While in the Rome area, many officers and men of the battalion enjoyed visits to the Eternal City, and some were received by the Pope in the Vatican. The London Irish Rifles pipers and the bands of the two other Irish battalions in the brigade played in the precincts of the Vatican for His Holiness.
There were several changes in personnel in the 2nd Battalion. Lieut-Colonel Bredin, recovered from his wounds, became Commanding Officer of the battalion, Lieut-Colonel Horsfall leaving to command the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers. Major Colin Gibbs MC, Captain E Bird, Captain JD White MC, and Lieutenant P Giles were among a small party who left to take up appointments as staff instructors at various training establishments. Major-General Keightley left the 78th Division on promotion to command 5th Corps.
The Irish Brigade received a most severe blow when news came that the 6th Battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers was to be disbanded. They had played a key part in many battles in North Africa in the dark days of November 1942. Then the battle for Centuripe in Sicily, Termoli, the crossing of the Trigno and the Sangro in Italy had all gained battle honours for the regiment. Their place in the Irish Brigade was taken by the 2nd Battalion of the Inniskillings, and most of the non-commissioned officers and other ranks of the 6th were sent to the other battalions of the brigade as reinforcements.
As the 1st Battalion left Egypt advance parties of the 2nd Battalion arrived. They encamped near Quassassin, and followed almost on the heels of the 1st Battalion at Sidi Bishr. They also enjoyed a rest with ample leave. New intakes arrived, and after a short period of training they went back to Italy. New officers joined the 2nd Battalion at Sidi Bishr, including Captain F Cave, and Lieutenants V Bryning, Walsh, EM Salter, and S Thompson.
On July 12, 1944, the 1st Battalion embarked once more for Italy, and on the voyage Major HCS Lofting, the very popular OC of B Company, who had been with the battalion since Territorial days, and had been wounded twice, died and was buried at sea.
Taranto was a pleasant sight when the 1st Battalion reached it after an uneventful voyage in mid-July 1944. The harbour was full of ships flying the White Ensign, while masts and rusty hulks stood forlornly in the water, grim relics of that navy of which Mussolini was wont to boast.
A strangely familiar sight met the London Irish as they lined the sides of their ship waiting to disembark. They saw men already ashore wearing the caubeen and hackle. They were men of the 2nd Battalion, waiting to return to Egypt. There was only time for a wave and a shout and the ways of the two battalions parted for many long weary, bitter months, until they took part in the last great race through northern Italy.
The transit camp at Taranto was five miles away, a hot, dusty, thirsty march to men in full kit on a summer’s day. The camp was an unpleasant place, dirty as only a transit camp can be, with far too few tents, little water, and bad sanitation. However, most of the London Irish were seasoned campaigners and did not worry over-much, except to request more and more tents, swill bins, and all those little necessaries which make or mar a camp. The battalion could well claim that it was a cleaner, sweeter place when they left it than it was when they arrived.
The march up was trying enough, but it was particularly galling to the London Irish to find out that they were to be the last of the seventeen thousand men who were to be fed that day at one vast cookhouse. By the time their turn approached the cooks were exhausted, the Italian servers had gone borne, and the time-table had slipped badly. The London Irish waited with patience until like the cooks’ it was exhausted, and with a creditable imitation of Nazi technique, and led by the Commanding Officer, they took over the cookhouse for its own good. The tea, at least, was hot.
A week later, on July 25, the battalion moved by train to Tivoli, near Rome, a typical war journey in slowly moving cattle-trucks. Salerno and Naples were left behind, and the veterans of the battalion were interested to know that once more they would cross the Garigliano. The crossing this time was by train and not in assault boats. Unfortunately night fell before the river was reached, and the train’s speed increased to fifteen miles per hour, so that little or nothing could be seen. South of Rome the battalion transferred to troop-carrying vehicles, and as the journey proceeded a sense of the familiar came to officers and men as they passed Cisterna, a wreck of a town, and entered the Alban Hills, at which some of them had gazed so often and with such venom when they were straining to hold the Anzio bridgehead. And so they reached the rolling farmland near Tivoli, with Rome not far away, and the smelly but invigorating sulphur baths close by.
Rome enchanted everyone; if not for its ancient culture, then for its NAAFIs, its cinemas, theatres, and opera. All tastes were satisfied. The band put up a great show in Mussolini’s old haunt, the Piazza Venezia, and impressed both the Romans and our warm friends, the Americans, alike. A visit to St Peter’s and an audience granted by His Holiness the Pope was an historic event for those of the Catholic faith. It is recorded that one enthusiastic officer, not of the London Irish, was so overwhelmed by the occasion that he called for three cheers for the Pope. They were given with considerable gusto, to the apparent gratification of His Holiness, but to the evident bewilderment of the Vatican Guard.
While at Tivoli the 56th (London) Division was visited by HM the King, the first since he bade them God-speed on the eve of leaving England in 1942.