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1st Battalion Irish Guards – War Diary April 1944

Saturday 1st April 1944 - St. Agata

The battalion paraded in the square at Massalubrense. A message to the Commanding Officer from Field Marshal the Earl of Cavan has been published, of which the text is as follows:

"Please tell the gallant remnants of the 1st Battalion that I am prouder of them than ever. Even they cannot do the impossible, but they did a very wonderful thing, which will always live in my memory, and will, I am be a very bright spot in the history of Ireland's best men". A small party left this morning under command of Lieutenant J.R.A. Macmullen to provide guards at 103 General Hospital and 372 Prisoner of War Camp. During the day a party of twenty rejoined the battalion from hospital.

Sunday 2nd April 1944

During the night 1st - 2nd April, the customary one hour's sleep was sacrificed in order to bring Double Summer Time into operation.

Church services were held at St. Agata, Pastena, and Massalubrense at various times during the day, for the companies billeted in those areas.

Monday 3rd April 1944

A new No. 4. Company has now been formed under command of Major J.S.O. Haslewood. Captain D.A. Gilliat is 2nd-in-Command, and CQMS Doonan is Acting/CSM.

They are billeted in a house near St. Agata, with a magnificent view across the bay of Naples.

A battalion Shoot was held today on the 100 yds range behind the Sergeant’s Mess.

There were three events - a Pool Shoot open to all comers, a competition between eight-men teams of officers and sergeants, and an all ranks Inter Company Test, which was won by Support Company.

Tuesday 4th April 1944

Messages have recently been sent by the Commanding Officer to OC 5th Grenadier Guards, congratulating him on the award of the Victoria Cross to Major W.P. Sidney: to Brigadier R.B.R. Colvin, Commanding 201 Guards Brigade, on his being awarded the Distinguished Service Order; and to Major General W.R.C. Penney, CBE, DSO, MC on his award of the CB.

Wednesday 5th April 1944

A day of normal routine, in which the battalion paraded at Massalubrense, and parties went to Castellammare for baths.

Thursday 6th April 1944

The Commanding Officer inspected the battalion's billets this morning. Afterwards all ranks who had seen action in the Anzio bridgehead, and who left it with the remainder of the battalion on March 7th, were photographed on the road outside the Pensione Jacharino, St. Agata.

A message was received from Brigadier Colvin DSO, thanking the Commanding Officer and all ranks for their congratulations.

Friday 7th April 1944

The 1st Anniversary of the Battle of 212.

At pay parades today, money was issued in British Military Authority notes, and all holdings of Lire were changed. Although not quite so comforting as real English money, it was felt that this was a step in the right direction.

Saturday 8th April 1944

No battalion parade. The following message from OC 5th Grenadier Guards was received by the Commanding Officer "Your kind message much appreciated by all ranks this battalion. All very grateful to Major Sidney for completing old 24th Guards Brigade's "hat trick". Miss you all very much".

Before lunch, the Brigade Commander addressed all officers, at Battalion HQ, on the subject of the Commanding Officer's promotion to Brigadier. He told us that although every effort had been made to make it possible for him to take his battalion home, military requirements had made this quite out of the question.

Sunday 9th April 1944

This morning at 1015 hrs the battalion was assembled outside the Church at St. Agata, and the Commanding Officer bade it farewell.

He said that although he himself had considered it his duty to bring the battalion, which had fought under him, home under his own command, higher authority had unfortunately left no course open to him but to accept a Brigade immediately. This he was leaving immediately to do, but he gave us the comforting information that the travel ban to Eire which was at present in force would almost certainly be set aside for those going to Ireland on disembarkation leave. This particularly concerned him, for Irishmen were "the rock on which the Regiment has been built".

He could not say much about the future of the battalion, but he gave the warning that the hard fighting which was just over, and the period of rest which was probably to come, did not mean that the battalion had seen the last of the war. On the contrary, almost everyone was likely to be committed again in the near future, and should prepare for that event. The loss of the Commanding Officer was deeply felt; the battalion had always had complete confidence in him as a soldier, and his words today made everyone realise how carefully he had looked after his men and considered their true interests. At the same time, satisfaction was felt at his magnificently deserved promotion.

At 1230 hrs the battalion embussed for the railhead at Castellammare - the first stage of the homeward journey, of which indeed the very short distance to Naples appeared to be the most complicated stage. The train was made up of dual-purpose (i.e. horse or human) Italian trucks, and from the time at which the last man reached the station, at about 1630 hrs, there was a delay of four hours before the train actually left. At 2030 hrs we began to move, very slowly, on the way to Naples.

Monday 10th April 1944

At 0030 hrs the train pulled in to the Garibaldi Station, Naples. The first signs of life appeared at about 0415 hrs, at which time cooling began on the platform, and a certain amount of shaving was attempted. When everyone had eaten at 0615, the battalion formed up by companies, and marched out through Naples to the docks. We were compelled to halt for a time just before we got there, as our ship was a large one and we were among the last to embark; without much delay, however, we marched to "E" pier, and on to the "Capetown Castle" - 27,000 tons or so, owned by the Union Castle line. Master, Captain T. Thornton; OC troops, Lieutenant-Colonel O'Connor, MC K.O.Rs.

