The Collection of Second World War and Modern Gallantry Awards formed by the late William Oakley
Date of Auction: 12th December 2012
Sold for £12,000
Estimate: £4,000 - £5,000
Military Medal, G.VI.R. (2716717 L. Sjt. E. Walsh, Ir. Gds.); 1939-45 Star; Africa Star, clasp, 1st Army; Italy Star; France and Germany Star; Defence and War Medals 1939-45, extremely fine (7) £4000-5000
FootnoteM.M. London Gazette 31 August 1944. The original recommendation - for a D.C.M. - states:
‘At Chateau D’Amfreville on 10 June 1944, the Troop to which this N.C.O. belongs was in support of another Troop holding a garden wall. This Troop suffered heavy casualties from the enemy’s barrage and it’s Troop Commander came back to the cellar where the supporting Troop was sheltering in perfect security. He asked for three men to fill up gaps in his line. Corporal Walsh immediately volunteered for this dangerous duty, setting a most valuable example to the young soldiers with him, at a time when they were reluctant to leave their companions without a lead.
This N.C.O. previously distinguished himself by his courage at Vaagso on 27 December 1941, when he was wounded in the neck by a grenade but refused to be treated until next day because the medical staff were too busy. He was also recommended for his conduct at Termoli on 5 October 1943.’
Edward “Mick” Walsh was born in at Redhills, in Co. Cavan, in July 1907, and enlisted in the Irish Guards at Belfast in March 1928. Transferred to the Army Reserve in March 1931, he was recalled by his regiment on the outbreak of hostilities and posted to the 1st Battalion, with whom, after surviving the bombing of his transport, he served in Norway from April to June 1940.
Not long thereafter he became an early recruit to the cut-throat world of Commando operations, originally being posted to No. 8 Commando, which, in October 1940, was amalgamated with No. 3 Commando to form the 4th Special Service Battalion. However, in the fullness of time, a newly established No. 3 Commando did in fact emerge as an independent force.
And the Commando went on to participate in all the great raids of the War, including Dieppe, spearheaded the invasion of Sicily, fought through Italy, and landed in France on D-Day to link up with the Airborne: fortunately for posterity’s sake, two of the best Commando memoirs of the 1939-45 War were written by ex-3 Commando Commanding Officers - Commando by Brigadier “Jock” Durnford Slater, D.S.O. and Bar, and Storm from the Sea by Brigadier Peter Young, D.S.O., M.C. and two Bars, in which Walsh receives due recognition.
Vaagso - December 1941
No. 3 first went into action proper in the Vaagso raid in December 1941, in which, as stated, Walsh, as a member of No. 6 Troop, was wounded - by a grenade splinter in the head. Peter Young’s takes up the story in Storm from the Sea:
‘No. 3 gun was surrounded by a low wall, perhaps two and a half feet high and fairly thick; behind this cover we paused for a moment to weigh up the situation. Ahead we could make out the outline of wooden huts looming through the smoke. Suddenly things began to happen. A little way to the right a grenade exploded, and almost simultaneously a German soldier appeared twenty yards away charging towards us - perhaps the leader of a counter-attack. I was glad I had got the men under cover ready to receive it. Kneeling inside the gun position, my rifle resting on the wall, I was able to shoot him. He screamed, spun round and fell. Sergeant Vincent and one of the Norwegian guides fired too. “If I’m killed today at least I take one of them with me,” I said, a barbarous sentiment with which Sergeant Vincent was in full agreement.
The grenade which we had heard just before this incident had caused our first casualty, Walsh, the Irish Guardsman. Connolly, now one of my Sergeants, saw two Germans in a small wooden hut about thirty yards away and ordered one of his men to throw a bomb at them. Walsh, who was a little deaf, had dashed forward at that moment and had been hit in the neck. The two Germans promptly surrendered and he escorted them back to the beach. He thought so little of his wound that when he was sent off to H.M.S. Kenya he did not report for treatment until the next day, since there were already many casualties whose condition he considered more serious than his own. It so happened that the wound had narrowly missed his jugular vein!’
