The beginning of May found the 2nd Battalion in the village of Formicola, in one of the prettiest valleys in Italy, about ten miles north of Caserta. Everything was green, crops were sprouting, the dark red clover was in bloom, and even the nightingales were singing. The guns were at least thirty miles away, as also were the barren, stenching slopes of Monte Cairo.
The Irish Brigade moved on May 10 to a concentration area at Presenzano, off Highway Six, south of Mignano, in readiness for the next move.
It was while they were at Presenzano that one of those minor tragedies inevitable in war occurred, this time on the domestic front. A nice fat goose had wandered fearlessly into the London Irish camp. It came with a strange confidence and faith, as if the London Irish were old friends. While admiring its temerity certain riflemen, with an utter lack of sentiment, could see nothing but a very tasty meal before them, a change from the “M & V” which reposed in tins on the cookhouse shelves. So the goose paid the penalty for its sociability, and while it was in the tender hands of the cook some medium gunners were heard inquiring whether anyone had seen their pet goose! An almost uncanny deduction led them to this particular London Irish cookhouse, and there they saw their regimental mascot nothing but a corpse, a corpse freshly roasted and a delight to the epicurean eye. It was an awful moment and the gunners felt their loss keenly, because the goose had been their mascot since before Alamein. It had been the pet of everyone, and had even turned out on parade! Filled with remorse at what in their ignorance they had done, the London Irishmen were prepared to sacrifice their dinner and offered the cooked goose back to its owners. But the idea was an outrageous one to the gunners, and with sad hearts they left the goose to its fate.
While in the concentration area future plans were revealed. The Big Push to Rome was to begin and it would be the prelude to the Invasion of Europe in Normandy. None of the previous attempts to break through the German lines at the Garigliano, the Rapido, and at Cassino had met with complete success, and the time had now arrived for an effort which MUST succeed.
The plan was to attack between Cassino Monastery and the sea on a frontage of about nineteen miles. Everything to the north was to be held as lightly as possible so that a big concentration of troops and supporting arms was available.
In the Liri Valley, Polish forces were to attack the Monastery from the north-west and to break through the mountains in a south-westerly direction with the idea of cutting Highway Six. This road was the enemy’s most vital artery, and it was known the Germans had orders to defend it at all cost. The 4th British and the 8th Indian Divisions were to force a crossing over the Rapido frontally. The Fifth Army, with the French and American Corps, were to strike up in a north-westerly direction, capturing Monte Maio and Ausonia, with the idea of turning the southern bastion of the Liri Valley between San Giorgio and San Ambroglio. The Americans were to strike north-west from the Minturno-Castelforte area. An effective deception plan suggested that the Canadian Corps were going to land on the Lido di Roma! It is thought that that deceived the enemy completely and that he retained invaluable reserves to meet the bogus threat. The Allied forces in the beachhead at Anzio were to postpone any further major attacks until the hoped-for advance from the south had got under way.
The 78th Division was to break through the bridgehead formed by the 4th Division, while the Canadian Corps were to do the same through the 8th Indian Division. After the Rapido, had been crossed these forces would smash through the Gustav Line, the 78th Division cutting Highway Six and linking with the Poles near Piedemonte and the Canadians going straight ahead towards Pignataro and Pontecorvo, which would link them with the successful French push.
That vast, ambitious scheme, if carried out, would cause the Cassino garrison to pull out or be surrounded.
As the great offensive opened against the main German defences in Italy, General Alexander, the Commander-in-Chief, in an Order of the Day to the troops said:
“Throughout the past winter you have fought hard and valiantly and killed many Germans. Perhaps you are disappointed that we have been unable to advance faster and farther, but I, and those who know, realise full well how magnificently you fought among these almost insurmountable obstacles of rocky, trackless mountains, deep snow, and in valleys blocked by rivers and mud, against a stubborn foe.
“The results of these past months may not appear spectacular, but you have drawn into Italy and mauled many of the enemy’s best divisions, which he badly needed to stem the advance of the Russian armies in the east.
