It would not be long before the 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.
Several former officers, who had been with the Young Soldiers or attached elsewhere, returned, and in August 1942 the roll of officers was:
Lieut-Colonel IH Good, Commanding Officer.
Major the Viscount Stopford, Second-in-Command.
Captain MD Ryan, Adjutant.
Mr J Cairns, RSM.
Major PM Mahon, Officer Commanding.
Captain J.G Adams, Carrier Platoon.
Captain PJ Toal, Quartermaster.
Lieutenant DA Gibson, Mortar Platoon.
Lieutenant H St.G Gallaher, Carrier Platoon
2nd Lieutenant A Mace, Transport Officer.
2nd Lieutenant S Sharp, Intelligence Officer.
2nd Lieutenant D McVitty, Anti-tank Platoon.
2nd Lieutenant J Gates, Pioneer Platoon.
2nd Lieutenant H Miller, Signals Platoon.
Major J Cantopher, GM, Officer Commanding.
Captain A Palmer.
Lieutenant GE Buss.
Lieutenant ALF Orr.
Lieutenant JV Reynolds.
Captain HCS Lofting, Officer Commanding.
Captain M Bonham-Carter.
Lieutenant CA Croft.
Lieutenant SW McCabe.
2nd Lieutenant T Barry.
Captain WE Brooks, Officer Commanding.
Lieutenant WK Byrne.
2nd Lieutenant TW Coghlin.
2nd Lieutenant PC Isitt.
Captain Sir James Henry, Bt., Officer Commanding.
Captain JR Strick.
Lieutenant EM Grace.
Lieutenant M Power.
2nd Lieutenant TJ Sweeney.
Captain RA O’Brien, Officer Commanding.
Lieutenant JA Boddam-Whetham.
Lieutenant AG Hamer.
2nd Lieutenant DA Hardy.
2nd Lieutenant RA Wigger.
2nd Lieutenant J Grennan.
Chaplain: The Rev T Flynn (RC).
Medical Officer: Lieutenant C Byrne (RAMC).
THE VOYAGE EAST
The 1st Battalion was the first to proceed overseas. They embarked at Liverpool on August 27, 1942, in HMT Orduna, formerly a cargo and passenger liner of ten thousand tons belonging to the Pacific Steam Navigation Co. In normal times she sailed between Liverpool and Valparaiso with a general cargo and a number of cabin passengers. She had been converted into a troopship by covering part of the holds on each deck and making them into mess-decks and sleeping-quarters combined. Men slept above where they ate.
Some complaints have been made since the war regarding the accommodation and food on board troop-ships, but the post-war conditions bear no comparison with those endured by the other ranks in HMT Orduna. It says much for their loyalty, their discipline, and their high regard for duty that they bore great discomfort, poor food, little water, and practically no extra amenities with good sense and humour.
Port-holes had to be closed at night to prevent lights being seen. In day-time, too, they had to be closed in a heavy sea, or even in a swell on an otherwise calm day, because the sea would have rushed in. The crew were ordered to keep watch on the mess-decks, particularly when the liner reached warm climes, to ensure that there was no unauthorised opening of port-holes. There were no fans down below, no ice or ice-cool water, and when the tropics were reached the other ranks sat at their mess-tables stripped to the waist and in PT shorts, wearing towels or handkerchiefs to soak up the perspiration.
These discomforts did not prevent all ranks making the most of a long voyage, for to most of them it was a new experience. A daily training programme was carried out in order to prevent boredom and to keep everyone fit.
The convoy’s first call was at Freetown, for fuel and other needs. The ship lay well out, and no shore leave was granted. The voyage proceeded without incident down the west coast of Africa.
CAPE TOWN WELCOMES THE LONDON IRISH
South Africa was reached after a month at sea. As Cape Town was approached at dawn all on board who rose from their hammocks or cabins saw the most wonderful spectacle of the sun rising behind the massive grandeur of Table Mountain. From the grey light of early morning, the sky was transformed by myriad shafts of gorgeous colour scintillating in ever-changing hues as the sun rose in all its glory. It was hidden by the vastness of the mountain, but a fiery glow was reflected in the heavens, spreading slowly westwards and absorbing the greyness of the departing night.
The South Africans took the men of the caubeen and the green hackle to their hearts. They gave the troops a great reception, and their generous hospitality was almost overwhelming. It will long he remembered by those officers and men of the battalion who were invited to visit and even to stay at homes, both humble and proud, in various parts of the fine city. One of the first to greet the London Irish at Cape Town was Captain Dunlop, of the South African Irish, who had already been in action with his regiment in the Western Desert.
The stay of the London Irish in Cape Town was all too brief, but many lasting friendships were made and they still endure, thus helping to strengthen the ties that exist between two nations of the Commonwealth.
For the next part of the journey the battalion transferred to HMT California, a troop-ship of the Anchor Line. A battalion of the Royal Ulster Rifles sailed in her to Palestine four years earlier. She was a fine vessel; her mess-decks were much better arranged and the food and amenities were an improvement on those during the first part of the voyage. A number of officers and men were left in the Orduna to proceed to an Egyptian port to collect the battalion’s transport, which was sent to the Middle East by another route.
