2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles North Africa and Italy

Discussion in 'General' started by Quis Separabit, Nov 12, 2019.

  1. Quis Separabit

    Quis Separabit Junior Member Patron

    Transcribed details of 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles entry in Royal Ulster Rifles "Quis Separabit" journal from November 1944 (apologies for redacted unit and location sections).



    By Captain Gibbons. London Irish Rifles

    (Space does not permit the inclusion of the whole of Captain Gibbons very excellent article. The following extracts have been selected. At the time that the narrative starts the 2nd L.I.R. had already been for some time in contact with the enemy, but their activities had been chiefly confined to patrolling. They had recently withdrawn West of Goubellat to conform with the French - Editor.)

    IT WAS IMPOSSIBLE to hold the plain so we now held the line of the hills about seven miles west of the main road running from Bou Arada, Goubellat to Medjez el Bab. As the enemy did not occupy the farms on our side of the road, or at least not often, it meant that patrols had to go about eight miles to find him.

    On 10th January, we received orders to move that night to Pichon to help the French who were being strongly attacked. We waited in T.C.Vs. all night, but, in the morning we were told it was cancelled, so back we went and started breakfast. Just then an urgent call came through and the Company Commander told me to get everything ready for action.

    Apparently a squadron of the 2nd Lothian and Border Horse had made a sweep with their Crusaders towards the Bou Arada-Goubellat road. Two farms, one just this side of the road and the other two hundred yards beyond, had turned out to be well armed with A/Tk. guns and machine guns and had already knocked out seven of our tanks.

    These farms had been searched and found empty two nights previously, so their quick occupation and fortification was unexpected. They held about thirty Germans each, so the tanks had reported, and our job was to them out and help the tanks to withdraw. The tanks had taken what cover they

    could but were still covered by the enemy A/Tk. guns, while three of them were bogged and could not be got out. The enemy were still in position and we were ordered to take the farms and kill the enemy. The sketch E shows the position.

    The plan for the attack on Farm B was as follows: No. 18 pl., of which I was platoon commander, was to lead and we were to get as near to the farm as we could and give covering fire. 17 platoon were to assault from the right, and 16 platoon to stand off on the left and only come in if needed. We had with us a F.O.O. who was in wireless touch with his battery.

    We were to have a ten minute concentration on the farm B and then smoke when called for. After that the gunners were to switch to mortars and carriers, two of which mounted Vickers M.Gs., were to support us into the farm and act in a cut-off role - also covering Farm A.

    After Farm B was taken 17 platoon would consolidate it and the other two would carry on and take Farm A. We advanced and got about 300 yards from the farm. Still nothing had happened. The company commander now began tobe a bit suspicious of the Mosque on the right flank and I agreed with him since it looked too obvious a place to be unoccupied. So he sent a message to 16 pl. To swing across and search the mosque.

    The pl. Sgt. who had received these orders over the 38 set was unfortunately the only man to be hit in the very heavy fire which enveloped us at that moment -artillery, and mortars from the hills on our right and machine-gun fire from the two farms and the Mosque. It was thus that 16 pl. did not take the mosque but continued on their original line on the left flank.

    Owing to the extreme softness of the ground the mortar fire which was intense had little effect ; this was lucky as there was no cover of any description. As we got to the farm, after fixing our swords and doubling, I reported the enemy leaving the farm from the rear.

    The company commander ordered me to send one section round the right of the farm and take the other two round the left and catch the enemy coming out. This I did, the company commander himself going round the right flank with my other section. We got into a position covering the rear of the farm and the ground towards Farm A. The Germans were running as fast as they could towards the wadi and it was here that the carriers and mortars proved their worth. By their efforts and the fire of my two sections only two Germans out of about twenty ever reached that wadi.

    While this was going on 17 pl. had taken the farm, and Coy H.Q. had installed themselves. My pl. sgt. had been hit and two others wounded, also my 38 set was hit and smashed and a mortar bomb had exploded all my 2 in. mortar H.E. bombs. We were thus out of touch by W/T and two runners had already been hit by very accurate sniping, I eventually managed to crawl about 75 yards to the farm and the situation was as follows : the F.O.O's. 21 set had been hit and put out of action ; the company 18 set had ceased to work, the only sets in order apparently being the Coy. H.Q. and 17 platoon 38 sets.

