Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

Percy Hamilton – Advance To Tunis

After capturing Tanngoucha at the end of April 1943, Lieutenant Percy Hamilton describes 6 Innisks’ continuing forward progress culminating in the Irish Brigade’s triumphant entry into Tunis on 8th May 1943.


“The day after Tanngoucha fell, there was a plan made on a high level. The Irish Brigade was to push through across the hills and towards Tebouruba. There were a lot of report lines and code names for objectives and we were to push on as fast as possible.

We started off at midday and the CO was in a shocking temper from the start. The first thing that happened was that he saw a half empty jar of rum on the ground, and told John Kerr to empty it out, but John, with an eye to the future, carried it along till the CO saw him, took the jar, turned it upside down and watched the last drop run out. Then Stephens came and reported he had a man who refused to march so he was told to tie him to a mule and make him.

We crossed over to the left side of Tanngoucha and down into a deep valley beyond. The Colonel told me to keep a careful eye on the map. This valley was steep sided and the hills on either side were red sandstone in parts and grass covered in others. The bottom part was pleasant enough with a stream running down and odd trees. It was stuffy and there was no sign of life on the hills. Along the path, we found a man sitting with a Bren and when the CO asked him what he was doing there and he said he couldn’t go any further, the CO picked him up by the collar and pushed him in front and threatened to shoot him if he stopped.

We got shelled once and there was a sniper somewhere, who bothered us but didn’t do any damage. About four o’clock, the CO asked me where we were on the map. I had been following carefully and was pretty sure I knew, so I pointed to the track junction I reckoned we were on. I was told not to be “a bloody fool” and the Colonel pointed to a track, which must have been two miles away from mine. Anyway, he told me to contact the RIrF, who were on a mountain to our left. As it was a mountain it was a very stiff climb. When I arrived at the top and contacted Colonel Butler, he told me to get my breath first and then I explained the situation. He showed me where they were on the map, which proved that I had been right all along. Then I got on the wireless to the Brigadier, as we had been out of touch for hours owing to him being in the valley: sets don’t work well in a valley. I told him what was happening and received a rocket for saying too much at a time as he was trying to write it down. Then I descended the mountain and reported to the Colonel and before I had time to speak, he motioned me to a rock, which we climbed and sat on a smaller one. Then he said, ‘We’re both tired and in bad tempers – but where the hell are we?’

The Bttn had pulled into a gully running off the valley and were having dinner. It was decided not to go any further that night but to send out patrols up the valley. The rations came up by mule train as usual with Dicker and Pollard and nobody saw them pass the end of the gully so they went on for a long way and narrowly missed being put in the bag. 

Next morning, the Bttn pushed on up the valley and got two companies on to a steep hill called 416. There was a lot of confusion on the top and there were casualties and several chaps got put in the bag. Bttn HQ got part the way up the hill and stopped there for three or four days.

It was very hot there and all the streams were salty. As well as that, some of the water sent up at night was also salty, which made it very unpleasant. The stream at the bottom ran through a sort of gorge along the bottom of the cliff on the far side, so we made a dam and got about two feet of water to bathe in. 

The local muleteers did good work bringing our rations up every night. It was about three miles back to Tanngoucha and they had to start from another couple of miles behind that. They used to make the return trip each night. Some of the mules stayed up with us the whole time and were kept in the river bed. One day. Jerry dropped a few mortars over the other side of the valley near the mules. The Algerian troops started to take the animals further down the stream and it looked as if a panic was going to happen; Burton, the Pioneer officer, jumped out in front of them brandishing a pistol. He got a rocket for that, and the CO said ‘It was a magnificent gesture, but who did he intend to shoot?’

One night, there was a mix up on who was supposed to be duty officer. John Kerr, Burton and myself were to split the night and somebody failed to awaken somebody else; we never sorted it out, which was probably just as well. As it happened, the sentries also were asleep and no one heard the mule train go past. It shows how tired we all were when a mule train, and considering the noise it makes, could be left to pass. They went breezing off into the blue and most of them got pinched. It was providential that when we afterwards got the chaps back and a Court of Inquiry was held, the two members of the Court were Burton and myself. The three of us got an imperial rocket over the business the next morning.

