CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan recalls the circumstances of London Irish Rifles’ attack on Point 286 and its aftermath.
“The battalion’s first real action involving casualties was on 11 January. H Company was given the task of covering the recovery of tanks that had bogged down in the Goubellat valley. This involved attacks on farm buildings and several casualties were sustained, including two sergeants who were killed. Both were friends, and I was called upon, much later, to help in the identification of H Company Sergeant John Hogan, 37 from Croydon. He was to remain unburied on the plain for five months. A lesson was learnt from this action. The wireless sets worn by platoon sergeants carried an aerial which could be seen by snipers. The large black and green chevrons of sergeants were much too obvious. I was to seldom wear these insignia when in or near action.
Information seldom trickled down to quartermaster sergeants and all I could do was to try to discover the location of my company wherever they then were. In the middle of January, E Company was in position close to the Bou Arada to Medjez el-Bab road. French troops were occupying a nearby village. By a little bartering of bully beef, I obtained from them supplies of sourdough bread, the excellence of which I never encountered before or since. I seldom slept, as my nights were spent supplying my company and the days involved scrounging anything that was needed for my lads. It was like a continuous dream. I remember on the night of 18 January 1943 falling asleep from complete exhaustion while visiting the company and attending an O group. When I awoke, I discovered my bed had been a sack of sharp pick heads. I left for supply base before dawn and promised to return at first dark that evening.
On 20 January, our normal convoy was prepared and we made our way to where the battalion was situated. I discovered what remained of my company on Point 279. There was no company commander and the second in command, Captain Joseph Carrigan aged 31, had been killed. Lieutenant Rawlings and Billie Allen, a sergeant and two lance-sergeants had been wounded and evacuated. An officer had refused to advance and was under arrest as was a senior NCO. It was a shambles.
There seemed to be no order or discipline. I was called upon to identify the body of Rifleman Trotter of intelligence, an old Barker’s friend. The colour sergeants were called to the commanding officer where we received a dressing down for not bringing prepared food instead of cold rations. This was complete nonsense as we had been unaware of the situation. We left immediately for the supply base to rouse the cooks and make a stew. This was put in large dixies which were packed in insulated containers.
The supply convoy reassembled and proceeded to Bou Arada and back to the scene of the battle. A very muddy and breathless Colour Sergeant Flood halted us at the El-Aroussa crossroads in Bou Arada where he poured out a story of yet another setback. The Germans had counter-attacked using tanks and half tracks and had driven off the demoralised and officer-less remnants of our companies who had broken and fled. Once again, we had received no information. But for Flood, we would have motored innocently into captivity or worse.
Flood later was to receive a DCM and promotion to CSM. He guided us to where the battalion had been gathered in a wadi. We fed the survivors. Including drivers, E company comprised 27 men compared with a starting strength of about 120. We had no officers but shared a subaltern from HQ Company with F Company which itself had been reduced to a total of 17 under Colour Sergeant Jones. Apart from myself, the only surviving E Company NCOs were Sergeant Leo McRory and Corporal Hammersley.
The next morning, Colonel Jeffreys summoned all colour sergeants whom he rebuked twice: first, for not promoting NCOs from the survivors and, second, for not requisitioning weapons from the quartermaster for those that had been lost. I dealt with the weapons first. But how could I replace a sergeant major, two full sergeants, two lance sergeants, six corporals and 10 lance-corporals? That was a total of 21 NCOs from the original 24 in E Company, many of whom who had dropped their weapons and ran. I went around offering stripes. Most who accepted them reverted as soon as they could. Hammersley was promoted full sergeant but Leo McRory refused to be nominated as CSM. The whole exercise was a nonsense and the three colour sergeants had been used as scapegoats.
Both the commanding officer and the quartermaster had been failures. Jeffreys had wasted one of the finest infantry battalions in the army, leaving it leaderless. The quartermaster had done nothing to ensure communications between his echelon and battalion. He only worried about numbers of rations. The commanding officer had engaged his battalion in a battle which was not properly planned and in which he had committed all its strength. No rifle company personnel had been reserved or left out of battle. He compounded this mistake by failing to place his troop carriers in a position where they would have prevented or warned of a counterattack.
George Charnick, who had previously served in the carriers, was appointed E Company CSM. We were reinforced, although not to full strength, from R Company and from other units. Corporal Jimmy White was promoted to Sergeant. Captain Costello took over as company commander. The next few days were among the hardest in my life as I never had time for sleep. One night, I went with the company to their position on the wadi rim. I climbed into a slit trench and fell soundly asleep without a blanket. I woke the next morning in full daylight to find myself completely alone. Because I was in full view of possible enemies, I crawled to the wadi edge and rejoined my company.”