Nelson Russell’s account starts when the Irish Brigade were preparing for their journey to Algiers. It ends on 8th May 1943 at the end of the Tunisian campaign.
“The 6th Battalion The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 2nd Battalion London Irish Rifles and the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers were representatives of the new Territorial and Regular Armies. Each was a fine representative. In addition most of the men were volunteers.
We knew in October that preparations were being made for a “party”. Shipping was assembling at big ports, unit transport and equipment was being overhauled. All ranks were granted embarkation leave. But no one knew where we were going. And no one actually did know until the ships were two days at sea. It was a well kept secret. The “Skins”, London Irish and Brigade Headquarters set sail in mid November and the “Faughs” followed a fortnight later.
A big convoy at sea is an impressive sight and I will never forget it. We had a safe passage without interference from sea or air – which was admirable work, for by this time, the first landings had already been made – the “gaff” had been blown and ‘U’ boats were on the job.
A bright sunny morning about a week later saw us steaming into Algiers. It seemed very different weather to November in Scotland; but we found out that same night that it could rain very well in North Africa.
In ten days, we’d married up with our transport, and were on our way to the battle now about 450 miles away.
Not only were we glad to get there, but the original small force, the spearhead of which had been fighting hard for three weeks against daily increasing odds, was very glad to see us.
By the first week in December, the Inniskillings were in a supporting position on the Medjez-Teboursouk road, and the London Irish were in a back stop position on the Le Krib-Bou Arada road. These positions were about 12 miles apart, but this didn’t seem to worry anybody except the Brigade Commander with his Headquarters, like a floating kidney, in the middle of a great space.
At this time, the war was pretty fluid. There were certain well defined spots, lines of approach to Tunis and Bizerte where we had troops, and the Bosche was dug in. But in between were large gaps, practically uninhabited by either army, and which were loosely patrolled by both sides. We immediately took a hand in this long distance, offensive patrolling.
Maxwell of the Inniskillings and Ekin of the London Irish each took their companies to the Goubellat Plain and the Robaa – Pont Du Fahs road respectively in order to, if I remember the official jargon rightly, “Dominate the area by offensive action.” I don’t know whether we immediately dominated these areas – pretty green troops learning their job – and the Bosche had some eight wheeled armoured cars, which were businesslike; but both companies acquitted themselves well, had two or three cracks at the enemy and got more experience in a week then they’d have got in Scotland in a lifetime.
The remainder of us was getting experience in digging in – and competing with the ME 109. The latter wasn’t always easy to compete with and the Skins unfortunately lost their CO, Macartney-Filgate (wounded), and their IO, Carruthers (killed), in this unsatisfactory manner. I remember a good deal of academic discussion in these early days as to whether or not, one should fire at an enemy aeroplane – and wasn’t it better to lie ‘doggo’, and he wouldn’t see. How different it is now – with the academic period over. Everyone firing everything they’ve got at any enemy aeroplane, which appears. Even the cooks probably throwing their knives at ‘em!
‘Heaver’ Allen of the Royal Ulster Rifles took over command of the “Skins” – what a first class chap he was – and John McCann of the London Irish went to them as Second–in-Command. They were to make a very good combination.
But the enemy build up began to make itself felt – the less inhabited spots became more inhabited, and we soon found the Goubellat Plain, which we were dominating with a company, required, first a Battalion then two Battalions and finally three Battalions. About the middle of December, the remainder of the Inniskillings and the London Irish Rifles moved there, from positions, which were practically in reserve; and from that day and for many days, I never again saw reserves in North Africa. Everything had to be in the front window to meet the speedier build up of the enemy.
About 20th December, the “Faughs” arrived, under Pat Scott. They’d been slightly delayed by a collision and had put into Gib for repairs. It was good to see them – the Irish Brigade was now complete.
I had often wondered how the “Faughs” would fare. In Scotland, their Mess was always full of dogs and officers, both apparently determined to do nothing in the slightest manner; and even on the rather hard boiled Home Exercises, they held themselves aloof as possible from all training. I thought privately, that I was perhaps being a little over critical of my own regiment, that they were a slack lot of coots. But they weren’t slack at the real thing – the officers were good officers – and the Faughs “teething” troubles were practically non-existent. In fact, they immediately began to rather set about the Bosche. Of course, it was easier for them – a regular battalion with a good proportion of officers and men who had been in real fighting. But it was pleasant to see.
We were “teething” on pretty tough meat – a Para Troop Brigade of the Herman Goering Division.
Plans for the attack on Tunis on 24th December were now in full swing. As it didn’t come off, it is only interesting to note in passing, that the plan for the ‘final’ thrust – five months later – was almost identical – if you substitute ‘Brigade’ for Companies of Infantry and Squadrons of Tanks.
From Christmas Day – a rather wet and bloodsome day, but we received a dinner somehow – until mid January, the Brigade was in the vicinity of the Mahmoud Gap and patrolling a vast flat area known as the Goubellat Plain. And when I say “in the vicinity”, it has to be understood in the most generous terms. Frontages were large in these early days. It was no unusual thing for a Battalion to look after a 5 to 6 mile front. In fact, I have known my Brigade with the Irish Fusiliers on Sandy Ridge (5 miles south of Medjez), the London Irish in the Mahmoud Gap and the Inniskillings, just north of Bou Arada – 20 miles as the crow flies, but a good deal further when walking
But the Goubellat Plain was a war nursery. There, we first heard the zip of the bullet, the quick stutter of the Schmeisser- the whine of the shell, followed by its bark – and that bloodsome crump of the mortar, the most formidable of the lot. And all fired with malicious intent.
This change of “atmosphere” to most of our chaps was startling. The average “British soldier” is a quiet, decent chap. He’d been in uniform at home for quite a bit. He’d taken part in warlike exercises and been exerted to kill his enemy. He knew in an abstract way, that there was a war on somewhere and he’d doubtless take part in it. But he’d no idea: how could he know what “taking part” meant.
I feel sure that the first reaction of troops being fired on for the first time is “amazed surprise”. They can’t swallow the fact that there is somebody shooting at them with the actual intention of killing them. They feel that this can hardly be right or fair – somebody will get hurt if this kind of thing is allowed. And if they’ve taken part in enough Home Exercises, they probably look for an umpire to see if he can do anything about it.
