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.
Further changes had been made in both battalions. In the 1st, Major Allen had gone to a staff college and had been succeeded as Second-in-Command by Major D Swinburne, who had ended a period as an instructor at an Officer Cadet Training Unit.
The company commanders were:
Headquarters Company Major the Viscount Stopford.
A Company Captain JK Cantopher.
B Company Captain McMahon Mahon.
C Company Major Donlea, MC.
D Company Captain RA O’Brien.
When St. Patrick’s Day came round once again, Mr. Winston Churchill expressed a desire to go to Kent to attend the London Irish parade. But those responsible for his safety demurred, and he accordingly invited the battalion to London and suggested that the presentation of shamrock could take place on the Horse Guards Parade. Unfortunately, the battalion’s duties on the coast would not allow this move and the Divisional Commander attended parades by each company in its own area and presented the shamrock.
Among the post stores taken over by the London Irish at New Romney was an armoured train of the Romney, Hythe, and Dymchurch Miniature Railway, which in peacetime had conveyed thousands of holidaymakers along the low-lying coast. The train consisted of an armoured engine with two trucks, each carrying two Lewis guns. The train had little tactical value, but it became an offshoot of the Carrier Platoon. Its principal use was to carry recreational parties to and from Hythe.
In addition to guards and patrols, the battalion sent fatigue parties daily to the beaches to help construct the formidable network of tubular steel scaffolding which formed part of the invasion defences round southern and south-east England. Working with nothing but protective gloves and heavy spanners, the task was done so efficiently that gangs of prisoners after the war needed the assistance of powerful bulldozers to remove the barricade. The work was still in progress in some areas a year later!
German raiders came over occasionally while the battalion was on this part of the coast, but usually it was a “hit-and-run” aircraft which spattered bullets indiscriminately in populous areas. A familiar sight to the London Irish were two Spitfires which were on regular patrol duties over the New Romney area, and as they became part of the daily routine they were accorded the dignity of “Gert and Daisy.” No raider got away when they were about.
Part of the early summer months of 1941 were spent by the 1st Battalion at Mersham, near Ashford, Kent. There, in the heart of the Kentish countryside, which was then beginning to look at its best, the battalion spent two months resting from guards and patrols, and tuned up for a series of exhausting divisional and corps exercises. Major Swinburne left the battalion to take over command of the 8th Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles, and Major the Viscount Stopford became Second-in-Command. Captain RA O’Brien took over Headquarters Company, and Captain HS Lofting became Commander of D Company. The stay of the London Irish at Mersham was marked by a ceremonial parade and inspection by General Montgomery (now Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery, Chief of the Imperial General Staff), General Officer Commanding 12th Corps.
In a message later to Lieut.-Colonel Macnamara, General Montgomery wrote:
“I would like you to tell the officers and men of your battalion how very much I enjoyed seeing them all to day. It was a fine parade. I know that these things are not done without a very good deal of hard work on the part of everyone. It must have been a great pleasure to you to know that your battalion made such a brave showing.
You have a splendid battalion. The men have the light of battle in their eyes. I am proud to have the 1st Battalion of the London Irish Rifles under my command; if every battalion in the Army was like them we should do well.”
That was a very fine and generous tribute from a man who subsequently became the most outstanding commander in the war, and whose success in North Africa, and in particular at the Battle of El Alamein, laid the foundation for final victory.
There was a further period on the coast for the 1st Battalion, this time on the left of the divisional front, with headquarters in the barracks of the Old Small Arms School at Hythe. Some of the companies on beach-defence duties received a small anti-tank gun which they trundled up and down the beach roads behind fifteen-hundredweight trucks. It was all part of the mammoth scheme to fool the enemy regarding Britain’s strength and her preparedness because, although gun drill was regularly and efficiently carried out, the guns were never fired, even on the practice ranges, and would have been utterly useless if the Germans had come. Vital parts, including the sights, were missing, but the enemy’s intelligence never discovered that fact, otherwise Hitler might have changed his plans!
At the end of October it was known that the 1st Battalion was to leave Kent. It was felt by all that although the London Irish, and in fact the whole 56th (London) Division, had many friends there they were more likely to see active service if they were sent to another locality. The danger of invasion had also diminished.
From the days after Dunkirk it had seemed that High Command had no incentive to move the division out of Kent because, while invasion was a possibility, no one knew ‘the ground better than the men of the Black Cats. Major-General Sir MGN Stopford, who had made representations that the division should be moved, left the formation about that time on promotion to Command of the Staff College. He was succeeded by Major-General EG Miles, DSO, MC.
The London Irish hoped to go back into reserve in order that training could be carried out without diversions, but instead of that the 1st Battalion was moved to the Haverhill area of Suffolk with the rest of the division in corps reserve, and spent the first two months of its stay there picking sugar-beet! Intensive training programmes had been drawn up, but so great was the nation’s need for the farmers’ crops, and so grave the labour shortage, that for long periods parties of men spent many days in bringing in the sugar-beet.
A Young Soldiers’ company of the London Irish had been formed early in 1940. It was for young men between the ages of eighteen and nineteen-and-a-half, and the object was to train them to the highest standards of drill, skill-at-arms, discipline, and turn-out, so that when they became of military age, which at that time was twenty, they would be fit to take their places as soldiers in the 1st and 2nd Battalions.
A training cadre had been formed from the Regiment consisting of CSM Lillie (Royal Ulster Rifles), CQMS Daniel (2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles), PSMs Morgan and Flynn, and Sergeants Sloan, Hawes, and Bassett-Powell. Captain BG Buckley, assisted by Lieutenant M Holding, was in command.
In May 1941 a second company was formed under Mr Holding, who was promoted Captain, and senior platoons of Young Soldiers took over guard duties at vulnerable points at factories and other important installations in north-west London. Their standard of conduct and efficiency was very high, and was commended by officers of the London District who inspected them from time to time. Eventually the Young Soldiers became the 70th Battalion of the London Irish Rifles, commanded by Lieut.-Colonel GHK Ryland (Royal Ulster Rifles), with Captain J Stevens as Adjutant, and Mr W Burden (Royal Ulster Rifles) as RSM. Drafts of well- trained young men were frequently dispatched to the senior battalions, and some went to the airborne units, the Royal Corps of Signals, and also to the Royal Artillery. They proved themselves first-class troops and were a credit to those who had trained them. Many former London Irish Young Soldiers fell in battle, while others survived to receive well-earned decorations for gallantry and devotion to duty.
The 70th Battalion ceased to exist in January 1943, when by War Office order all such units were disbanded, their personnel being sent to senior units.