Famous 8th Army Battles

Also included will be articles from various sources related to the Eighth Army.

I will update these page with battles as time goes on, if anyone would like to contribute to these pages with their own experiences or would like to write a piece then please contact me.

Alam Halfa/ Monty of Alamein/ Alamein to Tripoli

Benghazi and El Agheila

The Advance on Tripoli/ Advance to the Mareth Line

Battle of Medenine - Opening Situation

Battle of Medenine - First Attack

Battle of Medenine - The Later Attacks

Battle of Medenine - The End of the Battle

The Capture of the Mareth Line

Jacks Story/ The Gothic Line

A trooper reflects on going home

Alam Halfa August 1942

This is an original order dated the 31st August 1942, it writes:


The German/Italian Forces are trying to force their way into the Delta To capture Cairo and Alexandria and drive us from Egypt. It is the duty of every officer and soldier to stand firm and fight the Enemy wherever he may find him, regardless of the cost. The results of the whole war may well depend on how we conduct Ourselves in this great battle. As brothers in arms we must have Confidence in ourselves, in each other, and in our weapons and Determination to win or die. This is the fighting spirit which will Give us victory.


(Signed) H.R. Alexander, General, Commander in Chief, Middle East Forces

Montgomery and Alexander took over command of the Eighth Army from Auchinleck on the 13th August 1942, this was decided after Churchill’s visit to the Western Desert on the 5th August.

Going by the date of the order this would have been given to Counter the imminent attack by Rommel on El Alamein.

On the 28th August General Montgomery held a moral boosting meeting with his officers where he spoke of the pending attack by the enemy, which Rommel was clearly about to order. Monty said:-

“There will be no withdrawals,” “absolutely none-none whatsoever- NONE!”

On the 29th August Rommel announced to his troops that in two or three days they would be in Alexandria, and issued a Special Order of the Day in which he proclaimed that the forthcoming attack would Accomplish the “Final annihilation of the enemy”.

Rommel struck on the night of the 30th August and the Eighth Army made a defensive stand at Alam Halfa where the battle took place, but by the 7th September the enemy attack was at an end and Rommel had only Secured a little ground to the southern extremity of the British Lines. This was seen as Montgomery’s and Alexander’s first victory in the North African Campaign and a turning point n the war.

The British and German/Italian losses:-

British/Allied 1750 men 67 tanks 68 aircraft

German/Italian 2900 men 49 tanks 41 aircraft

The following article is taken from The Crusader Eighth Army Weekly issued to the fighting forces in the desert dated 16th November 1942

“Monty”-of Alamein

By Richard McMillan (B.U.P. War Correspondent)

A man in a black tank regiment beret stood on the turret of a tank far forward with our advancing desert forces. He was “Monty” Montgomery, victor of Alamein, watching the debacle which his genius as a commander of men had brought about.

German and Italian prisoners and our infantry walked past unaware that the man in the grey jumper, open necked shirt and tropical khaki trousers was the British General who had beaten Rommel.

The roll of artillery and anti-tank guns drifted back in waves as our pursuit columns on the coast road and desert track harassed without rest a broken enemy.

As I watched the wiry figure with the piercing grey eyes, thin faced and aggressive jaw, I thought “He is almost unknown to the British public.”

“Monty of Alamein,” as his victorious troops call him, is 54, the son of a bishop, and an Ulsterman. He is a frontline general, that is to say he prefers to squat in a front-line dug-out with his men, getting to know them, sharing their ideas, and listening to their views rather than staying back in G.H.Q. He has Churchill’s flair for odd headgear, and swapped hats with an Australian soldier when he first visited the “Diggers” soon after taking over command in August.

Now he’s wearing a tank beret. Every hat becomes smothered in badges, as he likes to add the badge of every regiment he visits. When he visited the Greeks it tickled them immensely.

“Monty” is an “Offensive” general. After taking over the leadership of the Eighth Army he was driving towards the front when he found British tummies digging defence works behind Alamein. “What are you doing?” he asked in a dry voice. “Making defences,” he was told. “Then stop it,” he said, “you will never need them.”

You can imagine that a man of his stamp, who has given the British Army an overwhelming triumph, is worshipped by his men. They see in him his drive and dogged determination, his complete faith in his own ability, and- this is the most important part of his military dogma – absolute unshakeable belief in fighting qualities of the British soldier.

