- Contributed by
- People in story:
- William Donnelly
- Location of story:
- North Africa and Iltaly
- Background to story:
- Article ID:
- Contributed on:
- 20 January 2004
This is some of the story of the life and death of my uncle, William Donnelly. I never met him, as he died when I was only 21 months old, but he asked after me in his letters home to my father.
Bill Donnelly was born in the County Roscommon, Eire, in the year of the “Easter Rising”, 1916. He was raised on the family farm at Lacken, Athleague as one of seven, being the fourth of the boys, with one sister, Molly. He then came to live and work in England, with two of his brothers.
On the outbreak of the Second World War, Uncle Bill was conscripted in to the British Army, although he could have avoided service by returning to Ireland, seeing action in North Africa and Italy. He was awarded the Military Medal fighting the Afrika Korps and was killed in action at, I believe, the Anzio landings.
The following is an extract from the “Connacht Tribune” (date not known, but after Bill’s death).
“Last week’s Connacht Tribune contained a report of the exploits of a number of Connaght men who distinguished themselves with the British forces in North Africa and on the Continent. Below we give an account of the bravery of other Connacht men who won distinctions.
Cpl. Wm. Francis Donnelly, a Roscommon man attached to the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment, was awarded the Military Medal at Dj Abiod (difficult to read) on November 25th 1942. When a disabled German tank had been located in a river Cpl. Donnelly volunteered to go out to destroy it, to prevent its recovery. At the first two attempts he found the Germans working to recover the tank, but after killing two he was forced to withdraw. Returning later with another patrol he endeavoured to destroy it with a Sticky grenade and when that failed to explode he poured petrol over it and set it alight, remaining to cover it until it was completely destroyed. But for his daring and resource the tank would have been completely recovered by the Germans.”
I believe that at this time the Germans were usually very efficient and determined when recovering their disabled tanks, especially following their severe losses at the second battle of El Alamein.
Bill was remembered in the “Roll of Honour” in the same edition of the Tribune —
“DONNELLY — l/Sergt, William Francis (Bill) M.M. Queen’s Royal Regiment, fourth son of the late Malachy and Mrs. Donnelly, Lacken, Athleague, Roscommon killed in action in Italy Feb. 24th 1944. R.I.P. Deeply regretted by his loving brothers and sister.”
Letter from Imperial War Graves Commission to Miss B.F.L. Sordy, B.R.C.S. Welfare Officer, Cambridge Military Hospital, Aldershot, dated 24th September 1949. I do not know on whose behalf Miss Sordy was writing, but I believe it was Bill’s sister, Molly, who is still living.
With reference to your letter of the 28th June, I regret that an earlier reply should not have been sent to you.
I now confirm the information given to you over the telephone that the Commission depend for their information upon the Army War Graves service and there is unfortunately no record of the grave of the late 6349002 Serjt. W.F. Donnelly, Queen’s Royal Regiment, having been identified and registered. The deceased is recorded as having been killed in action on the 23/24th February 1944 and not on the 26th March 1943 as stated in your letter.
As there is no known grave, it will be the duty of the Commission to record the name of this non-commissioned officer together with those of officers and men who lost their lives but who have no known place of burial”.
Bill’s name is recorded on the Cassino Memorial — “Remembered with honour”.
Letter from Cpl. G. Collins to Bill’s sister Molly, reproduced verbatim.
6104184, Cpl E. COLLINS
Q.R.R. T.T.G. CEYLON HA
ADELAIDE STREET LUTON
THURSDAY, 11th November
Dear Miss Donnelly,
I am sorry I could not answer your letter before. I only got it to-day and I noticed that the date of your letter was the 17th October. If it had reached me before I would have called to see you as I was billeted near you. I will be glad to help you as I owe my life to your brother.
He was my platoon-sargeant and most of the time he was acting platoon officer and I was his platoon-sargeant. So we were together a lot. On Febry 23rd, 1944, in the early morning we were in a sticky position. Bill came over to me and said “We are in for it” as we watched a platoon of our’s being taken prisoner and we could do nothing about it. Soon after we went into attack, just a few of us with Bill in front as usual and we were cut to pieces. At the finish there were only three of us on the hill, Bill my Bren gunner and myself. We held out as long as we could, but it was useless. Bill told me to take my Bren gunner and get out while he covered us. We refused, naturally. A few minutes after, the Jerries used flame-throwers and Bill told us to get out again. He said it was no use three of us getting killed. We said we will take our chance. He would not take no for an answer and he drew the fire on himself while we got away. I have never seen anybody who had so much courage and thought for his platoon. I am glad you wrote to me as I have wanted to tell his people for a long while. I was taken prisoner of war soon after and I could not do it. Bill was well liked and you could always trust yourself with him as no doubt you know.
