London Irish veteran recalls Tunisian battle in 1943.
Aylesbury, November 2011.
Veteran of the 2nd Battalion of the London Irish Rifles Charles Ward, now aged 92, has spoken to the Irish Brigade website about his experiences as a platoon sergeant during battles on the Tunisian front in World War II and the major setback that the battalion suffered in its attack on Hill 286 on 20/21 January 1943.Charles, known as Pip to his comrades, was conscripted into the London Irish Rifles on 18 October 1939, a member of the same cohort of recruits as legendary E Company sergeant Edward (Eddie) Mayo MM
A printer working in London before the war, Ward was surprised to find himself in an infantry battalion with a strong Irish connection. He had been born in Yorkshire, moving to Kent in the mid 1930s and had no one from Ireland in his family, he says. Ward retired five years ago after a successful second career as a market gardener, and now lives in Aylesbury with his wife Margaret, whom he first met in Algiers in 1943. He left the London Irish after suffering a knee injury in the spring of 1943 and transferred to the communications unit of SOE, where his future wife was also employed, and they became engaged in Italy during the following year and married in the spring of 1946.But that was after the bloody battle for Hill 286. Its memory still moves Ward: “It was crazy really,” he tells the Irish Brigade website about the battle. “You knew …the enemy would throw everything at you.” When Ward returned to Tunisia in recent years, he was appalled at the number of London Irish riflemen, NCOs and officers buried at the Medjez el-Bab Commonwealth War Grave Cemetery, many of them killed on Hill 286.
(click here to find how to find the Medjez el-Bab cemetery).
The attack on Hill 286 was probably the most controversial event in the 2nd Battalion’s history, and an inquiry was ordered into the losses it suffered and why they occurred. The 2nd Battalion’s commander was subsequently replaced by TPD Scott, an officer from the 1st Battalion of the Royal Irish Fusiliers (The Faughs) and who later became commander of the Irish Brigade, of which the 2nd Battalion was part, in February 1944.
Bitterness about the loss of life suffered on Hill 286 continued long after the war ended, and remained the source of much conversation amongst veterans at their annual Bou Arada reunions.The story starts with the departure of the 2nd Battalion from Glasgow on 10 November 1942 as part of an allied expeditionary force dispatched to support Operation Torch, which was the Anglo-American invasion designed to take control of French North Africa, then governed by the French Vichy regime headed by Marshall Petain. Under the armistice with Germany signed in July 1940, the Vichy regime was a semi-independent government responsible for French colonial territories in North Africa, the Levant, the Caribbean and South-East Asia. The Irish Brigade at this stage was part of the 6th Armoured Division of the British Army. Travelling first by train and then by truck, the 2nd battalion crossed into Tunisia on 7 December 1942. Vichy French forces, after initially resisting the American expeditionary force in Morocco, had stopped fighting and its commanders had changed sides. However, Italian and German forces had been hurriedly moved into Tunisia, and by the start of December, it was evident that the Axis was not prepared to give up Tunisia without a fight. Its determination was reinforced by the need to maintain a bridgehead in North Africa that could support Germany’s Afrika Korps, which was then retreating through Libya towards the Tunisian border after suffering decisive defeat at El Alamein at the hands of the 8th Army in October.
Historians say that the allied forces entering Tunisia in the last two months of 1942 were always too weak to drive Axis forces out of Tunisia, and this conclusion is substantiated by Irish Brigade accounts of their first few months in Tunisia, when they were often responsible for huge areas of the frontline, and their supply lines were long and always irregular. The Irish Brigade was being deployed into a major battle theatre, and where the German Army was present in large numbers, well-equipped and in strong defensive positions with effective air cover from air bases in Tunisia, Sicily and southern Italy. According to the 2nd Battalion’s War Diaries, the London Irish were moved to an area around Bou Arada, a small town south west of Tunis, on 10 December. Along with the 6th Inniskilling Fusiliers (The Skins), the London Irish had the task of holding territory that encompassed high land rising to almost 1,000 feet where there was little natural cover and interspersed with a few scattered farms. Most of these were operated by French settlers who could be expected to be sympathetic to the Allied cause. However, the native Tunisian population was neutral at best and there was little love lost between the Arab and Berber peoples of North Africa and French colonists, and allied troops suspected the native people were spying for the Axis.
