Percy Hamilton – Battle for Djebel Mahdi April 1943

During April 1943, Lieutenant Percy Hamilton joined the rest of 6 Innisks In the first stage of the final clearance of German forces from North Africa. The Skins’ first engagement during this period was at Djebel Mahdi, just to the north of Oued Zarga, which was completely successful. As they waited for further instructions, Captain Bradley took over command of A Company from Major Bunch.

“In front of the ‘Windmill Farm’ area, about half a mile ahead, there was a hill which was used as an ‘OP’. The company commanders were taken there and then each commander brought his platoon commanders up.

Looking across the plain beyond Avenue Farm, there was a range of mountains, one of which was pointed out as our next objective. It was called Djebel Mahdi; we called it ‘Mahdi’.

It was a nondescript sort of feature; about half way up was a small black bush and to the right of it was a gully running up almost to the top of the hill. ‘A’ Coy were to pass the black bush and go up the left of the gully, while another company went up the right of it. On reaching the top, we were to consolidate.

There were two possible ways to get down into the plain past the farms. One down the road which led to Oued Zarga and then cutting across to the left along the road past Avenue Farm towards Plateau Farm, the left most one of the farms. The other possibility was to go across the hill to the left of the ‘OP’ and straight down to Plateau Farm. Bunch sent me out on a M/C with Cpl Swarbrook to explore the possibility of the latter route. We went up various tracks, slid sideways, bike and all, down a muddy slope, and had to find another way back, as I couldn’t find my way up the slope again, and found the whole place was impossible for marching troops at night anyway. On the way back, we met a couple of locals and bought back half a dozen eggs, which we put in a respirator haversack on the back. Then I rode down a rut, which appeared to contain about four inches of water and the bike went up to the axles in it and the foot rests stuck completely. We had to lift it right out and when we looked for the eggs, they had all been broken. After all that, we found the Intelligence Section had planned the route anyway so all our energy had been wasted. 

On 5th April 1943 at dusk, the Bttn marched in single file down the main road and out across towards Avenue Farm. ‘A’ Coy was following another company and the RAP, which was mule borne, was also in front. All the heavy stuff like the company picks and shovels and the three inch mortars and MMGs were mule borne. After we got on to the flat plain, I heard a noise around me, which sounded like thousands of little birds rustling through the long grass, and it seemed almost uncanny because it didn’t seem to come from anywhere, but yet was all around. After five minutes or so, I found that one of the mules in front had caught a length of signal wire and was trailing it along beside the track making a swishing noise. The column halted, then moved forward a little and halted again. After some time, the MO and the padre came walking back and told us that one of the mules had refused to cross a wire and during the confusion, the rest of the column had disappeared into the night. They had tried to follow but had come to a very deep ditch, and they now had no idea of the way.

Luckily, we were near Avenue Farm and I knew from the patrol I had previously carried out, that if we followed the ditch, we would come to the road, so I went up to the front with the Doc, Bob Wilson, and found the farm all right. We went down the Avenue and emerged on the road and then it became obvious that the rest of the column had not come this way, as there were no tracks and we could not hear anyone in front. We did not know if the road was clear of mines but there was nothing else to do but set off down the road in the right direction and hope for the best. We kept a sharp look out for any suspicious marks in the road just in case. After going about a mile, we heard noises on our left and found we were abreast of the leading company, which had been held up by the same gully, but had crossed it further up. We waited until they passed and got in behind them again.

We seemed to march for hours then. I suppose we covered about four miles – long tracks up and down gullies until we passed a collection of mules so we knew we must be near to the lying up area. At last, we reached a large gully, where we spent the rest of the night and the following day. The only people allowed to stir were the few chaps who were put round the edge of the gully for protection. If enemy aircraft came, we were to hide and try and not let them spot us. We were fairly close to Jerry and he must not know an attack was being prepared.

In the evening, Lt-Col Allen gave us all a pep talk. He stood on a big rock with a face veil around his head, pirate fashion.  He finished up with the famous motto “It all depends on me.”

At dusk, we moved off again after a rum ration had been issued. This time, ‘A’ Coy was leading. We were to reach the black tree under a barrage, and then follow the barrage up the hill as close as possible. However, we had not a hope of arriving in time for the barrage. Following tape laid by the ‘I’ section, we made our best speed – which was not very fast when the lads are loaded with ammo – and reached the tree. Here, we had no time to get organised, but just turned left before getting in touch with the platoon on my left and the company on my right, but as they set off in slightly different directions, my platoon got stretched out. At this stage, I had trouble with a L/Cpl, who had too much rum. I should have knocked him cold, but I left him. 

