The Bou Arada Period (2)

22nd January – 16th March 1943.

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 Bosch held Barka, Mehalla, and One, Two, Three and W 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 relive 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 Bosch.  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.

Bosch 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 with 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 very.

Two days later – on February 26th – the storm broke. The enemy 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 Bosche 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 Bosche 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 9 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 6 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 additional the Bosche had had a belly full.

In the back area, exciting moments were passing. We estimated it would take our 9 Churchills about two hours to reach the right place to block the Bosche. So the squadron of Derbyshire Yeomanry set out to delay the Bosch 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 6 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 Bosch 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 Bosch 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 Bosch 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 16th, and I never discovered why it was called ‘Y’ Division.

On Barossa Day, I visited the Faughs under the Djebel Rihane. We drank the cup in a 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 “Barossa, 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.

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