The Middle East
The Road To Mareth
The Queen’s Brigade had hoped for a rest at Suani Ben Adem. In the event they were allowed three days. However, during that three days they did receive some welcome new equipment. The first to benefit was Brigade Headquarters, who not only received a few extra soft-skinned vehicles, but was issued with two large armoured control vehicles. One of these, referred to as ACK1, was allocated to the Brigade Major and his staff with the Main HQ, whilst ACK2 was given to the ‘Q’ Staff at Rear HQ, manned by the Staff Captain, Capt Bill Souttar from 1/6th Queen’s, and Lt John Edney from 1/5th Queen’s. John Edney was officially the Brigade Camouflage Officer, but in the permanent absence of a sick Camp Commandant, took on that role and any other odd jobs around the place! These vehicles were luxurious indeed, for in addition to being proof against small arms fire, shrapnel and bomb splinters, they were fitted with brand new wireless sets which sent the signallers into raptures. The Signals Corporal soon had available excellent reception of the Afrika Korps’ song “Lili Marlene”, which also was beginning to become very popular in the Eighth Army!
Communications had always been a major problem for advancing or attacking infantry. The manpack wireless sets were unreliable and limited in range, and even the vehicle borne sets were difficult to operate unless properly installed into the design of the vehicle or tank. Hence the delight of the brigade signallers, who up to this time had had to cope with a set strapped down in the back of a bucking 15cwt truck. However, the battalions still had to wrestle with the problem of unreliable communications. 1/5th Queen’s introduced a compromise solution during the attack on the Tarhuna Hills position when the Signals Officer, Capt T.E.M. Adams, carried an 18 set with Tac HQ netted in to the 11 set at Battalion Headquarters, since it was impossible to get the 11 set forward. On that occasion this arrangement worked well.
The main change in the battalions was the exchange of half the 2pdr anti-tank guns and portees for 6pdr guns towed by carriers, a change made possible by the gradual re-equipping of Royal Artillery anti-tank regiments with the 17pdr. This change had a significant effect on the anti-tank capability of infantry during the rest of the war, and this was to be dramatically demonstrated in the near future.
On the 26th January the Queen’s Brigade were directed to advance on Zauia, the next town of consequence to the west, They moved mainly on foot owing to the state of the road, which was badly cratered and in places booby-trapped. There was also a shortage of petrol since Tripoli had not yet been sufficiently repaired to handle all the stores required by the army. Cynics said that more effort was going into organising and rehearsing a victory parade for Winston Churchill in Tripoli than in mending the port. Indeed, when the 1/5th Queen’s was detailed to fill in craters and clear mines, work was considerably retarded when a bulldozer was taken away to prepare the parade ground for the Prime Minister’s inspection! A particular butt for humorous remarks was the 51st (Highland) Division, as clouds of moths were reported as being shaken out of their kilts especially for the occasion! In fact the Highlanders were old friends who had earned the nickname of Highway Decorators because of their habit of painting their HD signs on anything that did not move, and much that did! In any event, at Zauia the Brigade relieved what was left of the 8th Armoured Brigade, and became the leading troops of the whole Eighth Army as they pressed on to Zuara.
The 1/7th Queen’s led the advance, with their carriers in front supported by some Valentines of the 40th Royal Tank Regiment. That evening they captured Sabratha, but on the 27th the enemy rearguards, mines and demolitions made progress slow, and Mellita was not reached until next day, where they found a strong enemy position and ran into quite heavy shelling. ‘B’ Company with two sections of carriers and a strong troop of Valantines, commanded by Capt A.S.S. Playfoot, attempted a left flanking movement, but ran into another strongpoint, and were also halted. The 1/6th Queen’s closed up, and a night attack was planned using the Carrier and Battle Platoons of the 1/6th supported by some of the Valentines. When the attack went in it was found that the position was much better organised than had been thought, with concrete pill-boxes, an anti-tank ditch and belts of wire, so that it was not surprising that the attack was beaten off, luckily without any casualties to the Queen’s, although the tanks suffered slightly.
|Captain Peter Kealy, who was
wounded three times in 19 months.