He points the path which leads Eighth Army and the Allied Air Forces across desert tracks back to their hearths and homes in Britain, the Dominions and America. “He’s the goods,” a stalwart Scot told me after nine days of battle. “Our blokes would follow him anywhere.”

So the Eighth Army says “Hats off to a great British Commander – Monty of Alamein!”

The 131st Brigade from El Alamein to Tripoli 1942-1943

The Queen’s Brigade had started off in pursuit with the 7th Armoured Division, which besides themselves, contained the 4th Light Armoured and 22nd Armoured Brigades. It was hoped to cut the enemy retreat at the two bottlenecks of Fuka and Chairing Cross (South of Mersa Matruh). The New Zealanders were directed on the former and the armoured divisions of the latter.

The 7th Armoured Division drove forward at first light on November 4th with the 22nd Armoured Brigade leading, who ran into screen of enemy tanks and guns south of Ghazal and had a considerable battle which lasted till nightfall. Meanwhile the Queen’s Brigade threaded its way through the gaps in the minefields, packed with transport. By evening they had closed up on the 22nd Brigade and leaguered behind them, having come about fifty miles.

Next day the division reached its intermediate objective of Duba, but the 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions were already there and there was no room for more, so they pushed on to secure the Sidi Hinaish airfields on top of the escarpment near Baqqush. The capture of forward airfields was throughout the advance of the utmost importance. Only when they were in our hands, undamaged if possible, could the RAF keep up its destruction of the enemy columns and protection of our own troops. In the evening of November 5th the Division overtook the New Zealanders, who were attacking Fuka. The Queen’s Brigade spent the night drawn up head to tail on the only known safe track through an uncharted minefield.

Next morning the 22nd Armoured Brigade engaged what was left of the German armour and a fierce battle ensued. The Queen’s Brigade, following up, nearly became embroiled, but were fortunately and forcibly diverted by the Divisional Commander. Maj.Gen.John Harding, in person It was not a very fortunate first contact with their new division. There was heavy rain in the night and the whole British force was bogged. This saved the remnants of the enemy, who were able to escape along the coast road, only part of the desert that remained navigable. The lorries of the Queen’s Brigade were completely stuck, but the Battalions managed to occupy their airfields objectives, where they remained for the rest of the day. These were crowded with enemy planes, many still serviceable.

Next day, though conditions were still bad, they managed to get on the move. British planes arrived on the airfields as they left, one crashing in flames. The whole desert was now littered with enemy wreckage, the work of the RAF. The armour with their tracks had been able to get on the move earlier and were now well ahead, but on November 9th the going improved and the 131st Brigade were able to cover over seventy miles on hard, fast surface. The 7th Armoured Division had from the beginning moved south of the rest of the army, and they were now directed to make a left hook passed well south of Fort Capuzzo in the hope of cutting off the defenders of Halafaya pass and Bardia. The armour was within a few miles of attaining this object when the rain again came down. Petrol could not be brought up and a second time the enemy escaped. Meanwhile the Queen’s Brigade with the 1/5th Battalion leading had crossed the frontier wire. The New Zealand Division had captured Halafaya, and the enemy were at last driven for good from Egyptian soil.

Fort Capuzzo

The 7th Armoured Division alone now continued the pursuit. November 12th was an exhausting day for the Queen’s Brigade. After a long desert journey they caught up the rest of the Division, but there was no time for rest as the vital objective Tobruk was now within reach, and after a hurried meal they were off again, tired but in high spirits, for further drive. At nightfull they were east of El Adem, having covered well over 100 miles. The 11th Hussars were in touch with the enemy on the Tobruk perimeter, so preparations were made for an attack. But next morning the enemy had gone and the 11th Hussars and the Queen’s entered the battered town unopposed. Tobruk was a most important capture. Without the use of the port the further supply of an adequate pursuit force was impossible and it was essential to get it working as soon as possible. The Queen’s Brigade remained in Tobruk for a week. The 1/5th and 1/7th Battalions guarded the eastern and western approaches, while the 1/6th unloaded stores at the docks.

Benghazi and El Agheila

Benghazi another 350 miles on was the next important objective, intelligence reports suggested that the enemy might have difficulty in evacuating the town and if it could be quickly cut off a good haul of prisoners might be made. In any case it was a most important to capture the port before effective demolitions could be carried out. On November 20th the 4th Armoured Brigade entered Benghazi but the enemy had escaped.

