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Next stop Rome: The Northern Ireland forces in the vanguard for Eternal City battle

Next month marks the 75th anniversary of the Normandy landings. But 1,000 miles to the east, an equally significant engagement was being fought in June 1944: the battle for the Eternal City. And forces from Northern Ireland were in the vanguard, reveals Richard Doherty

Bloody assault: a Sherman tank and troops of the 16th/5th Lancers
Bloody assault: a Sherman tank and troops of the 16th/5th Lancers
Indian soldiers drag supplies up a steep rock face
General Sir Harold Alexander
Lieutenant General Richard McCreery
Monte Cassino: Opening the Road to Rome by Richard Doherty is published by Pen & Sword Military, priced £25

By Richard Doherty

At 11pm on May 11, 1944, the roar of over 1,600 guns heralded the beginning of Operation Honker as Eighth Army prepared to assault German positions along the Gari river and in the heights of the Cassino massif to finally open the road to Rome. This was the fourth assault on the positions known to the Germans as the Gustav Line.

All three previous assaults had failed to achieve their objectives: to break through the German line and liberate the city of Rome. On January 22, an Allied force had been landed at Anzio, about 30 miles from Rome, in an attempt to pinch out the Germans. That attempt had failed as the forces of Fifth Army had been brought to a halt on the Gustav Line in the first of the four battles.

Likewise, renewed attempts in February and March had been rebuffed by stolid German defenders. By the time Rome was liberated on June 4, the battles for Cassino had proved to be the longest, hardest and bloodiest fought by the Western Allies. Only a few days shorter than the Stalingrad battle, Cassino cost about 55,000 Allied casualties and some 20,000 German, while at least 7,000 Italian civilians lost their lives.

For the fourth battle, the Allied commander in Italy, General Sir Harold Alexander, reorganised his forces to bring both Fifth US and Eighth British Armies into a combined offensive. Moreover, he devised a plan to mislead the Germans about the timing and location of the attack.

Alexander's plan was completely successful. German commanders believed that the Allies would attack in late-May, using both amphibious troops and airborne forces. German formations were, therefore, deployed to guard against a seaborne attack near Civitavecchia and an airborne operation in the Liri Valley. Neither happened. That artillery bombardment on the night of May 11 - the largest thus far in the war - took the Germans by surprise.

American, French, British, Indian and Polish formations fought in the fourth battle. Two British divisions battled their way across the swift-flowing Gari river, where 36th US Division had suffered heavily in January. Then, 78th British Division was to break out of the bridgehead and advance towards Highway 6, the main road to Rome and the Via Casalina of Roman times.

That break-out was led by the Irish Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Pat Scott, whose family roots were in west Ulster (he was later Lord Lieutenant for Co Fermanagh).

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Scott's plan was simple. It relied on the experience and courage of his three infantry battalions, supported by B Squadron 16th/5th Lancers, commanded by Major Robert Gill of Co Meath, and several regiments of artillery.

In spite of stout opposition, 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers took their objectives on time and ready for 2nd London Irish Rifles to launch the next phase. But no plan survives first contact and, as the Rifles finalised preparations, they came under heavy bombardment from enemy guns.

Shells fell among the group of officers completing their plans. The dead included the commanding officers of the Rifles and 16th/5th Lancers.

The attack had to be delayed until next morning. Once again, the Rifles were assailed by heavy shellfire before moving off. Major Desmond Woods, from Co Down, recalled the shelling, which cost the lives of some of his men, including a platoon commander: "The landscape ahead just vanished under pitch-black thundercloud, pierced by the dancing orange lightning of the shell bursts."

With almost a mile to advance, the Rifles moved forward through a vision of hell. British artillery was targeting the German guns, but, even so, shells, mortar rounds and the terrifying Nebelwerfer rockets still took their toll.

As Desmond Woods's H Company approached their objective, Sinagoga Farm, a German anti-tank gun engaged the supporting Lancers' Sherman tanks. The tanks were brought to a halt. The infantry were pinned down.

At that point, one of Desmond Woods's NCOs, Monaghan-born Corporal Jimmy Barnes, seized the initiative. His platoon commander had been seriously wounded and his sergeant was also out of action. Nonetheless, Barnes led his section in an attack on the German gun.

