During this Goubellat Plain era, from December 15, 1942, to January 12, 1943, the weather was extremely bad and the employment of armour was out of the question. Three out of five days saw heavy rain. The troops in their slit trenches were often up to their knees in water, and the roads were nothing but mud-tracks and quite unfit for men or machines. There was no alternative, they had to be used.
Rations, water, and ammunition managed after very hard work to reach most battalion headquarters on wheels, but thereafter it was a two- or three-mile carry to company areas in the hills, with no tracks at all. It was a strenuous time for the quartermasters and all the transport drivers. Usually it meant a fifteen- to twenty-mile drive in the darkness with no lights from a supply-point to battalion headquarters. Vehicles slid, skidded, and bumped over tracks which were only recognisable by their ruts two feet deep. This went on night in, night out, all through the North African winter. It was one of those things that had to be done to be realised, and in fact was accomplished only because high authority in its wisdom changed an issue of sand tyres to ordinary tyres plus chains!
The heavy reinforcements which the enemy had obviously received made the Bou Arada and the Goubellat Plain danger areas, particularly with the battalions of the Irish Brigade stretched to fantastic lengths. The Bou Arada Plain was about twenty-five miles long, varying in width from five to ten miles. In the middle was the El Aroussa – Bou Arada – Pont du Fahs road, one of the main routes to Tunis. In the north it was bounded by salt lakes and marshy country near Pont du Fahs. North of Bou Arada there was hilly country, later to become famous as Hen House, One, Two and Three Tree Hills, and – most famous of them all – Grandstand. Between Bou Arada and El Aroussa was a great mass of precipitous wooded mountains called the Djebel Rihane. To the south was an irregular line of hills between Pont du Fahs and El Aroussa, the most notable probably being the Djebel Mansour.
The valley of Bou Arada and its hills were destined to be the home of the London Irish and the rest of the Irish Brigade for eight weeks. It saw two attacks on the enemy, two vicious counter- attacks, and was the scene of many local encounters, with exploits of great gallantry.
On January 11 H Company of the London Irish watched the Lothian and Border Horse pass through their lines and go down the Roman road towards Goubellat to sweep the plain where it was reported a Hermann Goering Regiment had started filtering down from the hills. It soon became apparent that the tanks had got into difficulties, and artillery support was called for.
About noon H Company was ordered to attack two distant farms in order to form a screen to prevent the damaged armour from falling into enemy hands, to rescue the crews, and also to hold the position until the tanks could be withdrawn. The approach was a long one, of nearly four miles across country almost without cover and under plough, which made the going very heavy. Orders were to attack the first farm at 1510 hours after a ten minutes’ bombardment by the twenty-five pounders of the Ayrshire Yeomanry. Good time was made over the rough ground and all went well until a flight of German aircraft passed overhead. They were a mixture of Me. 109’s and Stukas, and as they spiralled down the riflemen extended out. The enemy flew off without dropping any bombs or firing machine-guns, apparently mistaking the London Irish for their own troops!
Meanwhile the gunners got on with their task and the London Irish advanced steadily. H Company were still about five hundred yards away when heavy automatic and rifle fire was directed on them from Sidi Nasseur on the right. Major J. D. Lofting detailed a platoon to cover that flank with fire, but unfortunately the Platoon Commander, Sergeant J. Wilson, became a casualty before he could give out his orders, and the flank remained unprotected for about fifteen minutes. Then the riflemen advanced, singing “You are my Sunshine” at the tops of their voices, and the attack went in. Their determination apparently broke the nerve of the Hermann Goering defenders and they retired at the double, leaving everything behind them.
18 Platoon was then ordered forward to take the second farm, followed by 16 Platoon, leaving 17 Platoon to cover the weak flank and keep down the fire which had reasserted itself from Sidi Nasseur. Lieutenant PJ Gibbons led two sections round the left of the farm, while Major Lofting took the right-hand section. By doubling and crawling they got well up and engaged the enemy with rifles, grenades, and bayonets. German resistance was heartened by the presence of three close-support guns firing over open sights down the road about three thousand yards away. A gallant attempt to cross the road under the heavy enemy fire was made by i8 Platoon, and some managed to do so. But several men fell, including Sergeant R. Hogan, who had displayed great leadership and courage. The platoon kept up the pressure and, assisted by their own machine-gunners, the Besa fire from the tanks, and concentrations by the gunners, they succeeded in forcing the Germans to evacuate the second farm. As a result the recovery of the tanks was carried out without molestation.
