CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan describes the first few days in North Africa after the two leading battalions of the Irish Brigade arrive in Algiers.
“We entered Algiers Harbour and berthed at the quay without tugs. It was Thursday 22 November 1942 and a beautiful morning. The sun shone brightly. We speedily disembarked, and the great liner pulled away. On the quay was a great stack of kitbags which we would not see for months. Some would be permanently mislaid.
While we were waiting, we were attacked by aircraft which were chased by some of ours. Bombs were dropped but not on us. We were formed up in companies in full marching order with a blanket on top of our other equipment. All the men also carried two filled bren magazines or a case of three two-inch mortar bombs. I carried two cases of maps of the whole of Algeria and Tunisia in large and small scale. The officers carried almost as much as the men.
Led by our sensible commanding officer, who wore only skeleton equipment of belt and shoulder straps, we climbed out of Algiers in thick service dress carrying everything in the hot midday sun. The pipers carried only their pipes. The first mile out of Algiers was a steady climb up a road that wound in a semi circle. Gradually men collapsed from heat and exhaustion. At first, stretcher bearers went to attend to them. Eventually, we left them where they fell. Gradually, my load increased. At one time, I was carrying a bren gun and a two-inch mortar but I had farmed out the case of maps. We finally arrived at an open space which was large enough for the whole battalion. We were told to take off our equipment and make ourselves comfortable. Stragglers appeared and joined us. We were allowed to open our emergency rations and have a meal, but were warned that it would have to last the full 48 hours. A water tanker appeared. We filled our bottles and brewed up in our mess tins. There was no twilight and, suddenly, the light went, although it was early evening, probably about 6pm. As soon as the sun had gone, the cold set in. We were allowed no lights and no fires. Putting on every scrap of clothing, including our greatcoats and anti-gas capes, we huddled together and tried to sleep. It was said the commanding officer went around begging for a share of a blanket. Canvas buckets had been left which the men used to wash and shave the following morning.
After eating a breakfast from their packs of biscuit, margarine, jam and potted meat, they washed it down with a powdered tea mixture brewed up in their mess tins. The battalion was paraded by companies, inspected and then led by the pipers on a route march wearing skeleton equipment but carrying all weapons. The only persons excused were the sick and the strong picket left to guard the mounds of equipment. We marched in a great circle, returning to the camp after about two hours. In the early afternoon, transport arrived with the quartermaster and regimental quartermaster in charge. Colour sergeants reported with fatigue parties and were issued their first 14 men packs of composition (compo) rations. E company strength was about 116. I drew nine boxes and was told I owed two rations. Going back to the company, I distributed the packs. This was awkward because each platoon’s strength was not divisible by 14, being about 32 men. The juggling of ration numbers was to become a nightmare, particularly when a whole box of rations was deducted as owings. The next meal was cooked, somehow, on a platoon basis. Two-man sand bivouac tents were erected in lines on the flat ground.
We were told that each platoon would leave a strong picket but the rest could go to Maison Carre, the nearest town, which was less than a mile away. We made up our beds. Billy Allen and I walked to the estaminet in the town to find it packed. The French proprietor was having a field day. I tried to attract him with my schoolboy French. Having finally been served, we obtained refills for our wine glasses by Billy shouting: ‘Encore pour le chemin.’ This worked when I added ‘s’il vous plait’ at the top of my voice. We rolled back to the camp and, with difficulty, found our tent. Without bothering to more than take off our boots, we rolled into our beds and slept. I was awakened by running water. It was raining a tropical downpour. We were no longer in a field but in what appeared to be a lake. The land had been baked the whole summer and it was as absorbent as concrete. The only dry place was Billy. I climbed on top of him while the water swirled around.
A bugle sounded reveille. Putting on our boots, we crawled out of our tents and beheld the desolation. Water lay everywhere. No one had been prepared for rain. Had we dug drainage channels with our entrenching tools, the gulleys could have dealt with the deluge. I remembered, too late, my teacher Jo Kelly’s drone about the Mediterranean climate: winter rains and summer drought. We spent the day draining the water and drying our clothes.
After about three days in tents, we were moved into billets. Ours was the local brickworks which was dry and warm from the fires at night. After about a week in the brickworks, we entrained at the nearest station in wagons on which was written: huit chevaux, trente hommes (eight horses, 30 men). We rolled along the railway for more than 100 miles to the port of Bougie. Why? After the organisation and planning for one of the greatest exploits in naval and military history and the logistical details, why on earth did not the Duchess of York travel further east to Bougie? The ships carrying the transport and other stores unloaded there. Perhaps the port was too small?
We billetted near the port. That day, I tried to speak to a little Berber boy who replied to my French with a stream of the most violent military invective. Our troops had only been there a week or so, yet had taught the young lad to swear. He thought he was speaking English. Late in the evening, the battalion transport rolled in. Our transport and TCVs were led by Corporal Allen, the company transport corporal. I saw Vic Blake careering around on a motor cycle which had been issued to him. He had never driven before, yet he was to be a dispatch rider on our 400-mile journey to Tunisia.
We were up and dressed, breakfasted and embussed long before dawn the next day. I boarded a three-ton truck. My driver was Billy Bennett from Portadown. Into the back went Bob Doonan, my storeman, where he was joined by the company cook and his assistant. As we drove out of Bougie, dawn broke over the Mediterranean. It was so beautiful that even the enigmatic Billy Bennett declared: ‘It’s a cracker!’ Our route was to take us into the Atlas mountains following a road built by the French after their army had battled their way through the mountains to subdue the Berbers. It wound its way up narrow gorges which had been carved through the rocks by a mighty torrent. The first town the convoy passed through was Setif, which was about 3,000 feet above sea level. I remember the barracks of the Foreign Legion with its tricolour and sentries in their long blue tunics, white trousers and kepis. The Berbers wore brown burnoses with the hoods raised so their faces were almost hidden. We passed the occasional family group. The father rode his donkey. The wife and children walked behind carrying great bundles. The faces of some women were completely veiled.
Continuing the journey, we saw a great flat rock in the middle of the gorge and on this was carved the name of the regiment and its commander that had fought their way through these mountains. Finally, we burst out of the towering mountains. Before us was the city of Constantine glistening in the sunshine. It appeared to be a leisurely place. The people did not appear to heed our convoy. Most were drinking coffee while others placidly sat smoking their hookahs. I saw many in pure white garments. There was an air of prosperity.
We bivouacked that night in the open. Rations and petrol were distributed. I was surprised how flimsy the two gallon containers were as they needed only a quick puncture through their thin metal skins to broach them. We were to see later that the Germans used stout jerry cans, a design that was soon to be copied by the Americans. We breakfasted early next day and progressed through the lower mountains, passing through Guelma where we were saw an equestrian statue of General McMahon (descendant of one of the Wild Geese), who was to become President of France. We approached the border with Tunisia and entered Soukh Arras in the mountains in eastern Algeria. This was where St Augustine had founded his monastery in the 5th century and from which he was said to have been dragged to become bishop of Hippo, now called Bone. During the 4th and 5th centuries, the Roman province of Africa, in which we now were, was an important cultural centre for the empire and the Christian Church.
Finally, we arrived at Teboursouk, a market town in Tunisia. Here we, the lorry-borne infantry of the 6th Armoured Division, had most of our transport removed, including the platoon bicycles. We were left with two trucks a company and would have to carry anything else we required. I surrendered all my maps except two large-scale ones of Tunisia. We had become foot soldiers.”