The next day 131st Brigade Headquarters and the 1/7th Queen’s left Tobruk to occupy Benghazi. They moved fast over good roads, covering 250 miles in the first two days. Barce where the second night was spent, lies in a well cultivated plain. The 1/5th and 1/6th Queen’s followed from Tobruk on 24th November and also reached Barce in two days. From there they were diverted to secure the important Sidi Magrum airfield, south of Benghazi. The armour of the 7th Division had meanwhile been following up the enemy to the south. The Germans made a short stand at Agedabia, but no real opposition was met until east of Mersa Brega, where were the forward defences of the famous El Agheila position, twice before the limit of our advance across Africa. On November 28th the 1/5th and 1/6th Queen’s were ordered to rejoin the Division south of Agedabia, but the supply situation had again become of overriding importance and they were instead sent to join the 1/7th in Benghazi to help in the vital landing of stores.

The 131st Brigade remained working in Benghazi, under intermittent air raids, until 12th December, when they left to take their part in the attack on the El Agheila defences. General Motgomery was determined that this position should not this time stop the Eighth Army advance. The attack was to take place on December 14th. The 131st Brigade started on the 12th, and after a wet night prepared to take over from the 1st Gordons, but preparations for the attack had alarmed the enemy and in the early hours of the 13th he started to withdraw under coverof rear guards. In spite of the masses of mines and booby traps, the British followed up closely. The 8th Armoured Brigade worked slowy forward over the difficult sandy and marshy country, with the Queen’s Brigade following. The 51st Division on the coast was held up by mines, and the 7th Armoured Division led the advance. On the 15th its armour engaged the main enemy position wouth west of El Agheila and were held up by a strong position with an anti-tank ditch and impassable salt marsh on the flank. The fortifications made it infantry work, so the Queen’s Brigade were called forward for a night attack. They were many miles behind and it was a fine achievement that they were able to get on to their start line and launch their attack almost on time.

The 1/6th Queen’s were on the right covering the front between the coast and the road, and the 1/7th Queen’s were astride the road itself. The 1/5th Queen’s were in reserve, prepared to reinforce either front if required. The battalions debussed on the start line five miles from their final objective and by chance a few hundred yards beyond the boundary of Tripolitania. The leading battalions moved by bounds of about one mile; the enemy had withdrawn and there was no real opposition. The 1/7th Queen’s encountered some tracer machine-gun fire, demolitions could be heard ahead, and there were causalities from ubiquitous mines, but both battalions reached their final objectives during the night, where they dug in, in pouring rain and great discomfort. Next morning the 8th Armoured Brigade passed through along the coast road and by evening had captured the landing ground at Marble Arch and Merduma. The 131st Brigade had to wait during the morning for the armour to get clear and then advance ten miles before leaguering. The forward troops of the 7th Armoured Division had touch with the New Zealanders who had successfully come up from the south behind the German rear guards. But the ground south of the road was impassable and our troops were thin on the ground, so the enemy by splitting up into small columns were able to fight their way out of the net closing around them, though they lost 20 tanks and 500 German prisoners in doing so.

The next day the Queen’s Brigade followed to the Marble Arch area where the grandiloquent monument to Marshall Balbo the patron of the road was visible for miles. The inscription read “There is nothing under the sun fairer than the city of Rome.” Here the Queen’s battalions dug in covering the landing ground and coast road. Though the main enemy forces had escaped, the strong El Agheila positions had at least been forced and the way into Tripolitania lay open. But the supply situation again made it impossible to advance with any but light forces, and another pause had to be made.

