Into the Cauldron
“At the sight of the city utterly perishing amidst the flames, Scipio burst into tears, and stood long reflecting on the inevitable change which awaits cities, nations, and dynasties, one and all, as it does every one of us men.
This, he thought, had befallen Ilium, once a powerful city, and the once mighty empires of the Assyrians, Medes, Persians, and that of Macedonia lately so splendid.”
The description of Roman general Scipio Africanus’ reaction to the fall and destruction of Carthage in 146 BC from The 3rd Punic War by the Roman historian Polybius.
Allied leaders had decided that the French territories of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were to be where the first American blow would fall against the Axis.
Algeria had been invaded by France in 1830, subdued in a brutal war and declared to be part of metropolitan France. Tunisia was seized in 1881. French control over Morocco had been secured by 1912. More than 1 million French settlers, known as Colons – and Pieds Noirs (Black Feet) – in Algeria, were living in North Africa when war began in 1939. Following France’s surrender in July 1940, control over the three countries was maintained by the new French government based in Vichy in central France.Among the motives for the Allies’ decision to invade North Africa was the belief that the French garrison would quickly surrender and that the loss of these territories might even prompt Vichy to change sides. But there was little love between France and the UK. The withdrawal of British troops from France in May 1940 was seen as a betrayal. British forces had seized the French overseas possessions of Syria, Lebanon and Madagascar. The RAF had killed more than 500 French civilians in a bomb attack on the Renault factory outside Paris. In July 1940, the Vichy fleet at anchor at Mers el-Kebir, near Oran in Algeria, was told by the Royal Navy to sail to Britain or a neutral port. When it refused, it was immediately bombarded by British ships. More than 1,000 French sailors were killed. The anger about the attack persists in France to this day. The pessimists argued that Vichy’s 10 North African divisions might resist an Allied invasion. They were to be proved right.
After more wrangling between Washington and London, it was decided that the expeditionary force should be split into two. American troops under General George S Patton would land at sites on Morocco’s Atlantic coast and there would be separate landings in Algeria. The date for the invasion was fixed for Sunday, 8 November 1942. The American expedition destined for Morocco set sail from Hampton Roads on the Virginia coast at dawn on 24 October. Two days earlier, the deputy commander of Operation Torch, General Mark Clark, had been taken by submarine to the port of Cherchel west of Algiers for a secret meeting with a top Vichy commander. He was assured that there would be little French resistance. This promise proved to be inaccurate.
At the start of November, a second invasion fleet departed from the River Clyde with more than 70,000 British and American troops. At sunset on 5 November, the fleet entered the Straits of Gibraltar and split into two parts. One headed for Oran close to Algeria’s border with Morocco. The other sailed for Algiers. The landings at both ports took place before dawn on 8 November. In Morocco, American troops brought directly from the US were landed the same day to take Casablanca, Safi and Mehdia. Algiers fell quickly, but Vichy resistance continued for three more days in other parts of North Africa. It was only ended when Admiral Darlan, Vichy’s most senior commander who had by coincidence been in Algiers when Torch started, ordered the French armed forces to switch sides following Germany’s invasion of Vichy France on 11 November. About 2,000 Americans and more than 3,000 French soldiers had been killed or wounded in the fighting. The fact that the first US action in the war against the axis involved fighting the French army is frequently forgotten. It was a expression of the political contradictions that were to dog the Allied campaigns in the Mediterranean until the end of the war.
The Allies hoped the French garrison in Tunisia would quickly surrender to allow the easy capture of the city. But it was already too late. On 9 November, the first German troops started to arrive. Within days, strong defensive positions had been established on the main routes from the west to the Tunisian capital. The Irish Brigade heard of Torch as they prepared to set sail from Scotland to join the operation on 10 November 1942.
“Dawn was breaking when our train stopped at a platform which was in a dock. Through the doorway labelled Customs we could see a mighty ship. We had arrived at Greenock. We dressed in our equipment and, wearing our greatcoats, climbed up the gangplank and into the bowels of the ship. The ranks were separated. Officers and Warrant Officers (WOs) were led off in one direction, sergeants in another while the men were led below deck by their corporals. I was allocated a cabin on the boat deck which I shared with three others. Double bunks almost filled the space.”
“Our ship was ‘RMS The Duchess of York’, a vessel of 22,000 tons deadweight. I knew it as one of the Canadian Pacific Railways’ liners which Mr Harris, the Hawkes’ traveller, used on one of his Canadian trips. On the dock, we bought a copy of the Daily Express which had headlines telling of an Anglo-American invasion of North Africa. We were to sail that evening and we guessed where. The date was 11 November 1942, the twenty-fourth anniversary of Armistice Day 1918.”
“The Sergeants were called down to the mess decks where the men were quartered. It was hot and crowded. The men’s kits, hammocks and life jackets were kept on long tables. A demonstration was being given of how to rig hammocks and how to stow them afterwards. I was glad I was on the boat deck. The saloon where the Officers and WOs were to eat was luxurious and had been used by first class passengers. The Officers’ cabins were in the 1st and 2nd class accommodation. The WOs were more closely packed. Our cabins were former third class and tourist accommodation and our mess was their former saloon. There were 3,000 people aboard. The majority, all below Sergeant’s rank, had been packed into what had been the hold space which had been converted into navy-style mess decks.”
“The ‘Come to the Cookhouse’ bugle call was sounded over the tannoy and I went to the Mess. Here, I was served the best meal I’d had for years. The WOs and Officers had a peace-time menu. The men’s fare, though good, had to be eaten in the furnace below. We pulled away from the quay in the late afternoon, steamed into the Clyde estuary and down into the Firth of Clyde where we were joined by other vessels. We had lifebelt and boat drill and went to bed. As darkness fell, everything was closed up. We could use the boat deck but dare not show a light. I slept badly. I felt queasy though the sea was like a millpond.”
“Next day, I could see from the boat deck the extent of our vast armada. It comprised about eighty vessels and spread over many square miles of ocean. I was able to identify the Orient Liner’s ‘Orion’, the CPR’s ‘Empress of Britain’ and many other great vessels as we steamed out into the Atlantic. We did not zig-zag a great deal as we were a fast convoy. Destroyers and other naval vessels moved around us sounding their sirens.”
“Among the fleet watchers was a major dressed in service dress with riding breeches and puttees. I was able to recognise his badge as the Royal Army Veterinary Corps. What was a vet doing with an Armoured Division, I wondered? I would soon find out (the British Army in Tunisia and Italy was to depend on mules). Just prior to our embarkation, The O’Donovan had left the brigade and had been succeeded by an Irish Fusilier, Brigadier Nelson Russell, DSO. After sailing for almost a week, elements of our convoy seemed to peel off. I believe we went through the Gibraltar Straits at night as I cannot remember seeing the rock. I remember, however, seeing the vivid white houses and the towns of the North African shore. I was ordered to arrange a pay parade. It was held on the mess deck. It was hot and crowded. I had barely started when I had to run to be sick. The foetid air was too much. The men were paid in a strange currency: Allied Military Francs, which could be used in French North Africa.”
“I attended an Orders (‘O’) Group where our destination was confirmed as North Africa. I was issued with maps that filled two bren gun magazine cases. I was ordered to issue every person with a 48-hour emergency pack. Our part of the convoy separated. We entered Algiers Harbour and berthed at the quay without tugs. It was Thursday 22 November 1942 and a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly. We speedily disembarked. The great liner pulled away. On the quay was a great stack of kit bags which we would not see for months. Some would be permanently mislaid.”
“While we were waiting, we were attacked by aircraft which were chased by some of ours. Bombs were dropped but not on us. We were formed up in companies in full marching order with a blanket on top of our other equipment. All the men also carried two filled bren magazines or a case of three two-inch mortar bombs. I carried two cases of maps of the whole of Algeria and Tunisia in large and small scale. The officers carried almost as much as the men.”