However they soon get the big idea.
But back to our Nursery in the Goubellat Plain. Patrolling was the order of the day. Each night saw strong fighting patrols from the three Battalions sallying forth in search of Bosche.
The Goubellat Plain in running north and south was a belt of “No Man’s Land” – about three to four miles wide – bounded on the north by the village of Goubellat – and dotted with small French farms. The Brigade inhabited trenches on the high ground to the west and the Bosche that to the east.
Every week saw improved technique in our fighting and several spirited encounters took place on enemy positions and in the wadis and farms of the Plain. Nicholas Jefferies (“Faughs”), Page (“Skins”) and Grant (London Irish) distinguished themselves during this initial patrol period; the former coolly collecting samples from the stragglers of a Bosche Company; Page, fighting a courageous night and day action against heavy odds, including eight wheeled armoured cars; and Grant working his way 10 miles behind the Bosche lines, to upset the morale of an Enemy Headquarters.
About this time, prisoners told us that “we were very brave but not very good.” And I think this was fair criticism. But we were getting good.
In these early days, we also tried some 48 hour, long distance patrols. They paid a poor dividend and were discontinued. It was found that Arabs were liable to give away the day time “hide out.” The Arabs in this part of the world were pro Bosche to a man.
In addition to patrols, we also had some minor battles, on a company level. The “Faughs” carried out two, and the London Irish, one such exercise – they were actually like exercises on Salisbury Plain – and saw off bodies of the enemy who were getting inquisitive or getting too near our “back yard.”
In the first battle – Peter Murphy’s company chased a party of Bosche from Delaney’s Corner (we were getting decent names into Tunisia). It was a most successful little action which cost the enemy considerable casualties.
In the second, James Dunnill’s company, supported for the first time by American Artillery – good shots too – swept the ground clear round Sandy Ridge.
In the latter battle, John Lofting’s company of London Irish fought hard and gallantly to recover six bogged tanks – and only gave up when the tanks had been damaged beyond repair. This attack cost us a fair number of casualties.
It was three weeks of excellent war experience.
Patrols were now more business like. They knew what they had to do, the best way to do it, and the weapons to use for the job.
Companies had been in a fight – and as a result 3” mortar now came quickly into action – the Bren Gunner got a good position and his ammunition supply worked – the 2” mortar was fired in anger properly – and the Boyes Anti Tank Rifle was left behind. Moreover FOOs and the Company Commanders could get fire down quickly on a target.
I admit that academically all these things should be learnt in Home Soldiering. But it doesn’t happen that way.
The machinery was newly oiled and beginning to run well. A difficult, and slightly anxious, period was over. And a good thing too. There were strenuous days in store for us in the very near future.
During this Goubellat Plain era (Dec 15th – Jan 12th), the weather was extremely bad. Three out of five days saw heavy rain. The troops, in their slit trenches, were often up to their knees in water and roads, as we called the mud tracks in these parts, were quite unfit for men or machines. However there was no alternative – fit or not they had to be used. Rations, water and ammunition could usually, after very hard work, reach most Btn HQs on wheels, but thereafter it was a two/three mile carry to company areas in hills, which had no tracks at all.
It was hard work for Quarter Masters and all the MT drivers – fifteen to twenty miles from a supply point to Bttn HQs – in the pitch dark; no lights; sliding, skidding and bumping over tracks, which were only recognizable by their ruts two feet deep; night in, night out, all through the North African winter. It’s got to be done to be realised. The driver’s task was made slightly easier by a humourist – who’d previously issued us with sand tyres – repenting at a late hour and now issuing us with ordinary tyres plus chains. His repentance made it just possible to move at all.
The Bou Arada Period, January 12th to March 16th
The speedy build up of the enemy suddenly turned the Bou Arada Plain into a danger area. To date, our thrusts and the enemy’s counters, had been more or less limited to the coast road, Medjez-el-Bab area and the Goubellat road and it was, as much, and more, as our small force could do in comfort. In fact there was no comfort in it. Battalions being stretched to fantastic lengths.
However, the Bosche threatened Bou Arada and its gallant and sole defender Colonel S. with his two companies of French Colonial Troops.
I will always remember Colonel S. A small, bright, perky soldier, with a red face, and always a bright red waistcoat. He always reminded me of a cock robin. He was also somewhat of a disciplinarian. Once I saw one of his men busily engaged in digging a trench, where you would not expect it. I quizzed the Colonel on the bad field of fire. “Field of fire”, said the little man, raising both arms “He will have no field of fire at all. The earth will be on top of him at 6.30. He is a deserter.” And the matter was dismissed. Shades of Ramsay McDonald.
The Bou Arada Plain is about 2 miles long and of varying widths from 5 to 10 miles. In the middle runs the El Aroussa-Bou Arada-Pont Du Fahs road, one of the main roads to Tunis. It is bounded on the north by salt lakes and marshy country near to Pont Du Fahs; north of Tunis there is hilly country, later to become famous as Hen House, One, Two and Three Hills and (most famous of all) Grandstand, and between Bou Arada and El Aroussa is a great mass of precipitous, wooded mountains called the Djebel Rihane. On the south, there is a pretty irregular line of hills between Pont Du Fahs and El Aroussa. The most famous being perhaps the Djebel Mansour.
This valley, and the hills, was to be the home of the Irish Brigade for eight weeks. It was to stage two attacks on the enemy and to withstand two very determined major attacks. It was to be the scene of many patrols and local encounters with exploits of great gallantry. It was destined to be the last resting place of many good chaps.
But I anticipate. The Bosche “buildup” threatened Colonel S. and his companies – as well it might – the two companies without any kind of weapon heavier than an ancient musket.
A Tank Brigade went to their assistance – but it was infantry country and an infantry job, so the Inniskillings were thinned out of the Goubellat Plain and sent down to assist.
