Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

Faugh a Ballagh        Nec Aspera Terrent         Quis Separabit


2 LIR – October 1943

Good progress had been made by the two Armies by the time the 2nd Battalion London Irish sailed from Messina to Taranto on September 24. The short voyage was uneventful, and Taranto harbour in those early days was an extraordinary sight.  It looked small and insignificant on approach, but on passing through a canal underneath an ancient swing-bridge the vast inland lake was revealed.

Here were at anchor all that remained of Mussolini’s Grand Fleet, and they looked very shiny and new, having spent most of their time in harbour and not venturing far because of the ever-vigilant Royal Navy which, despite air and submarine attacks, retained control of the Mediterranean throughout the war.

After camping for five days outside Taranto, the battalion moved south of Barletta and prepared to make a further move north by sea.  The transport, carriers, and anti-tank guns went by road.

Here were at anchor all that remained of Mussolini’s Grand Fleet, and they looked very shiny and new, having spent most of their time in harbour and not venturing far because of the ever-vigilant Royal Navy which, despite air and submarine attacks, retained control of the Mediterranean throughout the war.

After camping for five days outside Taranto, the battalion moved south of Barletta and prepared to make a further move north by sea.  The transport, carriers, and anti-tank guns went by road.

The invasion of southern Italy continued steadily but slowly.  Along the Adriatic coast it was particularly slow, because the Germans were blowing up every bridge, culvert, and road, and as there was a bridge almost every half-mile along the only main road of the coast the German plan to delay the Eighth Army worked only too well.

To prevent further delay and to expedite the invasion it was decided to land a force at Termoli, farther up the coast, and thus force the Germans to give ground in the south.  The Irish Brigade took part in this move, and when they sailed from Barletta on the morning of October 5 everyone looked forward to a pleasant sea cruise with maybe a few quiet days at Termoli.  But those days were not so quiet, for the reason that Termoli was well garrisoned by the Hun.

When the craft carrying the brigade arrived off Termoli harbour at 2230 hours on October 5, they were shelled from the shore.  The gun-fire had more of a nuisance value than being an accurate bombardment.  Commandos carried out the initial assault, followed by 36 Brigade, and then after a day or two the three Irish battalions landed.

The Commandos and 36 Brigade had been strongly counterattacked by tanks and infantry and the invaders could make no progress beyond the town.  The London Irish were ordered to capture a cemetery and a small hill about three-quarters of a mile from Termoli.  H and E Companies carried out the attacks and both objectives were taken after a spirited fight, in which Major Bill Westcott, commanding H Company, was wounded.

Operating with the 78th Division at this stage was the 1st Canadian Armoured Brigade, and a troop of the Three Rivers Regiment was attached to the battalion.  They were absolutely first-class in every attack, and there was not a building, haystack, or suspicious piece of ground that did not receive their whole-hearted attention whenever an opportunity came.

The rest of the Irish Brigade made progress on the left, and then for twelve days they all remained outside Termoli while plans were made to widen the bridgehead.

There was intense patrol activity, which gradually reached Petacciato, eight miles from Termoli, while engineer parties removed the mines which the enemy had laid in the vicinity.  Much useful information about the enemy and the surrounding country was obtained by the patrols.  One, a battle patrol led by Lieutenant Douglas Seymour, killed a couple of suspicious-looking “civilians” who were found to be Huns in disguise and belonging to the 1/64 Panzer Grenadiers whom the battalion had met earlier in Sicily.

Sergeant H Donaghy, MM, and his patrol ambushed an enemy truck as it was returning to the German lines after delivering supplies to the forward troops.  They fired heavily on the vehicle, wounding one of its occupants, but did not manage to stop it.

Petacciato, a small village on the top of rising ground on the north side of the River Sinacra, had to be taken to provide a jumping-off ground for the next major assault—the crossing of the River Trigno.

A battalion attack on a two-company front was planned, F Company on the right and G Company on the left, with E Company protecting the forming-up position and H Company in reserve.  A squadron of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment was in support.  At 0100 hours on the 19th a barrage opened and the attack began.  F Company pushed forward; the leading platoon with Major Gibbs, brushing aside all opposition, arrived in the town five minutes after the barrage had lifted.  They found the enemy still recovering from the effects of the bombardment, with most of them hiding in the houses and other buildings.  They had “gone to ground.”  Among them were the gun-crews of the seventy-five’s guarding the roads into the town, but most of the enemy managed to escape, as the task of systematically clearing each building was a slow one.

Later, Lieutenant O’Connor, with the leading platoon of G Company, advanced to the southern end of the village, clearing a few machine-gun posts on the way, and by dawn the rest of G Company, who had been held up by enfilade fire, succeeded in occupying the southern half.  F Company also moved up during the early hours, and Petacciato fell.  The battalion suffered no casualties in the actual attack, and nineteen prisoners were taken.

The next obstacle was the River Trigno, about seven thousand yards from Petacciato.  On the whole it was shallow, about five feet in its deepest part, with odd sandstone patches in mid-stream.  It was wide, with scrub and cover on the south side, and thickly wooded on the opposite side.  The main bridge across it was still intact, but the problem whether or not a charge had been laid was not cleared up until the sappers with a platoon from E Company went down and after a short scrap with German rearguards reported that it was safe, so far as they could tell, but a thorough inspection was impossible.

An attack went in at once, led by the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and as soon as they reached the bridge it was blown up and a few culverts in the vicinity as well.

A small bridgehead was formed by the Faughs and for four days in very bad weather the London Irish waited by the river for the next move.  During a temporary break in the clouds they were bombed and strafed by a few F.W. 190s, but not much harm was done.

About four thousand yards beyond the Trigno was the small town of San Salvo, which nestled comfortably on the top of a long hill.  The London Irish and the Faughs were ordered to take the town, while the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers were to tackle the railway station by the side of the hill.

The attacks were made at night after a preliminary bombardment, but heavy rain made the conditions appalling.  From behind the protection of dense minefields the Germans fired into the confined space of the bridgehead. F Company had a bad time. The leading platoon, with 2nd Lieutenant Marmorschtein at their head, was caught between the enemy defence fire and a minefield and had heavy casualties.  The platoon tackled a German machine-gun post very bravely, but the platoon commander and most of his men were lost.

It was no use going on under those conditions.  The Faughs were having a bad time too, and possibly were suffering heavier casualties.  They lost their Commanding Officer, Colonel Butler, that quiet little man with an indomitable spirit who was greatly liked throughout the brigade.  They had also lost two Company Commanders, Major Paddy Proctor and Major Dennis Dunn, both from the Regiment.  The London Irish lost Major Geoffrey Phillips, wounded, and many good chaps, especially non-commissioned officers.

The attack had been repulsed and so the two battalions, both badly mauled, got back to the bridgehead.

The next morning in the woods alongside the Trigno the battalion suffered a great loss.  Major Kevin O’Connor, the Second-in-Command, was killed by a shell when he was supervising the bringing up of supplies.  Fearless, a charming and delightful personality, he was held in high esteem by everyone.  The great work he did for the battalion he loved so much will live after him.  The cross on his soldier’s grave beside the banks of the Trigno bears the simple epitaph ‘‘A Gallant Gentleman.’’

All that very wet day, October 28, the battalion remained on the defensive, frequently shelled by the enemy, who had amassed scores of guns.  The attack on San Salvo went in again on the night of November 2—3.  This time the Skins were to do it in conjunction with 36 Brigade.

They went in and this time the enemy, faltering under a terrific bombardment, lost ground and San Salvo fell.



 

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