Before dawn, one morning the CO and myself set off to keep an RV east of Medjez at 1100hrs. We walked as far as Tanngoucha and picked up the staff car there, and a DR on a motor cycle. Then, we drove along a track, which had not been there when we fought our way up to Bettiour, and down more bad tracks to the Medjez road. We were going fairly slowly and just entering Medjez when one of the back wheels came off the car. The studs were bent when the axle hit the road so it was impossible to mend it. The CO looked at me and the M/C and asked me if I could ride. I said “yes” so he said ‘very well, you take me on the back and we will get on.’ I told him he would have to read the map as I would have enough to do riding the bike. I was not at all happy about taking him on the back, as I had seldom ridden with a pillion before and he was about twice my size. However, we set off and got going all right. We went about five miles up the wrong road but eventually got on the main Tunis road which had a good surface, and went about eight miles east, then we turned down a side road, which was about three inches deep in sand. Now on an M/C, sand of that kind is worse for skidding than water and we started to skid all over the place but did not come off altogether.

We arrived at the RV just after 1100hrs and found nobody there. I took the bike and had a scout round but could see nobody. There were a lot of tanks and transport collecting in the area. We waited over an hour and then went back to the main road and on a bit further and found that the map reference we had been given was wrong.

At that stage, the CO gave me a message to take back to Bttn HQ. I got back to Tanngoucha all right and decided to risk riding down the ‘Valley of Death’ as far as the bottom of the hill. I nearly got stuck a couple of times on the mule track, but made it in the end. I delivered the message and got some food, as I had eaten nothing since before dawn except for some chocolate and it was about 1600hrs by now.

I started to go back to the CO and found that the back tyre was soft, so I pumped it up and set off. It went flat several times and each time I managed to borrow a pump and got on a little further. Just over Tanngocuha, I noticed my haversack had fallen off the back of the bike. I turned back straight away, but I am sure that some local muleteers had pinched it and I lost all my washing kit and a certain amount of money and papers.

I got fed up pumping the tyre and as I was passing near ‘B’ Echelon where Major Bunch was, I called in and asked him for another bike as I had to get back to the CO. He gave me some tea and said there was only one bike in the place and pointed it out. I had some difficulty starting it but got some of the lads to give me a push down the slope and it went all right. I had gone about five miles when the back wheel stopped going round and I damn near fell off. After a good deal of kicking and swearing, I got it going again and did a mile, stopping again just outside a mobile workshop. The lads there had a good look at it and found there was no oil in it; they filled it up and stuffed up a crack in the sump with some rags and it went grand for several days after that.

It was dark before I got through Medjez and I couldn’t find the CO at first. When I did, he said he was glad to see me back all right and went to a mess of the Brigade that was in the area and got some dinner. Then we went back to the main road to wait for the Bttn to arrive. It had got very cold so I curled up in my gas cape with a stone for a pillow and had a snooze. The Bttn arrived about midnight and they were put into the area we had recced.

We stayed in this place for several days. It was a flat grassy area and we lived in bivouacs, and there was a stream running through the middle of it. There were two companies in a defensive position on a hill about a mile from us which I had to visit sometimes, and when the other two companies moved up in line with them, Bttn HQ moved into a gully behind them.

It was not a nice gully we now were in as there was no vegetation and the soil was chalky. The road up the gully ran half way up the side and one had to come down a slant into the bottom and I came off the bike twice coming down.

The CO had a command post dug into the side of a hill. It was about six feet square, and had a tarpaulin over the whole thing to keep the light from showing at night and one had to crawl under it to get in. There was nothing inside except a table and chair and the telephone and this is where we used to do a telephone stag (duty). I slept in a slit trench with a gas cape over the top and was fairly warm. I had got my washing kit replaced, as I had been sharing my batman’s The usual way of replacing kit lost in that way was to see the CQMS and he then got what was required out of kit that had been sent back belonging to wounded etc.

My batman at the time was a fellow called Rucroft, I had had to part with Sketch Macgrath while we were on 416; Rucroft had been in my platoon and was a bit bad on his feet, so I got him for that reason; he was never much use as a batman, but I never had the heart to sack him.

On May 7th, they parked a lot of guns – 25 pounders – right behind the gully. One in particular must have been pointing right over our heads and it made me jump every time it went off as they banged away most of the night.

I had been sent off the previous day to locate Brigade HQ, which was down a track off the main road leading out of Medjez, more south east than our own. I had found them all right; I had to go about six miles along the main road; the track led off to the left and ran right alongside the main road for a hundred yards and then turned down the field. It was all very vague and hard to tell where the road, track and field all began and finished. From there, I went up another side track to a farmyard, which had two gates very nearly beside each other and it was just possible for vehicles to turn in one and out the other. Then the track wound up a hill and petered out. From the end of the track, I crossed a coil of dannet wire and walked 100 yards through the heather and found the Command Post well dug in and camouflaged.

On the night of 7/8 May, I had decided that as the CO’s car was not being used, it would be a good place to sleep, so when I came off stag, I had a nip of whiskey with Burton and curled up in the back of the car.

