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. The London Irish were soon to get another view of the Monastery, this time from the north. Extensive regrouping had been ordered to prepare for the next offensive which, it was hoped, would lead to the long-awaited fall of Rome.
The battalion was sent up to relieve the French on Monte Castellone, which was in effect one of the lower foothills of Monte Cairo. Three companies were perched almost on the crest of Castellone, and the fourth was in reserve. Every fourth day one company was relieved. Supplies were brought up the mountain paths by mules. A Echelon was eight miles away in the Rapido Valley, and the supply-route was under frequent shell and mortar fire. Warning notices: “Shell Trap-no Halting” were hardly necessary because no one who had any regard for his life dallied on the way. One stretch, despite its bumps and holes, became known as the “Mad Mile” and along it jeeps and trucks broke all records. The Quartermaster, Lieutenant Aitkenhead, and all the company quartermasters earned the highest commendation for the way the battalion was unfailingly supplied. The London Irish bakery was warmly praised by the Brigadier for its supply of appetising cakes and other small luxuries sent daily to the riflemen on the summit of Castellone.
The men were shelled and mortared constantly and there were several forward-patrol brushes with the enemy, but on the whole their stay on Monte Castellone from March 31 to April 25 was uneventful. Pioneers worked particularly hard in laying minefields or building fresh mule-tracks because the animals had great difficulty in climbing the steep slopes in the intense darkness, and many precious pack-loads tumbled down the hill-side.
The next phase was handing over the position to a Polish battalion. They came with their own mule trains, with Italians as muleteers. The old hands of the London Irish yelled orders in Urdu and Hindustani, which the Indian-trained mules seemed to understand even if they did not obey. But then there came an international babble in Italian, Polish, English, and German, it provided a little diversion even though it added to the obstinacy of the mules and prolonged the agony of the change-over.
1ST BATTALION – EGYPTIAN INTERLUDE
On March 29 the London Irish embarked at Taranto for Port Said, and in Egypt they went into camp at Tahag, a dreary desert waste near Quassassin, north of Cairo. That was their first real rest since before the invasion of Sicily nearly a year before. During their stay there the London Irish pipes and drums, and also a detachment of some of the survivors of the old battalion, represented it at a St George’s Day service in memory of the fallen and to commemorate the first anniversary of the 56th (London) Division going into action.
Major-General Templer, who later was promoted Lieut.-General and after the war appointed Vice-Chief of the Imperial General Staff under Field-Marshal Viscount Montgomery, took the salute in a stirring march-past. Among those who attended the service and parade was Colonel JRJ Macnamara, MP, former Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion, who visited the London Irish later, met some of his old comrades, and learned of the passing of many more.
Relaxation for the battalion was short lived, because a company from each of the three battalions in the brigade was sent to Burg El Arab, twenty-five miles from Alexandria, to deal with a mutiny among Greek troops quartered there. This was accomplished without much trouble, and eventually the London Irish resumed the work of re-equipping and training at Sidi Bishr, a few miles east of Alexandria.
Reinforcements arrived, including many officers and men who had recovered from wounds received in Italy, but most of the new personnel was from anti-aircraft regiments whose period of usefulness in the Canal Zone was deemed to have ended with the war being removed so far away, and who had been disbanded and sent to strengthen the infantry.
Four rifle companies were again formed, and Major TJ Sweeney, who had served as Adjutant for over a year, took over D Company and was succeeded by Captain Alan Mace MC.
Much regret was felt when orders came to the brigade for the disbandment of the 10th Royal Berkshires with whom the London Irish had served since the formation of the brigade in England. The greatest friendship existed between the two battalions, and many officers and men of the Royal Berkshires volunteered for transfer to the London Irish, including Major DAT Brett, who later became Second-in-Command of the battalion, Captain R Hedger MC, and Captain AD Blake, each of whom commanded companies in subsequent fighting. A battalion of the Welch Regiment came into 168 Brigade in place of the Royal Berkshires. The battalions were now Irish, Scottish, and Welsh, a new form of international brigade!
The Regimental band, pipes, bugles, and drums, under the direction of Pipe-Major Franklin and Bugle-Major Taylor, continued to make an excellent reputation, both in Cairo, where it played at several important ceremonial parades, including that for the King’s Birthday and on Empire Day, and at Alexandria, where it played at hospitals, the racecourse, and elsewhere.
The Commander-in-Chief, Middle East, General Sir Bernard Paget, visited the battalion during an arduous training period at Burg El Arab, and expressed himself very well pleased with all he saw.