On March 12, 1945, the late Patrick Joseph Doherty - who will be well-known to his old neighbours from Carrickreagh and Beechwood - led a platoon of the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers along the heavily-mined embankment of a narrow spatewater called the Senio stream in the Ravenna province of Northern East Italy.
Five or so metres across the ‘Torrente Senio’ as it was known to the locals, the Wehrmacht lay in wait.
Lance-sergeant Doherty - who after fighting the Second World War worked for years as a bricklayer and foreman on building jobs around Londonderry - had been charged with taking out a ‘Spandau’ Maschinengewehr 42 heavy machine gun position, which had been harassing and inflicting casualties on the Allied forces of the 15th Army who were forging northwards at the time.
As Patrick led his men through the mined floodbank the Wehrmacht soldiers opposite heard him.
What happened next earned the Creggan man the Military Medal.
It’s worth here citing L/Sgt. Doherty’s official certificate of award, which was signed off in late March 1945 by Field Marshal Harold Alexander, the Supreme Allied Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean Theatre.
“At this point the patrol was heard, and the enemy threw grenades at them, but the patrol kept on advancing and retaliated with their own grenades, whereupon the enemy sent up three white verey lights and threw over a large number of grenades, slightly wounding L/Sgt. Doherty and one other member of the patrol.
“L/Sgt. Doherty withdrew his patrol, reformed and attacked again. This time he was met with Spandau fire as well as another shower of grenades.
“The Spandau position was rushed and silenced, and has not opened up since, but the patrol suffered three casualties in doing so, one of them falling just in front of the gun.
“L/Sgt. Doherty immediately went to his aid, although he was not sure then that the gun had been silenced, and helped him to get clear, and then withdrew his patrol intact.
“The success of this dangerous task was entirely due to the outstanding example in courage and leadership displayed by Lt/Sgt. Doherty throughout the whole operation.”
This remarkable episode has been brought to life once again by Patrick’s fellow Creggan native and namesake, Richard Doherty, who has written the first ever detailed study of one of the most famous episodes of the Second World War - the great final battle in Italy.
‘Victory in Italy: 15th Army Group’s Final Campaign 1945’ has just been published to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the campaign, on April 9 2015.
“Patrick Doherty, or ‘Rex’ Doherty as he was known to his friends was a Lance-sergeant in the 2nd Battalion of The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and in March of 1945, before the opening of Operation Grapeshot, the Allies were literally facing the Germans across a very, very narrow stream, with very high flood banks in Northern Italy called the Senio,” the Prehen-based military historian told the Sentinel.
“It was literally, First World War style fighting: trench warfare, night patrols and so forth, and it was during one of those night patrols, where a German machine gun post had been identified and a patrol sent out to try to eliminate the machine gun post that ‘Rex’ Doherty earned the Military Medal, and he earned it because some of his men had actually been wounded and he went forward under machine gun fire from the machine gun post and got the men out to safety.
“He was a very, very, worthy recipient of the Military Medal,” says Richard.
While the main focus in early 1945 was on the advance to ‘The Fatherland,’ the 15 Army Group’s 5th (US) and 8th (British) Armies were achieving remarkable results in Northern Italy.
Superb generalship, planning, preparation and training outweighed the diversion of major formations to North West Europe, the appalling terrain, harsh climate and general battle fatigue.
Equipment was improvised and air/ground operations coordinated to a very high level. In April, the Allied offensive surprised the Germans with its speed and brilliance.
Winston Churchill wrote to Field Marshal Alexander on April 29, 1945: “I rejoice in the magnificently planned and executed operations of 15th Group of Armies.”
Richard’s tome sheds new light on this campaign, which he believes has heretofore been largely neglected in the historiography of the Second World War.
“The final campaign was one that’s almost been forgotten because everything that was happening in North West Europe tended to overshadow it, but these were two armies, the British 8th Army, which had fought right through from North Africa, and the American 5th, that were determined they were going to finish the business in Italy and the campaign that they waged against the German armies in Northern Italy was so successful that the Germans in Italy surrendered two days before the Germans in North West Europe even began surrendering,” Richard explains.
“So you have victory in Italy, which is almost a week before VE Day [Victory in Europe, May 8] and yet very, very few people know about it,” said Richard.
Whilst ‘Victory in Italy’ takes a macro look at the united nations of Irish, Indian, Polish, South African, Jewish, Kiwi, Brazilian, Italian, Australian and US troops, which comprised the 15th Army and the wider significance of Operation Grapeshot in the context of the overall war, it’s undoubtedly the riveting story of Patrick Doherty’s heroics that will be of greatest local interest.
“I actually did meet him. He lived in Beechwood Crescent when he died, which was about 12 or 13 years ago but he had lived in Carrickreagh Gardens.”
