During February and March the 2nd Battalion was involved in intense fighting with German, Italian and Austrian forces in North East Tunisia.
In early February after various assignments the 2nd Battalion found itself back under the command of the 1st Parachute Brigade south of Bou Arada and deployed into an area they nicknamed “Happy Valley” because of its domesticity, fertile land and thriving farms.
The battalion was regularly sending out patrols into enemy held positions. During one night in the last week in February John led one such patrol and encountered a platoon of Italians who were established in a defensive position which included a pill box. John led an assault on this position throwing a grenade into the pill box. As a result of this attack the Italians surrendered.
As the prisoners were being marched back John remembers the Italian officer, who was a landowner, asking if it could be arranged for him to be sent to a POW camp where the terrain was similar to his own farmland so that he would feel more at home. “Of course I don’t know what happened to him, but I considered it a very strange reaction from somebody who had only been put in the bag for 10 or 15 minutes.”
The following day, almost one year to the day after Bruneval, John found himself along with his colleagues on the brunt of a major enemy assault. By 09.00 hours the forward positions of the battalion were under shellfire and during the course of the day they faced successive assaults from a mixed force of enemy troops. Remarkably by nightfall the battalion suffered only 3 casualties against the 150 casualties1 incurred by the enemy.
Shortly after this the battalion moved north to the Beja sector. Having cleared a couple of prominent landmarks in the Beja sector they were transported to the Tamera Valley. They were instructed to take over a hill feature with steep sides at Sidi Mohammed el Kassim from the Lincolns, which was covered in cork oak woods. Unsurprisingly this latest home became known to the men as ‘Cork Wood’. The subsequent engagement at Cork Wood also became known as the Battle of Tamera.
With typical understatement John referred to his time there as “busy”. In truth, conditions were often extremely uncomfortable and hostile. The trees restricted visibility on some parts of the hill and also added to the hazards from shelling and strafing. The cover enabled the enemy in certain places to arrive undetected within 20 yards of the battalion frontline positions and to infiltrate in between the defences. During their occupation of the hill, rain filled their trenches and the wet weather meant clothing, boots and blankets were soaked and covered in sticky red mud. As a result the men were frequently wet and cold. The mud and slush often made movement up and down the slopes difficult. While occupying these defensive positions the battalion was subject to an onslaught of shelling, mortaring and strafing by enemy aircraft. To some extent the conditions were reminiscent of those in the First World War. So much so that the constant shelling and mortaring led to some cases of shell shock in the Brigade.
On 8 March a force of divisional strength comprising four regiments2 attacked the defensive positions of the 1st and 2nd Battalions. By 10.00 hours John along with the rest of A Company was completely surrounded by enemy forces. They were able to hold their ground with the assistance of the 3rd Battalion’s A Company and the 2nd Battalion’s C Company.
The final actions on 8 March are perhaps best summarised through the words of Lieutenant Colonel (later Major General) Frost3:
“The enemy had not had their last say, for just before it grew dark, a flight of Stukas dived on A Company and dropped their bombs among them, making huge craters and smashing acres of trees, with a numbing and bewildering effect. This final parting shot brought our day’s casualties up to nine killed and thirty five wounded. As a sharp riposte to this last unpleasantness, John Timothy descended on a small party of German machine gunners, who were digging in near his platoon. Having killed six of them in one quick rush, he returned with two brand new MG. 34s.”
9 March was regarded as a ‘comparatively quiet’ day by the battalion’s CO. During this so called quiet day the battalion suffered 10 casualties (1 killed and 9 wounded).
A further attack on the following day by the enemy on Brigade positions resulted in the battalion sustaining a further 33 casualties (7 killed and 26 wounded).
On 14 March the battalion endured a full day of bombardment. Towards the evening the battalion was attacked by troops from the 10th Panzer Division Grenadiers. The German attack eventually started to progress up the hill between A Company and C Company. To add to their woes, the Luftwaffe turned up to provide air support and the attack began to pose a serious threat to the battalion positions. The Germans sent up signal flares to identify their location to the German planes. In an effort to confuse the pilots, the Para’s did the same and luckily it did the trick. Lieutenant Colonel Frost records4 “The Stukas circled once and then dived, one behind the other. The bombs from the first landed absolutely slap in the middle of the Panzer Grenadier party and so did practically all the rest. Many Germans were literally blown to bits and the limbs of some of them were stuck high in the trees near where they had lain. The rest fled. Only a few minutes after the Stukas had gone our patrols reported our positions clear of any live enemy. It was a fantastic stroke of fortune. The mangled remains confirmed the presence of 10th Panzer Grenadiers.”
The pattern of bombardment by the Germans continued with the battalion war diary recording on 15 March “Sharp mortar concentration on A Company localities. Casualties 2 killed and 6 wounded.”
From 8 to 18 March the enemy had launched a number of infantry assaults, including three major attacks, in an attempt to dislodge the Paras. Although all of these had failed the rate of attrition on 2nd Para Bn and the rest of the brigade was unsustainable. During this period 2nd Para Bn had suffered more than 150 casualties5. On 18 March orders were received to withdraw to new positions known as ‘the Pimples’. The plan was that the battalion would rendezvous at a nearby viaduct, march alongside a river (Oued el Madene), join up with a railway line at Nefza station until eventually they reached their new destination.
John said of the withdrawal on the 18 March:
“The next morning we were hit with everything and we lost a number of people. We were mortared all the way as we moved down the river. We were at the tail end and mortars were raining down on us as we waded in the river. I was next to Dickie Spender who said this little verse
In the Mud
That made us laugh in what was a pretty serious situation.”