At 0200hrs, I was told the CO had to go to Brigade and I was to guide him there. It was a dark night and drizzling rain,; it was difficult to find my way in the dark, but we got as far as the wire all right and I knew we were within a stone’s throw of the CP. We searched about in the heather for ten minutes before we found it: goodness what the sentry was doing, if there was one.

We were told we were to move into Tunis, which had been our goal for months; it seemed as if it would be the end of everything if we reached it. Reports were vague and street fighting was imminent. We were to move up to Mornaghia and await orders. The Brigade convoy was to pass the end of our road at 0900hrs and we were to join in behind it.

I returned to Bttn HQ and was told to recce a possible short cut out to the main road. I went down the proposed track and it didn’t take long to decide that it was not fit for trucks. I got the bike wheels muddied up (stuck) twice and was late for breakfast when I got back. I cursed my batman and the cooks and even the cook sergeant – a dangerous thing to do – but anyway I got my grub.


Entry Into Tunis – 8th May 1943.

The Bttn embussed in high spirits and fully armed for the expected street fighting. The convoy made its way the half mile to the main road to await the rest of the Brigade passing through at 0900hrs. Then we got there, the amount of traffic was unbelievable; every kind of vehicle in the army must have passed during the next hour; it would have been impossible to squeeze even a few trucks on to the road, much less a Bttn. All this transport was heading east – towards Tunis. At 1000hrs, we got on the road and joined the rush.

We crossed the brow of the hill and Tunis lay before us. It looked so clean and the houses sparkled so in the sun; it was hard to think there could be a dirty street in it. Anyway, it was our goal and we were determined to get to it.

The RV was at La Mornaghia about five miles from the city so we turned down a side road and parked in a field for lunch and to await orders, I spent most of the time doing copies of a rough sketch map of the city we had just got hold of.

Orders came through at last. We were to clear the southern half of the city while the LIR did the northern half and the RIrF stooged round to stop any Jerries running away. The Derby Yeomanry had been in, but no infantry.

The chaps embussed again and we moved off. When we got to the main road again, we saw a column of German prisoners marching towards us in threes, the column disappearing round the corner. There seemed something strange about them and we realised that there was only one British soldier about every two hundred yards; the Germans were virtually unguarded. There were more coming out further on. Rows of them. The smell was terrific.

My bike petered out and I had just about done fiddling with it when the MTO arrived and gave it a kick and it went lovely. I caught up all right.

When they reached the suburbs, the chaps got out and walked. The CO got in a carrier and picked up an interpreter. I followed him on the bike. The chaps walked in single file along the footpaths and the Adjutant stood on the first corner ticking off fellows, who were carrying their rifles slung instead of in their hands.

We hadn’t gone very far when the column stopped. I was sent up to the front to see what was wrong. There was a big square with a gate at the far side and the leading platoon was at the gate. with the square pretty full of civilians. Apparently, the LIR had got into our area, and Jerry had packed in, and there was to be no street fighting.

When we were able to proceed and got to the main streets, we found them packed with people, all cheering, clapping their hands, waving flags and throwing flowers around. The carrier pushed its way through and we, on the bikes, followed up, and we could only catch occasional glimpses of the chaps on the pavements.

The CO decided to make for the RV at the south end of the city and sent me forward to tell the leading commander to turn right. I had a job getting through the crowd and had to push the bike against people as it had no horn. I was seized by a French policeman and kissed firmly on both cheeks. I was unable to push him off as I was holding the bike. By the time I reached the company, they were well past the turn, but they took the next one and got back all right. We gradually left the town behind and settled down for the night about three miles out. Marvellously, none of the chaps went absent although the people had been all over them and given them flowers and beer and vin rouge.

The Bttn HQ transport. ie the carriers and the office truck and cooks’ truck, was parked in a quarry beside the road and we settled down near a tree each. Everybody likes sleeping near a tree even if it doesn’t give any shade. I suppose it gives a certain sense of security and makes it easy to find one’s bed in the dark. There was no duty officer so we all got a full night’s rest.

In the morning, an officers’ mess of sorts was established on the other side of the road in a small field. There were only a couple of tables rigged up from local wood and we sat on boxes, mostly Italian ammo boxes. By the evening, they had a 160lb tent up. There was a bone factory a hundred yards away and we found a couple of very dead horses there, the flies were so thick that in the mess, we had to continually shoo them off the road, while we took a bite and then they walked round the edge of the mugs. Next day, we moved to a pleasant olive grove half a mile south.

Here, we had a better area. The companies were well spread out and Bttn HQ was more or less alone. There were tracks leading through the trees and it had been an Italian ammo dump: every hundred yards, there was a pile of shells about a yard square and six foot high.

