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1st Battalion Irish Guards – War Diary December 1943


December has been an eventful month for the battalion, although perhaps less eventful then some of us anticipated. But it has been no small thing to spend Christmas and the New Year in peace conditions. About the future it is idle to make any forecasts, for even the best founded conjectures prove, more often than not, to be incorrect. We ourselves are a case in point: forty-eight hours ago nothing seemed more certain than that the battalion, as part of the First Division, would fight along with the Eighth Army. However, it is considered no less certain that our destiny was with the Fifth. In December the battalion left North Africa and came to Italy. The voyage from Bizerta to Taranto and the subsequent journey up to Canosa there is little to add to the account given below. Events which happened during the latter part of the month have been described in detail according to their interest or importance.

Wednesday 1st December 1943 - Transit Camp No.2 Bizerta

When we first arrived here the weather was unpleasant and very wet, but today has been clear and sunny. The ground is drying rapidly and it looks as though we may be in for a fine spell.

There is nothing we can do at present except wait for instructions to embark. We are prepared to move at any time, but the probability is that we shall remain here for several days.

A stage show was put on this evening by the Americans in the large warehouse on the docks which they use as a cinema. A fair proportion of the battalion went down to see it but the place was packed and there were no seats to be had. But this was a minor disappointment compared with the discovery of the fact that the cast was an all-male one.

Thursday 2nd December 1943

During the morning the battalion went down in relays of companies to have shower baths on the premises of a Mobile Bath Unit. This was the first opportunity that many of us had had of seeing Bizerta itself. It has been very badly bombed but it was possible to imagine that in peace time it might have been a pleasant place to live in. Now it is in ruins and completely deserted.

Friday 3rd December 1943

The very good news has come through that we shall not after all be sailing in LCIs. Instead we are to travel in a steamer, the Llangibby Castle, with the rest of the Brigade. The remainder of the Division is split up between the Cuba and the Letitia. We are to go aboard tomorrow and the move is to be made by daylight.

The only flaw, if there is one in this most satisfactory turn of events is the fact that the Llangibby's last shipload was a brigade of Goums. From all accounts, the filthiness of their habits was only rivalled by the extent of their inexperience of the sea.

Saturday 4th December 1943 - Aboard the Llangibby Castle

The whole Brigade went aboard the Llangibby Castle during the course of the morning; the battalion embarking about 11 am. "The Llangibby" is a fifteen-twenty thousand ton Union Castle Liner, and in peace time used to carry the Royal Mails on South and East African routes. There is a certain amount of crowding, but no more than one has come to expect on this sort of a voyage. On the whole, conditions are fairly good, apart from the feeding arrangements which at present are not satisfactory.

About 4pm we cast off and drew out into the "Lae de Bizerti" where we are expected to remain until the rest of the convoy is ready to sail.

Sunday 5th December 1943

At midday we sailed out of Bizerta harbour. It was clear and sunny like an English Summer's day, with everybody sunning themselves on the decks.

Our convoy consisted of ourselves, The Cuba, the Letitia and the Antwerp, a cross-channel steamer, and an escort of five destroyers. So far there has been no excitement and the passage of time is marked chiefly by boat drills at 1000 hrs, 1600 hrs and 2030 hrs - and meals. These have been better organized today and have improved a great deal in quantity and quality.

Monday 6th December 1943

We passed a peaceful night and an uneventful day followed. During the early morning we ran into a light fog but soon came out of it. The visibility however remained poor and although we must have passed quite close to the south-east corner of Sicily at about 1 pm, it was impossible to see any land. Apparently our course lies along the coast of Sicily and across the Straits of Messina south of Reggio and so on up to Taranto. So far there has been one 'Boat Drill' and one 'Action Stations' practice.

Tuesday 7th December 1943

Salve...Saturnia tellus!

The battalion disembarked at Taranto, Italy at about 1 pm, after a most peaceful voyage. Land was first sighted shortly after 8 am, and at the same time the convoy moved into "line ahead" formation. We kept this order until we reached the harbour. Unfortunately it was impossible to see much as we sailed in. Low clouds and a mist hung over the mainland and blotted out all but the edge of the coast. As we drew nearer inland the convoy was joined by two Italian destroyers, which later left us - just before we sailed through the boom. The Llangibby was was the first of the troopships to tie up and very soon afterwards she was unloading. The battalion followed a northerly road by march route, to a tented camp four miles outside the town and here we were to spend the night. The number of tents were inadequate and there were no signs of organisation. However the night was a fine one, and that mattered more than anything else.