Sadly Dickie Spender was later killed in the second phase of the battle. The jokes about the duds mask an important point as the 2nd Battalion’s war diary6 records:
“It is interesting to note that at a conservative estimate 25% of the enemy shells failed to explode. Had this not been the case casualties might have been considerably higher.”
When they got to the end of the river, soaked and exhausted, they stretched out on the river bank:
“I remember my batman being slightly disgruntled because the cigarettes posted to him from home had not been arriving. Anyway shortly before we moved off down the river he had received a load of these cigarettes packed in tins. We used to use these Benson and Hedges tins for some sort of protection around our kit. My batman had covered himself in these tins and when we got to the end of the river we stretched out on the river bank and my batman said ‘Cigarette Sir?’, to which I replied ‘Thank you very much’. And with a very lordly gesture he produced one of his Benson and Hedges tins and opened it with a flourish only to find it was a soggy mess! To cut a long story short he opened every tin with the same result. Having waded all that way he didn’t have one single cigarette we could smoke!”
2nd Para Bn handed over its position on the Pimples to the 2/5 Leics on 19 March to take 6 days well earned rest at Tabarka.
In spite of the severe fighting in February and March John sustained no significant personal injuries, although some of his personal kit took a bit of a bashing. In one incident a Messerschmitt attack on their position resulted in him parting company with his helmet which was left twenty yards away while he sought more secure cover. On going back to retrieve it he found it had a big ‘V’ shaped indentation from cannon fire. “I kept it as a souvenir for a while, for there was no shortage of good helmets to replace it from the casualty station….”
John was subsequently awarded the Military Cross for his part in the actions in the Bou Arada and Beja sectors. His citation reads:
“On the night of the 26th/27th February 1943, this officer led a small patrol into the enemy positions in the Bou Arada Sector and brought back seven prisoners including one officer thus producing valuable information as to the enemy's intentions. During this action he displayed great qualities of leadership and initiative.
On the 8th March 1943, his platoon was surrounded by the enemy on the Sidi Mohammed Belkassem (Tunisia Sheet 10). They held their positions and inflicted heavy casualties on the enemy. Later in the day Lieutenant Timothy went forward alone under intense fire and captured an enemy machine gun post single handed.
Throughout the operations from the 7th March 1943 until the 18th March 1943 he displayed great qualities of leadership, courage and endurance and by his gallantry under heavy enemy fire was an inspiration to all ranks.”
The battalion was back into action again on 27 March taking over from the area held by the 2/5th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry with an objective to reoccupy the positions previously held at Sidi Mohammed el Kassim (Cork Wood).
John took part in further intense fighting on 28 March as the battalion struggled to achieve its objective against fierce enemy resistance and a counter attack by parachute engineer troops reinforced with ordinary infantry. The battalion achieved the objective of occupying its old positions on the 29 March.
The 2nd Battalion war diary records 58 German prisoners were taken in this phase of the Battle of Tamera (over the 28 and 29 March). As a result of the assault the battalion suffered 16 killed and 63 wounded.
In spite of reinforcements, the intensity of the fighting resulted in a high casualty rate and during February and March the 2nd Battalion found itself with an ever diminishing fighting force:
“The fighting was very heavy. One major problem we faced was diminishing numbers and accepting reinforcements. We couldn’t take men from Infantry Replacement Training Depots because our chaps would not have accepted them since they weren’t Paras. It was a very strong feeling amongst the men that they were part of an elite regiment. It was hard enough integrating Paras without any battlefield experience. I had 3 Bren positions on a fairly wide front. I remember visiting them one night and being approached by a young lad who said ‘my corporal won’t speak to me’. The lad had been told by his corporal ‘to get some hours in under shellfire before you speak to me’ which wasn’t particularly helpful as they were living together twenty four hours a day. So I remember taking this youngster out on patrol and he was then accepted by his corporal. The sad part of the story is that they were both dead within a month. And so it went on, the reinforcements we did receive couldn’t stand up to our losses as the fighting was so intense and we were up against it pretty much all the time.”
By 31 March John recalls that the battalion was so badly depleted that Lieutenant Colonel Frost decided to regroup into two companies. John took on an acting captaincy assuming temporary command of B Company while A & C companies were formed into one company under Major Ross.
On 15 April Captain Timothy handed over his company position to the Americans as the battalion moved back into the 5th Corps reserve area at Beja. They later moved onto the brigade’s rear main base at Boufarik near Algiers.
The battalion war diary entry for 22 April provides the following summary of its Tunisian adventure “….It had fought, under different commands, in almost every theatre of the central and northern Tunisian fighting. It had suffered heavily on several occasions, and on like occasions dealt heavily with its opponents. It had fought as infantry with none of the amenities such as carriers, transport and anti-tank guns which an infantry battalion expects. On occasions it had attacked with success, but more often it had carried out a singularly aggressive form of defence, often against heavy odds, in the Tunisian mountains: and for its labours it had earned, with the 1st and 3rd Battalions, the name of the “Red Devils” among the Germans. It came out of the line with a total strength of 14 officers and 346 Other Ranks out of an establishment of 24 Officers and 588 Other Ranks having already absorbed some 230 reinforcements in early January, a total casualty percentage of 80% of establishment.”
1 As reported by Major General Frost in his book ‘A Drop Too Many’ Page 124. ISBN 0-304-30717-3. Publisher Cassell 1980. Reprints available from Pen and Sword Books.