Uncles Diary Mar/Apr/May 1943
Posted by Mac Cummings on June 6, 2018, 10:35 am
The March 1st-10th The whole line is to move back some miles, as the enemy is preparing to attack us in an attempt to regain the Jebel heights which we hold and the plain of Medenine. He is holding a line along the Mareth hills which overlook our present positions but not Medenine (hence his desire to drive us off them.) The Mareth hills look very grim in the morning light. This is the Mareth line. The Jebels lie close to the Mareth line and are Two large pointed heights which obscure the enemies view of the Medenine plain and we have Two FS posts on top of them; not a healthy spot to be in. The line moves back but we retain our positions on the Jebels. Our Lines-parties find the Sappers already laying mine fields as they being out on the base knew nothing about the move. The base is brought in as soon as possible. The 25’s and the 4•5 are already moving into our area and behind, and we move back Five miles along the Zarsis road and “S” troop take over our positions. |
March 2nd The Kiwis and the Indian Divisions are moving up, signs of an impending battle. Survey parties go out on recce for a new base in the Northern sector. The Luftwaffe is very active, and the RAF on the Medenine airfields have their work cut out.
Enemies last attack of major importance in North Africa.
We are ready for it. At dawn on the 6th the enemy launches a fierce attack on our positions around the Jebels, preceded by a fierce artillery barrage and we stand by. The attacks are made in the form of motorised infantry assaults supported by tanks. Among his Panzers he has the new Tiger tanks with a very heavy gun and 115 mm armour at the front. The first attacks are beaten off by anti-tank and artillery fire (the whole of 5 Agra are firing on a fixed plan.) This is an artillery show and our tanks stand by. All morning the enemy launches such attacks, and once almost succeeded in reaching the Jebels, and this is Rommels’ order of the day. “If we fail to take Medenine, the days of the Axis in North Africa are numbered” His final attack, almost in desperation, is launched at 18-00 hrs with 1000 men, mostly Italians and some 40 tanks including Tigers; and the enemy looses all his tanks and suffers heavy casualties. At the end of this attack his losses in men number some 4000. Our new anti-tank gun, the 17 pounder, seen here in action for the first time has proved its worth, and has given the enemy a most unpleasant shock; as has also the heavy and sustained pin-point barrage which the 5 AGRA (Army Group Royal Artillery) layed down.
The day is ours
The RAF have given us good cover; and at dusk the enemy retires into the hills, and we can see clouds of dust as his convoys climb the steep roads leading to the Mareth Line. His days are numbered
March 7th The enemy retaliates in a spiteful manner with several air raids, Two of which are on our positions. I find myself hiding among the Daisies on two occasions.
March 10th We move up into new position on the Northern sector and go into action, and we make our wagon lines some two miles to the rear of Tac HQ. The country here is best described as a combination of desert and green, with some Wadis full of sand, others of marsh, and some of water. There are hillocks covered with a coarse green bush, and here and there are patches of sand. Away to the South West are the hills of the Mareth line which curve away from us in a Westerly direction towards Mareth and the Gabes gap. The enemy in our sector lies behind a deep Wadi, and has pill boxes built in concrete; a relic of the French defences.
March 11th-20th The base is yielding good results and rumours of a push are in the air. We now have several Divisions in the Mareth line area. The 50th Div (TT); The 51st Highland Div; The 4th Indian Div; The 7th Amd Div; The 8th Amd Bde; and 5 AGRA. The enemy planes start dropping flares at night, which is always a sign that he is becoming nervous.
March 16th A local attack is put in to capture an enemy Op and succeeds. The weather is cloudy and cold but all is quiet.
March 18th There is increased enemy shelling and the Luftwaffe is out again.
March 20th Intense RAF activity.
March 21st-31st Our attack on the Mareth line is launched in the early morning of the 21st, and is a frontal attack. The 50th Division break through in the north but are meeting very heavy opposition and are having severe casualties (poor old 50 Div) They manage to cross the Wadi and scale the other bank with the aid of ladders, but all attempts to get the guns across to support them failed; and a frontal attack does not appear to be the answer to crack the Mareth line.
March 22nd The New Zealand Division has started an outflanking movement far to the South in the area of Foum Tathouine, and are attempting to reach the Mareth line at Hamma via the Mareth hills. Every night the enemy launches fierce air attacks on our positions, and the night is made day with countless flares floating in the sky.
March 26th The noise of battle in the South is plainly heard, and here the 50th Division pull out of positions which have become untenable.
