March 1944

1ST BATTALION.

In their new positions the London Irish once again were formed into two companies, one under Major Lofting, and the other under Lieutenant L Rue with Lieutenant Toone. Intermittent shelling continued, and then on March 2 they were ordered into a counter-attack to recapture a position of the Royal Fusiliers which had been overrun by the enemy.

D Company, with Lieutenant Rue, went in without preliminary artillery support. They attacked across open, flat country with little cover and overlooked by the Germans. Their effort was a gallant one, made by new men, but in the old London Irish tradition. The Germans were more numerous than had been thought, and they brought fire down from self-propelled high-velocity guns. The attackers did not falter. They struggled gamely on, but darkness came and further advance was impossible. By that time Lieutenant Rue and Lieutenant Toone had been wounded; the latter died later, leaving CSM F Kelly in charge of the company, now reduced to only fifteen men. Kelly was also hit, and Captain Bonham-Carter, who had returned to the battalion on recovering from earlier wounds, volunteered to take over the company.

He resumed the attack at dawn on March 3 with a company of about twenty sound men. A troop of Commandos gave him supporting fire as he led the attack across the open country in an effort first to silence three Spandau posts. The enemy machine guns trained on Captain Bonham-Carter as he rushed forward. He was hit in the thigh and fell. He got up immediately and continued to lead the attack. He silenced the first Spandau post himself with a Tommy gun and then fell mortally wounded across it. His dash and courage inspired the others and they finished off the German platoon in no time. Out of seventy-five officers and men who went into these two attacks, about fifteen were killed and forty wounded. Captain Bonham-Carter was carried back to the advanced dressing-station, where later he died. In his death the London Irish lost a very gallant officer and a fine man.

Not only had the company attained their objective but they killed about thirty Germans, including the Company Commander, took thirty prisoners, and released fifteen men of the Royal Fusiliers whom the Germans had caught in their first attack.

D Company’s courageous rally undoubtedly prevented the enemy from gaining the lateral road which at that time and for some time afterwards was the line of the British forward defence and thus had a great bearing in keeping the beachhead intact.

During the battle of March 2-3, Lieut.-Colonel H Baucher arrived and took over command of the battalion from Major Viscount Stopford, who despite ill-health and the terrific strain of the Anzio battles had done yeoman service, first as Second-in Command, and then as Acting Commanding Officer. Owing to illness he was afterwards invalided from the battalion, to the great regret of the few remaining original members of the London Irish.

Apart from desultory shelling no further action was fought. The battalion remained in the line for another week, and two Royal Engineer companies came under command, helping to strengthen its ranks. The 5th Division landed in the beachhead and the 56th Division was withdrawn.

By that time there was no doubt that though the enemy would make further attacks the beachhead was secure, thanks to the long endurance and the firm and spirited resistance of the beachhead forces. The Brigadier told the London Irish when he visited them before they left Anzio that a critical situation had been saved.
Throughout the arduous days all ranks at B Echelon worked with wonderful spirit in getting vital supplies up to the front line. Some vehicles were bogged, others crashed, yet food, water, and ammunition got through.

The cook of Headquarters Company, Corporal WJ Harris, worked wonders with a large metal water-tub which he converted into an oven. As the result of an international but unofficial barter he acquired supplies of yeast, and to the delight and satisfaction of the men, who had lived on “hard-tack” for days, he produced loaves of crisp white bread and tasty cakes. They were highly appreciated.

During the latter part of the Anzio struggle the following immediate awards for gallantry were made to the London Irish:

Bar to MC.
Major WE Brooks.

MC.
Captain Alan Mace.
Captain DA Hardy.
Captain GRH Mullins.
Captain RM Haigh.
Lieutenant L Rue.

DCM.
CSM F Kelly.
Sergeant HF Guy.

MM.
Sergeant A Mason.
Corporal C Wilson.
Corporal C Hill.

On March 11 the London Irish sailed for Pozzuoli, near Naples. During nearly six weeks at Anzio its casualties in killed, wounded, and missing were: thirty-two officers, five hundred and fifty other ranks. Only twelve officers and three hundred other ranks embarked, and many of these had just returned to the battalion from hospital.

On St Patrick’s Day, 1944, the 1st Battalion were billeted at Sarno, between Naples and Salerno and near the foot of Mount Vesuvius. Through thoughtless staff-work on a high level they were ordered to move that day to billets farther south. A most successful but delayed observance of the festival was held, during which Major-General GWR Templer, DSO, OBE, Commander of the 56th (London) Division, and Brigadier KC Davidson, of 168 Brigade, visited the battalion.


2ND BATTALION.

An attack on Cassino and the Monastery was impending by the 4th Indian Division and the 2nd New Zealand Division, with the prior support of a colossal air bombardment. This, of course, depended on the weather, and as there was almost constant heavy rain the project was delayed. The role of the Irish Brigade and the rest of the 78th Division was to exploit the break-through when it had been achieved. When St Patrick’s Day came the Irish Brigade were at four hours’ notice to move, but fortunately the Brigadier had made a secret pact with the Divisional Commander that nothing short of a calamity would cause the Irish Brigade to be moved before late on the 18th of March!

The day was observed with traditional ceremonial, and Major-General CF Keightley, CB, OBE, the Divisional Commander, sent a message to all ranks in which he said: ” If the whole Army fights with the same spirit and gallantry with which you have done in the past year, then the Bosche will soon be exterminated. I am confident that next St. Patrick’s Day will see this extermination complete and your return home with all the honour which will be due to you. In the meantime, let us fit ourselves for our last battles. May they be short and successful..”

The General was not far out in at least one of his prognostications.

The attack on Cassino had begun late on the afternoon of March 15, and with the gaiety of the St. Patrick’s Day celebrations there was a latent, uneasy feeling of the lull before the storm. The expected storm did not break just then because the brave efforts of the New Zealanders and the Indian Division did not succeed, though backed up with one of the heaviest poundings from the air Cassino had yet endured. Still, five days after St. Patrick’s Day, the 2nd Battalion London Irish had a closer view of Cassino when they took over posts on the Rapido (Gari) River, south of the Monastery.

The river, a tributary of the Garigliano, ran straight across the Liri Valley from Cassino to Ambroglio, and it was on either side of this river that the opposing armies in this sector sat. Since the previous December some parts of the front had not changed at all. There had been a limited success by 10th Corps near the mouth of the Garigliano in January, and the French and Americans had advanced in December and reached the neighbourhood of Cassino. The French had done magnificently in the mountains north of the Liri Valley and had got up, behind Cassino and the Monastery on to Monte Castellone and Monte Belvedere, each over two thousand feet high but which were almost dwarfed by the might of Monte Cairo behind them. Those two vital positions had been taken in order to facilitate the operations against Cassino and the Monastery, which with Monte Cairo remained in German hands. The Monastery was undoubtedly the key position. It completely dominated the French line of communications from their minor mountain fastnesses. It also dominated Cassino and the Liri Valley below.