By June, Major Murphy Palmer had joined the 2nd Battalion as Second-in-Command, and other reinforcements included Captain Bill Hood, Lieutenant John Hunter, and Lieutenant John Barker.
The advance northwards went on speedily, and the London Irish reached Monte Oreste, thirty miles north of Rome. On the journey the battalion saw the incredible havoc wrought on the roads by the Allied Air Forces, with wrecked buildings and burned-out transport every few hundred yards. On June 9 a platoon from the battalion took over guard duties at Field-Marshal Kesselring’s old headquarters. It was an amazing place. The headquarters was in a series of tunnels burrowed out of the hill-side. There must have been about a mile of them, and a car could comfortably drive through. The Germans had set fire to as much as possible before hurriedly departing, and the smoke below ground was almost suffocating. But the London Irish Quartermaster, Lieutenant Aitkenhead, and his staff carried out a most thorough search in the glare of a jeep’s headlights, and their efforts were not unrewarded. Wines and liqueurs of excellent quality graced the messes of the brigade for some time afterwards. The tableware, too, was of a high order.
On June 20 the gallop forward was resumed and by noon the battalion reached Colleno, fifty miles ahead. Orders were received to seize Civitella and the battalion had crossed the river and were in the town by 1530 hours. Apart from shelling by self-propelled guns there was no opposition. The enemy were posted in strength on several ridges which dominated the other side of the town, and in a night patrol men from F Company had a severe clash at Agliano, with several casualties to both sides.
An attack on Agliano was begun by F Company at dawn, with artillery, mortars, and Vickers in support. The Germans who survived the deluge of deadly fire fled. G Company then attacked La Torre, and the Germans were seen withdrawing all over the place and offering fine targets for the supporting arms.
Battalion headquarters was made comfortable in the Bishop’s Palace at Civitella, from which they had a bird’s-eye view of the rest of the battlefield. The next day the fight was resumed, and by 1000 hours the London Irish were established in Tordimonte Castle, which the Germans afterwards shelled.
The stage was set for the battle of Morrano, a ridge ten miles ahead, which some of the Warwickshire Yeomanry were attacking. Orders were given out round the banqueting table of the castle, the Commanding Officer occupying a fine gilt and plush throne. It was a dignified start to the operation.
Fire supremacy was established and German opposition gradually subsided, and led by the Support Company and a platoon from E Company the battalion was soon on the ridge. That day they bad marched twenty-one miles with all weapons and ammunition.
The London Irish continued to move forward, and on June 18 went across the mountains in very bad weather to Monte Giove. The following day worse tracks led them to Tavernelle. In that area, on either side of Lake Trasimeno, the Germans had decided to make a stand, and were holding a line in great strength from Chiusi and San Fatucchio, to the lake on the west side and Perugia on the east. After three days of exhausting fighting the other two brigades of the 78th Division had been finally stopped south of San Fatucchio, and the London Irish were given the task of breaking through at that point and striking as far north as possible.
The battle was set for Wednesday, June 21, and it was found that all possible lines of advance were visible to the enemy, who had a view rather like that looking down on a billiard-table. The plan was for the battalion to get into the rear of the town by flanking it from the west and then assaulting it from the north. That provided the best cover and was over good tank country. E Company had the task of getting into the town and F Company had to seize the higher ground to the north. Heavy shelling began as the forward movement started at 0730 hours, and both companies and supporting tanks ran into machine-gun fire from many directions. E Company, helped at point-blank range by one troop of tanks, blasted their way into the first block of buildings after very bitter fighting. Their casualties were heavy but most of the defenders were wiped out. F Company, in the meantime, were having a frightful battle at close quarters amid the growing corn. At the same time tanks reached their objective behind the town and started blasting it to bits. E Company gradually stormed house by house, while a German observation-post party in a church tower were killed by a direct hit from one of the tanks which blew out part of the tower and the spiral staircase below it. After nearly six hours, resistance in the town collapsed and H and G Companies, who had not been committed into the battle, went forward and cleared the area round the town.
Throughout the whole of the battle the support weapons performed prodigies. The Vickers platoon were in action in the San Fatucchio houses within an hour of its capture, while the mortar platoon lined up their weapons in the main street and square. The town itself was bombarded by the enemy with everything they could procure.
The Germans had by no means given up. H Company had a tough tussle with well-concealed strong-points in a cemetery, and hand-to-hand combat went on even in the church itself. There was a German move here which was stemmed by the accurate support from the field gunners and the mortars. Even so, a fight with grenades and pistols raged along the cemetery wall for some time.
By four o’clock in the afternoon the cemetery area was firm and F Company then seized the crossroads to the north, while E Company tried to get a foothold on the Pucciarelli Ridge. At that stage all three companies had lost about a third of their strength, and tank losses, too, had been heavy. Lieutenant George Dunseath, of F Company, was killed when leading his men in a gallant charge across the corn against several German machine-guns. Progress was made by E Company towards the ridge, but after German counter-attacks had been broken up by gun and mortar fire, the fighting grounded for the night. It had been a stirring but bloody day.
While these attacks had been going on the Brigadier received a telephone message from 11 Brigade in which the Lancashire Fusiliers paid tribute to the way in which the London Irish had gone in. “I think it is a rare thing for one battalion to praise another in a different brigade, and I think this one of the highest tributes that they could have received, especially coming as it did from such a fine fighting battalion as the Lancashire Fusiliers,” wrote Brigadier Scott later. The battle was not over, for the Germans remained in considerable numbers in and around the London Irish positions. They were fresh and very determined, and unlike many other Germans at that time fought till they could fight no longer. They were particularly strong in two big groups of buildings on Pucciarelli Ridge, between the London Irish and the Inniskillings, and while they held that vital bit of ground, not only were the London Irish very insecure, but any further forward move by either battalion was impossible.
The fight was resumed here at dawn. Only one platoon of G Company and three tanks could be spared, and there were about seventy Germans holding the place. The attack started with some spectacular shooting by the mortars and the field guns, and as the tanks crept forward along the ridge to blast the houses, Lieutenant John Gartside took his men in and systematically cleared the area, house by house, room by room. They repeated the process farther along, and a link-up with the Skins was made.
Meanwhile, F Company chased the enemy out of an important group of farm buildings north of the cross-roads.
The next day the Faughs launched an attack through the London Irish on to Ranciano, which they took after a hard struggle. They went on to Pescia, and then the Irish Brigade went out of the line for a rest.
Everyone in the battalion had been in the battles round Lake Trasimeno, including Quartermaster’s staff, clerks, and drivers, and in firing a record total of over four thousand rounds, the mortar platoon wore out most of their mortars. The battles throughout had been very hard; many of the houses and orchards were defended by the enemy to the bitter end. The cost of the London Irish success was not light, there being well over a hundred casualties, including many good non-commissioned officers, among whom were CSM Kelly and CSM D Long.
The battalion buried between ninety and one hundred Germans within its area, and took one hundred and ten prisoners. The German wounded must have run into several hundreds, and several self-propelled and many guns and machine-guns and much ammunition and equipment were captured or destroyed.
The German strength against the London Irish attack involved six companies of 754 and 755 Regiments. Five of these were written off and after the Irish Brigade had finished, these two regiments, comprising five battalions, had to be amalgamated.
On leaving Lake Trasimeno it was felt, quite justifiably, that the London Irish, and indeed the whole Irish Brigade, had lived up to their name.