Irish Brigade

The story of the 38th (Irish) Brigade in the Second World War

Faugh a Ballagh        Nec Aspera Terrent         Quis Separabit


Assault on Djebel Mahdi

Account of Operations 38 (Irish) Brigade 7th to 11th April 1943.

A Divisional operation was planned to occupy the high ground: Toukabeur to Chaouch so as to reopen the road Oued Zarga – Medjez and regain control of the Medjez – Chassart – Teffaha plain. Commander 78 Division in his appreciation stated that troops holding the objective mainly belonged to 334 Division and were of average morale and fighting qualities. Positions were well dug, possibly wired and certainly mined on tank approaches. In order to make a plan, more information had to be obtained by patrolling and direct observation and from air photographs.

It was considered that enemy dispositions appeared to be designed to prevent us threatening his line of communications in Ferme du Beb valley and to hold the high ground north of the Oued Zarga to Medjez road for subsequent offensive operations to cut off the Medjez salient.

On 3rd April, Brigade staff and Battalion commanders and their 2.i.c.s attended a conference and a sand model discussion at HQ 78 Division. The plan was to secure high ground pt 624 – pt 667, and exploit success to clear and occupy the Toukabeur- Chaouch feature. This was to be done by an attack in four phases with maximum artillery support on a fire plan to be made up before each phase.

On the Brigade front, 6 Innisks and 2 Hampshires (2 Hamps) sent night patrols to Mahdi and area 4044. By day, infantry, artillery and recce regiment OPs gathered information and air photo sorties were made on 3rd The available information was collected in a special Intelligence Summary.

Orders for the attack.

On 4th April 1943, 38 (Irish) Infantry Brigade OO No 15 was issued. The Brigade (less 2 LIR) had under command 2 Hamps and 16 Durham Light Infantry (16 DLI), two sections 214 Field Regiment Royal Engineers, and 11 Pack Transport Coy RASC, and in support an A/Tk battery and an artillery group consisting of 8 heavy, 16 medium and 32 field guns. The lack of tracks and hilly country provided as many difficulties as the enemy, and counter measures were given in detail in the order.

The Brigade was to protect the left flank of 78 Division by seizing Djebel Mahdi (4244) and Mt Kachbia (3943). The attack was to be carried out in two stages.

RE were allotted the task of clearing mines improving and signposting roads and blasting weapon slits if necessary on Djebel Mahdi.

To begin with, communications had to be maintained by 21 sets carried on mules. Essential F transport was to be concentrated forward and called up when possible after the capture of the objectives. Mules were to be used for maintenance in the rear areas and to begin with also on the objectives.

The Attack – 7th April.

Preparations detailed in the OO were duly carried out. Brigade command post was established at 350376 and at 0350, the artillery programmes commenced.

I First phase.

Patrols (which had no contact) preceded the attack. 2 Hamps occupied Mt Kachbia unopposed by 0540hrs and at 0600hrs, 6 Innisks reported themselves on the objective, though pt355 had not yet been occupied. The enemy on forward slopes of Mahdi surrendered on the approach of our infantry but it was after reaching the objective that most trouble was experienced.

2 Hamps were not troubled by fire or counter attack, but 6 Innisks, after setting about consolidation and collecting up to 20 PoWs in mopping up operations were pinned at 0840hrs by MG fire from the left and also received attention from enemy mortars left and right. Furthermore, small parties from Oued Bouneb area (captured by 36 Brigade) had made their way to SE side of Mahdi and opened up with MGs.

From their objective, 2 Hamps were able to see detailed enemy positions in area 4044 and enemy firing from this area were heavily engaged by our artillery. It was difficult in the wadi country for artillery to be certain of knocking out even pin pointed posts and occasional bursts of MG and mortar fire came from the left all day. However, no counter attack was actually put in and by 0945hrs, pt 355 was definitely taken and consolidation was well advanced.

At 0915, enemy shelled 387394 but improvement of tracks had been started. At 0925hrs, RE reported roads clear as far as 379424 and 403418 and work was going on at the track to Mahdi. At 0945hrs, 2 Hamps did not require any transport up, but 6 Innisks called for 4 ammunition carriers.

