David Schayek dictated some of his recollections to his wife, Lilian, shortly before his death in 1999:
“The below mentioned are my salient memories of the Tunisian campaign of early 1943. There must, of course, be many incidents that I have forgotten but much has remained in my mind for the past fifty six years.”
The Skins’ officer group in Algeria at the end of May 1943 (David Schayek was away recovering from wounds).
Back row – Stephens, Unknown, Clarke, Unknown, Unknown, Hewitt, Unknown.
3rd Row -Doc Wilson, Duddington, Ferris, Hanna, Ashe. Ablett, Halpin, Padre Stevens.
2nd Row – Bradley, Bunch, McCann, Grazebrook, Norman, Little, Bayley.
Front Row – Nicholls, McVie, Morrow, Unknown, Hamilton.
Later that day, we docked in Algiers. We disembarked and got into trucks and were driven to a place called Fort de L’Eau, a suburb of Algeria. We went to a cafe there and, in it, we found a drunken old French gas company employee. He was delighted to see us, especially because some of us had on our sleeves the insignia of the 6th Armoured Division – a clenched mail fist. The elderly gas employee looked delighted and shouted ‘Viva la division communiste’ and held up a clenched fist.
Next morning, we were marched onto a piece of waste land and we were each given an instrument called an entrenching tool. There was a wooden handle about 18 inches long, at the end of which was a piece of iron, on the top of which was a point like a pick axe and, on the bottom, there was a flat piece like a shovel. It was a miniature pick and shovel in one tool.
The officer conducting us said that we had to learn to ‘dig or die’. He went onto say, ‘you are standing on sandy soil. In exactly 3 minutes, where you are standing is going to be raked with machine gun fire so you had better get digging fast.’ We very quickly dug ourselves shallow graves and lay down in them with no part of us protruding above the ground. Sure enough, bren guns started firing above us where we had been standing before.
Thus ended the morning’s training. Then having stayed a couple of nights at Fort de L’Eau, we came to our last day in Algeria and, in the morning, we set out to get onto a train to go towards the front line. We were going to a town called Souk Ahras, a town which dates from Roman times and was the birthplace of St Augustine. In Roman times, it was called Tagaste.
We formed up in columns of three and started to walk to the railway station. Along the side of the road, we passed a line of French youths, who were in uniforms. On their head were berets – they had green jackets and plus fours and white stockings and, at their belts, they had sheath knives. These were the Chantiers de Jeunesse meaning ‘workshops of youth’ and were Marshall Petain’s fascist boy scouts. They scowled at us. Amongst our number were several officers wearing the headdress of the London Irish Rifles known as ‘caubeens’. They were a sort of beret and were surmounted by coloured plumes. One of the French youth shouted ‘pederastes’. I shouted back in French that it was they, who looked like ‘pederastes’ in their funny get up. He scowled more, we scowled back at them, but there was no problem as they had sheath knives whilst we had revolvers!
Having got rid of these fascist boy scouts, we arrived at the railway station where a train was waiting for us. It contained compartment carriages for the officers and trucks for the soldiers marked in French, ‘40 men, 8 horses.’ The soldiers would either get inside the trucks, leaving the door open for ventilation or ride on top of the trucks ducking flat when any bridges came so they were not beheaded. When the train stopped, many of the soldiers would jump out, some to get hot water from the engine to make tea, others onto the other side of the railway track to perform their natural functions. Sometimes, the engine would give a whistle and the train would start up again and there would be soldiers running along pulling up their trousers and, occasionally, men were not able to catch up with the train. At one point, some members of the Parachute Regiment were unable to catch up so they commandeered a civilian car and raced along to the next station, where they waited for the train.
At long last, we arrived at Souk Ahras, and went into camp. The town, with its reinforcement depot, was crammed full of soldiers waiting to join the regiments at the front. That afternoon, the Camp Commandant sent for me and told me that he wanted me to stay on at the reinforcement camp to command the ‘difficult’ Guards’ platoon. I immediately said I wanted to go up the line as quickly as possible and if there was a draft going out, I would like to be in it. The Camp Commandant said there was a draft going out the next day to the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Although I was a Royal Ulster Rifleman, I said I would like to go on that draft, and the next day, I did, indeed, leave. Souk Ahras was quite near to the front line and the railway was not running any further eastwards from there and we accordingly went into trucks to the next place, which was Souk el Arba. At this camp, we went into tents.
The next morning, the truck moved me to the headquarters of the 6th Battalion, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, who were known as the ‘Skins.’ I reported to the commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Allen, known as ‘Heaver’ Allen. He told me that we were part of the 38th (Irish) Brigade and the battalion had a good name and he hoped that I would live up to it. I found that the position of the battalion was on the southern part of the front. Tunisia in March suffered great down pours of rain and was quite cold and we were positioned in a sea of mud. The countryside was mountainous, each of which was covered in boulders and scrub. There was a hill nearby locally known as ‘Mortar Hill’.