Vaagso was a bitterly contested battle, house-to-house and hand-to-hand combat being the order of the day. The enemy lost 120 men, with another 98 being taken P.O.W., while No. 3 Commando lost 17 men, with 53 wounded: as Durnford Slater put it, ‘The battle of Vaagso had been won against a first-class opposition by the utter ruthlessness and complete professional competence of our officers and men’.
Dieppe - August 1942
Next up was Operation “Jubilee”, the ill-fated Dieppe raid and, as it transpired, especially ill-fated for No. 3 Commando, who, as part of a flotilla known as “Group 5”, ran into an enemy convoy long before even the coast hove into view. John Mellor’s Dieppe Raid takes up the story:
‘Suddenly at 3.50 a.m. Group 5 was nakedly exposed in an artificial daylight created by star shells bursting overhead. About half a mile off the port bow, five motor vessels were approaching; they were escorted by two submarine chasers and a minesweeper. This was the German convoy en route from Boulogne to Dieppe that the British Admiralty had detected by radar. The tiny L.C.Ps were built entirely of wood, which afforded no protection whatsoever against bullets or shrapnel. They were capable of transporting 25 soldiers plus a naval crew of three. Their armament was a solitary Lewis gun, and their top speed was 9 knots. Obviously they had not been designed to fight a sea battle ... ’
Indeed one N.C.O. later voiced the opinion that the L.C.Ps were so flimsy that ‘a rifle bullet would go right through about ten of them’. And Peter Young’s eye-witness account of the incident in Storm From the Sea leaves no doubt as to the ferocious nature of the “firefight” that ensued:
‘At 3.47 a.m., when we were still about an hour’s run from the coast, a starshell went up on our port bow illuminating the group. Immediately a heavy fire was opened on us; 3 and 4-inch ack-ack guns and machine-guns poured a stream of shells and tracer into the flotilla, while further star shells lit up the sky. It was by far the most unpleasant moment of my life. Five enemy craft were converging on us. It seemed impossible that our wooden landing-craft could survive more than a few minutes. The tracer seemed to come swooping straight at us. In a few minutes we would be dead and there was absolutely nothing we could do about it. We crawled upon the face of the ocean, and always nearer to the deadly line of enemy ships. It was certainly very frightening - far more so than any land battle I ever saw before or since.’
But for the extremely gallant actions of a Steam Gun Boat (S.G.B.) crew from Newhaven - from whence Group 5 had earlier set sail - it is likely a complete massacre would have ensued. But by means of drawing the enemy’s fire, S.G.B 5 afforded the vulnerable L.C.Ps an opportunity to flee, albeit with consequent loss. John Mellor continues:
‘Group 5 had been decimated and scattered. Out of a total of 23 L.C.Ps that had set out of Newhaven, four did not reach the scene of the encounter due to engine trouble and had to return to England. Of the remaining 19, four were badly hit with most of their crews killed or wounded, so that they were forced to return to England. The remaining L.C.Ps split into several groups during the action. Five of them attached themselves to the Gunboat, determined to follow the leader; three others had closed with the flak-ship and were battling the German ships; the remaining seven veered away from the Group and proceeded on their own to the Yellow Beaches ahead.’
Of these seven L.C.Ps, six eventually reached “Yellow 1” beach, and another “Yellow 2” beach. Here then a second hair-raising encounter with the enemy, for the latter was fully alerted, defences at the ready - namely machine-gun parties and riflemen on the cliff top. And the first man to go down as the “Eurekas” hit the beach was a Lieutenant-Commander, a rifle bullet hitting him between the eyes. Luckily for those who got ashore, M.L. 346 was lying off “Yellow 1” and lending valuable support, but it was soon apparent that the position was untenable, even though some of the Commandos and Rangers did manage to get inland, although whether Walsh was among them remains unknown.
