CQMS Edmund O’Sullivan recalls the events of April 1943, when the London Irish Rifles returned to front line action with the Irish Brigade, and the battalion took part in the assaults on the Djebel Massif to the north of Medjez-el-Bab and which was a key element underpinning the 1st Army advance towards Tunis.
“The brigade once more entered the line refreshed from its rest and captured Djebel Mahdi with little loss. From there, we took over positions around Bettiour, a rocky hill about five miles north of Medjez el-Bab. As usual, I brought up supplies but, unusually, was required to do so during the day. On my first trip, I left the cooks and their kitchen equipment well below the skyline. After about two days, I discovered that they had moved and had built a cookhouse just below the crest of the hill.
I sent a runner to E Company Commander Major Lofting to tell him I was reluctant to bring my string of mules carrying supplies over the skyline. The runner came back with a message that more or less suggested that I was ‘chicken/. I argued no more and led the mules as directed. We had no sooner neared the approach to our cookhouse when a salvo of shells was dropped on us. I shouted: ‘Duck,’ and threw myself on the ground, where a shallow trench had been started. The six inches of cover it offered saved me. Most of the mules were killed or wounded. Rifleman Thomas ‘Snootch’ McDowell, who I was escorting, was dead and half my muleteers were wounded. The shelling was seen from BHQ and they said: ‘Rosie’s bought it.’ Lofting later had the grace to admit he was wrong and had the cooks moved back out of sight. I think BHQ put it all down to my carelessness, rather than an order. After that close shave, I became much more wary.
The London Irish were ordered to advance on the night of 15 April. They took up positions on Bettiour and Madouna, hills north of Medjez el-Bab, and held them for several days under spasmodic mortar and artillery fire. The plan called for attacks along the entire Allied 100-mile front. The 78th Division was to make the final push into the mountains west of Tunis in preparation for an armoured breakthrough along the Medjez el-Bab road to the Tunisian capital. The Irish Brigade was ordered to take the hills of Tanngoucha and The Kefs and the village of Heidous. The London Irish were allocated the task of attacking Heidous. The attack was planned for the evening of 22 April.
“At 545pm, an enormous barrage, which was the most concentrated I had experienced, was laid down on the targets. F Company and G Company made their way down the rocky rear slope of Bettiour. F Company formed up around the outskirts of Heidous and advanced towards the village under murderous machine gun and sniper fire. The forward platoons were held up and the reserve platoon under Sergeant Norman attacked from the right. There was utter confusion. E Company was ordered to support F. Meanwhile, G Company had experienced a setback and their commander was wounded. They had gained their objective but retired at dawn as they had received no support.
The remnants of F Company laid low until dawn and then withdrew. E Company returned to Bettiour. The Faughs and Skins had with difficulty and great bravery attained their objectives. The following night, E Company scrambled down from Bettiour and I followed immediately with my mules. It was eerie making our way by the light of the fires still burning in Heidous. As we entered it, all was silent and we passed lines of three or four dead London Irishmen led by an NCO with their weapons in front of them. I saw a sergeant leaning back against the wall of a hut. I did not recognise him. He had no head. We had taken Heidous, home to the villagers who had scratched a living from the bare soil. It could not have been strategically important as it was only a small mound on the rear slope of Bettiour. Tanngoucha and Le Kefs had also all been taken. Longstop Hill, which commanded the road from Medjez el-Bab to Tebourda was captured after a hard fight.
We now set about clearing the last few hills. I went up to the company with a string of mules. Once more, Lofting refused to return the animals. I made my way back to the mule-point on my own. As I was crossing a stream in a valley, I was caught in a salvo of shells. My first instinct was to get down, but I took shelter in a hollow behind a group of rocks where I joined the illustrious company of the battalion’s commanding officer Colonel Scott, Brigadier Russell and the Divisional Commander (General Evelegh). I felt safe but was very demoralised as I had a narrow escape. In a lull in the shellfire, two more soldiers rushed into our ‘funk-hole’. One was wounded and the commanding officer had to prompt me into using my field dressing on him. The brass left us. After recovering a little more courage, I made my way back to mule-point where I received my usual dressing down for leaving my mules. The brigadier’s driver had been killed sheltering by his jeep which he had halted by the stream.”