March 29th The Mareth line is broken at last, and Hamma has been taken by the new Zealand Division. The Van guard is at Gabes (sea port) and the village of Mareth is in our hands. We move off again in pursuit of the Hun who hasn’t gone far, but travel through the mareth line, its pill boxes silent and white lanes made through its mine fields and make the main Gabes road. We make camp 3 miles East of gabes. There is an air raid at dusk.
March 31st The enemy is holding the Gabes gap some 20 miles to the West.
April 1st-10th Advance party leaves for action, and on the 2nd we leave also for the Gabes gap. There is heavy traffic on the road as the 51st Division move up. We bypass Gabes which is a very small town perched by the seashore and the drome is littered with damaged aircraft. We reach the troop position at 11-00 hrs and find them in an olive grove. Give me the wide open spaces any time. We dig in as it looks very unhealthy here, and so it is. Enemy planes are over all night dropping flares, bombs, and straffing.
April 3rd It is cloudy and raining and the enemy is shelling near the water point with 170mm guns, and there are enemy night attacks.
April 4th Heavy enemy shelling in our camp and we have some lucky escapes with Two air raids and Three trucks set on fire, so we dig in further. The enemy is shelling the village and railway station, and drops AP at night. Some place.
April 5th The air is thick with Mosquitoes and can they bite. The enemy is holding what is known as Gabes gap. He holds Two hills shaped like pinnacles and a deep Wadi in front. We face him frontally as there is no outflanking this time.
Battle for the Gabes gap
Zero hour is 04-00 hrs and for the first time there is no moon. The Indian troops (The Ghurkas) go in without artillery support (according to their wishes) and launch a silent attack with knives on the troops holding the Two heights. This is Two hours before the barrage, but the Indians are 100% successful and they take very few prisoners. The troops holding these heights were mainly the Facist Youth. )6-00 hrs the barrage opens up and the New Zealand and 51st go in to clear the Wadi. The attack is a success and Wadi Akarit is in our hands. A pocket of German plus guns still holds out and there are some 6000 POW’s. A German air attack with Eight JU 88’s at dusk fails. All are shot down by AA.
April 7th Enemy in full retreat once again towards Sfax, but he still continues his night raids.
April 8th We move off along the Sfax road, and cross Wadi Akarit. We camp 30 miles East of Sfax in rather more pleasant surroundings. The country is now open again, and the hills of Mareth bear away far to the South. This is the country of the famous olive groves and the battle is now mobile and one for tanks. The enemy has no defence line until he reaches the mountains around Tunis itself.
April 10th We move off again and pass Monty on the road just outside Sfax. We camp at Mahares where a pocket of Germans surrender. We have a few days rest just outside Sfax and are allowed to go bathing. Large convoys of ships are moving towards Sfax.
April 10th-20th On the move again and we have now come some 2,300 miles from Syria. We move Northwards and pass through Sfax, which is one of the largest and best ports in this part of Tunisia. Sfax is divided into Two parts, the old town which is still walled in, and a very high and thick wall too, and here live the Arab population. Then there is the shopping centre, which is nothing to write home about, and here also is the French area, which includes some very fine villas. Outside the port are huge heaps of phosphates (fertilisers) which product Sfax is noted for. Passing through Sfax we turn West towards El Djem which is noted for its famous Roman Ampitheatre, and this is in very good condition. The RAF have established some very good air fields here among the fields of gaily coloured flowers, and this is paradise after the desert. We reach the port of Sousse late in the afternoon of the 15th. Sousse is a delightful sight, with its White buildings and their Red and Green tiled roofs, standing out against the Blue of the MED, but unfortunately it has been bombed several times, and the people have been treat rather badly by the Hun.
April 16th We go into action with the 4th Indian Division. The enemy is holding the mountains which encircle Tunis and Bizerta on all sides, and in this sector he is holding Enfiderville and the flat table top height of Takrouna, with its village perched up on top. The rest of the front is being engaged by the Yanks who have been on our flank, the Free French in the centre, and the British 1st army to the North. These mountains, though not very high (as compared with Keren) are a tough obstacle and it means building up and then slogging it out. We are camped in a wide shallow Wadi, which is covered in a coarse grass and some flowers and it is intersected here and there by other small Wadis which are sandy bottomed. To our left and right as we face the enemy lines are two low lying hills, some 50 feet high, and perched on the top are our gaily coloured survey beacons. (They often draw the unwelcome attention of the enemy.) Behind us lie a succession of similar Wadi’s and hills, and between them run the many sandy tracks which are our supply routes, and all day long thick clouds of Yellow dust mark the passage of never ending convoys. To the East is the height of Takrouna and past that the mountains bend towards Enfiederville and Cap Bon. To the West (The coast line of Tunisia runs N-S) are the hills of Zagouan running towards Pont DU Phas (here are the French.) Further to the West the mountains close in on Goubellat area, and then swinging North enclose the plain of Tunis and the naval port of Bizerta. We in our present camp lie some little way behind a 25 pounder regiment which the enemy shells with his 149/40’s guns. To our right over the hill is the 69th Medium Regiment and behind us is “Y” troop and our HQ situated amid a grove of Cacti. It is quiet and the RAF are over the area all day long, and we hear the whoomp whoomp of his 88’s and see the Black clouds of his shell bursts. New on the scene are the flying pencils, the lightnings of the USAF> Apart from a few scattered raids )mostly fighter bombers) the Luftwaffe has faded out, as our planes keep ceaseless watch over his remaining air strips.
