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The Battle of Bou Arada – Hills 279/286
The Battle of Bou Arada was a bloody affair in which the 2nd Battalion, London Irish distinguished themselves, but with grievous losses. The night of 19 January 1943 had been spent just outside El Aroussa, and the next night the battalion moved into the plains to the west of Bou Arada. Another move was ordered, but no sooner had the battalion finished digging that they had to move once more. In fact the London Irish moved four times in four nights, and everyone became tired. On the morning of the 19th, they marched in extended line across the open plain via Bou Arada. Their job was to guard the brigade’s one line of communication, the lateral road from Bou Arada to Grandstand Ridge.
The enemy had been quick to see this weakness in the brigade’s disposition, and they occupied a hill, Point 286, only one thousand yards from the road. From there, they could observe, mortar and machine gun the brigade’s life line. It was an unpleasant situation and the London Irish were ordered to remedy it by driving the Germans off the hill and prevent its reoccupation. Instructions came at midnight and there was no time for a reconnaissance beforehand. The plan was for the battalion to form up on the lateral road at about 0330 hours on the 20th. ‘G’ Company were to lead and occupy Point 279, a lesser hill adjacent to Point 286, and ‘F’ Company were to follow and establish themselves on the reverse slopes of Point 279, while ‘H’ Company were to make a detour on the left and attack Point 286 from that flank. Support from the gunners, mortars, machine guns, and anti-tank guns was arranged, though the attack was to be made without any preliminary bombardment as it was though that the hill was not held in strength by the enemy, who would thus not be warned of the impending attack and send up reinforcements.
NIGHT ATTACK ON PT 286
At 0440 hours, ‘G’ Company advanced on to Point 279 and, meeting no opposition, continued towards Point 286. ‘F’ Company moved on as well, but started to attack Point 351 to the left instead of Point 286. Here the Germans were strongly entrenched, and 10 and 12 Platoons were held up, while 9 Platoon managed to get forward and took six prisoners, although they themselves were forced later to withdraw.
As he led his men up the slopes of Point 286, Major BA Tebbitt, commanding ‘G’ Company, realised that he had over-shot his objective, and he returned to Point 279. It was now 0730 hours, and daylight. ‘F’ Company also returned to Point 279, where they re-formed to attack their proper target. They moved towards Point 286 round the back of Point 279, with the object this time of attacking the hill from the right. There was a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire as the company approached Point 286. The two leading platoons went forward, covered by ‘G’ Company firing from the forward slopes of Point 279. The enemy were seen running from Point 286, and F Company went in at the point of the bayonet.
No sooner had they reached the summit of the hill and found that the enemy infantry had abandoned it, than German tanks and armoured cars were seen ascending the eastern slopes in a counter-attack. German mortars bombarded the hill, but the men of ‘F’ Company stood firm and the enemy cars and tanks were held off. Continued enemy fire took its toll and the gallant company suffered heavy losses, including Captain Ekin, their commander, and Lieutenant Vic Pottinger, both of whom were killed. Lieutenant A Cowdy was left in charge of the company, which was so reduced in strength that they were withdrawn. ‘E’ Company were warned to take over the positions on Point 286, and while the company “O” group were receiving orders, a mortar bomb dropped in one of the trenches, fatally wounding Captain JP Carrigan and two signallers.
The enemy by this time had occupied Point 286, and a further effort to drive them off had to be made. Led by Captain JV Lillie-Costello, ‘E’ Company bravely stormed the slopes. Some managed to reach the crest, but others were forced down to folds in the ground to gain cover from cunningly laid automatic and mortar fire. Lieutenant Josephs and his platoon held on, but the officer and most of his men were wounded. Several were killed. The Germans had given up some ground but they had not been driven off the hill. They bombarded the forward slopes of Point 279 where ‘G’ Company were in the open, valiantly trying to help their comrades with supporting fire. Their losses impelled ‘G’ Company back to cover in a wadi behind the hill, where they were joined by the staff of battalion headquarters, and the men of E Company who had survived the attack.
