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The London Irish at War 1939-45

IN the years before the 1939‑45 War, the London Irish Rifles was recruited from Irishmen or men of Irish descent living in London. When war came, many men from London, from Northern Ireland, and from Eire joined the Regiment voluntarily, but as the war went on Army Class men were drafted into the two battalions from all parts of the British Isles.

War took its toll, and although both battalions received men from Irish regiments as reinforcements, most of the recruits came from a great diversity of English county regiments, and also regiments in Scotland and Wales. Men of all ranks banded together smoothly and admirably. They took a pride in their Regiment. They became imbued with its spirit; they admired its past accomplishments and cherished its traditions. They were all ordinary men of the town and of the country; they had no claim to fame or high ambition. In peace they bore no hate, in war they knew no fear.

This is their story. It has been compiled by a former member of the 1st Battalion, and has been drawn from official records and other sources. It is an unembellished and simple story of men in battle; of brilliant success and also of gallant failure.

Many survivors of the war have given their aid in preparing the history, and I wish to acknowledge in particular the help and assistance I have received from: Brigadier IH Good, DSO, formerly Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion; Brigadier Nelson Russell, DSO, MC; and Brigadier TPD Scott, CBE, DSO, both formerl Commanding the 38th (Irish) Brigade; Lieut.‑Colonel the Viscount Stopford, MBE, Commanding Officer of the London Irish Rifles as it exists today; Colonel TL Laister, formerly Adjutant of the 2nd Battalion; Major Colin Gibbs, MC, now Second‑in‑Command of the 1st Battalion; Captain Alan Mace, MC; Captain S Sharp; Captain JD O’Rourke, MBE; and all the officers, warrant officers, non‑commissioned officers, and men of both battalions who have placed information at my disposal.

Published on behalf of the London Irish Rifles Old Comrades’ Association, Duke of Yorks’ Headquarters, Chelsea, 1948.


1939.

“In April 1939 the order came to double the Territorial Forces, and the London Irish was one of the first units to reach full strength and then to complete its second line. That effort was made possible in so short a time by the keenness of the recruits themselves, together with the hard work of the members of the Regiment, past and present, who gave up much of their time to enrol the recruits, and later to train them. Excellent work, too, was done by the women of the 15th County of London ATS, who were attached to the battalion, and included wives, sisters, and sweethearts of men of the Regiment. Those women did magnificent work in a thousand ways, and when in due time the two units were directed to their respective war stations, the Pipe Band of the London Irish Rifles proudly played the members of the ATS on their way. It was a gracious and well-deserved tribute….


1940.

“The long-awaited German offensive on the Western Front began against the Low Countries in the early summer of 1940, and as part of the precautions the 1st London Division was moved at short notice to Kent. The 1st Battalion of the London Irish was established between Faversham and Whitstable, with battalion headquarters at Nash Court, Boughton Street….”


1941.

“Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara and his battalion moved once again to the Kent coast in February 1941. Battalion headquarters was at New Romney, and the battalion became responsible for a coastal frontage between Dungeness and St. Mary’s Bay. At first the rifle companies were strung out in almost completely linear positions along the coast, with New Romney as a nodal point. The number of men available was inadequate for the purpose and a tactical change was made. A thin screen was left on the beaches and promenades and a reserve held inland….”


January to June 1942.

“The most notable event for the London Irish Rifles in early 1942 was the departure on promotion to another command of Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara. He took over a post in the newly formed RAF Regiment. His departure was genuinely regretted by all ranks, because under his leadership not only had the whole Regiment grown in status and efficiency, but also his personality had engendered a fine spirit of comradeship and brotherhood throughout all ranks. He had also inculcated a personal pride in the Regiment….”


June to October 1942.

“It would not be long before the 1st Battalion would be on its way to one of the war fronts. Whither, was not known, but there were many guesses, ranging from North Africa to the Far East. The battalion received a number of new officers to bring it up to strength…”


November 1942.

“The 1st Battalion passed through the Persian Gulf to Basra and thence up-stream to Marquill, where they disembarked. Then followed a most uncomfortable journey in trucks through a desert sand-storm to a large transit camp alongside the Baghdad railway at Az Zubair, a small Arab village whose minarets were the only break on the dreary sky-line. It was the battalion’s first experience of a sand-storm, and they were not prepared for it. Sand penetrated everywhere and everything, and all ranks were glad of an opportunity for a wash when camp was reached. But water in that remote desert area was scarce, and the utmost economy had to be enforced…”


December 1942.

“The 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles were now in the battle area, and their first task was to hold the heights overlooking the main road from the west to Teboursouk and Tunis. Intelligence reports showed that the Germans were building up their forces rapidly on the Tunis side of Medjez-el-Bab, while Allied troops were up against stiff opposition at Tebourba…”


January 1943.