Wednesday 8th December 1943

The morning passed quietly, and a roaring trade was done by Italians dealers who sold fruit and nuts and Italian dictionaries and phase books at the road side. Just after dark the battalion marched out of camp to a railway station a few miles distant and a little way out of Taranto. By 1845 hrs the battalion had entrained aboard its allotted cattle trucks; thirty-four men to a truck plus kitbags and large packs. About 2000 hrs we pulled out of the station.

Wednesday/Thursday 8/9th December 1943

We travelled all night with the innumerable and and unaccountable halts which always seem to be an essential part of this sort of railway journey. By about 10 am in the morning we had reached Sari, and had our first glimpse of the Adriatic. Soon afterwards we reached Barletta. We spent about an hour in this large, but down-at-heel, station where tea was made for us by the RASC. The weather was noticeably colder, and the tea, long though it was in coming, was extremely welcome. We reached our destination Canosa at about midday. There we found transport waiting for us and it was not long before the battalion complete with luggage had been ferried to its "Staging Area". The name Staging Area, suggested another cheerless tent camp. But in this instance the battalion was in luck and found itself allotted to an area in and around an Italian mansion of uncertain age, with many spacious whitewashed rooms and immensely thick walls.

Friday 9th December 1943 - Monte Carafa, Nr, Canosa, di 'Puglia

The Divisional Commander visited the battalion this morning, and stayed for luncheon with the Commanding Officer. He confirmed that it was probable that the Division would be able to spend Christmas in peace. Beyond this our future remained uncertain; and it is not yet known whether we shall join the V or XIII Corps, although it seems more likely to be the former. Companies spent their day settling into their new quarters.

Sunday 19th December 1943 - Canosa

Divine Services were held as usual. We are now allowed, for the first time, to mention our arrival in Italy, and our postal address is officially changed from BNAF to CMF.

Monday 20th December 1943

Bathing facilities (not showers) have lately been arranged for the Brigade in a Italian barracks in Barletta; today being allotted to the battalion TEWT, on River Crossing for Company Commanders, given in the form of a play, was held at Brigade HQ, at 1700 hrs this evening. 2719054 Lance Sergeant O'Dowd C., Special Raiding Squadron awarded the Military Medal (since killed in action).

Tuesday 21st December 1943

A rather uneventful day.

Wednesday 22nd December 1943

The Brigade Commander addressed the battalion this morning. He wished us first a happy Christmas, and then went on in a guardedly optimistic way, to speak of the future. He reviewed the training the brigade had done during the past six months, and spoke of the warm reception that had been accorded the 1st Division by the Eighth Army. The division was doubly welcome he said because it included a Guards Brigade.

A touching Christmas greeting has lately been received by the Commanding Officer from the Archbishop of Carthage who had known and visited the battalion in Tunis. A translation of the message is given below:

"The Archbishop of Carthage thanks Lieutenant-Colonel C.A. Montagu-Douglas-Scott, DSO, and the noble 1st Battalion Irish Guards for their Christmas wishes which deeply touched him. In his turn he sends them his best wishes, with the renewed assurance that they will always have his blessing and his prayers.


Charles Gounot.

Archbishop of Carthage.

Primate of Africa."

Thursday 23rd December 1943

All the battalion MT was paraded for inspection by the Commanding Officer, and appeared to be in excellent condition. On the recreational side, this has been the third day of the inter-company football matches. Support Company played No. 1 Company in a final, which resulted, after a hard struggle, in a win for the latter.

The text of a Christmas greeting from the Commander-in-Chief to the battalion is re-printed as follows:

"To all ranks 1st Battalion Irish Guards,

Wishing you a Happy Christmas and all good fortune in the New Year.

(Signed) H.R. Alexander, General.

Friday 24th December 1943

Other Christmas greetings to the battalion have been received from:-

Field Marshal The Earl of Cavan, KP, GCB, GCMG, GCVO, GBE, Colonel of the Regiment, and Colonel J.S.N. Fitzgerald, MBE, MC, Commanding Irish Guards, wishing the battalion a happy Christmas and a great success in the New Year.

Major-General W.R.C. Penney thanks Lieutenant-Colonel C.A.M.D. Scott, DSO, Officers, WOs, NCOs and Guardsmen of 1st Battalion Irish Guards for their Christmas greetings. He heartily reciprocates and wishes them all the best of luck and good fortune in 1944 and years to come.

"Good wishes for Christmas to you all, from the Sanderstead YMCA (especially the Sunday morning helpers). Congratulations and heaps of good luck.

The happiest possible Xmas to you all, and the best of luck in 1944. The vital year ahead will bring hard fighting and I know that the glorious 1st Battalion will add fresh laurels to the regiment. 'Up the Micks' ".

(Signed) J.S.N. FitzGerald,

Colonel, Lieutenant-Colonel, Commanding Irish Guards."

