London Irish Rifles Association

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Home Second World War Links. Voices from the Second World War.
Voices from the Second World War.

The 2nd Battalion Band in Italy and Austria, 1944 to 1946.

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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.

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Edmund O'Sullivan remembers Edward Mayo, 16th May 1944.

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Colour Sergeant Edmund O’Sullivan, a peace-time tailor’s salesman known as ‘Rosie’ to his comrades, was E Company quartermaster in the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles. He was responsible for supplying more than 100 men that were to form the left-flank of an attack, due on 16th May 1944, against the German lines less than a mile away. Platoon Sergeant Edward Mayo, a car worker before the war, had proven himself to be a nerveless leader in more than a dozen battles in North Africa, Sicily and southern Italy. Wounded three times, he had won the Military Medal (MM) for valour. Mayo’s job was to lead his men towards the German defences when the signal came. After 18 months fighting, the two sergeants were among the most experienced non-commissioned officers (NCOs) in the British Army. O’Sullivan was 25. Mayo was just 24.

The original plan had been for the attack to begin that evening, but it had been postponed until first light. O’Sullivan had brought up supplies and decided to provide Mayo company during the anxious hours before sunrise. It was the end of the fourth day of the biggest Allied assault against the Gustav Line the toughest defensive barrier of the 2nd World War. It ran from the Tyrrhenian Sea south of Gaeta and along the Garigliano river which guards the foot of the Aurunci mountains. From there, the line extended to the Garigliano’s confluence with the River Liri which flowed down from the direction of Rome. It then followed the east bank of the Rapido River, a tributary of the Garigliano, to the town of Cassino, into the Abruzzi Mountains and from there to the Adriatic coast.

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Charles Ward recalls Hill 286, January 1943.

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Former member of 2 LIR Charles Ward has spoken about his experiences as a platoon sergeant in Tunisia during the Second World War and the major setback that the battalion suffered in its attack on Hill 286 on 20/21 January 1943.

Charles, known as ‘Pip’ to his comrades, was conscripted into the LIR on 18 October 1939, a member of the same cohort of recruits as legendary E Company sergeant Edward (Eddie) Mayo MM. A printer working in east London before the war, he was surprised to find himself in a battalion with an Irish connection as he had been born in Yorkshire, moving to Kent in the mid 1930s and had nobody from Ireland in his family.

Ward retired five years ago after a successful second career as a market gardener, and now lives in Aylesbury with his wife Margaret, whom he first met in Algieria in 1943. He left the London Irish after suffering a knee injury in the spring of 1943 and transferred to the communications unit of Special Operations Executive (SOE), where his future wife was also employed, and they became engaged in Italy during the following year and married in the spring of 1946.

But that was after the bloody battle for Hill 286. Its memory still moves Ward: “It was crazy really,” he says about the battle. “You knew … the enemy would throw everything at you.” When Charles recently returned to Tunisia, he was appalled at the number of London Irish riflemen, NCOs and officers buried at the Medjez el-Bab Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery, many of them killed on Hill 286.

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