On 20 January 1943, Captain Sydney Montrose Ekin was walking in the footsteps of two brothers who had fought and died in the First World War when he crossed the attack Start Line on the Bou Arada to Goubellat road, 50 miles south west of Tunis,
A Cambridge University law graduate who had been commissioned in June 1939, Ekin was the Officer Commanding F Company of the 2nd Battalion, London Irish Rifles (2 LIR), who had the follow-up role in an attack on Hill 279 less than half a mile from the Start Line. The assault was designed to be a surprise and there was no preparatory artillery barrage. F Company’s orders were to pass through G Company which was in the lead once 279 was taken and press on to the next high point, Hill 286.
Captain Ekin, aged 32, must have been confident, though it was his first time under enemy fire.
Since 1939, when 2 LIR was formed, most of the men of the Battalion had been training in the UK and they had bonded further during Operation ‘Dyshod’ in Scotland during the summer of 1942 and on the long sea voyage from Greenock to to Algiers. By the middle of January 1943, the London Irish had been in Tunisia for more than a month, coming to grips with an unfamiliar landscape, persistent rain and an elusive and determined enemy. During this period, F Company’s mettle had been repeatedly tested in night patrols across the Goubellat Plain. Three of Ekin’s four platoon commanders looked like boys but that was possibly true right across the Irish Brigade.
The darkness on that January morning was a comfort and the objectives were lightly held. But there was little cover, the sun would soon rise and some officers of the Irish Brigade wondered whether Hills 279 and 286 could actually be held in daylight. In addition, all four of the Battalion’s rifle companies were being utilised in the attack – there was no reserve.
The fate of Ekin and the men of the London Irish in Tunisia was being shaped by 1st Army Commander General Kenneth Anderson who was under pressure to deliver results. As they advanced that morning, UK Prime Minister Winston Churchill and US President Roosevelt had been debating strategy in Casablanca. They had their minds fixed on invading Sicily once Axis forces were cleared from North Africa. There was disappointment that the chance to capture Tunis had been lost during the previous November and thus block the Afrika Corps’ retreat from Egypt and Libya. Allied leaders now wanted action – and this attack was part of that response.
The London Irish were deployed across a front of more than 200 yards as the Riflemen fixed bayonets and readied themselves for action. As he followed his platoons up the gentle slope of 279, with his wireless operator close at hand, Ekin’s mind may have turned to his two older brothers. Leslie, aged 22, and James, aged 19, who were both Second Lieutenants in the Lancashire & Yorkshire Regiment when they joined the attack on German lines on 1 July 1916 on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Almost 20,000 British soldiers had died that day. These included both Ekin’s siblings who are buried at CWGC cemeteries in Authuille about 5 kilometres north of Albert
The Ekins’ father, James, lived in county Tyrone until he emigrated with his wife to Sydney, Australia in the 1880s and where four of their five children were born – Leslie being born in 1894 and James in 1897. The family returned to the UK in 1910, and set up home in London. Sydney Ekin was six years of age when the news of the death of his brothers had been received.
At around 620am on 20th January 1943, G Company reported to Battalion HQ that Hill 279 had been reached and F Company was on its way to 286. But mortar and automatic fire was increasing. Communication with F Company was spasmodic and, at around 715am, HQ got a radio message from Ekin.
“Am on objective, send ammunition”. It was the last message that was sent by Captain Ekin.
Carriers made their way towards the high points which were both now in 2 LIR’s hands. F Company sent back six prisoners, a sign of initial success, but shelling was intensifying and a disaster was developing on Hill 286.
Unable to dig into the hill’s underpinning limestone rock, F Company was being systematically wiped out. Both Ekin and 23-year-old Lieutenant Victor Pottinger were mortally wounded. James McGranahan, who had been commissioned in December 1941 – and, at 20, one of the youngest platoon commanders in the Irish Brigade – had been killed. Another platoon commander, Lieutenant Kinch, was missing. Lieutenant Anthony Cowdy, from Drogheda and now F Company’s sole surviving officer, found himself in charge of its remnants.
The confusion is reflected in the report filed by 2 LIR’s Commanding Officer Lt-Colonel JB Jeffreys, who had moved his Headquarters onto the western slopes of Hill 279.
“At about 0900hrs, I was astonished to see Lieutenant Cowdy leading a few of F Coy back past Battalion HQ. I stopped them (and) asked why. Lieutenant Cowdy explained that he assumed that Captain Ekin had given the order to withdraw as he had seen the men in front coming back. In the light of later reports, I am of the opinion that Captain Ekin realised at first light that he had moved too far forward and was moving his Company back to the right position. He was wounded before this move had been completed and the company had come right back, although there were few left. I placed them in position on a small feature west of Point 279 and ordered Captain Costello to prepare to move E Company on to Hill 286.”
This time, with artillery support, Hill 286 was captured by E Company after 930am but came under yet more heavy mortar and machine gun fire. Two enemy self-propelled guns got on the hill and opened up on the London Irish on 279.
Some of E Company had been forced off 286 but Irish Brigade Commander Nelson Russell demanded that the hill should be re-captured. H Company, which had been moved up to 279, were sent in at 1240pm. As they advanced, Stukas began dive bombing attacks that wounded H Company’s commander and they withdrew to 286, section by section. News was sent back that 286 was firmly in friendly hands. Carriers brought up wire to strengthen their positions.
The London Irish had hot food sent up and they settled down for the night but, at 3am on the 21st, a runner from E Company brought the news that 286 and 279 were under attack by infantry and panzers. Amidst the chaos, men ran for their lives. The Germans had reached the Bou Arada to Goubellat road but were then driven back by the Royal Irish Fusiliers, who had been positioned in reserve in case of such an eventuality.
In less than an hour, the attack was over. But the impact of the carnage was enormous.
Of the 446 officers and men in the four rifle companies of the London Irish that had crossed the Start Line on 20 January, no less than 219 had been killed, wounded or gone missing and now presumed as having been taken prisoner. Total losses, including those in HQ Company, were 249.
But the greatest damage was done to F Company which had led the Battalion onto Hill 286. Only 36 men remained and Jeffreys reported that 46 had gone missing, including Cowdy and Kinch, and who were probably now German prisoners.
The London Irish were immediately reinforced but would be decimated again at the end of February by a German attack on Stuka Ridge just to the west of the Bou-Arada road. When the Irish Brigade was taken out of the line in March 1943, there were suggestions that 2 LIR should be dissolved but this was resisted although Jeffreys was soon replaced by Lt-Colonel TPD (Pat) Scott, who had been Commanding Officer of the 1st Battalion Royal Irish Fusiliers in Tunisia, and who was to become Irish Brigade Commander in early 1944.
An infinitely bigger price was paid by the men who fell on Hills 279 and 286 and none greater than the family of Sydney Ekin, the third brother to die fighting for his country so far from home.