The Battle of Tebourba
Tebourba stands on the north bank of the River Medjerda. The countryside is flat, with the high ground of Point 186 on the east and a slight rise of ground to the west between the railway and the river. Further south, beyond El Bathan, the ground rises again and dominates the entrances to the town. The river is deep with steep banks and forms a good tank obstacle. Tebourba is surrounded by extensive .olive groves which afford good cover to advancing troops.
By first light on 27th November the Battalion was dug in on its positions. Point 186 provided a wonderful view of the country almost up to Mateur, including the enemy airfield at Djedeida. Stuka dive-bombers were visible on the runway. All was quiet until a patrol led by Lieut E R Cecil of C Company, assembling on the Djedeida road north of Tebourba, came under fire from enemy tanks. Shortly after, heavy rifle and automatic fire broke out in the olive groves near Point 186. It soon became clear that a large force of tanks, supported by lorried infantry, was advancing on Tebourba from the north east, between Point 186 and the River Medjerda, and also from the road to Chouigi. The 25-pounder guns of the Battalion's supporting battery of 132 Field Regiment, RA, which were sited on either side of the Tebourba - Chouigi road engaged the tanks over open sights at almost point blank range. At Battalion Headquarters the first casualty was L/Cpl J W Greenhalgh, an Orderly Room clerk. During the attack Private A W G Martin, a Headquarter Company cook, went out on a lone patrol to deal with some German snipers. He stalked and shot up two for which he was awarded the Military Medal. Some Battalion positions were overrun, and seven of our field guns were knocked out. But the attack was held and by one 0' clock in the afternoon the enemy started to withdraw, leaving disabled tanks standing in a ring round what was left of our Field Battery.
At this time 11 Brigade Headquarters was near Longstop Hill. At about 1000 hours on 27th November Lt Col Wilberforce was sent for by Brigade and Major H B L Smith, the second-in-command, was left in command. This is the latter's own account of the fighting on that day.
"At about 1030 hours Point 186 reported approximately 50 enemy tanks, accompanied by motor cycle and sidecar units, approaching astride the Tebourba - Mateur road and astride the railway. Enemy air activity had increased and our Medium guns were dive-bombed in relays by three Stuka aircraft which could plainly be seen from Point 186 as they 'bombed up' and took off from Djedeida. Our supporting Bofors (light anti-aircraft) gun troop brought down at least one Stuka before they were themselves put out of action. We barely had time to alert everybody within our widely dispersed battalion area. There was no time, however, to move the soft skinned vehicles, such as the Troop Carrying Vehicles, which had been dispersed among the olive groves in the rear of Point 186".
"Behind the TCVs were the 25-pounder guns of our supporting battery of 132 Field Regiment RA. They had had time to adapt themselves to an anti-tank role before the first enemy tanks emerged from the smoke of the burning TCVs, almost on to the muzzles of the guns. A short and furious engagement now took place. The gunners firing over open sights at point blank range, fought their guns to the last man. Although they suffered heavy casualties, it was the toll they managed to exact from the advancing armour that halted the attack. The smoke from burning vehicles and the density of the olive trees and cactus hedges made shooting difficult. Point 186 claimed the first victim with a Boyes anti-tank rifle a claim which remained unconfirmed as the enemy recovery parties were able to extricate many of the damaged tanks when they were forced to withdraw".
"The enemy made no attempt to attack Point 186 but bypassed it on both flanks. The railway line enemy party ran straight on to Battalion Headquarters near the railway station, and we were soon all pinned down by heavy fire. This was one of a number of occasions when RSM 'Buck' Adams did much to restore morale by his coolness under fire. One tank penetrated the village of Tebourba itself, emerging behind us all and heading for 'Transport Wood' where most of the Battalion's transport had been concealed. This particular tank attracted· so much fire from a number of our anti-tank weapons that it was soon blazing merrily, but not before it had accounted for Lieut Norman Crampton, our Motor Transport Officer, who was crossing some open ground in a carrier. At this period we had only the 2-pounder anti-tank gun which was not up to the task of dealing with the heavily armoured Mark III and Mark IV Panzers. However the Battalion did have the support of one troop of 6-pounder anti-tank guns".
"I had established my Battalion Command Post in a cowshed a short distance from Battalion Headquarters, and while here we were sniped by the enemy tank crews who had hidden among the houses in the village. As I was preparing to mount a village clearing operation, Point 186 reported the enemy to be withdrawing fast by the way he had come. There were optimistic reports of enemy tanks destroyed, ranging from 10 to 14. In fact, when we subsequently cleared the battlefield, we could only find 6. The remainder had been recovered by the retreating Germans. The tanks were all Mark Ills or IV s, which we learned later had only just been landed at Tunis".