At the same time ‘A’ Company of the 1/5th, which had been detailed as part of a ‘Jock Column’ under Brigadier ‘Riccie’ Richards, located some 10 miles south of Zuara, was ordered to reinforce ‘B’ Company of the 1/7th Queen’s, and contact was established with them at 7.30am. During the remainder of that day these two companies sent out several patrols on different compass bearings in order to locate the enemy positions more accurately and to give him the impression that they were a stronger force than was the case. These patrols encountered considerable machine-gun fire, and at 6.30pm the enemy discovered the companies’ locations and brought down heavy shelling and machine-gun fire on them, inflicting some casualties to ‘B’ Company. After discussion with the tanks’ squadron leader, for they also had been reinforced and were by then 14 strong, it was decided to withdraw about 1,500 yards, which was accomplished without loss, with the tanks in fresh positions in the rear. However, later that night a recce patrol from ‘A’ Company led by Capt E.F. Winser discovered that the enemy outposts had been vacated, so Brigadier Richards decided to push forward at first light with ‘B’ Company riding on the tanks and ‘A’ Company in their TCVs. They encountered the anti-tank ditch, some 30 feet across and 20 feet deep, but it took the infantry companies less than 90 minutes to construct a causeway of wood and stones sufficient for the passage of the tanks and the TCVs, and Zuara was entered at approximately midday on the 31st January. The 1/7th Queen’s moved up to occupy the town, and ‘A’ Company returned to their battalion. The Carrier Platoon of the 1/7th was sent forward at once to relieve the 12th Lancers, who were badly in need of a rest. During the advance Capt Peter Kealy was wounded again for the third time in 19 months.
An interesting postscript to this action occurred during the night of the 30th/31st January when the two Queen’s companies were lying so close to the enemy that a German feldwebel wandered into Brigadier Richards’ tent after having relieved himself and lost his way. When the advance started next morning the prisoner started to weep with anger when he saw the size of this force which had led his side to evacuate such strong positions.
Whilst the Queen’s Brigade had been advancing along the coast road, the 4th Light Armoured Brigade had been working forward over the difficult country beyond the escarpment to the south, and on the 2nd February crossed the frontier into Tunisia. The 1/5th Queen’s, with ‘B’ Company and the carriers of the 1/6th under command, were ordered to lead the Brigade’s own advance into Tunisia. Unfortunately Lt J.S. Cormack, the Battalion Intelligence Officer, Pte M.F. Purbrick, also of the Intelligence Section, and L/Cp T. A. Slater, MT Section, were all killed by anti-personnel mines when they reconnoitred a proposed rest area for the Battalion, which was never occupied, prior to the receipt of the order to move. Such losses from mines and booby-traps were sadly becoming almost a daily occurrence, and there was a constant trickle of casualties from such incidents. A little later the Brigade Intelligence Officer, Capt Alan Emerson, ex-1/5th Queen’s and another of the long-serving TA officers, was to lose his life from a booby-trap.The 3rd (Cheshire) Field Squadron RE was put under command of the Brigade to help with this problem.
On the 3rd February the 1/5th passed through the 1/7th Queen’s, and the carriers patrolled along the coast. They came under fire from an enemy strongpoint when they went to the assistance of an armoured car which was in difficulties. Sgt H.H. Lucas’s section moved forward to draw the enemy fire, and Sgt Lucas was hit by an anti-tank gun at close range, which killed him and his driver, Pte Hills. The next day ‘B’ Company occupied this enemy position, and on the 5th the Battalion moved forward to Pisida, and took up a defensive position two miles beyond. The Battalion was spasmodically shelled by a 170mm gun.
The 7th Armoured Division was now confronted by an unpleasant stretch of country. In front of the Queen’s Brigade there was a narrow corridor to the frontier between flat salt marshes on the left and the sea on the right, with the road between. The marshes were passable when dry but terrible after rain. The strip between the marshes and the sea narrowed to a spit only 500 yards wide. The whole area was extensively mined, and two possible crossing places through the marshes were held by the enemy. The 8th Armoured Brigade, now down to only forty serviceable tanks, was brought forward to deal with this situation. Between the 7th-13th they slowly drove in the enemy rearguard covering the most likely of these crossings, and began to cross about 15 miles north-west of El Assa when down came the rain and the crossing became quite impassable, though enough had got through to form a bridgehead. The Royal Engineers started to construct a causeway, searching the whole of the area for wood, but they estimated that it would not be ready before midday on the 14th February. To divert the enemy’s attention the Queen’s Brigade patrolled most actively along the coastal strip; the 1/7th carriers even penetrated the sand-dunes right up to the frontier, earning General Leese’s personal thanks for their “magnificent work”.
On the 12th February the 1/5th Queen’s were relieved by the 5/7th Gordons of 153 Brigade from the 51st (Highland) Division and moved round to El Assa via Zuara. The rest of the Brigade had already moved to El Assa in preparation for crossing the causeway on its completion. In the event the causeway was completed two hours before the time predicted and the 1/5th Queen’s were the first unit over in order to relieve the 1st Buffs in the bridgehead, thus being the first battalion of the Queen’s Brigade to enter Tunisia. There was great congestion on the causeway, and the 1/7th, the rear battalion of the Brigade, was six hours late in starting, but the Brigade was complete in its concentration area before dawn, and the whole Division was across by 9am. The Queen’s Brigade and the 8th Armoured Brigade then advanced on Ben Gardane side by side in desert formation. The 1/6th acted as the vanguard with a carrier screen ahead. On reaching the town the carriers drove straight through whilst the rifle companies skirted it to the south, taking position behind the carriers on the far side. The 1/7th with the tanks swept through the town itself, disposing of only one small post which was still occupied, and by nightfall the whole area had been cleared, and contact had been made with the enemy rearguard on the line of a wide, shallow wadi 10 miles to the west.
