The Middle of the End

15th April – 3rd May 1943.

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 3 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, 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 affect 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 – 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.”

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