Woods recalled: "One by one, the men were cut down by machine-gun fire on their left flank until Corporal Barnes remained alone. He went on by himself and then he fell dead, cut (down) by a machine-gun, but by then the crew of the (gun) had baled out and the tanks were able to get forward once again."

Barnes had thrown a grenade at the gun, killing at least one gunner. Desmond Woods recommended him for the Victoria Cross. No award was made, nor was he mentioned in despatches. However, Jimmy Barnes's sacrifice - and that of his comrades - allowed H Company's survivors to take Sinagoga Farm.

Major Woods finished the assault with only one sergeant, a few corporals and a handful of riflemen, about a dozen in all, "smothered in brick dust and their eyes the only bright thing about them".

As the Irish Brigade continued its advance, the Royal Irish Fusiliers penetrated close enough to Highway 6 to drop mortar rounds on the road. With the Poles pushing into the mountains to the right and the French from the left, the Germans began withdrawing. Polish soldiers were able to enter the ruins of the Abbey of Saint Benedict on Monte Cassino on the morning of May 18.

However, the Germans had not given up. A further defensive line was to be manned behind the Gustav Line. This was the Hitler Line, which was to be assaulted by the Canadian Corps, supported by tanks, including those of the North Irish Horse.

The Horse supported the Canadian 2 Infantry Brigade as they attacked the German defences on the morning of May 23. It proved a horrendous day for Canadian infantry and Irish tankmen.

By the end of the day, 2 Brigade had sustained the highest single day's casualties of any brigade in the Italian campaign. The North Irish Horse had lost 36 dead, many more wounded and 32 tanks knocked out. It was the regiment's highest day's death toll in two world wars.

In the midst of all the horror there was great gallantry. Sergeant Thomas McAughtry (brother of Sam McAughtry) picked up a wounded man and carried him to safety. He returned to the battlefield to organise the rescue of a badly wounded officer. McAughtry was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Trooper John Neilson, already a holder of the Military Medal, earned a second when his tank was knocked out. Refusing to leave the battlefield, he organised the rescue of wounded "under very heavy fire and (in) full view of the enemy". For over 20 hours, he toiled at his self-imposed task, even going out when heavy enemy fire prevented stretcher bearers from doing so.

The Canadian pounding at the Hitler Line, the French advance and the break-out from Anzio forced the Germans to begin moving north of Rome. On June 4, Allied troops of Fifth US Army entered the Eternal City. Rome was liberated.

The event was front-page news across the world next day. Then, on June 6, came the Normandy landings. Italy was banished from the headlines and the front pages.

But the men fighting there were committed to almost another year of struggle. Lieutenant General Mark Clark, Fifth Army's commander, should have used the break-out from Anzio to cut off one of the two German armies.

Disobeying Alexander's order, he switched his troops towards Rome, claiming the credit for liberating the city.

For Clark's moment of fame, Allied soldiers in Italy paid heavily in blood over the next 11 months.

  • Monte Cassino: Opening the Road to Rome by Richard Doherty is published by Pen & Sword Military, priced £25. Other titles by Richard Doherty on the Italian campaign and published by Pen & Sword are Eighth Army in Italy 1943-45: The Long Hard Slog and Victory in Italy: 15th Army Group's Final Campaign 1945

Military honours for two Ulstermen

Sergeant Grenville Ford

Limavady man Sergeant Grenville Ford was serving in the Royal Army Service Corps. His sub-unit, 1801 (Bailey) Platoon, was attached to the Royal Engineers to deliver sections of Bailey bridges to engineers building bridges for river crossings.

As the infantry of XIII Corps fought their way across the Gari river, bridges were critical to allow tanks and support vehicles to join them.

During the building of Amazon Bridge across the Gari, Sergeant Ford earned an immediate award of the Military Medal for his work in “ensuring the smooth feeding of bridging equipment” to the site and liaising with the officer commanding the operation.

All this was done under incessant shell, mortar and small-arms fire, Ford continuing to show “complete disregard for his own safety” and setting an example for his drivers.