“Hitler has admitted that his defeats in the east were largely due to the bitterness of the fighting and his losses in Italy. This in itself is a great achievement, and you may well be as proud of yourselves as I am of you. You have gained the admiration of the world and the gratitude of our Russian allies.
“To-day the bad times are behind us and to-morrow we can see victory ahead. Under the ever-increasing blows of the air forces of the United Nations, which are mounting every day in intensity, the German war machine is beginning to crumble.
“The Allied armed forces are now assembling for the final battles on sea, on land, and in the air, to crush the enemy once and for all. From east and west, from north and south, blows are about to fall which will result in the final destruction of the Nazis and bring freedom once again to Europe and hasten peace for us all. To us in Italy has been given the honour to strike the first blow.
“We are going to destroy the German armies in Italy. Fighting will be hard and bitter, and perhaps long, but you are warriors and soldiers of the highest order who for more than a year have known only victory. You have courage, determination, and skill. You will be supported by overwhelming air forces, and in guns and tanks we far outnumber the Germans.
“No armies have ever entered battle before with a more just and righteous cause. So, with God’s help and blessing, we take the field-confident of Victory.”
The initial part of the operations on the Rapido was begun by the 4th Division and the 8th Indian Division on the night of May 11, and on May 14 the London Irish and the rest of the Irish Brigade hit the trail northwards and assembled behind Monte Trocchio.
Here hundreds of guns joined in a bombardment of the German lines miles away. The enemy responded fiercely and so shells screamed overhead, passing both directions. A mass of men and vehicles were in the open, and as shells landed nearby from time to time there were a few casualties, though most of the men sought cover in slit trenches.
Smoke canisters were fired continuously to obscure the lower areas from the enemy high above in the Monastery, and thus much of their gun-fire was wild and inaccurate through lack of observation. The concentration of men and material would have been a valuable target for enemy aircraft, but thanks to fine work by the Allied air forces complete air superiority had been achieved. Indeed, a programme of close-support bombing was carried out to help the infantry across the Rapido and beyond. A senior officer of the RAF occupied a post on top of Monte Trocchio overlooking the battle-field, and there he controlled his “cab rank” of fighter-bombers hovering about in the sky waiting for someone to give them a fare. When called for they pounced immediately on their prey. This co-operation worked excellently, and dive bombing proved nearly as quick as shell-fire.
A bridgehead across the Rapido was forced, but it was a little precarious and barely a thousand yards deep. The country on the, other bank was a mass of minor features and visibility was seldom more than five hundred yards and often considerably less. It was, perfect country from the Germans’ point of view. A tributary of the Rapido called the Pioppeto ran in from the west near the brigade’s concentration area. Its bend to the north-east just before joining the Rapido entailed a bridging operation.
The London Irish crossed the Rapido by a bridge built by the sappers and dug in. Getting fighting vehicles and heavy weapons up was difficult owing to the state of the tracks, and many trucks and anti-tank guns had to be man-handled. The attack by the Irish Brigade began next morning. The Inniskillings and the 16/5 Lancers smashed their way a thousand yards into the Gustav Line. That was “Operation Grafton,” and the London Irish Rifles were to give the next punch, “Operation Pytchley,” which embraced a ridge between Sinagoga and Colle Momache. The third bound, “Operation Fernie,” was on a ridge dominating Highway Six itself, and that was the job of the Royal Irish Fusiliers.
After “Grafton” had been carried through successfully by the Skins, the London Irish while in their forming-up area came under heavy fire, which was also directed at the tanks of the 16/5 Lancers, their partners in the attack. Lieut-Colonel Ian Goff was wounded and died shortly afterwards, and there were about forty other casualties, including Major Geoffrey Phillips, and Lieutenant Ken Lovatt, the signals officer.
Losing their Commanding Officer at the commencement of
what was likely to be one of their toughest battles was a great blow to the battalion. Lieut-Colonel Goff throughout the previous few months had handled the battalion with tremendous skill and energy. He had imparted much of his own personal ability and bravery to the men he commanded, and his loss was a sad one. It reflected the greatest credit on the 2nd Battalion that in spite of losing their trusted leader on the eve of a vital battle, it in no way detracted from the magnificent fight they put up. Lieut-Colonel Goff never doubted it would have been otherwise.