A plot was laid out for an immediate combined Tank and Infantry attack – and at first light on 13th January – the “Skins” took part in their first major battle to drive the Bosche off Two Tree Hill. The effort was handicapped by the heavy ground – it rained hard all night on 12/13th Jan – and by an even heavier enemy build up than could have been reasonably expected. It failed, but it did not fail by any lack of resolute fighting by the “Skins” – magnificent in their first action. The Tank Brigadier told us later (I was, at the time, 15 miles away with the other two Bttns) that he’d never seen men fight as well. But it cost them about 100 casualties including some very good officers.
This attack, though a failure, did get valuable information – the extremely heavy Bosche build up was evident, and it was clear that he meant big business.
The whole of the Irish Brigade was therefore ordered to concentrate in the northern Bou Arada Sector with instructions to attack and destroy this Bosche build up – a full scale party with the whole of the Divisional Artillery in support.
I remember these few days vividly: the recces, the planning, the conferences, the poring over maps, the cloth models, which we hoped represented enemy positions. The moves of infantry and guns to their concentration areas, the detailed orders for the attack, the distracting advice from the “higher ups”, which gets more frequent in the last stages of planning and usually begins, “Well, of course, old boy, it is your attack, but..”
However, I had never had 72 guns under my command before, and I meant to make the most of i
By 0200hrs on the 18th – final “pow wow” was over. It is a period well known to all Commanders – but it is an exhausting one and more wearing than the actual battle. The “Skins”, the “Faughs” and the London Irish were in their concentration areas – the Divisional artillery. The stage was set for a dawn attack on January 19th.
Having given orders that I wasn’t to be called for 12 hours – I believe my last coherent thought was “that Brigadiers were underpaid,” I was very wide awake four hours later. The Bosche attacked us instead at 6am on the 18th. This proved to be “a good thing.”
Our concentration of guns and infantry had been at stealth at night – and two Regiments of Artillery had been completely silent – thus when the Bosche advanced, he found infantry – where no infantry was expected – and he got a most unexpected blast from 7” guns. He was blown and shot to bits, and in addition to his heavy infantry casualties, he lost a large number of tanks. His build up had got a serious setback.
But what would have happened to the poor Colonel S. and his two French Colonial companies – if the Bosche attack had been a week earlier? I don’t even wonder.
This second battle of Bou Arada (the “Skins” attack being the first) went on muttering and spluttering for several days, with the London Irish on the right holding the communications with Bou Arada; the “Skins” holding the centre, based on Grandstand; and the “Faughs” holding the northern and left flank based on Stuka Farm. The Brigade Command Post was initially at Stuka Farm – but during the next few days, while the farm was earning its name – moved with discretion to a deep slit trench 300 yards further south.
I was very much struck with the general coolness and collectedness of the Brigade in action – on their first really big occasion. All reporting officers gave the most startling (to me, at any rate) information in the most matter of fact manner. They were much less perturbed than on a Home Exercise such as Dryshod – I wonder if it is the absence of umpires.
I well remember John McCann of the “Skins” reported so pleasantly and quietly over the blower. “From where I stand, I can now see 16 enemy tanks. I think that they are advancing towards us – Wait, I now see 19 enemy tanks – Wait, I now see 24 enemy tanks – Wait, I now see 28 enemy tanks – they are at 7691, and advancing on our positions. Over.” Or Heaver Allen – that good chap in a tight corner, with his harsh, cool voice commencing “Situation Report”, and continuing without falter, although I could hear the dull crump of mortars, which must have been falling practically on top of him. And Pat Scott – fresh from a hurried jump for a slit trench in a Stuka attack – with an enormous and growing black eye – grunting “I wasn’t quick enough it. Blast it.” These are small sidelights, but the memory of them sticks. It also made my job very simple.
During the muttering and spluttering period – we raided the Bosche position pretty constantly, and carried out a good many local attacks, sometimes with the assistance of tanks. The latter were, however, indeterminate and unsatisfactory affairs, and costly in good officers. I was unable to estimate their value until I hear what the Bosche reaction really was. It may be that they kept him cowed, on the defensive, and unable to reorganise quickly for another crack. That was the idea. But it requires definite and remarkable results to balance – if such things can be balanced – the loss of such good chaps as Peter Murphy and John Barstow of the “Faughs”, and Hooper of the “Skins”. The latter, the victim of the Bosche, who threw up his hands prior to throwing a grenade. I watched the whole affair – it was tragic to see it at 1000 yards range and not be able to shout advice. Poor Hooper had arrived only two days before and had not had time to find out the Bosche’s peculiar method of warfare. Peter Murphy was killed leading his company most gallantly, as of course he would. The damage was done by a MG range 10 yards. Peter was a great loss, and to me, a personal one.
The muttering and rumbling also included a great many Stuka attacks, Extraordinary and frightening affairs, with surprisingly poor (for the enemy) results. Once you’ve had one or two, you settle down for the next one in a slit trench feeling that you’ll be every unlucky if you and the bombs connect. At the same time, the sense of expectancy remains (with no certainty).
If we add to this, fairly consistent and accurate artillery fire, with Bosche patrols on the prowl, and a small but constant, daily casualty list, you’ve got the idea of the muttering and rumbling period. It lasted perhaps five days.
We are rapidly approaching the Third Battle of Bou Arada, a bloody battle, in which the London Irish so greatly distinguished themselves, but at almost crippling cost.
This battalion was guarding our Line of Communication – a lateral road from Bou Arada to Grandstand. The Bosche was quick to see this weakness and occupied a hill (Point 286) in strength, 1000 yards from our Line of Communication, from where he could observe, machine gun, mortar or shell our lifeline. It was unpleasant situation and the London Irish were ordered to clear the Bosche off the hill and to prevent its reoccupation.
The 2nd Battalion, The London Irish Rifles was a fine battalion – first class officers and NCOs – and god men, all as keen as mustard. They had been working together for three years. They possessed a good “feel”, they were proud of their battalion, as they had every right to be.
They attacked with great spirit, and after heavy fighting drove the enemy from Point 286. But then came the trying time. It was practically impossible to dig in on the hard, rocky slopes and all through the day they were subjected to heavy artillery and extremely accurate mortar fire. This fine battalion refused to be shelled off the position. What they had, they held, but at heavy cost. I never hope to see a battalion fighting and enduring more gallantry. Nor do I want to witness again such heavy casualties.