Major Colin Douglas Clark

Major Colin Douglas Clark, later Sir Colin and 4th Baronet Dunlambert, commanded 586 Army Field Company, Royal Engineers, which was involved in building Amazon Bridge.

For his “great energy combined with the soundest engineering knowledge and organising ability”, Clark was nominated for the MBE, an entirely inappropriate award. However, as the nomination ascended the chain of command, this error was recognised and he was awarded the Military Cross.

Major Clark, from Greenisland, Co Antrim, was also mentioned in despatches.

The Irish in Italy

It’s not generally appreciated that the largest concentration of Irish personnel in the Second World War was in Italy.

The three infantry battalions of the Irish Brigade — 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and 2nd London Irish Rifles — maintained their Irish identities and ethos until the end, although many Sassenachs were to be found in the ranks in the latter part of the war.

In summer 1944, following their losses at Cassino and on the Albert Line, 6th Inniskillings were disbanded and replaced by 2nd Inniskilling.

Before transferring to the Irish Brigade, 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers had served in Sicily and Italy with 5th Division, taking part in the Anzio campaign. Also at Anzio was 1st Battalion London Irish Rifles, as part of 56th (London) Brigade.

Another Irish battalion in the beachhead — known as ‘Hell’s Half Acre’ — was 1st Irish Guards, the ‘Micks’. Such were the casualties suffered by the Micks that the battalion was later withdrawn from the campaign.

In September 1943, the Gunners of 9th (Londonderry) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment landed at Salerno on D-Day+6 of Operation Avalanche, Fifth US Army’s landings on the Italian mainland.

Converted to infantry to help stop a German counter-attack, they later reverted to their normal role and served in Italy until the end of September 1944. Operating as field artillery, they earned a high reputation for accuracy and reliability from their US comrades in arms.

There was another Irish Gunner unit in Italy. This was 117th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, which had been 8th Bn Royal Ulster Rifles until it was converted to the artillery role.

In May 1944, the regiment was converted again, this time back to the infantry role, although its soldiers were assigned to battalions in the newly-formed 61 Brigade, commanded by Brigadier Adrian Gore, the son of an old Donegal family.

Two respected officers with NI roots

General Sir Harold Alexander

One of the best-known British generals of the war, Sir Harold Alexander, son of the Earl of Caledon, was commissioned in the Irish Guards in 1911. He served throughout the First World War, earning every gallantry decoration save the Victoria Cross and rose to command a brigade.

Between the wars ‘Alex’ served in several theatres and in 1939 commanded 1st Division in France in the British Expeditionary Force.

Later promoted to command I Corps, his reputation was sealed in Churchill’s eyes when he ensured that he was the last to leave the Dunkirk beaches, even cruising off the beaches and through the harbour in a small motorboat, calling through a loudspeaker “Is anyone there?” in English and French.

He became a national hero and, subsequently, GOC-in-C Southern Command before Churchill sent him to Burma to oversee the retreat to India. In August 1942, he succeeded Claude Auchinleck as Commander-in-Chief in North Africa.

Alex had critical roles in the battles of El Alamein and the Tunisian campaign where he commanded 18 Army Group.

He commanded 15 Army Group in the Sicilian campaign, dealing with two highly egotistical subordinates, Montgomery of Eighth Army and Patton of Seventh US Army. Alexander remained army group commander in Italy until late 1944.

He also had a trying subordinate at Cassino — Mark Clark of Fifth US Army, who tested Alex’s undoubted skills of diplomacy and patience until the end of the campaign.

Those skills were necessary when commanding a coalition force from over 20 different nations. In this, Alexander found his metier and was arguably the finest man for that role.

Lieutenant General Richard McCreery

Lieutenant General Richard McCreery, later Sir Richard, commanded the British X Corps in Fifth Army.

From a Co Tyrone family with roots in Killyclogher, McCreery was to become the last commander of Eighth Army.

In the first battle of Cassino, soldiers under his command, 2nd Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, created the only breach in the German line, but Mark Clark refused to reinforce the British effort, preferring to see the ill-fated US II Corps’ attack as the main thrust. He also refused to reinforce the French on the northern flank. Yet, the only section of the line to which the Germans moved reinforcements was that threatened by McCreery’s troops.

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