The idea for writing the book had occurred to Richard as long ago as 1999.
“I had a book published on the history of the 8th Army. It wasn’t officially launched but there was a copy handed over to Pat Ramsey, who was the Mayor at the time, and he had a reception in the Mayor’s parlour and ‘Rex’ Doherty was invited along to it,” he says.
“It was actually a book I’d wanted to write for a long time but I kept getting pushed back on it in the past but this time it just sort of happened that we were going to be coming up on the 70th anniversary and this was the final phase of the Italian campaign and they bit on it because of the significance of the anniversary,” he says.
Richard says ‘Rex’ was involved in a campaign that was characterised by the near perfect application of military field tactics.
“I describe it in the book as the best example of manoeuvre warfare carried out by the Western Allies anywhere in Europe during the Second World War,” he says.
‘Victory in Italy’ describes how the successful breach of the Senio line - near the towns of Alfonsine and Cotignola - was achieved by a carefully choreographed air and ground assault.
“Basically, they hit the Germans so hard before they launched the physical attack.
“For most of the day of April 9 along 8th Army’s front the Germans were being pounded by heavy bombers, then artillery fire, then fighter bombers, then more artillery fire.
“They did that about four of five times - phasing between fighter bombers coming in with rockets, cannon fire and bombs - and then when they flew away the artillery would take over and then towards the evening just when there was enough light left for an infantry assault the fighters came down but they didn’t open fire,” Richard explains.
“At that point, on the New Zealand front and the Polish front the flamethrowers came up and doused the banks of the Senio with flame: nothing frightens people more than fire.
“[The air sortie] was a dummy run after having pinned them down and softened them up during the day. The New Zealanders were literally over the Senio before the Germans knew what was happening,” says Richard.
“There was hard fighting in pockets but they’d broke the Germans. They were then moving on towards the San Terno river, which is a bigger obstacle and was expected to be a more difficult obstacle to get across.
“But they literally - apart from a couple of isolated areas of fairly stiff opposition where the Germans were able to get tanks up - the New Zealanders again hit it the next day and were across it the following day,” he explains.
‘Rex’s’ contribution to the crossing of the Senio wouldn’t have made life any more comfortable for Benito Mussolini, of course, who around this time was holed up at Salò on the western shores of Lake Garda about 100 kilometres or so to the North West.
It wasn’t long after the advance of the 15th Army beyond the San Terno, that the former dictator met a grisly end at the hands of Italian partisans as he tried to escape to Switzerland.
”He wasn’t very far away. His headquarters were in Salò on the western shore of Lake Garda,” says Richard.
“He had what they called the Army of Liguria, and the National Republican Airforce, which was the Italian Fascist airforce - they strangely enough did more fighting than the Germans,” he adds.
Thus, as well as bringing to print the spell-binding story of ‘Rex’ Doherty and casting light on a hitherto under-examined episode of the Second World War, ‘Victory in Italy,’ like all good histories, also puts to bed a few old myths that aren’t really borne out by the evidence.
For example, the Second World War taunt that the best place to buy hardly-used second hand weapons was from the Italians, was a black slander if the events of spring 1945 are any gauge.
“It’s actually a slander. What it was was that it started off as propaganda in North Africa. British and Australian propaganda because it was British and Australian and Indian soldiers who beat the Italian 10th Army,” says Richard.
“But they beat them because the plan of attack in Operation Compass in December 1940 took the Italians completely off balance.
“So what they did was they sundered their Command and Control. No matter what army they did that to, they would have shattered it,” he says.
Contrary to the propaganda, the Italian divisions were actually marked out by their bravery during both Operation Compass and later, Operation Grapeshot, the subject of Richard’s book.
“I use this example in talks sometimes and I ask people to think of a situation where guns, artillery, not anti-tank, ordinary field guns, are being attacked by tanks.
“No matter what shells the guns fire the shells will bounce off the tank hulls and yet these guys stay on their guns until the tanks run over them and the tank machine guns wipe them out.
“So these guys do what artillery men do, they serve their guns to the end and when I finish, it’s a slightly longer description, you’re all thinking: which regiment of the Royal Artillery did this?
“Well, it was the Royal Artillery but it wasn’t the one you’re thinking about, it was the Royal Italian Artillery and I’m talking about 1940, December 8, 1940 in North Africa. Operation Compass. They didn’t leave their guns,” says Richard.
“And in 1945 their airforce was prepared to do more fighting than the Germans using German planes,” he adds.
To read more about Patrick ‘Rex’ Doherty, Operation Grapeshot and the Second World War in Italy, ‘Victory in Italy: 15th Army Group’s Final Campaign 1945’ by Richard Doherty, should now be available at local bookstores.
It can also be ordered directly from the publisher Pen & Sword at http://www.pen-and-sword.co.uk/