No. 3 Commando sustained 140 casualties at Dieppe, the brunt of those losses being borne by No. 5 and No. 6 Troops.
Sicily - July 1943
No. 3 Commando's opening raid on Sicily was made with the objective of destroying the coastal battery and defences near the town of Cassibile, thus allowing the vanguard of the 8th Army to land - a successful operation carried out on the night of 9-10 July 1943, but only after carrying out a frontal assault on the battery and much bitter fighting. Durnford Slater takes up the story:
‘Charlesworth sounded the Advance on his bugle, and we went in for the final assault. We came to barbed wire and blasted paths through it with bangalore torpedoes, long metal tubes filled with explosive. We dashed through the gaps firing from the hip ... Finally we used the bayonet. The Italians stuck it fairly well until near the end, replying to our fire with automatic weapons. When we had cleaned them up, we proceeded to blow up the guns. Some enthusiast, just in the spirit of clean fun, also decided to blow up the ammunition supply of the battery, about one thousand shells. It was a very loud bang. There was plenty of stuff flying and it was a very foolish action, but no one was hurt. The battery was blown up eighty-five minutes after landing.’
The Commando was then re-embarked on the Prince Albert for its next task - the capture of the Punta dei Malati Bridge - Durnford Slater being given just a few hours notice of a plan that also involved a separate attack on another bridge at Primasole by the Airborne. Moreover, he was dubious about intelligence reporting ‘some easily discouraged Italian toops’ as the only opposition, for if the bridge was worth taking, it was equally worth defending - and he was right, his Commando eventually running into the 1st German Parachute Division after landing under fire several miles behind enemy lines at Agnone at 2200 hours on 13 July. First of all, however, operations at the bridge went well, the defenders being knocked out and the 350-strong Commando deployed in captured pill-boxes, surrounding orange groves and ravines. But, as Robin Neilland's The Raiders - The Army Commandos 1940-46 explains, elite German forces were on their way to do battle:
‘Until dawn 3 Commando had a marvellous time, shooting up everything which came along, until the road approaches to the bridge were littered with overturned or burning vehicles, but their arrival had been detected and the Germans began to mortar their positions heavily and, never slow to react, soon brought up a Tiger tank, which began to flay the Commando positions with its 88mm. gun, while staying sensibly out of range of their only anti-tank weapon, the infantry PIAT. A party, sent to stalk the tank could not get close enough over the open ground, and German paratroopers were moving up to box in the troops, causing a steady stream of casualties.
By 0430 hours, with no sign of 50th Division, the Commando position was becoming untenable. They had many wounded, their positions in the open valley could be overlooked and enfiladed, enemy infantry were arriving in ever increasing numbers and the tank kept rumbling about behind the ridges, appearing at regular intervals to put down more fire. The only thing missing was 50th Division, held up by the enemy at Lentini some miles away. Around 0500 hours, Durnford Slater gave the order to withdraw from the bridge in small parties, either to lie up in the hills until the Eighth Army finally arrived or, if possible, infiltrate back to their own lines. Widely deployed and still under tank fire, the Commando withdrew. They were forced to leave the wounded behind, to be captured by parachute troops from the 4th Brigade of the Hermann Goering 1st Parachute Division, who looked after them well - a kindness No. 3 Commando was able to repay a few weeks later at Termoli.’
And, as confirmed by Peter Young, the wounded were cared for by Walsh in a cave, with the assistance of a German doctor, for, in common with large numbers of the Commando, he had indeed been taken prisoner: but when the Germans fell back, he made his escape.
No. 3 Commando, which was slowly reformed over the next few days, lost a total of five officers and 23 men killed, four officers and 62 men wounded and eight officers and 51 men missing - some 45% of the unit’s strength. So impressed was Montgomery, that he later ordered Durnford Slater to have a slab of stone, carved with the unit name, cemented into the Punta dei Malati Bridge, where it remains to this day.