H Company held on until relieved about three hours after dark by G Company, when they returned to their old positions, bringing back a quantity of enemy weapons as booty. Thus ended the first London Irish attack of the war. It was successful.
The next phase of activity was on the part of the enemy. It became known that they had concentrated strong forces on Two Tree Hill, a feature north-east of the Goubellat – Bou Arada road and from which they might sweep down in a drive south of the latter village, which was held by two companies of French Colonial troops.
Orders were given for a combined infantry and tank attack to drive the Germans off the hill and thus relieve the threat. The Inniskilling Fusiliers were given this task, their first major battle. The effort was handicapped by heavy ground caused by a night of rain, and they met a more powerful enemy than might have been expected. Their gallantry and resolute fighting were of no avail and the plan was shown to require a much heavier onslaught. The whole brigade, therefore, were directed to destroy the German position on Two Tree Hill, and the help of the gunners of the division was given. The stage was set for a dawn attack. Whether or not the enemy knew that something was afoot is not known, but the brigade plan was forestalled by one day, the Germans themselves launching an attack at 6 a.m.
The guns had been concentrated stealthily for the Irish Brigade’s operation, and the infantry had been brought up without the enemy’s knowledge. The result was that when the Bosche advanced they found infantry where no infantry was thought to be, and got a most unexpected blast from seventy-two guns! The Germans were blown and shot to bits, and in addition they lost a large number of tanks.
They took several days to recover from that shock, while at brigade headquarters great satisfaction was felt that the three battalions and supporting arms had passed through their first big ordeal with such coolness and steadiness. For about five days there were small off-shoots of this battle. There were frequent raids on enemy positions, several small attacks, sometimes with tank assistance. They were all more or less indeterminate affairs, staged really to probe the Bosche lines and to worry them. The enemy also were often on the prowl and gun and mortar fire was fairly consistent. Stuka attacks were frequent and the brigade suffered a few casualties almost daily.
Then another Battle of Bou Arada approached, a bloody affair in which the London Irish distinguished themselves, but with grievous losses. The night of January 16 had been spent just outside El Aroussa, and the next night the battalion moved into the plains to the west of Bou Arada. Another move was ordered, but no sooner had the battalion finished digging in than they had to move once more. In fact the London Irish moved four times in four nights, and everyone became tired. On the morning of the 19th they marched in extended line across the open plain via Bou Arada. Their job was to guard the brigade’s one line of communication, the lateral road from Bou Arada to Grandstand.
The enemy had been quick to see this weakness in the brigade’s dispositions, and they occupied a hill, Point 286, only one thousand yards from the road. From there they could observe, shell, mortar, and machine-gun the brigade’s life-line. It was an unpleasant situation and the London Irish were ordered to remedy it by driving the Germans off the hill and prevent its re-occupatlon. Instructions came at midnight and there was no time for a reconnaissance beforehand. The plan was for the battalion to form up on the lateral road at about 0330 hours on the 20th. G Company were to lead and occupy Point 279, a lesser hill adjacent to Point 286, and F Company were to follow and establish themselves on the reverse slopes of Point 279, while H Company were to make a detour on the left and attack Point 286 from that flank. Support from the gunners, mortars, machine-guns, and anti-tank guns was arranged, though the attack was to be made without any preliminary bombardment as it was thought the hill was not held in strength by the enemy, who would thus not be warned of the impending attack and send up reinforcements.
At 0440 hours G Company advanced on to Point 279 and, meeting no opposition, continued towards Point 286. F Company moved on as well, but started to attack Point 351 to the left instead of Point 286. Here the Germans were strongly entrenched, and 10 and 12 Platoons were held up, while ix Platoon managed to get forward and took six prisoners, although they themselves were forced later to withdraw. Major BA Tebbitt, commanding G Company, realised as he led his men up the slopes of Point 286 that he had over-shot his objective, and he returned to Point 279. It was now 0730 hours, and daylight. F Company also returned to Point 279, where they re-formed to attack their proper target.
They moved towards Point 286 round the back of Point 279, with the object this time of attacking the hill from the right. There was a hail of machine-gun and rifle fire as the company approached Point 286. The two leading platoons went forward, covered by G Company firing from the forward slopes of Point 279. The enemy were seen running from Point 286, and F Company went in at the point of the bayonet.
No sooner had they reached the summit of the hill and found that the enemy infantry had abandoned it, than German tanks and armoured cars were seen ascending the eastern slopes in a counter-attack. German mortars bombarded the hill, but the men of F Company stood firm and the enemy cars and tanks were held off.
