The contemporary pictures from the Anzio bridgehead suggest little of the battles that were raging at this time. The landings had not provided the breakthrough that had been sought, and now Anzio itself was becoming increasingly vulnerable.
On the perimeter lines desperate battles were fought to fend off a German onslaught that nearly broke through. The sacrifice of units like the 7th ‘Ox and Bucks’ just managed to see the Allies through. It says much for the nature of the fighting that this whole battalion, or the remnants from it, could not be found when the London Irish went out to relieve them.
At 0700 hours on February 17 the London Irish and the rest of the brigade moved forward into the sector held by its parent division. The battalion occupied a reserve position, this time west of the Anzio-Albano road in flat country below Buonriposa Ridge.
In a direct line they were less than four miles from the sea. The flatness of the country was deceiving. It was interspersed with wadis and ditches which, though invisible from more than a few yards away, were very deep and steep, with a mass of tangled undergrowth at the bottom. That they were there had been obvious from the map, but that they were such considerable obstacles to movement or helped to conceal movement was not realised until later. German tactics showed that they knew the ground well.
The London Irish had hardly reached their new ground than orders came to move immediately to the Buonriposa Ridge area and relieve the 7th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, who were reported to be cut off and surrounded. This entailed a daylight advance, and a circuitous route was chosen in order to get reasonable cover along the wadis. The advance began at midday and at first only desultory shelling was encountered. It progressed well until in the wadis the going became heavy and slow. There were also a multitude of wide ditches which were unexpected because they did not appear on the maps.
As the leading troops emerged from the protection of the wadis they came under savage artillery, mortar, and small-arms fire, and were unable to make further progress. Casualties among officers and non-commissioned officers were heavy, and that led to some disorganisation. Since January there had been an eighty per cent. change in the personnel of the battalion owing to the need to replace losses among officers and men.
Few of the new arrivals had seen each other before joining the battalion and had, in fact, been hustled into battle almost before knowing the names of their section or platoon leaders. So when more casualties among the officers and non-commissioned officers occurred, it was a more serious matter than would normally have been the case.
The situation was reported to Brigade, but most insistent orders came that the battalion must find and bring out the remnants of the Oxford and Bucks. Strong patrols went out at night, but every effort to find the Oxford and Bucks in their reported position failed. The enemy, too, was active, but there was no major clash and in the morning the position was unchanged.
The Commanding Officer visited the companies and found most of them very exhausted from a very gruelling twenty-four hours in wet weather. The new men, particularly, had not had an opportunity to get hardened or tuned up and had not thrown off the “softness” occasioned by long journeys and many days spent in reinforcement and transit camps. In addition, some of the old members of the battalion had recently come from convalescent centres.
On February 18, further efforts were made to trace the Oxford and Bucks with no result, except to bring more casualties to the battalion. That night, Lieut.-Colonel Good, exhausted by many days and nights with no sleep and little rest, was ordered by Brigadier Davidson to have a respite. The position at that time was that in accordance with a plan prepared by the Brigadier, the London Irish, despite heavy shell and mortar fire, had got up forward as far as it possibly could. A strong, powerful blow would be needed to dislodge the Germans from their positions on the higher ground ahead.
Owing to the shelling, battalion headquarters had lost touch with the companies. Tactical Headquarters, commanded by Captain T. J. Sweeney, the Adjutant, and accompanied by Captain A. Mace and about ten personnel of the carrier platoon acting as headquarters defence, struggled all that night to reach the companies. They finally joined them at first light and found them sheltering in a wadi.
Everyone was extremely weary and all further attack was out of the question for the moment. A Company now numbered about thirty-five men and C Company about the same. About an hour later the battalion suffered another severe blow. A stray shell landed near the resting men and Captain J. R. Strick, a very popular and efficient officer who had been with the London Irish from pre-war Territorial days, and C.S.M. Flavell, were killed and Major Brooks severely wounded.
For much more on their role in the Anzio bridgehead see the London Irish Rifles Association.