Irish Guards in the Second World War

This article will help you to research soldiers who served in the Irish Guards during the Second World War. The first part provides a brief overview of the services of each battalion of the regiment. The second part looks at what documents are available to research the Regiment and how to order Irish Guards’ service records. This is one of a series of guides I’ve written to researching  soldiers who served in the British Army during the war:

I also offer a Second World War Soldier Research Service.

The Irish Guards in the Second World War

1st Battalion Irish Guards

On 1 March 1940, the Battalion joined the 24th Infantry Brigade (Guards) and served with this formation for the remainder of the war. The Battalion landed at Harstad, Norway on 15 April and after much fighting, landed at Greenock on 10 June. The 1st Battalion then remained training in Britain until 28 February 1943, when it boarded the Strathmore which sailed the next day for Algiers which was reached on 9 March. The Battalion disembarked during the night and soon headed east to take part in the Tunisian Campaign. Remaining in North Africa until 4 December 1943 when it embarked on board the Llangibby Castle which reached Taranto, Italy three days later. The Battalion served in the Italian Campaign for the remainder of the war. The photograph below is of Guardsman James Corbett of the 1st Battalion who was killed in action on 16 May 1940 in Norway. He is buried in Harstad Cemetery and this photograph was published in The Liverpool Echo on 23 July 1940.

Guardsman James Corbett Irish Guards

2nd Battalion Irish Guards

The 2nd Battalion first saw action in the Hook of Holland as part of a small infantry force sent to the Netherlands to help protect and evacuate the Dutch government. On 13 May, the Battalion landed with a solitary German plane dropping a bomb which exploded nearby as the unit disembarked. Orders had been received just prior to embarkation that the Battalion was to move towards the Hague. However, events on the ground meant that the Battalion remained at the Hook of Holland. Before long, Queen Wilhelmina had appeared and been evacuated. The Dutch government arrived later in the evening followed by the Diplomatic Corps. An air raid later in the day killed seven Guardsmen and wounded twenty-three. More casualties were sustained in an air raid the next morning before the Battalion was evacuated back to Britain on board the Malcolm, Whitshed and Vesper.

There was little respite, as on 22 May, orders were received to “Prepare to move”. This time, the Battalion was sent to Boulogne one of the important Channel ports in France to help in its defence. Embarking on board the Queen of the Channel, without most of its transport and with limited equipment and weapons, the Battalion landed at Boulogne in the evening. There was heavy fighting and many casualties were sustained before the Battalion was evacuated back to Britain, returning to Tweseldown Camp on the morning of 24 May. The Battalion then spent the next four years training in Britain. On 15 September 1941, the 20th Independent Infantry Brigade (Guards) was redesignated as the 5th Guards Armoured Brigade. The 2nd Battalion was converted to an armoured role and was designated as an armoured battalion. The 5th Guards Armoured Brigade served with the Guards Armoured Division for the duration of the war in Europe.

3rd Battalion Irish Guards

The 3rd Battalion Irish Guards was formed from the Regiment’s Holding Battalion at Northwood on 30 October 1941. On 5 September 1943, the Battalion joined the 32nd Infantry Brigade (Guards) of the Guards Armoured Division. It served with this Brigade until 21 February 1945 before rejoining it on 29 May 1945. On 23 June 1944, the Battalion landed at Arromanches, Normandy and served throughout the Normandy Campaign. The Battalion then took part in the fighting across the Low Countries and through Germany.

Researching Soldiers who Served in the Irish Guards during the Second World War

The most important document to research a soldier who served in the Irish Guards during the Second World War is their service record. This should show when they joined the Regiment and which battalions they served with and when. The service records are still held by the Ministry of Defence and I’ve written a detailed guide to help you find them: Order a Second World War Service Record. Service records will usually be between five and fourteen pages in length and contain information you won’t be able to find elsewhere. After a service record, the most important documents to view are the war diaries of the battalions the soldier served with. These will record its location and activities and I offer a copying service for these documents.

The Irish Guards was given the number block 2,714,001 to 2,730,000 to number its soldiers who served in the ranks. A soldier who served in the ranks who has an army number outside the above block served with another regiment or corps prior to joining the Irish Guards. Around April 1942, the numbering system changed when all soldiers were sent to the General Service Corps first. A General Service Corps number will begin with 14 followed by another six digits. I’ve written a guide on how to find army numbers but in most cases, you won’t be able to. Officers had a personal number instead of an army number and these weren’t allocated by regiment or corps. You can search an officer’s personal number on the London Gazette’s website to try and find the date they were commissioned and promoted. However, the search system is very poor and is unlikely to show all the information. An officer’s name will be recorded in full in some entries and with just initials in others.