Marble Arch

The Advance on Tripoli

The 131st Brigade moved forward to the Wadi Matratin, where they spent Christmas working on their defences and bathing in the clear Mediterranean when time allowed. Generals Montgomery and Leese visited them, the former giving his opinion that they were “a good tough body of men.” To ease the supply situation the small landing beach of Ras El Ali was called into use for unloading of lighters, and “C” Company, 1/7th Queen’s, under Capt. P.C.Freeman was sent to help in the work. In spite of difficulties the R.A.S.C. managed to get up good supplies, and Christmas was well celebrated. On Boxing Day the Brigade moved forward to relieve the New Zealanders. They moved through Sirte along a road still dangerous with mines and under occasional air attack, and on the 29th took up position as the foremost troops (except for armoured car patrols) of the Eighth Army. The main positions were on the Wadi Tamet, with a screen of carriers and anti-tank guns on the Wadi Chebir, some ten miles farther west. Here they dug in and remained quiet and unaggressive in accordance with their orders. The weather was unpleasant with gales and dust storms. The enemy air force was at first active, but as the RAF came forward its attacks lessened. The enemy had chosen to make their next stand behind Buerat, about forty miles west of the 131st Brigades positions on Wadi Tamet. It was not naturally as strong as the El Agheila position, nor had it been as well prepared, but it covered a series of steep wadis, nasty obstacles for tanks. Farther back on the Tarhuna hills overlooking the Tripoli plain there was a much better position which had been more fully prepared, and General Montgomery was anxious that the enemy should not retire to it. He therefore ordered that nothing should be done to alarm them while his attack was being prepared. The 7th Armoured Division and the New Zealanders would outflank the enemy through the desert to the south, moving via Beni Ulid and Tarhuna. The enemy had sent back most of their infantry and held the Buerat position mainly with 21 Panzer in the south.

On the night of January 11th 131st Brigade Headquarters and 1/6th Queen’s moved out to a concentration area in the south, where they were joined on the 13th by the rest of the Brigade. The 1/7th Queen’s had “A” and “B” Companies detached on special duties, so a battle group consisting of “C” Company, the Carrier, Mortar and Anti-tank Platoons and the Battle Patrol was formed under command of Major W.D.Giffiths and moved under orders of the 1/5th Battalion. The 1/7th Headquarters move with divisional rear echelon.

On the 13th the Brigades moved forward and crossed the Wadi Chebir with some difficulty, a number of vehicles being bogged. Next day they advanced some thirty miles and the whole Division concentrated with the New Zealanders on their left. General Montgomery had issued a personal message to all troops, which made it extremely clear that Tripoli was the objective and that he was determined to get there.

On the night of the 14th/15th the advance proper started, with a night march along a marked and lighted course. At midnight the Bu Ngem track was reached and the 8th Armoured Brigade formed up on it, with the Queen’s Brigade to the north-east. At first light they moved forward and found the enemy holding the Umm Er Raml Ridge just ahead. A tank battle took place, with losses on both sides, while the Queen’s Brigade to the north came under accurate fire from the direction of Gheddehia. The carriers of the 1/6th and 1/7th (under Capt. K.D.Kettle) patrolled forward and encountered considerable anti tank fire.

At nightfull the enemy retired and the 131st Brigade occupied the ridge, the 1/6th finding the anti tank screen with three battle groups under Maj.J.H.Manson(“C”Coy) Capt.T.J.Kilshaw (“A”Coy) and Major R. d’A.Mullins (“C”Coy). The next day the whole of the southern force, the 7th Armoured Division and the New Zealanders crossed the formidable Wadi Zemzem unopposed. The traffic was enormous and the clouds of dust hid great areas of the desert. The Queen’s Brigade followed behind the 8th Armoured Brigade who pressed on rapidly until a screen of anti tank guns and tanks were met south of Sedada, in the afternoon. These again retired in the night. The Queen’s battalions formed close leaguer some miles in the rear, opening out a usual to desert formation at dawn. The 1/6th Queen’s spent the morning constructing an airfield, which was at once occupied by our forward planes. There were no longer the numbers of airfields, which had been available on the old battlefields of Cyrenaica, so these improvised airfields were essential for the close air support of our forces.

The Queen’s Brigade leaguered for the night 17th/18th in a deep wadi with only one exit at the top end. This led to much delay in the morning and many vehicles got stuck in the soft sand. By evening the Division was much strung out, and the 1/5th and 1/6th Queen’s formed an anti tank screen tp protect the “soft” rear echelons. The 8th Armoured Brigade made contact with the enemy screen west of Tarhuna covering the main position and the rest of the Division closed up. They were ordered not to attack until the New Zealand Division on the left were up and ready. The 1/6th Queen’s successfully occupied the town of Tarhuna, which lay in front of the enemy positions.

During the night the Germans withdrew from their main line covering the pass through which the road from Tarhuna descended to the Tripoli plain. Here they had every advantage of observation and concealment, and the 8th Armoured Brigade could make no progress. So the Queen’s Brigade was ordered to make a night attack through the hills on either side of the pass, and January 21st was spent in preparations. The 1/5th were to move to the south and the 1/6th to the north of the road. The attack entailed an approach march of six miles and a night attack covering another eight miles, but it went like clockwork. It coincided with a further enemy withdrawal (he seemed always to withdraw when the infantry appeared), and so the Battalion had little difficulty in clearing the hills and occupying the pass. The 1/5th encountered some vicious mortar fire. Capt.C.A.Howard one of the few survivors of the original battalion was killed and four others wounded.