The job was done. The Bosche had been driven off Point 286 – our Line of Communication with Bou Arada was safe. The London Irish had restored a situation, which was more than critical.
For the next three or four weeks, the situation became more or less static and unchanged. We occupied Points 286 and 279, Grandstand and the Stuka Farm areas and the Bosche held Barka, Mehalla, and One, Two, Three and Wog Hills. Although conditions were static – it was close contact with the enemy at varying distances of 300-1000 yards. Everyone was under constant mortar fire, and there was the daily train of casualties. Also there was no relief. That was the trying bit of it – no relief. For some seven and eight weeks, the Brigade had been in contact – the men were living in slit trenches – in rain or sun – eating, sleeping and being in a slit trench – and no relief. There were no troops to relieve us with. The First Army was stretched to the limit. The only thing that could be done was to change over our front line battalions with another front line battalion – but this didn’t give us a great change of scenery.
Now the Brigade was a fighting machine. Patrols were well planned and well run. Small local actions were skillfully fought. We really were “dominating” the Bosche. The Skins, during this period, practically annihilated the Marsch Battalion A 24 (which had come along to help the Herman Goering boys) and the Faughs gave the latter some very unpleasant times.
Bosche tactics are interesting. When we first arrived in the Goubellat Plain as “new boys” and he attacked a platoon or a company – he gave the most bloodcurdling yells, fired verey lights, tracer and generally behaved like a lunatic who’d once been apprenticed to Fred Carne’s circus. I suppose he worked it all out with painstaking care – this was psychologically the method to scare “new boys”. In Bou Arada, he had promoted us, we were no longer “new boys” – he didn’t yell anymore, unless he’d been hit.
Although we didn’t know it, we were rapidly approaching the climax of our Bou Arada days and the date of its fourth battle.
Mid February saw much movement and change – to meet the Bosche thrust in the Kasserine. One result was to leave a scratch force in the Bou Arada plain – to be known as ‘Y’ Division, consisting of the Irish Brigade, the Paratroop Brigade, a French battalion and adequate artillery. Lack of competition placed me in command of this outfit and Pat Scott took over the Brigade.
During the next five or six days, my staff began to take shape. A C3 from here, a DAOMC from there – odd clerks out of some curious bag – and here and there a W/T set discharged from some unwilling source.
While they were sorting themselves out, I got busy on a little secret plan. I found myself a Reserve. This erratic and unusual attitude to war in North Africa naturally not without a good deal of local opposition , but two days after the formation of “Y” Division, I had a divisional reserve of one battalion of Faughs, a squadron of Churchills (scrounged from Corps), and a squadron of Derbyshire Yeomanry. It is true that the remaining battalions – previously very stretched – were now more than ready.
Two days later – on February 26th – the storm broke. The enemy attack on the Bou Arada plain had commenced. The right was never really in danger. Four Bosch battalions, not of the best, were no match for the Paratroop Brigade, fighting troops of the first troops, commanded by first class chaps. It was more a question of how many Bosch would be killed.
The Skins were never in danger from the efforts of an indifferent Marsch Bttn A 33.
But it was different on our left flank and rear – in the Stuka Farm and the Djebel Rihane areas. This was the main Bosch effort – three battalions of crack troops (our old enemies, the Paratroop Brigade of the Hermann Goering Division) plus 10 Panzers. One of these battalions rather overran the very extended positions of the London Irish – when there was a lot of continued fighting, including several battalions firing over open sights.
The other battalions plus the 10 Panzers had broken through the southern end of the Mahmoud Gap, and were bound for El Aroussa by the direct Steamroller Farm route. This party was eight miles behind our position, and making direct tracks for our Line of Communication (and incidentally my Divisional Headquarters).
The situation was unpleasant. It was, however, quite clear. It wasn’t a difficult matter to decide on the (we hope) counter.
Pat Scott was given 6 Churchills and two companies of Faughs to clear up the Irish Brigade front, and was told that he needn’t ask for more.
The squadron of Derbyshire Yeomanry was sent to delay, and nine Churchills and the remainder of the Faughs to destroy, the enemy Panzers and infantry now advancing on El Aroussa (and Divisional Headquarters) at a smart pace.
Pat Scott’s six Churchills and infantry (under James Dunnill and Ray) carried out nonstop counter attacks and Heaver Allen, finding a not too busy company, joined in the party. They also had first class close support from our Artillery – the Bosche finding that if he got close to our guns, it also brought our guns rather close to him. By night fall, the situation here, if not completely restored, was much better, and plans were in full swing to tidy up the place on the morrow. In addition, the Bosche had had a belly full.
In the back area, exciting moments were passing. We estimated it would take our nine Churchills about two hours to reach the right place to block the Bosche. So the squadron of Derbyshire Yeomanry set out to delay the Bosche Panzers for two hours on a six mile stretch of road through the hills. It was going to be quite a race, and I found, through no fault of my own, the Divisional Headquarters was a grandstand quite close to the finishing post.
The Derbyshire Yeomanry was splendid. They laid mines, put down smoke, shot their two pounders when they could and imposed all possible delay on the Panzer, and all the time the Churchills lumber on towards “The Spot”, a carefully chosen place where he should have the Bosche on toast. It was also the last possible tank position and it wouldn’t do to be too late.
I doubt if I will ever forget the closing stage of his race – it quite beat Battleships National, when I’d backed 1st and 2nd. Ten Panzers and nine Churchills converging from right angles, quite unseen to reach other, but the Panzers didn’t know about the Churchills, and the Churchills knew all about the Panzers.
From my seat at the tip of the right angle, I could watch both sides. It was anyone’s race. And the Churchills won. They reached “The Spot” with three minutes to spare. Short but sufficient. Three minutes later saw the death of six Panzers, while you could count twenty. Rather an inspiring sight, aptly described by the Churchill commander as a “piece of cake”. But it was only made possible by the best squadron of Yeomanry that I have ever seen in action.
The remaining Panzers withdrew and the enemy infantry went with them, to dig themselves in about Streamroller Farm. They were still a threat but, after another exciting morning, they didn’t seem quite such the hell of a threat
The day, on the whole, had gone well for us.