April 19th A local attack is launched by us in our sector and artillery support is given.
April 20th Enemy counter-attacks and regains the height. Our Captain, Captain Balfour is awarded the Military Cross.
April 21st There are heavy artillery exchanges away on the 1st Army front.
April 21st-30th A new Division appears on the scene the 56th whose sign is a Black Cat, and they have come from Iran and Iraq.
April 24th !st Army launches local attacks.
April 27th Our area is invaded by the RB’s who are moving round to join the 1st Army.
April 29th Some ME 109’s raid the 25’s ahead of us and the RB’s and the 4th Indian Division are on the move joining the first Army. A push at last.
May 1st-10th The 1st is very quiet along the whole front and the weather is very hot. There is some fighting in the Pont Du Phas area.
May 2nd I go bathing and report sick with a sore face. I have Dermatitis and my face is very painful.
May 5th The Yanks capture Mateur in the North. (We learned later that the Yanks had been switched round almost over night, having made a forced march.)
Attack on the German lines around Tunis
May 7th The 1st Army has been reinforced by our armour (8th Army) and the 4th Indian Division. They launch an attack on a very narrow front in the direction of Tunis, with great concentrations of artillery and tanks, under a complete air umbrella, and the enemy retreat is turned into a rout, as he is taken rather unawares. I report sick to Captain Sanderson. My face is now a mass with many blisters, which the Sun plays hell with.
May 8th Ferryville and Tunis are now in our hands, and the enemy retreats towards Cap Bon, and in the North the Americans have broken through to Bizerta.
May 10th The 11th Hussars (Cherry Pickers) were the first troops into Tunis. There is heavy fighting in the Cap Bon area, where our armour is very busy, and the Free French are still engaged in the Pont Du Phas area. Some 50.000 POW are taken and the 15th Panzer surrenders to their old enemy the 7th Armoured Division.
May 11th-20th On our sector the scene has changed but little, as the Germans are still entrenched in the hills which have been bypassed by our troops on the other side. Heavy artillery duels are the order of the day, and the enemy seeks an armistice. The cap Bon forces are now cut in Two, and efforts to evacuate by sea prove a costly failure to the hun. The Colonel has gone back to Cairo.
May 12th The POW’s now number 100,000, a fine haul. The Cap Bon area is now isolated and General Von Arnim (Rommel having baled out by air) is in our hands. The enemy in our area has had enough and all resistance ceases at 20-00 hrs. May 12th. Africa (at least the Northern coastline) is ours, and General Alexander informs the Prime Minister of this.
The total POW’s is now over 200,000 men, and on the 17th we move into the Sidi Bou Ali some few kilometres back. My face is giving me hell and it is raining. On the 20th I am told that I will have to go into hospital.
May 21st-31st On the 21st I report to the New Zealand CCS at Sidi Bou Ali, and am given treatment before moving into the back areas. I lie next to a German POW who has been badly wounded in the back. His name is Karl and he is from the 90th Light. I am evacuated to No. 152 MDS near Sfax and after a weary journey by road arrive there at 16-00 hrs.
May 22nd Evacuated again to the 8th SA CCS at Gabes and then to the 2nd SA CCS at Medenine, and the journey by road is hell, as the ambulance is very much like a hot house.
May 23rd I go further back to the CCS at Zuara (we are back in Libya again) and then the last stretch to the base hospital at Tripoli (a journey of some 600 miles.) I am admitted into the 2nd General hospital, and find myself in the skin ward. I make friends with a Scots Guardsman and a regular from the Beds. And Herts. And I am given treatment with lasais paste. Between now and May 31st I lie in the 2nd General hospital browned off to the teeth. This building was formerly the Italian garrison quarters and there are a few raids at night.