In April 1943, 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.
FIRST ATTACK ON 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 up 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 up 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 JD 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 reach 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. Then the news came that Longstop had fallen and it was confidently thought that the enemy’s hold on Heidous would become extremely precarious. 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.
FINAL CAPTURE OF 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,
A VETERAN REMEMBERS
In 2007, ‘E’ Company CQMS O’Sullivan recalled what he saw when he entered Heidous with supplies:
“The attack was planned for the evening of 22nd April. At 5.45pm, an enormous barrage, which was the most concentrated I had experienced up to that point, was laid down on the targets. ‘F’ Company and ‘G’ Company made their way down the rocky rear slope of Bettiour. ‘F’ Company formed up around the outskirts of Heidous, and advanced towards the village under murderous machine gun and sniper fire. The forward positions were held up and the reserve platoon under Sergeant Norman attacked from the right. There was utter confusion. ‘E’ Company was ordered to support ‘F’. Meanwhile, ‘G’ Company had experienced a set back and their commander was wounded. They had gained their objective, but retired at dawn as they had received no support.
The remnants of ‘F’ Company laid low until dawn and then withdrew. ‘E’ Company returned to Bettiour. The Faughs and Skins had, with difficulty, attained their objectives. The following night, E’ Company scrambled down from Bettiour and I followed immediately with my mules. It was eerie making our way by the light of the fires still burning in Heidous. As we entered it, all was silent and we passed a line of three or four London Irishmen, who had been led by an NCO, all with their weapons in front of them. They were all dead. I then saw a Sergeant leaning back against the wall of a hut, but I did not recognise him, as he had no head. We had taken Heidous, home to the villagers who had scratched a living from the bare soil. To my mind, it did not seem strategically important as it was only a small mound on the rear slope of Bettiour. Tanngoucha and Le Kefs had also been taken, and meanwhile several miles away, Longstop Hill, which commanded the road from Medjez-el-Bab to Tebourba, had been captured after a hard fight.”