    As 17 platoon were in the farm and round it this was of no great use to us and we were now out of touch with the artillery, Bn. H.Q. and the carriers. The artillery were shooting by observation and had, we learnt afterwards, silenced the enemy guns on the right, but they did not fire on the second farm as they did not know if we were in it yet. They had fired on it but the thought they saw us advancing actually it was the Germans running.

    No. 16 pl. were still on the left under heavy fire from the machine guns, and company commander was out with my section in front and had not been seen since. I went and had a look and saw him up the road with some wounded ; they were still being mortared from the right, but our platoon mortarman laid a very accurate smoke screen in front of him and we eventually got the wounded in. This screen was the turning point for the enemy thought that another attack was coming ; some quit in a truck, which was hit by one of our tanks and set on fire, the rest ran but I do not think many got away. They were from the Hermann Goering Jager Regiment, a paratrooper unit and therefore among the best German troops, so why they ran out of two strongly held farms is a mystery, unless it was the sight of the bayonet.

    This marked the end of the action. A sniper kept up his shooting until dusk we tried to locate him, searching the ground with fire, but without success. The tanks withdrew, taking our wounded with them, and when dusk fell we destroyed every thing we could and went back, too. Our total casualties were four killed and eleven wounded, one of whom afterwards died, whereas we had probably killed or wounded at least thirty five of the enemy. Everyone was in high spirits before and during the operation and the only disappointment was not getting to close quarters. Although no one likes war, it was rather an anti-climax to find nobody at the end of a bayonet charge.

    That, in brief, is the story of our first battle It lasted five hours and I think the company were very proud to be the first members of the Battalion to have a battle with the enemy. It certainly gave them a great feeling of superiority, which is what they should have, over the German soldiers. We learnt several important lessons from this attack and they might easily have been more dearly bought than in fact they were.

    After the above operation we returned back to our position and patrols carried on as usual. The next attack the company took part in was that on Hill 286, just North and East of Bou Arada. Here is the sequence of events leading up to this action. Sketch shows the position of the various places mentioned.

    17/18 Jan. Left Goubellat at midnight and travelled all night till dawn.
    18/19 Jan. Marched to farms on plain N.W. of Bou Arada-dug in all night.
    19 Jan. Dawn: Germans launched infantry and tank attack on Grandstand Hill, half a mile to our front. We were shelled and dive bombed most of the day. At 6 p.m. we marched to hills South of Bou Arada (ten miles) and dug in that night on a rocky hill.
    20 Jan. At 5 a.m. we received orders to move to positions S.E. of Grandstand. Marched eleven miles and were shelled during some of it. Took up positions in wadi at 12 noon and stayed there till 6 pm. Moved to West Hill and dug in till 1 a.m.
    21 Jan. Orders came through for attack on Hill 286. We were to be supporting company. We moved at 2 a.m. to positions slightly forward of Grandstand and dug in before dawn. Everyone was dead tired - last meal had been at 2 p.m. on 20th.

    The Battalion was given orders to attack at about midnight 20/21 January. The orders were issued to companies and the move to the forming-up positions star at 2 a.m. The attack was to take place at dawn ; G Coy. were to take Hill 279,

    which was thought to be held lightly by the enemy, and act as fire support company ; F Coy. was to attack Hill 286, with Coy. moving up on the left if needed ; H Coy., in which I was a platoon commander, was to occupy a position just South of Grandstand Hill (marked X) in reserve. Supporting us we had the whole Divisional Artillery and later on, one squadron of 17/21 Lancers in Crusaders.

    At dawn G. Coy moved off to take Hill 279. They captured it and took several prisoners but ran into heavy M.G. fire from Hill 286 and Barka, mortar fire from behind Barka and a battery of enemy field guns firing from the direction of Two Tree Hill. Consequently, in digging in they sustained fifty per cent. casualties. F Coy, then advanced to Hill 286 and endeavoured to storm it. They succeeded in capturing the first half of the saddle but ran into heavy and accurate fire from the rear end of the hill and cross fire from Barka. The majority of the company were killed or wounded and the remnants probably about 20 men under a sergeant, were driven off after hand to hand fighting, when they retired to the forward end of 279. While this close quarter fighting was in progress, E Coy. were ordered in to attack and, though subjected to the same fire, succeeded in clearing the whole hill of the enemy. When they had done this there were only the Company Commander and fifteen men left. For this action Captain J. V. Lillie-Costello was awarded the M.C.

