Christmas in Tunisia

“Winter rains had replaced summer drought with a vengeance. We were part of the 1st Army under General Anderson but this army was, in reality, barely a division in strength and included the two battalions of the Irish Brigade, one independent Guards brigade, a couple of regiments of tanks and one of armoured cars, a brigade of paratroopers, a motorised battalion and some ancilliaries.

The Skins were the first Irish Brigade unit in the line. We followed and the quartermaster set up the supply base in a wooded area close to El-Aroussa to the west of the front that was to be used for the next three months. When we arrived, we found boxes of rations had been broached and the more attractive items of food and cigarettes replaced by a half brick. This felony was compounded by the thought that sailors had risked their lives to bring half-bricks thousands of miles to be dumped in the hills of Tunisia. The absence of comforts was to be a trial and it would be months before fresh food and bread would replace the eternal hard tack.

E Company was detached and used as a standing patrol on a feature named Baldy. At the supply base, I was given a six-figure map reference for the company. In the middle of the night in pouring rain, I set off in our three-tonne truck with just the driver and Billie Allen. He was nervous. Half way along the road towards Medjez el-Bab, he thought I’d fallen asleep. Billie swore very violently but he need not have worried as I was occupied looking for a track on the right side of the road. I knew that if we missed the turn, we could easily finish up as prisoners. We were driving without lights and every instinct prompted me to turn back. But we found the track and moved carefully in the direction of Baldy. Arriving at our destination, I got out clutching my loaded rifle to look for signs of life. A figure appeared and challenged me. It was our guide to the company. I unloaded food and water and returned to base. This adventure emphasised the importance of spot map reading, a skill that was often lacking even among the officers.

The company remained on Baldy for days without relief. I had the nightly task of locating them. Christmas 1942 arrived and the menu was, as usual, compo rations. The haggle over the indivisible 14-man packs continued daily and the quartermaster knew the latest figure down to the last man. E Company moved from time to time to new locations that were just map references. Changes occurred and Major Gibbs was succeeded as company commander by Captain Costello. Subalterns also seemed to change but the sergeants remained. Lieutenant Reidy, the Irish rugby star who almost knocked all my teeth out, had an accident and was evacuated to a hospital at Thiba. I was ordered to deliver his kit, which I did in a truck.

I drove over the hills into a beautiful and peaceful valley with a White Fathers monastery at its centre that had been requisitioned as a general hospital. The setting was like Shangri-la. After completing our task, we were entertained royally and given, or sold, the most delicate vintages. But conditions on the front were very uncomfortable because of the continuous rain and associated mud which made driving difficult and walking almost impossible. Enemy patrols were often active. Vic Blake, the shoe-shop worker from Brixton, was taken prisoner while taking a dispatch at night on a main road. Our first casualty was a rifleman who was found shot. He obviously could not stand the privation, tension and lack of sleep. Our chaplain Father Hayes visited the companies regularly.”


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