“Our objective that night merits description for, as a defensive position, it was unique, even by German standards. The Point 622 ridge ran out from the right front in a kind of curl. I described it as looking like a mammoth Hadrian’s Wall. In fact, it was more like a harbour mole jutting out over a steeply shelving beach.
The thing was cliff sided, about ten feet high our end, which we held, deepening to perhaps fifty feet at the other end of the feature. Nature had gone mad with its top – about twenty yards wide, it was broken up like a blown up rampart.
A little over three hundred yards from us, Point 622, itself, projected above all this natural litter – another solid slab of rock sticking up like a sawn off martello tower, with rubble around it from apex to base.
The Point was literally the key point of this, their Siegfried Line as the enemy called it. They had been there for months, perfecting it with their usual ingenuity in defensive works.
Their engineers had burrowed in to this vast natural chunk of concrete and had produced underground quarters for themselves like miniature Aladdin’s caves, and those residences were virtually impervious to shell fire.
All they had to do, when disturbed, was to sit in the top of their fortress with grenades by the sackful and toss them over the side at suitable intervals. They could defend it without even interrupting their dinner.
There were, however, fissures which, here and there, ran up the side of the thing – which it was possible to scale, one man at a time, assisting each other.
On the right of the 622 ridge – though it hardly merited so polite a geographical term – grew the roots of Djebel Tanngoucha, spreading southwards and upwards, with a relatively smooth col joining the two features just beyond Point 622 itself. That col was level with the top of the ridge so that both features were mutually supporting.
Way over left was another lump of a feature; named after Beauchamp, and thereafter immortalised in regimental history as Butler’s Hill, this position was just outside D Company’s sector.
The Germans did the obvious thing by holding 622 and Butler’s Hill in strength, with a line of pickets at night between them. They also held the whole length of the Tanngoucha col.
Djebel Tanngoucha, itself, was not held, save for its flanks, like the notorious Longstop Hill below it. Point 622, and the col between them, covered all of the Djebel – the front, the reverse and the top. It is not surprising that the Inniskillings found their task at Tanngoucha an impossible one, and, when 622 was eventually taken, the Skins walked straight over the feature without further opposition. The battle for Tanngoucha was a battle for its approaches and flanks, and the same applied to its evil neighbor beneath it.
Months later, Nelson looked at our battlefield with the corps commander. Referring to our men, he recorded that his companion had asked: “How on earth did he do it?” Nelson said that he could reply quite truthfully, “I’m damned if I know.”
In the after light, and much thought about it, I think we might have tried the Chinese water torture trick. That is, if an accurate enough gun could have been found to do it. This interesting technique was used occasionally in Italy later, and required registering a single gun exactly on to the target, firing one shell at precise time intervals – say five minutes – and continuing the treatment indefinitely. It might have driven the occupant mad after a while, particularly if a 7.2 had been available for the task.
One other thing we most certainly ought to have done was to drown the whole area in smoke, and kept it like that throughout the night of our attack with our small force. There was no need for anyone to lose themselves, and no one could have had the least doubt as to their whereabouts. They were either on that ridge or they had fallen over the edge of it and would no longer be interested. But one thing the enemy defence did depend on was vision.
The plan of operations for the night shows how far we were below our usual form. In the battalion, we knew perfectly well, where at least some of the enemy were, but this information had not been absorbed at a higher level – or if it had, it was not acted on. On our part, we underestimated both the German strength and fighting capacity, an error of thought, which was probably magnified by giving our adversaries a week to recover themselves and to reinforce the sector.
Beauchamp gave his orders at dusk and we discussed them for a while, both of us knowing perfectly well that they did not exactly fit the circumstances. D Company’s task that night was simply to capture the Point 622 ridge. The Inniskillings were going to have another go at Tanngoucha again, for the third time, and the available artillery would all be put down first on Heidous and then on the Djebel, where, of course, there were no enemy in the physical sense, though we could be sure of a deluge of mortar fire and all else on it. Tanngoucha was held by fire and not men, and we both knew this. The London Irish were attacking Heidous again, at the same time as the Inniskillings went in.
Butler’s Hill, the other half of the German defensive zone, was not provided for. It was neither attacked that night, presumably because there was no one left to attack it, nor was it included in the fire plan as a target essential to neutralise.
So far as the Faughs were concerned, this was simply a night attack by one company without fire support, and it may well have been the best thing to do. At least, it was a limited stake.
Our men were not particularly bothered. They had succeeded in everything so far, so why should they be. My briefing of them was more like that for a fighting patrol than for fighting a battle, and far too much was left to chance.
