'Operation Lilac Blossom', Djebel Djaffa and Finale
On moving south to the vicinity of 'Handley Cross', 1/6 Surreys, less one company, went into Brigade reserve. D Company (Captain L S B Scales) was attached to 2 DCLI whose positions were on the high ground to the west of the Medjez-Goubellat road. Among the positions to be occupied by D Company was Fort MacGregor - that isolated hill on the Goubellat Plain where D Company of the 1st Battalion had been overwhelmed on 26th February. Fort MacGregor was occupied by 17 Platoon (Lieut C W Deayton-Groom) on 20th April, who recalls:-
"I put my three sections into what had been the three platoon positions of D Company, 1 Surreys. These were merely shallow scrapes in the rocks. The whole position was completely wired in and the approaches mined. The only communication with Company Headquarters was by field telephone line".
"At about midnight on 20th April an attack on our main defensive positions started, and there was a half-hearted attack on Fort MacGregor, but this was not pressed home. I tried to report this to my company commander but the line was dead. Isolated on my little hill I had no means of knowing what was going on, beyond knowing there was a lot of movement on the Plain and plenty of noise on each side and behind my position, but some distance away. My orders were to deny the hill to the enemy until, relieved, which occurred during the late afternoon of 23rd April".
To the east of Goubellat Plain a strongly held German line ran from Peter's Corner to Delaney's Corner. This German position was held by four battalions, two of the Hermann Goering Jaeger Regiment, one of Grenadiers and one of Engineers together with tanks. On the night 20/21st April, the enemy launched a most determined attack on 4 Division positions. It became known as 'Operation Lilac Blossom' from the scented hair oil found to be used by some captured German officers. 10 Brigade had to withstand the main thrust of the attack which began on the positions held by 2 DCLI and D Company of 1/6 Surreys at about midnight. By 2 o'clock on the 21st April, German infantry and tanks had penetrated some of the defences, including capturing Djebel Djaffa and had surrounded a wood in which 10 Field Ambulance had set up an Advanced Dressing Station. The enemy captured the entire medical staff, the Padre and some patients including Private Moore of A Company who later reported he had been marched away and then taken by transport to a Prisoner of War camp near Tunis.
At the time of the attack D Company were in process of taking over a position and quickly engaged the enemy. B Company (Major G G Maggs MC) went into action next to counter-attack the German force which had surrounded the Advanced Dressing Station. This action was successful and after a sharp fight the enemy were driven off. Following a number of minor engagements during the morning of 21st April the enemy withdrew, but continued to hold Djebel Djaffa.
1/6 Surreys were now ordered to re-capture Djebel Djaffa. By one thirty in the afternoon A Company, which was leading the attack, began to climb the long south-western slopes, followed by B Company and C Company (Major R C Guy). For some distance the advance was in dead ground to the enemy but at two-thirty the Germans opened fire on the leading platoons. For the attack A and B Squadrons of 48 Royal Tanks (ex-23rd London Regiment) were in support of the Battalion. Soon the leading platoon of A Company reached the crest of Djebel el Mehirigar, a mile south-west of Djaffa and about two hundred feet lower. A Company now came under heavy machine-gun fire and could not advance any farther. At this time Lieut A W F Paskins led a bayonet charge on an enemy position from which grenades were being thrown at his platoon. By now A Company were running short of ammunition and after suffering a number of casualties withdrew one hundred yards down the hill to reorganize. The Commanding Officer, Lt Col H A B Bruno, MBE., now ordered C Company to attack round the left flank of A Company supported by covering fire from B Company. The Commanding Officer personally led C Company up the hill in the face of withering fire, and the company were within twenty yards of the summit when they were halted. The Colonel then ordered Major Guy to withdraw and minutes later was himself killed. Lieut H N Marlow of C Company was killed at the same time.
30 Field Regiment RA, who were supporting the Battalion put down a smoke screen and B Company gave intense covering fire. With this help Major Guy, who was himself wounded, got his company back behind Djebel el Mehirigar where he was joined by A Company. Captain J O Strode now took command of C Company. Major R O V Thompson, the Battalion second-in-command, assumed command of the Battalion, and organized the evacuation of the wounded by carriers. The next morning Major Maggs led B Company up the slope to Djebel Djaffa to find it no longer defended. Apparently the Germans thought the smoke screen was the prelude to a further at'tack, and as they had suffered considerable losses, they withdrew down one side of the mountain while A and C Companies withdrew down the other side. This manoeuvre was later confirmed by a wounded German prisoner. In this action the Battalion sustained severe losses. In addition to Lt Col Bruno and Lieut Marlow, five Other Ranks were killed, Major Guy and twenty-five Other Ranks were wounded and thirty-five Other Ranks were missing.