"We saw little or nothing of our own air force which was based so far back they had no fuel for more than the briefest sorties in support of the forward troops. Consequently, when we were attacked they were never there to support us. The battle was virtually over. A short rain of 3-inch mortar bombs on the village stopped the sniping and caused a flood of refugee Arabs to burst through our lines. We couldn't trust these Arabs whose sympathies at this time appeared to be on the side of the enemy".
"I was able to report to an almost incredulous Commanding Officer, still at Brigade, that during his absence a battle with tanks had been fought and won, and that our own positions remained intact".
Later, on 27th November, 5 Northamptons passed through Tebourba, supported by American Combat Command B which consisted of Honey (light) tanks and a few Grant (heavier) tanks, to attack Djedeida airfield. The attack ran into trouble and the Northamptons were forced to withdraw into the hills to the west of Point 186. Most of the American armour was lost in this engagement mainly because their tanks were no match for the German Mark IV tanks and their 88-mm guns. 2 Hampshires, who were part of 1 Guards Brigade, now came up to relieve 5 Northamptons and the battle stabi1is~d for a few days. A battery of American 6-inch howitzers arrived in 1 Surreys area. They operated in a different way from British gunners: they appeared to shoot only from the map and did not man a Forward Observation Post.
Although the enemy had withdrawn after his first attack, the battle for Tebourba was far from over. In fact it was to continue for another six days. There was now considerable air activity with regular visits from fighter-bombers at tree-top height trying to locate our dispositions. The Battalion's Anti-aircraft Platoon, under Sergeant C Rosoman, kept up a continuous fire with their twin Bren guns. During the morning of 29th November Battalion Headquarters was moved to the old Roman wall which runs from Tebourba to El Bathan.
On the 30th November the enemy attacked EI Bathan, but was unable to make any progress. His mortars and artillery were very active and the dive-bombers continued as viciously as ever. That night Captain R A Lindsay, the second-in-command of D Company, was supervising the evacuation of wounded from the forward companies, when he was surprised to see a small civilian car by the EI Bathan bridge. The occupants on being challenged replied, 'American patrol'. Captain Lindsay on looking closer discovered they were German soldiers. The driver got away with the car, but the other three one of whom was a sergeant-major, were taken prisoner.
On 1st December there was heavy mortaring around Battalion Headquarters. One bomb narrowly missed the Commanding Officer and Second-in-Command, but killed Major Fisher, RA, our Medium battery commander, and slightly wounded Major P G E Hill commanding Headquarter Company, in the leg.
Enemy activity continued stronger than ever on 2nd December, although by now we had got the dive-bombing pretty well weighed up. On this day our 3-inch mortars did an effective shoot on a party of Germans concealed among some haystacks across the river. Mention must be made of the splendid work done by the medical staff. Our Medical Officer, Captain E W Robinson, RAMC, was joined by the Gunners' MO. They worked day and night under appalling conditions, assisted throughout by an elderly Frenchman in whose house the Regimental Aid Post was established. Eventually the house got a direct hit and collapsed, but they still carried on. When the time came to withdraw from Tebourba, the Gunners' Medical Officer voluntarily stayed behind with the wounded, many of whom were gunners.
On 3rd December a particularly strong enemy attack was made with armour and infantry on Point 186 where A Company (Captain RAN Andrews) had been withstanding repeated attacks of increasing pressure for several days. In spite of stubborn and gallant resistance, the enemy succeeded in establishing themselves on the feature. This hill was the key to the Tebourba position. Colonel Wilberforce ordered an immediate counter-attack with Band C Companies. Medium gunners supported this attack which was launched with great gallantry. The two companies went right up the feature but were driven back on the summit by very heavy fire. Lieut E R Cecil led his platoon with conspicuous courage right to the crest when he himself was killed and his platoon sergeant wounded. Two company commanders, Captain Andrews and Major T A Buchanan, B Company, were wounded.
With Point 186 lost the Tebourba positions, could no longer be held. To make matters worse, enemy armour had bypassed 2 Hampshires, cutting the Chouigi road and also the main road to Medjez behind 1 Surreys. The Brigade Commander, Brigadier E E E Cass, CBE.,DSO., now gave orders for 1 Surreys to withdraw. Lt Col Wilberforce ordered each company to thin out and retire to a location some miles back along the Medjez road. The withdrawal of Battalion Headquarters and the vehicles is remembered by Major P G E Hill.