There were about 5,000 troops aboard, mostly American, and among them the 3rd Battalion 504 Paratroop Regiment, US Army, who fought with the battalion on the bridgehead. The battalion, with the exception of Officers, Warrant Officers, and full Sergeants, was accommodated on 'C' deck.

By 0900 hrs everyone was established on board, and after an early breakfast and a march, quite ready for the next meal: enquiring revealed that it could be expected at 1700 hrs. At first it was felt that this could not be true, but true it was. Owing apparently to the number of troops on board, only two meals a day were served, at 0900 and 1700 hrs. However, both the quantity and quality of these meals was usually excellent, and there was a ship's canteen to fill the gap.

As soon as the Battalion embarked we provided a guard of six NCOs and ninety-three men, and one guardroom orderly. Rifles were stored in the Ship's Armoury. The perfect cleanliness of the ship was very welcome after the volcanic dust in which we had recently been living.

Tuesday 11th April 1944

Anchor was weighed this morning at 0515 hrs. When people began to appear on deck we were passing between the Isle of Capri and our recent billet area of Sorrento S. Agata. The land on each side looked very pleasant, perhaps because we were (probably) seeing the last of it; but for once the weather was suitably "Mediterranean", and the first boat drills were carried out in warm sunshine.

The ship's Dry Canteen was opened during the day, so that cigarettes etc, were available.

Our ship was on the right flank of the convoy eight or nine ships in all, with a considerable escort of destroyers and, on our starboard bow, a remarkable "converted" craft of no particular class, but well equipped with guns. By early afternoon our accompanying ships were the only features of interest, as we had left Italy behind and not yet arrived within sight of Africa.

Wednesday 12th April 1944

Cap Bon was sighted at 0500 hrs this morning. The weather continues excellent, the sun warm and the sea absolutely still. Just after the start of the lengthy period of boat drill which fills the time normally devoted to lunch, Bizerta came into view. Our boat drill in the early stages has been complicated by the fact that we have frequently found our lifeboats to be full of sleeping soldiery: it is to be hoped that our perseverance in removing them will be rewarded.

This afternoon three naval ratings, recently disembarked at Naples, were discovered on board ship and placed in arrest as stowaways.

Thursday 13th April 1944

In the course of the morning our convoy altered course slightly, leaving the coast of Africa further and further away on the port beam. At 1430 hrs we saw the reason for this: between us and Algiers there appeared a very large and slow-moving convoy, estimated at more than sixty vessels, moving west. In an hour or so we had left them behind, but we continued unusually far north, nearer to the Spanish than the African seaboard. There were two rather unpleasant incidents - an American has been accidentally shot in the stomach, and another on reporting sick is suspected of smallpox.

Friday 14th April 1944

This morning we were well within sight of the coast of Spain. The peaks of the Sierra Nevada of course stood out, and remained in view on the starboard beam nearly all day.

The weather is still perfect - perhaps fortunately, because urgent medical supplies for the wounded American had to be collected this afternoon from a destroyer, and the business of passing them over on a rope might have been quite tricky in a strong swell.

At 1900 hrs all ranks who had not been vaccinated in the past twelve months paraded to be re-vaccinated by the Medical Officer.

Sunset this evening was so perfect that it was possible to measure exactly the time between the sun's first contact with the horizon, and its final disappearance - 2 mins 51 secs. Immediately at the end of this period the loud-speaker announced with true naval accuracy, that "it was now black-out time".

At 2230 hrs we passed through the Straits of Gibraltar. The lights scattered up and down the Rock were plainly visible on one side, and the close packed, low-lying lights of Tangiers on the other.

Saturday 15 April 1944

A remarkably sudden change of weather attended our first day in the Atlantic. A considerable swell got up, and there was a cold wind with occasional rain.

At about 1315 hrs a Sunderland flying-boat appeared over the convoy, and earlier in the day we had collected one more cargo vessel and another destroyer. The swell, though very sudden, was not serious enough to produce much sea-sickness, and attendance at meals continued to be good.

Sunday 16th April 1944

Services were held aboard ship. Morale sank slightly as the wind rose; but our ship, being too large to roll really badly, confined itself to creaking as each wave passed us.

Boat drill as usual.

Monday 17th April 1944

Bad weather this morning, improving in the afternoon. A light mist, which seemed to reduce the swell, cut down visibility and made the prospect very grey and dismal. PT parades were started today on the open decks. They are arranged so that each individual should get thirty minutes exercise every two days, which is the best that can be done with such large numbers.

Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday 18th, 19th, 20th April 1944

Three days of utterly unbroken routine. The weather still very grey and gusty. PT and boat drill provided the only parades.

During Thursday we were reported to be near the Irish coast, and although we were not within sight of land, we judged from our course that we were sailing round the north of Ireland before turning south to the port of disembarkation.