    The time was now about 9 a.m. G Coy. and the remains of F Coy. were in positions on 279. E Coy. were on 286 and H Coy. still intact, were in their original position. Hill 286 was now a shambles and the C.O. ordered E Coy, to hold the rear end of the hill until H Coy could relieve them. At about 10.30 a.m. we were given orders to move down the road to Battalion H.Q. in the wadi and to prepare for attack.

    Up till now we had sat in slit trenches all the morning being shelled, mortared and bombed, fortunately without effect, and although everyone was very tired they were all very cheerful. We moved down the road without loss and took up station in the wadi, while the company commander, Capt. J. D. Lofting, went forward and received orders to advance immediately and to take and hold Hill 286. There was a squadron of tanks helping us who would be hull down just left of 279.

    We advanced in open order. As we rounded the hill into the open the first shell fell and from then on they never stopped until fifteen minutes later we got under the lee of Hill 279. By that time Capt. Lofting had been wounded the 2nd i/c Capt Henderson killed and thirty others killed or wounded including the C.S.M and two platoon sergeants.

    I thus found myself a company commander with a very depleted company and I soon received a wireless message to hold on to what we had got and to dig in. After twenty minutes the C.O. came up and asked how many casualties we had had. I told him and received orders to go on and occupy 286. This we did, losing about five more men. We took up positions in the German trenches and stayed there until 10 p.m., being shelled and mortared intermittently.

    Most of the trouble was caused by the enemy O.Ps. on Barka, Mehulla and Two Tree Hill and as these dominated the battle ground, we could do nothing unobserved. As was, they were all shelled out on numerous occasions and, although repeatedly forced to leave their O.Ps., the observers very persistently came back. We remained there, as already stated, preparing what defences we could and evacuating the wounded, until 10 p m. I was then ordered to leave one platoon in occupation as

    a standing patrol and withdraw the rest of the company back to West Hill. This I did and, after feeding them, returned to the platoon on 286 with the food and greatcoats as it was now very cold - these I took in a jeep. The platoon, under the command of the only other officer left were very tired but still pretty cheerful, although the sight of 286 in the moonlight was ghastly until it was possible to take the dead back for burial.

    I had just got back to Battalion H.Q. when I saw a red flare, the danger signal, go up from the platoon and heard fire opened from both sides. It was now about 3 a.m. on 22nd and it turned out that about 12 Mk 4s and two hundred infantry were attacking us.

    They came down on both sides and succeeded in reaching the main road and the wadi where the Bn. H.Q. were established. After about half hour's confused fighting Battalion H.Q. decided to move back to West Hill where H Coy. were and I covered their withdrawal with the help of about thirty men - stragglers and walking wounded.

    By this time hand to hand fighting was going on on 279 where the remnants of F and G Coys. were dug in. What was left of E Coy had been moved to a wadi just south of West Hill. At about 2 a.m. resistance on 279 had been overwhelmed, enemy tanks and infantry had surrounded and taken the position by sheer weight of numbers.

    About thirty men got back to the wadi and about eight or nine of the platoon I had left forward - even so they brought some prisoners with them, although these were more of a nuisance than anything else.

    Now the enemy tanks and infantry were on the main road above the wadi, although none got into it, but after another forty minutes of confused fighting our own tanks came up and drove the enemy ones away, their infantry withdrawing also.

    We were then ordered to withdraw to the wadi marked Y west of West Hill and to re-form ; this we did while the Guards took up a position in front of us. When I formed the Rifle Companies up that evening I managed to make four platoons of thirty men each out of them. The total casualties in killed wounded and missing, were twenty one officers and about four hundred and fifty other ranks. I was the only rifle company officer left and there were only two sergeants to help me, all the C.S.Ms. being casualties.