I simply asked Peter to get up out of his position at 9.30 pm when the bombardment of Tanngoucha began, and push as fast and as far as he could get with 18 Platoon – now about fifteen strong – and get on to the 622 hump somehow, if he could. I was going to take the rest of the company across the falling ground between 622 and Butler’s Hill, clear the area of the enemy and then join Peter on the ridge. After this, the rest of the ridge, not in Peter’s hands, and the Tanngoucha col, could have our individual attention.
There was very heavy shelling at dusk after Beauchamp had finished his orders – almost defensive fire intensity, beginning with the German field artillery, then joining up with the 5.9s, the whole thickened up with mortars. The top of the Kef le Tior feature erupted and the German shells were screaming down in wild pandemonium all over it. They could be attacking up and I wondered – were they? If so, we could repeat our parry and riposte of 15 April to even greater advantage. That is, if we could ever get out of our positions to form our line of battle. This was a tense enough business at any time, but it was almost a desperate one at 9pm on the evening of 22 April with that firestorm coming down upon us.
However, we got going somehow, and we made flat out in ones and twos over to 18 Platoon’s position in the saddle on the end of the ridge. This was on the fringe of the concentrations coming down on Kel el Tior, and being hard up to the enemy forward defences, we were almost inside their fire curtain. I was heartily relived when we were safely in that saddle with our men lying down quietly, Peter and his men on the right, waiting for our little zero hour, and I didn’t think many gentlemen of England now abed would think themselves accursed that they weren’t with us, not that I think our men needed Shakespeare to inspire them.
As for this extraordinarily heavy bombardment, the Germans were either anticipating or acting on intuition.
At 9.30pm, we hitched up our rifles, slung our Brens in to the hip position, and set off into the night. Beauchamp bringing his Tac HQ forward in to our positions, as we moved off.
Then our artillery came down on Tanngoucha and Heidous. At least, this was a distraction for our opponents, even if nothing else was achieved.
The opposition was heavy and immediate and afterwards, I was wondering what exactly the Germans themselves had been contemplating that evening.
Peter, with 18 Platoon, picked his way along the top of the ridge, but he did not get very far before the enemy opened up on him with small arms – rifles and schmeissers. As we were immediately below 18 Platoon, we could see them creeping forward outlined against the sky, and once or twice heaving grenades at the unseen enemy pickets. This was very encouraging, and after the flash and roar of the explosions just over our heads. I hoped that Peter would remember we were only twenty feet below him.
We only had moments to consider Peter’s problems. Moving down the draw in line, we encountered a number of the opposition coming up the draw towards us – faint shadows coming out of the ground in the darkness. We fired into them immediately with our Brens, and the criss crossing streams of tracer had their usual effect. The enemy lines melted. There were not a lot of them and we picked up half a dozen, who obligingly surrendered. The rest vanished. We disarmed the prisoners and sent them back to the CO with two of our men and continued. Beauchamp should have had quite a good view up there on the top of the rim two hundred yards back.
This incident and ensuing commotion was quite enough for us to lose touch with Peter, and moreover the noise of the shooting stirred up the Butler’s Hill hornets’ nest. A steam of parachute flares and Very lights soared up into the sky and turned the draw into a fairground – the only saving grace being the black shadows cast by the rocks, which became ever blacker and denser by contrast under the vivid intensity of the German flares. The German pickets had carried out their function, if not very bravely.
The next thing we knew was a hideous explosion against the cliff face opposite as the Butler’s Hill garrison let rip with one of their mountain guns or some equally foul contrivance; they followed this up seconds later with their Spandaus, whose screeching banshee howl came right through us and dissolved against the rocks at our feet into a shower of sparks and ricocheting tracer. Fortunately, they could only see us momentarily in those shadows, and diving for cover, we were able to crawl beyond their vision. But the one burst brought down all my Tac HQ, signalers, orderly and my faithful Clanachan
After this, we were relatively safe as we moved down the draw, leaving the Germans industriously firing into the scene of the last encounter and well behind us. However, if we were safe, Jack Birch and his mates, our stretcher bearers, were by no means so as they did their best for our men under that hail of bullets. Mercifully, the enemy was firing slightly high.
We had crawled on perhaps another hundred yards or so and then got to our feet again. Almost immediately, the German posts below 622 opened up from ahead of us. Spread out like that, we were not much of a target, and again the enemy was high. Our men fired back instantly from the hip, and with the tendency always to shoot low from this position our tracer went streaking into the ground in front of the opposition, ricocheting into and through them and accompanied by showers of fragmented rock. They stood it for perhaps a minute, just long enough for our Bren gunners to whip on their second magazines, and then they upped and bolted to a man.
This was almost the end of act one of the programme, and with the low ground disinfested, we could rejoin Peter, at least safe on our northern flank. So we swung around in a circle and immediately picked another two or three Germans, who had probably been watching Beauchamp up near the rim. We had come up behind them and they were just sitting there – skylined to us. They made no fuss and dropped their weapons as soon as they saw us, scarcely ten years from them.
