“We Buried Them In The Dead Of Night”

I was a 19 year old Sergeant in command of 17 Platoon in February 1943. During one afternoon’s briefing for the coming night, I was told to take my platoon out after last light to an area very close to the front of our Company position. We were to bury some German paratroopers who had been killed during an attack on our position “Grandstand Hill” some 15-16 days before.

Arriving at the burial site only a few yards beyond our wire, we commenced collecting the dead paratroopers on stretchers and placed them near a communal grave being dug in a gully. Whilst collecting six bodies lying in a gully leading up to our wire, we noted that the body nearest the wire was that of a young officer. He was lying on his back with his head resting on his knapsack and his right hand was on his chest. Under his hand, there appeared to be a photograph which was collected by one of our party.

We buried 15 bodies that night and a further 9 the following night making a total of 24. All the bodies were in an advanced state of decomposition and were basically held together by their uniforms and equipment – the smell was awful. The reason they had not been buried before was simply that we did not know they were there because of the nature of the terrain i.e. rocks, gullies and dead ground. The first intimation of those bodies was the smell!

The following morning when we were having breakfast in our trenches, the photograph found on the officer’s body was passed around from trench to trench. It showed a very attractive young woman of about 19 or 20 with an equally attractive child of about 12 months in her arms. Both were smiling and waving at the camera, probably saying bye-bye to a young husband and father going off to war. As the photograph was passed to each member of the platoon, no one made any comment. I know that I, like everyone else, found it a very poignant moment to think that the young officer had taken it out of his pocket to say goodbye to his wife and child before he died.

I remember thinking to myself, what in the name of God are we, young men from about eight different nations, doing killing each other in these God forsaken and barren hills of Tunisia. That thought quickly passed and we just got on with the war. The thing we could not get rid of was the smell of decaying human flesh; it seemed to cling to our uniforms like cigarette smoke.

One other fact made the burial of those German soldiers even more poignant. On the day they were killed, the Germans had attacked our position on “Grandstand Hill” about an hour after first light and we were fully prepared to attack their positions on “Two Tree Hill” that night. One of our two attacking Companies was to have been mine – ‘D’ Coy. Due largely to the amount of ammunition used repelling the German attack, ours was called off. The thought occurred to all of us that had the Germans not attacked that morning, then they would probably have had the honour of burying us.

I continued to serve with the Regiment in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy until the end of the war and was never again involved with burial parties.

The German soldiers who opposed us (the 38th Irish Brigade) in Tunisia belonged to the Herman Goring Parachute Division. They were among approx. 300,000 Axis troops who surrendered in May 1943 when all fighting ceased in Africa.