By September 1, the division was committed, with 168 Brigade in reserve. On September 4, the London Irish moved up, and then it became clear that all was not going as well as had been hoped. The Queen’s and 167 Brigade were having trouble. Some unpleasantly high features were proving a nuisance, and the River Conca was ahead.
For twenty-four hours, the London Irish sat in their troop-carrying vehicles, moving only six hundred yards in daylight. At nightfall they started off in a long column, and progress was slow. The London Scottish and the Irish advance party were ahead, and daylight found the convoy climbing and crawling on bad roads in hilly country with the vehicles stretching for miles, nose to tail. The battle could be heard, and it was apparent to the old stagers that the shells were not all going the one way.
Suddenly and unpleasantly the column came under shell-fire and everyone debussed and scattered. This was the battalion’s first taste of the enemy since Anzio, and it was far from welcome because nothing could be done by them in response: the Germans were still far away. Heavier and faster came the shells and some casualties were caused, but, on the whole, the battalion was lucky.
It became clear that there was confusion in front and there came the news that the London Scottish had been caught in their vehicles by very heavy shelling, and that Captain Harry Gallaher, Officer Commanding of the London Irish advance party, who had only recently returned to the battalion, had been wounded. The Commanding Officer and his “O” Group went on ahead, and the column followed, luckily without much more shelling.
On arriving at Morciano, the London Irish heard they were urgently needed and that the battalion was to pass over the Conca, which had already been forced, and to concentrate at Croce.
All went well until the leading companies reached a crossroads below Croce. They were heavily shelled and mortared from Croce and from Gemmano, a nasty-looking hill immediately to their rear. It was realised that not only was Croce very far from being captured, but that the London Irish were completely overlooked from all sides. They dispersed widely, and eventually two companies and Tactical Headquarters worked their way past the cross-roads up a hill-side which formed the ridge leading to Croce. They dug in and found themselves amongst a Royal Fusilier company who, it had been thought, were already in Croce.
In the meantime battalion vehicles following up behind approached the crossroads, which afterwards became known as “Stonk Corner.” As the leading jeep reached it, a Spandau opened up with that peculiar viciousness so well known to those who had been under its fire before. Very soon hell was let loose on “Stonk Corner,” with eighty-eights, mortars, and the rest of the German bag of tricks.
The leading drivers were brave and cool, and the whole column performed the amazing feat of turning in its own length and tore back two miles or so down the road to safety. Not one man or vehicle was lost.
Orders were received from Brigade that an attack was to be put in on San Sevino cemetery and Point 168, which was five hundred yards along the ridge to the south and in the direction of Croce. The Commanding Officer, Lieut-Colonel Baucher, had just time enough to make his reconnaissance in fading light, and was forced to point out the objectives to B and D Company Commanders in light so bad that the tasks were given from the map and by the aid of a compass bearing on a burning haystack. The platoon commanders, of course, had no chance at all of seeing anything but the fire, their objectives were a matter of some hazard. It was a lamentable and noticeable feature of the conduct of the campaign at that period that time for reconnaissance was rarely given by higher authority, the mistaken impression still persisting that the Germans were on the run in spite of obvious evidence to the contrary.
D Company set off, followed by B Company. The route lay over the ridge upon which the battalion was dug in, across a valley, and up to the San Sevino Ridge. The advance of D Company began with 18 Platoon, closely followed by the Company Commander and Tactical Headquarters. Everything was unusually quiet as the company deployed in readiness for the attack.