“Led by our sensible Commanding Officer, who wore only skeleton equipment of belt and shoulder straps, we climbed out of Algiers in thick service dress carrying everything in the hot midday sun. The Pipers carried only their pipes. The first mile out of Algiers was a steady climb up a road that wound in a semi circle. Gradually men collapsed from heat and exhaustion. At first, stretcher bearers went to attend to them. Eventually, we left them where they fell. Gradually, my load increased. At one time, I was carrying a bren gun and a two-inch mortar but I had farmed out the case of maps. We finally arrived at an open space which was large enough for the whole battalion. We were told to take off our equipment and make ourselves comfortable. Stragglers appeared and joined us. We were allowed to open our emergency rations and have a meal, but were warned that it would have to last the full 48 hours. A water tanker appeared. We filled our bottles and brewed up in our mess tins.”
“There was no twilight and, suddenly, the light went, although it was early evening, probably about 6pm. As soon as the sun had gone, the cold set in. We were allowed no lights and no fires. Putting on every scrap of clothing, including our greatcoats and anti-gas capes, we huddled together and tried to sleep. It was said the Commanding Officer went around begging for a share of a blanket.”
“Canvas buckets had been left which the men used to wash and shave the following morning. After eating a breakfast from their packs of biscuit, margarine, jam and potted meat, they washed it down with a powdered tea mixture brewed up in their mess tins. The battalion was paraded by companies, inspected and then led by the Pipers on a route march wearing skeleton equipment but carrying all weapons. The only persons excused were the sick and the strong picket left to guard the mounds of equipment. We marched in a great circle, returning to the camp after about two hours.”
“In the early afternoon, transport arrived with the Quartermaster and Regimental Quartermaster in charge. Colour Sergeants reported with fatigue parties and were issued their first 14 men packs of composition (compo) rations. E Company strength was about 116. I drew nine boxes and was told I owed two rations. Going back to the company, I distributed the packs. This was awkward because each platoon’s strength was not divisible by 14, being about 32 men. The juggling of ration numbers was to become a nightmare, particularly when a whole box of rations was deducted as owings. The next meal was cooked, somehow, on a platoon basis. Two-man sand bivouac tents were erected in lines on the flat ground.”
“We were told that each platoon would leave a strong picket but the rest could go to Maison Carre, the nearest town, which was less than a mile away. We made up our beds. Billy Allen and I walked to the estaminet in the town to find it packed. The French proprietor was having a field day. I tried to attract him with my schoolboy French. Having finally been served, we obtained refills for our wine glasses by Billy shouting: ‘Encore pour le chemin.’ This worked when I added ‘s’il vous plait’ at the top of my voice. We rolled back to the camp and, with difficulty, found our tent. Without bothering to more than take off our boots, we rolled into our beds and slept. I was awakened by running water. It was raining a tropical downpour. We were no longer in a field but in what appeared to be a lake. The land had been baked the whole summer and it was as absorbent as concrete. The only dry place was Billy. I climbed on top of him while the water swirled around.”
“A bugle sounded reveille. Putting on our boots, we crawled out of our tents and beheld the desolation. Water lay everywhere. No one had been prepared for rain. Had we dug drainage channels with our entrenching tools, the gulleys could have dealt with the deluge. I remembered, too late, my teacher Jo Kelly’s drone about the Mediterranean climate: winter rains and summer drought. We spent the day draining the water and drying our clothes.”
“After about three days in tents, we were moved into billets. Ours was the local brickworks which was dry and warm from the fires at night. After about a week in the brickworks, we entrained at the nearest station in wagons on which was written: ‘huit chevaux, trente hommes’ (eight horses, 30 men). We rolled along the railway for more than 100 miles to the port of Bougie. Why? After the organisation and planning for one of the greatest exploits in naval and military history and the logistical details, why on earth did not the Duchess of York travel further east to Bougie? The ships carrying the transport and other stores unloaded there. Perhaps the port was too small? We billetted near the port. That day, I tried to speak to a little Berber boy who replied to my French with a stream of the most violent military invective. Our troops had only been there a week or so, yet had taught the young lad to swear. He thought he was speaking English. Late in the evening, the battalion transport rolled in. Our transport and TCVs were led by Corporal Allen, the Company Transport Corporal. I saw Vic Blake careering around on a motor cycle which had been issued to him. He had never driven before, yet he was to be a dispatch rider on our 400-mile journey to Tunisia.”
“We were up and dressed, breakfasted and embussed long before dawn the next day. I boarded a three-ton truck. My driver was Billy Bennett from Portadown. Into the back went Bob Doonan, my storeman, where he was joined by the Company Cook and his assistant. As we drove out of Bougie, dawn broke over the Mediterranean. It was so beautiful that even the enigmatic Billy Bennett declared: ‘It’s a cracker!’”
“Our route was to take us into the Atlas mountains following a road built by the French after their army had battled their way through the mountains to subdue the Berbers. It wound its way up narrow gorges which had been carved through the rocks by a mighty torrent. The first town the convoy passed through was Setif, which was about 3,000 feet above sea level. I remember the barracks of the Foreign Legion with its tricolour and sentries in their long blue tunics, white trousers and kepis. The Berbers wore brown burnoses with the hoods raised so their faces were almost hidden. We passed the occasional family group. The father rode his donkey. The wife and children walked behind carrying great bundles. The faces of some women were completely veiled.”
“Continuing the journey, we saw a great flat rock in the middle of the gorge and on this was carved the name of the regiment and its commander that had fought their way through these mountains. Finally, we burst out of the towering mountains. Before us was the city of Constantine glistening in the sunshine. It appeared to be a leisurely place. The people did not appear to heed our convoy. Most were drinking coffee while others placidly sat smoking their hookahs. I saw many in pure white garments. There was an air of prosperity. We bivouacked that night in the open. Rations and petrol were distributed. I was surprised how flimsy the two gallon containers were as they needed only a quick puncture through their thin metal skins to broach them. We were to see later that the Germans used stout jerry cans, a design that was soon to be copied by the Americans.”
“We breakfasted early next day and progressed through the lower mountains, passing through Guelma where we were saw an equestrian statue of General McMahon (descendant of one of the Wild Geese), who was to become President of France. We approached the border with Tunisia and entered Soukh Arras in the mountains in eastern Algeria. This was where St Augustine had founded his monastery in the 5th century and from which he was said to have been dragged to become bishop of Hippo, now called Bone. During the 4th and 5th centuries, the Roman province of Africa, in which we now were, was an important cultural centre for the empire and the Christian Church. Finally, we arrived at Teboursouk, a market town in Tunisia. Here we, the lorry-borne infantry of the 6th Armoured Division, had most of our transport removed, including the platoon bicycles. We were left with two trucks a company and would have to carry anything else we required. I surrendered all my maps except two large-scale ones of Tunisia. We had become foot soldiers.”
The Allies had experienced their first serious encounters with the German line defending Tunis at the end of November. Hopes of taking Tunisia quickly were dashed when a badly co-ordinated offensive was repulsed with heavy loss of life. The Irish Brigade started to arrive at the front in the first week of December. The German-Italian line ran from north to south about 30 miles west of the Tunisian capital, Tunis. Medjez-el-Bab was the key in the northern part. It sat on the junction between the main highway into Tunisia from the Algerian border and a north-south road that ran for about 20 miles to Bou Arada. From there, a road ran west to El-Aroussa and into the mountains. Medjez-el-Bab also straddled the Medjerda River which ran from the Algerian highlands for 125 miles in a north-east direction to enter the Mediterranean between Tunis and Bizerte. Carthaginian general Hannibal is reputed to have said the town was the key to Tunisia.
The road from Medjez-el-Bab to Bou Arada rose through a ridge of hills rising to about 1,000 feet on the south bank of the Medjerda. It then descended to cross an east-west valley with the village of Goubellat at its centre. The road then ascended again to cut through another east-west ridge where high points on both sides were to be the setting for fierce battles involving the London Irish Rifles in January and February 1943. The final stretch of the road descended to Bou Arada which is obstructed to the south by mountains. The London Irish were given responsibility for a section of front from Goubellat to Bou Arada. They were spread over a large, largely treeless area with scattered farm buildings and there were no clear enemy lines. Both sides held strong points on the hills during the day and moved across the low land at night. Normally, the Allies were to the west of the Medjez-el-Bab to Bou Arada road and the Germans were to the east, but they often used the same roads during darkness. The distance from German positions was up to three miles in the Goubellat valley. The London Irish were to be in this area for more than four months.