On the other side of the picture, a considerable force including some tanks, were established 8 miles inside our position. They could be reinforced and then either threaten the Bou Arada or the Medjez Lines of Communication. And I’d used up all my reserves – thank goodness I had some to use.
However, a speedy assistance was at hand, ‘Y’ Division, which I’m sure, was never intended to get involved in a battle at all, became quite a force and I found my Command increased by the 1st Guards Brigade, an American Combat Force, a battalion of Churchills and enough anti tank guns to blow up all the Panzers in North Africa.
Thirty six hours later, the Bosche at Steamroller Farm was wondering what had hit them, and those that could still move withdrew with rapidity. It was a combined infantry and tank affair, and the Churchills certainly did more than I thought tanks could do.
Pat Scott had also got his ‘backyard’ tidy I might say here that all through this affair, Pat handled the brigade with a sure hand and was a great comfort.
It was during this time that John Horsfall carried out a magnificent patrol deep into the Goubellat Plain, and right across the Bosche Line of Communication. It was more than a patrol – it was more a route march which ended up with a good old fashioned bayonet charge. John was awarded a well deserved bar to his MC.
The beginning of March saw the Bosche thrust boiled.
We got a good deal of loot out of this battle. It would have been great deal more if Algie Herber-Percy – a natural robber and his band of brigands, the 3rd Grenadier Guards – had not formed part of the 1st Guards Brigade. All remaining enemy tanks, guns and transport were knocked out at Steamroller Farm. In addition, he suffered substantial casualties.
As the danger passed, so ‘Y’ Division declined in prestige – losing with rapidity, the Parachute Brigade, the 1st Guards Brigade and finally the American Combat Team. But we’d had our moments.
I’m afraid I’ve rather spread myself on ‘Y’ Division. My only excuse being it was my first, and most certainly the last, time I commanded a Division. It was also a good party. My scratch staff was full of good chaps. A battle being afoot, there was no time for belly aching. And after the first 24 hours of battle, everyone felt we were in a lucky party, as we undoubtedly were – it’s a good feel.
We were finally disbanded on March 16, and I never discovered why it was called ‘Y’ Division.
On Barrosa Day, I visited the Faughs under the Djebel Rihane. We drank the cup in a local Hut to the tune of the pipes. It was rather an occasion – the Cup was made out of a shell by Sergeant Major O’Brien, and engraved “Barrosa, Tunisie 1943”. It was a proper cup – having two handles.
On March 16th, I left the Bou Arada Plain. I had no regrets. I’d grown to hate the place.
The Indeterminate Period, March 16th to 30th
About March 15, the “Skins” and the London Irish moved to the Medjez sector. The “Faughs” were temporarily retained in the Bou Arada Plain to put a new brigade into the “ways of the place”.
St Patrick’s Day passed peacefully. Biddy Scott sent some shamrock to Pat, which miraculously arrived on the night of the 16th, so I had a sprig, which I drowned well and nobly with the London Irish and the “Skins”. Pat Scott, Kendal Chevasse and self also arranged to have a little private celebration. Kendal had to drive many miles on a wet, dark, night to attend. A good effort, as he had been soaked twice already that day.
It was evident that big battles were not far distant, and that the ‘high ups’ were planning.
It was also evident to me that the London Irish had to have a period out of the line for a rest and refit – they’d suffered heavily in their gallant attack in January, and they’d borne the brunt of the Bosche push in February. Only two of their original officers remained, and they’d been continually in action for over 12 weeks. The whole brigade needed a rest badly but the London Irish had to have one.
This was arranged, and Pat Scott took over command – Beauchamp Butler taking his place with the “Faughs”.
After an indeterminate fortnight, with little fighting, the end of the month saw the “Skins” and “Faughs” concentrated in the Beja-Oued Zarga area, with the 2nd Hampshires nominated honorary Irishmen and temporarily with the brigade, until the return of the London Irish. Big things were about to commence.
The Beginning of the End, April 7th to 14th
The first step in the final push was allotted to our division – the 78th. It was fine hard bitten, fighting Division consisting of the 11th, 36th and Irish Brigades – all old hands and known as the “veterans” of the First Army. All had experienced hard fighting – no one had had any rest since their first contact with the enemy – and everyone knew the only way to get it was to finish the campaign. We weren’t a bad choice for this first stage.
The attack was to clear the high ground north of the Oued Zarga-Medjez road to a general line of Chaouch-Toukabeur-Pt 637 and Djebel el Mahdi. When this was accomplished, the stage would be set for step No 2 – attacks on Longstop, Tanngoucha and Djebel Ang – and this would open the dual routes to Tebourba down the Mejerda and Ferme du Bed valleys.
The Irish Brigade’s objectives was the Djebel el Mahdi – a particularly bloodsore pear shaped feature – about four miles long and, at widest, two miles. It rose in a fairly gradual slope to 1400 feet. The sharp end of the pear was nearest to us and was encircled by a wide, twenty foot deep wadi – with steep sides. The wadi was wired and mined.
The only approach was through a narrow valley, which was mined, booby trapped and within mortar range. It also possessed no tracks, and ammunition and equipment had to be mule borne.
As an objective, it lacked many qualities. However, I was promised most of the artillery in North Africa – for a limited time. As far as I can remember, I had about 150 guns – which included about a third Heavies and Mediums – and if these were properly used- there seemed no reason why we shouldn’t practically blow the Mahdi off the map.
The plan was made.
Rough figures – the “Skins” and the “Faughs” were to creep up by night to wadis which were pretty close to the Madhi – lie hidden all the next day – (that was the tricky part – it’s not easy to hide two battalions and a couple of hundred mules) – and the “Skins” were to carry out a night attack with full artillery support in the early hours of the following morning. When they had captured and consolidated an intermediate objective half way up the Mahdi – the “Faughs” were to go through and complete the business.
The Hampshires were to capture a smaller feature on the left – but it was decided to do this silently as it was believed to be unoccupied – and so it proved to be.
Of course, there were a lot of preliminary recces – best routes to the bottom of the pear – if there was any way through the wadi – arrangements for clearing minefields and booby traps – taping out routes – and catering for mules. But the night of April 6th/7th saw the “Skins” and “Faughs” ready – and after the finest artillery bombardment I can remember – the Skins captured their objectives – with few casualties – early in the day.
