(THE 2ND BATTALION)
Division was, in a sense, thrown together from troops that were available in
1942 to form part of a striking force whose destination few were aware of and fewer
prepared to disclose. It was formed in
Battalion still formed part of 11 Brigade, along with the 1st
Ryder, Commanding General of the 34 US Division, addressed all ranks on 22
October and was followed by the Divisional Commander. The Divisional Commander
was Major General Vivian Evelegh, who had commanded
11 Brigade in
The Division, they were told, was now under US
command and was about to set out on a great adventure. But when, on the night
of 26/27 October, the Viceroy of India slipped
stealthily down the dark
Two nights before, the news of the Battle of El Alamein had broken.
impressive sight, this armada of ships,' reports the War Diary, 'the pick of
the Merchant Navy they say. Convoy totals 41 ships, including an aircraft
carrier.' Actually there were forty-nine ships in 'KMSI', steaming majestically
into the north
was disseminated gradually; finally on 30 October 1942 Lieutenant Colonel
'Monk' Manly gave officers the full details of the battalion's role in the
landing. They were to land southwest of
No one was
quite sure what would be the
reception of the invading forces, because no one could forecast the attitude of
the French. Would they cooperate, or could they resist? The Allied plan, at any
rate, reckoned to do without them. In point of fact, when the troops headed for
the shore in their landing craft early on 8 November, the French neither
resisted nor cooperated, but remained suspicious and apathetic until some days
later when the Darlan affair cleared the air. On the
other hand, they did not resist the Axis forces that began pouring into
'A' and 'B'
Companies, at all events, encountered no active hostility when, as dawn broke,
they led the battalion inland from Pescade Point,
though away to the left a distant crackle of rifle fire showed where the Vichy
troops in Algiers were putting up a token resistance to the US 34 Division. The
battalion's first task was to expand the brigade bridgehead and take
The move began
on 17 November, and Setif was made as the first stage
Medjez stands at the western end of the Medjerda valley. Only in that valley, farther south in the central plain between Tebourka and Pont du Fahs, and farther south still where the country begins to merge into the desert is it possible to use tanks with any freedom. An enemy attacking from the west must first pass through long defiles in the mountains, narrow plains running through high, rugged mountain ranges and bare rocky hills. General Eisenhower's intention was to get his troops into the easier country before the Germans were in a position to hold them up at the foolproof defensive positions with which they were favoured, where the mountain passes debauch into the plains. A double thrust for Tunis was now being made by 78 Division, with 36 Brigade advancing along the northern road, 11 Brigade along the southern road from Beja through Medjez el Bab, and Blade, a composite force formed around the 17/21 Lancers and 1 Parachute Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel R.A. Hull, clearing the high ground in the centre.
On the night of 21/22 November the 2nd Battalion arrived at Oued Zarga, a dozen miles west of Medjez, where the main road leaves the hills and slopes down towards the plain. Here it took up a position on the forward slopes of the hills, but the division was not yet sufficiently concentrated to allow any further forward movement. The Germans, meanwhile, had retired east of the Medjerda, but were still patrolling actively on the Allied side.
'C' and 'D' Companies, with two sections of carriers, were moved forward on 23 November to positions on the hills immediately overlooking Medjez. They had a slight brush with the Germans here. On the following day orders were given out for an attack on Medjez on 25 November.
The plan was for the battalion to advance from the positions held by its leading companies, cross the river by 6 am and attack the town From the north while the Northamptons made a similar attack from the southwest. They were to be supported by 132 Field Regiment, Welsh territorial gunners, and a battery of mediums, with an American tank battalion held in reserve.
The battalion moved forward during the afternoon of 24 November; ‘Everybody keen', the War Diary reports. Unfortunately the bad state if the roads, allied with some trouble from German machine-gun posts concealed on the flanks, made going rather slow, and it was after dark )y the time the battalion reached its positions. Then one of those things that can cause so much confusion and distress happened. Just as .he battalion began to cross the start line, a burst of machine-gun fire sit the CO and killed him instantly.