The Commanding Officer reported the situation to brigade, but the Brigadier emphasised the importance of securing Point 286, and a further attack by the London Irish was decided upon. The attack was made by ‘H’ Company, and no sooner had it got into its stride than the battalion area was dive-bombed by Stukas, and simultaneously ‘H’ Company were heavily mortared. Their Commander, Major JD Lofting, was wounded, and their Second-in-Command, Captain H Henderson, was killed. Men were falling fast, and the Commanding Officer ordered the company back. Some had managed once more to gain the summit, but it was impossible to hold it in the intense enemy fire.
Then word came that the Germans had been seen withdrawing yet again from Point 286. Major WD Swiney, Second-in-Command of the battalion, went forward with all that remained of ‘H’ Company. They went up as unobtrusively as possible, a section at a time, and despite continuous mortaring, they occupied the hill-top. They remained there for the rest of the day, gaining such cover as they could on the bald, rocky hill, where the ground was so hard that they could not dig in. Firing died down in the afternoon and desultory shelling and mortar fire was the only sign of enemy activity to break the uneasy silence of the battle-field.
The London Irish had gained their objective, but at a crippling cost. Nearly all the officers had been killed or wounded. ’F’ Company had no officers left, and losses in non-commissioned officers and men had been extremely high. That night the battalion medical officer, Captain LJ Samuels, who had done great work during the day, organised the cooking for the men. Food was prepared in a small culvert under the Goubellat-Bou Arada road, and sent up to the companies. Men of ‘E’ and ‘F’ Companies were on Point 279, ‘H’ were on Point 286, and the rest in the wadi below Point 279.
Shortly after midnight, a runner came in from ‘E’ Company and reported that German tanks were climbing the slopes of Point 279, with infantry in the rear. The Germans overran the posts on Point 279 and fired for all they were worth into the wadi where battalion headquarters were quartered. In the darkness all communications within the battalion were disrupted. The companies were scattered and the fighting became very confused – the Germans seemed to fire wildly in all directions, and kept up a demonic yelling as if to bolster up their own courage. They withdrew as suddenly as they appeared, and the tanks moved smartly after them. At daylight the position was once more normal. The London Irish were on Point 286, and the enemy had gone.
Final casualties in the Battle of Hill 286 were: 6 officers and 20 other ranks killed; 8 officers and 78 other ranks wounded; 6 officers and 130 other ranks missing. Many of the latter were confirmed later as having been wounded and taken prisoner. The Divisional Commander and Brigadier Nelson Russell visited the battalion after the battle and thanked them for the part they had played in a vital operation.
BRIGADIER RUSSELL COMMENDS THE LONDON IRISH
Later the Brigadier (Russell) recorded officially as follows:
“The London Irish Rifles were a fine battalion, first-class officers and non-commissioned officers and good men all keen as mustard. They had been working together for three years. They possessed a good ‘feel’ and were proud of their battalion, as they had every right to be. They attacked with great spirit and after hard fighting drove the enemy off Point 286. But then came the trying time. It was practically impossible to dig in on the hard rocky slopes, and all through the day they were subjected to heavy artillery and extremely accurate mortar fire. This fine battalion refused to be shelled off the position. What they had, they held. But at heavy cost. I never hope to see a battalion fighting and enduring more gallantly. Nor do I want to witness again such cruel casualties.”
A VETERAN REMEMBERS
In 2011, Sgt Charles Ward, who was serving with ‘’G’ Company at Bou Arada at the time, recalled what had happened :
“We had to move over from one side of the road to the other side. As we moved across the road, we got shelled and we dropped into a wadi. I was leading my section along the wadi when suddenly a voice said ‘run’. I just said to the men ‘come on’. We ran down the wadi, got round a corner and I heard a shell explode behind. Going back, I found three men wounded, lying in the wadi, and I patched them up the best I could and waited until the stretchers came. Our platoon commander (2nd Lieutenant) Hardwick was one of the wounded. Then I continued to the forming up point ready for the attack.
This was all in broad daylight – it was crazy really. You knew you would be half way across and the enemy would throw everything at you. During that night, everyone assembled including our bren carriers, You could hear them forming up. The attack went in very early the next morning and we went to the first hill. And then to the second hill and nothing happened. It was then on the third hill (286) that all hell broke loose.
