“The battalion was spread over a wide area. Between each company and even platoons were large areas of dead ground and wadis. F Company was centred on Stuka Farm, a group of buildings on a hilltop to the south of the line. G Company, now under Major Gibbs, was in the centre on Castle Hill and the surrounding features of Booby Hill and Steep Hill.
E Company was on the left near Djebel Rihane. H Company was away from the battalion. There was little or nothing between E Company, which was the reserve company, and the other three. We, in turn, were widely dispersed: 8 platoon, commanded by a subaltern aged 18, was on Mosque Hill, on the left and overlooking the thick woodland to the east. 9 Platoon was on Flat Top, on the right, overlooking Goubellat plain. 7 Platoon was in the centre on a feature called Hadj. Company headquarters was positioned at the rear of Hadj. It was an impossible arrangement. To reach 8 Platoon on Mosque Hill by track from company headquarters took over 20 minutes. To climb took even longer. Flat Top and 9 Platoon were a good 15 minutes up a steep track.
The immediate problem was the shortage of water and we relied on the infrequent calls of our small tanker. The water was brackish and loaded with chemicals. E Company commander Captain Costello, who had distinguished himself in the battle for points 279 and 286 and was subsequently awarded the MC, summoned regular O groups (O Group is an operational planning meeting), which comprised himself, E Company CSM Charnick and myself. He detailed our duties: ‘I will be duty officer from 1800 to 2200, the sergeant major from 2200 to 0200 and the colour sergeant (me) from 0200 to 0600. This will ensure that I am available during the crucial hours and will give the colour sergeant plenty of time to collect and distribute rations and other supplies.’
It actually meant that he would get a full night’s sleep while I would get very little as I had to collect rations at dusk and distribute them among the platoons in the late evening and then take over as duty officer for the rest of the night. When I was going off to take supplies to the outlying platoons, Costello said: ‘While you are at 8 or 9 platoon, make those lads take you round their positions and just check their fields of fire. Keep an eye on that other chap, I am so afraid he might do some damage to himself.’ Costello was referring to a lieutenant who was under close arrest and awaiting trial by court martial. He later became a town major in Italy.
The men, who now comprised most of E Company, were poorly trained and not a patch on their predecessors. One early morning, I inspected the forward position of 7 platoon on Hadj hill. It was dark and raining and I searched for the two sentries of one section. Finally, I saw a bren gun muzzle poking out from a pile of blankets and groundsheets. After removing a couple of layers, a voice shouted: ‘Halt! Who goes there!’ I rebuked him and said: ‘If I’d been a Ted, you’d be dead!’ (a Ted was short for Tedeschi, Italian for German). I did not report him but had a quiet word with Jimmy White (who was the platoon’s sergeant) about his sentries.
It had been decided that 24 February was to be a no transport day when any vehicle seen on the road would be strafed. There were no defined lines and both sides often used stretches of the same roads and tracks. As I could not use transport and had NAAFI rations for 9 Platoon, I commandeered a donkey. Riding without a saddle, I rode to Flat Top hill carrying a box of cigarettes, confectionery and other comforts that I would sell to the men. I had no thought of enemy patrols. A few days later, we would find evidence of a German patrol in the area. They had probably seen me on my donkey but resisted the lure of a haul of about a couple of thousand cigarettes and 30 assorted bars of confectionery. I had been very lucky.
On the evening of 25 February, I collected rations from the wadi near battalion headquarters, in complete darkness as usual. Captain Diarmid Conroy was there and he made the company quartermaster sergeants keep absolute silence as he said there appeared to be some enemy activity. I reached E Company where I was told to remain on Hadj and not distribute the outlying platoons’ rations until first light. We stood to for most of the night.
As dawn broke, I prepared to go out to the platoons. Captain Costello called Corporal Davies, Pop Eatwell, Percy Forde, a driver, and me and detailed his supply plan. Davies would go to 9 Platoon on Flat Top in the carrier driven by Pop, drop the rations and return immediately. Percy and I would go to 8 Platoon on Mosque Hill and do likewise. I did not like it. Flat Top was closer and the carrier was well protected. Our truck had open sides and a flimsy canvas hood. The journey was up a precipitous tree-covered track. But I kept my mouth shut.
We set off at the same time in opposite directions. The wire around E Company headquarters was pulled back and closed behind. Davies, in the carrier driven by a last-minute volunteer, wended its noisy way up the path to Flat Top that I had negotiated two days before on my mule. They stopped at the top, shouted and dumped the rations. As they returned to company headquarters, they came under fire. Nobody was there to open the wire to let them back into the base. The driver jumped out, started pulling back the wire and was killed. Davies managed to open the wire but was wounded and taken prisoner. Pop drove through the gap, jumped out and scurried to the nearest slit trench.
The Germans took advantage of the gap in the wire and poured through. The fighting on Hadj hill was to go on for three hours. Percy and I, meanwhile, had driven down the main track from headquarters and out on to the road past a 25-pounder battery which was firing. We turned right and took the winding path up to Mosque Hill. There was shooting and tracer flashed before us. We arrived at the bottom of the steep hill, surmounted by the mosque, and shouted, ‘Your rations are here!’ We dumped them on the ground. Percy turned the truck smartly and hurried back towards Hadj hill. More tracer was flying about. I ordered Percy to stop and, armed with a couple of grenades and our rifles, we prepared to sell ourselves dearly. We did not have a clear field of fire and could see little more than the bushes about 50 yards to our front.