HMT California reached Bombay after another uneventful voyage in convoy on October 17. Several days were spent out in the spacious harbour before the troop-ship was allowed to clock. On October 25 the London Irish moved to another ship, the Dutch motor-ship Melchior Treub, named after a distinguished Dutch statesman and botanist. The Melchior Treub had escaped from Batavia at the time of the Japanese invasion, and she still had her Dutch captain and Batavian crew. It was a small vessel, and the battalion were more cramped than ever, but they were on the last lap of the journey.
On June 7 1942, the 2nd Battalion went by road to Scotland, a three-day journey of three hundred and thirty miles, which was accomplished without a vehicle casualty, a great tribute to the transport-maintenance section. The new camp was in grand countryside, six hundred feet above sea level, and was the best-tented encampment in which the battalion had been.
The White Triangle of the 1st Infantry Division came down, and the Mailed Fist of the 6th Armoured Division took its place.
Within a few days of settling down in Scotland a Battle Drill cadre was formed, under Captain JD Lofting, and the battalion went through a strenuous battle-inoculation and assault course. When mobilisation was nearing completion the officers’ roll of the battalion was:
Lieut-Colonel Sir William Starkey, Bt., Commanding Officer.
Major J McCann, Second-in-Command.
Major CAF Gibbs, OC Headquarters Company.
Captain JD Lofting, OC H Company.
Captain SM Ekin, OC F Company.
Captain H Henderson, OC E Company.
Captain J Grant, OC G Company.
Captain LJ Samuels, Medical Officer.
Captain TL Laister, Adjutant.
Captain DW Conroy, Transport Officer.
Captain VJA Lillie-Costello, Administration.
Captain RG Cockburn, Carrier Platoon.
Lieutenant D Aitkenhead, Quartermaster.
Captain JP Carrigan.
Lieutenant CRM Heaps.
Lieutenant M Tasker.
Lieutenant WFH Cooper.
Lieutenant JD O’Rourke.
Lieutenant D Kirkham.
2nd Lieutenant HE Rawlings.
2nd Lieutenant W Bowker.
2nd Lieutenant CE Kinch.
2nd Lieutenant EHE Beechey.
2nd Lieutenant MJ Goldstone.
2nd Lieutenant NW Dorrity.
2nd Lieutenant K Neely, Signals Officer.
2nd Lieutenant BC Stigant.
2nd Lieutenant PJ Gibbons.
2nd Lieutenant FE Fletcher, Mortar Platoon.
2nd Lieutenant AG Lees.
2nd Lieutenant RT McKenna.
2nd Lieutenant VWL Pottinger.
2nd Lieutenant JM McGranahan.
2nd Lieutenant TWH Wilson.
2nd Lieutenant R Hardwick.
RSM H Reid.
On the strength, but away from the battalion, were: Major WD Swiney and Captain BA Tebbitt, both at the 6th Armoured Division Battle Drill School. Of the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles that were at Chelsea when war broke out, the only officers remaining were: Lieut-Colonel Starkey, Major McCann, Major Gibbs, Captain Lofting, Captain Conroy, Captain Laister, Captain Ekin, and Captain Cockburn.
By that time Lieut-Colonel Starkey’s normal three years of command had elapsed, and a new Commanding Officer was appointed. He was Lieut-Colonel JB Jeffreys, from the 1st Battalion Royal Ulster Rifles. He assumed command on June 26, 1942.
Sir William Starkey had earned the respect of all who had served under him. Apart from those few of the 2nd Battalion who had a few years’ service behind them, he had raised from the environs of Chelsea a motley crowd of untrained men – actors, clerks, painters, lawyers, artists, journalists, accountants, tradesmen, all men from diverse stations in life – and turned them into hard, virile soldiers, ready and eager to meet the enemy on any terms.
There was a change, also, at brigade headquarters, Brigadier The O’Donovan, MC, relinquishing command. He was succeeded by Brigadier Nelson Russell, DSO, MC, from the 6th Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers.
In a farewell message Brigadier The O’Donovan said:
“I want all ranks to know how sorry I am to leave them. There is much for the Brigade to ‘try-out’ and learn, and the time may be short. But there is a feeling of friendship and goodwill throughout the Brigade, coupled with a fixed and cheerful determination to conquer in spite of everything, which should make it invincible.
“With each of you individually I would say ‘good-bye and good Luck.’ and I am, confident that when the opportunity offers the Irish Brigade as it now exists will cover itself with glory.
TRAINING for the 2nd Battalion in July and August 1942 was particularly hard. They had to become accustomed to their new role in an armoured division. At a divisional camp at Douglas, tanks, gunners, and infantry got together on a company-squadron basis, and this enabled one to meet the other and for each to learn something of the other’s problems. An exercise, “Dryshod,” was held in which, on paper, the hills south of the Clyde were divided to represent the English Channel. Agricultural towns became ports, the hills were in theory washed away to become the sea, a sea over which the infantry marched and the tanks rode.
There were long forced marches in all weathers, and the battalion lived as closely as possible to conditions of real war. The purchase of food in the towns and villages through which the men passed was forbidden, and they all learned to live “hard.” Above all, “Dryshod” was a great test in staff work, which was carried out smoothly and efficiently.