The battle for Lake Trasimene in June 1944 is often overlooked in accounts of the Allied campaigns in Italy. But it ranks with the battles for Centuripe in Sicily, Cassino and the Argenta Gap as one of the most important Irish Brigade actions in Italy during the 2nd World War.
Orvieto rising majestically.
After the Gustav Line was broken in May, the German army conducted rearguard actions against the advancing Allied armies until they reached the Caesar Line, a series of defensive positions that extended east and west from Lake Trasimene in Umbria. The Irish Brigade advanced from Rome to reach Orvieto in mid-June. The town, which occupies the peak of a volcanic plug, is in it’s own right worth a visit to the region. Originally an Etruscan settlement, Orvieto has intact ancient walls, beautiful historic buildings and churches and fine views over the neighbouring country side. The Duomo, which is considered to be the finest Gothic church in Italy with a magnificent sequence of mosaics on its front, contains the Chapel of San Brizio. The chapel’s walls and ceilings were painted by the renaissance master Luca Signorelli and vividly depicts The Last Judgement. It is considered to be one of the finest products of the Italian renaissance and is said to have inspired Michaelangelo’s later work on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Vatican City.
Orvieto War Cemetery.
Irish Brigade battlefield visitors can follow the minor road north from Orvieto through the town and directed towards Todi. This will allow a visit to the small Commonwealth War Graves cemetery about a mile outside of the town, and which contains the graves of Irish Brigade soldiers who died in battles in the area. You can then follow a cross country route near to Monte Giove and onto Tavernelle, where the brigade stopped on the way to Trasimene.
Alternatively you can follow the main road north from Orvieto to the hill top town of Citta Del Pieve, which is home to fantastic works by famous Renaissance painter Pietro Vanucchi. Citta was also the scene of a foiled advance by a detachment of Faughs which, if successful, may well have prevented the strong defensive line around Trasimeno being fully readied.
Towards Castello di Montelera – the Faughs’ “first castle”
From Panicale towards Trasimeno
Once you arrive at Tavernelle,the road rises majestically to the picturesque town of Panicale. This is an excellent place to stop for refreshments and to study the view north across the Lake Trasimeno battlefield – described as looking down onto a billiard table.
The gateway to Panicale
Irish Brigade HQ at Panicale in August 2010
On the morning of 21 June 1944, the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish advanced along the road from Panicale by truck and troop carrier to Macchie, from where they advanced by foot, and at a brickworks close to the village, the London Irish were served breakfast. The building still remains and can be visited.
From there, the London Irish advanced to the start point for their attack on German positions which occupied a ridge overlooking the railway line. The main strongpoint was the village of Sanfatucchio, which can be recognised from a distance by its striking bell tower (campanile). The attack began with E Company advancing, supported by tanks from the Canadian Armoured Regiment, from the railway line around to the west and then storming into the village from the rear. Other London Irish companies attacked through the main part of the village.
The cemetery at San Felice. E Company of the London Irish held the cemetery in the afternoon of 21 June against German counterattack.
Bullet holes on the cemetery wall: a legacy of German attacks on the cemetery during the fighting around San Felice
After Sanfatucchio was taken, the London Irish pushed out to the north to take the church of San Felice and the adjacent cemetery. Both still exist and it is possible to find bullet holes in the cemetery wall inflicted during the ferocious German counterattacks. The Skins attacked in parallel to the London Irish to take the village of Pucciarelli slightly down the ridge to the north-east. The Faughs were subsequently brought into the attack further to the north-east.
The fighting, which involved many Irish Brigade attacks and German counterattacks, was extremely bitter and encompassed most of the ridge line. The brigade was eventually taken out of the line on 26 June after taking most of its objectives.
The rebuilt bell tower at Sanfatucchio. The London Irish set up a mortar battery in the square in front of the campanile. By the end of the battle, the mortars had been driven deep into the surface of the square after firing thousands of rounds.
San Felice Church across the road from the cemetery about half a mile north of Sanfatucchio was occupied by German soldiers on 21 June. They were driven out by E Company of the London Irish who approached the church supported by tanks from the left of the picture.
A tour of the battlefield area ends in the small square of Sanfatucchio, which has an excellent restaurant and inside contains an exhibition of Fascist era memoribilia. just across from the restaurant is the campanile, which became the symbol of the Irish Brigade’s battle. It was almost entirely destroyed but has been rebuilt. From there, you can drive or walk the half a mile to San Felice and the cemetery. This road then leads to other sites of intense fighting on the ridge.
After touring the battlefield, visitors might decide to visit the walled town of Castiglione di Lago, which contains several good hotels and restaurants. It is a covenient location from which to explore the numerous other scenic and historic areas of Umbria, including Perugia, which is about 30 minutes drive away, and Assisi, site of the Basilica of Saint Francis, which contains Giotto’s celebrated sequence of murals depicting the life of the saint.
The Basilica of St Francis in Assisi