“Winter rains had replaced summer drought with a vengeance. We were part of the 1st Army under General Anderson. This part of the army was, in reality, barely a division in strength and comprised two battalions of the Irish Brigade, one independent Guards brigade, a couple of regiments of tanks and one of armoured cars, a brigade of paratroopers, a motorised battalion and some ancilliaries. The Skins were the first Irish Brigade unit in the line. We followed and the Quartermaster set up the supply base in a wooded area close to El-Aroussa to the west of the front that was to be used for the next three months. When we arrived, we found boxes of rations had been broached and the more attractive items of food and cigarettes replaced by a half brick. This felony was compounded by the thought that sailors had risked their lives to bring half-bricks thousands of miles to be dumped in the hills of Tunisia. The absence of comforts was to be a trial and it would be months before fresh food and bread would replace the eternal hard tack.”
“E Company was detached and used as a Standing Patrol on a feature named Baldy. At the supply base, I was given a six-figure map reference for the company. In the middle of the night in pouring rain, I set off in our three-tonne truck with just the driver and Billie Allen. He was nervous. Half way along the road towards Medjez-el-Bab, he thought I’d fallen asleep. Billie swore very violently but he need not have worried as I was occupied looking for a track on the right side of the road. I knew that if we missed the turn, we could easily finish up as prisoners. We were driving without lights and every instinct prompted me to turn back. But we found the track and moved carefully in the direction of Baldy. Arriving at our destination, I got out clutching my loaded rifle to look for signs of life. A figure appeared and challenged me. It was our guide to the company. I unloaded food and water and returned to base. This adventure emphasised the importance of spot map reading, a skill that was often lacking even among the officers. The company remained on Baldy for days without relief. I had the nightly task of locating them.”
Sharp battles were fought along the line in December, but there were few incidents involving the Irish Brigade which was finally brought up to full-strength with the arrival of the Faughs. As the Tunisian winter closed in, some of the battalion may have heard that a report had just been published by the Social Insurance Committee, a civil service body chaired by William Beveridge, the former director of the London School of Economics (LSE). The Beveridge report, as it is known, proposed a complete change in the national welfare programme to provide every citizen with a guaranteed income despite old age and sickness in return for a national insurance contribution. The Labour Party immediately accepted its findings and said it would implement them as soon as the war was over. The commitment laid the foundations for the party’s landslide victory in general elections in July 1945. The Irish Brigade was more concerned with the challenge of surviving in the field and mainly in the open in winter. They had a cold and wet Christmas season.
“Christmas 1942 arrived and the menu was, as usual, compo rations. The haggle over the indivisible 14-man packs continued daily and the Quartermaster knew the latest figure down to the last man. E Company moved from time to time to new locations that were just map references. Changes occurred and Major Gibbs was succeeded as Company Commander by Captain Costello. Subalterns also seemed to change but the Sergeants remained. Lieutenant Reidy, the Irish rugby star who almost knocked all my teeth out, had an accident and was evacuated to a hospital at Thibar. I was ordered to deliver his kit, which I did in a truck. I drove over the hills into a beautiful and peaceful valley with a White Fathers monastery at its centre that had been requisitioned as a general hospital. The setting was like Shangri-la. After completing our task, we were entertained royally and given, or sold, the most delicate vintages.”
“But conditions on the front were very uncomfortable because of the continuous rain and associated mud which made driving difficult and walking almost impossible. Enemy patrols were often active. Vic Blake, the shoe-shop worker from Brixton, was taken prisoner while taking a dispatch at night on a main road. Our first casualty was a Rifleman who was found shot. He obviously could not stand the privation, tension and lack of sleep. Our Chaplain, Father Hayes, visited the companies regularly.”
“The battalion’s first real action involving casualties was on 11 January. H Company was given the task of covering the recovery of tanks that had bogged down in the Goubellat valley. This involved attacks on farm buildings and several casualties were sustained, including two Sergeants who were killed. Both were friends, and I was called upon, much later, to help in the identification of H Company Sergeant John Hogan, 39 from Croydon. He was to remain unburied on the plain for months. A lesson was learnt from this action. The wireless sets worn by Platoon Sergeants carried an aerial which could be seen by snipers. The large black and green chevrons of Sergeants were much too obvious. I was to seldom wear these insignia when in or near action.”
The winter of 1942/43 was a pivotal moment in the war. The German army and its Italian and Romanian allies reached the outskirts of Stalingrad on the River Volga and some elements got as far as the Caucasus mountains. Determined to break the Soviet Army, Hitler ordered the assault on Stalingrad to continue into the winter. But the tables were turned when the Soviets counterattacked and encircled the German Army. At the end of January, what was left surrendered and was marched off to captivity where they were starved and generally badly treated. Few survived. Stalingrad was a massive setback for Hitler and the Axis powers never again went consistently on the offensive.
President Roosevelt arrived in Casablanca on 14 January 1943 for talks about the next step in the Mediterranean theatre. They were to continue for almost two weeks. There was no rest on the front in Tunisia. Stuka attacks and shelling caused a steady trickle of casualties. Movement was almost impossible during the day. Supplies had to be delivered at night.
“Information seldom trickled down to Quartermaster Sergeants and all I could do was to try to discover the location of my company wherever they then were. In the middle of January, E Company was in position close to the Bou Arada to Medjez-el-Bab road. French troops were occupying a nearby village. By a little bartering of bully beef, I obtained from them supplies of sourdough bread, the excellence of which I never encountered before or since. I seldom slept, as my nights were spent supplying my company and the days involved scrounging anything that was needed for my lads. It was like a continuous dream. I remember on the night of 18 January 1943 falling asleep from complete exhaustion while visiting the company and attending an ‘O’ Group. When I awoke, I discovered my bed had been a sack of sharp pick heads. I left for supply base before dawn and promised to return at first dark that evening.”
Ted’s exhaustion had been caused by a programme of night patrols by the London Irish designed to drive the Germans out of the Goubellat valley which started from El-Aroussa after dark on 16 January. On the evening of 19 January, the battalion was on the move for the fourth consecutive night. It advanced in extended line southeast across the Medjez-el-Bab to Bou Arada road, which was the Irish Brigade’s principal supply line. The objective was Point 286 (286 metres), a hill on the east side of the road in the highland area between Goubellat and Bou Arada. It was being used by the Germans to shell traffic.
The London Irish attack started at 330am. Point 279, the first objective, was taken. Just after dawn, the London Irish advanced under fire up Point 286 which was briefly held. In a pattern that was repeated during the Irish Brigade campaign in Tunisia and Italy, a German counterattack supported by tanks and armoured cars was launched. The London Irish were driven off the hill. E Company took over the attack and charged up Point 286, but was repulsed. F Company was ordered to resume the assault and advanced up the hill under machine gun fire and Stuka bombers. The Germans withdrew and, by nightfall, Point 286 was in the hands of the London Irish again. But they had suffered heavy casualties and were exhausted.
Ted, back at the supply base, had no idea what was happening as he prepared to set off with fresh supplies that evening. He was shocked by the condition the battalion was in when he arrived at the battle field.
“Our normal convoy was prepared and we made our way to where the battalion was situated. I discovered what remained of my company on Point 279. There was no Company Commander and the Second-in-Command, Captain Joseph Carrigan aged 31, had been killed. Lieutenant Rawlings and Billie Allen, a Sergeant and two Lance-Sergeants had been wounded and evacuated. An officer had refused to advance and was under arrest as was a senior NCO. It was a shambles. There seemed to be no order or discipline. The Colour Sergeants were called to the Commanding Officer where we received a dressing down for not bringing prepared food instead of cold rations. This was complete nonsense as we had been unaware of the situation. We left immediately for the supply base to rouse the cooks and make a stew. This was put in large dixies which were packed in insulated containers. The supply convoy reassembled and proceeded to Bou Arada and back to the scene of the battle.”
