January and February of 1945 were among the coldest winter months recorded in Europe in the entire 20th century. In Silesia, then part of the Third Reich but now in Poland, temperatures fell to 25 degrees centigrade below freezing.
These were the conditions that faced Prisoners of War (POWs) at the Stalag VIII camp near Lamsdorf (now Gmina Lambinovice) when they were ordered to march west before the huge Soviet offensive that commenced in early 1945. Most of the POWs had been weakened by years of bad food. None had suitable clothes and they were now ordered to walk up to 25 miles a day. The evacuation was part of a massive movement from camps including the Auschwitz extermination camp in the path of the Red Army steamroller. It was a formula for suffering and death.
Around 80,000 men from Stalag VIII and other POW camps were driven west. They included David Moore, a native of Airdrie in Lanarkshire, who had been enlisted into The Cameronians in January 1940 before being transferred to the London Irish Rifles at the end of 1942, not long after he got married.
Moore had been dispatched to join the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles in North Africa at the end of November 1942 and was involved in the battalion’s battles in Tunisia, Sicily and along the Adriatic coast. In March 1943, he had been promoted to Lance-Corporal.
L/Cpl Moore was a section leader with No 7 Platoon, E Company when they were posted in January 1944 to a patrol outpost north-west of the village of Montenero in the upper reaches of the Sangro river valley. The battalion’s role was to watch for patrols from a German Mountain Regiment, which were harassing the Allied front line in the Abruzzi mountains 40 miles east of Cassino .
Lacking winter equipment and camouflage, E Company had been camping out for several days in deep snow drifts on Il Calvario, a high point more than 3,000-feet above sea-level. On the morning of 19 January after another freezing night, Moore was attending an ‘O’ Group with other section leaders in the tent of 7 Platoon commander, Lieutenant Nicholas Mosley, when German ski borne troops attacked. A mortar shell hit a tree about a foot from the door of the tent, injuring a couple men including Moore who suffered wound to his arms and head. Mosley ordered the riflemen into their trenches and to prepare to put up resistance, but they were quickly surrounded, Five London Irishmen had been killed in the short battle.
Most of 7 Platoon were taken prisoner including Lt Mosley himself, though he and three others managed to escape their captors as a result of a partially successful rescue by E Company’s reserve platoon and led by Company Commander, Major Mervyn Davies. David Moore and 19 of his comrades, some without boots, were marched under armed guard through deep snow into the mountains north of the Allied lines and he was then treated for his wounds at a hospital in Florence. At one point, when he awoke and saw the distinctive uniform of the nurses, Moore had thought that he had “died and gone to heaven”.
From Italy he was shipped by train to an enormous complex of POW camps in Silesia. His destination was Stalag VIII-B in Lamsdorf, which was also known as Stalag-344. The camp was originally built for no more than 15,000 but, by the end of 1944, it held an estimated 49,000 men, including more than 3,000 Allied prisoners. The military hospital and the infirmary of the camp were always overcrowded. Inspectors from the Red Cross criticised the poor conditions of the clothes of most prisoners and the lack of medication in the military hospital. In winter, the barracks were barely heated and, by 1944, there was a lack of water. Russian and Italian prisoners would be denied all medical assistance.
“(It was a) time he didn’t say very much about,” his son David Moore says. “On his release he said that his treatment had been reasonable though food was in short supply. Red Cross parcels helped to keep him alive.”
This was to change for the worse when the camp was evacuated in February 1945 when POWs were marched out in groups of around 200 into an arctic landscape. The Germans provided farm wagons for those unable to walk and teams of POWs often pulled the wagons through the snow because of the lack of horses. The reception was mixed in the German villages that they passed through on their journey west. There was occasional hostility and rocks were thrown by people angry about Allied bombing while on other occasions, penniless people shared whatever little food they had. At night, those with intact boots who risked taking their boots off to avoid trench foot found they couldn’t get their swollen feet back into them in the morning. Boots froze and were sometimes stolen. There was almost no food and the men had to scavenge, eating rats and cats to fend off starvation. Dysentery and frostbite were common and there were cases of typhus, which was spread by body lice. Some men died of exposure while they slept.
As the weather slowly improved in March, the widespread thaw turned roads into a quagmire of mud. Many POWs marched more than 300 miles before they reached Allied armies advancing into south-west Germany. Up to 3,500 British, Commonwealth and American POWs are estimated to have died in what is known as “The Death March.”