II 2nd Phase.

At 0640hrs, 1 RIrF were released from Divisional reserve and 16 DLI were also started on their forward move. Brigade Commander, CRA and Commander 1 RIrF immediately made a recce and by 0900, the Battalion was on the move. At 1220, part of the infantry was well forward and their MTO had been ordered to send up some F transport.

The Irish Fusiliers were troubled in their advance by an isolated MG post and snipers.

They were planning a two coy attack, but announced at 1330 that further progress could not be made until an OP was captured, which dominated the approach to pt 437. This point was taken at 1355.

At 1430, progress was still held up by MGs, but, at 1445, the main attack was going well and at 1515, the north of Mahdi except pt 437 was safely in our hands. There was still a platoon due around pt 437 and another further east. D Coy attacked and took the feature. Enemy fought quite skilfully at a distance, but at close quarters, their heart did not appear to be in it and 30 PoWs were taken. Our infantry had a good shoot from …. as enemy infantry broke and fled north and east and about 30 fell under our pursuing rifle and LMG fire.

Enemy then mortared pt 437 from right and 466 (probably from 4444 and 4144)) and our troops consolidated to the south.

Final Position – 7th April.

Own Troops.

78 Division had captured all the objectives allotted for the day and 38 (Irish) Infantry Brigade was protecting the left flank against counterattack as planned. 2 Hamps held Kachbia, 6 Innisks stretched from 419137 to 436437 and 1 RIrF remained south of pt 437 with HQ at 423444. The A/Tk guns had not been got right up and were deployed from 392397 to 404413. Our own casualties were not more than 50. They were caused mainly by long range mortar (and some MG) fire after some objectives had been captured.

Enemy.

Enemy had lost 50 casualties and 50 PoWs. Identifications placed 9/III/755 on the forward slope of Mahdi and some of MB A52 (freshly equipped and newly arrived troops) area pt 437. Area 4044 – 4144 was confirmed to be strongly held and opposition had also come from area north of wadi 4444 – 4544, possibly a reserve coy area.

The policy of concentrating on enemy aerodromes appeared to have been successful, as infantry and artillery were not troubled by enemy aircraft. The Brigade had an AASC Wireless Tentacle, which provided tack R information and afforded an opportunity to give targets to the RAF.

Night – 7th/8th April.

Intensive patrolling was carried out by 2 Hamps and 1 RIrF, but without contact.

6 Innisks was relieved by 16 DLI and withdrew into Divisional reserve area 3839.

254 Battery A/Tk prepared to withdraw for other tasks and arrangements were made for infantry 6 pounders to take over.

Events – 8 April.

The day opened with some mortaring of 1 RIrF and 16 DLI and at 0950, an enemy mortar was effectively dealt with by our artillery at 401448. On the right, 36 Brigade in their advance took 12 PoWs at 1000hrs at 445437. Enemy infantry at 450447 were also dealt with.

The Brigade was not engaged in any major operations and positions were unchanged.

Counter attack Threat.

At 1100hrs, enemy tanks or SP guns were spotted at 470469 by 1 RIrF and what appeared to be 300 infantry moving south at 461459. These targets were both engaged by our artillery. At 1150, 12 tanks were reported with infantry at area 4449 and at 1230, more definite information was forthcoming. “3 Mark IV at 462459. Remainder (including 2 Mark VI) at 470469. Very little infantry can be seen. Axis of advance down Dr Bed Valley. Very little progress and engaged by our guns.” At 1325, three tanks were rejoining the others.

At 1347, 4 enemy guns (also part of the counter attacking forces) were engaged at 4648 and 1620, RA reported 2 tanks knocked out and remained in gully 468473. (At 1610, the tanks had been bombed by Hurricanes.)

Note: Tac/R in afternoon reported 4 MT moving south at 4952, 100 MT  going north east 3940 and 36 ACVs in gully 4649.

Sweep by A Coy 1 RIrF.

