Those members of the Battalion who served throughout the period 15th to 24th April are not likely to forget those trying days. It will be generally agreed that for sheer danger, unpleasantness, and extreme difficulty of supply, the period was unequalled throughout the rest of the campaign. At no other time were casualties were so heavy, to quote one example all alone, all four Rifle Company Commanders were killed or wounded. Instead, when the final attack which captured Tanngoucha, the dominating feature of hill mass was over, leaders were very few.
The events leading up to the 15th April can be told briefly. It all began with an attack on the 7th April by our Division, the 78th, with the object of clearing the enemy from the heights overlooking the eastern portion of the Beja – Medjez road.
The story of the part played by the Regiment in that attack is related elsewhere. Suffice it is to say, the operations were completely successful and the Battalion withdrew on their conclusion for a brief and well earned rest near Oued Zarga. On 13th April, orders were received to march to Chaouach, a mountain village north of Medjez and come into Division reserve during operations proceeding in that area.
The operation involved the capture of a series of high mountains above Chaouach culminating in a feature known as Tanngoucha, which overlooked the famous Longstop Hill. The 11th Infantry Brigade carried out the initial attack and by the evening of 14th April, all objectives, except Tanngoucha, had been taken. It was proposed to make an attack on Tanngoucha that night with two Companies of 5 Northants and one of 2 Lancashire Fusiliers, and, as a precaution, our battalion was moved forward. The attack succeeded, but the Bosche counter attacked in the mist of first light, and regained Tanngoucha and the Kel el Tiour, a rock mass to the west.
During the course of the day, the situation worsened considerably, the Bosche filtered forward onto the high ridge of the Kefs and actually succeeded in establishing himself on the summit of Djebel el Ang. 11th Brigade had now been fighting continuously under very difficult conditions for nearly two days and was much reduced in numbers and becoming exhausted.
It was under such circumstances that the decision was made to launch the Faughs.
The plan was that the Battalion should carry out a night attack along the top of Djebel el Ang, Kef el Tiour, and occupy the features Kef el Tiour, Kef Bou and pt 622, whilst the Buffs took Heidous and Tanngoucha. Heavy artillery support was provided and mortar assistance given by 11 Brigade.
Our trouble started early, for no sooner had the Battalion left to form up, that the Bosche put in a night attack on Djebel Bettiour with all the customary verey lights, tracer bombs, and other noises. As far as we were concerned, Battalion HQ, HQ Company, and some of D Company were involved, but there happened to be a relief in progress at that moment and elements of no less than four Regiments were there. Captain Jefferies, our Adjutant, had a very exciting few moments dodging bombs and shooting with rifles.
The Battalion started to form up at 2000hrs . A Company, under Captain Jefferies MC (brother of the Adjutant) on the right, and D Company on the left, under Major Horsfall MC, with C Company, under Major Gethin, and with Battalion HQ in the rear. Whilst forming up, the Bosche opened up with two MGs from one flank firing tracer and the CO went through a few anxious moments wondering how the Battalion was ever to get under way. There was no need to worry, however, as Major Horsfall appeared a few moments later, completely unruffled as usual, to report D Company ready in position – most indignant that anyone should suppose D Company would be disturbed by a few Bosche MGs.
Punctually on time, the attack started headed by a line of stalwarts of A and D Companies. Almost at once, we bumped a Bosche post, which pluckily opened fire with an MG. The Germans didn’t last long, just long enough to hear an Irish cheer and receive a roar of fire from at least 8 Brens and 50 rifles. The same thing happened 50 yards further on. The excitement was intense, men were cheering and shouting on all sides. Those in front, moving steadily forward, firing from the hip with their Tommy Guns and Brens. Very few casualties occurred during the advance, but as ill luck would have it, an unlikely salvo of shells landed right in amongst A Company instantly killing Lt Slattery and three men and mortally wounding Captain Jefferies.
Little further resistance was encountered, the Bosche being in no mood to take on the Irish. On the Kefs, C Company rounded up over 30 prisoners with a mortar and stacks of ammunition. Unfortunately, a heavy mist came down just before we reached pt 622 and the leading Companies consolidated a good deal short of it. No sign was seen or heard of the Buffs, but although we felt confident that we could seize Tanngoucha, it was not our objective and it was thought that the danger of a clash with the Buffs was too great to justify any further advance. We, afterwards, learned that the Buffs had been held up in Heidous, which proved to be very strongly held. D Company, having established themselves in some plough, pushed forward a couple of patrols. One of them went to the right flank and arrived at the top of a rocky escarpment just as a party of nine Bosche climbed up. Major Horsfall shot one, who attempted to run and the others surrendered; they were followed by a larger party under an officer, who were bolder and opened fire with Schmeissers. Lt Sillem shot the officer, who fell 100 feet down the escarpment, and after a scuffle, the rest belted. A few more odd prisoners were rounded up and the night then settled down to more or less continuous sniping from both side.
