John Coldwell-Horsfall DSO MC

Lieutenant Colonel J H Coldwell-Horsfall DSO MC*

John Henry Coldwell-Horsfall DSO MC* was born on 21 February 1915 and died on 18 December 2006 aged 91. He was awarded the Military Cross (MC) in France in 1940, and a then a bar (*) to his MC in Tunisia in 1943, while serving with the Royal Irish Fusiliers; in 1944, by then commanding a battalion of the London Irish Rifles, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) at Cassino.

He was educated at Harrow and was commissioned into The Royal Irish Fusiliers from Sandhurst in 1935. He went to Palestine in 1936 with his regiment during the Second Arab Revolt; British troops were struggling under the League of Nations mandate to maintain law and order and faced widespread violence by the Palestine Arabs in protest against Jewish immigration. John Horsfall and his platoon of 30 Fusiliers were responsible for 10 miles of the Nablus Road and the surrounding countryside.

In October 1939, he went to France with the British Expeditionary Force (BEF). When the Blitzkrieg struck in May 1940, the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers was rushed forward in defence of Brussels but it was a hopeless cause in the face of overwhelming armoured and air superiority. His company safely held the bridges over the River Dendre at Ninove until the divisional rearguard had safely crossed. When German machine-gun detachments infiltrated around the Battalion's flank, with revolver in hand, he led a counterattack that drove them back and inflicted heavy casualties. Having held the bridges until the forward elements of the BEF had withdrawn across them, he then had to extricate his own company and fall back to new positions on the La Bassée Canal at Gorre. A believer in aggressive forward defence, he impressed on his men the importance of killing the enemy at the earliest opportunity. His positions on the south side of the canal had great success throughout the ensuing battle, enabling the remnants of the BEF to pass through. After holding the bridges until the last possible moment, Horsfall burned a number of canal barges that might have been used by the enemy, and withdrew five miles to a position guarding bridges over the river Lys, where he fought yet another holding action. By now the BEF was surrounded, and after fighting their way down the corridor to Dunkirk, his company was evacuated with the rest of the battalion. For his conduct at the three defence lines during which, in the words of the citation, he 'displayed conspicuous coolness and exemplary cheerfulness' he was awarded his first MC.

In late 1942, the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers landed in North Africa as part of 38 (Irish) Brigade. As the Allies moved towards Tunis, the German defence hardened, but the Faughs took every opportunity to harass the enemy and John Horsfall received a bar to his MC for courage when leading night patrols, on one occasion killing a lorry-load of German infantry. He was unfortunately wounded in the main offensive and hospitalised for three months. In early 1944, he rejoined the Brigade as second-in-command of the 2nd Battalion The London Irish Rifles, and assumed command when the Commanding Officer was killed on the attack start line prior to crossing the Rapido River to break through the Gustav Line into the Liri Valley. By the time John Horsfall went forward, the first objectives had been taken. It later took four hours to clear the enemy from the village of Sinagoga, where the London Irish lost almost a whole company of men. The inevitable German counter-attack was held, and John Horsfall received an immediate award of the Distinguished Service Order (DSO) for his tactical skill and conspicuous gallantry in command of 2 LIR. After the fall of Cassino, the Brigade was withdrawn to Egypt and John Horsfall assumed command of the 1st Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers - his parent Regiment. The 1st Faughs returned to Italy in late 1944 and were detached from the Irish Brigade for the attack on Monte Spaduro on the German Gothic Line where they suffered severe casualties. In December, he was seriously wounded in the attack on Casa Tamagnin and by the time he recovered the war was nearly over.

In February 1946 John Horsfall retired from the Army in order to rescue the family firm of Webster and Horsfall in Birmingham, makers of cables and industrial wire, from the ravages of the war. He will be remembered as one of three outstanding battalion commanders of 38 (Irish) Brigade during the Second World War - the others being Major Generals Pat Scott and 'Bala' Bredin. In his retirement, he wrote three excellent volumes of the story of The Royal Irish Fusiliers in the Second World War. In 1964 he was invited to become Honorary Colonel of the 5th Battalion The Royal Irish Fusiliers, a Territorial Army battalion based in Northern Ireland; and later, following TA mergers, the North Irish Militia. His only son was tragically killed in a military training accident with The Royal Irish Rangers in Scotland.