We holed up in a large depression in the ground, being shelled constantly. The Royal Artillery Forward Observation Officer ordered me to go up to the top of the hill to identify from where the shells were coming. I could see they were coming from a farmhouse about half way down on the plain behind the hill.
So I got back and discovered that a shell had fallen where I had been lying and left one or two injured. The artillery officer got the medical people to pick up the wounded and we then decided that there was no future in staying there and ordered a smoke screen. So we all withdrew and dropped into another wadi.”
Read more about Hill 286 here.
Sergeant Charles Ward’s 103rd Birthday.
You can view an interview with Charles Ward here:
Training in London in 1939
Some interesting photos of the London Irish Rifles, probably members the 1st Battalion, training in London during November 1939.
The London Irish Rifles training in Wales in 1940
Some excellent photographs have been discovered at the Imperial War Museum (IWM) showing the intensive training manoeuvres undertaken by the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles on the cliffs near Haverfordwest in Pembrokeshire during October 1940.
As the ‘London Irish at War’ noted:
“Following Dunkirk, invasion became even more likely and work on the defences of Britain was intensified. The 2nd Battalion spent several weeks on local-defence duties in Knutsford, Cheshire, and subsequently underwent hard training at Haverfordwest. At the same time they had to be prepared to join in coast defence.“
CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan recalled that period in Wales:
“Company training followed. We were bussed to Newgale Sands for a fortnight’s intensive battle preparation. This involved forced marches and long runs that culminated in nude bathing in the cold sea, watched appreciatively from a distance by local ladies. Route marches with full packs, stalking and crawling and field-firing using live ammunition were among the pleasures we endured under Captain Geoffrey Phillips, our temporary Company Commander. On the final Friday evening, he treated the whole company in the local hostelry as a mark of his appreciation for our efforts.”
There were occasional moments of ill-discipline. Rifleman Waddy Weir, worse for drink, attempted on three occasions to swim home to his wife in Ireland. After pulling him out of the shallow sea twice, I said on his third attempt: ‘Drown then.’ He did not, as the next day he was once more asking to borrow ‘fippence’ for a drink. We returned to Haverfordwest feeling more like soldiers, tough and prepared for anything.”
Rifleman Donald Zec, 2 LIR
We have learnt of the recent death of former Rifleman Donald Zec, who served alongside his brother Philip with the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles. Although we do not have full details (nor any pictures) of Rifleman Zec’s service period with the LIR, we do know that he created an illustrious post-war career with the Daily Mirror.
You can read an obituary from the Guardian here:
Donald David Zec, journalist, born 12 March 1919; died 6 September 2021
Lt Terry Flynn, 2 LIR in Italy
On Loos Sunday, we were delighted to meet with Sean Flynn, the son of Lieutenant Terry Flynn, who served with the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles during the Second World War. Although the details of Lt Flynn’s service period is not exactly clear, it is certain that he was serving with 2 LIR during its final advance through the Argenta Gap to the Po river in April 1945. He then went onto undertake peacekeeping duties with the battalion in Austria for the rest of 1945 and it seems that he may then have transferred to the 1st Battalion in 1946 when they were based in the Trieste area and completed his war time service with them in Italy.
During his visit to Connaught House, Sean Flynn shared some photos of his father as well as providing additional details about his background with previous strong family connections with the armed forces. We were also delighted that the Flynn family wishes to donate a number of interesting artefacts and some boxing trophies that Terry had won during the period of military training in the UK.
Sean went onto tell us that his father was born in 1923 and, after the outbreak of war, initially served with the Royal Armoured Corps as a “tankie” in North Africa and Italy before transferring to the LIR. It is probable that he was commissioned into the Royal Ulster Rifles after serving with distinction with a tank regiment.
As often was the case, Terry Flynn didn’t share too much detail with his family after the war but he certainly was deeply affected by some of the events that he witnessed during the final advances in Italy. He died on 17th March 2002 – perhaps fittingly for an Irish soldier – and left a legacy of heroic memory. We hope to perhaps learn more about his army career over the coming months.
Many thanks to Sean Flynn for visiting us and sharing his father’s story.
