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.
From Bognor came L Company, which had been built up from young Militia men of the twenty-two age-group; they had undergone eight weeks of intensive training under Captain Dunseath and 2nd Lieutenant Furness. The company was a very welcome addition to the battalion throughout which they were distributed, and their coming brought it once more to full strength.
In a week the situation in France gravely declined, and the 1st London Infantry Brigade was ordered to take over at once the de- fence of the Isle of Thanet. It had been reported that parachutists were likely to land, hence the haste. With battalion headquarters at St. Nicholas-at-Wade, the London Irish spent the first night in Thanet on guard. Roadblocks were set up, and at five o’clock the next morning a stand-to was ordered as enemy parachutists had been reported in Blean Woods. It was a false alarm. All roads to the coast were blocked, and no one was allowed to pass with- out a scrutiny of their identity papers.
The tactical situation in Thanet was one of great concern to those whose task it was to prepare for what might happen. The forty miles of coastline were undefended, or almost so. The hinterland was an enormous aerodrome, part of which was occupied by Manston. The area was eminently suitable for mass landings by enemy gliders and parachutists.
Lieut-Colonel Macnamara appreciated that it was impossible to defend the long coast with the available troops, so it was watched constantly by patrols. The rifle companies were scattered over the countryside in platoon positions, with B Company on Manston Aerodrome. A mobile counter-attack force consisted of the Carrier Platoon, augmented’ by carriers of the 9th Battalion Royal Fusiliers and several armoured cars, the whole under the command of Captain Irwin.
Although a linear defence was planned by High Command, Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara adopted in Thanet a system of self- contained all round positions. They had a double task, first to deal with and repel air landings, and secondly to delay any enemy advance along the axis of the roads. The order was to fight to the last man and the last round.
The key position at St. Nicholas-at-Wade was designed so that any scattered troops or RAF personnel could retire to it. Stores of food and water were planned, and the RAF at Manston transferred their ammunition reserves to the London Irish area. For a considerable time after that High Command continued to pin their faith on a “linear defence.” Thousands of man-hours and much money were spent in Kent on the various semi- artificial lines, the “Corps Line,” the “Stop Line,” and the other lines of which none but the highest “O Group” had detailed knowledge. The Commanding Officer preferred all-round centres of resistance, rather than “lines,” which were too rigid and obvious to an enemy. His layout was inspected and approved by many visiting generals, but the policy of a “linear defence” continued in Kent for another year.
Invasion was possible at any moment, and those who were able calmly to assess the position knew how grotesquely inadequate Britain’s forces were to meet a strong assault. It was realised, too, that so far the Germans had never made a half-hearted blow, but always struck with overwhelming strength.
Yet, though they understood the potential precariousness of their position, especially with orders to fight to the end and to give no ground, the spirits of all ranks in the London Irish were very high. Everyone took a deep and loyal interest in his particular job however humble, and inspired by the leadership of their Commanding Officer, they waited steadily and even eagerly for the enemy to come.
There had been by now several changes in the 1st Battalion. Major Stopford had taken over command of Headquarters Company, Captain J Cantopher had command of A Company, and Captain McMahon Mahon was in charge of B Company.
Then came Dunkirk. The 1st Battalion volunteered to go over to assist the evacuation by forming part of a bridgehead, but the offer was declined. Ships and men could not be spared for such a gallant undertaking. So men of the London Irish were called for duty on the piers at Ramsgate and Margate, while others succeeded in getting across the Channel by manning the anti-aircraft Brens on the relief ships and escort vessels.
As the great task of evacuation proceeded, British and Allied soldiers of all ranks and descriptions poured off the ships. There was no lack of willing hands to give assistance where it was needed. Some ships had been relentlessly bombed and machine- gunned on the way, and were laden with the dead and the dying, while on others men with their equipment and arms intact gave a magnificent example of calmness and discipline.
Among these was a detachment from the 2nd Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, under CSM Boyt, who later joined the 1st Battalion London Irish as CSM of C Company. The Ulstermen were formed up on the pier and were inspected by Lieut-Colonel Macnamara. They then marched off at a good rifle pace to the nearest hostelry for a much-needed drink.
THE BATTLE OF BRITAIN
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.
Reports came from the ever-active British Intelligence that large concentrations of gas had been accumulated at ports in enemy hands, so anti-gas measures throughout the Services were speeded up.
In September word was received that enemy troops in vast numbers were being assembled on the other side of the Channel, and that ships and boats were being prepared on a large scale. There grew a definite belief that invasion was imminent and there was a tenseness throughout the defence areas. In their respective zones the men of the London Irish were ever vigilant.
The 1st Battalion was still in Kent and one of the first moves by the authorities was to suspend hop-picking. At any moment it was feared that the civilian pickers might become embroiled in battle. They were therefore sent home.
But September passed, and still the Germans did not come. Favourable tides and weather were missed, and it seemed that the enemy had changed his mind.
With a not unnatural feeling of relief, troops and civilians in the invasion areas relaxed, though vital guards and patrols were in no way weakened. To assist in much-needed recreation, Lieut-Colonel Macnamara sponsored the formation of a Regimental Dance Band and also a Concert Party, under the direction of the then 2nd Lieutenant Mervyn Bonham-Carter. During this period the London Irish were visited by Mr Winston Churchill, a friend of the Commanding Officer, and he was given a great reception.
With the dark nights of autumn and early winter there began the enemy’s mass assaults by air in an all-out effort to smash Britain’s war industries, paralyse her transport, and to bring ruin and devastation to the population.
