GRAEME COUSINS goes on a reconnaisance mission to learn more about the proud history of Ulster’s only cavalry regiment
Its members may not ride on horseback any more, but Northern Ireland’s only cavalry regiment is prepped to go beyond the front line whenever and wherever it is required.
Not bad for a bunch of part timers.
NI Horse – now absorbed into the Scottish & North Irish Yeomanry – was given a military distinction for its role during one of the bloodiest battles of World War II.
The battle at Monte Cassino took place on May 23, 1944 and saw ‘The Horse’ fight alongside Canadian troops as they assaulted the Hitler Line.
Portadown man Bracken Anderson, a former member in his late sixties, and current member John Stewart spoke to the News Letter about the regiment past and present.
Bracken said: “I’ve been researching The Horse for 20 years. I was in it in the seventies when I was at the Art College in Belfast. I wasn’t in it that long, but I’ve always been fascinated by its history. It’s the only cavalry regiment left in the Province, all of the rest of them are infantry.”
The North Irish Horse was founded in 1902 after the Boer War in South Africa. It was made up of part time volunteers from what was then the north of Ireland.
After World War I NI Horse was kept alive in name by just one combatant officer and became known as the ‘one man regiment’.
The Horse was reassembled for World War II when it achieved its greatest distinctions in the North African and Italian campaigns, the latter featuring the Battle of Monte Cassino – one of the bloodiest days for the Allied Forces.
Bracken said: “As the German Army started to retreat up through Italy towards Austria they built defensive lines to slow the Allied advance. One of these stop lines was the Hitler Line at Monte Cassino, south of Rome.”
The Hitler Line was a 3,000 yard front of 1,000 crack German troops in sunken shelters and various armoury including 75mm anti-tank guns, mines, and dismounted panther tank turrets.
The May 23 assault (pictured above) was led by the Canadian Infantry Division supported by Churchill and Sherman tanks of the 25th Tank Brigade of which NI Horse were the senior regiment. Interestingly the original Churchill tank prototypes were designed and built by Harland & Wolff in 1940.
Bracken said: “The Germans had spent nearly six months constructing the Hitler Line. Defences were well placed, and cleverly camouflaged. The whole line was designed to lure Allied troops and tanks into a tactical killing fields cul-de-sac in which there was no escape. They were so low-set Allied tanks could not see them before they were shot to pieces.”
He described one of the unconventional German tactics: “Hitler Youth snipers tied themselves to trees and shot at anything that moved, including stretcher bearers. The entire scene was a nightmare.”
He continued: “Tanks and troops had barely advanced 500 yards when all hell broke loose. Dust whipped up by the tanks combined with smoke and exhaust fumes reduced visibility to 10 yards.
“The battle area was a scene of devastation – burning tanks, dead and wounded infantrymen, shell holes and continual firing.
“The tanks of the North Irish Horse has little room to manoeuvre to avoid their own destruction, let alone provide the Canadian infantry with fire support. In one field alone, 15 Churchill tanks had been disabled.
“The assault on the Hitler Line lasted all day and NI Horse tanks stayed throughout that night to support the depleted infantry.
“The cost to the three Canadian regiments was heavy, with a total of 1,000 casualties, killed, wounded or missing.
“The NI Horse had 25 tanks knocked out – almost half the regiment – with 34 officers and men killed along with 36 wounded.
“Many of the tanks were burnt out. Next day volunteers went back and collected crews’ ashes from the tanks.”
Despite the devastation suffered, the commander of the Canadian infantry asked if all ranks of the 25th tank brigade would wear a maple leaf in future, as a badge of honour and thanks for their support.
Bracken said: “The NIH proudly wear a small maple leaf on their uniforms to this day. Canadians also asked that NIH dead be buried alongside Canadian Infantry dead, and this was carried out.”
John Stewart, who is Lance Corporal with the squadron which carries on the NI Horse name, said: “The North Irish Horse doesn’t actually exist any more. We are the B Squadron (North Irish Horse) Scottish and North Irish Yeomanry. We’re the only cavalry unit left in Northern Ireland.”
He added: “We were always a reservist or territorial regiment, but at the same time we were always called up. NI Horse were the first territorial regiment to go to the front line in 1914. We were there two weeks after the war started.
“There’s a really high level of mobilization even though we’ve always been a territorial or reservist unit. Guys have volunteered for conflicts right up until most recently in Afghanistan and Iraq.”
In terms of how operations have changed, John said: “We do reconnaissance. What the guys used to do on the horses in front of the front line we go out in armoured vehicles and recce positions, observe, report back and guide in the air or ground attacks.”
A parade will take place in Carrickfergus on Saturday, May 25 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Hitler Line battle in which nearly two thirds of the regiment died.
Lance Corporal John Stewart said: “It’s the North Irish Horse day, a day that everyone from The Horse, both current serving and former members will attend. The whole regiment from Northern Ireland and Scotland will be parading with the new standard on show. It’s a day that we wouldn’t miss.
“Representatives from the Canadian Army come over for that, we parade through the town and have a big event afterwards.
“It means a vast amount to the guys. They’re well aware of the history of The Horse. It’s amazing the amount of guys who do their research before they join.
“Every couple of years the regiment will run a battlefield tour to Monte Cassino to see where their forefathers fought and the treacherous terrain they fought through with the Canadians.”
Of the association with Canadian troops, John said: “We wear the maple leaf on our vehicles and on our dress uniforms we have the maple leaf on our shoulders. It’s something that’s still there to this day.”