From Lord Gort for Brigadier Murray, 24 Guards Brigade:-

"Delighted to receive your telegram. To you and all ranks 24 Guards Brigade I send every good wish for success in 1944.

All ranks of Sanderstead Home Guard join in wishing you good hunting in 1944."

From General Dwight d. Eisenhower:-

"Dear General Penney,

I deeply appreciate your greetings.

Please accept for yourself and extend to all ranks of the 1st (British) Division, my best wishes for 1944."

From Colonel Honourable T. E. Vesey:-

"Every possible good wish to all ranks for Xmas and 1944. Best of luck to you all."

Saturday 25th December 1943

Christmas Day, 1943, has been a very cold one and from the point of the weather a full one. But from every other aspect it has been about as great a success as it could be in the circumstances. Outstanding was the dinner itself which must have compared very favourably with any similar Christmas Dinner in peace-time. It may be of interest to put on record the menu and on this the fifth Christmas Day of the War:

Turkey, pork, roast potatoes, cauliflower, fruit salad, plum pudding, beer, oranges, apples, nuts and cigarettes.

The traditional rite of "Seeing Dinners" was observed, and at HQ Company the Commanding Officer was toasted by Corporal O'Donnell (2716792) on behalf of the company. A very popular event which took place earlier in the morning was an Officers versus Sergeants Football Match with the following teams:

Officers Team

Commanding Officer



Major Sir I. Stewart-Richardson

Major G.P.M. FitzGerald

Captain D.M. Kennedy

Major I.H. Powell-Edwards

Captain S.H. Combe

Major H.L.S. Young

Captain J.T. Egan

Lieutenant G.V. Bland


Lieutenant J.C.F. Quinn

Sergeants Team

Regimental Sergeant Major McLoughlin

Drill Sergeant Rooney

Drill Sergeant Kenny

Company Sergeant Major Gilmore

Company Sergeant Major Pestell

Company Sergeant Major Moran

Company Sergeant Major Mercer

Company Sergeant Major Stuart

Company Sergeant Major Stone

Sergeant Kelly

Sergeant Crawford


Sergeant Bennett


Guardsman Cormack

A match of a more serious nature was the inter-company knock-out final between Nos. 1 and 4 Companies, and it was only after much overtime that a decision was reached in favour of No. 4 Company; the score being 4-2.

Sunday 26th December 1943

On Thursday night instructions came through relating to an immediate move by the Brigade. This would have been all but disastrous to the arrangements that had been made for Christmas. Fortunately however subsequent instructions postponed the likelihood of a move for forty-eight hours. And now the latest news is that the length of the postponement is indefinite. So far there has been no official indication as to the reason for this latest change of plan. The main events of interest today were a football match on the home ground against the Grenadiers, the result of the game was a draw 1-1; and a cinema show. The film was "Hit the Ice" and there were three performances.

Monday 27th December 1943

The weather continues to be extremely cold. There is a general feeling of anti-climax after Christmas and the day has been spent very quietly.

Tuesday 28th December 1943

The events on the Eighth Army Front are watched very closely by everyone here, and the news today of the fall of Ortona to the 1st Canadian Division has raised fresh speculation as to when and where the Division will be required. At present however, apart from the fact that kit-bags and surplus kit are to be packed and stored in Barletta, there is no new indication of a move by the battalion.

Wednesday 29th December 1943

The weather seems to have stabilized a bit, and it is drier and not so intolerably cold. Officers, WOs and some companies had their photographs taken today by the local photographer, who has also done a great trade with the battalion in the portrait line.

Thursday 30th December 1943

The principle event of today was the arrival of the Regimental Band. So we can, at least, look forward to a fully musical New Year's Eve. It seems certain now that the battalion will be here until the 1st January, and it seems also certain that we shall move up to the line the day afterwards. As if to confirm this Lieutenant T.C. Keigwin left this morning at short notice with a Brigade Reconnaissance party.

Friday 31st December 1943

One again the unpredictable has happened; and instead of moving up to take over from the Eighth Indian Division and continue the push for Tollo and Chieti, as everyone expected, we are now being transferred to the 5th Army. What our new destination will be is not yet made public. The general impression is that it will be somewhere in the neighbourhood of Avellino.

Written 1st January 1944

Fortunately the change in plan did not clash with the arrangements for celebrating New Years Eve. The band in particular was kept very busy. In the afternoon it played to Divisional Personnel at Cerignola on the cathedral steps: and again in the evening at 1930hrs it played to an enthusiastic audience in Support Company's Mess. The concert was open to anyone in the Brigade who wished to attend and all visitors were welcome. Sergeants' and Corporals' Mess parties were held in the traditional style and were well up to the standard which makes it difficult to have any precise recollection of the last hours of 1943.

The National Archives (TNA) WO 169/10168 1 Irish Guards