We climbed for a long time and my platoon dwindled, partly because of being stretched out but also because I was trying to catch up with the barrage and the chaps just couldn’t make it. When I reached it, I found Basil Hewitt in the same state, so we had a dozen chaps and the two of us. This part of the hill was covered with heather, growing fairly thickly and about eighteen inches high. A couple of chaps got up as far as the skyline and Jerry, who was dug in on the reverse slope, opened up. He got both the two, one must have died outright, the other was hit in the guts – and we listened to him die. It didn’t take long, his screams died down gradually to a moan, and then he passed out.

Basil said ‘Let’s charge the bastards.’  Some of us were all for going with him, but one other chap was probably right and persuaded us not to. He said, ‘You can’t charge a machine gun at that range.’ Dawn was breaking and it was getting light very fast as it does in that country. Basil and I, by mutual consent, started to crawl round to the right to try and work a flanking movement. Jerry must have spotted us because something went crack between us and Basil started to bleed from the forehead. He said he was ok and told me that I had been hit in the head too. Then blood started to run down the one lens of my glasses until I couldn’t see. I took them off and put them in my pocket, but decided that I could see less without them, so I had to get them out and clean them.

I don’t know why, but at the time, it struck me as humorous that I should be lying on my belly cleaning my glasses, with Jerry only fifty yards away taking pot shots of us. I took a couple of pot shots in his general direction as I couldn’t raise my hand enough to see him without the certainty of getting shot. Basil was still near me and we crawled further over the hill. I was slightly in front and I felt something hit my back. I shouted to him not to come any further forward and I thought I had been hit. I crawled into a hole but found I was not hurt. When I undressed afterwards, I found a bullet had gone right through my haversack ripping everything but luckily missing the Hawkins mine I had on me; it had then come out and taken about an inch of the belt of my tunic away. The bullet must have passed through about half an inch from my spine.

A grenade went off to the left and there was a shout. Some of the men we had left at the back of the hill were running forward and about eight Jerries had their hands up. I ran down to where they were and got into the trench with a couple of others and with the intention of covering the others while they took the prisoners away. A couple more got into the slit and the rest into another slit near to us. Then Jerry started to machine gun us from the next hill at very long range but just hit the parapet and this stopped us moving about. We had to stay in the trench all that day. It was an ordinary two man slit, but there were five of us in it and CSM Lambert was lying in the open behind a clump of heather, so we got him into it too which made six of us inside and one along the back behind the parapet.

At about ten o’clock, we saw two Germans go into a little house down the hill in front of us. It was a ‘two windows and door in the middle’ affair, so we got a Bren and fired a couple of bursts through each window. The two Jerries came out and we were going to fire at them when two of our own chaps followed them out. I found out more than a year later that it was Stan Pollard, our A/Tk officer, who was in the house at the time. He told me that there was an oil drum in the room he was in and the bullets had pinged through it, while he got into a corner. He was in charge of some of the mules at the time but I never found out how he got in that house.

We got pretty hungry in the slit and were very cramped, and we pooled what rations we were carrying. That made about one third of a tin of M & V each and a few biscuits and enough tea to have a brew. We lit a ‘tommy cookie’ on the elbow rest behind the parapet and soon got the char brewed. We had just about finished when they started to mortar us. One dropped so close, the trench seemed to rise up all round us and the earth fell into our mess tins which was lying on the top.

When it got dusk, CSM Lambert and I got out and walked round to see how many of casualties we could find. We met some more of our chaps, who told us the rest of the company had been just over the hill from us all day – they had been counterattacked, but had held on. The position, we had been in, was not really facing the front as we had thought, but more towards the left flank and the other part of the company was facing to the right and there was a crest between us. We also heard that the CO had been killed, and we were to be relieved by the DLI that night. Then we continued looking for casualties, and found the two, who had been killed on the skyline. It was the first time I had handled a dead man, but it didn’t worry me all. We had to turn one over to see who it was. He was stiff and I then turned him on his back again. I took some biscuits out of his haversack and shared them around.

