Plans were laid for a final push towards Tunis, and the first step was allotted to the 78th Division. The Irish Brigade, with a battalion of the Hampshire Regiment temporarily displacing the London Irish who were being re-formed, was given the tough task of capturing Djebel El Mahdi, a difficult, pear-shaped lesser mountain about four miles long and rising in a gradual slope to one thousand four hundred feet.
The attack succeeded, as did the rest of the divisional scheme. The Oued Zarga—Medjez road was clear, and preparations were made for the second phase, to open the route to Tebourba by attacking Longstop, Tanngoucha, and the Djebel Ang. Tanngoucha was the most formidable of a group of rocky, steep hills which began five miles from Medjez. In a space of about two miles were the mountain villages of Toukabeur, Chaouach, Kelbine, and Heidous. The latter was perched on top of a rock which had steep sides fifty feet high. Between the villages were narrow paths passable to goats but which were bull-dozed into tracks for vehicles. To the east and west of the villages was a jumble of bare, rocky hills, with no tracks at all; and beyond Heidous, the last northern village, was nothing but wild, uninhabited country.
One brigade of the division got a foothold on Tanngoucha after suffering heavily in their initial attack. Until they were relieved by the Irish Brigade, they held on grimly to a massive crag known as Bettiour in the middle of the foreground below Tanngoucha.
Just over two thousand feet high, Bettiour commanded all the hills immediately around it. A great ledge fifty feet high rose gaunt and bare on the top.
All the rocky features had one thing in common. Their summits, with stiff approaches, were surmounted by long rocky “dragon’s backs” about twenty to forty yards wide and with steep sides twenty to sixty feet deep. The enemy had spent considerable time and care in preparing their positions among these rocky fastnesses. They regarded their defences as their “Siegfried Line,” but it had a variety of other names among the British troops.
To this scene came the London Irish, fresh, fit, up to strength, and once more full of fight. They needed to be so, for they entered upon two weeks of the hardest and most bitter fighting of a hard campaign, in which little quarter was given or asked.
It was thought that the capture of Tanngoucha would cause the fall of Heidous and The Kefs, a series of outcrops of Tanngoucha. The first attack, made by the Skins, met with some success until it was discovered that mules carrying ammunition and other supplies had been machine-gunned. The Skins had to withdraw just before daylight.
While it was agreed that the capture of Tanngoucha would probably result in the fall of Heidous and The Kefs, the unsuccessful effort by the Skins revealed that from those two flanking positions the Bosche could oppose the main attack. A full-scale action, therefore, was planned by the Irish Brigade. The London Irish were to tackle Heidous, the Skins, Tanngoucha, and the Faughs were to attack The Kefs. It had to be a night attack in each case, as in daylight the advancing infantry would have been shot down like rabbits by the Bosche concealed among the rocks.
On the evening of April 15 the London Irish slowly climbed up through the hills to take over positions on Bettiour and Mahdouna. An enemy counter-attack was in progress and E Company took over from the East Surreys amid much firing. The enemy attacked Bettiour, where a grenade duel took place in which a few casualties were caused to battalion headquarters and H Company.
During the whole time that the London Irish were on Bettiour they were subjected to spasmodic mortar fire and long-range shelling. In the next few days it grew in intensity, the German mortar teams becoming unpleasant experts in landing their bombs right on the edge of the enormous ledge that sheltered battalion headquarters, and flying rock splinters hit several men, including R.S.M. G. Irish.
On the nights of April 15 and 20, patrols were sent out, the prime object being to discover the best routes to Heeds and Sandy Ridge, a large round hillock behind Heeds. These patrols, commanded by Lieutenant Rowlette and Lieutenant O’Rourke, made no contact with the enemy and gained the required information. Reconnaissances took place for the attack on Heidous, and the next night patrols under Lieutenant Stokes and Lieutenant Howells had a look round the approaches to the north and south of the village.
The plan was now ready for the final push in the mountains by the 78th Division, preparatory to the break-through by the armour along the Medjez road to Tunis. The preliminary operation was necessary in order to clear and remove the threat to the Tebourba road. The Irish Brigade was to capture Tanngoucha and the village of Heidous, and 36 Brigade to capture the famous fortress of Longstop Hill which commanded the road.
The Commanding Officer gave out his orders for the attack on Heidous during the afternoon of April 22. It was in two phases. First, F Company were to clear the village itself, supported by G Company, whose task was to take a small feature on the right; second, E Company and H Company were to clear Sandy Ridge, east of Heidous.
At a quarter to six that evening the horizon and in fact the whole sky became lit up by hundreds of gun flashes as a terrific artillery preparation went down on Heidous, Tanngoucha, and Sandy Ridge, as well as the heavy gunners’ support for the attack on Longstop.
F and G Companies gradually made their way down the rocky and precipitous slopes of Bettiour, and F Company, under Major Dunnill, marched on a compass bearing to a forming-up position on the outskirts of the village. Heidous, or “Hideous,” as the men called it, was about a mile from Bettiour and divided into an upper and a lower village. For days it had been shelled until not a single building remained intact and most of the houses were just heaps of rubble.