This advance had been helped and the enemy withdrawal speeded up by the exploits of a small column under Maj. W.D.Griffiths. This consisted of the Carrier Platoon of the 1/7th under Capt P.C.Freeman, the Mortar Platoon (Lieut.G.W.Bevan), and the Battle Patrol (Lieut. T.C.Godfrey), with a machine gun platoon of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. These on the night of the 20th advanced fifteen miles through very difficult country, digging their way across the wadis until they were well behind enemy positions, set fire to his transport and shot up any troops encountered. These actions, carried out miles from any possible support undoubtedly disturbed the enemy, and greatly helped the attck of the other Queen’s battalions in the evening.

At dawn the 8th Armoured Brigade passed through and started out across the flat tufty plain. The 1/5th and 1/6th Queen’s remained on guard on the high ground covering the pass. The road through was jammed with traffic, mostly unofficial sightseers bent on being first into Tripoli. But by midday the leading tanks had again bumped the enemy rear guard in front of Castel Benito and AziZia. The position was strongly fortified and it appeared unlikely that the 8th Armoured Brigade would be able to capture it, so the Queen’s Brigade was again called up.

Their lorries were at the far end of the crowed pass, but all other vehicles were forced to the side of the road; they were rushed up and the battalions embussed. It was reported as a model of quick efficient movement. The 1/5th and 1/6th Queen’s were drawn up ready to start their attack when it was reported that the guns that had been holding up the 8th Armoured Brigade were withdrawing in the last light. But patrols from the battalions found enemy still in position and the attack went on. Two large anti tank ditches and two belts of wire were crossed in the darkness without opposition, and at 0330 hours, green Very Lights from the Battle Patrol of the 1/6th Queen’s working ahead under Lieut Docton gave the news that Castel Benito was clear. They had found a notice on the outskirts reading: “Tommy, we shall return”. The 1/5th formed up in threes on the road and marched into the town, where they established themselves in the buildings while the Pioneers searched for booby traps. The City of Tripoli was entered buy advance troops of the 7th Armoured Division in the early morning of the 23rd, four hours before the tanks of the coastal column, which had been held up by mines and demolitions. It was three months to a day since the start of the Battle of El Alamein, during which the Eighth Army, led by the 7th Armoured Division, had advanced over 1400 miles.

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The Advance to the Mareth Line

The 131st Brigade were given no chance of seeing the sights and enjoying the comforts of Tripoli. The enemy rear guards had not retired far, and the 7th Armoured Division were the covering troops while the Highland and New Zealand Divisions reorganized.

The 1/5th and 1/6th Queen’s, leaving the city on the right, moved to Suani Ben Adem, where they reconnoitred defensive positions and bivouacked in the woods behind them. It was pleasant after so much desert to be among the trees and look on to growing crops. There were large farms with white buildings and good poplar-lined roads. There was ample water and fresh vegetables and wine, so the brief rest passed pleasantly.

The 1/7th Queen’s Headquarters came up and was joined by Major Griffith’s “penetration party” and other detachments, so the Brigade was again complete. But only two days were available for rest and cleaning up. Supply difficulties would only allow limited forces for pursuit; the 7th Armoured Division were again given the task and already its armoured brigades were pushing the enemy along the coast

On January 26th the Queen’s Brigade was also on the move, mainly on foot owing to demolitions and shortage of petrol. They relieved what was left of the 8th Armoured Brigade at Zauia, and then advanced as leading troops of the whole Eighth Army along the strip of fertile land which stretched between the coast and the sand dunes which in turn led up to the rocky escarpment and the desert, on which the 4th Light Armoured Brigade was operating.

This coastal strip was flat and thick with palm groves and Arab villages. Observation was poor and movement of vehicles very difficult except on roads and tracks, which were heavily mined.

The 1/7th Queen’s led the advance, with their carriers in front and supported by the remaining Valentines of the 40th Battalion, Royal Tank Regiment. On the first day there was little opposition and Sabratha was reached, but on the 27th fire from enemy rear guards, mines and demolitions made progress slow and difficult, and it was not until January 28th that the 1/7th Battalion reached Mellita, where they found a strong enemy position well dug in and difficult to observe. There was quite heavy shelling.

