Irish Guards celebrate Christmas Eve in a brothel

Portrait of Sergeant J P Kenneally, VC, by Henry Carr, 1943.

Portrait of Sergeant J P Kenneally, VC, by Henry Carr, 1943.

The Irish Guards had now arrived in Italy after rebuilding their strength following their battles in Tunisia. Having recovered from his wounds Sergeant John Keneally knew that they would soon be back in combat and he and his closest comrades were determined to enjoy themselves. After the award of the Victoria Cross, he was now a celebrated figure but it would make no difference to his outlook. Keneally – it was an assumed name, adopted when he rejoined the army after he had earlier deserted – was not going to be deterred by Army rules and regulations.

Now they hitch hiked down to the town of Bari, which was being used exclusively as a rest and recreation centre for U.S. forces. Teaming up with some American soldiers who knew a place where they could have a ‘smashing time’, they set off on their adventures:

Against our better judgment we joined them. As we approached the stucco building in the back streets our misgivings increased; plastered all over were the signs, ‘Out of Bounds to all Military Personnel’, ‘Strictly Forbidden’; there were even German ‘Verboten’ signs which had not been taken down. Al smelt trouble. Monty said, ‘It doesn’t say anything about the British.’ We entered.

It was a brothel, but they had American beer and rye whisky supplied, no doubt, by grateful GI quartermasters, and there was a pianist who thumped out Yankee tunes. The Madame was very interested in us; I think we were the first British troops who had been in there.

The girls admired our height and size, but they were a very lousy lot, and it was obvious that if you wanted a dose of clap this was the place to come. The beer and wine owed, we sang ‘O Sole Mio’ with the piano player and were getting pleasantly drunk when there was a squeal of brakes outside, a hammering on the door and then it was kicked in.

A posse of a dozen baton-wielding ‘Snowdrops’ poured in. With shouts of ‘Stay where you are’ two guarded the door, some thumped upstairs and the rest rushed through to the back entrance to catch the GIs baling out. The Madame was cursing the American Military Police Sergeant, the girls were screaming for their money and the Gls were trying to escape in all directions. There was no sign of our two erstwhile Marine pals.

With a concerted rush the six of us knocked the two Snowdrops who were guarding the front door out of the way and we all baled out. Monty, who had the instincts of a fox, whipped open the door of the armoured car that was parked outside — in their rush the MPs had left the key in it. We piled in and with a scrunch of gears Monty pulled away.

The bastards opened up on us — .45 slugs slammed into the rear doors they even fired at us from the upstairs windows of the brothel. Monty rounded the corner and we were away with no harm done; there were bullet holes in the roof but no one was hit so we proceeded on our merry way back to Canosa. We parked the wagon about half a mile from the granaries and walked back just in time to join midnight mass in the chapel attached to the farm house. It had been a good night out.

Christmas Day opened with no repercussions and the battalion enjoyed itself. The Master Cook, Sgt. Kennedy, had produced a magnicent meal: we had roast pork and turkey and it was as good a Christmas Day as ever we had in England.

Boxing Day was a different matter, though. I spotted an American Military Police vehicle parked outside battalion HQ. By dint of questioning I learned that an American Provost-marshal was closeted with the Adjutant and RSM McLaughlin — they had obviously found their vehicle.

Through Sgt. Kelly from the Orderly Room, who was a friend, I learnt what had happened; it seemed some soldiers identified as guardsmen had taken a vehicle from Bari on Christmas Eve.

RSM McLaughlin, who would defend his battalion to the death, said all his men were God-fearing Catholics who had attended Mass on the Christmas Eve — it must have been those unbelievers in the Scots or Grenadier Guards who were the culprits. After a couple of glasses of Christmas cheer the Provost-marshal left quite happily, and that was the end of the affair.

See John Kenneally: The Honour and the Shame.

A general and a private on the road to Rome. Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, C in C of ground forces stops to talk with a British Private carrying extra large load up the mountainside in Mt. Camino Sector.

A general and a private on the road to Rome. Gen. Sir Harold Alexander, C in C of ground forces stops to talk with a British Private carrying extra large load up the mountainside in Mt. Camino Sector. December 1943.

British patrol running towards next safety zone on hillside in Mt. Camino Sector. Rocks afforded riflemen good protection in approaching German position.

British patrol running towards next safety zone on hillside in Mt. Camino Sector. Rocks afforded riflemen good protection in approaching German position. December 1943.

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