Percy Hamilton – On the Tunisian front line 17 March 1943

On Patrick’s Day 1943 we got three bottles of beer between two men. I believe that most of the officers went off to Brigade, but I was not in the know, so there were only a couple of us left in the lines

Baths, which were a problem for the men, were also a problem for officers. The men were sent off to the mobile bath and got a hot shower. Officers are supposed to go at a special time, which is often inconvenient and nearly always in the late afternoon when it is getting too cold for standing round the invariably draughty bath houses. I have often since gone along with my chaps, but in ‘Melody Gully’, I had an excellent bath in a large biscuit tin, after which I put down AL 63 on my clothes because I was bothered with fleas. I believe that it does some good with fleas, although the chaps say they thrive on it.

The new anti tank weapon, the PIAT arrived. We had instruction on it, and in the usual Army way, we learnt its weight, length, how to cock it and un-cock it, how to hold and aim, but it was not possible to fire any practice shots because we had no spare ammo.

I did a summary of evidence, which pleased John Norman; this was unusual to get such a reaction so it must have been a good one. I also went to a court martial to produce two chaps’ Certified True Copies of their AF Y220. I had never seen the two fellows before and the words ‘Whom I now recognise’ came as a bit of a shock; however we got round it all right.

Another advance party was sent off and I was sent again. This time, the Bttn was moving a few miles west of Beja. We had to make a wide detour because the enemy held part of the direct route. We arrived about midday and found we were taking over from the Grenadier Guards. They were in the 6th Armoured Division and we had only just left that Division and joined the 78th Division. Bttn HQ was a farm almost overlooking the enemy lines, which were a couple of miles away; there was one of those irrigation wind pumps at the place and it was afterwards called ‘Windmill Farm’.

‘A’ Coy’s area was a shallow gully about a mile back towards Beja. The rear party of Guards was still there when I went to recce it. There was a small amount of rubbish and boxes lying about, so I collected the biggest box that I could find and the top part of the cap off a truck; these I used later to improve my dugout. I picked the area which already had the best dugout for my own platoon, and afterwards Sgt Brooks and Sgt Ford and myself worked at it until it was big enough for the three of us. When finished, it was about six feet square with one side partly undercut and was eight foot high where the cab was the roof, and a little more where we had a bivvy for the rest of the roof. There was flight of stairs into it and a big box for stores at the top of the stairs.

In the evening, about dusk, the whole advance party had to RV in Beja. We waited at a cross roads for three hours before the Bttn arrived. Someone made tea inside the truck and that warmed us up a bit. One of us had to stand outside the truck in case we would miss the convoy, and we took it in turns. David Schayek kept looking in to see how the tea was getting on, while he was on, as it was very cold outside. There was an M/C combination parked on the opposite side of the road; jeeps had not replaced them yet.

When ‘A’ Coy arrived, I got into the first truck; it was a 15 cwt this time and had a hole in the roof for an air sentry. I had to stand up with my head and shoulders through this and it was mighty cold after the four miles or so. I got the TCVs to pull in to the left of the road so that the rest of the Bttn could pass through. The area was on the right of the road so the chaps had to cross over. I started to guide the company transport in, one at a time, but one 15 cwt did not wait and got a front wheel stuck in a slit trench. It was very dark and I fell into a slit myself. Also, don’t get misled into thinking we call them fox holes. The term is never used in any unit I have met and I believe it is only used by newspaper reporters and Americans.

Next morning, we made a plan of defence in case of emergency and got more positions dug. One of the chaps came along and said there was a rifle lying on the road and thought it was booby trapped, and would I come and look at it. I went along, but I couldn’t see how it could be booby trapped as I had been in the area since the Guards left and there had been a sentry near the spot all night.

I had a good look round the rifle and peered underneath without touching it; then I stood up and pushed it with my foot. Nothing blew up so I picked it up. It was a beauty. A No 4 with a leaf back sight instead of the mass produced flip up back sight, so I kept it for myself as I only had a pistol and wanted something more. At that time, there was no allocation of tommy guns to platoon commanders.