    By Capt. J. W. Grant, London Irish Rifles

    I WAS COMMISSIONED in the Royal Ulster Rifles in March 1940, and after serving in Northern Ireland posted the 2nd Bn. London Irish Rifles in August, 1941. I was soon made to feel at home in the Battalion there. They were a grand lot, but alas, many of them have by now unfortunately gone. After the usual false alarms, we eventually embarked in Scotland in November 1942, for an unknown destination. On our first day at sea, we were told by our Brigadier that we were bound for North Africa, where the British and Americans had

    Just made the initial landings We had an entirely uneventful voyage and on the 14th day steamed into Algiers. We spent a few days outside the city in a very wet field, waiting for a train to take us to Bougie, and here all our preconceived ideas about the African climate went by the board. When the train eventually arrived, it found to consist almost entirely of cattle trucks. However, they succeeded in transporting us, albeit in considerable discomfort to Bougie, about two hundred miles east. On arrival there, we found our transport had been safely landed with everything intact.

    We spent three days getting organised and then off we started for the front. This was a most interesting trip through some wonderful country, on perfect roads. The expected air attacks did not materialise to the extent that we had expected and on the third day we arrived at place called Teboursouk, where we were told we were within ten miles of the Germans.

    About a week was spent here, which was devoid of incident, except routine exploratory patrols, which discovered nothing, and then off we moved again to positions on the hills on the east of the Goubellat plain. Here from our O.P's. we could plainly see the Germans walking about in the various farms they had occupied, sometimes only about 1,500 yards distance. A number of night raids were carried out on these farms, but in every case the birds were found to have flown.

    I will pass on to 3rd January, 1943, the day I received my orders for the operation from which I did not return. We knew we were opposed by German paratroops and it was thought their headquarters was situated in a certain area about ten miles behind the German front positions. I was to take an N.C.O. and six men and find my way to the area by night, lie up the next day in cover, discover where the enemy headquarters were, wait for darkness that night, and then go in and do as much damage as we could.

    I don't mind admitting I didn't like the sound of it in the very least. I naturally picked the six toughest chaps in the Coy. and a very good sergeant. Having blacked our faces and loaded up with as many grenades as we could comfortably carry, off we went.

    The first part went according to plan and we reached the spot we had chosen for a hideout with no excitement other than having to lie low very low, on two occasions when numerically stronger German patrols passed within a few yards of us. We were strongly tempted to have a go at them, as they would have been a sitting target, but ÔÇťorders is orders" so on we had to go.

    Very soon after daybreak, it became apparent that a group of farm buildings about two hundred yards away was our objective, as numerous cars and motor-cycles were seen to arrive and depart at quite frequent intervals. Towards evening, we saw three whacking great tanks with what seems very wide tracks ambling up to the farm and although we didn't know what they were at the time, I have been told since that these were the first Tiger tanks seen in the campaign. When darkness fell, off we started in pouring rain, feeling far from heroic. We had to cross a number of wadis on our way and I had the misfortune to fall into quite a deep one, but suffered no more ill effects than a severe shaking.

    Our plan was, of course, to try and get the sentries silently and then carry on with the good work. We got up to the entrance, a sort of courtyard, three of us on each side and two behind guarding our rear. Visibility at this time was limited to about

    five yards, so heavy was the rain. We could hear the two sentries talking at other side of the courtyard and could see their cigarette ends glowing. We made several attempts to attract their attention and at last one of the cigarette ends started to love towards us. When the figure behind the cigarette end came in view, for a moment I felt almost sorry for him as he had both hands in his pockets and his gun slung over his shoulder. I hoped he would go to the sergeant's side of the roadway. but unfortunately he came straight for me. So when he was about a yard away I nudged the rifleman beside me, and as we had rehearsed it previously that day, we both went for a different place. He didn't make a sound and was dead when we put him down.

    We now waited for his pal, whom we hoped we could dispose of equally easily. After a few shouts from the pal, his cigarette end started to move towards us. When he came into view we saw he had his gun at the ready but still we felt quite confident of disposing of him. Then the accident happened! The chap behind me, apparently wanting a better view, leaned over and in so doing overbalanced, causing the most frightful commotion.