We got a good mess organised. We had acquired two large Italian tents and got proper tables and chairs and even some bad linen, which did for tablecloths: it was white anyway. Someone went into Tunis and got some crockery, cups and soup bowls. The cups and bowls were rather like flower pots and the glazing wasn’t all what it might have been, but after having had nothing for so long, it seemed very homely. I was sleeping in a bivouac with the minimum of kit as the heavy baggage had not arrived. We had a perch rigged up over the latrine; this was much more comfortable than a plain slit trench.

Brigadier Nelson Russell came to dinner one evening. We all sat down together and things were a bit cramped. We had a light in the tent run off an accumulator belonging to a wireless. None of us could leave until the Brigadier moved and he stayed talking till about eleven. During that afternoon, the pioneers had been getting some wood from one of the piles of ammo (it was all in wooden boxes) and somehow it went on fire, so for the rest of the day, the pile kept exploding and pieces of shrapnel flew all round the camp; some quite big pieces. One went through the MO’s tent and into the padre’s suitcase and punctured his surplice; he didn’t stop moaning for a week.

The bangs were still going off when the Brigadier was there.

During the next week, I was sent on three jobs, all of which turned out to be ‘wild goose chases’. There were rumoured to be large dumps of enemy equipment in various places. The first one I was sent to recce, was one of medical supplies, which was located at a map reference on the other side of the salt flats near the camp. These flats were really a dry lake about four miles across so it was nearly ten miles to the dump. I went off on the bike and was to find out how much stuff there was and how many men should guard it.

After a bit of searching and interrogating the inhabitants, I found five lots of medical supplies in five houses. Two had been looted and of the others, I reckoned one could be moved so and so the whole thing would only need three guards. There was a Cpl on one of the camps belonging to the RAMC, who said he had no intention of moving without orders from some medical brass hat. I told him I would be along with a guard later as it was a Brigade order that we take over the dumps.

I returned to camp and reported what the guards needed and 2/Lt Nicholls was to have them ready and I would guide him out. At 1800hrs, we started with a couple of trucks and myself still on the bike. We arrived at the place where the Cpl was and he still refused to leave the place but didn’t mind us putting a guard on; I thought he was impudent and told him so, although I admit he was only doing what he was told.  It was no use putting a guard on for nothing so we took the whole lot of men back to camp. It was cold going back as the sun had set and I was wearing KD shorts and shirt. I got into the mess and reported to the CO, who approved of what we had done. I also had a large whisky.

A couple of days after, I was given a four figure map reference that covers nearly a square mile, and told there was a dump of some sort there. I had about ten miles to go to this one too; I found the area all right. it was on the side of a heather covered hill. All that was there was a large open shed with several broken parts of engines lying round. I had to search the side of the hill, of course, in case there was anything hidden in the heather. This took some time and there was nothing there anyway.

The third trip was out to the Tebourba road on the other side of Tunis. There was alleged to be a dump of aeroplanes there.  I crossed the city, damning the bad sets and tramlines all the way and reaching the spot, and I found a lot of RAF chaps there. I located the chief chappie, who told me there was a dump there all right but the RAF had been there for a week and had no intention of moving. I completed the afternoon’s amusement by going out another five miles or so to have a look at a Roman aqueduct. It was in very good condition but there was a large piece missing over the road.

We were there a week when we were given a new area. Bttn HQ was to move to a large fort called ‘The Battery’, on a hill overlooking the village of La Mornaghia, which was really an outlying suburb of Tunis, and also having a lovely view of the sea. The companies and officers’ mess and sleeping quarters were in the olive groves round the slopes of the hill.

The officers were established in a row of stable like buildings in a yard and the QM’s department filled the other side along with a recreation room, which, as far as I know, was never used except for Court Martials. There were tunnels and trenches leading all over the place and underneath there were more tunnels with ammo stored in them; there were lifts for bringing up the ammo to the guns; there were no guns in position but, anyway, we all expected the place to blow up any day.

I had no tent and as most of the officers had acquired one of some sort, either German or Italian, I asked the Doc, Bob Wilson, if I could sleep in his. He had an Italian tent, which he usually used as an RAP but as he had a another hut in the camp, he had plenty of room.

The Officers’ mess was the same big tent as at the last place. We got a gramophone going and some more plates. We used to make our own lemon drink with half a lemon and water and sugar. I made a couple of fly swatters as the official ones had not been issued and these were a great success and the CO used to challenge us to get fifty up before lunch; there were lots of flies as there was a village nearby.  

The pioneers got busy and made a beautiful two seater latrine. This, they located under the shelter of some bushes right on top of the hill so that one had a wonderful view of the sea. They also provided a novel which, being written in French, wasn’t much use for reading, but the pages were very useful.”



 

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