Captain PJ Gibbons – Episodes from the North African Campaign

The London Irish Rifles go into action for the first time

It was impossible to hold the plain so we now held the line of hills about seven miles west of the main road running from Bou Arda and Goubellat to Medjez-el-Bab. As the enemy did not occupy the farms on our side of the road, or at least not often, it meant that patrols had to go about eight miles to find them. On 10th January we received orders to move that night to Pichon to help the French who were being strongly attacked. We waited in TCVs all night but in the morning we were told it was cancelled so back we went and started breakfast. Just then, an urgent call came through and the H Company Commander (Major Lofting) told me to get everything ready for action.

Apparently a squadron of the 2nd Lothian and Border Horse had made a sweep with their Crusaders towards the Bou Arada-Goubellat road. Two farms, one just this side of the road and the other two hundred yards beyond, had turned out to be well armed with A/Tk guns and machine guns and had already knocked out seven of our tanks. These farms had been searched and found empty two nights previously so their quick occupation and fortification was unexpected. They held about thirty Germans each, so the tanks had reported and our job was to clear them out and help the tanks to withdraw. The tanks had taken what cover they could but were still covered by the enemy A/Tk guns, while three of them were bogged and could not be got out. The enemy were still in position and we were ordered to take the farms and kill the enemy.

The plan for the attack on farm B was as follows – No 18 platoon of which I was platoon commander, was to lead and were to get as near to the farm as we could and give covering fire. 17 platoon were to assault from the right and 16 platoon to stand off on the left and only come in if needed. We had with us an FOO who was in wireless touch with his battery. We were to have a ten minute concentration on the Farm B and then smoke when called for. After that, the gunners were to switch on to Farm A. The mortars and carriers, two of which mounted Vickers MGs were to support us into the farm and act in a cut off role – also covering Farm A. After Farm B was taken, 17 platoon would consolidate it and the other two would carry on and take Farm A.

We advanced and got about 300 yards from the farm. Still nothing happened. The company commander no began to be a bit suspicious of the Mosque on the right flank and I agreed with him since it looked too obvious a place to be unoccupied. So he sent a message to 16 platoon to swing across and search the mosque. The platoon sergeant who had received these orders over the 38 set was unfortunately the only man to be hit in the very heavy fire which enveloped us at that moment – artillery and mortars from the hills on our right and machine gun fire from the two farms and the Mosque. It was thus that 16 platoon did not take the mosque but continued on their original line on the left flank. Owing to the extreme softness of the ground, the mortar fire, which was intense, had little effect this was lucky as there was no cover of any description. As we got to the farm, after fixing our swords and doubling, I reported the enemy leaving the farm from the rear. The company commander ordered me to send one section round the right of the farm and take the other two round the left and catch the enemy coming out. This I did, the company commander himself going round the right flank with my other section. We got into a position covering the rear of the farm and the ground towards Farm A. The Germans were running as fast as they could towards the wadi and it was here that the carriers and mortars proved their worth. By their efforts and the fire of my two sections, only two Germans out of about twenty ever reached that wadi.

While this was going on, 17 platoon had taken the farm and Coy HQ had installed themselves. My platoon sergeant had been hit and two others wounded, also my 38 set was hit and smashed and a mortar bomb had exploded all my 2 inch mortar HE bombs. We were thus out of touch by W/T and two runners had already been hit by very accurate sniping. Eventually, I was able to crawl about 75 yards to the farm and the situation was as follows: the FOO’s 21 set had been hit and put of action; the company 18 had ceased to work, the only sets in order apparently being the Coy HQ  and 17 platoon 38 sets. As 17 platoon were in the farm and round it, this was of no great use to us and we were now out of touch with the artillery, Bn HQ and the carriers. The artillery were shooting by observation and had, we learnt afterwards, silenced the enemy guns on the right, but they did not fire on the second farm as they did not know if we were I it as yet. They had fired on it but they thought they saw us advancing – actually it was the Germans running.

No 16 platoon were still on the left under heavy fire from the machine guns and the company commander was out with my section in front and had not been seen since. I went and had a look and saw up him the road with some wounded; they were still being mortared from the right but our platoon mortar-men laid a very accurate smoke screen in front of him and we eventually got the wounded in. This screen was the turning point, for the enemy thought that another attack was coming; some quit in a tuck, which was hit by one of our tanks and set on fire, the rest ran but I do not think very many got away. They were from the Hermann Goering Jager Regiment, a paratroop unit and therefore among the best German troops, so why they ran out of two strongly held farms is a mystery, unless it was the sight of the bayonet.

This marked the end of the action. A sniper kept up his shooting until dusk we tried to locate him, searching the ground with fire, but without success. The tanks withdrew, taking our wounded with them and when dusk fell we destroyed we could and went back too. Our total casualties were four killed and eleven wounded, one of whom afterwards died, whereas we had probably killed or wounded at least thirty five of the enemy. Everyone was in high spirits before and during the operation and the only disappointment was not getting to close quarters. Although no one likes war, it was rather an anti-climax to find nobody at the end of a bayonet charge.

That in brief is the story of our first battle. It lasted five hours and I think the company was very proud to be the first members of the Battalion to have had a battle with the enemy. It certainly gave them a feeling of superiority, which is what they should have, over the German soldiers. We learnt several important lessons from the attack and they might easily have been more dearly bought than in fact they were.

Hill 279/286.

After the above operation, we returned to our positon and patrols carried on as usual. The next attack, the company took part in was that on Hill 286, just north and east of Bou Arada. Here is the sequence of events leading up to this action. Sketch F shows the positon of the various places mentioned.

16/17 Jan: Left Goubellat at midnight and travelled all night till dawn.

17/18 Jan: Marched to farms on plain north west of Bou Arada – dug in all night.

