Sonny Branch was a Hoddesdon boy and prior to the War lived there with his parents, his brother Don and sister Olive, working at the Co-Op in Amwell Street, before enlisting in 1942. Sonny told his family that he was determined to earn his Sergeant’s stripes and achieve the same rank his father had in the First World War.
Sonny trained in Gibraltar with the rest of the 1st Battalion before arriving in Italy in the Summer of 1944. The Battalion’s role that Autumn was to capture territory in the North of Italy. The territory was rocky, with the Germans having the advantage in many cases of higher ground, and the Regiment suffered heavy casualties. Sonny died of wounds on 10th November 1944, aged just 22.
Sonny was posthumously awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions a month prior to the service that caused his fatal injuries. The recommendation for the award was made by Lt-Col Peters MC who described Sonny’s courage and leadership:
“DCM: Immediate Award
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty at Banzuolo Ridge on 11 Oct 1944
On the night 10/11 Oct 1 Coy was ordered to capture and hold a prominent feature known as Banzuolo Ridge. The enemy were believed to be in some farm buildings at Pt 528 at the eastern end of the feature and in another farm at Pt 412 at western end. At approximately 0230 hrs on the 11 Oct the leading platoon came under heavy MG fire from the area of the buildings at Pt 528. They replied, and the enemy brought down defensive fire which pinned the leading platoon to the ground.
Sgt Branch who commanded the Reserve Platoon of 1 Coy was ordered to do a flanking attack on Pt 528. Time was short, and Sgt Branch quickly assembled his platoon in the bright light of a waning moon, and despite heavy mortar and artillery fire, led them safely to the forming up position. Sgt Branch personally led the assault, which was supported by fire from the remaining platoon. As he approached within twenty-five yards of the objective a Spandau opened up on his advancing men (by this time his covering fire had ceased). Quickly locating the post, Sgt Branch doubled forward and silenced it with a grenade, then shouting to his section commanders to follow his example he threw his remaining 77 and 36 grenades into the farm buildings which caught fire.
By his prompt action he succeeded in completely demoralising the enemy who hurriedly withdrew. The advance of the Coy continued and by daylight the eastern end of the objective had been gained. There can be no doubt that the ultimate success of the attack was primarily due to this NCO’s inspiring leadership and complete disregard for his own personal safety.”
Sonny’s achievements at Banzuolo Ridge were considerable, particularly given the conditions the Battalion were fighting in. The Regimental record states that “The weather now was appalling. Torrential rain and thick mud… the forward troops had a most unpleasant time.” Trenches were filled with water, supply lines were blocked and further advances over the next two weeks were unsuccessful with heavy casualties incurred. It is likely that Sonny met with the injuries that killed him at this time.
His Company Commander wrote to Sonny’s parents, saying: “I have been in the army for ten years and can truthfully say that I have never met a finer Sergeant than your son. He was more than an NCO to me and had proved himself time and time again as a competent and well-loved leader. The whole Company feel his loss greatly.”
Sonny’s Battalion Commander also wrote to the Branch family, underlining Sonny’s legacy and the impact he had made upon the Battalion:“…the death of your fine son is not all loss; the fine spirit that emanated from him is still amongst his comrades, the spirit of adventure, the spirit of duty, manliness and humbleness. When a young man of his character leaves us, it makes us all the more determined to do better ourselves for his sake.”
Sonny Branch is buried at the Faenza Commonwealth War Cemetery. Don Branch finally realised his dream of visiting his brother Sonny’s grave in 1990, and sprinkled some English soil there.