One of these casualties was unfortunately their CO Heaver Allen – who was killed when leading his battalion with the utmost gallantry. This was a great loss.
I could write a good deal about Heaver without hoping to do him justice. Put all the qualities of the fighting CO inside a thick set, hardy, clean shaven medium sized man – with a hooked nose and a good determined chin – the result would have been Heaver Allen. I believe his battalion would have followed him anywhere.
When the “Skins” were successful, Beauchamp Butler made his plans and completed the business.
The Irish Brigade had the Mahdi.
That night Neville Grazebrook (Gloucesters) took over command of the “Skins”. Fresh from home, in the middle of a battle, and not knowing anyone in the battalion, did not make matters too easy. But he never looked in any difficulty. The “Skins” were lucky in their new CO. A relative of his had also commanded the 27th Foot in the 1920s – so they felt at home with his name.
On our right, the other two brigades were having equal success. It was to be expected – as the operation was a well planned, coordinated Divisional attack – the first of its kind I had seen in North Africa.
The next two days were spent tidying up the low ground dominated by the Mahdi. The “Skins” and 2 Hampshires spent one very satisfactory afternoon, combing hideouts and shooting up or capturing remnants of the enemy. John Horsfall of the Faughs, although holding a forward and exposed position on the northern end of El Mahdi, couldn’t resist joining in this hunt – and with his company collected 47 more or less willing Bosche – a good effort.
On the evening of April 9th, I received orders to advance the next morning with my Brigade to some rugged heights, which was quite 5 miles away.
I took a poor view of this idea. Not only might 5 miles hold a lot of Bosche – but the Brigade was tired. There had been little sleep for anyone during the last six days – and the latter four of those days had seen continuous and heavy fighting – most of it at close quarters.
However my views – poor or otherwise – cut no ice.
I was ordered to get on with it.
I think I will always remember the night of April 9th/10th – scratching a tired brain and trying to make a reasonable plan for a Brigade advance on the morrow – surrounding by my COs, Gunners, Sappers and Tankers, eager to lap up the words of wisdom, which they were most unlikely to hear – for I, personally, had had a tiring day. We’d had quite a battle from 1.30pm until 8.30pm – on my way to my command post, my Signal Officer had been killed by a mortar sitting beside me in my car – we’d been shot up four times by ME 109s. I’d found the OP was the bullseye for a battery of Bosche mortars, we’d had rather a complicated battle, and finally my recce car had got ditched in a shell hole after the battle and had to be man handled and towed out.
However, we got a fairish outline plan worked out and I’d enough sense to tell everyone that we’d finally buttoned things up after a recce at first light. I lay down where I stood at 3am after giving strict instructions that on no account was anyone to call me before 4am. 5am saw me at the northern end of the Mahdi patiently attended by my faithful band of seekers after knowledge, for the promised “buttering up”.
It was a morning when everything went just right. In the first place, it’s wonderful what an hour’s sleep can do. In the second, the air on the Mahdi had a pleasant keen nip – which made everyone feel good. In the third, we found a first class spot for a recce without the slightest bother. The “buttering up” was soon done; and a little later the “Faughs” advanced on the Djebel Guernat, at a steady pace – as befits an objective, which is 5 miles away.
This attack was made memorable by the North Irish Horse assisting the Irish Brigade. It was the first time we’d fought together and I hope it won’t be the last. I cannot imagine a better tank Battalion. – moreover it gave our chaps a homely feel to follow behind a female Churchill called “Lily from Pontaferry.” Actually the line of our advance was unsuitable for tanks, and I employed the bulk of them on the right flank. But a few were allotted to our infantry route, and in spite of bad ground – sailed up the Djebel Guernat as if it were the last furlong at the Maze. There was hardly any fighting during the advance – the Bosche wouldn’t wait for the North Irish Horse. I wasn’t particularly sorry about this. By the time, the “Faughs” and the “Skins” (who had followed up) had advanced 5 miles and dug in – they could well dispense with war like trimmings.
And this was the end of the first phase. The other two Brigades had been equally successful. The 78th Division was taken all its objectives, the Oued Zarga – Medjez road was clear, the way was open for fresh troops to attack Longstop, Tanngoucha and Djebel Ang and opened the route for Tunis.
The Middle of the End, April 15th to May 3rd
The fresh troops detailed to capture Longstop, Tanngoucha and the Djebel Ang were the 78th Division. No doubt this was a great honour, but the troops were fairly tired. However, there it was and, with all due deference, I don’t believe any other division in Africa could have fought and succeeded in those bloody, rocky hills north of Medjez-el-Bab.
The 11th Brigade commenced the party by getting a foot hold on Tanngoucha; a series of outcrops known as The Kefs; and Djebel Ang.
The 36th Brigade prepared for Longstop and the Irish Brigade – after a quick right hand shuffle, arrived at Chaouch – with orders to take over Tanngoucha, The Kefs and village of Heidous from the 11th Brigade – which had suffered greatly in their initial attack.
The inter Brigade hand over was complicated by the fact that when we arrived, the Bosche was in possession of Heidous, Tanngoucha and The Kefs and the 11th Brigade was hanging on grimly – by the eyelids – to a rocky feature in the middle foreground and called Bettiour.
We did the obvious – we took over Bettiour.
The 11th Brigade could not be blamed. They had been fighting harder than the other two Brigades for 8 to 9 days – and they hadn’t the chaps left to hold those places against counter attacks. Their companies averaged 15 to 20 all ranks. The surprising and remarkable thing was that what remained of their three fine Battalions was able to get an initial foothold on these objectives at all. From now onwards, this Brigade concentrated on holding the Djebel Ang – still in our hands – and thus covering the left flank.
This hilly country north of Medjez merits description – but I doubt if I am able to describe it; I’ve never seen anything like it before. Five miles from Medjez the hills begin. In a width of a couple of miles are the mountain villages of Toukabeur, Chaouch, Kelbine and Heidous – this latter perched on top of a rock, which has steep 50 foot sides. Between these villages are tracks, passable to goats, but which could be, and were, bulldozed into tracks for MT. To the east and the west of these villages is a jumble of bare rocky hills – with no tracks at all; and north of Heidous, the last northern village – one runs into real tiger country and all civilisation is left behind.
