Lieutenant David Schayek – April 1943, Part III

“One day, Heaver Allen called all the company commanders together and told them that ‘the big attack was coming’ and we were going to capture a mountain called Djebel Mahdi. This translated as the ‘Guide Mountain.’ I remembered that General Gordon’s opponent in the Sudan was the Mahdi, ‘The Guide’. My then company commander, Captain Bayley, took me and the other platoon commanders to a vantage point where he showed us Djebel Mahdi, a huge mountain, which loomed in the distance, through a gap in much nearer hills. It looked like an Everest to me.

The moment came for us to depart from our start point and we marched very heavily laden in full marching order with a number of bandoliers of rifle ammunition along with bren gun magazines and also hand grenades. We went marching at night along the road without any light or noise to the station at Oued Zarga and then on the road towards Third Farm. From there, we marched across country into a valley where we halted. At this point, we were told that there must be no cooking, no loud noises and we would be staying there at night and the next day we would be joined by mules.

The mules duly arrived and they were laden with picks and shovels, ammunition, rations and cans of drinking water. The mules had local muleteers, who would encourage any reluctant mules by shouting ‘Urghh’. For some reason, Captain Bayley was absent and we got another new company commander, Lieutenant Lake, who spoke to all the officers and NCOs in the company. He started telling us about the arrangements for the attack. Then Heaver Allen came in to give a pep talk to all of us. Instead of a helmet, he had a camouflage net on his head tied with a knot like a pirate. I heard one of the fusiliers mutter, ‘Oo does ‘e think ‘e is: Moby Dick?’ Heaver Allen’s speech had a theme, ‘it all depends on me’.  It was quite inspiring.

After Heaver Allen’s speech, a quartermaster sergeant came round with a big bucket of tea that somehow had been boiled without any smoke arising. He poured some into everyone’s mess tin, it was tea with milk and sugar and then brought out a stone jar and poured a generous measure of rum into the mess tin. It should be noted that we were given rum on night attacks but never on a day attack. The time now came to proceed with the attack.

Company by company, we walked along a ravine between white tapes that had been laid by the Royal Engineers with the area between these tapes having been cleared of enemy mines. We, therefore, proceeded between the tapes feeling safe from mines. Then our artillery barrage started. The shells went over our heads with a whistling sound and exploded further on – that is, on the German positions. Regimental pipers were playing the bagpipes with Irish and Scottish tunes. The whistling shells were coming from behind us and this seemed to push us forward. In the dark, we felt surprisingly safe. In a day attack, one never felt safe.

Heaver Allen suddenly appeared and said to me, ’Have you got a sergeant at the back of your platoon?’

I said, ‘No sir. What for?’

He said, ‘To whip up stragglers.’

I responded, ‘The 6th Inniskillings does not have any stragglers, sir.’

He then said, ‘You stupid idiot. – you bloody fool!’

This was the last thing he ever said to me and possibly the last thing he ever said to anyone.

I had been brainwashed at the OCTU so that I thought that I thought that I was only man there who was not scared. A few minutes later, Heaver Allen was with the leading platoon and when they came up against an enemy machine gun position, Heaver took up a bren gun and charged and was mown down.

We reached the crest of the hill and the enemy started putting down mortar bombs. Everyone lay down including Lake, but he was unlucky as a splinter from a mortar bomb sliced off part of his buttock. He proceeded back to the Regimental Aid Post (RAP) and I found myself temporarily in command of B Company. On the crest of the mountain, I heard a shout that the enemy was counter attacking.

My first thought was of the British square, as at Waterloo and I wondered if one could have close packed men facing every direction. I ordered fixed bayonets and ordered the fusiliers to form a ring of steel. The NCOs marshalled the fusiliers and we did create a big circle with quite a big distance between each man and all were facing outwards. I was carrying a rifle and bayonet as I did not want to be picked off by the enemy as an officer. Like the others, I drew a bayonet and found, to my horror, that the bayonet, which I had picked up the day before, was faulty and it would not fit onto the muzzle of the rifle. I did not want to show that I had a faulty bayonet so I held it with my left hand near the muzzle of the rifle that I held in my right hand and made it look as though I had a fixed bayonet. The enemy counter attack either never came or petered out before it reached us.

At one stage, I made a field signal for extending. This meant I blew a whistle and waved my left arm from side to side above my head. There had been several German machine guns firing on a hundred or so men. After the field signal, they all concentrated on one man – me… but by some miracle, I was not hit, though I got the foolish idea that I was invulnerable. A couple of days later, I learnt how wrong I was.

I then saw a gaggle of men standing looking at something. I went up and I found a dead German in Afrika Corps uniform.  One of our men said, ‘Look at him, his face is going green.’  I said to them, ‘You’ll be like him if you continue to stand in a group. Disperse and lie down.’