The war finally began in earnest for the 2nd Battalion on 10 December after three years of training in various places across England, Wales and Scotland. On that day, the battalion’s war diaries report that it suffered its first fatality in theatre when a rifleman was accidentally killed by a grenade
With the weather deteriorating, the 2nd Battalion found itself uncomfortably deployed on the west side of the north-south road between Bou Arada and Goubellat. At this stage, Lieutenant Charles Reidy, a celebrated London Irish forward and Irish rugby international known as ‘Elephant Man’ because of his height and strength, suffered a serious injury and was hospitalised. On both sides of the road in the area, where the London Irish was operating, were hills that were named after their height in metres. Overlooking the road from the east was a pair of connected hills. The first was named Hill 279 and the second was Hill 286, and the main feature in the area was given a name of its own because of its scale and command of the surrounding area. It was called Grandstand and sat north of Hills 279 and 286.As persistent rain turned the valley into a quagmire of mud, the 2nd Battalion had the miserable task of trying to locate an elusive enemy and denying them the capacity to interrupt the flow of trucks along the north-south road. Christmas was celebrated but dinner was prepared from standard compo rations.
The weather was truly dreadful, as E Company Colour Sergeant Edmund (Rosie) O’Sullivan recalled in All My Brothers, the account of his life before and during the Second World War: “…conditions on the front were very uncomfortable because of the continuous rain and associated mud which made driving difficult and walking almost impossible,” he wrote. “Enemy patrols were often active.”
Photographs at the time show a treeless landscape dominated by low hills with no cover apart from scattered outcrops of rock. The 2nd Battalion’s first serious encounter with the enemy was precipitated by the conditions in the valley. Tanks had got stuck in the mud and H Company supported by G Company was given the task of retrieving them. It was decided to do this in daylight and the operation required driving German units from farm buildings in the area. The London Irish instantly attracted the attention of German machine gunners and artillery, and as a result the operation failed and G Company was mauled, losing two experienced and respected lance sergeants: John Hogan and James McLoughlin
Important lessons were learnt by the men in the battalion. For example, NCOs now stopped wearing chevrons and it was also realised that the vertical wireless cable on sets worn by radio operators attracted the enemy’s lethal attention. The rifle companies were regularly on the move, often at night, and as the month progressed supplying and feeding the London Irish became an exhausting process for the battalion’s colour sergeants, as O’Sullivan recalled: “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 (Orders) Group. When I awoke, I discovered my bed had been a sack of sharp pick heads.”
The whole of the battalion had been on the move on 18 January and that day the Faughs and the Skins, the other two battalions in the Irish Brigade, held off strong German attacks against their positions near to Grandstand Hill. Further deployments were ordered on 19 January as efforts were made to quell German activity on the east side of the road to Bou Arada. That night, the battalion received orders to move across the road and take Hills 279 and 286, from which German units were firing on British personnel and material in the valley. The battalion’s war diaries show that it was instructed to move at 425am on 20 January, and F Company was ordered to take 286, but took the wrong route and instead captured Hill 351, which was lightly defended. This left G Company on its own to take 286, which it did by 7am. But the enemy reacted strongly, firing from hidden positions on nearby hills and calling down mortars and shelling on the exposed London Irish units struggling to dig foxholes, as 286 was mainly comprised of barren rock.
Ward told the Irish Brigade web site about his memory of G Company’s attack on 286 and the terror of crossing open ground during daylight to take up positions ahead of the attack in the afternoon of 19 January.“We had to move over from one side of the road to the other side of the road.” Ward said. “As we moved across the road, we got shelled and we dropped into a wadi. I was leading my section along the wadi when suddenly a voice said ‘run’. I just said to the men ‘come on’.”Ward’s platoon hurried forward “We ran down the wadi, got round a corner and I heard a shell explode behind,” he said. “Going back, I found three men wounded, lying in the wadi. I patched them up the best I could and waited until the stretchers came. Our platoon commander (2nd Lieutenant) Hardwick was one of the wounded. Then I continued to the forming up point ready for the attack.”“This was all in broad daylight,” said Ward. “It was crazy really. You knew you would be half way across and the enemy would throw everything at you.” He also recalls the preparation for their assault, “During that night, everyone assembled including our bren carriers, You could hear them forming up.” This, of course, was of tremendous assistance to the Germans. “The attack went in very early the next morning and we went to the first hill,” Ward said. “And then to the second hill and nothing happened. It was on the third hill (286) that all hell broke loose.” “We holed up in a large depression in the ground, being shelled constantly,” said Ward “The Royal Artillery forward observation officer ordered me to go up to the top of the hill to identify from where the shells were coming. I could see they were coming from a farmhouse about half way down on the plain behind the hill.”“So I got back and discovered a shell had fallen where I had been lying and left one or two injured,” said Ward. “The artillery officer got the medical people to pick up the wounded and we then decided that there was no future in staying there and ordered a smoke screen. So we all withdrew and dropped into another wadi.” G Company, which had lost several officers and NCOs, had been ordered to withdraw from 286.