“During this Goubellat Plain era, from December 15, 1942, to January 12, 1943, the weather was extremely bad and the employment of armour was out of the question. Three out of five days saw heavy rain. The troops in their slit trenches were often up to their knees in water, and the roads were nothing but mud-tracks and quite unfit for men or machines. There was no alternative, they had to be used…”


February 1943.

“For the next three or four weeks the situation remained more or less static. The brigade occupied Points 286 and 276, Grandstand and Stuka Farm. The enemy held El Barka, Mehalla, and One, Two, Three Tree Hills, and W Hill. Contact with the Germans varied from three hundred to a thousand yards. Everyone was under constant mortar fire, which brought a few casualties…”


March 1943.

“Y Division was disbanded by March 16, and the London Irish moved to the Medjez sector. They had suffered heavily in the attack of January and had borne the brunt of the German offensive in February. Only two of their original officers remained. On March 8 Lieut.-Colonel TPD Scott (Royal Irish Fusiliers) took over command of the battalion from Lieut.-Colonel JB Jeffreys…”


April 1943.

“The 1st Battalion London Irish left Kirkuk on April 1, and after a night in a transit camp at Baghdad they started a nine-day trek in lorries across the Trans-Jordan desert to Palestine. The long convoy passed through the Judean hills, across the Jordan, and thence through central Palestine past Beersheba, with its London Irish dead of the 1914—18 War, to the Suez Canal. Training in combined operations technique was carried out at Kabrit, a small Royal Naval station on the shores of the Little Bitter Lake. The work was hard but morale was high, especially when news came that the 2nd Battalion had acquitted itself very well in its initial battles in Tunisia…”


May/June 1943.

“The stage was now set for the final thrust, and the 78th Division was given the task of covering the concentration of forces for the last drive towards Tunis. The assembly of forces was uninterrupted and the attacks went in with great success. By the evening of May 7 it was known that our armour had reached the outskirts of Tunis and in some places was fighting in the city itself…”


July 1943.

“THE invasion of Sicily was a well-planned and boldly executed operation in which the sea, air, and land forces each played a vital and successful part. It was an operation which the Italians, at any rate, did not think could possibly succeed. The first landings by sea and air were made where they were least expected, and so surprised were the enemy that on the first day the landings were practically unopposed….”


August/September 1943.

“The key position in the German defence line across Sicily was Centuripe, a village perched on the top of a formidable line of steep hills. Its precipitous sides gave it an almost impregnable position. The lesser hills round it were well defended by the enemy and it was necessary for them to be mastered before Centuripe could be tackled….”


October 1943.

“Good progress had been made by the two Armies by the time the 2nd Battalion London Irish sailed from Messina to Taranto on September 24. The short voyage was uneventful, and Taranto harbour in those early days was an extraordinary sight. It looked small and insignificant on approach, but on passing through a canal underneath an ancient swing-bridge the vast inland lake was revealed…”


November 1943.

“The 2nd Battalion went out of the line while the two other brigades of the 78th Division swept on to the Sangro, along the north bank of which the enemy had built powerful defences. It was a good defence-line, with the ground forming several natural intermediate outposts. There was the river itself, fast flowing from the incessant rain and the melting snow on the hills. It was deep, with an average width of one hundred feet….” 


December 1943.

“The second attack on Monte Camino was timed for December 3. 169 Brigade (The Queen’s) was to attack the Monastery Peak on the east of the feature and a knife-edged spur leading south from it. 167 Brigade was to go in north and north-west from Mieli, up the axis of the mule-track, with 68 Brigade passing through later. 201 Guards Brigade was to capture the south-western part of the mountain. At the same time the 46th Division had to clear the low ground to the south-west, while the Americans, on the right, tackled Monte la Difensa. In the first part of the operation the London Irish were placed under the command of 167 Brigade….”


January 1944.

“NINETEEN FORTY‑FOUR was the bloodiest year of the war for the 1st Battalion: its ranks were sorely depleted by heavy losses on four occasions. First at Castelforte, in the period now to be recounted, twice at Anzio which followed, and then during the long, bitter struggle for the Gothic Line…”


February 1944.

“TOWARDS the end of 1943 the weather throughout the battle areas was appalling and the enemy, profiting by the mountainous country, the snow, rain, and mud, the poor roads and the flooded valleys, had successfully slowed up and eventually halted the Allied advance along the whole Italian front, from the Apennines to the sea. The natural defences north and south of Cassino and the lower Garigliano Valley gave the enemy an advantage, and here the Germans established the strong Gustav Line, manned by many new troops, notably highly trained mountain fighters…”


Match 1944.