There was no confusion on this occasion. Major S.J. Linden-Kelly, who had been a Territorial captain at the outbreak of war, took over ;command and the advance continued without a check. 'A' and `B' companies crossed the river, fording it waist-high with their rifles held shove their heads, and continued towards Medjez town. 'C' and 'D' ,companies then began to follow them, but a machine-gun post delayed their progress until the mortars succeeded in knocking it out. they then moved forward into the river, accompanied by advanced battalion headquarters.
Unfortunately the various delays to which the battalion had been ;objected had put back the timetable rather seriously, and it was already light when the leading companies scaled the steep bank on the far side of the river. Before they could find cover in the scrub, they were attacked with fire from guns, mortars and machine-guns, and despite all they could do they were forced back into the river bed. German aircraft were flying low over the battlefield spotting for the enemy, and to make matters worse our own Gunner Forward Observation Officer was caught on the wrong side of the river and artillery support could not be brought down to silence the German guns and mortars. Obstinately the leading companies reformed on the east bank of the river to renew their attack, and again the enemy machine-guns, sweeping over the flat, open country, forced them back into the river bed. Four times they tried to form up, and four times they were beaten back with heavy losses.
Major 'Red' Kelly now decided to work southwards down the river bed and assault the town from another direction. By this time it was 11.30 am. 'D' Company took the left bank, 'C' was divided among both banks, and 'A' and 'B' Companies looked after the left flank. Around noon, 'C' and 'D' Companies came under heavy artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire again and were pinned helplessly to the river bank, taking more casualties. There seemed for the moment to be no way in which the advance could be pressed further.
At last, however, the CO managed to get the Gunner officer across the river and into a position of observation among the forward troops. Now the guns brought down a heavy concentration on the enemy positions. It silenced the German fire, and 'C' Company was able to extricate itself, leaving 'D' Company on the far bank to cover it. Seeing the situation Major Kelly decided he would have to withdraw the battalion to the west bank of the river and reorganize.
While this withdrawal was going on, Captain A.A. Townsend crawled forward through the heavy enemy fire and set up a Barn in a position from which he felt he could do a lot of damage. He was seen by the Germans almost at once, and they gave him all they had. He kept his gun in action while the withdrawal continued, however, and later, in the final stages, waited on the west bank with a small party to see the last men across. He was awarded the Military Cross. Another MC went to the Forward Observation Officer, Captain Barker-Benfield. Two other ranks also won decorations during the day's fighting: Corporal D. Ryan was awarded a Military Medal for the gallant way in which he carried on when his platoon sergeant was wounded, and Fusilier T. Taylor won a Military Medal in recognition of his handling of a 2-inch mortar in an exposed position on the river bank.
The withdrawal began at about 4.30 pm. When all the companies had crossed, except 'D', the covering company, the Germans put in a heavy counter-attack with tanks from the southwest side of the town.
(The Northamptons had already been driven back by these same tanks.) Coming on the battalion before it had reorganized, and being aimed at the very wood to which it was in the process of being withdrawn, this attack was devastating, and those of the battalion in the wood had to go back across the flat plain to the foothills. The rest were withdrawn to a dug tank trap that gave them temporary security; later they retired to Tebourka under cover of darkness.
What was particularly galling was to see the bridge in Medjez, whose capture was one of the principal objects of the operation, go up in a cloud of smoke as the battalion was pulling back. But if this object had not been achieved, at least another had, for the Germans who had significantly not followed up their counter-attack, pulled out of Medjez el Bab that night.
The battalion's blooding had not been a pleasant experience. It had lost 32 killed, 47 wounded and 60 missing (which included the RAP). But its morale was high, and there was reason to feel pleased at the showing it had made.