At Djebel Mahdi, I noticed that there were places that the enemy could see you and there were places where they couldn’t. And in some places, the slightest movement would bring down machine gun fire. The reason was clear: Djebel Mahdi was shaped like a beached whale. Imagine a whale in a dry swimming pool with sloping sides. The centre of the back of the whale was higher than the sides of a swimming pool. Germans, on the sides of the swimming pool would be able to see the side of the beached whale but could not see the top of it, as it would be higher than the sides of the swimming pool. Accordingly, if you were on the crest of the Djebel, you could not be seen or be fired at with machine guns. If you went slightly on either side of the crest, you could be seen and fired on. Where there were dips in the ground, the enemy could not see you in the dip in what was called ‘dead ground.’ Here we had ‘dead ground’ not because we were in a dip but because we were so high.

As Heaver Allen had been killed, Major Bunch of ‘A’ Company took over command of the battalion. I saw him crouched in a low weapon pit with no helmet and on his bald head he had earphones. He was older than most of us. Meanwhile, Captain Bayley had been whistled up and he took command of ‘B’ Company, which I had temporarily commanded. By then, I was suffering from a hangover from the rum.

Our men dug weapon pits and soon, we were all in weapon pits either those we had dug or those that the Germans had dug. Captain Bayley told the men that the enemy was 999 Regiment. This regiment was a Penal Regiment containing busted officers and common criminals. They possessed extremely tough NCOs, who were ready to shoot them at the slightest provocation and they put up a very spirited resistance against us. We were now to be relieved later in the afternoon.

The Durham Light Infantry, who were from a different division, appeared and their relieving platoon was commanded by Lieutenant Bert Inal, whom I had known very well when I was in the ranks of the Kings Royal Rifle Corps. We had a friendly argument when he said that ‘our lot’ should bury the dead.  I said ‘my lot’ was quite exhausted and he should do it, but he said that although he would be happy to bury the German dead, we ought to bury our own dead. I told him that we had to move off at any minute and it was no good my men starting to dig.

We departed from Djebel Mahdi shortly after and marched to a valley some six miles way, and I remember starting off and arriving but I cannot honestly remember anything in between. It was quite obvious that I had been asleep on the march.

We then had a day of rest and learnt that, on the next day, there would be a sweep of the rest of Djebel Mahdi. On the following morning, we got into battle order. We did not carry any large packs but had haversacks with ammunition and grenades and we marched off from our valley towards the top of Jebel Mahdi. In front of us, to our right, there were other companies from our battalion and, to the left of us, were troops from the rest of the brigade. The signal then came for us to march from the start line towards the furthest part of Jebel Mahdi.

The company in front of us had a couple of jokers. One had a top hat on, which must have been looted. Another had poured a bottle of expensive perfume over his head. We had received reinforcements and very many of these men came from Welsh regiments – and a very fine bunch they were. Many of the original members of the battalion, including many Northern and Southern Irishmen, had been casualties between the time of the landings in North Africa during November 1942 and the middle of March 1943.

I could clearly see the long lines of soldiers advancing both to our right and left of us as the whole brigade was advancing. Everyone was singing ‘Clementine’. The enemy artillery started firing and I saw a fusilier stand still and kneel down, so I said to him, ‘Stand up – hold your rifle to high port. It’s not a suitcase – head up.’  He followed my order without a word.

The temporary company commander continued to be Lieutenant Bradley. He came up and ordered me to lead my platoon forward, and I saw to it that there was a sergeant at the back of the platoon as required by the late Heaver Allen as I led a platoon with a fusilier on each side of me and we marched along the crest of Djebel Mahdi.

As previously mentioned, the crest of Djebel Madhi was not much higher that hills on either side and the Germans could see us and machine gun fire came down, but we continued to advance. I felt a stinging sensation on the outside of my left foot but, at this point, thought that a bullet had dislodged a stone, which had then ricocheted on to my left boot. I nearly forgot about it, feeling there was nothing wrong until one of the fusiliers suddenly said to me that my boot was full of blood and some was also seeping out. Machine gun fire started to come down both on us and to our front, and Fusilier Thorne, one of the Welsh intake, said, ‘We can’t go on and we can’t go back, f.. our luck.’ I liked his style.

Another thing about Mahdi was that, as it was surrounded by mountains and gullies, any sounds brought echoes. This prevented one knowing where fire was coming or how far distant it was, and the enemy was almost invisible. In fact, I never saw a living German soldier when I was on Mahdi.

After a while, machine guns started firing elsewhere and we got up and started to retreat, first running and then walking. None of us were hit, and we got back to join the rest of the platoon and discovered that there had been many casualties including one fatality. The platoon was about 300 yards away from where I had been hit. The sergeant was there and I angrily spoke to him and told him that it was very bad that no one had told the three of us. We had continued advancing towards the horizon, not realising that the rest of the platoon were not advancing. So much for Heaver Allen’s advice that a sergeant should be at the back ‘to whip up stragglers’.

At the RAP, I accompanied stretcher bearers to an ambulance and we were driven to the Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), which was with the Divisional Medical Corps Unit at Beja. At the CCS, there were numerous soldiers, some sitting down, others lying on stretchers, all in the open. Whilst waiting my turn, I heard a middle aged prisoner with First World War medals saying that he had been in Mesopotamia during that wait and, there, had been wounded and he had then been taken away in a horse drawn cart along with a number of others. He recalled that when the cart had gone into a rut or over a bump in the road, all the wounded would utter a collective moan.

