The Allies had taken the initiative in the war in 1942, whether it was in the maelstrom of the Eastern Front, the sea-based carrier battles of the Pacific Ocean or the heat of the North African desert. 1943 was going to be the year when the Axis position began to be fatally undermined, as Allied advances on all fronts led into Europe. There was still a lot of fighting to be done before Germany, Italy and Japan were to be brought to heel, and in 1943 Irish named regiments across two armies would be involved in the effort.
In North Africa, the inevitable Allied advance continued apace. As Montgomery came at the Axis from the east, British and American forces built up their strength in the west, with the aim of crushing the Germans and Italians now based in Tunisia from either side. Numerous Irish named regiments would be involved in this extended last act of the North African war: the 1st battalion of the Irish Guards, the 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, the 1st and 2nd London Irish, the 8th Royal Ulster Rifles and the North Irish Horse all had some involvement.
The fighting was characterised by a slow build-up of Allied strength, followed by a gradual advance into the teeth of Axis defences. For one of the last times in the war the Axis were able to utilise air superiority, and Hitler’s decision to reinforce Tunisia – very unwise strategically, as such a move only delayed the inevitable – also meant the fighting was much harder in the area than it had been in 1942. The Guards and those regiments that were part of the Irish Brigade would be heavily involved in fighting in the so-called Medjaz Plains area, attacking and taking vital ridges and holding them in the face of determined German counterattacks. In some cases, especially with the Guards, heavy casualties would be incurred with the effort. A notable contribution was made by the North Irish Horse in their Churchill tanks, which repeatedly surprised German defenders holding heights they believed tanks could not climb: the Churchill’s were more than able to, and at the Battle of Longstop Hill on the 23rd April the North Irish Horse helped to scatter German defenders using such manoeuvrability.
There were numerous setbacks to the overall Allied position in Tunisia, not least the repulse suffered by the Americans at the Battle of the Kesserine Pass, but bit-by-bit the noose was tightened. By the end of April Axis efforts to pierce holes in the Allied lines and make their hold on territory unviable had largely disappeared, with their last significant offensive attempt having been shut down, partly with the help of Irish named regiments, in early March. With the Allies now coming hard from either direction, it was only a matter of time, and the situation was made worse by the absence of Rommel, returned to Europe owing to illness. Tunis fell in the first few days of May, and shortly after nearly a quarter of a million German and Italian troops went into captivity.
The Allies might have been expected to stop and recover for an extended period of time, but were not going to rest on their laurels. Barely two months after the fall of Tunis, American and British troops launched Operation Huskey, the amphibious invasion of Sicily. For just over a month the Allies slowly forced Axis troops off of the island, sometimes at a high cost in lives in the difficult terrain. Air and naval superiority in the theatre helped, but German and Italian troops remained difficult to dislodge. The units of the Irish Brigade were thrown into the fray late, in August, when Montgomery’s Eighth Army faced stiffer resistance than it could handle, and made a pivotal contribution to the Battel of Centuripe, a high-altitude town in the centre of the island that was the key to a significant portion of the German line. The terrain was so bad that arms and other supplies all had to be transported by foot, and there were delays in the beginning of the assault as a result. While elements of the Inniskillings attacked the front of the town and the Royal Irish Fusiliers went for the rear, the London Irish successfully captured a number of key heights ahead of a decisive flank attack. The Irish pressed into the town itself and spent the rest of the day engaged in a difficult clear-out, which included infantry having to destroy two German tanks with shoulder-mounted rocket weapons. Eventually Centuripe was taken, and despite some German counterattacks the Brigade was able to use it as a launching point for more offensive moves to the north. The capture of Centuripe sent much of the German defensive line backwards: while higher-ups had long since determined that Sicily could not be held for long, the victory undoubtedly accelerated the process of the Axis withdrawal. Sicily was fully in Allied hands by August 17th,.
It was only a few short weeks later that the Allies were able to get troops onto mainland Italy, on “the toe”. This precipitated the final collapse of Mussolini’s now deeply unpopular regime, with “Il Duce” dismissed by the Italian King and then arrested. Italy got out of the war officially, but a rapid German takeover of positions, utilising troops pulled from the Eastern Front, meant there would be no walkover in the country for Allied forces. American landings at Salerno were hotly contested but eventually were able to drive on and facilitate the capture of Naples, as the British took the southern portion of Italy and advanced more by the Adriatic coast.
The Irish Brigade and its three regiments were involved in the taking and holding of the village of Termoli, on the south coast, where they landed behind the rest of the 78th Infantry Division. They were barely holding on against determined German counterattacks, hamstrung by a lack of armour support. The Irish regiments helped to maintain the British hold of the village, and then assisted with Allied offensives northward against other villages and over the River Trigno. The German defence of Italy was now being categorised by a series of lines that stretched across the country: the British had just breached the so-called “Volturno Line” but now ran straight into the “Barbara Line”.
Torrential rain and burst rivers added to Allied hardships, as they were forced to wait for re-supply before attacking, allowing the Germans to build up their defences at Barbara and beyond. The Irish Brigade, along with the larger Division, assaulted the Barbara Line and beyond along the coast, advancing at great cost. They made slow but steady progress before, along with the rest of the British forces, they were then stopped dead by the Winter Line, the name given to the imposing series of fortifications and prepared positions that included the infamous Gustav Line and others. It had been a hard year of fighting, with very little in the way of respite, but in many ways the worst of the war was still to come for these units.
In the aftermath of the Italian withdrawal from the Axis, the Allies attempted to take advantage by capturing the Italian-held Dodecanese Islands, off the coast of Turkey. Control of the islands would allow air strikes to become possible at German positions in the Balkans as well as potentially facilitating a future invasion of the Greek mainland. The 2nd battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, most recently stationed in Malta, were among the units tasked with invading the islands in September of 1943.