At this stage, the Germans could hardly know our whereabouts or our strength. They knew that they had Peter in front of them on the ridge, but we were in the shadows of the draw and well below the line of sight of either garrison, 622 or Butler’s Hill.
We found Peter again, by the expedient of working back half way to our starting point, climbing on to the ridge, and then following along until we came up with his men. Peter, in fact, was doing quite well as his platoon crawled through the rocks, and one by one, they were shooting out the opposition.
This sniping match going on in the dark was not a very accurate affair, but the opposition were none the less pulling out and crawling back to other posts. However, there was no bolting or throwing in the towel as had occurred down below.
By the time I had found Peter and crawled up to him, about a hundred yards from Point 622 itself, and the rocky citadel was gleaming there just ahead of us, white and stark under the stars, with perhaps twenty yards of relatively smooth plinth like rock in front of it. There was no cover there.
Heavy rifle fire and an occasional grenade was coming from the Point just then, with sporadic Spandau bursts whipping across from the col, which lay just beyond and half right of our target. Tanngoucha gleamed fitfully beside us with our own shells still coming down in it in periodic salvoes. The concentrations had long since stopped and the Skins were somewhere over there – below us and not far off.
I sent 16 and 17 Platoons back and down with Fred White and Morrisey to see if they could get on to the ridge behind Point 622, and in fact after a while Fred succeeded in doing this, our warriors scaling up the crevices like the forlorn hope at Cuidad Rodrigo. The enemy showered grenades on to them from the top as they did so, and only the boiling oil was lacking to add colour to a military operation, which bore all the imprint of the Middle Ages. Fred and his men achieved their climb almost unscathed at the time, as most of the German grenades bounced all the way to the bottom before they exploded, a tactical point not realised by the humourless garrison above them.
Sergeant Morrisey waited until 16 Platoon were safely on top before attempting the climb himself, and this slight delay resulted in chaos so complete that neither side could resolve it.
To begin with, Fred managed to clear the ridge in his immediate vicinity, or at least the opposition withdrew into the shadows as soon as his men were up there and shooting. But before 17 Platoon followed suit, the hauptmann commanding sent in more of his minions, and when Morrisey and Robbie attempted the climb, they found a dozen or so of the enemy lining the top instead of Fred’s helping hands.
Confusion absolute now descended, and for a short time neither side could identify the other. The Germans shot indiscriminately in to both,. And we were not much better. Corporal Jennings scaled one of the crevices without the rest of his men realised that he had done so, and as he was immediately set upon by several of the enemy at the top, he promptly jumped back. Mallon mistook his corporal for a descending German and put five bullets through Jennings’ legs before realising his error. Smith 05 and Dusty Miller pushed on up the next crevice, and had nearly reached the top when they were also fired into by a number of the enemy, who were leaning over the edge and discharging their automatic rifles straight down the crevice. They missed Sid Smith at a range of less than three yards, and dusty escaped simply by rolling down to the bottom again. Sid’s number three followed him, the butt of his rifle being shot off the weapon as he drew on one of his assailants.
In spite of these trials, all of 17 Platoon one way or another did get up on to the ridge in the end, finding here and there fissures, which had escaped the notice of our unobservant opponents. Once on top, 17 Platoon shot it out with them and before long, most of them had departed. Their dead still lay scattered over that desolate ridge when the battle finally ended two days later.
We now had the ridge of 622 occupied at each end, but not in the middle around 622, nor the col nor Butler’s Hill, which was well beyond our reach.
The defenders of Point 622 were resolute enough and we had a first class view of their methods. The fight went on for over five hours, so they clearly had immense stocks of grenades and ammunition. There was a continuous flicker of light from its crest as they shot at us, but a lot of it was very far from being aimed fire. They were tossing grenades out all around the thing, and periodically firing rifle grenades off into the night in any direction that took their fancy. There was one particular gentleman, who had one of their not very effective automatic rifles. About once every minute, he got to his feet, leaned over the parapet and, as fast as it was possible to fire the thing, he discharged the ten shots from his weapon in to the void below; then he dived back into his hole like a jack in the box to reload. It occurred to me that we could eliminate him without undue difficulty.
Whether or not this team was a bunch of picked men or whether the hauptmann and his iron fisted NCOs were just behind their men in that ridge, I was never to know; I expect that they were, and it would explain the unwillingness to retreat. We knew from our prisoners both the strange make up of their regiment and the attitude of the soldaten to their superiors, and I suppose fear of one’s officers, if absolute enough, was one way to ensure satisfactory conduct in battle.
The German soldiers on the ridge that night had problems. If they withdrew, they would be shot by their own side, if they pushed forward they would be shot by us, and if they skipped sideways they would fall over the cliff.
So they had only one option remaining, and they fought it out in their posts.