Between 1400 and 1600hrs, A Coy 1 RIrF made a sweep of gully 4344- 4444. First of all, one platoon began clearing the gully advancing along the left edge. One enemy, followed almost immediately by two more, emerged from dug positions in the wadi, which were apparently designed to delay us in withdrawal. Fire was opened from further down the gully and 7 platoon then assumed a fire position while 8 and 9 platoons advanced up the right to mop up. There was some firing but when our infantry closed, enemy surrendered without trouble. 2 officers and 30 ORs were captured. They belonged to an assortment of coys and regiments, and appeared to be the shattered remnants of several groups.

The possibility was discussed of placing one squadron North Irish Horse in support of 38 Brigade to protect the infantry against tank counter attack. This was especially thought advisable as the infantry 6 pounders could not yet be got to the north east slopes of Mahdi.

Night – 8th/9th April.

At 1930, a tank hunting patrol of 1 RIrF set out but failed to find the disabled enemy tank,

which was confirmed in daylight to have been removed. The remainder were reported to be still at 470469 in a defensive position (to stop advance up Dr Bed Valley?)

A local patrol captured on reverse slope pt 437, one man drafted from A42 to I/755, who stated he had been ordered to dig in there. 10 other enemy were seen and artillery was brought down on the area at first light. Otherwise, the night was quiet on the Brigade front.

A plot was hatched to mop up towards the north of the Brigade position.

9th April.

During the morning, there was slight mortaring but nothing else of note to observe until at 1300hrs, the sweep (carried out by night 6 Inniks left 2 Hamps) commenced.

Sweep north from Kachbia.

A support artillery programme had been arranged and the first objectives of both Battalions (2 Hamps pt 331, 3744 and 6 Innisks pt 361, 3944) were taken fairly easily. On the left, the advance was always troubled by snipers and MG fire, but the early stages of the night advance were quite straightforward. A Coy advanced to the top of pt 361, where 8 men dug in eagerly gave themselves up. C Coy worked around the gully in 4044 to the right and, though, suffering 4 casualties on anti personnel minefield already reported 401441 and 409441, made a successful clearance after A Coy had engaged MG nests from pt361, taking 40 PoWs. Two mortars and one MG were cleared out at the point of a bayonet.

The Hampshires were carrying on on the left, but MG fire was persistent. At the same time, B Coy 6 Innisks attacked RR 397453, but found the going difficult. An MG at 393457 worried both parties. Enemy kept changing his positions and the MGs were well camouflaged and hard to locate, the whole episode bearing out the opinion that he would fight hard and skilfully at a distance, if not close to.

2 Hamps, making full use of their 3” mortars eventually reached pt 372 (3845) whence a Coy turned north east to attack the Puits. Zareiah, as expected, was strongly held and was taken only with difficulty. In all, 2 Hamps suffered 50 casualties and took 35 PoWs, causing a further 10-15 casualties to the enemy.

6 Innisks took 48 PoWs, but did not inflict any casualties themselves and suffered 20 themselves. They reached 398465 but had not the time to come in that way against the second objective.

At 1810, the Brigade Commander ordered the withdrawal of both Battalions as planned and the disengagement accomplished without trouble, though 2 Hamps had to withdraw their forward troops under cover of darkness.

Irish Fusiliers sideshow.

During this action, it was decided to make a sweep with B Coy 1 RIrF in area north and west of pt 437. This yielded 47 PoWs and two enemy dead for the loss of one killed and wounded. The only difficulty was at pt 437, where things might have been held up, but a bren gunner charged up hill firing from the hip as soon as his section was engaged from here and an officer effectively engaged the German MG from the other side. The whole action lasted fifteen minutes. It was apparent i) that the German egg grenade is almost useless, ii) that our artillery so demolished the enemy  that it was difficult to make them come out and surrender.

Conclusion.

As on previous days, the AASC tentacle gave information of enemy movement in the back areas. Positions of the Brigade remained as before and 130 PoWs were taken during the day. Plans to relieve the Brigade night 9/10 April (OO No 17) were changed in view of the opportunity of making a further advance.  What happened was that 1 RWK took up the position of 2 Hamps, who withdrew to 3840, and 6 Black Watch lay up area 1 RIrF.

