“In the afternoon, a platoon of Royal Irish Fusiliers and six Churchill tanks of the Lothian and Border Horse counter attacked towards the knoll. They withdrew again – for what reason, I do not know. It appears that it was the sight of this counter attack coming, which has caused the Bosche to leave the knoll; thus lessening the pressure against us in Stuka Farm. Later, our counter attack force became confused, due to lack of information and the commander, thinking Stuka Farm was in enemy hands, asked Brigade for further orders and was told to attack the farm and pass through and down onto the forward positions.
Rifleman Burton with others on 26th February 1943.
By this time, the enemy was active again and Sergeant Udall, whose small patrol was still in slit trenches outside our “fortress”, risked himself by bringing word across open ground that the counter attack was being launched despite our tenancy of the farm; and that the officer in charge had said it was too late to call off the artillery fire plan. Everything seemed to be complete confusion, except in Stuka Farm. As a result, I got through on the wireless to Brigade and said I was leaving the farm for the cactus patch behind it, not because the enemy was pushing me out, but because our own artillery was going to shell me to cover their counter attack. We then broke cover and dashed across the plateau and down the slight reverse slope into the cactus patch just as the Fusiliers appeared on the scene. This attack swept forward unopposed, moved through the previously overrun forward positions and ‘restored the situation’.
The enemy fled into the wadis on the plain. Our 3 inch mortars got in some fine shooting. Earlier this morning, Corporal Hogan, in an effort to dislodge enemy who were in and around his concealed position, called down fire on his observation post and on himself. In doing so, he had to whisper over the Field Phone in case the Bosche would overhear his orders. As a result, a prong of the enemy attack was broken off just as it was about to launch an assault on Stuka Farm coincident with the one, which we, ourselves, beat off on the other side. Had this pincer movement succeeded, we would have probably lost the farm. Towards evening, our wounded were brought in, as were several German prisoners, one of whom was a sergeant in paratroopers’ uniform and equipment. “Soldat? Unteroffizier?”, I queried him. “Nein, Feldwebel”, he replied arrogantly, pulling down the shoulder of his paratrooper smock to show me his silver haired epaulette.
Several of the Jerries spoke English and they told us that they had been brought from Germany through Italy by train and then flown to Tunisia. The paratroopers were used to “thicken up” the attack. The Feldwebel surrendered by running towards the counter attack holding Schmeisser above his head. He stated that he had seen enough fighting during the war to date and had decided this was a good time to give up!
As darkness fell, Major McCann, Second-in-Command of the Inniskillings, came to the farm to get a report of the action and see what the exact situation was. He brought two more Royal Irish Fusilier platoons, which took up position in front of the farm, but not so far down the slope as the London Irish positions were.
By 730pm, Gibbs came hobbling in, wounded in the leg and Willcocks was carried in with a bad knee wound. A number of F Company, who had been captured during Gibbs’ counterattack at 7am, but released by the Faughs’ counter attack also showed up. So did Lieutenant Wade and ten men of the Carrier Platoon, who had all been scuppered before dawn as the enemy stole up on the knoll. Wade and his men joined us in the cactus patch shortly after the second counter attack had cleared the knoll. By 1130pm, two motor ambulances arrived up behind Stuka Ridge and the wounded were evacuated.
F Company relaxing during March 1943.
Back row: RSM Girvin, Major Dunnill, CSM Jackson, Rfn Burton.
Front row: Major Dunnill’s batman, Captain Galloway.
Rifleman Burton, who was Howell’s batman, was getting 11 Platoon’s breakfast ready as the attack developed. He joined me in Stuka Farm about 10 o’clock in the morning and worked like mad all day. Late in the afternoon, he got hold of some compo rations and carrying them across the open to a hut cooked a Dixie full of stew, which he then carried to all the positions in the cactus patch. This, despite the fact that enemy small arms fire was still humming around and numerous mortar bombs were bursting here and there. He also proved himself a wonder at reviving some of the “shell shocked” cases. He merely pummelled them until they came out of their “trance”. Five or six of these lads, who had bolted when we launched our bayonet charge this morning were rooted out of slit trenches towards evening and sent to the farm, all of them scared to death and in a lamentable mental state. Burton’s treatment did a great deal to bring them round.
My own close escapes during the day were many; death and capture were eluded by the narrowest margins. Other than the time when the two lads on either side of me were knocked out just before the bayonet charge and the actual charge itself across open, machine gun swept ground, my two most noteworthy escapes took place very close together.
After giving the wounded chap a swig of whisky in the cook house where he was being attended to by the stretcher bearers, I had barely left the room when three Germans entered with machine pistols and Lugers and kidnapped the three stretcher bearers. Had I been administering the whisky or otherwise off guard when they entered, I would have either been shot in my tracks or made prisoner. According to Rifleman Marchant, my foot was hardly clear of the gap in the wall, which I left by, until the order, “Hander Hach!” was given and they were threatened by three paratroopers. While they were being marched out of the courtyard and down the slope into temporary captivity, I was crossing the adjoining courtyard.
I had just entered the stable where the wireless truck was parked and where I had my headquarters, when a stick grenade came hurtling over the wall and blasted one of my men out of his slit trench. Hearing shouts in German outside the farm, I ran across the next courtyard and had just entered a corner room where Thompson, the company clerk, was keeping watch, when what was probably a German egg grenade came hurtling through the window and exploded on the far wall. The room was filled with flying plaster, clouds of dust and smoke, but no harm was done to either Thompson or myself.
I then rushed back to the wireless truck and tried to silence the dreadful humming sound, as I was afraid that, if the enemy managed to force an entry into the centre courtyard, they would hurl a grenade into the stable to knock out the wireless set, which was giving itself away by its loud humming sound. I frantically pulled wires and turned knobs, but nothing happened; so I jumped out of the back of the truck and underneath it. From this position, I aimed my pistol at the entrance through which the enemy might come – but fortunately none did! I had more ‘wind up’ at this stage than at any other time during the day. I was sure the wireless set’s humming would attract the Germans, who would toss their grenades in to damage the wireless and then follow up with a burst of automatic fire, which would completely finish me off, too!”