Lieutenant Percy Hamilton continues his story of 6 Innisks forward progress during April 1943 as they moved forward to attack the strongly held German defensive positions near to Djebel Tanngoucha. After an initial abortive attempt to capture the strong point, Lieutenant Hamilton was transferred to Bttn HQ and became the battalion’s Intelligence Officer, which required close support to the new Commanding Office, Lt-Col Neville Grazebrook. A week later, the Irish Brigade completed their prime objectives with the Faughs overcoming pt 662 and The Angs, the Skins eventually occupying Tanngoucha and the Rifles able to enter the mountain village of Heidous. These successes allowed the Allied 1st Army to move forward on their path towards entering Tunis.
The 1st Assault.
“The Battalion left Chaouach in the late afternoon and marched in single file to a spot behind a feature called Bettiour. The first part of the march was made quite unpleasant by so much transport passing by, then someone thought they saw a aeroplane so everyone had to disperse off the road and wait for a bit.
We reached the allotted area and it became obvious that there was something brewing. There were ‘Order’s Groups and conferences going on. It was dark before we got the ‘dope’.
The Bttn was to attack a feature called Tanngoucha. It was to be a night attack and was to start within a short time, but it was impossible to get to see the ground, and all that we had to work on was the map. Maps in that country were notoriously inaccurate, and, anyway, we had no light to study ours with. Bill Bradley described a long cliff, which we were to follow, and the feature, we would recognise by the barrage bursting on it. When we got to it, Stevens was to go down the right front and I was to go down the left front. The moon was to come up in about an hour.
We started soon after we had given our section commanders what information we could; Bradley was in the lead and my platoon was first. He was a tall fellow and led off at a great rate, and my chaps could not keep up. In addition, one of the units we passed on our way out, machine gunned the end of the second platoon so the company got strung out considerably. After a mile, we had to stop to reorganise.
According to the plan, ‘B’ Company were to be behind and the other two companies on our right.
After getting organised, we slowed down a bit and kept together better. Even so, I had already lost a couple of chaps. We recognised the objective all right, a rocky conical looking feature, apparently with a cliff facing us. There was a cliff, but it was not a conical feature: it actually stretched away from us for several hundred yards like the backbone of a brontosaurus. In the moonlight, it looked ghostly, and the barrage was still knocking sparks off it. There was a level part on the left, which was actually a grassy strip, and as we approached this, we saw figures walking on the skyline. We lay down and fired at them and they fired back. This battle seemed to last for a few minutes, but perhaps it was not as long, and then someone from the other party shouted that they were Skins so we stopped firing. This turned out to be ‘B’ Company, who had somehow got in front of us, and we had a rapid conference with Major Bayley and he told me to take my chaps down to the gully below the cliff and wait there; the others he sent somewhere else because I didn’t see them for a bit. Bradley and Stevens had got round further to the right, the far side of the cliff, as I found out a little later. No one was hit in the ‘battle’.
I got my platoon below the cliff, and started looking around. There was some British mortar and MMG kit beside a sort of hut, so we knew the mules had been that far. There was also a chap wounded, and we got him fixed up and sent back. There was a 38 wireless set lying on the bank so I set down in front of the cliff and having adjusted the earphones and throat microphone started to call up. We were out of touch with everybody and I thought that if I could raise anyone at all, I might get some ‘dope’. I was calling away and happened to look up at the cliff. I noticed the sparks coming out of a rock, but didn’t take much notice. I said to myself ‘Riccies (ricochets) from some of our chaps behind me’. Then it occurred to me that bullets, being made of copper and lead, don’t make sparks on rocks, and it must be the muzzle of a Jerry MG that I was watching. I dropped the wireless mighty quick and ducked under the cliff, where I met Sgt (now Major) Richards.
Richards and I chatted for a bit and discussed the possibilities of getting up the cliff. We decided it was impossible. Next thing we heard was someone loading a two inch mortar about fifty or a hundred yards away and Stephens’ voice shouting to aim at the cliff; we shouted to hold on as we were at the bottom and Richards ran to the right and I to the left. Then we shouted for him to carry on. Jerry must have heard too as he wounded one of the mortar men and chucked a couple of grenades down where we had been. My men were still under the left end of the cliff and had been joined by Sgt McAleer and a couple of others from ‘B’ Coy. McAleer was a well known figure in the Bttn and I asked his advice about getting up the left of the feature. He said ‘B’ Coy had been trying it and he advised me not to try anything rash. We, afterwards, found that this area was mined.
It was now getting near to dawn and the ‘B’ Coy chaps had pulled out. I didn’t know what to do but as it seemed to me that we were the only people there, I decided that we must pull out too. One of my L/Cpls had stained his ankle badly on the way up but he had managed to get the whole way, so I told men to remain to help him out and the rest to go ahead and wait for us. They got away very quickly and I followed with the casualty and the others taking turns at carrying him as he could not put his foot down to the ground. As I mentioned, dawn breaks very quickly there and we had not got far from the cliff when it became broad daylight. It may have been that Jerry saw it was a casualty and did not shoot because of that, but I had the impression that there was no one on that feature at all at that moment as we were within easy MG range. We found two mules loose in the plain, so we dumped the ammo, and put the casualty on one of them. I met the CO and found that everyone had had to pull back, so we must have been some of the last men out.