Meanwhile, F Company was ordered up the hill to take their place. To their horror they saw a tank and amoured cars heading in their direction as the Germans launched a counterattack. Hit by mortars, shelling, tanks, armoured cars, machine guns and Junker bombers, F Company, which was in the open with no armoured or air support, was now in a hopeless position. After also losing officers and NCOs, the company retreated westwards to the forward slopes of 279.Despite these losses and clear evidence that the Germans were ready to meet them, the London Irish were ordered to make another attempt to take 286. E Company was then ordered up 279 and towards 286, but it, too, suffered heavy losses in the advance and retired out of enemy fire into the wadi at the base of the hill, which had already been occupied by the recovering G Company.The battalion commander held an O Group meeting and now decided to send H Company, the only rifle company that hadn’t been in action up to this stage, onto 286. Despite being shelled and mortared and suffering heavy casualties, H Company finally took the hill and reported at 1145am that the area was clear of enemy troops. E and F companies were then ordered to climb 279 again to take up positions in support of H Company, who were dug in around the peak of 286.
The battalion had taken its objective, but the gain was modest, easily reversible and had been very costly. First encounters often lead to high levels of casualties particularly among junior officers and NCOs keen to inspire their men, and indeed on 20 January 1943, the battalion lost many irreplaceable officers and NCOs. To an extent that few then realised, most of the battalion was exhausted and in total shock and parts of it were effectively leaderless, and could break totally if further German pressure came, as would now happen.O’Sullivan’s account of the condition of E Company that evening supports this view: “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,” he wrote. “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.”“The colour sergeants were called to the commanding officer where we received a dressing down for not bringing prepared food instead of cold rations,” O’Sullivan recalled. “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.”While O’Sullivan was preparing hot food for the battalion, the London Irishmen on hills 279 and 286 were trying to get some rest and yet remain fully alert as night fell. Thick high clouds made the darkness impenetrable, and quiet descended over the battlefield. But it was not to last.
At 1am on 21 January, Germany infantry supported by tanks now attacked the battalion from two directions. Units of the enemy came around the northern edge of Hill 286 and attacked the London Irish on the slopes of 279 and into the wadi at its rear. Meanwhile, further German forces advanced up the reverse slopes of 286, and along its crest, firing and howling as they went. According to candid eyewitness accounts of the attack, there was complete chaos across the whole battalion. Men and vehicles were captured and taken away. Sections, platoons and companies disintegrated in the din and darkness, and some riflemen and their leaders facing tanks and infantry on two sides simply ran. “There were machine gun and tracer bullets everywhere,” Ward says about the panic caused by the German night attack. “We received the order to get out. We ran as fast as we could.”
By the time the enemy retired at 4am, the London Irish were in serious difficulties. Some believe it was saved from total destruction by the decision of Lt-Col Scott, commanding officer of the 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, to move armoured vehicles behind the London Irish, and from where they were ready to counter the Germans when their attack began. After the extreme difficulties of the preceding two days, the battalion was now ordered into defensive positions, west of the Goubellat to Bou Arada road. Total losses were six officers and 20 other ranks killed and eight officers and 78 other ranks wounded, with no less than six officers and 130 other ranks missing: a total of 248 men.
The official London Irish Rifles record of the Battle for Point 286 (click here to read the London Irish at War) says: “Many of the latter (missing men) were confirmed later as having been wounded and taken prisoner.” The scale of the damage done to the battalion can be measured by the fact that the battalion received almost 200 reinforcements on 23 and 24 January (click here to read Lt-Col Jefferys’ account of the battle including detailed lists of casualties).O’Sullivan’s account of the battle is more penetrating. He described the two-night attack on points 279 and 286 as a total disaster. In hindsight, it is perhaps fairer to say that it was the result of a combination of factors. This was the battalion’s first serious engagement, and it was exhausted by operations on the previous three nights, and the London Irish Rifles had encountered some of the German army’s best troops. However, the tactics were questionable: all four rifle companies were used instead of one being held in reserve. The attack in full daylight on the morning of 20 January was insufficiently supported and exposed to bombing and there was no effective system of early warning of German counterattacks.
The last word, however, must go to Ward, possibly the last eyewitness of the battalion’s torment nearly 69 years ago. “It was barmy really,” he told the Irish Brigade about the attack on Hill 286. “We had effectively warned the Germans we were coming. It was a crazy thing to do.”