In the stillness of the evening the surrounding countryside sprang suddenly into life. From positions very carefully concealed on their left flank, the enemy opened up machine-gun fire and pinned the entire company down. The situation was awkward, and after several fruitless attempts to go forward there was no alternative but to wait until total darkness. Supported by the gunners the company resumed its advance at 2100 hours, and when they succeeded in reaching their objective they discovered that some of the enemy had withdrawn. As 18 Platoon in the centre got almost to the top of the ridge they were fired on heavily from a house only fifty yards away. Lieutenant M Spiller with 16 Platoon on the right made a quick appreciation of the situation and ordered two sections to attack with grenades and Bren guns. The Germans in the house were taken completely by surprise. In a few minutes the house was more or less surrounded and all exits covered. About two hundred yards away 17 Platoon were having a stiff fight with strong groups of Germans still holding out in houses on the outskirts of Croce. A fire plan wag scarcely completed when the enemy counter-attacked, but thanks to the vigilance of the section commanders they were beaten back. Shortly afterwards there was a stronger attack, the enemy being obviously determined to sweep the London Irish from the ridge.
The company fought back magnificently in the darkness, but enemy superiority in numbers and automatic weapons gradually made itself felt and the London Irish had to fall back a hundred yards or so. In covering the withdrawal, 18 Platoon, under Sergeant S Henry and Corporal LJ Martini, fought the Germans to a standstill. For their outstanding leadership and courage they were each awarded the MM.
Their platoon also had ultimately to move back to new defensive positions. There was hardly time for the company to recover from the two previous shocks when the Germans attacked in greater strength and for the third time. By now the London Irishmen were weary and almost exhausted, having had not a moment’s respite since launching their original attack. The Germans closed in but every man in the company stood aggressively in his position. For fifteen minutes there was a tense struggle and suddenly, in spite of their strength, the enemy withdrew. There was a brief silence, and then a German officer shouted out that he and some of his men wanted to surrender. Major T Sweeney went forward to accept the surrender but, with typical treachery, they challenged him and without hesitation shot him down.
To avenge the death of their leader, to whom all D Company were devoted, the men charged from their defences and although ammunition was running short shot up all the Germans in sight. After about half an hour, encirclement was threatened by German reinforcements and the company withdrew from Point 168 entirely. Seventeen enemy dead were left behind.
Throughout the engagement, CSM McDaid acted with conspicuous gallantry in rallying and holding his men together. He was awarded the DCM. Fine work, too, was done by the company stretcher-bearers, and another award was the MM to Rifleman WJ McDonald, of the Regimental Aid-Post, for outstanding courage in tending the wounded.
The fighting quality of each member of the company was splendid and individual praise would perhaps be unfair, but mention should be made of Rifleman Warren, of 18 Platoon, who although wounded and unable to walk covered the company’s retirement with his Bren gun and helped to ward off the enemy.
While D Company had thus been in the thick of things, B Company, under Major D Neill, moved through mortar-fire in the valley and reaching the cemetery put in a spirited attack upon the ridge. On reaching the “German” positions they found to their mortification and surprise that it had already been taken by elements of an armoured division on the right of the battalion.
Next morning, after D Company had been re-formed on the slopes of Croce, under Major R Hedger MC, a further attack on Point 168 was planned. As the Commanding Officer and the two remaining Company Commanders were going into, the scheme, a passing tank drew fire from the enemy. A shell landed in the observation-post, where the “O” Group were, killing three other ranks and wounding the others. Thus in twenty-four hours of re-entering battle the London Irish lost their Commanding Officer and three senior officers. In the party, also, was Major Alec Smith, of 445 Battery, 65th Field Regiment RA. He, too, was wounded, but he refused to be evacuated until he had passed on the Commanding Officer’s plan to Major DAT Brett, the Second-in-Command, who hastened up on a motor-cycle from B Echelon and took over.
The need to take Point 168 was imperative, and C Company, under Lieutenant J Prosser, was launched at once on the hill, after a pounding from the gunners. The attack was brilliantly successful, and the hill firmly secured. The attack was made across open country under heavy fire. Sergeant R. Gamble led his platoon with such dash and courage that all the Germans holding six Spandau posts were either killed or captured. Lieutenant Prosser (unhappily later killed) and Major Alec Smith received the MC as the result of this action, and Sergeant Gamble was awarded the MM. Almost all the Germans who had made the counter-attack on D Company were disposed of, but that was a small consolation for the loss of the Commanding Officer and three Company Commanders in the first twenty-four hours of action.