I found the rest of my platoon back where we had started from and we got reorganised.
That evening, our Bttn took over from a Bttn of another Brigade on a feature called Djebel Ang, which we called The Ang. It was a long pointed hill sticking out towards the enemy direction. ‘A’ Coy was on the right forward part, and my platoon was in reserve and we dug in along a track, which ran along the side of the hill. It was easy digging the first foot or so, then we struck rock and several picks were broken. The cookhouse was on the same track further down with rations for the forward platoons being collected by one man and brought round by him to cut down movement.
There was an ‘OP’ on top of the hill with a phone laid on. There was a flap one night about a patrol that someone had seen making in our direction and I had to man the ‘OP’ along with a few chaps. We had grenades all ready and waited till dawn but nothing came. On another night, I had to go off to our right to investigate noises coming from that direction. With a couple of chaps, I got near enough to hear pickets being knocked in and a little further, we heard a string of good English oaths so we knew who it was.
One afternoon, I was summoned to Coy HQ, where Bradley told me I was to report to Bttn HQ with my kit; he thought I was being LOB (Left out of battle) for the next show. I reported to the Adjutant and he took me to the CO, who told me I was to be IO and understudy the Adjutant. I had never had an IO’s course and said so, but he told me that I would have to learn. I put my kit in the large sangar where the ‘I’ section were living in but got a rocket from the Adjutant for sleeping with the men. I also got Sketch Magrath as a batman.
The first job as IO was to visit the Irish Fusiliers, who were in front of us and slightly to the left. I was to see their CO Lt-Col Butler, and find out if it was possible to get a view of the back of Tanngoucha from any of his OPs. Also, to arrange for some of our company commanders to go out to his forward positions, which was impossible to get to by day and see the lie of the land. I went out along the Ang past ‘A’ Coy and kept along the lowest part of the hill, and reached a point where I could see some chaps in slit trenches on my right, so I went over to them to find out where their Bttn HQ was. They told me to nip into a spare slit as Jerry was sniping around there. After finding out what I wanted to know, I nipped sharply out of my trench and got behind a low wall going in the right direction and reached their Bttn HQ all right.
I first found their IO, who was going to take me to some of the ‘OP’s but the Colonel would not hear of it. He said that if the company commanders were up there at dusk, they could go out with the ration parties. I could see he wasn’t keen on it at all and said Jerry opened up if they made any noise at all. I returned and reported to our CO, who told me to be ready to take the company commanders up after tea.
Only three company commanders were supposed to be going and even one of these had not turned up so Col Grazebrook told us to go on. The two that were there were Major Bayley and Captain Duddington, and we set off and, instead of keeping close to the Ang, decided to cut off a bit and crossed a bit of open ground to the right front of it. Jerry must have seen us because he pasted the area with mortars so we nipped in behind a hill and waited a bit. Then, it seemed quiet and we made our way over to the foot of the Ang and out towards where I had been during the morning. They must have seen us again and the mortars opened up on us and we dived into some slit trenches that were handy. They then dropped quite a packet round there and we had to lie low for about a quarter of an hour. Then I poked my head out of the trench and saw Blake Duddington doing the same. I told him I knew the spot as there were three graves beside us and the RIrF HQ was just over the hill about three hundred yards away. We got out of the slits and shouted for Major Bayley but got no reply. We thought he must have been hit so we went back a little and searched about in the grass but could not find him. Despite this, we decided to go on, but by the time we reached the RV, a thick fog had come down and Col Butler said it was useless us going out, as we would see nothing. I was worried about going back to the CO with no information whatsoever but Butler said the scheme was impossible so there was nothing more to be said. We returned towards Bttn HQ, and as Duddington’s company lay in a different direction, he went off to it and I turned into A Coy to phone Bttn HQ and report what we have done, and that Major Bayley was missing. It was another ten minutes walk to the rest area and I didn’t want to lose any time. There was no trouble concerning the failure of the patrol, and actually I was then told me Major Bayley had come back an hour earlier.
The Final Assault.
The CO, accompanied by the company commanders, myself and a couple of others went after dark to recce an approach through the narrow gully between a conical hill lying to the right of the Ang and the end of Bettiour, the feature we had formed up behind for the first attack, and which was now held by the LIR. We passed down the gully and went out for some distance over the other side into the plain. There was an extension of the conical hill running towards the enemy and then a smaller cone with a little square house on top of it.
On the next day, the Brigadier met the three COs and together they hatched a plot. The Skins were to make another frontal assault on Tanngoucha, the only direction it was possible to approach, while the RIrF went along the lines of cliffs on the left and the LIR had a crack at Heidous, a town to the right and slightly in front of Bettiour, which looked into the flank of any operation on the plain. The Bttn plan was much the same as the last one. Two companies were to go left of the square on the hill and two to the right.