Things were about to get much worse for the London Irish. Soon after midnight, a runner from E Company reported that German tanks with infantry in support were climbing Point 279. The hill was overrun and the attackers poured fire into the Battalion Headquarters which was in a wadi on the north side of the hill. It was chaos. Suddenly, the Germans withdrew.The London Irish still held Point 286. But further damage had been done. Ted got the news of the German attack as he was returning with hot food.
“A very muddy and breathless Colour Sergeant Flood halted us at the El-Aroussa crossroads in Bou Arada where he poured out a story of yet another setback. The Germans had counter-attacked using tanks and half tracks and had driven off the demoralised and officer-less remnants of our companies who had broken and fled. Once again, we had received no information. But for Flood, we would have motored innocently into captivity or worse. Flood later was to receive a DCM and promotion to CSM. He guided us to where the battalion had been gathered in a wadi.”
“We fed the survivors. Including drivers, E Company comprised 27 men compared with a starting strength of about 120. We had no officers but shared a subaltern from HQ Company with F Company which itself had been reduced to a total of 17 under Colour Sergeant Jones. Apart from myself, the only surviving E Company NCOs were Sergeant Leo McRory and Corporal Hammersley.”
“The next morning, Colonel Jeffreys summoned all Colour Sergeants whom he rebuked twice: first, for not promoting NCOs from the survivors and, second, for not requisitioning weapons from the Quartermaster for those that had been lost. I dealt with the weapons first. But how could I replace a Sergeant Major, two full Sergeants, two Lance Sergeants, six Corporals and 10 Lance-Corporals? That was a total of 21 NCOs from the original 24 in E Company, many of whom who had dropped their weapons and ran.”
The total loss for the battalion was six officers and 20 other ranks killed and eight officers and 78 other ranks wounded. No less than six officers and 130 other ranks were missing.
The official London Irish record of the Battle for Point 286 says: “Many of the latter were confirmed later as having been wounded and taken prisoner.”
Ted’s analysis is more penetrating. He described the two-night attack on points 279 and 286 as a disaster. In hindsight, it is perhaps fairer to say that it was the result of a combination of factors. This was the battalion’s first serious engagement. It was exhausted by operations on the previous three nights. The tactics were questionable: all four companies were used instead of one being held in reserve. The attack in full daylight on the morning of 20 January was insufficiently supported and exposed to Stuka bombing. There was no effective system of early warning of German counterattacks. Finally, the London Irish had encountered some of the German army’s best troops.
“I went around offering stripes. Most who accepted them reverted as soon as they could. Hammersley was promoted full Sergeant but Leo McRory refused to be nominated as CSM. The whole exercise was a nonsense and the three Colour Sergeants had been used as scapegoats. Both the Commanding Officer and the Quartermaster had been failures. Jeffreys had wasted one of the finest infantry battalions in the army, leaving it leaderless. The Quartermaster had done nothing to ensure communications between his echelon and battalion. He only worried about numbers of rations. The Commanding Officer had engaged his battalion in a battle which was not properly planned and in which he had committed all its strength. No rifle company personnel had been reserved or left out of battle. He compounded this mistake by failing to place his troop carriers in a position where they would have prevented or warned of a counterattack.”
“George Charnick, who had previously served in the carriers, was appointed E Company CSM. We were reinforced, although not to full strength, from R Company and from other units. Corporal Jimmy White was promoted to Sergeant. The next few days were among the hardest in my life as I never had time for sleep. One night, I went with the company to their position on the wadi rim. I climbed into a slit trench and fell soundly asleep without a blanket. I woke the next morning in full daylight to find myself completely alone. Because I was in full view of possible enemies, I crawled to the wadi edge and rejoined my company.”
While the London Irish were on the rack in Tunisia, in Casablanca Roosevelt had been joined by Churchill and General Charles De Gaulle who had been recognised as leader of the Free French. On 24 January, Roosevelt with his two allies by his side declared at a press conference that the Allied objective was Germany’s unconditional surrender. Churchill had already secured cabinet approval for the policy, but Roosevelt’s public announcement that day took him by surprise. The Allies were now committed to fight to the bitter end. Ted’s fate for two more years had been decided.
The Irish Brigade spent the next three weeks in the area they had so bloodily taken. It was now part of what was called ‘Y’ Division, a scratch force that also included paratroopers, a French battalion and artillery. The key feature of the area was the Djebel Rihane a huge wooded mountain west of the Medjez-el-Bab to Bou Arada road. The companies and platoons of the London Irish occupied high points which they fortified with wire and mines.
“The battalion was spread over a wide area. Between each company and even platoons were large areas of dead ground and wadis. F Company was centred on Stuka Farm, a group of buildings on a hilltop to the south of the line. G Company, now under Major Gibbs, was in the centre on Castle Hill and the surrounding features of Booby Hill and Steep Hill. E Company was on the left near Djebel Rihane. H Company was away from the battalion.
There was little or nothing between E Company, which was the reserve company, and the other three. We in turn were widely dispersed: 8 Platoon, commanded by a subaltern aged 18, was on Mosque Hill, on the left and overlooking the thick woodland to the east. 9 Platoon was on Flat Top, on the right, overlooking Goubellat plain. 7 Platoon was in the centre on a feature called Hadj. Company Headquarters was positioned at the rear of Hadj.”
“It was an impossible arrangement. To reach 8 Platoon on Mosque Hill by track from Company Headquarters took over 20 minutes. To climb took even longer. Flat Top and 9 Platoon were a good 15 minutes up a steep track. The immediate problem was the shortage of water and we relied on the infrequent calls of our small tanker. The water was brackish and loaded with chemicals.”
“E Company Commander, Captain Costello, who had distinguished himself in the battle for points 279 and 286 and was subsequently awarded the MC, summoned regular ‘O’ groups (an ‘O’ Group is an operational planning meeting), which comprised himself, E Company CSM Charnick and myself. He detailed our duties: ‘I will be duty officer from 1800 to 2200, the Sergeant Major from 2200 to 0200 and the Colour Sergeant (me) from 0200 to 0600. This will ensure that I am available during the crucial hours and will give the Colour Sergeant plenty of time to collect and distribute rations and other supplies.’ It actually meant that he would get a full night’s sleep while I would get very little as I had to collect rations at dusk and distribute them among the platoons in the late evening and then take over as duty officer for the rest of the night. When I was going off to take supplies to the outlying platoons, Costello said: ‘While you are at 8 or 9 Platoon, make those lads take you round their positions and just check their fields of fire. Keep an eye on that other chap, I am so afraid he might do some damage to himself.’ Costello was referring to a Lieutenant who was under close arrest and awaiting trial by court martial. He later became a town major in Italy.”
“The men who now comprised most of E Company were poorly trained and not a patch on their predecessors. One early morning, I inspected the forward position of 7 Platoon on Hadj hill. It was dark and raining and I searched for the two sentries of one section. Finally, I saw a bren gun muzzle poking out from a pile of blankets and groundsheets. After removing a couple of layers, a voice shouted: ‘Halt! Who goes there!’ I rebuked him and said: ‘If I’d been a Ted, you’d be dead!’ (a Ted was short for Tedeschi, Italian for German). I did not report him but had a quiet word with Jimmy White (who was the platoon’s Sergeant) about his sentries.”
“It had been decided that 24 February was to be a ‘no transport day’ when any vehicle seen on the road would be strafed. There were no defined lines and both sides often used stretches of the same roads and tracks. As I could not use transport and had NAAFI rations for 9 Platoon, I commandeered a donkey.”
“Riding without a saddle, I rode to Flat Top hill carrying a box of cigarettes, confectionery and other comforts that I would sell to the men. I had no thought of enemy patrols. A few days later, we would find evidence of a German patrol in the area. They had probably seen me on my donkey but resisted the lure of a haul of about a couple of thousand cigarettes and 30 assorted bars of confectionery. I had been very lucky.”