The Company Seconds-in-Command arrived to take over C and A Companies, and despite casualties to the senior officers and consequent disorganisation the battalion was prepared to stay in its positions indefinitely, and if necessary to advance.
In the meantime, the London Scottish had passed through into the valley beyond and up on to the next ridge, to occupy a farm called Il Palazzo. The 1st Welch Regiment now held the village of Croce, and thus the brigade were on a horseshoe-shaped ridge with Croce in the centre, and II Palazzo and San Sevino at the open ends. Gemmano, overlooking the London Irish from the rear, was still in German hands. This made the situation unenviable. Any movement of any sort by day brought retribution in the form of shells and mortars of all calibres.
That night the London Irish buried their dead, and they lie in a cemetery near Morciano cared for and be-flowered by the local inhabitants. After last light surprise was caused by an order to withdraw to Morciano, leaving A Company to cover the right flank of the London Scottish. The withdrawal was by march route by companies across country to the Conca crossing and then uphill to Morciano, a journey with more than its share of danger, but the move went fairly smoothly. A Echelon and the Quartermaster did a splendid job, meeting the battalion with hot tea, food, and blankets.
The next day it was learned that the situation was far from happy. A Company had been heavily attacked in the morning, but had managed to hold on to a precarious but vital position. The London Scottish had failed to hold II Palazzo, and their positions in the valley were continuously and devastatingly “stonked.” But Gemmano had finally fallen to 167 Brigade, and the Welch, despite heavy casualties, still held Croce.
It was not surprising that in the evening after only sixteen hours’ rest the London Irish once again set out across the Conca to return to the positions they had left the previous day.
It was realised that the San Sevino Ridge was the key to Croce, and that Croce was the key to the whole Corps line. The battalion stayed on for three days, enduring heavy bombardments and throwing back strong German patrols probing at danger-spots. Casualties were heavy. Lieutenant Johns in the Support Company was wounded by our own twenty-five pounders; D Company lost several killed and Lieutenant Michael Spiller and others wounded in a direct hit on a house. B Company suffered the battalion’s greatest loss during that period, when CSM Keenan, a magnificent soldier and man, was killed in his slit trench by a mortar bomb bursting in the trees above. Lieutenant Bob Goodall and Lieutenant John Gates were wounded, and Lieutenant Alan Soutar, a newly joined officer, was killed while on a two-man patrol to find out the position at II Palazzo. That patrol had been sent out regularly every day at last light, and Lieutenant Noel Dorrity did it successfully twice across the shell-swept country, and the third time Lieutenant Soutar set out. He was accompanied by a non-commissioned officer, and his orders were to lie up on the position and to report back by wireless what he had observed. When he got within four hundred yards of his objective Lieutenant Soutar told his companion to remain in a ditch under cover, while he went forward alone. Soon afterwards the non-commissioned officer heard Spandau fire and grenades explode. There were loud cries in German, and then in the light of a flare he saw Lieutenant Soutar firing his Tommy gun from the hip. At that moment a “stonk” came down from our own artillery behind. When it ended the non-commissioned officer found no trace of the officer, but discovered two dead Germans. Lieutenant Soutar did not return, and it was confirmed later that he was killed during his single-handed combat with the enemy by whom he was out-numbered. Lieutenant Soutar came to the London Irish from a battalion of the Highland Light Infantry-a capable and fearless officer.
During the battle for the ridge the mortar platoon did some very good shoots, but drew heavy return fire which caused losses to men and carriers. Sergeant J Coduri was badly wounded when the Germans made another direct hit on a house.
On the night of September 10-11 the battalion was relieved and moved back along the old familiar road to Morciano, where vehicles took them to a delightful spot near the coast away from the shells and smells of battle. One stray shell most unluckily came over during the move and wounded Sergeant Jenkins of the Intelligence Section.