Major (later Lieut-Colonel) Coldwell-Horsfall assumed command, but owing to the very heavy shelling and the approach of darkness which would have made consolidation difficult, “Operation Pytchley” was postponed until dawn next day, when it would be combined with an attack by the Lancashire Fusiliers on the right.
The London Irish planned to attack astride the road to Sinagoga, with a troop of tanks in support of each company, and with Pioneers following up to de-mine the road for the reserve tanks and the rest.
The battle began at 0900 hours, and the artillery salvos came down with a crash that made coherent thinking almost impossible. G and E Companies were held up for a while by heavy fire from Germans concealed in the cellars of houses. But the teamwork with the gunners was excellent, and many Germans were trapped in their dug-outs by the shell-fire and the riflemen went among them with the bayonet before they realised that the artillery barrage had passed on. In other places where the advance was delayed, the enemy posts were blasted to bits by high-explosive from the seventy-fives of the Lancers. Many anti-tank gun crews were caught away from their guns by the barrage, and the Germans realised that fact when it was too late and were then unable to man them. Others, when they opened fire on the tanks, were shot down by the infantry.
One of the main sources of trouble was the left flank across the Piopetto, which was entirely open, and throughout the battle the London Irish were under consistent and heavy fire from machine guns, mortars, and tanks. The Lancers helped considerably by giving more than they got and by setting fire to several AFVs, as well as blowing up two ammunition dumps.
H Company, under Major Desmond Woods, eventually broke into the village of Sinagoga, where ferocious close fighting developed. This went on for over an hour, the Germans stubbornly defending the buildings with grenades, machine-guns, and Schmeissers. There was also a self-propelled seventy-five behind one of the houses which “sniped” at the supporting tanks.
Corporal JA Barnes led his section in an attack on this gun. He went forward alone, covered by his Bren gunner, and in face of intense fire killed one of the gun-crew with a grenade before he himself was killed, a most gallant act.
Shortly after this the garrison of the village started to surrender and by noon the whole of the objective was in the hands of the London Irish and the Lancers. G Company, in the meantime, was having a stiff battle with a local counter-attack, but after about an hour this was cleared up. H Company on the left pushed on and seized a group of houses overlooking the river. This proved to be most valuable in neutralising the counter-attack that came in from that side.
During the afternoon the attack developed with all manner of fire going both ways, but it never really progressed and finally fizzled out. The casualties of the London Irish in the attack were five officers and sixty other ranks. Lieutenant Mike Clark, MC, who was killed, was a very sad loss, as were Sergeant E Mayo, MM, and CSM F Wakefield. At least one hundred Germans were killed and one hundred and twenty captured.
The general attack continued and no serious opposition was encountered until the Fernie Line was reached and crossed. The London Irish supported a move by the Inniskillings to clear up the Piumarola area, which was strongly held by tanks and paratroopers. The only company that met serious opposition was G Company, commanded by Captain Peter Grannell since Major Geoffrey Phillips was wounded. They got involved with some paratroopers and a very large self-propelled gun, which to everyone’s delight was shot up by a tank. After a brisk scrap G Company asserted themselves successfully. E and H Companies got in without opposition, apart from shelling which never slackened until dusk, by which time the enemy artillery began pulling out. Over a hundred prisoners were counted coming back, mainly men of the 1st Paratrooper Division, and some old rivals of the Irish Brigade, the “Hermann Goering boys.” After dark, F Company landed a small German patrol from the north.
A great loss to the whole of the brigade during the fight was Colonel “Bala” Bredin, of the Inniskillings. He was shot through both legs, but remained in command until the final assault, propped up on the front of his jeep.
It was apparent that a complete break-through of the Gustav Line had been achieved. News came that French troops trained in mountain warfare had scaled the heights and captured Ausonia and the high ground overlooking San Giorgio beyond. A link-up with the Anzio forces had been made, and the 5th Army troops had overrun the strong point of Cisterna and smashed through the Lepini Mountains, threatening to trap the Germans still in the Liri Valley. A single Allied line now stretched right across Italy, and at its nearest point Rome was only twenty-five miles away.
