An Unsung Hero


Corporal James Barnes at Casa Sinagoga, May 1944

(by Richard Doherty)

CplJimmyBarnes‘The finest of young soldiers, an excellent junior NCO, popular with his fellows and an enthusiastic footballer.’ In such words did Colonel Desmond Woods MC* describe Corporal James ‘Jimmy’ Barnes, a Royal Ulster Rifles soldier who served in the then Major Woods MC’s H Company of 2nd London Irish Rifles in the early months of the Italian campaign.

​Captain Desmond Woods had taken over command of H Company in October 1943 and in the months thereafter he had had the opportunity to get to know his soldiers well. He was promoted to major not long after taking command of his company in line with an Army policy that infantry company commanders should be majors. Major Woods had earned the Military Cross in Palestine serving with the Royal Ulster Rifles during the Arab Rebellion. Having served on Montgomery’s staff in the UK, he arrived in the Mediterranean theatre for a return to active service.

​Jimmy Barnes, as he was known to his fellow riflemen, possessed leadership qualities and it was clear that his comrades respected him, and would follow him. That was to be proved beyond any contradiction in May 1944 when H Company took part in 2nd London Irish Rifles’ element of 38 (Irish) Brigade’s thrust as part of Eighth Army’s Operation HONKER, the attack to break the German Gustav Line at Cassino and push into the Liri Valley.

​Operation HONKER had opened at 11.00pm on 11 May 1944 with a massive bombardment of the German positions. There followed a hard-fought crossing of the Gari river by 4th (British) and 8th (Indian) Divisions. Both formations then advanced to create a deep bridgehead from which the Irish Brigade was to lead 78th Division in an offensive to cut Highway 6, the main road to Rome. Early on the morning of the 15th the Irish Brigade advance began, led by 6th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Shortly after noon, the Skins had secured their objectives with relatively light casualties. It was then the turn of 2nd London Irish to pass through the Skins’ positions and advance to the ridge between Casa Sinagoga and Colle Monache, known as Line Pytchley. Their attack was to begin at 3.00pm.

​However, as they prepared for their part in the operation, the Rifles came under heavy shellfire and, although he got H Company into a streambed that afforded some protection, Desmond Woods’ men suffered casualties. Worse was to follow. As the plans for the attack were being finalised, a German shell landed in the Commanding Officer’s O Group. Both Ion Goff, commanding the Rifles, and John Loveday, commanding 16th/5th Lancers, the Brigade’s supporting armoured regiment, were injured fatally. Others suffered serious injuries and most of the signals team were also wounded.

​Undaunted, the Rifles prepared to attack later that evening with Major John Horsfall, their second-in-command, taking over in command. However, 78th Division’s commander, Major General Charles Keightley, decided to broaden his front and ordered 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers of 11 Brigade to attack to the flank of the Rifles. To allow time for the Lancashires to get into position, the attack was delayed until first light and, then, to 9.00am on the 16th.

Casa Sinagoga​When the Rifles moved off towards their objectives that morning, F Company was held in reserve. Of the attacking companies, H was in the centre, G on the right and E on the left. The objective was Casa Sinagoga (left*), a farmhouse and outbuildings in the centre of the line. There was heavy artillery support but the Germans replied in kind and the attackers began suffering casualties. In H Company, two platoon commanders were among those casualties; one was killed, the other injured. One platoon was held back in reserve, but, after a time, Major Woods decided to bring it forward to keep the attack’s momentum going. German mortar bombs and shells were falling among the Riflemen, as well as rockets from Nebelwerfers. Machine guns were also lashing them with fire.

​As H Company approached Casa Sinagoga, the Rifles’ supporting tanks, a squadron of 16th/5th Lancers, were suffering from anti-tank-gun fire. Although the infantry were closing on Casa Sinagoga, the leading tanks had been knocked out. It seemed as if the attack was about to falter. It was then that Corporal Barnes played a major part in the unfolding events.

​Although his platoon commander had been wounded and his sergeant was also out of action, Corporal Barnes recognised that the attack was losing momentum. Taking command of the uninjured survivors of the platoon, about a dozen men, he led them in a determined attack on the well dug-in anti-tank gun that had been inflicting most of the damage on the Lancers. In Desmond Woods’ words,

bundesarchivMG42 ​one by one the men were cut down by machine-gun fire on their left flank until Corporal Barnes remained alone. He went on by himself and then he fell dead, cut [down] by a machine gun, but by then the crew of the [gun] had baled out and the tanks were able to get forward once again.

As he dashed towards the gun, which was protected by an MG42 machine-gun team (right), Jimmy Barnes lobbed a grenade at the emplacement, prompting the gunners to abandon their weapon. His sacrifice made it possible for the Lancers’ tanks to renew their advance, thus enabling H Company to secure Casa Sinagoga. Major Woods ended the attack with a single sergeant, a few corporals and a handful of riflemen, about a dozen in all, ‘smothered in brick dust, and their eyes the only bright thing about them’. In total the Rifles suffered twenty dead and eighty wounded, but had captured 120 Germans and nine tanks. Over 100 dead Germans were buried later by the Rifles.

Cpl Barnes JAThe London Irish had secured their objective, allowing the next phase of the attack to go ahead. Desmond Woods was awarded a Bar to his Military Cross but, although he wrote a recommendation that Corporal Barnes be awarded the Victoria Cross, no award was made to the Monaghan man. At the time, only the VC and the Mention in Despatches could be awarded posthumously but no Mention was given to Corporal Barnes. His body was not recovered and he is commemorated on the Cassino Memorial to the Missing, Panels 11, (above) in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery at Cassino.

​Three Victoria Crosses were awarded for Operation HONKER, one to each of the attacking divisions of XIII Corps – 4th British, 8th Indian and 78th British, also known as the Battleaxe Division. It might be thought that Jimmy Barnes’ sacrificial act was not generally known. However, with the publication of Clear The Way!, the history of 38 (Irish) Brigade, in 1993, in which Desmond Woods’ account was published, Irish Academic Press received a letter from a former officer who had served at Cassino and who expressed his pleasure at learning some of the detail of the action at Casa Sinagoga. That officer, Charles Gladitz, commented that it was known widely that a soldier of the Irish Brigade had earned the Victoria Cross but that no award had been made.

​As with so many who did receive the VC, James Barnes had made a real difference to the course of a battle. In giving his life he had ensured that his Company could achieve its objective. He carried out his duty without regard for his own safety and deserves to be remembered for that.

7022505 Corporal James Alexander Barnes, 2nd London Irish Rifles, Royal Ulster Rifles, was killed on 16 May 1944, aged 20. He was the son of George and Elizabeth Ann Barnes, Three-Mile-House, County Monaghan, Ireland.

The reproduction of the © image of Casa Sinagoga is by kind permission of Damiano Parravano, Chairman, Associazione Linea Gustav. The house stands as it did in 1944 and was largely undamaged. Franco Sinagoga recalls his father telling him that John Horsfall spent a night in the house, probably with his Battalion HQ. Sometimes described as a 'hamlet', it is simply a house (casa) and associated farm outbuildings. The family, who now live in a modern house on the other side of the road, currently still own the main buildings in the image.

MG42 image attribution: Bundesarchiv, Bild 101I-316-1172-06 / Vack / CC-BY-SA 3.0