Four days’ rest was of great benefit to everybody, and during that period the battalion met the Irish Regiment of Canada. The respective bands played to each battalion, and the Canadians were persuaded to adopt blue hackles in their caubeens. The hackles were conspicuously displayed later in the attack the Canadians made on Coriano, which they captured with great spirit.The Irish Regiment of Canada has since become affiliated to the Royal Ulster Rifles, and the hackle has now been permanently adopted by the Canadian Irish.
One aspect of the Croce-San Sevino battle was the heavy loss suffered by our armour. Burnt-out tanks, trackless tanks, and others ditched and abandoned were scattered all over the area-a grim sign of the severity of the fight.
On September 16, the battalion moved up beyond San Sevino to exploit a tiny bridgehead formed by the Royal Fusiliers over the Marano River. The London Irish crossed the Marano at Francescini, and found it a wide, open water-course at the bottom of a valley with scarcely any water at all. The battalion was heavily shelled, and among the wounded was Lieutenant F Bryant, the Pioneer Officer, who was formerly a CSM in the battalion.
The London Irish had to fight for the ridge overlooking the river, and in this battle they again encountered nebelwerfers. The ridge was gained and the London Scottish passed through on to Mullazzano. While it was still dark the London Irish set out next morning to capture Monte Olivo, a prominent height beyond the ridge. In spite of ditched carriers and knocked-out jeeps, a hot meal had been sent up, and though a bit tired the battalion was in good shape to go on.
A and D Companies led the attack and first captured the crossroads at Cortellini, an essential part of the plan. A Company moved so fast that they caught two German anti-tank guns moving off, and scuppered the lot, guns, horses, and men. D Company pushed on, reached the crest of Monte Olivo, and were forced to a stop. B and C Companies went to the base of the hill, and the mortars set up in a house near by. All day a bitter fight went on but no headway could be made. In the evening, the Welch passed through at Cortellini to outflank Olivo. They stuck on Point 227, a bare, exposed ridge, and A Company were sent to help them.
All next day, the third since crossing the Marano, the London Irish and the Welch tried to get on, but were held by merciless fire. B Company tried to pass Point 227 but were caught in our own barrage and dug in hurriedly. Even heavier became the enemy fire, and all the companies suffered grievously. The medical jeep and the stretcher-bearers were beyond praise for their work in coping with the steady stream of wounded which they got back to the regimental aid-post.
About four o’clock in the afternoon of the 19th, the Brigade Commander announced that the London Scottish had broken through three miles to the banks of the River Ausa, the last river but one before the plains of Lombardy. The London Irish were ordered to disengage at once and to move back through Mullazzano, and to help the Scottish cross the river. It was impossible to disengage until dark; contact with the enemy was too close and observation by them too easy. At night the Welch took over and the London Irish, tired almost to exhaustion, set off on a seven mile march and to cross a river which no one had seen.
A plan with the London Scottish was agreed from the map and information about the enemy seemed to indicate that they were not holding the river line in strength. Unfortunately they were, and both battalions ran into a packet of trouble. B Company and a company of the London Scottish were involved in an attack and counter-attack in which heavy losses were caused to both sides. Men made prisoners in one action were released in the other. Eventually B Company rallied magnificently and held on to the far side of the river. C and D Companies went across and took up successful positions, but A Company had a sticky time on the left. In the pitch darkness they dug in along a road covered by a steep bank and held on desperately, defying all German efforts to hurl them back over the river. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy.
By the next day, the situation was easier. The Queen’s on the left had crossed under cover of the Irish-Scottish attack and had made good headway. The formation on the right flank was equally successful, and after the heights at San Marino to the west had been captured the way to the plains seemed open at last.
The London Irish were ordered to stay put. The men were out on their feet and were even too tired to eat. Shelling abated but was still a nuisance. Towards evening the battalion was withdrawn and the job was nearly over. Billets, sleep, a wash and a shave, and food was the programme for the next two days. Once again, alas, the London Irish was down to two weak companies in strength.