"The main exit from the town was under fire from enemy tanks. I was sent off with the Pioneer Platoon to prepare a way out for transport along by the river. The work consisted of levelling a steep bank and the vehicles had to lie up until the job was done. A heavy dive-bombing attack was delivered at that time, but we got away with it once more. The Commanding Officer sent Major Smith, the second-in-command, to reconnoitre a position further back and we waited to get the Battalion away under cover of darkness. The vehicles moved out from their hiding places at dusk, but unfortunately were spotted by an enemy tank. Our first vehicle casualty was the 3-ton ammunition lorry, and it blew up with a tremendous explosion. It was difficult getting the vehicles through the part we had cut away as it was still very steep and the surface was rough. Vehicles kept getting stuck and had to be shoved through. One truck became immovable and we had to push it over the edge into a sort of reservoir below. We had got a number of vehicles through when a sudden explosion blew the track off a carrier. The carrier resisted all our efforts to move it, arid eventually we had to abandon it and, what was worse, all the vehicles behind".
"Accompanied by my batman, Private George Tedman, and the crews of the abandoned vehicles, I made my way down the track which led to the main road some miles away. The track was congested with guns, carriers, transport of all kinds and marching men. I met the Commanding Officer in the darkness and went along with him. On reaching the main road we set about collecting the Battalion. Lt Col Wilberforce went to Brigade Headquarters and was ordered to move to a farm some way down the road. Looking back to Tebourba we could see many fires and the streaks of tracer ammunition as the enemy tried to shoot up what survivors remained. White Verey lights were going up everywhere. We reached the farm at midnight. It was bitterly cold, but most of the men were so tired they just dropped down where they were".
"All next day we lay up resting and re-organising. We were reduced to about half the normal strength of the Battalion and had lost most of our transport and a good deal of equipment. We moved back that night to another farm, and the following day forward again astride the Medjez- Tebourba road, Our Battalion Headquarters was then in a farm called Les Chenes, which was shelled by the enemy throughout the day. There was a lot of firing on our right flank as the enemy steadily pushed back the American armour. They had heavy losses that day. That night, 6th December, we were withdrawn about 15 miles to behind Longstop Hill, just outside Medjez. The men marched all through the night and were pretty exhausted on arrival".
"The next night we were moved again a few miles farther back to a farm owned by the Maire of Medjez. There was a fine orange grove full of ripe fruit, but it didn't last very long, I'm afraid, after the Battalion arrived. M Ie Maire took a poor view of this, and indeed never took kindly to us. After two days of heavy rain we were lifted by motor transport to another section of the line - Hunt's Gap. Here at last we were able to get most of the men under cover. We spent the time digging defences and laying minefields. This was an important area as it was the key to Beja. To our delight the first mail arrived on 16th December, eight weeks after we had embarked. On 21st December we were relieved by a French battalion and moved to the Oued Zarga area in preparation for a Christmas offensive. It rained almost continually for the next week, and the offensive was postponed.
In the fighting at Tebourba 1 Surreys suffered considerable losses in men and material and by 4th December the Battalion strength had been reduced to 23 officers and 350 Other Ranks. Among the killed were Lieutenants N Crampton and E R Cecil; CSMs W Cole, DCM., and J Welch and Colour Sergeant L J Perry. CSM 'Taffy' Cole was awarded the DCM for leadership of his platoon near the River Escaut in 1940, and he and CSM 'Wacker' Welch had both served with the Battalion in India before the War. Both A and B Company Commanders (Captain RAN Andrews and Major TA Buchanan respectively) were wounded. Major Buchanan and Captain E W Robinson, the Medical Officer, were awarded the Military Cross; RSM A H Adams the Distinguished Conduct Medal; and Sergeant L Oram, the Medical Sergeant, Private C R Morgan, a stretcher bearer, and Private A W G Martin, a cook, the Military Medal. In each case the awards were for gallantry in action at Tebourba.
With regard to the tactical value of the battle of Tebourba, the History of 78 Division quotes 'The Times', " ... that it gave us breathing space in which to adjust our minds and military dispositions to the fact that the gamble had failed and that the two brigades of 78 Division were out on a rather precarious limb. The breathing space was not wasted; by the time the inevitable German counter-attack came we were more or less ready for it, and though we lost valuable positions we did not lose Medjez, by far the most valuable of all".