I had been introduced to the acting Company Commander, who was a regular Lieutenant, called Bill Bradley, a very tall man with a big moustache, who had an American Army leather jacket with a fur collar. Bradley took me to the top of a hill telling me to lie down and to look through field glasses in a certain direction. Between some hills, there was a town at quite a distance. This, Bradley told me, was Medjez–el-Bab, which translates from Arabic as Medjez the Gate – namely, the gateway to Tunis.
In front of us was ‘Mortar Hill’, and on the slope of the hill facing the enemy were small trenches known as weapon pits, which had been dug at night time. We followed the Duke of Wellington’s practice in keeping behind the hill on the rear slope facing our own lines. In day time, no one was on the forward slope in the pits. There would be a man or several men on the crest of the hill lying low with binoculars to see if there was any enemy movement in day time. Had any enemy movement been noticed, our troops would have gone over the crest of the hill to the weapon pits. At night, the troops would go to the forward slope and stay in the weapon pits but when dawn came, they would go back to the reverse slope and the observers with the binoculars would take over the duty of watching and, if necessary, call us forward. And so on.
After a few days, we moved forward in trucks to Beja to prepare for an assault on Djebel Mahdi. We were in place called Oued Zarga, in case the enemy tried to take it. I was transported in the dark to the station in the dark with my platoon of 36 men. Then a truck came up with a captain and two or three fusiliers. This was Captain Kenneth Beeching, who I had known at university during peace time. Beeching gave me cocoa and sugar and said he was going out on a reconnaissance patrol and I should have hot cocoa ready when he came back. During the night, there were explosions and, to my horror, Captain Beeching’s truck came back with his body. He had walked onto a mine. A relieving truck drew up and drove me and my platoon back to the battalion lines.
I was then ordered to take out a reconnaissance to a place called ‘Third Farm’, which was beyond Oued Zarga station and could be seen easily by binoculars. There were farm buildings and a sort of pylon with a windmill on top. It was about three or four miles away, and I looked at it on the map.
I took a protractor and noticed the angle between north on the map and the line, where I was, at Third Farm. I then had to add about seven degrees for what is known as magnetic variation. Having got the right number of degrees, one takes the compass and turns a brass moving rim to 90 degrees. There is a glass fixed to the moving rim. This has a luminous paint marked on it. Inside the compass is a revolving card, which has a white mark of luminous paint. What you do is turn yourself until the white mark on the card is in line with the white mark on the glass. Having got these two marks together, you look forward where there is a hinged sight and all you do is to walk where the sight points (and which is also marked with luminous paint) and that will eventually take you to the place you are after. Of course, you have to work out from the map the distance and carefully work out how long it will take you to get there.
However, there is a terrible snag. If you are dealing with flat land, there is no problem – you just let the luminous marks coincide and you walk towards the luminous light, but when you have broken ground, it is a completely different kettle of fish. In this case, there was a stream in a deep gorge with sides about 12 feet high. In the dark, one is not able to go down 12 feet, cross the stream and then go up 12 feet. What one has to do is to walk to the right or to the left until you find a place where the sides of the gorge is much less than 12 feet, you then get down there and then you walk along the stream and you find another place on the other side of the stream where the stream is much less than 12 feet, you then climb up. By then, you are quite a long way to the right or the left of your proper line.
Before going out with a Non Commissioned Officer (NCO) and two other soldiers, I explained what we were doing to do but the NCO absolutely ignored what I was saying. After I repeated myself a couple of times, I bellowed at him, ‘Would you listen to what I’m saying?’ He looked at me in a puzzled way and said, ‘Sorry, sir, but I’m rather deaf. I was horrified that I should take a deaf man out on a reconnaissance patrol. I went up to the company commander, Lieutenant Bradley, and told him that the NCO was deaf and I ought not to take him out. Bradley said that this NCO did not like going out on patrol and with any new officer, he says he’s deaf and I should take no notice. I would add that there quite a few soldiers, who liked going out on patrol. For instance there was a sergeant cook, attached from the Army Catering Corps, and, although his duties were nothing to do with patrolling, he would insist on going out on patrol.
Before going out on patrol, the company commander would search us in case we had anything which would be of assistance to the enemy if we were killed or taken prisoner. He found in my pocket lengths of telephone cable. When he found the cable, he was horrified and said that he assumed that I was taking it to tie up German prisoners. He added that in the Dieppe raid, commandos tied up prisoners and, on learning this, Hitler had gone into a rage and ordered that all commando prisoners were to be kept in chains. Bradley said this could happen if I was found with telephone cables, but I then explained to him that I had not brought any spare boot laces from England. Since I had arrived in North Africa, I had not found where any could be obtained and I had a great fear of my bootlaces breaking when in action and, therefore, I kept lengths of telephone cable to the same length as bootlaces so that I could use them as substitutes. Even after this explanation, Bradley confiscated them.
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 wat 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.”