The London Irish were now in the battle area, and their first task was to hold the heights overlooking the main road from the west to Teboursouk and Tunis. Intelligence reports showed that the Germans were building up their forces rapidly on the Tunis side of Medjez-el-Bab, while Allied troops were up against stiff opposition at Tebourba.
Gradually the battalion got ready for its first battle in the Second World War. As the Commander of the Irish Brigade, Brigadier Nelson Russell, DSO, MC, recorded, the only real training for battle is real fighting, and the brigade, newly out from Britain, were short of that training and had much to learn. They began to learn in a hard school, for from the first they were opposed by crack German troops, all seasoned fighters, and young volunteers of the Hermann Goering Division of Paratroopers. It was pleasant subsequently to recall that after the mauling they received from the Irish Brigade, one of their foremost formations, the Koch Brigade, went into involuntary liquidation.
Tunisia proved to be a country of strange contrasts. There were many miles of fertile plainlands, such as the Mejerda, the Goubellat, and the Bou Arada Plains, which were interspersed by vineyards and olive-groves, and in places thick with cork trees. The plains were separated by rocky and precipitous hills, either bare rock or covered with thorny brushwood.
The landings in North Africa by a light mobile force had gone well. The spearhead, a small, gallant force consisting of only two infantry brigades, a Recce Regiment, the 17/21st Lancers, a company of the Rifle Brigade, and a squadron of the Derbyshire Yeomanry, had raced on towards Tunis.
At Tebourba, less than twenty miles from Tunis, they met stubborn resistance, and so they sat back to hold what they had won and to wait for assistance.
And while they waited the enemy, too, were building up. The spearhead were very glad to see the arrival of the 6th Armoured Division. By the first week in December, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers were in a supporting position on the Medjez-Teboursouk road, west of Tunis. The London Irish were in a back-stop position on the Le Krib-Bou Arada road to the south about twelve miles away. The Royal Irish Fusiliers, the third member of the Irish Brigade, had not yet arrived.
The war in Tunisia had become fluid. There were several well-defined areas, notably on the direct lines of approach to Tunis and Bizerta in the north, where the Germans were in strong force and were well dug in. In between there were large gaps, practically uninhabited by either army, and which were lightly patrolled by both sides.
F Company, under Captain Ekin, went off to an area of the Robaa-Pont du Fahs road with a general order to dominate it by offensive action. They did well and had one or two cracks at the enemy, learning more thereby in a week than they could have done in a year’s training in Scotland. Their trip lasted a week, and one morning they laid a trap for two German armoured cars that were known regularly to go up and down the road near El Aroussa. Unfortunately, local natives gave the show away, and the Germans reversed a few yards from the mines laid by the London Irish party, who were waiting in ambush near by.
For the rest it was a digging-in time, with Bren bursts now and then at ME 109s which tried to interfere with things. In such a bout the Inniskilling Fusiliers lost their Commanding Officer, who was wounded. When a new Commanding Officer, Lieut-Colonel CHB Allen (Royal Ulster Rifles) arrived, Major J McCann, of the London Irish, joined him as his Second-in-Command.
Preparations by the enemy continued and more of the empty spaces in the Goubellat Plain were filled. To meet this potential threat the London Irish and the Inniskillings went forward from what had been considered to be reserve positions. In the words of the Brigadier, everything now was “in the front window.”
By December 20 the Irish Brigade was complete with the arrival of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, and plans were made for an attack on Tunis just before Christmas. Heavy rain came churning the ground into thick mud and slowing down movement, so the operation was postponed. For two or three weeks the Irish Brigade remained in the vicinity of the Mahmoud Gap, an opening between the hills leading to the Plains of Goubellat and the main road to Tunis. Battalion frontages were large, and it was not unusual in those days for one battalion to have to look after a front of five to six miles.
The Goubellat proved to be the brigade’s war nursery. It was there that most of them heard the first zip of an enemy bullet, the quick cracks of a Schmeisser, and the whine of a German shell. They realised in that quiet way so typical of the British soldier that someone else meant business and that they were shooting to kill.
Strong fighting patrols from the three battalions went out at night in search of the enemy. There was a belt of “no man s land” about three or four miles wide between the trenches dug by the Irish Brigade to the west and those of the enemy to the east. To the north was the village of Goubellat, and in between were small French farms and several deep wadis.
Every week saw an improvement in the technique of fighting, and several spirited encounters took place. During this initial patrol period Captain I Grant took a party of London Irishmen ten miles behind the Bosche lines and convincingly disturbed the equanimity of an enemy headquarters. The patrol was out for thirty-six hours, and in a brief but sharp action they inflicted casualties on the enemy. Unfortunately Captain Grant and a few of his men were wounded and taken prisoners. The others got back safely.
In addition to long patrols there were several minor skirmishes on a company level, one by the London Irish and two by the Royal Irish Fusiliers. These battles disposed of small bodies of the enemy who were getting too inquisitive about the brigade’s affairs, notably about its strength and positions.
Three weeks of excellent war experience passed very quickly. Patrols proved themselves very business-like; they knew what to do, the best way to do it, and the weapons to use for the job. The machinery, from a brigade to a company level, was oiled and running well and everyone was waiting for the strenuous days which they knew were ahead.