The famous Monastery of Monte Cassino had also fallen, and the Adolf Hitler Line had been reached at Aquino.
The next job of the London Irish was to get to Aceto and hold the north flank of the thrust to Aquino, and this was done. The battalion received some heavy shelling and casualties were caused, mostly to E Company.
After a few days in reserve, during which the general offensive continued to go well with the fall of Piedmonte and the smashing of the Hitler Line by the Canadians, the London Irish joined in the advance with a midnight attack on Hill 255, two miles south of Strangolagalli. This was carried out with the help of the divisional artillery. E Company did the main assault, with G Company cleaning up the north flank and H Company supporting the attack from near-by houses. After a fierce hand-to-hand struggle the enemy ran for it. The battalion then took the lead, with the objective Ripi, six miles ahead. F Company probed forward, covered by two troops of tanks, and after the first thousand yards ran into the enemy in strength on either side of the road, mostly in houses. The opposition was quelled by artillery fire and by the tanks plastering each area and building. Many Germans were killed and others bolted.
H Company then went in to clean up the road north, and E Company took the lead. In San Giovanni they met some resistance and a full-scale attack was planned. F Company broke into the centre of the town from the west, while E and G Companies got through from the south amid bitter fighting. This lasted for over two hours, while the riflemen working from house to house and the tanks giving close aid. E Company finally overcame one strongpoint by setting it on fire with seventy-seven grenades, so that the garrison had to jump out of the windows. In another, F Company shot down twelve Germans in one room.
The town was taken by dusk, and the battalion pushed on to Ripi. The opposition had been destroyed or had fled and there was no further trouble except for mild mortaring. Between eighty and one hundred Germans were killed in the battle, and the London Irish had fifteen wounded.
That was the battalion’s last battle before the fall of Rome on June 4, forty-eight hours before the Second Front opened on the beaches of Normandy. The time-table decided upon by Supreme Command had been adhered to, but only because of a break in the weather, which had caused the Normandy landings to be postponed for a day!
The 78th Division had done an outstanding job in helping to break through the Gustav Line, and the Commander-in-Chief, General Alexander, and the Army Commander sent personal congratulations on the achievements of the Division during that period.
In a message to the Irish Brigade, Major-General Keightley said:
“I endorse these congratulations with all my heart. As the leading brigade of the division over the Rapido River, you set the speed of the advance of the division, and from that high standard you never looked back.
“Each of your battalions has had its battle, and in each case the battalion objectives were gained and passed. This is a fine record and reflects the greatest possible credit on every officer and man who went through the battle….
“During the last ten days this division formed the left pincer in the attack on the Monastery, and our successful and rapid advance was largely responsible for its capture. During this advance we have captured over four hundred prisoners, killed or wounded over three hundred enemy, knocked out or captured over forty tanks and self-propelled guns, and captured a considerable amount of equipment. In addition to this, it can only be guessed what effect this advance had on loosening up the French and Polish fronts by necessitating the rapid removal of reserves from their fronts to deal with our threat.
“Such actions all help to hasten the end of the war, and all who have been through it may justly feel proud of the part they have played, whatever that part may have been.”
In forwarding that message throughout the brigade, Brigadier TPD Scott said:
“I can only add that everyone has done his job absolutely splendidly, just as I knew they would. The motto ‘It all depends on me’ has been most fully justified by everyone and remains the secret of success.
“I cannot speak too highly of the magnificent spirit and fighting qualities shown by all of you during the first very difficult days of le advance that brought us here.
“More is yet to be done, and the Army knows that the Irish Brigade and all the magnificent fighters in its three famous battalions are certain to rise to any occasion.
NEC ASPERA TERRENT
FAUGH A BALLAGH
Messages were also sent to the officers and men of the supporting arms of the brigade, in which Brigadier Scott said: “We attribute a large measure of our success to the magnificent assistance and co-operation which you gave us throughout the recent battles. Thank you very much.”