The Germans had already started a general attack against Allied lines. Between 19 and 25 February, the American Army was badly mauled when the Germans under General Rommel launched deep thrusts into the Kasserine pass. The London Irish themselves were about to be put to the test once more. On 26 February, the Germans advanced on the Bou Arada Front, crossing the north-south road and pushing into the left of the battalion’s positions. The assault against the London Irish positions was carried out by paratroopers in the Hermann Goering Division, an elite German unit, and ten Panzer tanks. The riflemen the night before sensed an attack was pending. Ted was to be at the heart of the action over the next 24 hours.
“On the evening of 25 February, I collected rations from the wadi near Battalion Headquarters, in complete darkness as usual. Captain Diarmid Conroy was there and he made the Company Quartermaster Sergeants keep absolute silence as he said there appeared to be some enemy activity. I reached E Company where I was told to remain on Hadj and not distribute the outlying platoons’ rations until first light. We stood to for most of the night.”
“As dawn broke, I prepared to go out to the platoons. Captain Costello called Corporal Davies, Pop Eatwell, Percy Forde, a driver, and me and detailed his supply plan. Davies would go to 9 Platoon on Flat Top in the carrier driven by Pop, drop the rations and return immediately. Percy and I would go to 8 Platoon on Mosque Hill and do likewise. I did not like it. Flat Top was closer and the carrier was well protected. Our truck had open sides and a flimsy canvas hood. The journey was up a precipitous tree-covered track. But I kept my mouth shut.”
“We set off at the same time in opposite directions. The wire around E Company Headquarters was pulled back and closed behind. Davies, in the carrier driven by a last-minute volunteer, wended its noisy way up the path to Flat Top that I had negotiated two days before on my mule. They stopped at the top, shouted and dumped the rations. As they returned to Company Headquarters, they came under fire. Nobody was there to open the wire to let them back into the base. The driver jumped out, started pulling back the wire and was killed. Davies managed to open the wire but was wounded and taken prisoner. Pop drove through the gap, jumped out and scurried to the nearest slit trench. The Germans took advantage of the gap in the wire and poured through. The fighting on Hadj hill was to go on for three hours.”
“Percy and I, meanwhile, had driven down the main track from headquarters and out on to the road past a 25-pounder battery which was firing. We turned right and took the winding path up to Mosque Hill. There was shooting and tracer flashed before us. We arrived at the bottom of the steep hill, surmounted by the mosque, and shouted, ‘Your rations are here!’ We dumped them on the ground. Percy turned the truck smartly and hurried back towards Hadj hill. More tracer was flying about. I ordered Percy to stop and, armed with a couple of grenades and our rifles, we prepared to sell ourselves dearly.”
“We did not have a clear field of fire and could see little more than the bushes about 50 yards to our front. I was going to move forward when the undergrowth in front of us started to shake violently. I shouted a warning to Percy and we were preparing to open fire when a goat’s head followed by about 20 others broke through the shrubs followed by a young lad. I tried to speak to him but he understood only Arabic. It was evidence that we were safe and we decided to head back to Hadj. On our way, we stopped close to a battery of 25-pounders. I tried to obtain information from them but they had none. There was a lot of firing from the direction of Hadj, evidence that E Company Headquarters was under attack. I told Percy to wait while I went up the back way to Portee Hill. I started to climb the slight rise and was immediately fired upon. I took cover, slid down the slope and walked back. When I arrived at where Percy had been parked, I found that he had gone. I asked the gunners what had happened and they said that I had been so long Percy had turned the truck and driven in the direction of El-Aroussa.”
“I started to walk to the wadi where the BHQ was located, A dispatch rider approached. I flagged him down and he gave me a lift. I reported to the Adjutant, who took me to the Commanding Officer. I described my morning. He said that it was very confused and he had no information about E Company or its transport. Noting that I was armed, he told me to join the thin line of cooks, clerks and Provost Sergeants who were manning the Headquarters’ defences. I fired a few rounds in the direction of the enemy but I was out of range of the Germans and probably did no damage.”
The German assault developed. G Company in the centre was attacked around the same time as E Company. They lost two hills but held Castle Hill amid heavy fighting. F Company held positions around Stuka Farm for the whole day. Desperate measures were taken in BHQ where Ted now was.
“Conroy formed a fighting party, consisting of himself as section leader, CSM Billy Girvin, Colour Sergeant Dann, Provost Sergeant Andy Gardiner, the Cook Sergeant, a couple of clerks and myself. We were to advance well spread out and endeavour to help G Company on Castle Hill in the battalion’s centre. It was hard pressed and in danger of being overrun. I had started to move off when RSM Reid roared. ‘Colour Sergeant O’Sullivan, you are wanted by the Commanding Officer.’ Conroy said: ‘You’d better go.’ Thankfully, I ran to the Commanding Officer’s truck where he told me that he had contacted E Company at last and that they had withdrawn a couple of miles from Hadj and were dug in on a hill. They needed ammunition and I was to go with the RSM to find them as he was not certain of the position.”
“I went back down the track, past the guns once more. I suggested that E Company had probably withdrawn to the west from Hadj. I might find them by going cross-country while Reid carried on by the track. This worked until I reached a steep cliff. On the top, I could see movement. I clambered up, feeling terribly exposed, and there was E Company. ‘I thought you were dead.’ was the greeting. Some time later, Reid turned up with the guide sent to find him. What was left of E Company was a motley collection: survivors of 7 Platoon who had several casualties, Company Headquarters’ personnel and the drivers. Later, we were joined by Corporal Butler of Intelligence, who had been on Flat Top, with two prisoners. As the light failed, Captain Costello said: ‘Rosie and Donnelly follow me. We are going to the guns where you were this morning.’ Most unusual form of address, I thought, as he had hitherto used only my rank. The three of us walked once more down the familiar track towards the scene of the day’s fighting. The guns were not firing and the darkness was impenetrable. Costello kept saying: ‘You’re lost, boy. Admit it.’ I refuted these suggestions and walked on steadily. We were close to our goal when he turned and said: ‘You’re lost,’and walked back the way we had just come.”
“As soon as Costello arrived at the company’s new position, he called an ‘O’ Group where he announced that we would advance to Dejeilla station and there take up defensive positions. It was in fact more accurate to say we were going to retire as the station was miles away from the fighting and on the Bou Arada to El-Aroussa road to the west. By this time, it was pouring with rain and we trudged along unhappily, hungry and soaked to the skin. Upon arrival at the station, Costello ordered the NCOs to take up defensive positions with their men.”
Hadj had fallen to the Germans during the fighting on 26 February. At first light on 27 February, the hill was heavily shelled and a counterattack begun. E Company advanced.
“At dawn the next morning, an officer from battalion ordered Lieutenant Lyness, who had commanded the transport detachment, to march E Company back to Hadj and there to counter attack and retake the hill which never should have been evacuated. Once more I trudged the familiar track. How many miles had I walked in the last 24 hours? The company formed up, attacked and re-took the hill but found it was occupied by only the dead, both German and British. The 25-pounders had blasted the hill with open sights and driven the enemy off.”
“For many weeks after the battle, you could smell Hadj from almost a mile away. The stench of death was all pervading. Using an old towel, I cleaned the pieces of flesh which clung to the branches of the trees. We buried our dead with honour but not the enemy who were interred without ceremony.”
“F Company at Stuka Farm and G Company on Castle Hill had gallantly clung to their precarious positions while a detachment of Irish Fusiliers had protected the guns. I heard what happened to the section led by Captain Conroy which I almost joined. Sergeant Andy Gardiner and one other had been killed. CSM Girvin, Conroy, Colour Sergeant Dann and two others had been wounded. Dann’s condition was so serious he was later discharged. Conroy never returned. Later he would be Sir Diarmid Conroy, a famous judge. Billy Girvin was to come back to the battalion later.”
Ted counted the personal cost of the two Bou Arada battles. He had lost some close friends and valued colleagues.
