1944 opened with the Allies in a very strong position on every front, but still with a number of difficult obstacles between them and a final victory over the Axis. In the East, Russian advances were being bought with an enormous expense of blood for every stretch of ground and urban area. In Italy, the Allies were now advancing straight into the teeth of a formidable array of defensive positions. Preparations for the opening of a new front in France were ongoing, but had no guarantee of success. And in the Pacific Allied island hoping was only getting bloodier as an exercise. By the end of the year Allied victory was being measured in months instead of years in terms of likelihood: Irish named regiments were at the heart of many arenas where that state of affairs was made solid as an inevitability.
The battle for Italy continued, and was only getting harder. On the 22nd January 1944 the Allies attempted to bypass the imposing defences of the German “Winter Line” and make possible a direct strike on Rome with an amphibious landing at Anzio. Several Irish named regiments would be involved, in what became an infamous Allied quagmire. The initial landings were largely uncontested but the commander, American John P. Lucas, choose to consolidate the initial beachhead and dig-in rather than move more aggressively, and allowed his counterpart, Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, to throw every available unit he had into the area, surrounding the beachhead from adjacent high ground. The result was a grim and costly effort for the Allies to first withstand a near constant artillery barrage, and then to manage a breakout.
Among the Irish named regiments engaged at Anzio were the 1st battalion of the Irish Guards, the 1st battalion of the London Irish and the 2nd battalion of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. The fighting in the area was frequently quite brutal, with the Allies forced to set-up defensive positions in swampland and other flooded areas, and from there fend off repeated German attacks. On one occasion elements of the Irish Guards were cut off from the rest of the beachhead following a withdrawal, and were forced to fight their way back to their own lines: their losses would eventually become so high that the unit would be withdrawn to Britain and be designated as a training battalion. The London Irish, who had been moved to Anzio in February, suffered hugely in a succession of desperate actions, eventually listing over 600 casualties. The Skins faired somewhat better, put into the thick of the fighting in March and being located in a more secure part of the overall position, but still had to take part in vicious fighting. The Allies, under new leadership, would not be able to breakout from the Anzio area until May: controversially, Allied units would be ordered to take an undefended Rome, accomplished in early June, rather than support attacks against German positions elsewhere, which would have disastrous consequences.
The other part of the Italian campaign during 1944 were the efforts to breach the German defensive lines criss-crossing the country. The first were the fortifications of the Winter Line, which had as a major strongpoint the heights of Monte Cassino. Numerous Irish named regiments were engaged there and at other positions around the Winter Line, that would take the better part of six months to break. The Irish Brigade units were in the thick of the fighting repeatedly, especially in the third and fourth assaults on the heights. It was a miserable battle for the Allies, advancing uphill, with limited armour support and immense difficulties in re-supply. Time and again the German defenders threw back attacks from their well-prepared positions, and time-and-again the British units were obliged to keep up the offensive. Irish Brigade regiments were among those involved in the very last push on the summit, though it would elements of the Polish Corps that would be first to gain that objective.
With this portion of the Winter Line finally taken, the Allies pushed on, advancing to the next German defensive system, the Hitler Line, though the actions of General Mark Clark in focusing on the capture of Rome meant that the majority of the German troops in the area were able to withdraw to safety. The North Irish Horse, now equipped with American Sherman tanks, were thrown into the fray here, and took over 60% casualties in terms of tanks lost in assaulting a number of villages and other positions. The casualties incurred in trying to take Cassino, and in the operations north of he Winter Line immediately afterward, were so great that the 6th battalion of the Skins ceased to exist, merging with the 2nd that had fought at Anzio. After the Hitler Line was taken, again with great loss, the Allies ran into the Gothic Line, an immense series of fortifications in the north of Italy, that they would spend most of the rest of the war attempting to get past. For all of the damage and delay that the Axis were able to inflict, with the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, London Irish and Royal Irish Rifles among those infantry units that had taken such hurt, the situation in Italy was now becoming slowly untenable, but it would not be until the clearing of Winter weather and the Spring of 1945 before the final end was going to come.
But of course so much of what was happening in Italy was deemed, then and since, as a sideshow to the efforts the Allies were making to liberate France and open up the long awaited additional front to the west. 1944 is synonymous with the D-Day landings that took place on the Normandy coast on June 6th of that year: over five designated beaches, and in a mass of parachute and glider drops behind, and with the backing of an enormous aerial and naval bombardment, tens of thousands of Allied troops established a foothold before beginning a difficult effort to expand that foothold and break out of the surrounding area. On the day of the invasion itself the the 1st and 2nd battalions of the Royal Ulster Rifles were involved: the 1st landed in gliders as part of Operation Mallard, one of the most successful airborne operations that day, while the 2nd went ashore in good order with the 3rd Infantry Division at Sword Beach. The Antrim Fortress Royal Engineers, now designated as the 591 (Antrim) Parachute Squadron, were less fortunate, their landings over Normandy scattered by ground fire. The worst off of the Irish named regiments involved on D-Day were probably the companies of the Liverpool Irish that went ashore at Juno Beach, the targets for intense machine gun fire in sections: though Juno was secured, that day and in the weeks that followed the regiment suffered enough that it was quietly disbanded before the end of the year.