    The German immediately opened up and by sheer bad luck, for he couldn't see me, got me through the right leg with four of his first burst, fracturing it in two places My sergeant immediately got him with his Tommy gun. By now, of course, the whole place was in an uproar. Feeling far from happy, as by now my leg had folded up on me, I had to tell the sergeant to make tracks for home with the information of the location of the place, and to his credit, with a very bad grace, he departed. I was now feeling very angry my beautiful plans having miscarried so badly and as the courtyard seemed full of shouting Germans, the opportunity seemed too good to miss, so just poked my Tommy gun round the corner and let them have the four magazines I had with me. I also had two grenades, which I lobbed over a low barn and judging by the yells they were not wasted.

    Having no more ammunition left, I lay back, as I fondly imagined to be picked up. Quite a time elapsed and then I heard footsteps approaching from my rear. Five Germans came into view, and to my consternation one of them raised his gun and let fly at me as I lay on the ground. Here I had the most amazing luck as although he fired a burst of nine, I only received three of them in the left leg, which apart from severing a few nerves, did no great damage. I gave tongue in no uncertain manner whereupon they came forward, picked me up and carried me into the courtyard, where there was considerable commotion going on with their own casualties.

    I felt that my reception might not be too good; however I must in all honesty say that my treatment could not have been better. My wounds were dressed, I was given hot coffee and cigarettes, and later on a sedative to ease the pain. I had a long talk with the German Colonel who spoke remarkably good English and who gave me a dissertation on the tragedy it was that England and Germany were at War.

    When eventually ambulances arrived to take us to Tunis, about fifteen miles away, he came out and wished me a speedy recovery. I don't wish to be accused of being pro-German, I am very much the reverse, but I am merely giving an account of how they treated me and their treatment certainly gave me to cause for complaint.

    On arrival at Tunis, after a very uncomfortable trip, partly over mountain tracks, we found an Allied air raid in full swing. I was brought to a French hospital taken

    over by the Germans, given an anaesthetic, and my leg set by a German doctor.

    The nurses were all remarkably pretty French girls. They seemed to take it in turns to come and tell me not to worry that my friends would soon be here (Tunis). This I also believed, and was not unduly worried about being a prisoner, as I felt should be back in Allied hands very soon. It was therefore, a very rude shock indeed when I was awakened at 6 o clock the following morning and told that I was being flown immediately to Italy. This was apparently the preferential treatment accorded to officers.

    Shortly before I departed, a German officer came into my room and addressed me in most fluent and colloquial English. Upon my expressing surprise at this, he informed me that he had lived in London for eleven years until the spring of 1939. He then informed me that he was an Intelligence Officer sent to interrogate me, but that the thing was rather ridiculous, as there was nothing I could tell him that he didn't already know. When I cast doubts on this, he proceeded to satisfy them in no uncertain manner, even informing me that I was Irish. How he had found this out I know not. He named my Brigade, its three regiments and the names of their C.O., and then took out a map and showed me the positions the battalions were at present occupying. He told me also that so good was the German Intelligence Service, that within an hour of the arrival of a convoy at any port in North Africa, the German High Command was in possession of the names of the units landed, their senior officers numbers of men, and armament.

    Soon after this, I was brought in an ambulance to Tunis Airport. This was a most depressing place as both the sky and the ground seemed alive with German aircraft. To my great discomfiture, I was put into a very ancient Ju 52, with about fifteen wounded Germans. I immediately thought of all the stories I had heard about the Spitfires shooting these things down in dozens and I prayed very hard that there would be no Spitfires about that day. Fortunately, my prayer was answered, and after three hour trip we landed at Reggio Calabria, which, although I didn't know it at the time was to be my home for the next eight months Immediately on arrival at Reggio, I was separated from the Germans, and brought to an Italian Hospital on the outskirts of the city, where I found myself in a very mixed collection of about forty other Allied wounded, Scotch, English, American, French, and even one Arab.

    Let me say before I describe what conditions were like in an Italian hospital as a prisoner, that I would like the experiences to be regarded, not as entirely my my own, but as those undergone by many other Allied wounded, who had the misfortune to find themselves in hospitals in the most southern part of Italy. Straight away, I would say that at no time did we suffer any ill treatment from the Italians ; they were kind enough in as far as it lay in their power to be kind, but the trouble was that they had very little to be kind with. The Germans had stripped them of everything of value or usefulness, the chief things which concerned us being food and medical supplies. There were no anaesthetics in our hospital! The Italian attitude to the Germans was one of intense hatred and even when I arrived there in January, 1943, they were asking when the Allies were coming to liberate them.