“Two wonderful Provost Sergeants who had been my friends had been lost. Dennis Griffin, the boxing champion who took over my platoon when I transferred to R Company before we left Scotland, had been killed on Point 286. Andy Gardiner died on 26 February. George Rock — the indomitable, ever faithful, perfect soldier, adversary yet friend — died leading his platoon. G Company Sergeant Gerry Teague distinguished himself yet was never decorated. He spoke of George’s heroism with tears in his eyes.”
The senior NCO who had reverted to Corporal after Point 286 had been transferred to HQ Company to be reduced to the rank of rifleman and despatched from the Regiment after another loss of nerve on 26 February. Ted was stingingly critical of the small number who had broken under pressure. In hindsight, it is fairer to examine the circumstances the battalion was in. The London Irish had been at the centre of a big German push. Two German battalions supported by tanks had broken through to the right of the battalion’s line and threatened ‘Y’ Division’s headquarters at El-Aroussa. They were eventually repulsed. The Germans withdrew on 27 February. They were completely expelled 36 hours later.
“Captain Curry of the Toronto Scottish took over as E Company Commander and we were moved to Stuka Farm where F Company had held the Hermann Goerring Division on 26 February. We encountered a smell similar to that on Hadj. I looked around and found a badly-interred body that was partly exposed. I discovered it was the decomposed remains of my old friend Ian Brooks who had been promoted F Company CSM after the battle for Point 286. We rolled his corpse in a blanket and tied the remains into a tidy bundle before reburying him in a marked grave. I remembered vividly his words the previous November when he read our palms: ‘If I live beyond my early 20s, I will live to an old age.’ Ian had wished me luck as he thought my chances of survival were slim. He left a young wife in Wales and a baby he had never seen.”
“On 15 March, we were relieved by the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment and moved to a pleasant position on a hillside. There were some tents. A few reinforcements arrived from an assortment of regiments, and I interviewed each man with the Company Clerk Flavell. I overheard one new man say: ‘Who’s the little bloke. He seems to have a lot to say.’ Flavell replied: ‘That’s our colour sergeant. Never wears his stripes.’”
At the end of March, the London Irish were withdrawn to a rest area to lick its many wounds. Having lost so many officers, NCOs and Riflemen, the London Irish was a pale shadow of what it had been at the start of 1943. But a suggestion that the battalion should be disbanded was dismissed. New officers were introduced. On 18 March, Lieutenant Colonel TPD (Thomas) Scott of the Faughs took over as Battalion Commander from Jeffreys. Major APK (Kevin) O’Connor, a graduate of Jesus College Cambridge, was made Second-in-Command. A new RSM replaced Buff Reid.
“To our surprise, it was George Irish, who had been CSM of R Company when I had been its CQMS. He had remained in Scotland when we embarked and came out with reinforcements. He visited me and when he approached I stood to attention and said: ‘Good morning, Sir.’ He immediately turned on me and said: ‘I don’t like the way you said, Sir, Colour Sergeant.’ I was nonplussed. We had been friends a long time and had always addressed the other by nicknames. Now he was RSM, I could not presume on a former friendship. Irish was eventually replaced as RSM by Billy Girvin, the E Company CSM who had been wounded in the February fighting and probably should have had the job in the first place.”
“We were moved to a place we called ‘Happy Valley’ which was located behind the lines in the mountains north of Tebourba. A sergeants’ mess took over a semi-ruined building. I hardly knew anyone except a few Colour Sergeants and some HQ types. The companies were spread across the valley and were living in camouflaged tents.”
“Early in our stay, I went with Percy Forde to collect the company’s rations. Coming back along the road, our way was blocked by a carrier that had lost a track. I had to get back to supervise the preparation of meals. Percy said: ‘There’s a way across the hills.’ I asked, ‘Do you know it?’ He said something like: ‘I think so.’ I was in his hands. We turned round and made our way across the hills. He stopped because a deep valley was in front of us. I alighted and was on the point of saying: ‘Go back.’ Forde got out but failed to apply the brakes. The truck slithered down the hill and turned turtle at the bottom.”
“The next morning, I was marched before Colonel Scott escorted by two Sergeants. I believe the Transport Officer read the charge: ‘While on active service and in charge of an army vehicle, you allowed it to be in a hazardous situation, whereby it crashed and was destroyed’, or words to that effect. I stated my case which was that I was not a driver. Scott gave me a severe reprimand and I was marched out. Percy was punished by being returned to duty as a Rifleman, which, in his case, was a sentence of death (he was killed on 5 August 1943 during the assault on German positions around Mount Etna in Sicily). I was unhappy for us both, as it had been just bad luck, although Percy had been careless. I heard that field commissions were being awarded. Sergeant of 7 Platoon Jimmy White said he and I were on the list of candidates. I immediately saw E Company Commander Captain Curry and told him that if my name was on the list to remove it. Jimmy, Jack Suffolk, Jimmy Baker and Eddie Hogan MM were gazetted as subalterns. Bill Nagle was sent home for officer’s training and was commissioned. Jimmy was killed leading his platoon in their first action in Italy.”
The battle for Tunisia shifted to the south. Britain’s 8th Army attacked the Mareth Line which blocked the approach to Tunis from Libya. The offensive started on 16 March and the line was finally breached 10 days later. The American Army at the same time pounded the north-south German line around its centre in an offensive that lasted until early April. By the start of the second week of the month, the German-Italian defensive line had contracted to a ring around Tunisia. Plans were laid for the final Allied attack. The Irish Brigade returned to the front to join the offensive that was planned to make a decisive breakthrough. E Company, rested and reinforced, was now under the command of Major Lofting.
“During March, we were told that the brigade had been transferred to the 78th Infantry Division. It included men from all over the UK and Eire and became, according to military historian General Horrockes, the finest infantry division in the British Army. Its symbol was the golden battleaxe of Stirling. We would fight in battle with tanks driven by Irish, Canadians, South Africans, Scots, Welsh and English.”
“The brigade once more entered the line refreshed from its rest and captured Djebel Mahdi with little loss. From there, we took over positions around Bettiour, a rocky hill about five miles north of Medjez-el-Bab. As usual, I brought up supplies but, unusually, was required to do so during the day. On my first trip, I left the cooks and their kitchen equipment well below the skyline. After about two days, I discovered that they had moved and had built a cookhouse just below the crest of the hill.”
“I sent a runner to E Company Commander Major Lofting to tell him I was reluctant to bring my string of mules carrying supplies over the skyline. The runner came back with a message that more or less suggested that I was chicken. I argued no more and led the mules as directed. We had no sooner neared the approach to our cookhouse when a salvo of shells was dropped on us. I shouted: ‘Duck,’ and threw myself on the ground, where a shallow trench had been started. The six inches of cover it offered saved me. Most of the mules were killed or wounded. The Rifleman, who I was escorting, was dead and half my muleteers were wounded. The shelling was seen from BHQ and they said: ‘Rosie’s bought it.’ Lofting later had the grace to admit he was wrong and had the cooks moved back out of sight. I think BHQ put it all down to my carelessness, rather than an order. After that close shave, I became much more wary.”
The London Irish were ordered to advance on the night of 15 April. They took up positions on Bettiour and Madouna, hills north of Medjez-el-Bab, and held them for several days under spasmodic mortar and artillery fire. The plan called for attacks along the entire Allied 100-mile front. The 78th Division was to make the final push into the mountains west of Tunis in preparation for an armoured breakthrough along the Medjez el-Bab road to the Tunisian capital. The Irish Brigade was ordered to take the hills of Tanngoucha and The Kefs and the village of Heidous. The London Irish were allocated the task of attacking Heidous. The attack was planned for the evening of 22 April. “At 545pm, an enormous barrage, which was the most concentrated I had experienced, was laid down on the targets. F Company and G Company made their way down the rocky rear slope of Bettiour. F Company formed up around the outskirts of Heidous and advanced towards the village under murderous machine gun and sniper fire. The forward platoons were held up and the reserve platoon under Sergeant Norman attacked from the right. There was utter confusion. E Company was ordered to support F. Meanwhile, G Company had experienced a setback and their commander was wounded. They had gained their objective but retired at dawn as they had received no support.”