Termoli - October 1943
On the night of October 2-3 October 1943, as part of during Operation “Devon”, the 2nd Special Service Brigade, which comprised No. 3 Commando, 40 (Royal Marine) Commando and the Special Raiding Squadron landed by sea and cleared the town of most of its German defenders. During the first day these forces set up road blocks around the town and were joined by British infantry advancing across the Biferno river to the south-east. They did not know that the 16th Panzer Division was on its way to create a new defensive line. On 4 October British reinforcements arrived by sea and land, but tanks were unable to cross the river until engineers completed a bridge for heavy traffic. On 5 October the Panzers attacked, pushing much of the British line back in disarray. At the end of the day they were only a short distance from the town. However, further reinforcements arrived at the port, and the engineers completed their bridge allowing our tanks to cross. On 6 October the Germans renewed their attack, but it soon stalled and the British, with Canadian tanks in support, counter-attacked. They were successful and by 7 October the Germans were pulling back to their next line of defence.
As cited in the above recommendation, Walsh distinguished himself on the 5th, the day the Panzers moved in.
D-Day - June 1944
No. 3 Commando returned to the U.K in January 1944, in readiness for the coming Allied invasion at Normandy. The Commando’s allotted task on D-Day was to land with 1st Commando Brigade at La Breche to the west of Ouistreham. They were then meant to advance four miles to the bridges over the River Orne, and if the bridges had been destroyed, they were to ferry themselves over in rubber boats. They were then to continue their advance in a north-easterly direction, seizing the high ground near Le Plein.
Peter Young describes the run-in to the beaches, including a close-call for Walsh and his comrades in No. 6 Troop:
‘The enemy fire by now was far too accurate to be pleasant, and the small craft were rocked by the explosions from near misses while shell splinters rattled on the decks. Away to the left a tank landing craft was burning fiercely and the crew were seen scrambling off as the ammunition exploded. Three of the Commando’s craft received direct hits from high-velocity shells. No. 6 Troop’s was badly holed and all the three-inch mortar ammunition exploded. The Troop sustained at least twenty casualties before the craft beached. Nevertheless, in view of the sustained and accurate enemy fire, overall casualties during the landing were much less than expected ... The beach was negotiated without much difficulty in spite of wire and obstacles, and soon the Commando was being assembled under cover of the houses between the sand dunes and the road. It was a scene of confusion. Large numbers of troops lying about in the sand dunes and very little appeared to be happening, although the enemy were maintaining sporadic mortar fire.’
No. 3 moved off the beach “at the double” and, with occasional halts for clearance purposes, made their way to “Pegasus Bridge” on the River Orne, where they linked up with the Airborne before proceeding to the vital high ground around Le Plein.
A few days later, at Chateau D’Amfreville on 10 June 1944, Walsh once more came to Peter Young’s notice for volunteering to assist the depleted ranks of No. 1 Troop - ‘the first man to step forward was Walsh, the old Irish Guardsman, a very cool man under fire.’ Young, undoubtedly exasperated by the failure of his previous recommendations for Walsh’s gallantry at Vaagso and Termoli, now put Walsh up for the D.C.M. and endorsed a copy of the document which he gave to to him - ‘You have won your award at least three times over.’
The Commando remained actively employed in the Normandy operations until early September, when the whole returned to the U.K. in readiness for deployment to the Far East in 1945: an indication of the severity of the fighting encountered in France may be gleaned from the Brigade’s casualties - of the 146 officers and 2252 other ranks that had landed on D-Day, 77 officers and 890 other ranks became casualties.
Walsh, who received his M.M. at Buckingham Palace and was demobilised in December 1945, died in December 1973.
Sold with a wartime typescript of the recommendation for his M.M., with accompanying hand written endorsement from Peter Young, dated 17 July 1944, and a quantity of research, including a number of letters from veterans of No. 3 Commando.