“It was a nightmare experience for my father,” his son says. “He spent the next ten weeks walking between 15 and 30 kilometres most days until he was finally released by Allied soldiers and repatriated to the UK. He suffered all the privations recounted by many who took part in and survived this horrendous experience including bitter cold and extreme hunger. I recall him speaking about it only when he recounted the kindness that he and a pal were shown by a German woman who cooked them a good meal when they arrived at her door with only a handful of rice and had asked her to boil it up for them. By the time he got home, he was suffering from flat feet, damaged ankles and metatarsalgia as a result of prolonged standing.”
After recovering his health, David Moore was transferred to the RASC where he remained until he was released to Army Reserve in May 1946. He then returned home to his wife Sadie in Scotland and they would have two children, three grandchildren and two great grandchildren who knew him, plus two others who were born after David’s death, at the age of 92, in January 2009.
A most remarkable story of human resilience.
A memorial was later erected on the site of Stalag VIII in memory of the thousands who died there and during “The Death March”.
The inscription on the sandstone plate next to the memorial reads: Stalag VIII: A place sanctified by the blood and martyrdom of the prisoners of war of the anti-Hitler coalition during the Second World War.
We were delighted to have been contacted recently by Adrian Woods, the son of Major Desmond Woods, who served with the 2nd Battalion as Officer Commanding of H Company from October 1943 to June 1944 until he was wounded in the fighting near Lake Trasimene in central Italy.
As well as his note to us, Adrian also passed over some additional extensive written details of his father’s service with the London Irish Rifles that had been transcribed from an interview by military historian, Richard Doherty – it’s a most remarkable story indeed and these details will be filed in the Museum’s archives.
During his 8 months with the London Irish Rifles, Major Woods was present during some of the most momentous battle periods for the 2nd Battalion – at the Sangro river, near Monte Cassino and at Sanfatucchio to the west of Trasimene.
During the assault on Casa Sinagoga on 16th May 1944 , H Company formed the centre of the battalion’s advance which ultimately broke through the vaunted Gustav Line in the Liri Valley and it was here that Major Woods was awarded a bar to the Military Cross that he had received before the war – at the same time, he would unsuccessfully recommend Corporal Jimmy Barnes for a posthumous Victoria Cross for his part in that day of most bitter fighting for 2 LIR.
After being wounded and medically downgraded, Desmond Woods became a Training Major for the Italian Gruppi Cremona in northern Italy before undertaking a distinguished post war service overseas with the Royal Ulster Rifles and later with other units in Northern Ireland.
We have been been contacted by Jan Clarke, the daughter in law of CSM Ashton Clarke, who served in Italy with the 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles from 1943 to 1946 and where he was Mentioned in Despatches.
In her note to us, Jan explained that CSM Clarke had served overseas with the 56th (London) Division in Iraq, Egypt and Sicily, initially with the 10th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment, before transferring to 1 LIR after the bitter fighting for 168 Brigade near Catania and where the London Irish Rifles, London Scottish and the Royal Berkshires all suffered very heavy casualties.
Quite remarkably, before his death, Ashton had compiled a 300 page memoir tracing the whole of his war time service and we have been honoured that the Clarke family has sent a copy of it onto us and we plan to add excerpts of this very evocative story to the website in due course.
During the recent Association visit to Sicily, we were delighted to receive a copy of a new book outlining the story of Piedimonte Etneo during the Second World War written by our friend Dr Felice Vitale. The book, which has been privately published, relates the background to the events of August and September 1943 when British troops stayed in the town after the final liberation of the island.
For the London Irish Rifles, in particular, it was a most memorable stay as the men, who had been engaged in very heavy fighting during July and August, were able to relax as well as commemorate the 28th anniversary of the Battle of Loos with a parade and service for the 1st Battalion who stayed in the town for five weeks. In fact, the war diaries state that “Piedimonte was the most confortable place the Battalion had stayed in since they left England”.
Felice’s own mother, Angelina, and his grand parents had witnessed the entry of the London Irish Rifles’ pipers into the town and this allowed him to gain a unique insight into the feelings of townspeople as they were being invaded by a large group of friendly Londoners with a very distinct Irish flavour.
The book is currently only available in Italian and can be viewed in the Regimental Museum and we hope to add a translated version to the website at some future time.
Great work indeed.