    There were only three Allied officers in the hospital, an Englishman, an American, a Frenchman - all very nice fellows. At first we had a small room to ourselves, a

    fair amount of peace and quiet, but this unfortunately ended when the air raids began. For the first four months, during which time I was in bed, things were quiet, the only variation in the general monotony being the departure every morning of large fleets of German transport planes for Africa and their return the same evening.

    Food, or the lack of it, was our present thought. Our daily menu without variation was: breakfast, a cup of warm goat's milk ; dinner, a cup of macaroni and water, and small piece of very inferior meat ; tea, cup of rice and water. Bread ration for twenty-four hours was two small rolls of dark bread. As a result of the lack of nourishment, it made the healing of wounds most difficult. In addition, a number of patients died from pure starvation. My own case was a fair average. When I went there I weighed 12 stone 10 lbs. When I left I was 8 stone 7 lbs. We were under constant guard, although not one of us would have been fit to escape had he wanted - those who were able to sit outside had one hour per day in the sun.

    On 30th April, leaflets were dropped on Reggio by American planes announcing that it would be bombed on 6th May at 11.30 a.m., and that while the targets would all be military objectives, it would be advisable for all civilians to clear out. This was treated as mere Allied propaganda and no notice whatever taken of it. At 11.30 to the minute on 6th May the Fortresses and Liberators arrived. They stayed only three-quarters of an hour, but it was quite long enough. The civilian casualties when computed some time afterwards came to more than 1.700 killed and 3.000 wounded.

    Conditions in the hospital after this were, of course, beyond description, and the poor prisoners were forgotten to the extent of getting nothing at all to eat for three days. On the fourth, we kicked up such a row that they gave us some thing, but from that day onward we had very much to fend for ourselves.

    Raids continued by day and night with increasing regularity for the next three months. Tremendous damage was done to the town, the harbour, and military objectives in the vicinity, but as far as our hospital was concerned, although we had many uncomfortably close shaves and all our windows were broken, we never got a direct hit.

    On 12th July came the great news that Sicily had been invaded and our hopes soared. For the ensuing seven weeks we were alternatively in the heights and the depths between hoping for release and fear of being moved north. In view of the later contingency, we had made arrangements for a getaway in a boat to Sicily, if necessary for those fit enough to attempt it and I believe it had a very good chance of success. Fortunately it was never needed.

    On the fateful 3rd September, the artillery barrage covering the invasion fleet across the Straits of Messina began at 4.45 am, and lasted, without a second's break, till 5.30 am. We heard afterwards that there had been more than six hundred guns lined up on the far side, as well as three battleships in the Straits.

    It was a most shattering experience to be at the wrong end of it, but our luck still held and we all escaped serious injury. We were, of course, terrified, but the thought of what must be coming at the end of it was a great help. At last, about 6 a.m., we saw the small assault craft heading out of the smoke and our long period of waiting was over.

    There is little more to tell. There was no resistance to the landing and troops were passing the hospital within two hours. The joy of seeing and speaking to our own people again is impossible to describe. We got away to Sicily the next day, from Catania to Tunis by air the day following and thence by hospital train to Algiers, where we separated.

    I was operated on in a British General Hospital in surroundings of the greatest luxury (I even had Guinness for my lunch) and after a seven week stay there, left by hospital ship for England.

    After a week of the finest feeding that I've ever had in my life, a very thankful, though somewhat emaciated, rifleman stepped ashore once more in England, a year to the day from having left for overseas service.
    Last edited: Nov 12, 2019
  2. bexley84

    bexley84 Well-Known Member

    Quis Separabit likes this.
  3. Quis Separabit

    Quis Separabit Junior Member Patron

    Thanks for filling blanks, duly noted and updated, and will use your other history notes for reference in future if OK with you.
  4. bexley84

    bexley84 Well-Known Member

    perfect, that's what they're there for..
    other sources via my other website:

    Welcome to the Irish Brigade Website
    Quis Separabit likes this.

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