The Allies hoped that the capture of the islands, especially Rhodes, could be facilitated by surrendering Italian troops, but the Germans had been too quick, sending their own forces to assume control of Rhodes ahead of the Italian capitulation. The British, among them the Fusiliers, took control of a number of other, smaller, islands in the chain, in the hope that they could secure them and then launch an assault on Rhodes. But this proved an overly-ambitious assessment: rapid German counterattacks flipped the strategic balance, especially when vital airfields were destroyed. The British suffered heavy casualties in a doomed defence of the island Kos, before facing a large German amphibious and airborne assault on the island of Leros a few weeks later. For one of the last times in the war, the Germans were able to enjoy air superiority, and quickly cut the island in two: what members of the Allied garrison had not been killed were forced to surrender shortly after. The Fusiliers had tried and failed to hold back the formation of German beachheads, and nearly 3’000 of them would go into captivity when the fighting ceased. The Dodecanese would remain in German hands until the end of the war.
When we last discussed the 1st battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, it was in the context of the beginning of the Arakan Campaign, which had started in late 1942. The offensive continued into the first few months of 1943, as the 14th Indian Division, of which the Fusiliers were a part, ran into well-prepared Japanese defensive positions they were unable to clear. As the fighting stretched into April without result, the Allies went more troops into the fray, but were then caught badly when hit by an unexpected flanking attack in April, the Japanese having crossed rivers and mountain ranges that had been considered impassable to do so. The British were forced into a disorderly retreat, with the 14th taking heavy casualties in the process. The Fusiliers had taken such large losses that they would never again be used in combat operations during the war, instead serving as internal security within India. The Burma Campaign would rage back and forth for the next few years, but would eventually end with the Allied liberation of Burma from Japanese control.
Of course the British were not the only power engaged in the Second World War that deployed units that had Irish connections in their name, culture and historical background. Having spent most of the inter-war period as a unit of the National Guard, the 69th New York Infantry Regiment – the Fighting Irish – were added once more to the ranks of the US Army in late 1940, and spent most of 1942 on the western coast and in Hawaii, waiting for a follow-up Japanese attack that never came and preparing for future offensive operations. Their chance finally came in late 1943. The Japanese had occupied Makin Atoll, one of the Gilbert Islands, shortly after the raid on Pearl Harbour, but in November of 1943 the United States was in a position to claim it back. They had embarked on an “island-hopping” strategy in the Pacific, aiming to assault and capture a continuing change of island bases to gradually increase the reach of their naval and air contingents, until they were in a position to attack the Japanese home islands themselves. Makin Atoll was another step in that road, and was assaulted in force on the 20th November.
The Fighting Irish, as part of the 27th Infantry Division, were among those tasked with the operation. Two of their battalions, the 1st and 3rd, went ashore at “Red” beach to the west, where the heaviest resistance was expected, with the 2nd helping to take “Yellow” beach to the north. In the end it turned out Japanese defenders were actually concentrated at Yellow beach, where a disembarkation over 200 metres from shore also slowed the initial advance. Hopes that the Japanese defenders would allow themselves to be caught fighting at the beaches and assaulted from both sides were thwarted when the Japanese instead choose to make their stand at fortified position in the centre of the islands, but the weight of American numbers combined with the narrow area of land available to defend meant that victory was inevitable. Though clearing the Japanese positions was a fraught business, with elements of the 69th facing a so-called banzai charge – a reckless human wave attack sometimes employed by Japanese soldiers instead of surrender – Makin had fallen by the 24th. The regiment would wait another six months before their next engagement. In a larger sense, the Pacific War in 1943 saw a series of Allied advances, in New Guinea, the Solomon Islands, Gilbert Islands and Marshall Islands, or at least a neutering of Japanese offensive capability in other arenas, like China. American industrial output was reaching immense size in terms of ships, planes and arms, and by the time 1944 dawned a Japanese defeat was already looking inevitable.
The other aspect of the war that we must note here is the continuing slaughter in Russia. In January of 1943, after a vicious struggle that cost millions of casualties, the Germans cut off in Stalingrad surrendered. Major Soviet advances in the aftermath threw the Germans back from much of the ground they had taken the previous year. German efforts to arrest the retreat with an attack on a major salient of the frontlines in the Summer, the Battle of Kursk, ended in a costly failure after one of the largest engagements of opposing armour in history: the Germans would never again be able to mount such a large-scale offensive operation. The Soviets pushed relentlessly on for the rest of the year, into Ukraine, where Kyiv fell in November. By the end of the year the Soviet Union was close to relieving the siege of Leningrad in the north, and stood poised to make further advances into eastern Europe.
By the time 1944 came, the ultimate outcome of the Second World War was no longer in any serious doubt, for anyone who had a mind to look at the larger situation. The Allies had landed in Europe and forced Italy first out of the Axis forces and later officially on their side. The build-up of Allied troops in the United Kingdom ahead of the planned invasion of Western Europe was continuing. German losses on the Eastern Front were enormous, and they were now losing great swaths of territory with every Soviet offensive. In the Pacific, Japan had seen its ability to generate offensives slowly whittled away, and now faced a succession of Allied advances on land and sea. The only question was how long a final victory would take, and at what cost it would be gained.
For now, we move on. Ireland had other experiences of the Second World War, beyond bombings and the tangled web of neutrality, that are worth discussing. In the next entry, we will look at the experience of the Irish mercantile marine during the war, from those ships that were lost to the actions of the Allies and Axis, to those that did their utmost to aid the stranded sailors of either side when the need came. For these ships, it was to be a grim, difficult period, as they fought their own unique struggle to keep Ireland going in the face of blockade, bombs and torpedos.
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