The London Irish were in Kent throughout the Battle of Britain. Day after day fleets of German bombers and fighters came over. Vast patterns were woven high in the sky, and aircraft, Allied and German, circled in combat. Machines crashed in the battalion area almost daily and there was a constant hunt for German pilots who had baled-out. A prisoner was a great prize, and on one occasion a party of London Irishmen turned up after following the progress of the airman dangling from his parachute, only to see the German pilot disappearing on the pillion of an RASC motor-cycle, with the driver’s rifle slung on the back of his prisoner!
A special order was issued to units to try to capture intact a new type of enemy bomb-sight. A JU88 was forced down on Graveney Marsh by two Spitfires, and a dozen or so men of A Company, armed only with rifles, made towards it. The German crew opened fire with their machine-guns, and the London Irish men organised themselves into a platoon and carried out a spirited attack, using fire with movement on the flat and open ground.
The Germans were wounded by their fire and they surrendered. When the riflemen reached the machine a time-bomb was discovered and successfully removed. As the prisoners were being taken away, one of them remarked that the aircraft would “go up any time now. Captain Cantopher, who had arrived on the scene, went back and searched the machine and found another time-bomb. The aircraft was thus saved from destruction and it proved to be a new type, only two weeks old. It provided the experts of the Air Ministry with highly valuable information. For his timely action Captain Cantopher was awarded the George Medal. The encounter with the Germans was believed to be the first battle with an enemy on British soil since the French landed at Fishguard in 1797, though historians record that on that occasion the invaders did not fire a shot. The precedent, therefore, may be far more distant.
In a message to Lieut-Colonel Macnamara, the Corps Commander expressed his delight at “the good tactical ability shown by a detachment of the London Irish Rifles, who, without any automatics and without loss to themselves, forced the surrender of a JU88 armed with two automatics and secured this latest type of bomber intact.” The Divisional Commander also sent a message of congratulations.
With the approach of winter, the danger of a sea and air invasion of Britain receded, but the Germans switched their attacks to night bombing, culminating in the “blitz” periods on London, Coventry, Birmingham, and other large and important centres.
The 1st Battalion was still in Kent and night after night they heard the enemy bombers pass overhead. The men’s thoughts, of course, were with their families, for the glow from the burning City could be seen clearly. Amid the flames and fury of London the men knew they had many good friends who worked tirelessly on their behalf. They were the Old Comrades, who under the direction of Captain LH Richards (later Lieut-Colonel Richards), Welfare Officer of the Regiment, made diligent search and inquiry into losses sustained by London Irishmen, and gave help and succour to the needy. “Dick” Richards and his team spent long hours, day after day, visiting the bombed areas searching for news of the families of men of the Regiment.
In his review of that momentous year, Lieut-Colonel Macnamara said:
“No man can fail to be proud of Londoners to-day, and no man can fail to be proud of the quiet, noble way in which men, who have lost their homes, have taken it, and soldiered on silently yet even more determined.
“Ahead of us is another winter. None of us knows what it will bring forth. It might be dull – it may be dull now – but, remember, if we were not here doing this dull job, the Germans would be here instead.
“It may, on the other hand, be the time for a great adventure for us. I hope so. . . . This war has not yet been fully joined between the Germans and us. The Germans will use every artifice they can to undermine our resistance. If they can make us lack food, lack sleep, be without homes, or keep us cold, they will. No soldier should look for comfort. It may be that we as soldiers, and we as a nation, may have to go through very much more yet before we can hope to achieve final victory. And why not! We can!”
A reorganisation had also taken place. The 1st Battalion had become part of the 2nd London Infantry Brigade, and it was reformed into 168 Brigade with the London Scottish and the 10th Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment. The 1st London Infantry Brigade became 167 Brigade, consisting of the 8th and 9th Battalions Royal Fusiliers and the 7th Battalion Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. A third brigade, 169, consisted entirely of Queens’ battalions. The whole became the 56th (London) Division under Major-General CF Liardet, and its divisional sign was the Black Cat of Dick Whittington fame.
During the winter of 1940 Major-General CF Liardet left the 56th (London) Division to take over a new command, the defence of aerodromes, and his place was taken by Major-General Sir MGN Stopford. The 1st Battalion suffered its first casualty by enemy action while at Lyminge, Kent, when Lance-Corporal Cronin of the Regimental Aid Post was killed by a bomb. In October the 1st Battalion were in winter quarters in and around Tunbridge Wells, with battalion headquarters at Pembury. The battalion was more scattered than ever, but everyone was in good billets where they were able to keep warm and enjoy some of the recreational amenities of the resort.
Meanwhile, the 2nd Battalion had wintered at St. Albans, engaged mostly in training, but waiting in reserve for the invasion. Their role also was that of anti-parachutists; they moved later to Cambridge, and in the early summer they took over coast-defence duties at Lowestoft.
In between their coastal and other duties both battalions carried out hard training programmes. It was necessary that they should be “fighting fit and fit to fight.”
While at Malvern the 2nd Battalion did sterling work helping to rescue the victims of the dastardly German attack on Coventry. They assisted, also, in the work of salvage, and in helping to restore the civil services in the distressed city. The battalions began to receive drafts of new personnel from the Royal Ulster Rifles’ training depot at Ballymena. They were an assortment of Londoners and men from Northern Ireland and from Eire. They had been well trained, and fitted admirably into the Regiment.
The 2nd Battalion had a further spell of coast-defence work and took over a large area between Bognor and Littlehampton.