Two miles north of the River Trigno is the town of San Salvo nestling on a hilltop with a clear view southwards over the whole river valley. On the evening of 27th October 1943, in treacherous waterlogged conditions, the Irish Brigade commenced their assault on San Salvo, but a carefully planned German counter attack drove the attacking forces back and inflicted high levels of casualties on both the Faughs and the Irish Rifles. Amongst those who were killed near to San Salvo were Lt-Colonel Beauchamp Butler, the Commanding Officer of 1 RIrF, and Major Kevin O’Connor, second in command of 2 LIR.
Following this costly rebuff for the Irish Brigade, a week later on 3rd November, the Skins joined up with units of 36 Brigade for a second successful assault on San Salvo, and this allowed forward movement northwards for the whole of 78 Division.
The ‘London Irish At War’ describes the October 27th attack on San Salvo:
“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.”
CQMS O’Sullivan also recalled that time:
“On the night before the attack on San Salvo, the nightly quartermaster column of jeeps was lined up behind Major O’Connor in his vehicle on the south side of the Trigno. We drove up to the bridge approach and were stopped. O’Connor alighted, approached me and told me to remain until he returned. Eventually, we negotiated the ford and on the other side were guides from each London Irish company. I was given a Tommy gun and ordered to accompany O’Connor and his batman as bodyguard to Bttn HQ in the bridgehead where I was told to join my company.
I’ll never know why I, a colour sergeant, was chosen as O’Connor’s personal guard. Perhaps he trusted me more than the others. But that was the last time I saw him. The next morning, we heard that he was returning to the battalion mule point and stopped off to chat with Geoffrey Phillips at the cookhouse dugout of G Company. A rogue shell burst among them. O’Connor was killed…and Phillips was badly wounded.
O’Connor was a true gentleman who would probably have become commanding officer.”
Lieutenant Percy Hamilton, now with C Company, joined the Skins’ attack on San Salvo on 3rd November:
“After patrols had been carried out and conferences called and we had been taken up to a hill overlooking the river from where we could see very little anyway, the way was set for another push forward.
This was a very big show and we were to have tank support and nearly all the artillery in Italy too. The latter was lined up behind the high ground south of the river. There was to be a “Chinese” attack on the left of the main attack. This was to be carried out by Bofors and Urlicane firing tracer horizontally.
A Coy on the left and C on the right were to take Hill 40 and then B and D would come through and go on to San Salvo. It would be about a mile from the river to Hill 40 and another two miles to the town. The Buffs were on the right of C Coy.
We started after dark and went up the road again towards the blown bridge. When we were near the place where we were to leave the road, he started to shell. The shells landed near us and we nipped down to the left into a deep ravine. Luckily, the same thought came to everybody so the company stayed together and there was no casualties. As we had moved left, we were all nearer to the crossing place and again waded over and moved across the road to a position almost in front of where we had spent the week in the line. Here, we had to wait for a couple of hours.
We had been given a rum ration of two pint bottles per platoon. My lads had decided to have theirs on the start line and not before leaving the rest area. It was impossible to share it out in mugs so i gave each fellow, who wanted, a swig out of the bottle. At the time, I didn’t know that McKenna would have drunk the lot if he got the chance and he had a good deal more than his share, in spite of which he was still with us at the finish of the day.
When the barrage opened, there was a flicker of flame across the whole skyline behind us. The tracer firing on the left was so bright as to make it dangerous. There was a strip of open ground beyond the wood and we crossed this in open formation with Lieutenant Jack Suffolk’s platoon on the right and mine on the left. Major Gratton Halpin, commanding the company, stopped us every twenty yards or so and checked up on the direction and that we were keeping in line. He made such a noise, or so we thought at the time, and we were afraid we would be heard. After a few hundred yards, we came to a ditch running across our line of advance. It was while crossing this ditch on our left that A Coy lost Major Hobo Crocker and Captain Basil Hewitt was killed just after. We had to wait in the ditch for a bit as he started to mortar us.”