CSM Patrick Keenan
We recently received a note from Gerard Bryson, the nephew of CSM Patrick Keenan, who was killed on 9th September 1944 while serving with 1 LIR during the Gothic Line battles.
Patrick Keenan’s service record is not entirely clear but it seems that he started his army career with the Skins/Faughs during the early 1920s and served for 15 years before the war. He joined up with 1 LIR in Egypt or Italy in 1944 – perhaps he was shipped out from the UK during the year, the battalion needing reinforcements after Anzio etc.
This clip from ‘The London Irish at War’ confirms the circumstances of CSM Keenan’s death:
‘It was realised that the San Sevino Ridge was the key to Croce, and that Croce was the key to the whole Corps line….
The battalion stayed on for three days, enduring heavy bombardments and throwing back strong German patrols probing at danger-spots. Casualties were heavy. Lieutenant Johns in the Support Company was wounded by our own twenty-five pounders; D Company lost several killed and Lieutenant Michael Spiller and others wounded in a direct hit on a house.
B Company suffered the battalion’s greatest loss during that period, when CSM Keenan, a magnificent soldier and man, was killed in his slit trench by a mortar bomb bursting in the trees above.‘
In his note, Gerard went onto tell us more about the Keenan family:
“My uncle was the second born of a family of eight and his father James was in an artillery unit in the Boer war. His two brothers, James (who died before the war) and William (Skipper), were merchant seamen. His uncle William, also a seaman, appears on the Tower Hill memorial having died from exposure in a lifeboat after his ship the SS Brayhead was torpedoed in 1917. Clearly, our family has a long association with the military.
Patrick is survived today by his 83 year old daughter.”
Rifleman Albert Leddy, 1924 – 2021
We have just received the sad news of the death of Rifleman Albert Leddy who served in Italy and Austria with G Coy, 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles before becoming a piper with the 1st Battalion in Italy.
Albert had written a little bit about his life in Liverpool prior to being called up:
“When I left school at the age of 14, I started work as a chandler’s boy going out with a horse and covered wagon selling soaps and washing powder and other cleaning materials in and around Liverpool. Then I went to work in a stable for a haulage firm near to Liverpool docks, then later I was sent to another stable to take out a pony and trap used for carrying small loads or the odd bale of cotton. I later went back to the other stable to work with a one-horse wagon working around Liverpool docks and railways. I finished working for them and went to work for a shipping butcher in Old Hall Street and supplied many of the big ships that came into Liverpool docks with meat, veg and fish.
In October 1942, when I turned eighteen, I received my calling up papers for military service…”
When Albert was called up, he was initially posted to the Royal Artillery before transferring to the Faughs in 1943 and then sent out to Italy to join the Irish Brigade as part of a reinforcement draft. He transferred with 2 LIR in the front line in April 1944 just before the final Cassino battles. From the Liri Valley, he journeyed with the London Irish to Trasimeno, Rome and Egypt, returning to Italy in September 1944 for the Gothic Line winter battles, manning the Senio riverbanks and joining the final Kangaroo Army advance through the Argenta Gap up to the river Po in April 1945.
After seven months of rest in Austria, in early 1946, he transferred to 1 LIR, who were then based near Trieste and, there, he learnt to play the pipes. Piper Albert Leddy was de-mobbed from Italy in 1947.
His son, David Leddy, wrote to us to tell us more about his father:
“He was still playing the pipes as late as the last New Year (2020/21) to his fellow residents at his care home. He was really pleased with the pipers’ cap badge that the LIR sent to him and wore it with pride. My grandfather was a coal merchant in Liverpool just before the war and I understand that my father was his pony wagon driver, assisting him to deliver coal. After the war, my father moved to Warwick to live with his brother (Ted) and went to work in the motor industry. At first, he worked at the Ford Foundry in Leamington Spa for a short period, then moved to Coventry to join the Standard Motor Company producing cars. He moved back to Ford and later went again to work for the Standard Motor Company where he stayed for 21 years and, there, joined the works band, the Standard Triumph Pipe Band, with whom he played for many years.”
Albert was 97 years of age. A full, long life indeed !!
Faugh a Ballagh !
The London Irish Rifleman who walked to freedom
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.