This was our own particular bit of country – Bettiour, Tanngoucha (the most formidable of the lot), Pt 622, The Kefs, and a point to become famous as Butler’s Hill. They all had one peculiar feature in common – their summits with stiff approaches were surmounted by long “dragon backs” about 20-40 yards wide – and with sheer sides, cliffs from 20 to 60 feet high. (Question – Can summits be surmounted? I doubt it – but I hope what I mean is clear).
The Bosche had spent much time and care on these positions. He called it his “Siegfried Line”. We called it several other names.
I went carefully over the Bosche defences here – after we had taken them, for take them we did – and I was quite unable to discover how we ever did manage to capture the “Siegfreid Line”. It was a series of “impossible” fortresses. When the campaign was over, the Corps Commander went over this battlefield, and asked me “How on earth did they do it?” I was able to answer quite truthfully. “I’m damned if I know”. One thing is certain: it could only have been done by the very best troops with first class junior leaders.
But I anticipate.
The Brigade was again complete. Pat Scott had brought back the London Irish, fresh, fit, and full of fight. And we needed to be full of fight. For we were now entering a fortnight which held the hardest, bitterest, and grimmest fighting of a hard campaign. Little quarter was given or asked. Many men fought and died on the rocky ledges and steeps slopes of the Medjez hills.
It was thought that the capture of Tanngoucha would cause the fall of Heidous and The Kefs. So the “Skins” staged a night attack.
This attack seemed dogged by bad luck from the start. There was a longish approach march, the mules were bobbery – the country was difficult. In addition, the Bosche staged a counter attack on Bettiour as the battalion was forming up- and although it didn’t effect this manoeuvre – it was disconcerting to hear a lot of noise in your immediate rear.
However, in went the attack – and met with fair success. Over half the Tanngoucha ridge was in our hands. It was then discovered that the mules carrying the tools, beehives and ammunition had been machine gunned and were either dead or gone. So the battalion rightly withdrew half an hour before daylight. It was a pity – but couldn’t be helped. It seemed that luck was “agin” the “Skins” from the start. And like most failures, it proved costly.
It did, however, give some information. Although it was agreed that the capture of Tanngoucha, could probably result in the fall of The Kefs and Heidous – it proved that an attack on Tanngoucha met considerable opposition from these two flanking positions so a full scale brigade attack was planned. The London Irish on Heidous, the “Skins” on Tanngoucha and the “Faughs” on The Kefs and a commanding feature called Pt 622. It had to be a night attack – we’d have been shot down like rabbits in daylight. The “Faughs” captured The Kefs, but couldn’t quite make Pt 622 (later found to be a complete fortress), the “Skins” got half way up the Tanngoucha and there grimly dug themselves in – refusing to withdraw a second time.
The London Irish – after hard and gallant fighting – failed to take Heidous. And there the Irish Brigade hung on. Something was due to crack soon – it wasn’t going to be the Brigade. But we could expect little assistance – as the 11th Brigade was licking its wounds, and the 36th Brigade was in the middle of its bloody struggle for Longstop.
However, we did manage to wangle three Churchills of the North Irish Horse. It was not tank country – but the Troop commander – excellent chap – thought he might get one of his three tanks near the Bosche. He was, however, quite certain that he’d never get it away again, and hoped the attack would be successful.
It was decided that the “Faughs” and the tanks would attack on the left flank and so worry the defenders of Tanngoucha – and that the “Skins” from their half cock position would immediately take advantage of any such signs of worry.
And so it happened. The “Faughs” and their tanks (the whole three got there) took Butler’s Hill after a hard struggle – and then captured Pt 622; that rocky bloody feature. The tanks fired all they’d got – solid shot into the fissures in the cliffs – besas at MG posts and HE at everything. This also upset the neighbours – and when the “Skins” charged with a roar – up went the white flags. Tanngoucha was ours.
That night the London Irish occupied Heidous. The “Siegfried Line” had cracked.
But the thing was now to follow up the Bosche as quickly as possible and the Brigade passed over the Tanngoucha to explore deeper into the hills.
Our excellent Troop Commander of the North Irish Horse said he would follow us whither we went. He’d decided that the Churchills could go anywhere.
Over the Tanngoucha we found the nightmare country and the next five days will always remain as a nightmare to me. We reluctantly bade farewell to our three Churchills – even they couldn’t take it.
Great jagged hills with sheer sides – no saddle to get on and keep on – but dozens of hills intersected with valleys, with the dominating colour of blood red sand and grey rock.
However, off we set – with the “Skins” clearing the hills on the right – the “Faughs” clearing the hills on the left and Brigade headquarters followed by the London Irish coiling along behind. After three days fighting and clearing three miles of hills we came to a full stop. We could get no further. I doubt if we’d have got much further even if they had been no enemy at all. And the enemy was there and still fighting. We really had reached “impossible” country.
It can’t be described. I can only say that two of my signalers broke their legs trying to lay a line in the dark within 20 yards of my headquarters, and that Pat Scott – after one horrified look – said to me “My God. If we ever get out of this place alive, we can talk about it for the rest of our days.”
Two days later, we were recalled from our mountain fastness to concentrate immediately south of Medjez. We bade farewell to our mules – our constant companions for over three weeks. They had been invaluable – the muleteers were good chaps, who worked well. We couldn’t have existed or fought without them – but we were glad to see the last of them.
If we had known it, our actual fighting was over in this campaign. I doubt if anyone would have groused at this; we’d been fighting hard and continuously for nearly a month, and we’d had heavy casualties. For example, the “Faughs” lost six company commanders in four days, when holding on grimly to The Kefs, the “Skins” could just muster three rifle companies each about 30 strong, and the London Irish had suffered at Heidous. Every man in each battalion, who could fight had been in action with rifle companies – Pioneers, Carriers, Anti Tank gunners, shoemakers, cobblers – the whole bag of tricks; there were no half measures in this last grim campaign.
