Reference Map Tunisia 1:50,000 Sheet 41 (Djebel Mansour)
On 26th February 1943 the Battalion was in position on the Tagoubet El Araan feature 7096, 7196; it was disposed as follows:
Point 466 — A Company, Battalion Mortar Platoon (less one detachment) and FOO 13 Battery 17 Field Regiment RA
Point 414 (west) — C Company FOO 26 Battery 17 Field Regiment RA
Point 414 (east) — B Company
Point 375 track junction 700976 — Battalion HQ and one detachment Mortar Platoon
A vigorous patrolling policy had been followed from which it had been found that the enemy were occupying positions on the south-east bank of the wadi which runs 711931-720937-722950- O el Krammass-O Zenngou and on and off the Battalion front to the north. Many machine gun positions and mortar sites were pinpointed from time to time. The enemy constantly shifted these positions and as a result it was difficult to gauge his exact strength or find the areas of responsibility of his sub-units, with any possible gaps between them.
The ground between the Battalion position and the wadi held by the enemy was cut up by a mass of lesser wadis except for a strip of very open ground, about 800 yards wide, immediately on the Battalion's side of the enemy's wadi. These lesser wadis had further tributary wadis leading in and out of them, usually at right angles, and although not so big as the enemy's wadis, they were nevertheless of considerable depth and were mostly scrub covered. They provided perfect cover from view and were naturally continually being searched by my patrols, who soon learned their way about in them.
To the east of the Battalion feature the terrain was completely different and although the area of lesser wadis existed, there were fewer of them and the general impression was of very open Country. Observation from this flank was very good and patrol routes could be worked out in great detail from OPs.
The rest of the Battalion feature was thickly wooded and observation of the foreground was very limited. The size of the feature and the thickness of the wood meant many points where the enemy could infiltrate deeply into the position; despite this however my chief worries were the flanks where nasty gaps existed between the Battalion and:
(a) The French on the right. The left hand French position was at 892956 (except for a very small party of men at 695958) and
(b) 1st Parachute Battalion (one company only) on the left. This company was on the Argoub feature i.e. just off Sheet 41 to the north of 7298.
I covered the gap on my right by fire, patrolling, wiring and heavy booby traps with a heavy mortar concentration instantly available in the event of a breakthrough (which would have seriously threatened my HQ). The gap on the left was extremely difficult to cover and required medium machine guns but I was unable to obtain any. It was watched by patrols and listening posts and very close liaison was maintained with the company of the 1st Parachute Battalion on the other side of the gap.
Two 6 pounder anti-tank guns were placed to deal with any tanks entering the gap and later an extensive minefield was laid with the object of driving the tanks onto the guns. These gaps were a permanent headache as a determined enemy thrust at either of them would have been extremely difficult to have countered effectively.
The Company areas were all ringed with wire and this was thickened as more wire became available; work however was slow as transport could only visit the Company areas by night and even so was dependent on the weather as the tracks were not negotiable to vehicles after the slightest rain. The rain at this time was almost continuous. It was not possible for the wire to be covered completely by fire owing to the thick nature of the country.
At 0615 on 26th February I received reports from both A and B Companies that they were being attacked. A on their left flank and B on their right. Both attacks were infiltrations which came right into the positions and in each case seriously threatened the Company HQ. Both were driven off by immediate counter-attacks, delivered width great dash by the Sections most easily available. A Company's attack took longer to beat off than B Companys and before A Company had stabilised their situation, B Company again reported trouble in the form of an attack on Point 375.
In the meantime I had contacted the 1st Battalion Company on the Argoub feature (which was not being attacked) and arranged for the Troop of 1st Parachute Squadron RE (which I knew to be with them) to be sent immediately for use as necessary. This was very necessary as the whole Battalion was required to hold the position and no reserve was available to me. I also asked for the Brigade Mobile Reserve which consisted of one Company from the 1st Parachute Battalion and was stationed in the Toutla area 6599. It was agreed that this Company would be sent to me as soon as possible but I had to exepct it to arrive by Platoons separately.
The RE Troop arrived at my HQ at 0915 hours and I had to send them straight off to B Company as the situation at Point 375 was then being reported as critical. The situation was that the enemy appeared to have overrun the Platoon of B Company which had been holding this feature and to be in possession of the hill. Communications with this Platoon had gone dead and the 2 i/c of B Company had been killed on his way over to take charge of the situation. The Troop were used for a counter-attack on the feature immediately on arrival in the area. This attack was successful and the enemy was driven off the feature, which was then occupied by the Troop and the regrouped Platoon of B Company, which had been overrun (but one Section of which was later found to have remained in its position on the hill throughout). The enemy withdrew in some disorder to the area of the lesser wadis already referred to; here they attempted to reorganise, but made the mistake of remaining within mortar range. He undoubtedly suffered heavy losses from mortar fire at this stage. During the counter-attack Sergeant McDonnell and three men of B Company performed a series of almost fantastic feats of gallantry on the enemy side of the hill and cleared up many enemy posts on their own; they also followed the retreating enemy into the wadis and increased their casualties and disorder by getting amongst them and firing off the remainder of their ammunition into them at point blank range.
