First Bag by First Army 1942 by Eric Seal

Here we were in Tunisia: two platoons of "S" Company, including my own, with a small detachment of Engineers, and a three-inch mortar group under Sgt Tucker. Under command of Major Peter Cleasby-Thompson, we were one of the patrols sent out by the CO from Beja, and we were heading for Mateur.

Packed in three old French charabancs driven by charcoal gas, we had left Beja after a cold night in the hills. Having passed through the last French outpost, the railway station at Sidi N'Sir manned by Senegalese troops, we were pushing on towards Mateur into an area said to be frequented by German patrols.

Just a few days after we had landed at Algiers, as part of the 1st Army under General Anderson, our Battalion, the 1st, had moved to Maison Blanche airfield. On 15th November, we had taken off in Dakotas, with an escort of USAAF Lightnings, to drop at Souk-el-Arba in Tunisia. The drop had been uneventful, with onlv one killed and a few mixed casualties.

So we pushed on. I say "pushed" because believe me we did have to push those damned buses. Eventually we arrived at an Arab farm, about fifteen miles from Mateur, hungry and dead tired. Guards were mounted and after some food we settled down to sleep, with our platoon in a low-walled cattle shed.

Suddenly near dawn our peace was shattered by a burst of fire from a sten, and rubbing the sleep from our eyes we looked over the low wall of our quarters. In front of us, moving steadily down the road, was a German column of three heavy and three scout armoured cars. The sight of these vehicles moving along the road towards Sidi N'Sir, and only about a hundred yards away, quickly made us alert, and we stood to, expecting the Germans to open fire. But, no-they just carried on along the. road.

We now thanked those old French buses for breaking down, for the area in which we had camved was iust ideal for settine an ambush. On bne side'high hills, on the other boggy ground; whilst a culvert under the road provided cover for men using Gammon bombs (named after Lt Gammon of 1st Battalion, they consisted of plastic explosive wrapped in stockinette and fired by a bakelite grenade detonator).

The REs laid mines on the road. Sgt Tucker's 3-inch mortar was mounted on one hill and the rest of us-apart from the "Gammoners" in the culvert-took up position in the rocky hills about twenty yards from the road. The road we knew the Germans would have to return on. Using the rocky hillside for cover we waited for what seemed hours to me.

Then at about 1000 hours the German column came into view on what they thought was their journey back to Mateur. The plan of attack was to block the road by the leading armoured car going up on the mines the REs had laid: leaving the rest of the column at our mercy or ourselves at their mercy if the battle went the wrong way! But all went well.

The leading car, one of the heavy ones, went up with a bang. Its crew and the crew of the more open scout car following were dealt with by our small arms fire. The next two cars were destroved bv some well thrown Gammon bombs, real flames and fiery tombs for their crews.

The third heavy really started to give us trouble, spraying our position with Spandau  fire. I got a face full of metal and rock splinters from his bullets, but in the heat of battle I hardly noticed my wounds-in fact the taste of blood in my mouth added to the excitement.

Then Tucker's 3-inch mortar opened up and some well placed bombs prevented what could have been a bit of a stalemate, with the remaining armoured cars keeping us pinned down with just a hundred yards of open space between them and ourselves. But the crunch of mortar bombs, the blast of the Gammon bombs, together with heavy small arms fire and the sight of the burning cars, must have undermined the morale of the remaining enemy, for they decided to surrender.

We had a few wounded in the battle, including CSM Sam Steadman and Lt Kellas, but it was a proud force which returned to Beja with its captured scout car and prisoners. (I also heard that documents in one car gave the order of battle of the German forces under von Arnim in Tunisia.)

This action was the first fought against the German Army in Tunisia by troops of the 1st Army, and it produced the first prisoners.

A sad follow-up to this action was the death of the REs who had fought so well with us; a few days later in the battle for Gue Hill they were killed when their anti-tank mines accidently exploded. My platoon was following just behind them when they were blown up. A loss of some very brave men.

This action was the first of very many hard battles fought by our Battalion as well as the 2nd and 3rd Battalions; before the end of the Tunisian campaign First Parachute Brigade had 1,700 casualties - I lost three platoons in the various actions. But fighting against such famous enemy troops as Witzig's Paratroops, 10th Panzer Grenadiers, the Austrian Mountain Division and the Herman Goering Jager Regiment, the British Parachute Regiment put out of action over 5,000 Germans and took over 3,000 prisoners.

We also got our famous battle cry "WAHO MOHAMEDy'- and from von Arnim's brave German troops the now immortal name of "Red Devils". Behind us, in a sad little valley at Tamera, we left a stone monument to our (and mavbe  even our enemy's) brave dead.


Read More


Make a donation to Airborne Assault ParaData to help preserve the history of The Parachute Regiment and Airborne Forces