The Bou Arada Period (1)

13th January – 21st January 1943.

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 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 it.

However, by 0200hrs and the 8th – 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.

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