Friday 21st April 1944

Warning Orders were issued today indicating that we are nearing UK. The canteen will be open for the last time today, and all troops are to hold themselves in readiness to disembark tomorrow. At 1745 hrs we had our first dim sight of the British Isles. We were moving south east, with the Mull of Kintyre on the port beam, and Fair Head, County Antrim, and Rathlin Island to starboard. After the dreary days in the Atlantic this was a most welcome sight, and everyone came on deck to have a look. At 1820 hrs the OC Naval Escort signalled by Morse lamp the following message to OC Convoy (S.S. Orient) -"Glad it was a dull voyage for convoy's sake!!”

Saturday 22nd April 1944

Early this morning there was, rather surprisingly, no land in sight. Wooden platforms in the sea carrying anti-aircraft guns proved, however, that we were near port and the changed formation of the convoy - two parallel files on a narrow front - suggested that we were in the Mersey. The pilot joined us at 0845 hrs, and we were soon moving steadily between buoys.

Just before 1300 hrs, we dropped anchor, and had our first close view for some time of English scenery. I suppose it is not often that Liverpool seems bright and clean, but most of the troops on board undoubtedly found it so. The other ships of the convoy had dropped off here and there as we came into the docks, and we lay in midstream for some hours waiting our turn to draw alongside. By 2030 hrs we had been pushed and pulled into position at the Prince's Landing Stage, and the Port authorities came aboard with other officials.

A representative of the Minister of State, made a speech welcoming the British troops, and Colonel Duffy, US Military Commander, Port of Liverpool, spoke to the Americans, many of whom were arriving in England for the first time.

So many men packed the near-side rails and portholes that the ship heeled-over considerably, and urgent appeals were made in an attempt to restore the balance. However, the attraction of staring at the MPs etc, on the quay proved very strong, and eventually all troops had to be ordered below. The battalion disembarked in two parties, beginning at 0100 hrs on Sunday. The baggage party under Captain T.C. Keigwin MC worked very hard to look after the battalion's kit in difficult conditions of darkness and (to some extent) confusion.

Sunday 23rd April 1944

The arrangements for the reception of the battalion when they left the ship could hardly have been better. Our train was only about 200 yards from the quay, and everyone was comfortably settled, in very little time and with no difficulty.

Containers of tea were in abundance, and every man received ten cigarettes, a bar of chocolate, and a local newspaper. This put everyone in excellent spirits, and the NAAFI authorities are to be congratulated on this achievement, which seemed so exactly right in every way. At 0220 hrs the train left for London. We arrived at St. Pancras Station shortly after 1100 hrs, where the Regimental Lieutenant-Colonel was waiting to meet the battalion. When he had greeted the Commanding Officer, the battalion embussed by companies outside the station, and was taken to Chelsea Barracks, our temporary quarters. Major G.M. Tylden-Wright from the Training Battalion supervised the distribution of the men to their barrack rooms. Before dinner the Lieutenant-Colonel addressed the battalion in the Mess Room, welcoming them home, and regretting that the shortage of men had made it impossible to keep an Irish Guards battalion in Italy. He gave us the first hint of our future that the 201 Guards Brigade was to form a training cadre for a large new intake to the Brigade of Guards. In the afternoon permanent passes were issued, and the battalion had its first look round London. The officers of the battalion, together with the officers of the 2nd Battalion Scots Guards, are living in the Lion Services Club, Lygon Place, which has been temporarily closed and taken over for their use.

Monday 24th April 1944

This morning a medical inspection of all ranks was held by the Medical Officer: as a consequence of the suspected small-pox case on the ship, any of us may develop the disease at any time up to May 9th. Leave is therefore postponed till that date, and inspections are to be held daily. Otherwise the day was uneventful, occupied mostly with the cleaning of equipment.

Tuesday 25th April 1944

The battalion paraded for drill this morning at 0915 hrs, and will continue to do so daily. After parade the Brigade Commander spoke to the battalion on the question of disembarkation leave, explaining the necessity of the delay and the limits to be imposed on our movements. In fact restrictions seem, in the circumstances, to be very few indeed, and as the delay meant no actual loss of leave, no one really objected to this ruling.

Practise drills were held in the afternoon. Second suits of battledress and SD caps were issued.

Wednesday 26th April 1944

Parades as usual. A party of about a hundred men has been chosen from the battalion to do Public Duties - rather a special privilege for a battalion so recently returned from overseas. Barrack rooms, chairs, tables, etc. were scraped clean and scrubbed, and later the Commanding Officer inspected the battalion's quarters. The attainment of a really high standard of cleanliness is at present the battalion's chief concern.

Thursday 27th April 1944

Parades as usual, otherwise an uneventful day.

Friday 28th April 1944

Parades as usual and pay. A new list of Prisoners of War from the battalion has been published. Practise drill parades are being held by the party chosen for Public Duties.

Saturday 29th April 1944

Usual parades. More information was published about Prisoners of War, and also details of men now in hospital in this country.

Sunday 30th April 1944

Church services were held, and the battalion attended Dental Inspection during the morning.

The National Archives (TNA) WO 166/15068 1 Irish Guards