At dusk on Good Friday, 23rd April, the Padre, the Reverend G H T Blake, conducted a short but impressive funeral service for Lt Col H A B Bruno, MBE., Lieut H N Marlow, Corporal F Sidaway, Lance Corporals H Ealey and J P Pickett and Private G B Gurney who were buried on the hill.
Major R C Guy and Captain J O Strode were awarded the Military Cross for their leadership, and Bandsman T Whinder, a stretcher bearer with A Company, who worked unceasingly under fire tending the wounded, was awarded the Military Medal.
The Regimental History records that "In retaking Djebel Djaffa, the final and most important position taken by the Germans in their assault the 1/6th Surreys had made a valuable contribution to the breaking up of 'Operation Lilac Blossom'. D Company had taken its own share in the day's hard work with the DCLI".
After the fierce fighting of Operation Lilac Blossom 1/6 Surreys had a few days of comparative quiet in which to reorganize and to receive some reinforcements. On 29th April the Battalion took up positions round Zraouina Farm and carried out patrols on the left flank of 11 Brigade of 78 Division. During this time First Army had been pressing on, and after considerable fighting around Peter's Corner by other formations it was decided that 4 Division and 4 (Indian) Division (from Eighth Army) were to attack and break through the German defences to the north of Peter's Corner and so enable 6 and 7 Armoured Divisions (the latter also from Eighth Army) to dash through to Tunis.
The attack began on 6th May at 0300 hours with an extremely heavy artillery barrage. 10 Brigade's plan for the attack was to advance with 1/6 Surreys on the right and 2 DCLI on the left with 2 Bedfords in reserve.
1/6 Surreys supported by C Squadron of 48 Royal Tanks, advanced with A Company (Captain P M Plastow) on the right and C Company (Captain J O Strode) on the left. It was very dark and the smoke and dust of the shells exploding ahead reduced visibility to a few yards which made it very difficult for the companies who were marching on a compass bearing. As a result Battalion Headquarters which crossed the start line behind the leading companies, arrived on the first objective - Montarnaud - ahead of them. Luckily enemy resistance had been badly shaken by the artillery bombardment and some Germans just gave themselves up. After capturing the first objective, the Battalion pressed on and by 0515 hours was able to report it had captured its final objective some two miles in front of the start line.
During the advance a shell landed on Battalion Headquarters killing Private A Waterer and wounding Lieut R C Baker, the Intelligence Officer, in the leg. CSM P V Mackenzie and Private Bertram, a battalion signaller, who were able to continue the advance did excellent work passing messages over the wireless throughout the attack.
While on the objective, Lieut J Gould of D Company located an enemy post and was going forw'ard to deal with it on his own, when he was shot and died instantly. One of the 3-inch mortar carriers received a direct hit from an 88-mm gun killing Private G F Pulley and wounding Sergeant F Skinner. During this battle Lieut C A Perry and Sergeant A Weston of B Company were killed. In the rifle companies the following were wounded, Lance Sergeant R Nicholls of A Company, Privates W Coleman and W Green of B Company, Lance Sergeant G Slater, Corporal H Hawkins and Private J Chaffer of C Company and Corporals F Bray and H Eldridge and Private Miller of D Company. CSM P V Mackenzie was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his initiative and leadership in this action which included going forward under fire to bring in a wounded soldier.
On the left 2 DCLI reached their final objective and 12 Brigade passed through to capture the Division's final objective, the village of Frendj, by 0800 hours. It was then the turn of the two Armoured Divisions to pass through in their drive to Tunis. They reached Massicault that night and Tunis the next day, 7th May.
1/6 Surreys with the remainder of 4 Division now moved forward towards Tunis, but instead of entering the city branched off to the Cap Bon peninsula to which most of the enemy forces had retreated. There was some resistance, but by 10th May this weakened and Germans surrendered in vast numbers. On 12th May General von Arnim surrendered to 4 (Indian) Division and fighting ceased. The task now was to collect and assemble enormous numbers of prisoners in cages. 4 Division collected over 51,000 of which 1/6 Surreys handled - it can hardly be said captured - over 19,000. In addition a vast amount of equipment, vehicles and arms were collected.
On 20th May Lt Col R O V Thompson, now promoted and appointed as Commanding Officer, Captain J O Strode and sixty-three other Ranks took part in the Victory Parade in Tunis where General Alexander took the salute. In June Mr Winston Churchill reviewed 4 Division, and later in the month men of 1/6 Surreys had the honour of lining the streets for the visit of His Majesty the King.
During the North African campaign the following awards were made:-
Major R C Guy and Captain J O Strode.
CSM P V Mackenzie.
Sergeant J E Deane, Corporal J H Cudlip and Bandsman T Whinder.
Lt Col H A B Bruno, MBE., Lieutenants G A Dowler and A W F Paskins, Sergeants F Bevan, E Holt
and A Weston and Lance Corporal J Simmons.