As I was waiting, I opened the pocket in the front of my left trouser leg, and found that the field dressing there had been used on my foot at the RAP. I still had a tin, which was like a large sardine one and this contained the emergency ration, but which was not supposed to be eaten until there was absolutely no food available. As I was inquisitive and slightly hungry, I opened the tin and found a slab of what looked like chocolate but this was, in fact, mixed with concentrated beef. Imagine the taste of chocolate mixed with Bovril and not surprisingly it was really rather horrible.

My wound came to be examined and I was taken to a sort of operating table. My foot was bared and I was given an injection on the inside of my left elbow and this, I later learnt, was Penathol. It was an anaesthetic and sent one to sleep. If an operation was going to take a long time, they then used chloroform but you knew nothing about that as the Penathol had already knocked you out. I woke up bandaged and near a waiting train into which I was carried. Inside the train, there were stretchers one above the other layered like shelves.

I found myself next to a regular Captain who belonged to the Corps Franc d’Afrique, and was a commando of the French Army. This man had a nasty wound in the leg and we talked to each other in French, and I discovered that he was some sort of aristocrat – a viscount, I think. We talked about what had been happening in France and he told me that collaborationists had got worried after the North African landings and (as he put it) got themselves arrested by the Germans so that they would be regarded as ‘clean’ when the war ended. He started cursing the French fascists and very angrily said that they had said that his family were part Jewish. When I heard this, I had a very good laugh.     

As the train travelled westwards, I suddenly noticed that my left arm was hurting like blazes. It was an agonising pain and I almost forgot the wound in my foot. A nursing sister was passing round and I told her about my arm. She looked at it and appeared horrified and said that I had ‘Penathol arm’, which meant that the drug had been injected in the wrong place on the inside of my elbow and this had caused a terrible abscess.

I was in great pain until we arrived at Algiers where I taken to a general hospital. There, I had another operation to get rid of the abscess and, this time, the operation was carried out by a surgeon from the Royal Army Medical Corps, Lieutenant Colonel AJ Cokkinis. After the war, when I was practising as a solicitor, I often had clients, who had suffered accidents and in order to claim against the guilty party or their insurance company, I needed a surgical report. I had thought of Colonel Cokkinis, who then worked at St Mary’s Hospital and I started sending patients to him for medical reports.

In the hospital, there was a nice looking nurse and I asked her if she would like to come for a drink in the village of Rivet, a suburb of Algiers where the hospital was located. She said she did not make dates with soldiers on active service as they would be ‘here today and gone tomorrow’. Other patients in the ward included Sidney Lipton the famous violinist and dance band leader.

I was discharged from hospital having suffered much more from the Penathol arm than the wound in the foot. I was sent to a small resort west of Algiers called Tipasa. In peacetime, this was a holiday place and it had become a convalescent home for the forces. It had a tennis court, and there were a couple of blasé French girls messing around most un-athletically. There were a couple of Canadian air force pilots and they discovered some golf clubs and a tennis ball and they asked the French girls to join them for a game of hockey. One of the Canadians and one girl against the other two. I watched the hockey match and it was great fun until one of the French girls gave a terrific whack on the shins of the other. It was really funny seeing those drooping lilies going in for a bit of athletic sport.    

While I was in hospital, Tunis fell. Before that, at the end of April, my old battalion had attacked a terrible mountain called Tanngoucha where they had gone in 800 strong and had come out with only 200 men. The other 600 had been killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Tanngoucha had finally been taken with the aid of tanks from the North Irish Horse, who had somehow climbed the mountain.

The first marching troops into Tunis were the Irish Brigade. We had, of course, had a very difficult time during the Tunisian campaign. We did not have mastery of the air until the very end of the campaign. At Mahdi, for instance, a Stuka dive bomber had hovered above us but in a moment it was shot down by Spitfires. Our mastery of the air at the end of the campaign stopped the 250,000 Germans and Italians escaping from Tunisia to Italy.

At the start of June, I rejoined my battalion who, by this time, had gone back to Algeria where it had all started, but there was now no longer any elderly gas company employees nor any lectures about ‘digging or dying’. We were veterans.

We then travelled by train to Guelma in eastern Algeria, where there was a huge circular Roman bath. It had been carved out of rock and, at one time, must have been concreted but that had worn away on the bare rock in the pools. The whole of the Irish Brigade was camped round this pool, and it was there, when we were training, that we received a large intake of reinforcements, mainly from Welsh Regiments – these were very excellent fellows.

It was at Guelma that I met Lieutenant George Stephens, who was in ‘A’ Company. We became firm friends and our friendship, and those of our wives, was sustained for more than fifty years. From Guelma, we went on to a resort area at Hammamet, a beautiful place, and from there to Sousse in southern Tunisia in early July.

We continued training for Sicily at both Hammamet and Sousse.”