For six months at the start of 1942, the 2nd Battalion lived in a land of Nissen huts in Didlington, an outlandish part of the Norfolk countryside. They were housed among a narrow belt of coniferous trees inhabited by brown squirrels and tree-creepers and a multitude of fat rats whose feet beat a tattoo on the metal sheeting of the huts. The winter at Didlington was a hard one, with snow on the ground for weeks at a time. More than once the water supply was frozen, but despite everything the health of the battalion remained remarkably good.
On June 7th 1942, the 2nd Battalion went by road to Scotland, a three-day journey of three hundred and thirty miles, which was accomplished without a vehicle casualty, a great tribute to the transport-maintenance section.
The new camp was in grand countryside, six hundred feet above sea level, and was the best-tented encampment in which the battalion had been. The White Triangle of the 1st Infantry Division came down, and the Mailed Fist of the 6th Armoured Division took its place.
Within a few days of settling down in Scotland a Battle Drill cadre was formed, under Captain J. D. Lofting, and the battalion went through a strenuous battle-inoculation and assault course. When mobilisation was nearing completion the officers’ roll of the battalion was:
Lieut-Colonel Sir William Starkey, Bt., Commanding Officer.
Major J. McCann, Second-in-Command.
Major C. A. F. Gibbs, O.C. Headquarters Company.
Captain J. D. Lofting, O.C. H Company.
Captain S. M. Ekin, O.C. F Company.
Captain H. Henderson, O.C. E Company.
Captain J. Grant, O.C. G Company.
Captain L. J. Samuels, Medical Officer.
Captain T. L. Laister, Adjutant.
Captain D. W. Conroy, Transport Officer.
Captain V. J. A. Lillie-Costello, Administration.
Captain R. G. Cockburn, Carrier Platoon.
Lieutenant D. Aitkenhead, Quartermaster.
Captain J. P. Carrigan.
Lieutenant C. R. M. Heaps.
Lieutenant M. Tasker.
Lieutenant W. F. H. Cooper.
Lieutenant J. D. O’Rourke.
Lieutenant D. Kirkham.
2nd Lieutenant H. E. Rawlings.
2nd Lieutenant W. Bowker.
2nd Lieutenant C. E. Kinch.
2nd Lieutenant E. H. E. Beechey.
2nd Lieutenant M. J. Goldstone.
2nd Lieutenant N. W. Dorrity.
2nd Lieutenant K. Neely, Signals Officer.
2nd Lieutenant B. C. Stigant.
2nd Lieutenant P. J. Gibbons.
2nd Lieutenant F. E. Fletcher, Mortar Platoon.
2nd Lieutenant A. G. Lees.
2nd Lieutenant R. T. McKenna.
2nd Lieutenant V. W. L. Pottinger.
2nd Lieutenant J. M. McGranahan.
2nd Lieutenant T. W. H. Wilson.
2nd Lieutenant R. Hardwick.
R.S.M. H. Reid.
On the strength, but away from the battalion, were: Major W. D. Swiney and Captain B. A. Tebbitt, both at the 6th Armoured Division Battle Drill School. Of the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles that were at Chelsea when war broke out, the only officers remaining were: Lieut.-Colonel Starkey, Major McCann, Major Gibbs, Captain Lofting, Captain Conroy, Captain Laister, Captain Ekin, and Captain Cockburn.
By that time Lieut.-Colonel Starkey’s normal three years of command had elapsed, and a new Commanding Officer was appointed. He was Lieut.-Colonel J. B. Jefferys, from the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles. He assumed command on June 26, 1942.
Sir William Starkey had earned the respect of all who had served under him. Apart from those few of the 2nd Battalion who had a few years’ service behind them, he had raised from the environs of Chelsea a motley crowd of untrained men – actors, clerks, painters, lawyers, artists, journalists, accountants, tradesmen, all men from diverse stations in life – and turned them into hard, virile soldiers, ready and eager to meet the enemy on any terms.
There was a change, also, at brigade headquarters, Brigadier The O’Donovan, M.C., relinquishing command. He was succeeded by Brigadier Nelson Russell, D.S.O., M.C., from the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers.
In a farewell message Brigadier The O’Donovan said:
“I want all ranks to know how sorry I am to leave them. There is much for the Brigade to ‘try-out’ and learn, and the time may be short. But there is a feeling of friendship and goodwill throughout the Brigade, coupled with a fixed and cheerful determination to conquer in spite of everything, which should make it invincible.
“With each of you individually I would say ‘good-bye and good Luck.’ and I am, confident that when the opportunity offers the Irish Brigade as it now exists will cover itself with glory.
TRAINING for the 2nd Battalion in July and August 1942 was particularly hard. They had to become accustomed to their new role in an armoured division. At a divisional camp at Douglas, tanks, gunners, and infantry got together on a company-squadron basis, and this enabled one to meet the other and for each to learn something of the other’s problems. An exercise, “Dryshod,” was held in which, on paper, the hills south of the Clyde were divided to represent the English Channel. Agricultural towns became ports, the hills were in theory washed away to become the sea, a sea over which the infantry marched and the tanks rode.
There were long forced marches in all weathers, and the battalion lived as closely as possible to conditions of real war. The purchase of food in the towns and villages through which the men passed was forbidden, and they all learned to live “hard.” Above all, “Dryshod” was a great test in staff work, which was carried out smoothly and efficiently.