Continued enemy fire took its toll and the gallant company suffered heavy losses, including Captain Ekin, their commander, and Lieutenant Vic Pottinger, both of whom were killed. Lieutenant A Cowdy was left in charge of the company, which was so reduced in strength that they were withdrawn. E Company were warned to take over the positions on Point 286, and while the company “O” group were receiving orders, a mortar bomb dropped in one of the trenches, fatally wounding Captain JP Carrigan and two signallers.
The enemy by this time had occupied Point 286, and a further effort to drive them off had to be made. Led by Captain JV Lillie-Costello, E Company bravely stormed the slopes. Some managed to reach the crest, but others were forced down to folds in the ground to gain cover from cunningly laid automatic and mortar fire. Lieutenant Josephs and his platoon held on, but the officer and most of his men were wounded. Several were killed.
The Germans had given up some ground but they had not been driven off the hill. They bombarded the forward slopes of Point 279 where G Company were in the open, valiantly trying to help their comrades with supporting fire. Their losses impelled G Company back to cover in a wadi behind the hill, where they were joined by the staff of battalion headquarters, and the men of E Company who had survived the attack.
The Commanding Officer reported the situation to brigade, but the Brigadier emphasised the importance of securing Point 286, and a further attack by the London Irish was decided upon. The attack was made by H Company, and no sooner had it got into its stride than the battalion area was dive-bombed by Stukas, and simultaneously H Company were heavily mortared. Their Commander, Major JD Lofting, was wounded, and their Second-in-Command, Captain H Henderson, was killed. Men were falling fast, and the Commanding Officer ordered the company back. Some had managed once more to gain the summit, but it was impossible to hold it in the intense enemy fire.
Then word came that the Germans had been seen withdrawing yet again from Point 286. Major WD Swiney, Second-in-Command of the battalion, went forward with all that remained of H Company. They went up as unobtrusively as possible, a section at a time, and despite continuous mortaring, they occupied the hill-top. They remained there for the rest of the day, gaining such cover as they could on the bald, rocky hill, where the ground was so hard that they could not dig in. Firing died down in the afternoon and desultory shelling and mortar fire was the only sign of enemy activity to break the uneasy silence of the battle-field.
The London Irish had gained their objective, but at a crippling cost. Nearly all the officers had been killed or wounded. F Company had no officers left, and losses in non-commissioned officers and men had been extremely high.
That night the battalion medical officer, Captain LJ Samuels, who had done great work during the day, organised the cooking for the men. Food was prepared in a small culvert under the Goubellat – Bou Arada road, and sent up to the companies. Men of E and F Companies were on Point 279, H were on Point 286, and the rest in the wadi below Point 279.
Shortly after midnight a runner came in from E Company and reported that German tanks were climbing the slopes of Point 279, with infantry in the rear. The Germans overran the posts on Point 279 and fired for all they were worth into the wadi where battalion headquarters were quartered. In the darkness all communications within the battalion were disrupted. The companies were scattered and the fighting became very confused. The Germans seemed to fire wildly in all directions, and kept up a demoniacal yelling as if to bolster up their own courage. They withdrew as suddenly as they appeared, and the tanks moved smartly after them. At daylight the position was once more normal. The London Irish were on Point 286, and the enemy had gone.
Final casualties in the Battle of Hill 286 were: six officers and twenty other ranks killed; eight officers and seventy-eight other ranks wounded; six officers and one hundred and thirty other ranks missing. Many of the latter were confirmed later as having been wounded and taken prisoner. The Divisional Commander and Brigadier Nelson Russell visited the battalion after the battle and thanked them for the part they had played in a vital operation.
Later the Brigadier recorded officially as follows:
“The London Irish Rifles were a fine battalion, first-class officers and non-commissioned officers and good men all keen as mustard. They had been working together for three years. They possessed a good ‘feel’ and were proud of their battalion, as they had every right to be.
“They attacked with great spirit and after hard fighting drove the enemy off Point 286. But then came the trying time. It was practically impossible to dig in on the hard rocky slopes, and all through the day they were subjected to heavy artillery and extremely accurate mortar fire. This fine battalion refused to be shelled off the position. What they had they held. But at heavy cost.
“I never hope to see a battalion fighting and enduring more gallantly. Nor do I want to witness again such cruel casualties. .
But the job was done. The Bosche had been driven off Point 286. Our Line of Communication with Bou Arada was safe. The London Irish had restored a situation which was more than critical.”