Jeff Jeffrey recalled his wartime experiences and how he rejoined the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles (2 LIR) as a piper in Sicily.“The London Irish at War” records the 2 LIR’s Band’s involvement in the Second World War in detail, but two events have avoided publication until now!
TEA (AND ALTAR WINE) AT THE VATICAN.
2 LIR’s visit to the Pope in 1944 is well documented, but little has been written of the Band’s performance. Here’s what happened. On reaching the Vatican, the Band did the usual church parade trick of counter-marching, so as to be facing the churchgoing troops who then wheeled and marched into the church. The Band would then stop playing and look around for a pub or cafe, being sure to be back in time for the end of the service. In this case we surveyed St. Peter’s Square but there was no place of refreshment to be seen, so we stood about smoking.
In a while a priest emerged from the Vatican and said that we should go inside. We told him that we were not of the faith, but merely the musical accompaniment. “It doesn’t matter,” he said, “come along in.” Not wishing to be rude, we followed him into the audience chamber. It transpired that Pope Pius XII had expressed a wish to hear the pipes, but we heathen pipers were outside. So the priest was sent to fetch us. The Wearing of the Green seemed to be suitable for the occasion, so we played that. His Holiness seemed to enjoy it and we were all given a rosary and a photo of the Pope to takeaway with us.
The photo never survived the vicissitudes of war, but the rosary I gave to a very pretty peasant girl at Tavernelle near Lake Trasimene. It didn’t do me any good – her father warned me off!.
When we came out into the sunlight, we were accosted by some Irish priests who, being Irish citizens and therefore neutral, had been living in Rome during the German occupation. It seems that they were desperate for a cup of tea. They had not been able to get any and, like drug addicts, were feeling the pangs of withdrawal. A truck was dispatched back to camp and it brought back a chest full of tea.The young priests were loud in their gratitude and invited us to visit their nearby seminary. So we piled into the truck – and squaddies, priests and tea chest set off through the streets of Rome. On arrival, the tea was carried reverently into the kitchen and a brew was soon on the go, with the priests sniffing the aroma like Bisto Kids. It was heart warming to watch them drink the first cup they’d had in months. “Aaaaah!” they said. and having satisfied their craving, showed their gratitude in a practical way. Tea may have been scarce, but communion wine was plentiful, and they produced it in abundance. I remember little of that afternoon, except a haze of alcohol and good company. They talked about the rigours of the occupation and we brought them up to date on the war so far. Eventually, amid many expressions of goodwill on both sides, they went back to God and we went back to camp.
TOASTING END OF THE WAR IN A POW CAMP.
The war in Italy ended a day early with the German Armies in the South surrendering 24 hours before the general capitulation. 2 LIR crossed the River Po and, after spending a night at Udine, embussed in TLCs and went up into Austria. At Villach, we turned eastwards and headed for a rendezvous with the Russians at Wolfsberg. Streaming westwards was an entire German Army desperate to get away from the Russians. They kept to their side of the road and we to ours. After hours of travelling, we were approaching Wolfsberg when we were overflown by Allied planes. After having passed, they began dropping loaves of bread just ahead of us. Our convoy came to a halt. It looked as if there was a camp of sorts ahead. We were told to get out of the band truck, don our kilts and get ready to march. And so, with the convoy waiting behind us, we set off further eastwards with pipes and drums playing. Meanwhile, in nearby Stalag18B, the allied inmates had had an interesting 24 hours. On the previous day, a British major had landed outside the camp by parachute, marched up to the gate, told everyone that the war was over and put the senior other rank, an Australian WO1, in charge. The German guard melted away. The major unfolded a collapsible bicycle and pedaled off to the east – now fast becoming a favourite direction for Allied personnel. They never saw him again.
Shortly after, the food drops began. The WO1 organised the collecting of the food and rationing it out. The next day all was quiet. They had no idea what was happening. More food arrived. They stood about uncertainly, speculating. Suddenly somebody said, “listen! I hear something.” They all listened, but heard nothing. After a while, the sound came again, lifting on the breeze and dying away again. It sounded vaguely familiar. Then it came again, stronger this time. “Bagpipes”, shouted the Aussie WO1, “Bloody bagpipes!” They all rushed to the gate and threw it open. Marching along the road, getting ever closer, could be seen the pipes & drums of 2 LIR.
“My oath [or words to that effect],” said the Aussie, “It’s just like a film.” And it was! Cecil B. Mille couldn’t have been staged it better. There were cheers and hats flew into the air as our Band wheeled into the gate and onto the square. “Are we glad to see you blokes,” said the Aussie after handshakes all round, “come and have a drink of schnapps.”
“What’s that?” we asked innocently. As our throats were inured to Italian demon vino, bottle always unlabeled, and caressing the gullet like barbed wire, we felt we could cope with anything. Schnapps was something new. It had belonged to the camp commandant who had left in a hurry. The WO1 had thoughtfully locked it up, until a suitable occasion presented itself – and this was it! Toasts were proposed to the Allies, the Russians, everyone present and even the camp commandant for being kind enough to leave his supply behind. Schnapps, for those who haven’t tried it, is drunk in small glasses and burns a bit at first, but soon becomes smooth and seemingly innocuous. Just as you think you’ve got it mastered, you suddenly realise that your legs don’t belong to you at all and sitting down seems highly desirable. From there to lying down is a fairly easy transition. Did the convoy catch up with us? I don’t know, but I think it must have because the last thing I remember was being loaded onto a 15-cwt truck and being carted off to a billet in Wolfsberg and new adventures. As for the next morning, the least said the better.
DEMOBILISATION & AFTERWARDS.
I was with 2 LIR for three years until it broke up in Austria in 1946. Those bandsmen who had not been demobbed were posted to 1 LIR in Trieste. I had been trade tested as a clerk and was sent to the Military Government and made sergeant and chief clerk – lucky again.
I was demobbed in 1947 and it was discovered that I had pulmonary tuberculosis and I spent two years in the British Legion Sanatorium at Preston Hall near Maidstone. I was told that the active service conditions and probably the constant sharing of bagpipes had caused the problem. Going back to piping seemed like a bad idea and I have never played them since, but every time I hear the pipes I have to go and listen.
There was a final twist. Signalling, into which I was so unwillingly pushed, gave me a new interest to replace my love of piping. I sat for exams and became a licensed radio amateur, a hobby which I still pursue to this day in Australia where I now live.
I emigrated to Australia in April 1957 where I spent 28 years in broadcasting as an announcer before retiring in 1985.
(courtesy of Jeff Jeffrey and the Emerald).