Irish Warpipe

John Horsfall

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J. H. Coldwell-Horsfall was commissioned into the Royal Irish Fusiliers, “The Faughs” as they were known from their battle-cry motto, “Faugh-a-Ballagh” (Clear the Way), and the ethos of his regiment became the predominant factor in his life. As he put it: “In the Faughs one learnt what mattered in life, and realised that ambition (outside the regiment) was scorned.”

John Henry Coldwell-Horsfall was born in 1915. He was educated at Harrow, where he won a place in the Shooting Eight in 1931, and Sandhurst, from where he was commissioned in 1935. A tall, aloof man, he had exceptional presence, and his soldiers stood in awe of him at first, but he cared for every one of them and led with exemplary courage. He will be remembered as one of three outstanding battalion commanders of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War, the others being Major-Generals T. P. D. “Pat” Scott and H. E. N. “Bala” Bredin.

He went to Palestine in the summer of 1936 with the 1st Battalion of his regiment to help to put down the Second Arab Rebellion. British troops operating under the mandate of the League of Nations were struggling to maintain administration, law and order in the face of widespread violence and sabotage of the civil infrastructure by the Palestinian Arabs in protest against Jewish immigration. Coldwell-Horsfall and his platoon of 30 Fusiliers were responsible for the security of ten miles of the Nablus road and surrounding countryside. It was a bitter, ugly campaign.

In October 1939 his battalion was in France with the British Expeditionary Force. When the German Blitzkreig struck the following May, the Faughs were rushed forward to take part in the defence of Brussels. It was a hopeless cause in face of overwhelming German air superiority and strength in armoured forces. Even so, Coldwell-Horsfall’s company held the bridges over the Dendre at Ninove, west of the Belgian capital, until the divisional rearguard was safely over. He was awarded his first Military Cross for gallantry and leadership in Belgium, having got 70 of the 112 men of his company safely to England through Dunkirk.

The relentless offensive of the German Army in 1940 was not lost on him, and his company was thoroughly retrained by the time he took it into action in Operation Torch, the Anglo-American invasion of French North Africa in November 1942. There, the Faughs formed part of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the 78th (Battleaxe) Division, which, having landed at Algiers, was ordered to join in the 300-mile race to Tunis. Slowed by the hesitancy of the British higher command and the swift reaction of two German parachute battalions that pushed forward a group to seize the bridge over the Medjerda river at Medjez el Bab, the “race” started inauspiciously.

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German reinforcements quickly hardened their defence, delaying the Allied advance until late December, when torrential rain brought action to a temporary halt. During the ensuing pause, the Faughs took the opportunity to harass the enemy, and Coldwell-Horsfall received a Bar to his MC for courage when leading night-fighting patrols, taking prisoners and, on one occasion, ambushing and killing a lorry-load of German infantry. But when the main offensive resumed he was wounded by a grenade and put out of battle, in hospital, for three months.

He rejoined 38th (Irish) Brigade in early 1944 as second-in-command of the 2nd London Irish Rifles in Italy. The brigade was poised on the Rapido river ready to play its part in the attack on Monte Cassino by breaking through on the southern flank, up the Liri valley.

The CO of the London Irish was killed on the start line. By the time Coldwell-Horsfall got forward to take over, the first objective had been taken, and his battalion was due to take the lead up the centre line. Supported by the 72 guns of the divisional artillery and a squadron of tanks of the 16th/5th Lancers his battalion went forward.

The break-in phase went well, but it took four hours to clear the enemy from the fortified village of Sinagoga, where the London Irish lost almost an entire company. The inevitable German counter-attack was held, and Coldwell-Horsfall received an immediate DSO for his tactical skill and conspicuous gallantry in command of the London Irish.

After the fall of Cassino to the Poles, he led his battalion in a series of actions on the road northwards towards Lake Trasimene. After the German line was breached there, the 78th Division was withdrawn to Egypt and he returned to the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, in command.

When the division returned to Italy in the autumn of 1944 it was assigned to General Mark Clark’s US 5th Army for operations in the central Apennines. The Faughs were detached from 38th (Irish) Brigade for the assault on Monte Spaduro on the Gothic Line in October. Although they took the mountain top, they were unable to hold it against the weight of German counter-attacks and the battalion suffered severe casualties.

In December Coldwell-Horsfall was seriously wounded in both legs during an attack on German positions at Casa Tamagnin. By the time he had recovered and returned, the war in Italy was practically over. Saying farewell to the Faughs in February 1946, he turned his attention to rescuing the family company of Webster & Horsfall, manufacturer of Atlantic cable, mining rope and many varieties of industrial wire. Damaged by the bombing of Birmingham and bedevilled by management rivalry, over-manning and outdated plant, the company was in financial trouble.

Replacing his bed-ridden father as managing director, he threw himself into modernising the company to meet the huge postwar demand for its products, returning the company to profit by the end of the year. But much remained to be done in retiring old veterans of the company no longer able to play their part, and winning back the full confidence of the workforce and their trade unions. It was not until 1966 that he was satisfied that the company was back to the cohesion and prosperity it had enjoyed at the peak of his father’s time. In 1964 he was delighted to renew his connection with the Faughs, when he became Honorary Colonel of 5th Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers TA and, later, of the North Irish Militia formed from the amalgamation of the Irish Territorial Army battalions. He was High Sheriff of the West Midlands in 1976 and devoted to the estate in Scotland that he had bought on which to hunt, shoot and fish. He is survived by his wife, Mary, and a daughter. Their son was killed while on training with the Royal Irish Fusiliers in Scotland. Colonel J. H. Coldwell-Horsfall, DSO, MC and Bar, was born on February 21, 1915. He died on December 18, 2006, aged 91

Faugh a Ballagh