The new plan was for one battalion, followed by another if things went well, to advance across the plain from Mahdi to Guerinat 4349 – 4250 and for tanks to clear opposition to the right as well as to give support to the infantry.

Incidents – 9th /10th April.       

During the night, 16 DLI placed under command 12 Brigade. After a conference, which lasted from 2200hrs to 2330hrs, Brigade Commander went to Divisional HQ and the IO returned to put SC in the picture at rear Brigade. 3 troops of mules were under command for the operation and it was thought probable that the ground would allow carriers to go up on the objective, while the mules were used for the 2nd line supporters.

The night was quiet and only local patrols were sent out.

Advance to Guerinat – 10th April.

At 0830hrs, Brigade Commander left Command Post to establish Command OP at 4244 and at 0900, 1 RIrF began to filter forward by platoons and coys on Mahdi itself, while 6 Innisks moved up to 16 DLI area ready to follow on. The point was not to commit the main body in the open until it was safe to advance.

Division reported at 1020 that NIH tanks had found no opposition as far as 4747 and believed the ground clear of enemy tanks to 5253. Nothing had been seen on Djebel Rmel 4749. Division then sent a squadron 56 Recce Regiment to come under command NIH 4747 and the next plan (announced by the LO to command post at 1215) was to send 6 Black Watch to Djebel Rhel under command 36 Brigade.

At 1055, 1 RIrF reported they had reached the end of the broken ground on Mahdi and by 1110, the forward troops had reached 430463. At 1245, 1 RIrF reports things going well and pretty quickly at 440479 and estimate to go on in 20 minutes.

Air.

Tac/R gave information of retreating enemy in Dr Bed Valley, and at 0935 saw a large coin of MT 5350 going north east. This target was accepted and at 1115, Hurricanes bombed it with good effect. Infantry, MT and 12 guns were also attacked in wadi 5757.

Our infantry pushed on entirely unopposed, though the tanks were engaged by mortar fires from 448482 and at 1350 RE was ordered to send a bulldozer to carry on work on the track up to Mahdi. By 1420, a plan with artillery support was made and put into operation and at 1515, 1 RIrF were on objective Djebel Guerinat having experienced no opposition. Only sign of enemy was 30 men and 6 mules at 4055, and they were shelled by our artillery and disappeared south west.

Consolidation was completed by 1730 and daylight patrols north and west of the objective had no contact. Meanwhile, 6 Innisks were called forward to Si Aneur 4447 and 2 Hamps went to Mahdi.

Night – 10th/11th April.

At 1830hrs, command post was moved to 420445 and Brigade HQ and A Echelon moved up at 1930 to farm 386392 and area 3734 respectively. 6 Innisks were estimated to be at Si Ameur 4447 and 1 RIrF on the ridge of Djebel Guerinat. Night patrols to 430515 and 408509 searched the hill slopes at their objectives and found absolutely no sign of enemy. In other respects the night was quiet.

Events – 11th April.

1 RIrF 4349 and 6 Innisks 4447 were still in position and 1 RIrF sent a Coy to 420523 to block the retreat of enemy from Hunt’s Gap area. Nothing, however, came into the net and at 1930hrs, 1 RIrF, followed by 6 Innisks, withdrew to rest area, around Plateau Farm 386392.

Air.

During the day, dive bombers were fairly active in the divisional area. At 1000hrs, a low flying Cannon fighter attacked 6 Innisks and two men were wounded. Brigade Commander was there at the time. At 1315, 10 bombs were dropped 500 yards east of the Command Post 420445 and there were repeated efforts to hit Oued Zarga bridge. During the morning, two Stukas were shot down.

Our air was active against enemy MT and aerodromes. The report is typical:

“Hurribombers attacked Depienne aerodrome. At 1730hrs, 6 to 8 bursts on north west corner of landing ground, two among blast shelters, one on perimeter track, three in centre of landing ground.”

Conclusion.

By 2330hrs, 1 RIrF and 6 Innisks reported in position area Plateau Farm.