“In their new positions the London Irish once again were formed into two companies, one under Major Lofting, and the other under Lieutenant L Rue with Lieutenant Toone. Intermittent shelling continued, and then on March 2 they were ordered into a counter-attack to recapture a position of the Royal Fusiliers which had been overrun by the enemy….”


April 1944.

“In the whole area the Germans enjoyed unpleasantly good observation over the Allied positions though there was a fair amount of cover by the river-side, where the ground rose gradually from fifty to a hundred feet on each side. From above, the Monastery looked down on everything. It was an awesome sight, its medieval magnificence and splendour reduced to a gaunt, jagged skeleton, often obscured by rising ground mists or enveloped in the foggy brown swirl from smoke bombs…”


May 1944.

“The beginning of May found the 2nd Battalion in the village of Formicola, in one of the prettiest valleys in Italy, about ten miles north of Caserta. Everything was green, crops were sprouting, the dark red clover was in bloom, and even the nightingales were singing. The guns were at least thirty miles away, as also were the barren, stenching slopes of Monte Cairo…”


June 1944.

“The advance northwards went on speedily, and the London Irish reached Monte Oreste, thirty miles north of Rome. On the journey the battalion saw the incredible havoc wrought on the roads by the Allied Air Forces, with wrecked buildings and burned-out transport every few hundred yards. On June 9 a platoon from the battalion took over guard duties at Field-Marshal Kesselring’s old headquarters. It was an amazing place…” 


July 1944.

“While in the Rome area many officers and men of the battalion enjoyed visits to the Eternal City, and some were received by the Pope in the Vatican. The London Irish Rifles pipers and the bands of the two other Irish battalions in the brigade played in the precincts of the Vatican for His Holiness…”


August 1944.

“The 1st Battalion once again prepared for more real work. Security was the watchword, and divisional flashes and unit numbers were removed and the Black Cat was painted out on all vehicles and signs. Camouflage was once more the order of the day, and the battalion moved secretly by night to Perugia and the farmlands at Assisi…”


September 1944.

“By September 1, the division was committed, with 168 Brigade in reserve. On September 4, the London Irish moved up, and then it became clear that all was not going as well as had been hoped. The Queen’s and 167 Brigade were having trouble. Some unpleasantly high features were proving a nuisance, and the River Conca was ahead…”


October 1944.

“THE centre of gravity in the fighting seemed to pass to the Eighth Army front by October 1944. With a little more strength the Allied Armies might have accomplished more in the attack towards the River Po before the autumn and winter rains set in, but it was revealed by General Alexander afterwards that some American and French Divisions had been withdrawn from Italy for the attack on the south of France and this had weakened his forces. To drive the Germans from the Po Valley during the winter could hardly be expected….”


November 1944.

“The 2nd Battalion returned to the Spaduro area, doing tours of twelve days in and six days out of the line. The rains set in with an intensity that threatened to wash both friend and foe from the slippery, crumbling sides of the mountains into the swollen torrents below. Further operations were off until an improvement in the weather. During October eight inches of rain fell, and in November there were a further nine inches….”


December 1944.

“By early December 1944, the 1st Battalion was back in the line on the banks of the Senio River, a peculiar form of battle with the London Irish dug in on one side of the river and the Germans on the other. The river had flood-banks about thirty feet high, with a very small stream between the two banks, and both sides were able constantly to fling missiles at each other. The fighting at times seemed unending and unfruitful. Supply problems, fortunately and for a welcome change, presented no great difficulties…”


January to March 1945.

“At the end of January the 2nd Battalion had a very acceptable rest in the Florence neighbourhood, after which they moved with the rest of the 78th Division over the mountains to the plains of the River Po at Forli. F Company was re-formed under Major Fitzgerald and Captain Desmond Fay before the battalion went into the line once more at the beginning of March…”


April 1945.

“On April 2, the 1st Battalion left its rest area and after an all-night drive through Forli and Ravenna concentrated at San Alberto, a little village on the south-west corner of Lake Commachio, where the Reno flows alongside the lake. The enemy were a mere one thousand yards away, and elaborate precautions had to be taken by the London Irish to keep their presence secret. That was a comparatively simple matter, owing to the Germans’ lack of aircraft and to the fact that though the ground was flat and swampy, there were sufficient buildings and cover to hide both troops and vehicles….”


May 1945.

“After German surrender on May 2, there was one complication. German Army Group South-East, opposite the Yugoslavs and Russians in Austria, had not joined in the capitulation. There was also a Cossack Corps milling about on its own, and the Yugoslavs were not taking kindly to the British and American forces having reached Trieste. The 1st Battalion London Irish were at Dolo, where they had been promised a week’s rest after the exertions of the latter stages of the fighting….”