Irishmen in the 1st Airborne Division
from North Africa to Arnhem

by David Truesdale.
Published by Redcoat Publishing
16 Shiralee Drive Newtownard Co Down BT23 4BA
ISBN 0 9538367 1 1

Review by Ian Anthem

“Old Days! The Wild Geese are Flighting,
Head to the storm as they faced it before!
For where there are Irish there’s bound to be fighting,
And when there’s no fighting, it’s Ireland no more!"

Rudyard Kipling, that grand old imperialist, wrote these lines in salute to the Irish Guards in 1918, harking back to the days of Irishmen fighting for France in the century after the Treaty of Limerick in 1691. Kipling would have been fully aware of the contradiction his poetic comparison presented, that of Irishmen fighting bravely for Britain yet coming from a nation with no reason to love the British and as proud a tradition of fighting against the British Flag as they gained fighting under it.

No one understood Victoria’s army better than Kipling, and many of her soldiers were Irishmen.
As David Truesdale states in “Brotherhood of the Cauldron”, Ireland has always provided fertile ground for British recruiting Sergeants, and a high percentage of the British Army’s most successful Generals have claimed Irish ancestry. Truesdale lists Alexander, Auchinleck, Alan Brooke, Dill, Montgomery, O’Connor, and Horrocks amongst them. He also gives some attention to “the family business” of Irish stock such as the Brookes of County Fermagh who lost one son fighting in the 2nd Afghan War and that son’s only son killed at Gallipoli.
But Truesdale is not concerned with the broad sweep of Irishmen in British Service other than as a background to his Brotherhood of the Cauldron, those Irishmen fighting in the 1st Airborne Division of the British Army from late 1941 to 1945.

Truesdale gives a brief history of the formation of the British Airborne Forces and the creation of the 1st Airborne Division, and sketches the history and recruitment of Irishmen who joined it and related units. Men like ‘Fightin’ Sid’ Ellis, who joined the Royal Irish Fusiliers as a boy soldier before serving for six years in India. Ellis also had over two years as a Palestine Police Officer before becoming a Warder in Belfast’s Crumlin Road Gaol, and then another stint in the Fusiliers before joining 1st Airborne via the Royal armoured Corps! As Truesdale illustrates, Ellis was not unique in possessing a colourful military background, one of the Paras having served in the Spanish Civil War.

Truesdale then takes his Irishmen to North Africa and describes their initial skirmishes with the Germans, and on to the fighting in Sicily and Italy in 1943. However, over half the book is concerned with the fighting in September 1944 in the bloody battle around Arnhem and the nearby town of Oosterbeck during Operation Market Garden. A brief description of the strategic situation is given including an assessment of the plan and it’s implications. We follow Truesdale’s Irishmen as they join battle, not with the old men and reservists they had been led to expect but with the hardened soldiers of 2 SS Divisions, the 9th (Hohenstuafen) and 10th (Frundsberg), veterans of Russia and Normandy.

It must be said that many better overall accounts of the 1st Airborne’s terrible and legendary fight exist, but Truesdale is faithful to his Irishmen and their stories, so here we get a picture of the battle through their eyes and often in their own words. And we read of their fighting and, in many cases, dying. Sid Ellis is described by one of his close friends as “fighting like a lion” before being killed by a 9th SS sniper’s bullet in the combat around St Elisabeth hospital. At 38 he was “really too old (for a Para) but a little thing like that didn’t bother Sid”.
Amongst the loss and occasional futility the staunch camaraderie of the men is obvious, and the Irishman’s gift of humour in adversity is sometimes evident. One Bren Gunner, sent by his Company Major to a fire position on the second floor of a Dutch Civilian house returns, repulsed not by German bullets but by an apparently more fearsome adversary-“Sure, and I daren’t go in. There’s an oul doll in bed up there with her teeth out and she’s screaming her head off!

”The Brotherhood of the Cauldron” finishes with appendices including a roll of the Irishmen known to have served with First Airborne and their histories.
Perhaps the biggest flaw of this book is a failure to address the central historical paradox of how these Irishmen actually felt in serving the Crown. One can assume that many of the Ulstermen had few qualms about the matter, but what about the Catholics from the republic? Paul Clark makes mention in the Foreword that De Valera and Dail Eireann were embarrassed by the numbers of Irishmen who took the shilling but we hear little of the thoughts of the men themselves upon the matter. No doubt the omission is deliberate in a generally apolitical work, but the question is a fascinating one.

This is a beautifully finished book, presented with over 200 photographs of the 1st airborne Division and its Irish members. The jacket cover photograph is worthy of particular mention. It shows 8 men of the Glider Pilot’s Regiment and the 21st Independent Parachute Company, some of Truesdale’s Irishmen amongst them, in a break in the fighting to defend houses in Oosterbeek on Friday 22 September 1944. Cradling Sten Guns and Lee-Enfields they smoke and grin at the camera as their officer signs a visitor’s book. Their spirit is obvious, their faces timeless testimonies to youth and courage.

This book has little to recommend it to the modeller for detail or technicality, but as a history it succeeds, and anyone with an interest in Irishmen in the 2nd World War or with a desire for more of the human stories of the Arnhem fighting will not be disappointed.

& Ian Anthem
Page created 22 May 2003

Click Browsers BACK button to return to list
Return to Book Review Page
Return to Home