We started off without any mishaps. I had only just got back from a chase round on a M/C looking for the Brigade HQ to find out the password as it had not arrived and couldn’t be sent over the air. I took a tin of M & V in my hand and followed the rest of Bttn HQ. It was just getting dusk and was getting dark by the time we reached the gully. After we got to the other side, I stopped to talk to Major Bayley and walked up as far as the house with him as he was a bit mixed up. Bttn HQ kept along to the right and I followed in that direction and I couldn’t find them so I went back the way I had come and was crossing a piece of open ground when Jerry started dropping mortar bombs: it seemed all around me. I then nipped smartly to where I saw some rocks and took cover for a bit until he quieted down. Then I went on and climbing down what seemed a very high cliff, I found ‘S’ Company and they told me Bttn HQ was ahead.
I caught them up and found them making little sangars out of rocks in a shallow depression. Col Grazebrook was walking about unconcerned. I reported to him and he said he wasn’t wanting me at the moment so I got behind some rocks. There was a big cliff along the left and sometimes there was a burst of what sounded like Schmeisser fire from that direction. The CO sent a platoon to see what it was, and I think we moved on before they returned. One burst hit the Regimental Police Sergeant in the guts, and as they took his equipment off I pinched about thirty rounds of pistol ammo out of it; at the time, I was carrying the English issue of twelve rounds.
We got pretty close to Tanngoucha by now but reports from the right were bad, and things were sticky there. One company had got onto the top and had been badly mortared. Otherwise, things were confused.
When dawn broke, ‘A’ Company were on the right almost up to the foot of the objective, their only cover was a fold in the ground. ‘C’ Company was on the cliff to the left and could cover ‘A’, and Bttn HQ was in line with the others and between them. The other companies had to back out to reorganise; they made one strong platoon out of the two companies. The two companies remaining were otherwise very weak.
The situation at Bttn HQ was somewhat critical. We were up in front like a rifle company and the only chaps for our defence were about six pioneers, a few Intelligence chaps and our batman. We had one Bren gun which would work, but with no other automatic weapons. Jerry was about four hundred yards away. We were situated on a reverse slope of a flattish sort of pimple, but there was enough cover to be able to move about in daylight and by going carefully round the dead ground, one could get to the two companies. We dug slit trenches on the reverse slope and a couple on the top of use at night. The CO said we would remain where we were, and we stayed there for several days.
During the day, Jerry used to drop quite a lot of mortars; he must have known we were there because he could see us approaching and leaving the place, and used to snipe at anyone who delayed in the open, but never did any damage with the mortars. He always seemed to drop them in threes and we got to know it was safe for a bit after the third one of a bunch had landed. The worst thing about the mortars is that, although one may hear the bomb leaving the spout, one seldom hears it coming down until it explodes: with a shell, you can usually hear it coming.
One other worry was that Jerry had positions about a mile on our right on Green Hill, where he could see us, and of course, we could see him. I used to watch them going to the rear, which was not visible, but they used to walk up the hill pulling their trousers up. The village of Heidous was still enemy occupied too, so we had observation from a mile to our right rear too. He sniped one of the pioneers through the backside while on OP duty.
I used to listen to the BBC news every morning and make copies for each company, and I would nip round and give them this news sheet and any other news that I had. I had to go a long way back before I could get up the cliff to ‘C’ Coy. There was a dead Jerry at the bottom of the cliff just where I went up. He made a good landmark because he smelt so bad, and it was impossible to miss him. He must have been there since the first go, and he was all swollen and his clothes were stretched they way they do.
At night, we manned the two slits on the top of the mound. There were four officers, apart from the CO, and two of us split the night in the slits, while the other two shared the night on the wireless. There was a misty moon during the best part of the night, and the rations were brought up by mules to the hump behind us.
The CO went back to a conference and a plan was made for a daylight attack to take Tanngoucha and the feature to the left of it. The Skins were to attack after a barrage and the RIrF were to come up on the left with three Churchill tanks in support. Nobody expected to get the tanks out again, as it was not tank country at all. The attack began about midday. The barrage was mixed with smoke, and one of the guns was dropping short and several shells landed among A Coy, but did not do any damage as the men were still in their slits. After the barrage, the MMGs opened up and the chaps went forward. There was some fire from Jerry, but the attack had not been started long when a white flag appeared, followed by several more from different parts of the hill. There was a shout from our chaps that echoed right around the hill, and they went right up on the hill and completed the clearing up.
Soon after, the feature was taken. I was sent up to see exactly where the companies were and get a sketch map down. I never saw such a scene of destruction before. The top of the hill was covered with big boulders and in between were bodies, both British and German, broken weapons and shell holes. There had been no opportunity since the first attack for Jerry to bury any dead. The smell was terrific as some of the bodies had been there nearly a week.
That night, we all stayed where we were. The pioneers and the padre started getting the place cleared up a bit.”