Termoli old town.
Seventy years to the day that the brigade landed at Termoli, Richard O’Sullivan, son of CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan, and David Hamilton, son of Captain Percy Hamilton MC, retraced the route taken by the Irish Brigade during the last three months of 1943.
Between 5th October and 5th December 1943, the Irish Brigade advanced from Termoli to the Moro River, just to the south of Ortona, fighting a number of battles over those 61 days.
On the night of 5th/6th October, both Edmund and Percy had come ashore with the brigade at Termoli under heavy artillery fire to join the bridgehead forces of 78 Division and commandos from the Special Service Brigade, who had been under constant attack by the 16th Panzer Division for several days.
View across the Sangro River valley.
The 50 miles between Termoli and Ortona can now be covered by autostrada in an hour, but seventy years ago, the area was the scene of stubborn and skilful defensive actions by the retreating German forces. Combined with some appalling weather, this ensured that progress was extremely costly for the Irish Brigade and the other units of the 8th Army that took part in the campaign. More than 200 men of the brigade are buried at the two CWGC cemeteries near to the Sangro and Moro rivers and several hundred more men were wounded or became prisoners of war.
Following their withdrawal from the Adriatic front, the Irish Brigade were transferred to central Italy and, later in December 1943, took up defensive positions near to Castel di Sangro and from there moved to the Cassino front during February 1944 – the following year was to be another one of bitter fighting for the men who had battled from Termoli to the Moro River.
We have added some photographs from David and Richard’s recent trip along with excerpts of the official histories, sections of brigade and battalion war diaries and personal narratives that cover the Irish Brigade’s campaign period of late 1943, and these can be read by clicking on the links below.
One of the most remarkable documents within the archived records of that period and one that summarises the plight of an infantryman during a desperate period of wartime fighting is a letter written to his wife, Olive, on 6th December 1943 by Captain Lawrence Franklyn-Vaile of the 1st Battalion, Royal Irish Fusiliers (Faughs), the day after the Irish Brigade were withdrawn from the front line.
My dearest Olive,
I am sorry I have not been able to write for some time but the BBC and newspapers probably made the reason fairly obvious. Sometimes I wondered if I would ever write again but thank goodness I came through alright and now I think we are in for a nice long rest.
Well, I thought the spell in October (near to the Trigno) pretty bad but I think this was even worse. A brief day by day description will give you some idea of what we went through.
We spent several days in a concentration area right by the artillery and day and night we were kept awake by the thunder of their guns. Then one night, we marched about ten miles, waded across a river (Sangro), and lay up in an assembly area. I will never forget my runner, severely wounded since, poor little fellow, following me into the river and exclaiming in tones of great surprise, ‘Jesus, it’s cold’. The following day and night we lay in our slit trenches and the next morning moved forward. We were subject to some very heavy shelling, which caused a number of casualties including Alan Smyth (Lt Albert Smyth), killed. He was the third officer in the Company. We had another icy cold night without any blankets, greatcoats, or food and the following day went into a big attack. For once, the ‘Faughs’ had an easy time: the line being broken for us. Though we advanced quite a distance, we met with very few casualties and captured a lot of prisoners. That night, coming back to the ration point, I fell over a cliff and crashed down about 40 feet. I was rather stunned and very sick for a time.
The next day, we ‘mopped up’ over a considerable area of rough country. That night, we were fairly comfortable in a farmhouse and managed to get some sleep at last. The next day and night was fairly quiet. Early the following morning, I received a message to take over command of ‘B’ Company immediately as Toby Jewell had been wounded. This company has just come back from a violent 36 hour patrol and I found I had one officer Edward Gibbon, one Sergeant, two Corporals, and two L/Cpls. I spent the day reorganising and that night we marched forward about 12 miles and took up a position on a ridge as the most forward troops of the 8th Army.
The next morning, it was discovered the Germans had come up onto the same ridge that night and the most confusing battle imaginable occurred. The CO (Lt-Col Dunnill) kept my Company in reserve for a time but suddenly the Germans broke through the centre and brought heavy MG fire to bear on the Battalion HQ. The CO said to me, ‘Take what’s left of your Company up as quick as you can, Lawrie, and clear the ridge’. God, what an order!
Somehow, we reached the top and then came the task of locating these posts. At first, I put a section in front but the men were tired and jittery and would not push forward and I had to go in front myself. We were being fired at all the time but could not locate the position. Eventually, I got a pretty shrewd idea and got my Brens down to fire and found only one of them was working, so this Bren gunner and I, with my Tommy gun, kept a fire duel with the Hun. Suddenly, he stopped, but we kept on for a short time and then worked round to find that we had killed three, wounded two and the rest had managed to get away, but they left their weapons behind.
When I told the CO over the wireless he said, ‘Well done, well done indeed’. That night, we dug in on the ridge and the following day were subjected to very heavy mortar fire. We were being relieved in the evening and I had two most unpleasant recees to make. That night, we were relieved and marched back 12 miles and even then we were shelled most of the way back.
Casualties reached a fair number: Tommy Wood (Major Richard Wood) killed, (Major) McNally wounded, we have very few officers left but Denis (Haywood), Edward Gibbon (who supported me splendidly) and Dicky Richards are alright. Poor little ‘Ginger’ Rhodes (L/Cpl Bertram Rhodes) ..was killed, 19 years of age. He was L/Cpl of a Section and the Corporal in command of the Section had struck up a tremendous friendship with him and he initially went mad, starting to push forward, shooting and shouting wildly. He had to be knocked unconscious and is at present insane. That is war, Olive, stripped of all the nice wireless and newspaper talk…
The strain has been appalling, I feel an old tired man but I suppose will recover after a rest. I have just taken over command of ‘B’ Coy, my old company and the men seem delighted to have me back with them and I am overjoyed to be commanding my own boys who I know will support me through ‘thick and thin’. We are all desperately tired. I have not had a change of clothing for about 3 weeks and feel absolutely filthy. Last night, I took my boots off for the first time in 9 days.
All my love to you and dear little Valerie, darling.
Your devoted husband