At least the garrison was making an impressive noise on behalf of the Fatherland, but inevitably in that intensity of fire, some of their shots went home. 16 and 17 Platoons both had about ten men left on their feet and ought to have been working as one group, but with the enemy on both sides of them, they were firing back to back and tending to separate. Then Robbie, himself, was hit. In the meantime, 18 Platoon, with Peter, was still fairly intact, not having been exposed like the rest of the company.
I picked up one of Peter’s Brens, borrowed Bartam and one of his fusiliers, and collecting all the magazine within reach the three of us crawled forward into a nice comfortable firing position between a couple of boulders.
Here, we had a first class view of Point 622, now about fifty yards off, with its castellated battlements outlined against the starry sky behind them. Setting the gun for single shot, I dropped my eyes below the line of the barrel and set to work firing at the flashes. When the tracer started to ricochet and streak off up into the sky from the edges of those rocks in front, I knew we were on.
I think that we got the gentleman with the automatic rifle quickly enough, simply by opening fire after the required interval when he was next due to appear. After a while, we had used up most of the half dozen or so magazines, which Bartram and his assistant had brought with them, and I noticed that the target itself was silent. As we stopped firing, the whole battlefield quietened – not only here but on Tanngoucha too; hardly a gun was firing now. I got up and walked across to the other side of the ridge. Still relatively quiet. Then, there was a vicious crack almost under my feet, and my water bottle whipped up against my forearm, decanting its contents at the same time. Reacting mindlessly, I undid the thing and heaved it over the cud in disgust. Then thinking that the rifle shot had come from the col, I withdrew hurriedly and were back to 18 Platoon.. Here, I found that we had no grenades left and that the few Bren magazines still in our possession were all empty. Bertram, I think, refilled a few. The rest were scattered about the hillside, where they had been used. I am afraid that in night actions, our excited men often forgot those necessities.
There was a rather more protracted pause while we considered, and I said to Peter that I thought we might get in to 622, if we kept well out of sight from the col. But there was not much time left to do it.
Bertram and two or three others came with me, well spread out, while Peter and the rest of 18 Platoon covered us.
Walking across those last few yards of bare rock, the night suddenly seemed intensely bright. It was also empty and unworldly, but perhaps it was like that in other ages when crossing the glacis. The whole weird landscape seemed devoid of life as I got on to, and up, over the rocks of the Point.
Then my run of luck ended.
There were just a couple of clinks as that damnable stick grenade bounced down to my feet. Then the sky in front of me turned into roaring flame with sledge hammers mixed into it, and time, for a while, stood still.
As I sat there, temporarily blinded, the other German posts came to life with a vengeance, the battle erupting again with blasts of schmeisser and rifle fire from the col, and solid streams of tracer whipping into and over the ridge from the machine gunners on Butler’s Hill. They began by firing straight into their own men on the Point, and as Peter’s men shot back, Morrisey and Fred, on the other side, took cover from the hail of bullets coming through them impartially from both sides.
After a while, Bartram crawled up to me and I asked him to get Mr Sillem. Eventually, Peter came and we discussed our situation, knowing that the first faint traces of light were already evident over the eastern hills. There was no time left to us now. I said, ‘Peter, get in to that thing, if you can do it now, but don’t wait any longer. Otherwise, you have got to get all the man back before daylight. I’m afraid we have made a cock of it.’ Peter said he would do what he could, and my staunch subaltern made good his promise two days later.
In the meantime, he had a trying hour ahead of him, recovering the remains of 16 and 17 Platoon, who were inextricably mixed with the enemy and separated from each other on the far side of the Point. By this time, some of the team were past caring, and the rounding up was carried out with a reckless abandon. Peter left most of his men on the ridge, and taking two or three with him, he climbed down in search of the lost sheep. Calling up from the bottom of the cliff as they hunted along for Fred and his men, the usual reply was a burst from a schmeisser, until at last Fred’s cheerful voice came floating down from the battlements above. Fred was in personal trouble too. He was full of splinters and his glasses had been blown in. As he was as blind as bat without them, he could hardly be said to be in full control of the situation.
This part and the rest of the account of the battle comes from Beauchamp himself and from Fred White, and from our other characters, who came through it, and in particular from Denis Haywood, who took over – and those heroic scallywags Fusilier Mallon and Corporal Swain, who were usually in trouble out of the line and indispensable in it.
My part in proceedings ended, I recall little further, and nothing as to how I came back. There was an anxious Beauchamp seeking of course to save the battle, but that was impossible that night with the dawn now breaking. Then that wretched M.O. ‘Getting careless, aren’t you?’ he murmured pleasantly, as he applied some foul concoction to put me out for the next week.
We had lost nineteen of our men, and we had lost the battle.
But it was now St George’s Day and we would win the next one.