I suffered a great loss during this last week, my good friend and driver – Moores – was killed. A good decent boy, who had been with me for three years.
Tanngoucha was the key to the whole area, and it is interesting to note that Longstop did not finally fall until the morning after Tanngoucha was taken.
I, for one, will always remember “them there hills.”
The End, May 8th
The stage was now set for the final thrust. Roughly speaking, two Armoured Divisions and two Infantry Divisions were concentrating in the Medjez area for the job.
The new task of the 78th Division was to cover the concentration – with orders that “under no circumstances” would it be interrupted. We took up our positions, the concentration was interrupted – and the final thrust commenced on May 6th.
It met with great success and, by the evening of May 7th, it was known that our Armour had reached the outskirts of Tunis and in some places was fighting in the town itself.
The 78th Division was now given its last task – to tidy up Tunis, this task was sub allotted as under:-
11th Brigade – Carthage and the aerodromes to the north.
36th Brigade – to guard the northern flank.
The Irish Brigade – Tunis.
This was a fair and pleasant prospect for the Brigade. We’d been capturing Tunis in our imagination since last November. The name, Tunis, to us had a meaning all to itself. It conjured up ideas of cool marble palaces, real baths, beds, tables, chairs, washing in a basin, perhaps even pulling a plug. Actually, these ideas didn’t materialise, but this didn’t prevent our pleasant hopes.
It meant the end of a job well done.
We hoped it meant we’d soon get a rest. We also felt that the Brigade had been given great honour in being allotted Tunis.
Plans were made late that night for the 30 mile move forward at daylight and I went forward to a spot ten miles from Tunis to get my final orders.
The situation in Tunis itself was still a little obscure. There was supposed to be a good deal of street fighting going on, and we knew there might be a goodly number of Bosche there. We had to be ready to fight for it.
The main road, 10 miles from Tunis presented a curious spectacle that morning. Guns and lorries – practically nose to tail were thundering past us all bound for Tunis. As it would be a good two hours before my Brigade arrived – I thought I might as well get a closer view of the town and its street fighting – so I pushed my jeep into this long column – rather like a Derby Day – and sailed along with it. There was nothing war like happening on the Medjez – Tunis road. Once could hear the sounds of a battle about 6 miles to the north – there also seemed to be fighting going on a little to the south. But all was peace down our street.
After a few miles, we topped a rise, and there glistening in the early morning sun was Tunis. This was quite a moment.
Shortly after, we passed a mile long column trudging towards us on the dusty roadside. About 3,000 prisoners. Bosche and Italian, soldiers, sailors and airmen – a mixed bag. It was a pleasant – though smelly sight. Noone was paying any attention to them – everyone was too busy on their particular job. But both sides seemed satisfied that they were moving in the right direction in the right manner. We passed several more of these pleasant – and smelly sights – before I reached the outskirts of Tunis. I soon found the chap in charge of the Armour – and got his news. He couldn’t give me much information about the street fighting. He said he hadn’t heard of much – but of course, he was only holding a few road blocks in the town and they were chiefly worried about too many prisoners. However, if we were really after a bit of street fighting, he thought, they’d probably oblige in the dock area, and the southern end of the town. I couldn’t see or hear any signs of fighting, and any of the local inhabitants, who were up at this early hour seemed to have on their best clothes and to have a festive air.
I hurried back to meet my Brigade to get them forward as quickly as possible – while the going was so good.
The London Irish and the “Skins” debussed at the entrance to the town. The former were to clear up the dock area, and the latter to go on parallel western routes clearing the remainder of the town. The sweep was directed towards the south. The “Faughs” took a roundabout M.T. ride, approaching the town from the south, in order to bag any of the little Herrenvolk, whom the “Skins” or the London Irish might get to bolt.
The troops were all loaded up with bombs, PIATs, mortars and petards – all set for a belly full of street fighting – and the last lap.
But we hadn’t included the people of Tunis in our plans.
Those good people had just begun to realise that their ordeal was over. The arrival of the tanks put this idea into their heads – but they weren’t quite certain about things until they saw the infantry – good solid infantry – trudging along the street. Here was somebody you could get at, clear, slap on the back, give wine, throw flowers at, embrace, kiss (I hereby place on record that I was kissed twice) and 300,000 people proceeded to do these very things. The battalions were engulfed. I had never seen anything like it. The inhabitants of Tunis had gone quite mad.
We hadn’t any street fighting. There was no fight left in the Bosche. He’d had enough. At any rate, it was an impossibility – he couldn’t have seen us to shoot for the crowd – and we were a bit hampered too.
Every now and then we collected prisoners – fifty here, a hundred – there just to show that our minds were still on our work; but everyone felt that they were a nuisance – and that it had just like the Bosche, the ill bred, thick skinned coot – to keep butting into a party, which didn’t want him. Two pictures stand out in my mind.
The good, solid infantry soldier – decent chap as he is – humping his load – and with a happy, smiling, sweaty face, pushing his way good humouredly through the crowded streets of Tunis. You could see that he thought all foreigners were a bit potty – but these were being potty in a nice way.
The second was Pat Scott on top of his carrier. His two great feet sticking out like twin bumpers, his pipe in his mouth, and a wide grin on his face. Three flowers of sorts had got caught in his shirt collar. The happy warrior at ease. Surrounded by a seething mass of pleasant lunatics.
It was a day none of us would ever forget, and it compensated us for much. It is sad to think of the number of good chaps who missed it. But what they’d done had made it possible.
The “Skins” and the London Irish pushed their way through Tunis and connected up with the “Faughs”, three miles south of the town. The latter had had a similar non fighting day.
The Brigade thus blocked the narrow strip leading from Tunis to Cap Bon; and I think that being in position before dark says much for Irish discipline – with our many distractions during an unusual day.
Brigade headquarters set up shop in a corn field and ended the day with a curious incident. A small party of Bosche was reported to be hiding about a couple of hundred yards away. Douglas Room and a few men of the Defence Platoon rounded them up. There were seven of the Hermann Goering boys. We’d started and ended the campaign with them.
After a few more days fighting – tidying up the approaches to Cap Bon – the campaign was over.
The Irish Brigade now got its rest.
They’d earned it.”