By this time, a high wind had got up and that combined with the icy cold, inky blackness and swirling mist made things thoroughly unpleasant. The difficulties of getting up tools and ammunition by mule over the rocky unknown ground and marrying up with their Companies were enormous and how it was ever done defeats the wit of man.
No sooner had first light broken, that the Bosche counter attacked A Coy, now temporarily under Captain Wood. The mist was very thick and his assault parties succeeded in pinning down and winkling out one of the leading sections. Captain Browne, 132 Field Regiment, the FOO, put in most gallant work bringing down artillery fire and personally shot a Bosche officer with his pistol before being severely wounded and forced out of his O. By 0900 hrs, the mist lifted and we were able to bring down heavier artillery on the Bosche and make him withdraw.
From this day until 25th April, a period of nine days, it became a question of holding onto the ground gained. The B Company position was a complete salient along the Kef ridge, with the Bosche holding Heidous below on one side and numerous positions on pt 622, a small hill known as Butler’s Hill and a spur on our left front. Thus, there was no reverse slopes at all. Every Company locality was exposed to fire from at least one direction: in the case of A Company from the front and flanks. Digging was almost impossible owing to rock, and it was almost impossible to find a site for Battalion HQ.
No company could be visited by day for most of the time and even movement between stone sangars in platoon positions was too dangerous. The Bosche took full advantage of our plight and sniped, machine gunned and mortared all forward posts mercifully. There are few men in the Battalion, who have served throughout these days, who will ever forget them, indeed many bear the scars of rock splinters and wounds received then. There is no doubt that the holding onto this particular piece of ground was vital to the defence of the Djebel el Ang and made it possible to stage the final attack, which took Tanngoucha, and led to the withdrawal of the Bosche. As the days went on, things got hotter and wastage in personnel increased. Battalion HQ came in for its share of mortaring and lost Lieut Emmins (Signal Officer) and CSM Walsh wounded, amongst several others. Major Gethin and Captain Biggar were both wounded leaving us woefully depleted of Company Commanders. The spirit of the men remained wonderful throughout, night after night, the same cheery faces could be seen, always pretending that things weren’t bad and full of the utmost confidence. D Company will long remember Major Horsfall’s cheery password on his going round his platoons: “Halt Goes There?”: “Company Commander with Rum.” Indeed the majority were always enquiring “when were we going forward?” rather than “how much longer must we stick this out?” Nor must one omit to mention those hardworking CQMSs, NCOs and men, who night after night faced the music to get up rations and water. Getting mules along a precipitous track in black darkness under shell and mortar fire is not an amusing experience, yet it was done unfailingly under all conditions.
Several attempts were made from time to time to improve matters. On the night of 16th April, a night attack was launched by 6 Innisks on Tanngoucha. We supported it with a fighting patrol to pt 622 to deal with possible interference from this flank. Although the attack succeeded, the troops had to be withdrawn before daylight, as the Bosche, in spite of our efforts, was still holding out in excellent flanking positions from which he was able to rake the hillsides with fire. Our patrol captured 3 MGs and 4 of the snipers, who had been worrying us all day and one platoon was left in a more forward position. The failure of this attack was a great blow to us as it meant that our durance vile must continue.
On 22nd April, another attack was made by 6 Innisks on Tanngoucha this time supported by D Company, which was to tackle pt 662 and Butler’s Hill. Again the objectives were taken, and once more were found to be untenable at first light, D Company’s attack on pt 622 met with fierce resistance, it was found that the place was a veritable fortress of rock fissures, emplacements and well sited snipers and MGs. For several hours, D Company battled on, bombing and shooting their way forward. About midnight, Major Horsfall became a casualty from the blast of a stick grenade in the face and it was left to Lieut Sillem, sole remaining officer, to take command. Although Lieut Sillem and some gallant souls gained the summit of the rocky stronghold at one time, they were unable to seize the place. Just before dawn, D Company was withdrawn to avoid being caught out on the open slopes in daylight.
This time, 6 Innisks remained forward in the slopes of Tanngoucha, in what seemed a very difficult position overlooked, as they were, by the Bosche posts. However, all worked out for the best. They stuck to their positions and a few days later, when a third attack was made, used them as a jumping board for their successful advance on Tanngoucha. All of us, who were there, will remember what tremendous relief it was to have our comrades, the old Skins, covering our right. No longer had one that horrid naked feeling, but in its place a strong bulkhead of our own chaps to share our difficulties and cover our flank.
Three days later, the final attack was made on pt 662, Butler’s Hill and Tanngoucha. The attack was completely successful and all ranks felt the tremendous relief of the conclusion of those trying days.
The casualty list from the commencement of the offensive on 7th April until the end of hostilities makes sad reading. They were 18 officers and 218 ORs, of which at least 70% were incurred over the period reviewed above.