While this fighting was going on, Blade Force had got into the German positions, and on 26 November was at a point midway between Mateur and Tebourka, while 36 Brigade in the north was advancing on Jefna. After a couple of days' rest, the battalion was ordered to join Blade Force and take up positions on the hills covering the main road to Mateur, where it was believed the enemy was in strength. It spent the next ten days in a kind of vaguely 'offensive-defensive' role, holding its positions and patrolling actively in front of them. The Germans were also patrolling in this area, and there were several vigorous encounters.
had now begun to break. It was a depressing period; the cold mountain air was
now abetted by blinding rainstorms every day, and the troops had no change of
clothing. Every road and track away from the main roads was a quagmire, and to
make things even more unpleasant, the Luftwaffe had complete control of the sky
and was strafing and dive-bombing at will. Every day you heard of some vehicle
of the brigade being caught on the road and shot up. Above all, there was the
feeling that the brilliant dash for
been occupied; there had been confused and indecisive fighting between Tebourka and Mateur, but although
the Northamptons had reached Dejedeida,
only a few miles from Tunis, and had been turned back again, and the Hampshires (lent to 11 Brigade from the Guards Brigade) had
again occupied it and in their turn been pushed out after a heroic battle, all
attempts to make further ground towards the east came up against opposition
that was, for the moment anyhow, too strong for defeat. It seemed that the
Germans had decided to stand and fight all along the line. They had won the
first round, their build-up had been swifter than the
Allied advance and for the time being
In accordance with the general process of stabilizing the line, the 2nd Battalion was moved back to Sidi Nsir, southwest of Mateur, on 11 December. Before the move had got under way, the enemy launched a sharp attack on the battalion's positions and managed to infiltrate parties through a gap between 'C' and 'B' Companies. HQ Company sent troops to fill the hole until a troop of tanks of the 17/21 with a detachment of 1 Parachute Battalion arrived and drove them out. This was quite a heartening event in one way; it was estimated that the enemy had taken casualties somewhere about the 300 mark in exchange for the 5 killed and 14 wounded inflicted on the battalion.
the battalion was successfully withdrawn from its positions covering the road,
and marched back the 12 miles to Sidi Nsir during the night. Here it took over positions around
the railway station. General Evelegh visited the
battalion a few days afterwards and
administered an encouraging pat on the back; he congratulated 'Red' Kelly (who
was by this time confirmed in his appointment as CO) and congratulated the
battalion on its fighting spirit. That same day there arrived
the first mail from
The rest of
December passed without a major action. Instead, the battalion devoted itself
to patrolling. Patrols might cover 8 or 10 miles a night. Really long patrols
would go out on one night, lie up all the following day, and return the next
night. Some officers grew famous for their aptitude for this kind of thing -
Ian Latta, 'Bish' Bishop,
Brian Bennett (who later died of wounds in
One of the hardships of this period was the shortage of men. The campaign was being ran on a shoestring, and once the battalion had lost so many battle casualties it had not enough men left to work any kind of system of reliefs. One just went on and on, and of course them were no rest camps, no buildings even in the utterly bare battle areas, in which one could take refuge from the cold wet North African winter.
By the beginning of 1943, however, the battalion had been brought reasonably well up to strength, and on the night of 7 January it moved to a comparatively quiet area on the main Beja-Oued Zarga road, where it was possible for half of the strength at a time to be withdrawn then rested - they were also able to luxuriate in the Roman baths at Beja. By 13 January all the companies were in the line again, working on the strong defended localities they had been ordered to construct as part of the build-up behind which preparations were going on for the next big offensive.
Early in February the battalion took over from 8 Argylls at Medjez el Bab railway station. During the move up, Lieutenant and Quartermaster B.H. Jeanes was killed by a low-flying enemy aeroplane. He had served in the Regiment with great distinction for over 20 years.
