt and I tried to comfort them.”
Meanwhile, Mayo had ordered his men to dig fox holes for protection in anticipation of German retaliation. After making his own slit trench, Mayo urged the riflemen to dig faster. He returned to his own redoubt with Corporal Edward O’Reilly, whose family home was in Cavan, and also the holder of the Military Medal.
There was a sudden scream of Nebelwerfer Mortars. One howled towards Mayo’s trench and exploded. He and O’Reilly were instantly killed.
2 LIR pushed beyond Sinagoga and immediately came under German counterattack. This was repulsed. By dusk, the fighting had died out. With darkness descending, O’Sullivan returned from the battalion’s base near the Gari with food. The road to Sinagoga ran through the areas of the most intense fighting.
Fires in burning buildings and destroyed tanks acted as torches in the gloom and O’Sullivan found there was a sombre mood among the battalion’s survivors.
Major Davies, his voice breaking with emotion, described the events of the day and Mayo’s death.
“I was going to recommend Mayo for the DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal),” he told O’Sullivan.
Riflemen in Mayo’s platoon were quietly weeping in the darkness.
Lance-Corporal Gerard Keegan, a Lancashire Irishman aged 21, who had been made acting sergeant in Mayo’s place, was carving tender words on a cross for their leader’s grave:
“Sergeant Eddie Mayo MM. The greatest sergeant that ever breathed.”
The profound sense of loss among the battalion was expressed in letters to Mary which are among the documents Alan Mayo now holds.
From Mervyn Davies to Mary Mayo:
“I write to let you know the remarkable respect and affection in which he was held in the company…I was his company commander and can tell you what a great character he showed himself to be when he was with us.
The Brigade Commander, the Commanding Officer and every officer of the Bttn knew him as a brave, reliable and sympathetic soldier.
I can truly say that the men of his platoon loved him and would have done anything for him.”
From 2 LIR’s Commanding Officer, John Horsfall:
“This action was a great success affecting the whole course of the battle. I tell you this so that you may know that he did not die in vain…He has behaved most gallantly throughout and as you know has already greatly distinguished himself.
His loss to us is a personal one and his men had the greatest admiration and affection for him…”
From 8 Platoon Commander, John Bruckmann:
“During the time that Eddie and I were together, I got to know him pretty well and his death was, to me, not only the loss of the best platoon Sergeant in the battalion but of a very good friend…”
From the Battalion’s padre, Reverend Harry Graydon:
“No Sergeant, in my experience, ever gained for himself such universal respect, loyalty and love.
He was fearless in action, and so gentle out of the line that one is surprised, at first, to hear of the stirring things he’d done. His decoration was only a partial reward for his deeds.”
Eddie Mayo is buried alongside 4,000 other men, and there are another 4,000 names of men on the Memorial Panels, at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Cassino. A headstone in his memory was also erected by his family in the Ripple Road cemetery close to his family home in Barking.
Irish Brigade website co-founder Richard O’Sullivan said, “Eddie’s death was a terrible blow for Mayo’s comrades but a devastating loss for his family. The fact that Mary Mayo kept all these letters and other personal items showed how much he was missed and remembered.” Mary remarried after the war and had two daughters with her second husband, William.
Edward Mayo never knew his father or able to visit his grave, but his wife, Valerie, told the Irish Brigade website that he nevertheless often thought about him.
Alan now plans to fulfil his father’s wish for half of his ashes to be scattered on the grave of his mother and half in or near his father’s final resting place at Cassino.
The London Irish Rifles’ Pipe Major, Robert Williams, playing a lament for Eddie Mayo and his comrades at Cassino CWGC Cemetery in May 2014.