I hope these few lines have satisfied you in one way or another and believe me Bill never suffered, he was killed outright.
Cpl. G. COLLINS. QRR”
Extract from a letter to my father, dated 26th March 1943.
“Jim hasn’t written me for ages but Molly gives me all the news about him. She said he had a very nice time when he was home last. I envy him when I hear that, being out here myself, and I expect he feels the same. But such is life — we are never satisfied. By the way Peader (his brother Peter) tells me there is no sign of Pake to get married, if he waits a little longer I may be home for the big event, perhaps be best man, ‘and you know what they say about the best man’.
Anyway everything is going fine here and it won’t be long till we are all home again, if they don’t decide to take us to pay a visit to Rome on our way home. It’s one way of seeing what one wants to see. I must close for now once again. Hoping you are all well and do drop a line when you have the time, letters are about all we have to look forward to from day to day.
Wishing to be remembered to Una, Pauline and all at home.
Your fond Brother
Letter from Bill to my father, Malachy, dated 10th November 1943.
I trust this will find Una and Pauline and yourself in the best of health as I am glad to say it leaves me. I expect you will be surprised to hear from me after such a long time but I hope you don’t think because of the delay that you have been forgotten. All of you are in my thoughts very often and I am looking forward to the day all of this will be over and I shall be able to see you all again. I am sorry I can’t write to you as often as I would like to do, but I hope Molly keeps you informed as to how I am getting on. I write to her at least once a week so I expect you get the information from her. I often think of home and wonder if I will be like a stranger there when ever I get back to see it. I am sure there will be some big changes. All those kids who were going to school when I left are men and women now. It makes me feel old when I think of them grown up since I saw them last.
Well Malachy, I suppose you go up to Lachan (the family farm) occasionally to see them and it seems you can’t get a wife for Pake(Bill’s brother — they did “get” a wife for Pake and she still lives on the farm). I wish he would get married, they have such a lot of work to do with this compulsory tillage and the Scrine land being a bit out of the way. It is not so easy for them to manage.
I know you follow up the news so there isn’t any need to waste your time now by giving you an account of how it is going here. Everything is going fine and I think this winter will shake him up pretty well. Anyway, the quicker the better as I don’t think there is much chance of my getting home before he is beaten. I expect we are on the way home now through “Europe”. How long it is going to take very few know. It is much better here than N.A. At least it is more like home. The Winter will be fairly cold but we won’t have as much rain as we did last year. I will never forget last winter. I didn’t think it possible to rain so much. I hoped last Xmas I would never have to spend another one like it so I am not looking forward to this one very much in case it is the same.
Once again hoping you are all well and wishing you all a happy Xmas and the best of luck in the New Year.
With best wishes to Una, Pauline and yourself,
Your fond brother
It is interesting that Bill writes, “until he is beaten”. It seems Bill considered the enemy to be Adolf Hitler, not the German army or people, as otherwise I assume he would have written “them” - unless, of course, he was referring to Mussolini.
The rain in North Africa must have been exceptional for a Roscommon man to think the amount extraordinary, as the West of Ireland is not renowned for its sunny clime!
My husband’s eldest brother was in N.A. in 1943 (in the RAF as a wireless operator) and there is a photograph of him on a bike, up to his knees in floodwater at an airfield.
Extract of letter from my father to Bill dated 24th February 1944, the probable date Bill was killed. It seems this was returned with Bill’s effects.
I hope you are still very well. All here are thank God. We always pray for you and hope you will be with us soon again. We were delighted to hear from you at Xmas and get your card. Hope you had ours in time. Well Bill will you be home this year? Lets hope so anyhow. Keep the chin up and when all’s over it will look like an ugly nightmare. Am sending shamrock, hope you will get it.
Good luck and God Bless you
Mal, Una and Pauline”
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