The company had to do a nightly patrol round about two miles of road in front of the positions. On the second night, Bunch decided to send me out under the instruction of Cpl Swarbrook. I wore rubber shoes as I thought they would be quieter on the road. The others, there only were four of us altogether, wore boots. Nothing happened except a partridge flew up beside us with a terrific whirr of wings and we all dived into a ditch. I found that the rubber shoes were not a success as we walked along the grass verges silently enough, and I kept falling into the ditch because the wet grass was slippery.

A few nights after, I had to take out a longer distance patrol. About a mile and a half or two miles in front, there was a road with three large farms along it. Jerry was known to send standing patrols to these sometimes, and I was about to go to one called ‘Avenue Farm’ and see whether there was anyone there. I set off at dusk taking Cpl Swarbrook and a couple of chaps, and we all had tommy guns and grenades. We went out in a sweep towards the left and worked along to the farm, parallel to the road. If there had been any Jerries there, they would have had plenty of warning of our approach as when we were a hundred yards off the farm, the dogs set up the most shocking row.

There was not much cover, but there was nothing left to do but go round the place and see what was there. We sneaked round the outbuildings and then the pigs joined in the noise. There could have been a company of Germans inside the place; we would never have heard them. The dogs we found were inside a wire compound. We went down the Avenue, which gave the place its name, as far as the road and then made our way back round the other side of the farm. The stable had been hit by a shell and there was a dead horse lying outside: it, of course, smelt pretty badly.

The moon was coming up by now so we decided it was time to clear off. We went back by a different route and I had the first experience of the almost effervescent feeling of cheerfulness that I have often felt when a dangerous job is finished. We ate the bars of chocolate, which were always supplied to patrols and were saved up out of the free issue for this purpose. Long distance patrols also got a little bottle of rum each.

I left the chaps at the end of the road leading to Bttn HQ and went to report back. John Norman was on duty and he took down all the details. He gave me a drink and seemed very glad to see me back, which surprised me as I hadn’t thought much of the job, but as he pointed out, it could have been a sticky job, had there been anyone there. When I returned to the end of the road, I found the chaps still there waiting for me so went back together.

There was a Standing Patrol to be done by a different company each night on a Bailey Bridge at a place called Oued Zarga. It was further out than the farms, but rather to the right so not any nearer Jerry. Actually, the road past the farms met the main road near the bridge. It was a platoon job and I had to go on it once. It was actually possible to take trucks to it in daylight although they could see part of the road. The whole platoon piled on to two 15 cwts and left an hour before dark. The first part we had to go slowly because the road was prepared for mines and one had to drive between the holes; it was also advisable to check up that nobody had put in few mines down for any reason. The next part was under observation so the drivers put their foot down, and it was also downhill.

There were no positions dug near to the bridge so I deployed the platoon in three large bomb craters, then went up to the cross roads beyond the bridge to have a look round. All friendly transport was reported in except two recce cars, which came in while I was down there. Sgt Ford was now my platoon sergeant as Sgt Brooks, who had taken over from Robinson, had been sent on special patrolling and had been killed. We discussed the advisability of putting some Hawkins mines, which we had, across the road junction; we decided not to, as we would have to prime them and then un-prime them again in the morning. At some point during all this, the truck bringing our rations must have crossed the bridge and gone on.

CQMS Lambert was in it and says he did not see any of our fellows; they may well have seen him and thought he knew where he was going. Anyway, just after we decided not to mine the road, he came racing in from the enemy direction, having been a couple of miles down the main road, and was glad we had put no mines down. He brought us our rations for the next day and the news that we had to stay the whole day instead of coming in at dawn. This was awkward as we had not brought any eating kit, so we had to get our haversacks sent down.

There was a line laid to the post and we had brought a telephone with us, so we were in touch with Bttn HQ. The duty officer rang up every fifteen minutes or so to check the line. We had to remain awake all night. In the morning, the Recce Corps brought a couple of scout cars to the church beyond the cross roads. I went up to see them and stayed there for a bit talking to them and got a drink of tea, and even got one officer to show us around his car.

In the evening, Ashe came down with his platoon to relieve us. He rode an M/C combination and while looking round at something, he rode the thing right into the ditch. At this point, we packed up and returned.”

Read the next instalment