Germans still occupied positions commanding Medjez
(including the formidable feature known as 'Longstop') they had now switched
their main effort farther south, where they were endeavouring
to dislodge the British troops about Bou Arada and the Free French in the
of February the focus was on the south. The Eighth Army, having passed
Von Arnim reckoned that the time was now ripe for him to strike again. He did so on 26 February, coming in on 78 Division's front south of Medjez. The sector held by the battalion was not directly involved in this new thrust, but so sparse were the troops on the ground that it was not long before a company had to be taken out and sent to another part of the front to restore ground that had been lost. 'D' was the chosen company; it was taken by bus to a sector several miles away and set to attack a feature known as Jebel Saffa. In company with some of 56 Reconnaissance Regiment the company forced the enemy back, taking 100 prisoners and a great deal of booty. Casualties were not serious, but among them was Captain Townsend, who had earned a Military Cross in the first attack on Medjez, and who was killed shortly after the start of this engagement.
Von Arnim's offensive died down again on 3 March and the front
became comparatively quiet. But spring was coming, the season for a new Allied
push. The spring offensive was timed to begin in the early days of April. The
plan was for 78 Division to advance on a front of some 10 miles to a depth of
about the same extent, taking in turn a series of peaks called the Mahdi, Hill 512, Hill 667, Djebel
el Ang and Tanngoucha, and
the mountain villages of Toukabeur, Chaouach and Heidous. 'This
mountain land,' wrote General Sir Kenneth Anderson, GOC First Army, in his despatches, 'is a vast tract of country, every hill in
which is large enough to swallow up a brigade of infantry, where consolidation
on the rocky slopes is very difficult, in which tanks can only operate in small
numbers, where movement of guns and vehicles is very restricted and where the
division had to rely on pack mules for its
supplies and to carry wireless telegraphy sets, tools and mortars. The general
impression,' he added in a somewhat more generous tone, 'is one of wide
spaciousness, a kind of
Division, the attack was due to begin on 7 April. On 4 April the CO stood with
his Order Group on a height from which they could clearly see the country
towards Toukaheur, over which the attack would pass.
Two nights later the battalion moved to a lying-up area where it waited
concealed while the
Fresh orders came during the night, and at 6 am the battalion attacked under the cover of an intense artillery barrage against Hill 512. 'C' and 'D' Companies were in the lead, advancing across the rough going and the steep hills at a smart pace, and they took their first objectives without serious difficulty. 'A' and 'B' Companies now took over, and had taken the summit of Hill 512 by 8 am. 'C' and 'D' went ahead again and established dug-in positions on the forward slopes of the hill.
The enemy now
began to hit the hill with artillery and mortars, and the battalion took a
number of casualties. However, at 4.45 pm, 'B' Company, supported by a troop of
Churchill tanks (which proved to have quite remarkable mountain-climbing
capabilities) went forward again to the high ground above Toukabeur,
where they captured a number of prisoners and an anti-tank gun. By last light,
however, the situation was still a little confused, and 'B' Company out of
touch with battalion headquarters. It appeared subsequently that the
Next day the
rest of the battalion closed up on 'B' Company's hill, and at 10 am continued
the advance, making now for Chaouach in company with
held Chaouach for the next two days, then began to
move forward again on 12 April. By daybreak on 14 April they had reached the
lower slopes of Djebel Bettiour,
where they linked up with the Northamptons at the top, while the
At about 10 am it was seen that the troops on Mahdouma were being forced back. 'A' Company was sent to counter-attack. This had such success that the company's impetus carried it on to Djebel el Ang. Major Garner-Smith, who was commanding the battalion in the absence of Lieutenant Colonel Kelly, who had been evacuated sick, now got together with the CO of the Northamptons and together they hatched a plot to attack the next commanding feature. This was Tanngoucha, a wicked-looking mountain with a jagged, craggy peak, the capture of which was a key element in the divisional operation.