We are pleased to receive a note and some photographs from Chris Jeffrey with information about his father Louis, who served with the 1st Battalion in the UK, Middle East and Italy during the Second World War. Rifleman Jeffrey first joined up with the London Irish Rifles in May 1938 and was finally demobbed in June 1946.
In his note to us, Chris said:
“I know my father was based with Lord Gault’s HQ at the outbreak of war as an interpreter. Obviously they were forced to withdraw but I’m not sure if they got out via Dunkirk or Cherbourg.
This picture was taken in Mersham sometime in 1940/41 and shows the Pipes with Tara the Irish Wolfhound and Mascot. I believe my father was based in Hatch Park which was part of the Brabourne Estate before deploying to the Middle East. Part of his duties at that time was patrolling Romney Marsh on his motorcycle. He also met and married my mother, Mona, who was living at the time with her parents lived at Hatch Lodge – her father, my grandfather, had worked on the Brabourne estate.
This picture shows my father with the CMF in 1945 enjoying some skiing in Cortina which can be seen behind the group. My father is sitting on the ground far right at the front.
I know my Father was wounded at Anzio and sent back to Blighty to recover. He eventually arrived back at the Depot in Ballymena but I’m not sure how long he was there before returning to Italy to rejoin his Battalion.
He spoke fondly of his CO, Colonel McNamara, who was sadly killed by German mortars in 1944 while visiting the Bn as they were moving into the Senio Line. “
We’ve received some tremendously evocative photographs from David Sweeney, the son of Sergeant Pat Sweeney, who served with the 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles throughout the Second World War. David told us that his father, who was born in 1912 in Galway, joined the London Irish before the war when, at the time, Pat lived with his family in Chelsea very close to the Duke of York’s HQ.
Sergeant Sweeney served with the Carrier Platoon during all of the 1st Battalion’s service period overseas in Iraq, Sicily and on the mainland of Italy – a remarkable journey indeed as he remained largely unscathed during the various battle periods, including the attack on Fosso Botacetto, the ascent of Monte Camino, the crossing of the Garigliano river, the defence of the Anzio beachhead, the assaults on the Gothic Line and the final advance towards the Po river.
At the end of the war, Pat remained with the London Irish Rifles until the mid 1950s and was a very well respected and popular presence for many years at ‘Club Nights’ and parades at the Dukes. Pat married Ann in the late 1930s and the growing Sweeney family would later move to Greenford – though perhaps that location was less convenient for enjoying too many late nights at Sloane Square!
We would like to thank David Sweeney for sharing this gallery of fantastic photos.
We’ve recently received a note from Kieran Saunders about his great uncle, Rifleman Frederick Curnow, who was killed in France during May 1916:
“My Great Uncle Frederick James Curnow was with the London Irish Rifles in the First World War and was killed in action on 11th May 1916, aged 21. I have attached a photo of him in uniform and also a group photo including other unknown comrades, he is standing second from left. I believe his body was not found and he is commemorated on the Arras Memorial.
He was the eldest son of Frederick & Annie Curnow born 1895 in Chelsea, London and the family say his mother was so broken hearted that her son was killed that she died just 9 months later.”
We were recently visited by Paul Grist, the nephew of Rifleman George Grist, who was killed on 31st August 1918 while serving with the 1/18th Battalion in France and is buried at Rancourt CWGC Cemetery.
Rifleman Grist, who was 19 years of age when he was killed, had joined the Royal Irish Rifles in 1917 and it seems he had been attached to the London Irish Rifles along with a number of others following the heavy casualties suffered by the battalion during March/April 1918.
During his visit, Paul Grist shared with us some very moving letters that had been received by his family in London following his uncle’s death, a remarkable testimony to a brave man.
We were delighted to be visited recently at the museum by Stephen Foot, the grandson of CSM Richard Fuller who served with the 1/18th Battalion on the Western Front during the First World War.
Stephen kindly brought along his grandfather’s Distinguished Conduct Medal, which was awarded to him for his remarkable actions at “Happy Valley” in France on 22nd August 1918.
Rather unusually CSM Fuller was also awarded the Belgian Order of Leopold, which was only given to three men in total from the 47th London Division.
Following his distinguished service with the London Irish Rifles, Richard Fuller joined the Royal Irish Rifles and served for several years with that Regiment – he even joined up again with the Home Guard in 1939.
A remarkable man and we have now some most remarkable memories to treasure.