“The remnants of F Company laid low until dawn and then withdrew. E Company returned to Bettiour. The Faughs and Skins had with difficulty and great bravery attained their objectives. The following night, E Company scrambled down from Bettiour and I followed immediately with my mules. It was eerie making our way by the light of the fires still burning in Heidous. As we entered it, all was silent and we passed lines of three or four dead London Irishmen led by an NCO with their weapons in front of them. I saw a Sergeant leaning back against the wall of a hut. I did not recognise him. He had no head. We had taken Heidous, home to the villagers who had scratched a living from the bare soil. It could not have been strategically important as it was only a small mound on the rear slope of Bettiour. Tanngoucha and Le Kefs had also all been taken. Longstop Hill, which commanded the road from Medjez-el-Bab to Tebourba was captured after a hard fight.”
The Irish Brigade had helped break what was called the Siegfried Line of Tunisia. But there was still work to be done.
“We now set about clearing the last few hills. I went up to the company with a string of mules. Once more, Lofting refused to return the animals. I made my way back to the mule-point on my own. As I was crossing a stream in a valley, I was caught in a salvo of shells. My first instinct was to get down, but I took shelter in a hollow behind a group of rocks where I joined the illustrious company of the Battalion’s Commanding Officer Colonel Scott, Brigadier Russell and the Divisional Commander (General Evelegh). I felt safe but was very demoralised as I had a narrow escape. In a lull in the shellfire, two more soldiers rushed into our ‘funk-hole’. One was wounded and the Commanding Officer had to prompt me into using my field dressing on him. The brass left us. After recovering a little more courage, I made my way back to mule-point where I received my usual dressing down for leaving my mules. The brigadier’s driver Rifleman Harry McRory had been killed sheltering by his jeep which he had halted by the stream.”
“Young officers had the power of life and death over the men they commanded. Although I genuinely liked Major Lofting, I found that he could be very arrogant. If he had allowed the mules to return, I might have been in the valley with them and the result would have been disastrous. Probably, however, I would not have been anywhere near the place. He had endangered me in the skyline incident and a few days earlier had called an ‘O’ Group alongside a mountain path in full view of the enemy and we were shelled. The first round was either a dud or armour piercing. It landed a yard from us but failed to explode. If it had gone off, there would have been three officers, a sergeant major, a colour sergeant and a sergeant, all dead or wounded. Lofting always said ‘Sorry’ after.”
“For the next few days, I followed closely behind E Company as it advanced. Our water problem was alleviated when I discovered a cistern in a fold of the hills used for watering cattle that we never saw. I was filling a jerry can there when two large, bareheaded Germans approached with their hands up and shouting: ‘kamerad.’ Using soldier’s language, I told them to go away which they reluctantly did. Since neither my truck driver nor I were armed as our weapons were in the truck, they could have easily captured or shot us. Probably, they were just tired or hungry. I hope that they managed to surrender before any of their compatriots caught up with them (desertion from the Germany Army was always punished by death by shooting). The brigade had cleared all the accessible areas in the mountains west of Tunis. They were withdrawn from the line for rest and reinforcement. The 78th Division continued the push towards Tunis. By the evening of 7 May, its armour reached the city’s outskirts.”
“The Irish Brigade was given the distinction of being the first marching troops into Tunis. The London Irish entered the town in buses through the crossroads at La Mornaghia. A senior officer in immaculate uniform stood beside his jeep. It was the ‘boss’, General Sir Harold Alexander. Debussing at the entrance of the city, the battalion marched in single file along both sides of the road. I remained in my three-tonner, which soon became be-decked with flowers. The men were garlanded, kissed and cheered by the French colons, who were relieved the war was over for them with little damage to their home.”
“Tunis was a beautiful French colonial city with a native quarter, the kasbah. The latter would remain out of bounds to British soldiers. The London Irish had the task of clearing the docks. When this was finished, E Company assembled at a caravanseri just outside Tunis. Here we bivouacked. The camels had left but their fleas had not. A few cans of AL63 insecticide were shared among the men. Some who were too enthusiastic in their use of it discovered to their cost the effect it had on parts where they perspired. We were soon moved to billets in the suburbs which to us were the height of luxury. One platoon was in a house that was the terminus of the undersea cable to southern France and Italy. As I arrived to issue rations, I was greeted with an explosion from within. A man was brought out covered in blood. The apparatus had been booby-trapped. I immediately took him to hospital where I handed him over to the nuns and left him to their care.”
“Very close to our billet was a lovely little Catholic Church whose parishioners welcomed ‘Les Irlandais’. Tunis had large Italian and Maltese populations as well as French and Berbers. We subsequently moved into bivouacs outside the town and it was pleasant as the weather was quite warm. The enemy had been cleared from the Cap Bon area and parties of enemy prisoners were seen marching in good order followed by a truck containing a military policeman with a rifle. You could easily distinguish between the Italians and the Germans. The Italians seemed to have their personal possessions in small attache cases.”
“We spent a few days at Hammamet, a beautiful but deserted seaside village, but had to move because of the shortage of food. The Army had a quarter of a million prisoners to feed. Our rations had been reduced and we received just one slice of bread in the morning plus one other. The rest of the ration was meagre.”
The British Army had learned many bitter lessons from the First World War including about the fact that every man has a breaking point. In the Great War, desertion in the face of the enemy was treated harshly and many were executed by firing squad. It was, however, slowly learned that even the bravest men can lose their nerve after being exposed repeatedly to danger and seeing others die horribly and in agony. The concept of Shell Shock was developed to encompass cases of soldiers who had suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of coming under bombardment. As a result, desertion was treated more leniently in the Second World War and no soldier was sentenced to death during the conflict. Nevertheless, military discipline, at least initially, was firm and sometimes inhumane and Ted was to see with his own eyes.
“Close to Headquarters was a camp enclosed by barbed wire. It held men who were awaiting trial by Field General Court Martial. It included those who had been wounded and returned too quickly. Others had been brave and good leaders and had just cracked. One Liverpool Irishman had been wounded in the head at Point 286, hospitalised and sent back as ‘cured’. All he did was to try to report sick because no one had taken any notice of his headache. I gave evidence in his favour at his subsequent court martial but he still was sentenced to a year in a detention barracks. Another, Ginger Poynter, was formerly in my section. One of the smartest men in the company, he was made Sanitation Orderly, a responsible job in England but more so in sub-tropical weather. After Point 286, he was promoted to full Corporal for his heroism in battle when he led his platoon out of a dangerous situation. He also distinguished himself on 26 February on Castle Hill. There were few survivors from the battles in which the battalion had taken part. The four rifle companies bore the brunt. Poynter had reverted to Rifleman from Corporal and, when called for more front line duty, had just walked to the rear areas. Unfortunately, the rest of his section, mainly reinforcements, copied him. He was sentenced to three years imprisonment which he served in Barlinnie jail and then compelled to finish another two years Army service.”
On 12 May 1943, Mussolini had authorised the surrender of Italy’s 1st Army. Those Germans that had not left Tunisia for Sicily laid down their arms. The Axis as a result lost more men in Tunisia than they did at Stalingrad at the start of 1943. This was a tremendous victory that lifted the spirits of the Allies and caused consternation among their enemies. For Mussolini, dictator of the kingdom of Italy, it was a blow from which he was not to recover. His army had suffered another defeat after the disasters in Abyssinia, Egypt and Libya. About 200,000 Italian soldiers had already been killed fighting on the Eastern Front against the Soviet Union. Powerful people in Italy began to plot Mussolini’s downfall. In Tunis, a victory parade was held at on Thursday 20 May 1943. Ted was there.