was carried out by 'C' and 'D' Companies and two companies of the Northamptons. It began at about 4 pro. While they were on
the start-line, the troops were heavily shelled. For a while there seemed to be
an inclination on the troops' part to go to ground; but CSM Alexander of 'C' Company went
about among them with great coolness and courage and urged them on - he was
awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. The advance then picked up a lot of
dash and elm, but unfortunately after
the troops had advanced a little way the
leading wave was caught in very heavy mortar fire and crossfire from
machine-guns and could go on no farther. Dusk was now approaching; there seemed
to be no future in the attack in its current form, so the two
A fresh attack went in at 9.15 pm, using 'C' Company with the other two rifle companies of the Northamptons. All went well at first, but in the early hours of the morning of 15 April a thick mist descended and contact with 'C' Company was lost. At 4.30 am 'A' and 'B' companies on Djebel Bettiour suddenly came under heavy artillery fire and the enemy loomed up through the mist in a determined counter-attack. There was nothing for it but to retire to new positions on Djebel el Ang. When daylight came it became evident that the fighting during the night had been bitter, and there was still no news from 'C' or from one of the Northamptons' companies. (The other had failed to reach its objective and returned during the day, but without news of the situation in Tanngoucha.) `A' and 'B' companies had both had heavy casualties, and it was decided to leave the former on Djebel el Ang while moving the latter to Bettiour.
This was not much better, since Bettiour and its only approaches were shelled hard and continuously throughout the day, so hard that the Regimental Medical Officer had difficulty in evacuating casualties, while it was extremely hard to get food and water to the battalion.
On the afternoon of 17 April, the divisional Commander arrived at Bettiour and decided after a conference with those concerned that a fresh attack must be made on Tanngoucha that night. The 2nd Battalion was obviously in no state to undertake it, so it was moved back to Mahdouma while two fresh battalions were given the job. While the relief was in-progress, heavy mist came-down again. At once the enemy began heavy shelling of Bettiour.
At 8 pm it was suddenly realized that the enemy were on the escarpment-immediately. above battalion headquarters, and were throwing stick-grenades down into it. There was a lot of confused fighting in the dark; everyone joined in; the anti-aircraft platoon, the Pioneers (whose sergeant, Sergeant Myers, won a DCM for his gallantry), the clerks, the RASC mule drivers and, though things looked critical for a while, the Germans were finally driven off. When this excitement was over the relief proceeded and a very tired and depleted battalion moved into reserve on Mahdouma.
There was still no news of 'C' Company. They had, it was ultimately realized, been captured more or less complete in the fog; a great loss of a great company. All its officers, Captain J.F.M. Hudson (who had won the first MC of the war), Captain R.I. Latta (the patrolling expert), Lieutenants K. Darwin and J. Wiggiton, were missing. In addition the battalion had lost another officer killed, Lieutenant J. Kidd, and three wounded, Captain R.H. Trevor-Roper and Lieutenants L.A. Mott and C. Walker, besides one more missing, Lieutenant H. Bear. Total other ranks casualties were 7 known killed, 72 wounded and 148 missing.
The battalion had fought continuously for ten days over mountain country of the most appalling difficulty. 'I consider that the 78 Division deserves high praise,' General Anderson wrote, 'for as tough and prolonged a bit of fighting as has ever been undertaken by the British soldier.' Now the battalion came back to Toukabeur for a short period of rest, and here it was given enough reinforcements to bring it back to a four rifle company basis instead of the two to which it had been reduced by its losses in the mountains.
The two jaws
of the attack were now closing in on
The 2nd Battalion, still sore from its experiences on Tanngoucha, was unable to take a very big part in these operations. On the night of 20/21 April it moved to positions on the hills above Bon Diss, where it stayed until 26 April to cover the advance of the Americans.
On 26 April it moved to the Medjez sector once mom and was put into positions on Longstop, where it was employed in probing the enemy positions on the Tebourka road. This phase culminated in an expensive and largely abortive night attack that cost the battalion forty-four casualties, including Captain F. Coles, MC, who was killed. The battalion was then withdrawn to reserve. Later it took up outpost positions to cover the advance of 1 and 4 Divisions in the final offensive.
The end in
was sent into
It had been a hard campaign that had cost the battalion numbers of good officers and men, but it had welded it into a fighting instrument of surpassing quality. General Alexander, an officer not given to extravagant statements, paid a visit to the battalion on one occasion during the operations. The battalion may take pride in a remark he made to the CO: 'I hear your men are very tough,' he said.