18 Jan. Dawn: Germans launched infantry and tank attack on Grandstand, half a mile to our front. We were shelled and dive bombed most of the day. At 6pm, we marched to hills south of Bou Arada (ten miles) and dug in that night on a rocky hill.

19 Jan. At 5am, we received orders to move to positions south east of Grandstand. Marched eleven miles and were shelled during some of it. Took up positions in wadi at 12 noon and stayed there till 6pm. Moved to West Hill and dug in till 1am.

20 Jan. Orders came through for attack on Hill 286. We were to be the supporting company. We moved at 2am to positions slightly forward of Grandstand and dug in before dawn. Everyone was dead tired – last meal had been at 2pm on the 20th.

The Battalion was given orders to attack at about midnight 19/20 January. The orders were issued to companies and the move to the forming up positions started at 2am. The attack was to take place at dawn G Coy were to take Hill 279, which was felt to be held lightly by the enemy and act as fire support company; F Coy was to attack Hill 286, with Coy moving up on the left if needed.; H Coy, in which I was platoon commander, was to occupy a position just south of Grandstand Hill in reserve. Supporting us, we had the whole Divisional Artillery and, later on, one squadron of 17/21 Lancers in Crusaders.

At dawn, G Coy moved off to take Hill 279. They captured it and took several prisoners but ran into heavy MG fie from Hill 286 and Barka, mortar fire from behind Barka and a battery of enemy field guns firing from the direction of Two Tee Hill. Consequently, in digging in, they sustained 50% casualties. F Coy then advanced to Hill 286 and endeavoured to storm it. They succeeded in capturing the first half of the saddle but ran into heavy and accurate fire from the rear end of the hill and cross fire from Barka. The majority of the company were killed or wounded and the remnants, probably about 20 men under a sergeant, were driven off after hand to hand fighting, when they retired to the forward end of 279. While this close quarter fighting was in progress, E Coy were ordered into attack and, though subjected to the same fire, succeeded in clearing the whole hill of the enemy. When they had done this, there were only the Company Commander and fifteen men left. For this action, Captain JV Lillie-Costello was awarded the MC.

The time was now about 9am. G Coy and the remnants of F Coy, were in positon of 279. E Coy were now on 286 and H Coy, still intact, were in their original positon. Hill 286 was now a shambles and the CO ordered E Coy to hold the rear end of the hill until H Coy could relieve them.   At about 1030am, we were given orders to move down the road to Battalion HQ in the wadi and to prepare for attack. Up till now, we had sat in slit trenches all the morning, being shelled, mortared and bombed, fortunately without effect and although everyone was very tired, they were very cheerful. We moved down the road without loss and took up station in the wadi, while the company commander, Capt JD Lofting, went forward and took orders to advance immediately and to take and hold Hill 286. There was a squadron of tanks helping us, who would be hull down just left of 279.

We advanced in open order. As we rounded the hill into the open, the first shell fell and from then on, they never stopped until fifteen minutes later we got under the lee of Hill 279. By that time, Captain Lofting had been wounded the 2nd i/c Captain Henderson killed and thirty others killed or wounded, including the CSM and two platoon sergeants. I thus found myself a company commander with a very depleted company and I soon received a wireless message to hold onto what we had got and dig in. After twenty minutes, the CO came up and asked how many casualties we had had. I told him and received orders to go on and occupy 286. This we did, losing about five more men. We took up positions in the German trenches and stayed there until 10pm, being shelled and mortared intermittently. Most of the trouble was caused by the enemy Ops, on Barka, Mehalla and Two Tree Hill and, as these dominated the battle ground, we could do nothing unobserved. As it was, they were all shelled out on numerous occasions and, although, repeatedly forced to leave their OPs, the observers very consistently came back.

We remained there, as already stated, preparing what defences we could and evacuating the wounded, until 10pm. I was then ordered to leave one platoon in occupation as a standing patrol and withdraw the rest of the company back to West Hill. This I did and, after feeding them, returned to the platoon on 286 with the food and greatcoats as it was now very cold – these I took in a jeep. The platoon under the command of the only other officer left, were very tired but still pretty cheerful, although the sight of 286 in the moonlight was ghastly until it was possible to take the dead back for burial. I had just got back to Battalion HQ when I saw a red flare, the danger signal, go up from the platoon and heard fire from both sides. It was now about 3am on the 21st and it turned out that 12 Mk 4s and two hundred infantry were attacking us. They came down on both sides and succeeded in reaching the main road and the wadi where the Battalion HQ were established. About half an hour’s confused fighting, Battalion HQ decided to move back to West Hill where H Coy were and I covered their withdrawal with the help of about thirty men – stragglers and walking wounded.

By this time, hand to hand fighting was going on on 279 where the remnants of F and G Coys were dug in. What was left of E Coy had been moved to a wadi just south of West Hill. At about 2am, resistance on 279 had been over overwhelmed, enemy tanks and infantry had surrounded and taken the position by sheer weight of numbers. About thirty men got back to the wadi and about eight or number of the platoon I had left forward – even so, they brought back some prisoners with them, although these were more of a nuisance than anything else.

Now the enemy tanks and infantry were on the main road and above the wadi, although none more got into it but after another forty minutes of confused fighting, our won tanks came up and drove the enemy ones away, their infantry withdrawing also. We were then ordered to withdraw to the wadi marked ‘Y’ west of West Hill and to re-form: this we did while the Guards took up a position in front of us. When I formed the Rifle Companies up that evening, I manged to make four platoons of thirty men each out of them. The total casualties in killed, wounded and missing were twenty one officers and about four hundred and fifty other ranks. I was the only rifle company officer left and there were two sergeants to help me, all the CSMs being casualties.