The DLI arrived at about midnight and we set off down the hill again. The company was not nearly complete with part of one platoon believed captured and there had been many casualties. Some chaps arrived back in the morning having got mixed up with other companies. We had to return to a gully very near to the one we had spent the previous day in. All of us were tired and it was a hard march. We were somewhere approaching Plateau Farm where Bttn HQ were stopping, when a figure in a mackintosh, standing by the track said in a refined accent, ‘Keep going chaps, it’s not far now’, and a voice from the back of the section said, ‘It hadn’t bloody well be!’

The refined voice belonged to our new CO, Lt-Col Grazebrook, who had just arrived.

The next day was spent reorganising and resting. In the morning, Lt-Col Grazebrook came round and met the officers, and later had all officers to a conference at which he outlined his policies in certain matters.

Next day, we had to do a sweep over some hills to the left of ‘Mahdi’. We set off down a road we had been along before, but Jerry started mortaring a bridge in front of us so we left the road and went along a gully some distance away which brought us around the danger area and back again to the road. An enemy fighter plane came over us but cannot have seen us, though some of us fired rifles at it, but without effect.

When we got near to the crest of the hill in front of the one we were to sweep, we left the chaps hidden in the long grass and crawled up to a place where we could see. The plan was that A Coy was to go round the right side of the hill, which was conical in shape, and B Coy would then go round to the left. I was to keep level with ‘B ‘Coy and another platoon would come up on my right rear. I got my chaps into a square formation with two sections up and the third section and platoon HQ behind. Sgt Walls was now my platoon sergeant as Sgt Ford had been killed on Mahdi.

When we got word to move, we set off straight for the hill. We had to cross a saddle between the hills and it was very open, and if we had met any opposition, we would have had a sticky time. Down in the saddle, Sgt Walls was killed by a mine of some sort. There was hardly any bang and I did not find out until later that anything had happened. We pushed up as far as a sort of shelf half way up, and I sent a Bren group forward to cover our right. Once they were in position, we got up to the side of the last part of the climb, and made our way up and round.

Cpl Swarbrook was a little in front and I saw him duck in behind a rock and turn to call me up. Together, we peeped round the corner and saw a white flag waving out of a dugout on a stick. We ran round and covered the entrance from each side and shouted ‘Raus’ and various impolite things and eight Jerries came out. They must have seen us coming and had their kit packed ready to go, because each of them had his haversack and blanket with him. One of them had a pair of binoculars, which I needed badly as there were not enough in the stores to supply me with a pair. Instead of taking them on the spot, I let him go with an escort expecting to get them later but, of course, I never saw them again.

We went on round the top of the hill and heard noises along a trench. Swarbrook got a grenade ready and we crept forward but it was some of our own chaps coming round the other way so we returned to the area of the dugout and proceeded to ransack it while waiting for further orders. I found a British service compass, which I kept for a long time until I was down a pair of binoculars and then did a deal with a CQMS, who was down a compass. I also found a tie, which I still have and wear on all except state occasions.

After about an hour, we got orders to return to the same gully that we had come from. It was dusk when we got back.

We had the usual guard on at night and also an officer on duty, whose job it was to visit the sentries frequently to ensure they were alert. One of the posts in this area was on the rim of the gully near to some huts. There were several dogs round the huts, which set up a howling every time we approached and I longed to shoot a few of the brutes but a shot would have had the whole company standing to.

We spent several days there reorganising and resting and also tested the Brens. Then we did another sweep over beyond ‘Mahdi’. Nothing of note happened on this patrol except one company found a Jerry clothing store and we got some clean clothes. We spent one night out and returned to a gully near another.

At this time, Major Bunch left ‘A’ Company and went to ‘HQ’ Company and Captain Bill Bradley took over.

One afternoon, I was sent out on an advance party to a place called Chaouach (pronounced Charwash). We went past the bridge at Oued Zarga and along the main Medjez road for a couple of miles and then turned north into the hills. There were three 15 cwts in the party led by Bunch and I was in the front of the third one. We stalled on a hill and lost sight of the others. At a junction where there was a CMP, we went the wrong way and he didn’t have the sense to stop us. We also had three DRs with us but they had gone on too. We went a long way following a truck we thought was ours, and had to turn finally because the road petered out. We then found a DR on his way to look for us.

After we had been given our areas, which were all very close together in a wood, and which was supposed to have been shelled earlier that day, we returned to the crossroads where I had previously got lost to await the rest of the Bttn. There were some Medium Guns on each side of the road and they kept firing and the blast was very unpleasant. It was also a very cold night.

The Bttn arrived and debussed at the cross roads and marched with the advance party as guides into the wood. There, we dug protective slits and stayed until the following afternoon.”

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