To Lieut-Colonel Baucher, the Commanding Officer, came the following personal message from General Sir Oliver Leese, Commander Of 30th Corps:
“My congratulations to you and all ranks of your battalion on your hard fight at San Sevino. The Regiment may be proud of its part in a great and hard-fought victory. My thanks and best wishes to you all.”
The 56th (London) Division had six thousand casualties in the heavy fighting of September, and a drastic reorganisation had to be made. 168 Brigade, which had existed as a very successful entity since training days in England, was disbanded. The 1st Battalion Welch Regiment was dissolved, as were two other battalions in the division. The London Irish, reinforced to three companies by men from the Welch Regiment, became part of 167 Brigade, with the London Scottish and the 9th Battalion Royal Fusiliers.
A new Commanding Officer, Lieut-Colonel JA Sperling, DSO, joined the battalion, and on September 26 the London Irish moved up into the plains, a very welcome change after months of weary travel and toil in the mountains. The journey continued to Savignano, and orders came to cross the River Fiumicino. Reconnaissances were made and all was ready. Then came the deluge, and from a dry bed the river became a formidable torrent rising several feet in a few hours.
Day by day the plan changed. Was the operation on or was it off?
Sometimes it was on and then two hours later it was cancelled. So it went on, with the river rising all the time. Finally it was on, tanks or no tanks, bridges or no bridges, but then on October 2 the battalion was ordered back to Morciano. It never crossed the Fiumicino, and the bridge built there later was aptly named: “Itson-Itsoff.”
The London Irish went right back to Fermo, near Ancona, for a deserved respite. The Battle for the Gothic Line had cost the battalion five officers and eighty other ranks killed, and eighteen officers and two hundred and twenty-seven other ranks wounded. Lieut-Colonel Baucher, Major Cantopher, and Major Gibson returned to England to recover from their wounds. One outstanding and admirable feature of those months of struggle was that the untried reinforcements from the Anti-Aircraft Regiments proved themselves as fine a body of infantrymen as anyone could wish to have. They never flinched from their hard and new tasks.
There were many individual acts of gallantry during the battles beyond Croce. While crossing the Marano, several men of B Company were caught in shell and machine-gun fire and were wounded. Corporal JA Vale, a section commander, carried one of the wounded men across the open, rendered first aid, and arranged his evacuation. A day or so later, when B Company was counter-attacked after crossing the Ausa, Corporal Vale with exemplary leadership and courage assisted in destroying two enemy machine-gun posts. He was awarded the MM.
While the mortars were in action at the Ausa, the enemy scored a direct hit on the ammunition. Sergeant HE Allen, the mortar platoon sergeant, set a courageous example and despite the fact that ammunition was exploding all round them, his detachment remained in position and continued in action.
LIEUT-COLONEL BAUCHER’S TRIBUTE
In a review of the work of the 1st Battalion since he took command, Lieut-Colonel Baucher said that although from March to September 1944, the battalion had had no long period in action, it had been no easy time. There had been continuous changes in personnel, and while they were trying to build up a good fighting team to restore the losses at Anzio, the battalion had many other commitments and plans were continually being changed.’
He found it impossible to find sufficient Irishmen in the Middle East to make up reinforcements, and although the gunners included many Irishmen, particularly among the officers, the percentage of Englishmen in the battalion was very high. When the London Irish returned to Italy, one thousand strong, only about twenty-five per cent were Irishmen.
The majority of officers and men from the gunners took their conversion to infantry extremely well, and tried very hard under trying conditions. On the whole they were a great success considering the short period of training that was available to them.
“The main impression I shall always have,” wrote Lieut-Colonel Baucher, ‘Is of a very happy battalion which would always put all it could into any job provided it knew the reason why. I found the men far above the average in intelligence, and I always felt they should always be told the reason for any order which I issued. I shall always look back with great pride and happiness to the period March-September 1944.”