The fighting to establish and expand the beachhead was one thing, but there remained an entire country to liberate. Advancing through the Norman countryside was a difficult task, with hedgerows augmenting German defences and with the Allies struggling to land adequate supplies ahead of the fall of Cherbourg late in June. Infantry, including many of those units that had landed on the beaches, were obliged to stay in the thick of combat for weeks afterwards, crawling towards objectives some leaders had hoped would be taken on day one. German resistance, organised by Erwin Rommel, was predicated on the belief that the war would be lost if the Allied advance here was not turned back.
The tanks of the Royal Irish Hussars were thrown into he fray a few days after the initial landings, and helped to support numerous efforts to advance through the Norman countryside. The 2nd and 3rd battalions of the Irish Guards joined the Normandy fighting in late June, and were instrumental in the capturing of the towns Cagny and Vimont in mid-July: an incident with a supporting Guards tank ramming into an enemy Tiger when its own gun jammed is a well-remembered part of this combat. Towards the end of the month the Guards aided in the capture of the strategically invaluable heights at St Pincon, as the British moved to take advantage of the initial American breakout from Normandy. The tanks of the Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards, who had arrived in Normandy late in July, were also involved in this operation.
By August the Allies had done enough to break the German cordon and indeed trap a large number of enemy troops in Normandy, and the subsequent advance was as swift as it was deadly to the large number of Axis troops left scrambling. The 6th Airborne, which included the Royal Ulster Rifles, was part of a famously quick part of the advance, travelling over 70kms in only nine days, while tanks of the Hussars were often at the forefront of the Allies’ movements. Paris would be liberated before the end of August, and most of the rest of France rapidly followed. Several of the Irish named regiments were involved in this rapid advance, making it to the River Seine and then continuing on towards the Low Countries. Belgium was entered in September, and many now began to think that the battered German forces would not be able to hold on beyond the end of the year.
The effort to force this state of affairs revolved around Operation Market Garden, Bernard Montgomery’s very ambitious, and very controversial, scheme to secure a number of vital bridges and canal crossings through the Netherlands by means of parachute and glider drops, to be followed by a lightning fast advance of other Allied ground troops, thus opening the door for a further advance into North-Western Germany and on to Berlin. The Irish Guards had been among the first into Brussels on the 3rd of September and then among the first to hit the Dutch frontier a week later, and their 2nd battalion were now among those tasked with prosecuting the ground attack. After getting past initial resistance that was stronger than expected, the Guards were part of the forces that entered Eindhoven and later Nijmegen, before an advance onto Arnhem, the farthest objective where British paratroopers, cut off since their jump, spent a terrible week fighting a desperate battle to hold-out. The oncoming Allied forces, delayed by the stronger-than-expected German resistance, continual attacks along their line of supply by bypassed enemy units and difficulties in securing certain bridges, got to the vicinity of Arnhem too late, and could only aid in the partial withdrawal of the forces engaged there. The Rhine would not be breached before the end of 1944. Fighting on the Western Front would remain static through November and December, with Allied units engaged in thwarting limited German counter-attacks in parts of the Netherlands, before the sudden and unexpected assault through the Ardennes forest region that would become known as the Battle of the Bulge.
In the Pacific, the 69th “Fighting Irish” Regiment had spent most of the first half of the year recovering from the assault on Makin Island and preparing for future operations. The American island-hopping strategy continued apace, as did advances through the islands of South-East Asia, and in June of 1944 the focus fell on Saipan, of the Marianas Islands. US Marines went ashore on the 15th of June but ran into stiff resistance: a few days later the 69th was among Army units sent in from the “floating reserve”. For close to a full month the fighting raged as Allied forces pushed forward bit-by-bit, fighting Japanese soldiers in dense jungle and in fortified positions: natural barriers such as hills and canyons proved difficult to clear, and casualties were high. The 69th were among those that captured the infamous “Purple Heart Ridge” during this battle, among other accomplishments. Saipan was secure by mid-July, though the 69th and other units would be suppressing Japanese holdouts for weeks afterwards. Having taken heavy casualties, the 69th then went into reserve for rest and replenishing of its ranks. By the end of the year, the Allies had won further, enormous victories over the Japanese Navy that severely limited its ability to be a major factor in the continuing war, and had worked their advance as far as the islands of the Philippines. Now well within striking range of the Japanese home islands, a devastating aerial campaign reduced many Japanese cities to ashes, and worse was to come.
All the while, an enormous amount of fighting continued to be waged on the Eastern Front, as the Soviet Union pressed its huge advantage in numbers and the Germans held grimly on as best they could. Operation Bagration, an enormous “deep” offensive, smashed through German lines and inflicted over 400’000 casualties in a few weeks. This, married to other offensives, saw Soviet troops retake most of the Baltics, advance to the gates of Warsaw, knock Romania out of the war and make gains throughout the Balkans. By the end of the year they were on the verge of moving decisively into German territory itself, with any German defences more a matter of delay than any reasonable expectation of turning the tide. Time was running out for Hitler’s Germany, pressed from all sides: the only question now was what power was going to deliver the final blow.
Ireland would have watched all of these events with obvious interest, and an already with a mind for the post-war world. It was difficult to ignore the war, especially when German bombs fell on Dublin, or when Irish ships were sunk by the Kriegsmarine. It is the latter topic that we turn to again in our next entry, as we take a close look at U-boat activity in and around Irish territorial waters, and the many instances of U-boats that were sunk in the same.
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