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.
The 2nd Battalion was brought to strength rapidly, and Lieut-Colonel Sir WR Starkey, Second-in-Command of the 1st Battalion, became its Commanding Officer. The new battalion had about half the officers and non-commissioned officers of the 1st Battalion, so that ability and experience were blended between the two. Training continued during the spring and summer of 1939 at the Duke of York’s Headquarters in rather crowded conditions. The battalions went to camp together at Burley, Hants.
A week after their return to London and the men had dispersed to their homes and resumed their various occupations, war appeared imminent. Key parties of officers and senior sergeants and corporals had already been nominated, and they were warned to stand by.
At that time, August 20, 1939, the officers and warrant officers of the two battalions were:
Commanding Officer: Lieut.-Colonel JRJ Macnamara, MP.
Second-in-Command: Major JJD Reidy.
Adjutant: Captain CHB Allen.
Quartermaster: Captain PJ Toal.
RSM: Mr H Hynds.
A Company Captain (later Major) the Viscount Stopford; CSM JD Duggan.
B Company: Captain DDP Cantrell; CSM F Allen.
C Company: Captain AD Cowdy; CSM CW North.
D Company: Captain RA O’Brien; CSM. FA Bernard.
Headquarters Company Captain P McMahon Mahon; CSM F Keegan.
Major Reidy broke his ankle while on training, and after several months in hospital was posted and did not return to the battalion. Captain Allen was promoted Major and became Second-in-Command and his place as Adjutant was taken by Captain WE Brooks.
Commanding Officer: Lieut-Colonel Sir William Starkey, Bt.
Second-in-Command: Major J Morris.
Adjutant: Captain CAF Gibbs.
Quartermaster: Captain WL Clarke, DCM.
RSM Mr H Phillips.
E Company: Major J McCann; CSM DD Long.
F Company: Captain G Phillips; CSM P Susands.
G Company . Captain GG Hall; CSM W Baines.
H Company . Captain JWS Lane, MC; CSM Tim Grant.
Headquarters Company: Captain RWJ Bartlett; CSM J Daly.
THE SECOND WORLD WAR
IN September 1939, war seemed inevitable, and the Territorial Army was embodied into the Regular Army. Calling-up papers were immediately sent to the men of the two battalions, but they did not need a summons. They reported at headquarters through- out the afternoon and evening of that day, and a carefully prepared system of enrolment was carried out with the able assistance of the ATS.
The 1st Battalion of the London Irish and the 8th and 9th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers formed the 1st London Infantry Brigade, part of the 1st London Infantry Division. The division had already been assigned a task in the event of war, and that was to assist the Metropolitan Police and local authorities during air raids. The 1st Battalion London Irish was detailed to support L Division of the Metropolitan Police, and headquarters were centred at Brixton Police Station. A Company and Headquarters Company were billeted near by.
For a few days after embodiment the main task was to smooth out the battalion’s administrative machine. On Sunday, September 3, the 1st Battalion, with pipes and drums leading, marched to Brixton parish church for a service. While the men were in church the Commanding Officer received a message telling him that war had been declared. An announcement was made, and the service ended with special prayers for Divine guidance and protection. It was a most solemn moment, and there was a strange quietness among the large congregation as the battalion left the church to form up and march away. Then, shortly after noon, as the battalion moved off the air-raid sirens were sounded. The long-dreaded war, it was thought, had begun, and at any moment would come the drone of enemy aircraft and the crashing of bombs and guns. But the bombers did not come on that momentous first day of the war—the warning was a snap test of the civil defences.
THE EARLY MONTHS
Within a few weeks of the declaration of war, battalion headquarters had reason to believe that one if not both battalions would soon go abroad. Time passed and no official word came, though advance parties of the British Expeditionary Force landed in France and their numbers steadily grew. An early land campaign had been envisaged, but as it did not start plans were modified. Both battalions of the London Irish remained in this country, busily engaged in training and various defence duties.
The 1st London Division had a large number of potential officers in its ranks, and there was a steady drain on the younger non-commissioned officers of the London Irish, who were encouraged by no one less than both Commanding Officers to train for commissions. The 1st Battalion remained in London for nearly two months, while from Wimbledon Common the 2nd Battalion sent out guards for important vulnerable points, including ordnance depots and aerodromes.
Towards the end of 1939 the 1st Battalion went to Ashdown Forest to take up positions in a defence area. The military authorities at that time were defence minded, and an intricate system of trenches and strong points was prepared. Most of the training stores, of which the Army every- where must have been short, were on a small scale, while the 1st Battalion’s transport had to be seen to be believed. It consisted almost entirely of hired vehicles in various stages of decay.
Both battalions contained a great variety of trades and professions, and the men were gradually weeded out according to their interests and medical categories. There were frequent calls for volunteers for specialised services, and even for training as parachutists and glider pilots. The companies began to dwindle in numbers, but new recruits arrived and they settled down quickly and well, despite the difficult conditions aggravated by a bitterly cold spell.
And as the nation gathered its armed men together to wield them into a mighty fighting machine, the voice of HM the King was heard on the first Christmas Day of the war. He enjoined them: “Go out into the darkness and put your hand into the Hand of God. That shall be to you better than light and safer than a known way.