At this stage the 22nd Armoured Brigade, now also equipped with Sherman tanks, rejoined the Division in place of 8th Armoured Brigade, which by this time had only twelve tanks left in action. Command of the Division was taken over by Major General G.W.E.J. Erskine, who was to remain in command until August 1944, when the Division was in Normandy. The Division was now approaching the outposts of the vaunted Mareth Line, which had all the appearances of being a serious major obstacle.
The Mareth Line had been constructed originally by the French against possible attack by the Italians from Libya. Lately it had been strengthened and brought up to date by the Italians under German supervision. From Zarat on the coast it stretched for 22 miles along the Wadi Zigzaou, which had been widened and excavated to form a strong tank obstacle covered along its whole length by a system of concrete and steel pill-boxes, belts of wire and minefields. The right of the Line rested on the Matmata Hills, a broken mass of mountains up to 2,000 feet in height, giving perfect observation over the lower ground to the east. The Matmata Hills contained only two narrow passes suitable for wheeled traffic and easily dominated, while the country to the south of the Matmata Hills was, in the opinion of both French and German military experts, impassable for any large outflanking movement.
For the previous three months the Axis commanders in Africa generally agreed with Rommel that there was little realistic chance, with the resources at their disposal, of preventing the Eighth Army capturing Tripoli and entering Tunisia. Their best chance of prolonging the campaign lay in delaying the progress of the British First Army, with its American and French Corps, and seizing as much of Central and Southern Tunisia as possible, in order to prevent the junction of the First and Eighth Armies. Although the capture of Tripoli came as an immense relief to Montgomery, all the attempts to trap Rommel during his retreat through Libya had failed. Now that the Eighth Army had reached the Mareth Line, Rommel appreciated that it would take time for Montgomery to start moving again, so he decided on a bold course of action. This was to strike at the British and American forces in Western Tunisia, particularly the Americans, whom Rommel considered to be the weak link because of their inexperience. Having given the First Army this vicious jab, he could turn again to face Montgomery using interior lines.
Rommel’s plans did not quite agree with von Arnim’s, who was thinking in terms of a more limited operation aimed at consolidating the German hold on the northern part of the front, and indeed he had already committed part of the 21st Panzer Division from the Deutsches Afrika Korps, which had just arrived from Libya and was supposed to have been rested in reserve. Rommel and von Arnim did not like one another, and this disagreement had to be resolved by Kesselring on the 9th February with a compromise. Von Arnim would be allowed to mount his operation first, using both the newly arrived 10th Panzer and the veteran 21st Panzer Divisions, and then Rommel would strike at Gafsa as a first step towards entering Algeria, with the ultimate objective of capturing Tebessa and disrupting the US II Corps’ lines of communication.
Von Arnim’s attack was at first successful as it struck north-west through Faid and Maknassy towards Sbeitla, whilst Rommel entered Gafsa unopposed on the same day that 7th Armoured captured Ben Gardane. Two days later he captured Feriana and the airfields around Thelepte. Here was presented to the Germans a magnificent opportunity to converge on Kasserine, the vital pivot of the First Army’s deployment between the US II Corps and the French XIX Corps. However, von Arnim chose to turn away from Kasserine and directed 10th Panzer to the north-east towards Fondouk in entirely the opposite direction. Rommel was furious, but managed to get 10th Panzer turned around, so the railway town of Kasserine itself was soon in German hands. However, the Kasserine Pass, lying to the north-west of the town, became the scene of some of the bitterest fighting experienced by the First Army during the campaign, as British troops were rushed down from the north to reinforce the Americans. Having ascended the Pass the road forks. The left fork leads to Tebessa, the other to the village of Thala which is the gateway to the plain of Le Kef, both equally attractive objectives for the German panzers. They drove two attacks through the Pass at these objectives.
This crisis at Kasserine had the effect of forcing General Alexander to order General Montgomery to make a diversion against the Mareth Line so as to relieve the pressure on the First Army. Alexander had just been appointed GOC of the newly created 18th Army Group, entrusting him with control of all military operations in North Africa and the Mediterranean. This was his first important directive on assuming command.