There are a handful of documents which have been digitized and are available online which may be of use. The gallantry and honours awarded to soldiers of the regiment can be downloaded for a small fee from the National Archives’ website. I have set the search to “Irish Guards” and sorted chronologically. The Regiment’s dead between 3 September 1939 and 31 December 1947 can be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s website.  FindmyPast, a genealogy website which has a free trial, has some collections which may be of interest, especially if you’re researching a casualty. They have the War Office casualty lists, a selection of records relating to prisoners of war and the British Library’s digitized newspaper collection. The latter is useful if you’re searching for a soldier who became a casualty or was awarded a gallantry medal, or honour.

Regimental History of the Irish Guards

There is the excellent History of the Irish Guards in the Second World War by Major D. J. L. Fitzgerald, M.C. Published in 1949 by Gale and Polden and written by an officer who served with the Regiment during the war, this is the key book to get hold of. Over 600 pages packed full of information along with twenty-two maps. The maps are very detailed and will be a great use if you’re researching one of the major actions of the Regiment during the war. There are also thirty photographs and an index. You may have some difficulty in getting hold of a copy, as there hasn’t been a recent edition of the history.

War Diaries of the Irish Guards

War diaries were written by an officer of a unit and recorded its day to day activities and location. In addition to the daily entries, they often contain appendices in the form of maps, orders, battle reports etc. They are the most important documents to research a unit which served during the war. Clicking on the blue links below will take you to the war diary entries in the National Archives catalogue. War diaries haven’t been digitized and I offer a copying service for these documents.

1st Battalion Irish Guards

  • Date: 01 September 1939 – 29 March 1940 then  1 July 1940 – 30 December 1941
  • Reference: WO 166/4104
  • Notes: This is a good war diary, not so much for the daily entries which can be quite short but for the large numbers of appendices. There are just under 300 pages in the diary. One of the appendices contains an account of “The Sinking of the Polish Motorship “Chobry” written by Lieutenant P. M. Compston.
  • Date: April – June 1940
  • Reference: WO 168/57
  • Notes:
  • Date: 01 January – 31 December 1942
  • Reference: WO 166/8575
  • Notes: A very good war diary which is full of detailed entries. There are a variety of appendices for January, March and May. The war diary is typed.
  • Date: March – June 1943
  • Reference: WO 175/488
  • Notes:
  • Date: 01 July  1943 – 01 January 1944
  • Reference: WO 169/10168
  • Notes: Another very good war diary, especially considering the Battalion wasn’t in action during this period. There are lots of long daily entries and a small number of appendices. These include the usual field returns of officers and other ranks and copies of the Tunis Telegraph’s 9 and 11 August editions.
  • Date: 01 January – 31 March 1944
  • Reference: WO 170/1354
  • Notes: This is another very good war diary with detailed entries, all of which are typed. Appendices include the usual field returns of officers and other ranks, a four-page account of “The Battle of Carroceto Factory”, and “An account of the part played by No.4 Company and BN H.Q., in the night advance of 29/30th Jan 1944”.
  • Date: 01 April – 31 July 1944
  • Reference: WO 166/15068
  • Notes: A very good war diary with lots of information which isn’t usually recorded. For example, on 12 April as the Battalion passed Bizerta on its journey home the diary reported, “Our boat drill in the early stages has been complicated by the fact that we have frequently found our lifeboats to be full of sleeping soldiery: it is to be hoped that our perseverance in removing them will be rewarded”.
  • Date: 01 May – 30 June 1946
  • Reference: WO 166/17896
  • Notes: A slightly more detailed war diary for this post-war period than is usually found, however, very little occurred. The war diary is typed and there are no appendices.