“I insisted on joining it as I was one of the few survivors of the company that had landed at Algiers the previous November. As we approached the saluting stand, we could see Eisenhower, Alexander and the Free French Commander General Giraud. An American film cameraman shouted: ‘Getta load of this!’ as he saw our saffron kilted pipers and the caubeens with their green and blue hackles. The detachment of London Irish Riflemen wore the only hackles that could be found among the few hundred survivors from the Tunisian campaign.”
“High above the city of Tunis, and dominating the skyline, were the twin white towers of one of the oldest basilicas of the Catholic Church. Close by were the ruins of a great Roman city. It had been built on the site of Carthage, Hannibal’s capital, which had been destroyed after the 2nd Punic war. The Catholics of the 78th Division marched to a Mass of Thanksgiving and Remembrance. Leading the division were the Pipes and Drums of the Skins, the Faughs and the London Irish Rifles. I again was the only Colour Sergeant from the battalion. To me, these parades were a duty I never avoided. It was both a pleasure and a privilege to march behind the pipes.”
“My main prayers, apart from thanksgiving for survival, were for the repose of the souls of my many comrades and friends: Denis Griffin and Andy Gardiner, the gentle Provost Sergeants; George Rock and Ian Brooks; Captain Carrigan; Snootch McDowell, whom I escorted to his death, and Harry McRory. I thought of the hundreds of others from the battalion who had died, were missing or had been wounded. I also remembered those I had helped to bury, without due prayer, both friend and foe. What a waste. I also thought of myself and my constant terror which I had successfully hidden, except once when it showed in my eyes. I was with Doc Samuels, our beloved Medical Officer, who grasped my wrist and reassured me. My biggest fear was to show that fear to others. I had tried to serve my fellows and to act as their mother: feeding them, clothing them, finding them somewhere to rest, giving them comfort and often listening to their worries and fears for their families. From them, I received affection which was close to love.”
“I was proud of them and, at times, I think they were proud of me. A Company Quartermaster’s job was no sinecure, nor was it a safe, secure little number in the stores, somewhere behind the line. It was physically and mentally exhausting. It was dangerous.Often, the company would make an assault and I would have to negotiate the same route and undertake the same hazards for several days. Apart from the perils of being the target for guns, mortars and small arms, it involved sheer hard work, lack of sleep and no form of comfort. When the company rested, my work continued and often increased.”
Ted’s entire family was now at war.
“We moved back into the Atlas Mountains to Guelma through which we had passed months before. Here we encamped in proper tents. Letters from home were the main comfort and I was kept abreast of the news. I learnt from one that Nellie, although seriously ill from tuberculosis, had in desperation discharged herself from the sanatorium and was improving in her own home. Danny, now qualified as an RAF gunner, had been posted to India. Tom was an Armourer in the RAF. Billy was serving on Aircraft Carriers in the Royal Navy and Bernard was settled in Newquay at the Rotherhithe Nautical School where he was living at the headmaster’s house. Other news was supplied by a friend, Joan Wyatt, who lived in Branksome Road and on whom I had a long-distance crush. Maggie Levey from the club had the Catholic weekly newspaper ‘The Universe’ sent to me all the time I was overseas. My other comfort was reading my multum in parva, the anthology of verse I always carried with my missal in my small kit.”
“I wrote often to a variety of people. I was unable to tell anyone where I was. My mother had her first clue when I asked for Mass to be said for my dead friends, but I unexpectedly met a relation while I was in Tunis. A motor cyclist jumped off his machine and ran to me. He took off his crash helmet and I recognised him as my cousin Mike Hanlon. He was a sergeant in the Reconnaissance Regiment of the 46th Division which had joined the 1st Army earlier in the year. He realised that we had both experienced a rough time and was overjoyed to see me intact.”
“During rest periods, I initiated company concerts which were camp fires at which the men drank NAAFI beer to which was added hot grog made from rum that I had ‘fiddled’ from the rations made more palatable with sugar and hot water. The officers and NCOs attended. Rifleman Swift kept things moving. He composed songs and parodies which included in their verses impolite references to officers and others in our formation. One verse in the favourite parody was aimed at me and went like this: ‘If Rosie did his deed and gave the chaps a ******* feed etc’. The men would get gloriously drunk and be put to bed by the officers and NCOs. The concerts lifted morale and blunted the memory. They provided temporary relief. Swift, our Master of Ceremonies during our sing-a-longs, died fighting in Italy in November.”
“We bivouacked in a field outside Sousse on the coast south of Tunis while we waited for our next task. The weather was beautiful and we slept on the ground. I used a company stretcher for comfort. After a heavy night at the mess, I rolled into my stretcher after removing my boots and shorts. The next morning, I drew on my shorts and immediately felt an excruciating pain in my buttocks. I jumped up, pulled off my shorts and shook them. Out jumped a large scorpion. I jumped on it and killed it. The pain by now was intense. I called the transport corporal and asked him to drive me to the medical officer. I could not sit on the seat of the jeep, so lay on my stomach. I was taken straight into Doc Samuels who lanced the sting and put in some antiseptic crystals. He uttered some comforting words like: ‘You won’t die but you’ll be very sore for a few days.’ The week following, we had many ‘O’ Groups where Major Lofting invited all to squat on the grass: ‘Except the Colour Sergeant, who prefers to stand.’”
“One sunny day, the battalion was paraded on the beach in company formation. We were to be inspected. A jeep drove up and, standing in its front, was the small but commanding figure of General Montgomery. The jeep halted some way away and Monty remained standing. Beckoning us with his hands, he said in his slightly shrill voice: ‘Gather round chaps.’ Bemused, we encircled his jeep. ‘Take your caubeens off. That’s better, I can see what you look like. Where do the best soldiers come from?’ There were many replies but the majority shouted Ireland. ‘That’s right, Ireland!. What part?’. ‘Derry’ was the reply from some. ‘You’re right.’ He then gave us a pep talk about us invading Sicily and ‘…meeting your old friends, the Hermann Goering Regiment.’ He obviously was cognisant with our brushes with that formation. He drove off to deafening cheers. Without doubt, he was a master of Public Relations and morale building.”
“I then made a new acquaintance that was to last the rest of the war. A morose Corporal with white stripes and wearing an ACC badge reported to me. He said: ‘I am to be your Corporal Cook.’ I asked him his name. ‘James Sadler,’ he replied. He told me that he had been in charge of the Divisional Headquarters’ mess where he had cooked for officers up to General. Mystified, I asked him why he had been posted to a rifle company. He explained that he had been engaged in a long-running duel with the Divisional Catering Officer. The culmination was when the officer discovered grit had penetrated the Divisional Commander’s food during a Sirocco. Sadler’s punishment was to be sent to the point of most danger: the front line. James had been a chef for the GWR’s excellent restaurant car service and had been the chef at the 48th Divisional Mess in France in 1939 and 1940. He had fed a French president and other notables. Jim and I were to become intimates and firm friends. He was the finest infantry cook in the British Army. He soon wore his caubeen with pride. Invariably, all attached personnel would ask permission to wear our badge and headdress.”
“The Sirocco was very troublesome and the cooks had problems keeping food covered when high winds blew over equipment in their open-air kitchens. The canopies of the assembled motor vehicles, often securely tied down, would fly away in the wind. Jim coped and showed what he could do with army rations for a company of over 100 men. I could not eat with the men. I had to take food at the Sergeants’ Mess and often looked with envy at the men’s portions. One thing was sacrosanct in Sadler’s running of the company kitchen: there must be no interference with the men’s rations. That included no extra cups of tea for anyone. I broke the rule once when I gave one to a priest who had fasted from midnight.”
“When there was a change in Company Commander, I had to explain why there would be no ‘Just a cup of tea for the Company Commander.’ As a result of Jim’s efforts, E Company was well-fed and watered with four pints of tea each day. Meals of roast meat with Yorkshire pudding were common. Morale was lifted. The Company Commander boasted that he had the best-fed company in the army. I basked in the respect of both officers and men for declaring that rations were sacrosanct. I used every wile to maximise and ‘wangle’ extras for my boys. But there was still a war to fight. We would be soon shaking the sand of Africa off our feet for good and returning to Europe, but not England.”