I was going to move forward when the undergrowth in front of us started to shake violently. I shouted a warning to Percy and we were preparing to open fire when a goat’s head followed by about 20 others broke through the shrubs followed by a young lad. I tried to speak to him but he understood only Arabic. It was evidence that we were safe and we decided to head back to Hadj. On our way, we stopped close to a battery of 25-pounders. I tried to obtain information from them but they had none. There was a lot of firing from the direction of Hadj, evidence that E Company headquarters was under attack.
I told Percy to wait while I went up the back way to Portee Hill. I started to climb the slight rise and was immediately fired upon. I took cover, slid down the slope and walked back. When I arrived at where Percy had been parked, I found that he had gone. I asked the gunners what had happened and they said that I had been so long Percy had turned the truck and driven in the direction of El-Aroussa. I started to walk to the wadi where the BHQ was located, A dispatch rider approached. I flagged him down and he gave me a lift.
I reported to the adjutant, who took me to the commanding officer. I described my morning. He said that it was very confused and he had no information about E Company or its transport. Noting that I was armed, he told me to join the thin line of cooks, clerks and provost sergeants who were manning the headquarters’ defences. I fired a few rounds in the direction of the enemy but I was out of range of the Germans and probably did no damage. Conroy formed a fighting party consisting of himself as section leader, CSM Billy Girvin, Colour Sergeant Dann, Provost Sergeant Andy Gardiner, the cook sergeant, a couple of clerks and myself. We were to advance well spread out and endeavour to help G Company on Castle Hill in the battalion’s centre. It was hard pressed and in danger of being overrun.
I had started to move off when RSM Reid roared. ‘Colour Sergeant O’Sullivan, you are wanted by the commanding officer.’ Conroy said: ‘You’d better go.’ Thankfully, I ran to the commanding officer’s truck where he told me that he had contacted E Company at last and that they had withdrawn a couple of miles from Hadj and were dug in on a hill. They needed ammunition and I was to go with the RSM to find them as he was not certain of the position. I went back down the track, past the guns once more. I suggested that E Company had probably withdrawn to the west from Hadj. I might find them by going cross-country while Reid carried on by the track. This worked until I reached a steep cliff. On the top, I could see movement. I clambered up, feeling terribly exposed, and there was E Company. ‘I thought you were dead.’ was the greeting.
Some time later, Reid turned up with the guide sent to find him. What was left of E Company was a motley collection: survivors of 7 Platoon who had several casualties, company headquarters personnel and the drivers. Later, we were joined by Corporal Butler of intelligence, who had been on Flat Top, with two prisoners. As the light failed, Captain Costello said: ‘Rosie and Donnelly follow me. We are going to the guns where you were this morning.’ Most unusual form of address, I thought, as he had hitherto used only my rank. The three of us walked once more down the familiar track towards the scene of the day’s fighting. The guns were not firing and the darkness was impenetrable. Costello kept saying: ‘You’re lost, boy. Admit it.’ I refuted these suggestions and walked on steadily. We were close to our goal when he turned and said: ‘You’re lost,’and walked back the way we had just come.
As soon as Costello arrived at the company’s new position, he called an O Group where he announced that we would advance to Dejeilla station and there take up defensive positions. It was in fact more accurate to say we were going to retire as the station was miles away from the fighting and on the Bou Arada to El-Aroussa road to the west. By this time, it was pouring with rain and we trudged along unhappily, hungry and soaked to the skin.
Upon arrival at the station, Costello ordered the NCOs to take up defensive positions with their men. At dawn the next morning, an officer from battalion ordered Lieutenant Lyness, who had commanded the transport detachment, to march E Company back to Hadj and there to counter attack and retake the hill which never should have been evacuated. Once more I trudged the familiar track. How many miles had I walked in the last 24 hours?
The company formed up, attacked and re-took the hill but found it was occupied by only the dead, both German and British. The 25-pounders had blasted the hill with open sights and driven the enemy off. For many weeks after the battle, you could smell Hadj from almost a mile away. The stench of death was all pervading. Using an old towel, I cleaned the pieces of flesh which clung to the branches of the trees. We buried our dead with honour but not the enemy who were interred without ceremony.
F Company at Stuka Farm and G Company on Castle Hill had gallantly clung to their precarious positions while a detachment of Irish Fusiliers had protected the guns. I heard what happened to the section led by Captain Conroy which I almost joined. Sergeant Andy Gardiner and one other had been killed. CSM Girvin, Conroy, Colour Sergeant Dann and two others had been wounded. Dann’s condition was so serious he was later discharged. Conroy never returned. Later he would be Sir Diarmid Conroy, a famous judge. Billy Girvin was to come back to the battalion later.
Two wonderful provost sergeants who had been my friends had been lost. Dennis Griffin, the boxing champion who took over my platoon when I transferred to R Company before we left Scotland, had been killed on Point 286. Andy Gardiner died on 26 February. George Rock — the indomitable, ever faithful, perfect soldier, adversary yet friend — died leading his platoon. G Company Sergeant Gerry Teague distinguished himself yet was never decorated. He spoke of George’s heroism with tears in his eyes.”