2nd Battalion Irish Guards

  • Date: 01 September 1939 – 30 April 1940 then 1 July 1940 – 31 December 1941
  • Reference: WO 166/4105
  • Notes: An average war diary, though some of the entries are detailed. The war diary is handwritten and the only appendix is “Orders for the Company in Waiting”. This company was at thirty minutes readiness to move with one of its platoons at fifteen minutes.
  • Date: 01 May – 30 June 1940
  • Reference: WO 167/695
  • Notes: A good war diary, with a lot of detail for the expedition to the Hook of Holland and the defence of Boulogne. There is another file CAB 106/226 containing a report of the Battalion’s involvement in the defence of Boulogne. The only appendices are a letter of gratitude from Vice-Admiral B. H. Ramsay dated 29 May 1940 and a couple of pages regarding submitting the war diary to the War Office.
  • Date: 01 January – 31 December 1942
  • Reference: WO 166/8576
  • Notes: This is a very good war diary with a lot of information contained in the daily entries which are handwritten. There are a small number of appendices.
  • Date: 01 January – 31 December 1943
  • Reference: WO 166/12468
  • Notes: An average war diary which is handwritten. Only February has appendices.
  • Date: January – December 1945
  • Reference: WO 171/5147
  • Notes:

3rd Battalion Irish Guards

  • Date: 30 October – 31 December 1941
  • Reference: WO 166/4106
  • Notes: An average handwritten war diary. There are no appendices.
  • Date: 01 January – 31 December 1942
  • Reference: WO 166/8577
  • Notes: Another average handwritten war diary which contains no appendices.
  • Date: 01 January – 29 December 1943
  • Reference: WO 166/12469
  • Notes: A good war diary with lots of detailed descriptions of training undertaken by the Battalion. Unfortunately, there are no appendices. December is the only typed part of the diary.
  • Date: 04 January – 31 December 1944
  • Reference: WO 171/1257
  • Notes: This is a pretty average war diary until the Battalion lands in France in June 1944. Once abroad, there are a lot of very detailed war diary entries. The only appendices for the first nine months are field returns of officers and other ranks. From October, there are a wide variety of appendices including daily situation reports and intelligence summaries.
  • Date: 01 January – 30 December 1945
  • Reference: WO 171/5148
  • Notes: This is another good war diary with a lot of detail in the daily entries and a wide variety of appendices. These include the usual field returns of officers and other ranks, daily situation reports, etc. along with intelligence summaries, movement orders and a whole host of other documents. The war diary is typed.

 

Miscellaneous Irish Guards Files

 

  • Title: Report on operations of 2nd Battalion Irish Guards at Boulogne, 1940 May 21-23
  • Reference: CAB 106/226
  • Notes: The document starts with a seven-page account of the Battalion’s journey to Boulogne, the subsequent fighting and evacuation. There is then an appendix which recorded the names of all the officers “who proceeded abroad with the Battalion” as well as the strength of each company. Another appendix covers “Lessons drawn from the experience of the Battalion” which is three-pages and length and has fifteen subheadings. These include “Anti-tank Guns”, “Civilian Population and Foreign Troops” and “Co-operation of all weapons”. An additional appendix recorded the number of casualties, but no further information. There is also a map “Enlargement of Area Boulogne” on which the Battalion’s original positions have been recorded. A very useful document.
  • Title: Irish Guards in Tunisia, Story of
  • Reference: DO 35/1211/22
  • Notes:
  • Title: Recommendations for Honours and Awards for Gallant and Distinguished Service (Army)
  • Reference: WO 373
  • Notes:
  • Title: Disposition and Movement of Regiment, Returns and Papers
  • Reference: WO 379/21
  • Notes:

Irish Guards’ Missing Soldier Reports

These are important documents to view if you’re researching a soldier who went missing during the war or one of the battalions. This is due to the documents often containing eyewitness accounts of the circumstances a soldier went missing in. They are part of the WO 361 series of “Enquiries into Missing Personnel, 1939-45 War” held at the National Archives in London.

  • Missing Personnel British Expeditionary Force, France
  • Date: 1941 – 1943
  • Reference: WO 361/58
  • Notes: This is a poor file which contains no eyewitness accounts and only a small number of the 2nd Battalion’s missing are recorded. There are no eyewitness accounts.
  • Missing Personnel 1st Battalion North Africa
  • Date: July 1943 – April 1945
  • Reference: WO 361/935
  • Notes:
  • Missing Personnel Italy
  • Date: May 1944 – July 1945
  • Reference: WO 361/784
  • Notes:
  • Missing Personnel North West Europe
  • Date: September 1944 – June 1945
  • Reference: WO 361/624
  • Notes: This file covers those who were reported missing from the 2nd and 3rd Battalions Irish Guards in France, the Low Countries and Germany. There are a lot of eyewitness statements for soldiers of the 3rd Battalion who went missing.