By this time A Company had driven off the enemy after the initial infiltration and reported that the enemy were moving westwards. It appeared that the next attack on this Company would come from the right flank, where the dangerous gap between the French and ourselves existed. In anticipation of this I sent them the first Platoon of the Mobile Reserve Company which had just arrived and ordered OC A Company to try and keep them intact for a counter-attack. This he was able to do.
I then found out that another Platoon of the Mobile Reserve Company had arrived earlier on but had reported direct to B Company, without coming to my HQ at all. Brigade also informed me that the Mobile Reserve was going to be increased and that I should receive two full Companies instead of one but that the second Company could not be expected for some hours — it arrived at my HQ at 1230. In view of this information I sent the third Platoon of the Mobile Reserve Company to A Company and hoped to be able to keep the whole of the second Company in hand for a counter-attack at the right moment. The enemy made several further attempts on both flanks, but was clearly shaken by his original reception and was beaten off each time with heavy losses to himself. Large numbers of them were killed in the wadis and by 1300 it was clear that he had shot his bolt. A Reserve Company at this stage would have been invaluable but it did not exist and the second Company of the Mobile Reserve had not reached B Company's area (I had sent this Company straight off to the B Company area as soon as it arrived as it seemed the most promising flank from which to launch a counter-stroke). It arrived soon after however and was accompanied by CO 1st Parachute Battalion himself; the counterattack force, consisting of a full Company and one Platoon (the one that had reported direct to B Company) was sent after the enemy with the minimum delay. They set off within 15 minutes of the 'right' moment for a counter-stroke.
The counter-attack was, in brief, a left-handed clockwise sweep following a frontal attack on the farm at Point 284, 733980 (which had been observed to have been used as a HQ or RAP or both). CO 1st Parachute Battalion followed this sweep and was in communication by 18 set with OC B Company at his OP. OC B Company was in turn in touch with me by line, using his own HQ as a link.
By 1415 the sweep was well advanced and was sending in prisoners at a great rate. I ordered OC A Company at this hour to launch one of the two 1st Parachute Battalion Platoons which lie then had with him on a right-handed anti-clockwise sweep from his right flank. This Platoon soon ran into well-placed machine guns and became pinned down and I ordered OC A Company to send out the second Platoon from his left flank. This second Platoon made slightly more progress than the first but, in due course also became pinned down by machine gun fire.
Meanwhile the force carrying out the wider sweep from the B Company front was beginning to come in through C Company's position so I ordered OC C Company to reorganise them and send them over to A Company's area. The force went out on the same lines as the first Platoon to get pinned down, but made a wider sweep. Somewhat confused fighting took place on this flank for the rest of the day and continued until well after dark. A considerable number of enemy were killed and captured in this action, but not nearly so many as on the other flank. The German troops on the right were found to be from a Jaeger battalion and their fighting qualities were definitely superior to the troops on the other flank (T and A Companies).
The action proved an outstanding success for the Battalion and something like 1150 prisoners were taken together with a large amount of equipment and arms etc. Information is not available as to the number killed but there is no doubt that it was very considerable. For the Battalion's first battle (fighting as a whole Battalion) the result was most encouraging. The whole machinery worked extremely well and the fighting ability of all ranks was shown to be exceptional. The Battalion's casualties were:
Killed 2 Officers (Captain Bromley-Martin and Lieutenant Wilson) and 12 ORs
Wounded 1 Officer (Lieutenant Benton) and 33 ORs.
Interrogation of prisoners showed that the attack had been carried out by four German Battalions; this was confirmed by identifications obtained from other POWs. A captured map (marked) gave an indication of the German plan and also showed the positions the Germans had been holding; these positions were exactly along the line that the Battalion intelligence map had them marked. The marked map indicated that the plan was to occupy Point 466 and Point 409 (near Battalion HQ), these points had been ringed on the map and arrows drawn to them were on the line that the original attack followed. It seemed that the German patrolling had not been so good as ours and that they thought both Points 375 and 414 were unoccupied.
By Lt Col RG Pine-Coffin, CO 3rd Parachute BattalionRead More