It was an eerie sight at night with odd fires burning among the ruins. 10 and 11 Platoons started to advance along the edge of the village and came under heavy machine-gun fire and were also harassed by snipers. They pushed on slowly, but contact with company headquarters and with the reserve platoon was lost. Major Dunnill then received word that his forward platoons were held tip and he gave orders to Sergeant Norman to take the reserve platoon to the right and to try to infiltrate into the village from there. A forward section of Lieutenant Rowlette’s platoon managed to get into the lower village and sent a message reporting their progress. A force of what remained at company headquarters was formed under Major Dunnill, and they all moved off, led by Corporal Palmer, who had brought the message and knew the way back. Unfortunately, owing to the darkness or to a mist that suddenly developed, the party lost their way. As they moved through the edge of the village a machine-gun opened up and Corporal Palmer fell mortally wounded, his well-intentioned task unfulfilled.
Major Dunnill and Rifleman Whiteside, his runner, went back along the main wadi at the bottom of the village and then clambered tip the steep rocky slopes at the southern end. As they went over the crest another gun opened up and the rifleman was hit. Major Dunnill silenced the enemy gun with his Bren.
Throughout this time G Company were engaged on the small rocky hill south of Heidous, but so far nothing had been heard of them. They were out of touch by wireless and had sent no message to F Company.
Captain Thornton, commanding G Company, went into Heidous to find out the situation. He met Lieutenant Rowlette, but soon he walked into a fixed line, fell wounded in the legs and was afterwards taken prisoner.
Major Dunnill, who had been wounded in several places, went back to headquarters to give the Commanding Officer the general situation. Acting on his information, E Company was sent to Heidous to support F Company. It was about three o’clock in the morning when they arrived outside the village and took up positions. The moon was up, and the Germans were silhouetted against the sky-line manning their guns. The approach was far too steep for any surprise attack. By now there was no sound of firing and everything had a strange, uneasy quietness. A section of G Company met E Company but could not offer any information, and it was apparent that F Company had either withdrawn or had been captured. Of the rest of G Company nothing had been heard.
Dawn came. Major J. D. Lofting brought E Company back to Bettiour rather than reinforce failure and take on a task that might prove disastrous in casualties. It became known afterwards that the three platoons of G Company did in fact get their objective, but receiving no further orders withdrew at dawn. Those that remained of F Company who had not been killed, wounded, or captured lay low until early morning. Lieutenant Rowlette and Lieutenant Hughes feigned dead, sprawled over a slit trench with one or two others while a German officer stood beside them viewing the situation. “Jock” Hughes was so tired that he began to snore. Their hearts jumped into their mouths but luckily the German made off. As they looked over a wall to see if the way was clear, they saw a German soldier standing against an eighty-eight-millimetre gun. Each of them looked in turn and quickly ducked out of sight. They had another look and then they realised that the German was dead. He had been killed outright and the gun held up his body. The two officers crawled away at dawn and reached the battalion on Bettiour. Eventually thirty men of F Company got back from Heidous.
By this time, the Royal Irish Fusiliers had reached but not occupied Point 622 and the Inniskillings were on the lower slopes of Tanngoucha.
So the Irish Brigade hung on, with the Inniskillings half-way up Tanngoucha, where they dug in, grimly refusing to withdraw a second time. The Royal Irish Fusiliers had captured The Kefs, but could not quite make Point 622 slightly higher, and the London Irish, after a hard and gallant fight, had failed to take Heidous. Something was going to crack, but the Irish battalions were determined that it was not going to be the brigade, though all knew that little assistance could be expected as the rest of the division were all heavily engaged. But three Churchills of the North Irish Horse became available. It was not tank country, in fact it was scarcely fit for mules, but somehow they managed to get up and forward. It was decided that the Faughs and the tanks would attack on the left flank, and so worry the defenders of Tanngoucha, that the Skins, from their half-cock position, could take immediate advantage of any signs of weakness.
And so it happened. The Faughs, with the help of the tanks which fired all they got—solid shot at the fissures in the cliffs, Besas at machine-gun nests, and high explosives at everything— reached their objective. The Skins then charged with a roar and up went the white flags. Tanngoucha had fallen.
That night, too, the London Irish took Heidous. E Company occupied it, and also searched Sandy Ridge and the valleys and wadis alongside. 9 Platoon found Sergeant Norman, a platoon commander in F Company, lying wounded in the ruins of a house in Heidous. From him it was established that most of F Company, including Captain Thornton, and a few men of G Company had been taken prisoner. Sergeant Norman had been left behind by the Germans as he was too seriously wounded to be moved. He died later in hospital.
In this way the “Siegfried Line” of Tunisia was cracked, but even with the fall of the fortresses of Tanngoucha and Longstop the job was not finished. The Irish Brigade advanced farther into the hills along a deep valley that led them into the heart of the great kefs that looked down majestically on to the Medjez Plain.
They had to follow up on the enemy as quickly as possible. The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers cleared the hills on the right, the Royal Irish Fusiliers those on the left, and brigade headquarters, with the London Irish, followed. After three days’ fighting, and clearing three miles of country, the brigade came to a stop. It had reached country almost impossible to any but mountaineers.
Two days later, the Irish Brigade was recalled to south of Medjez. They had been fighting hard and continuously for a month and had had heavy casualties. Every man in each battalion who could fight had been in action; rifle companies, pioneers, carriers, anti-tank gunners, signallers, shoemakers, and cooks—everyone had done his share.
The key to the whole area undoubtedly had been Tanngoucha, and after the German defences had fallen the Brigadier went over them and found them a series of cunningly conceived fortresses. He confessed that he was unable to discover how the brigade had succeeded in storming them. The Corps Commander, too, inquired: “How on earth did they do it?” and the Brigadier replied frankly: “I’m damned if I know.”
One thing was certain, he commented later, it could only have been done by the very best troops, with first-class junior leaders.