May 14th to May 16th 1944.
From near to Casa Sinagoga looking east.
The line of advance to Sinagoga on 16th May 1944.
On the morning of 14th May 1944, 2/LIR was called to assemble on the eastern side of Monte Trocchio in advance of their crossing of the Gari River by using Congo bridge, which had been newly built about a mile north of San Angelo in Theodice. On crossing the river, and while assembling an Orders (O) Group close to the Piopetto river in the vicinity of Massa Vertecchi, Lt-Col Ion Goff OC of 2/LIR and Lt-Col Loveday of their armoured support regiment 16/5 Lancers were killed during the early afternoon of May 15th.
Edmund O’Sullivan recalls the events of 14th and 15th May 1944:
“It was about 5pm on 14 May when we moved towards the river and crossed a partly-submerged Bailey bridge, which was heavily smoked, and passed into the bridgehead. The company went into reserve positions (immediately behind the front-line units) and I left them there in the middle of the night. The next day, I busied myself preparing for my evening task. I was close to the Advanced Dressing Station (ADS – the first point where wounded men were treated in battle) and a troop carrier used as an ambulance trundled in. I went over and found the battalion’s commander, Colonel Goff, seriously wounded and in agony. I helped unload him. With him was what looked like a midget who was obviously dead. It took me some time to recognise the body as Goff’s driver who was more than 6ft tall. He had lost both legs. Goff had been on reconnaissance and a shell caught him and his O Group. Father Dan Kelleher called me over and asked if I would help him with some burials. The first was the badly mutilated driver. I held back the blanket while Father Dan anointed the stumps. That evening, I went up to the company in a 15cwt truck driven by Benny Goodman. I found that the attack due for the morning had been postponed while the new battalion commander John Horsfall, who was second in command, took over. Goodman crashed the vehicle and I had to walk the rest of the way. On the evening of 15 May, I rejoined E Company and stayed until dawn in a slit trench with my mate Eddie Mayo. ’You know what I’m going to do after this lot,’ said Eddie, fingering a Luger pistol he had taken from a German officer. ‘Use this to make a living.’ I thought he was only partly joking.”
Lt-Col Horsfall took over the command of the battalion and following an overnight delay in the order to attack to allow the 2nd Battalion Lancashire Fusliers to move onto their right flank, at 9am on the morning of 16th May 2/LIR advanced towards Casa Sinagoga, which is positioned on a small ridge called Colle Monache – the code name for this objective was Pytchley. Following three hours of intense fighting, the farm was eventually taken by three companies of 2/LIR – H Company led by Major Desmond Woods, G Company led by Captain Peter Grennell and E Company led by Major Mervyn Davies
As the fighting died down, a Nebelwerfer assault hit E Company, who were assembled in Sinagoga wood to the west of the main farmhouse, and this killed E Company’s Sgt Edward Mayo MM and Cpl Edward O’Reilly MM.
Major Mervyn Davies describes the period of the attack on Sinagoga:
“With the end of the barrage, I realised that the company had to go forward. I got up hoping that those near me would do so too. Every man did so and we ran for the wood which we reached despite about a dozen casualties. In the wood we took, there was a small farmhouse which I took to be Sinagoga Farm. I went in and in a bedroom on the ground floor, there was a very old man and his wife. They were unhurt and I tried to comfort them. I returned to the Company’s position in the wood as a dreadful Nebelwrefer stonk arrived. This killed two of the best men in the Company, Sergeant Mayo MM and Corporal O’Reilly MM. The men of Mayo’s platoon buried him there and then. Before we moved on the next day. they had put a cross on his grave. On the cross were the words ‘Sergeant E Mayo. The finest sergeant that ever lived.’ This I saw myself.”
By 8pm on the evening of the 16th May 1944, all the battalion’s objectives had been taken. The battalion’s assembly area close to the east side of Monte Trocchio is clearly defined and close to the main railway line from Naples to Rome, but in 1944 this had been turned into a road dubbed “Speedy Express”. The slopes of Trocchio are remarkably rock strewn and barren. Moving forward across the railway is the plain in front of the Gari River where 2/LIR had been positioned for a week in March 1944, with the village of San Angelo rising fifty feet above the level of the river on its western bank. The 8th Indian Division had attacked the area north and south of San Angelo on the evening of 11th/12th May 1944 at the outset of the 4th Cassino Battle, and had eventually been able to start to unhook the German defences there on the following day. It was here that Sepoy Kamal Ram of the 8th Punjab Regiment had won a Victoria Cross on 12th May 1944. 2/LIR’s crossing point, Congo bridge, which was completed on 14th May is located about 1 mile to the north of San Angelo and near to the route of the modern Autostrada A1 road from Rome to Naples. Once across the river, the advance on the 15th May had to deal with an unforeseen crossing of the small Piopetto River, the bridging of which had delayed the Irish Brigade’s attack on the Cassino to Pignatoro road, codenamed Grafton.
The area to the west of the Piopetto in the vicinity of Massa Vertecchi was the area where Lt-Col Goff had been killed on the afternoon of the 15th May 1944, and close nearby, two days previously on the 13th May, Captain Wakeford of 2/4 Hampshires had acted with the greatest courage and was awarded the Victoria Cross. The route up to the starting point for 2/LIR’s attack on Colle Monache is via a road through open farmland, and this was dubbed the ACE route in 1944, and now meets the Cassino to Pignatoro road near to the Autostrada exit. In 1944, the Grafton start line for the advance on Colle Monache had been captured by 6/Inns on the morning of 15th May. The road to Sinagoga now follows an easy to follow route of 1 mile along a narrow lane, starting from the Edra Palace hotel. In this area in the spring of 1944 were wide areas of standing corn which would have made it difficult to see any hidden defensive positions. As the road nears Casa Sinagoga there is a noticeable slope upwards towards Colle Monache and the rising ground seems more marked when looking back down the line of advance, and it is now clear why the German defensive strategy concluded that this was an important strongpoint. H Company, under Desmond Woods, had approached Sinagoga directly along the road from Grafton with E Company following a parallel route near to the modern Autostrada.
Casa Sinagoga, which is still a working farm and now owned by Franco and Clara Sinagoga is located to the right of the road, but the original main farmhouse is on the left hand side. This older farmhouse is currently being modernised by family members but some parts of the building still have clear signs of German defensive positions. To the north of the Sinagoga road can be found trenches hidden now amongst thick undergrowth. It is again clear that these positions would have had a commanding view from Colle Monache towards the ongoing attacking forces. Near to this area on the 16th May 1944, Fusilier Jefferson of the Lancashire Fusiliers had won a Victoria Cross for his courageous stand in the face of counterattacking German forces. At their home, the Sinagoga family had hosted a fantastic reception for the London Irish Rifles Regimental Association (LIRAssn) in 2009, and still speak very fondly of the memories of that wonderful day. When speaking to the Sinagoga family, I read out some part of Mervyn Davies’s account of the fight for Casa Sinagoga, and it became apparent that quite probably the “very old man and his wife” were actually Franco Sinagoga’s grandparents who had stayed in their home throughout the battle period, and had hosted both German and British Army officers over the course of the 2 days of battle near to their farmhouse. After an hour of cheerful chat and sharing of family memories, we left Sinagoga to follow the route of 2/LIR’s advance westwards towards Piumarola.
Forming up area behind Mt Trocchio.
View from near to Casa Sinagoga.
Towards Casa Sinagoga and Colle Monache.
Eastwards from Sinagoga.
Defensive trenches near to Pytchley line.