7th April – 14th April 1943.
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 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 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 hours 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.