15th December 1942 – 12th January 1943.
“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 the 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, 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.”