“B” Company and two sections of the carriers of the 1/7th, with some Valentines in support, were sent out to the south to try to outflank the enemy position, but ran into strong enemy forces and were also hung up.

The rest of the Brigade now closed up and the Carrier Platoon of the 1/6th under Captain Kettle (which had just taken over six carriers from the Highland Division), with the 1/6th Battle Patrol and a squadron of the Valentine tanks, made a night attack on the enemy Mellita position, but they found it to be a fully organised position of concrete pill boxes, protected by an anti tank ditch and belts of wire. So it was not surprising that the attack was unsuccessful, though luckily without causalities to the Queen’s. Although only seventeen infantry had taken part, the German wireless announced that a strong attack had been repulsed.

Shelling continued throughout the next day, but during the night patrols found the enemy gone and the next morning the 1/7th Battalion occupied the enemy positions, with the carriers going on to Zuara, which they found clear. The 1/7th then moved up to the town, where they were joined by their “B” Company from the south riding on their Valentines. During this advance Captain P.R.H.Kelly was wounded, already for the third time in the war.

The Brigade npw had a short rest. The advance had not been an easy one, fought all the way on foot through difficult country, and the rest of the Division gave the Queen’s battalion high credit. The slight lack of enthusiasm with which they had at first been received had now disappeared.

The hard worked carriers of the 1/7th were sent forward at once to relieve the armoured cars of the 12th Lancers, who were our most forward troops and badly in need of a rest.

All this time the 4th Light Armoured Brigade had been working forward over the difficult country beyond the escarpment to the south, and on February 2nd crossed the frontier into Tunisa. The 1/5th Queen’s with “B” Company and the carriers of the 1/6th Queen’s under command now took the lead of the Brigade. The country had changed: instead of the palm groves there were flat salt marshes, possible going when dry but terrible after rain. The mines were as thick as ever and the enemy air force was again giving a lot of trouble. There was a well dug rear guard position beyond Zelten, but it was strongly shelled and the enemy retired after only holding it for one day.

On February 5th the 1/5th Queen’s pushed forward to Pisida, which they found clear, already occupied by our armoured cars and carriers of the 1/7th Queen’s. The 7th Armoured Division was now confronted by an unpleasant stretch of country. In front of the Queen’s Brigade the strip between the marshes and the sea narrowed to an open spit only 500 yards wide. South of this was a large salt marsh which stretched, broken by only one or two possible crossing places, to west of El Assa, where it was at its narrowest, and then down to distant El Qutia. The enemy held all possible crossings and the position was strong, so the 8th Armoured Brigade was brought forward with its forty tanks, which were all that remained in action.

The enemy rear guard covering the most likely crossing, fifteen miles north west of El Assa, was driven in and the Armoured Brigade started to cross. But then down came the rain and the crossing became quite impassable, though enough had got across to force a bridgehead. The Royal Engineers started to construct a causeway, seasrching the whole of Tripolitania for wood, but they estimated that it would not be ready until 1200hrs on February 14th.

Meanwhile the Queen’s on the coast had patrolled most energetically. In particular the 1/7th carriers penetrated over the sand dunes right to the frontier, earning General Leese’s personal thanks for their “magnificent work”.

On Febuary 12th the 131st Brigade was relieved at Pisda by a brigade of the Highland Division and moved round to El Assa, where they reconnoitred, prepared for the crossing of the causeway and the further advance on Ben Gardane. The weather was still wet and stormy.

On February 14th the causeway was ready two hours before time, and the 1/5th Queen’s moved over first to take over from the 1st Buffs on the bridgehead. There was great congestion and the 1/7th, the rear battalion, was six hours late in starting, but the Brigade was complete in the concentration area before dawn.

The whole Division was across by 0900hrs, and the Queen’s Brigade and the 8th Armoured Brigade advanced on Ben Gardane side by side. The 1/6th Queen’s led in desert formation with the carriers bounding ahead. On reaching the town the carriers went straight through while the rifle companies skirted to the south, taking positions behind the carriers on the far side. Then 1/7th with the tanks swept through the town, from which the enemy, except for one small post, had gone. By nightfall the whole of the area had been occupied and contact made with the enemy rear guard on a wide shallow wadi ten miles to the west. This withdrew in the night, and the 7th Armoured Division again pushed on, slowly on account of mines and the bad going, made worse by the still stormy weather.

The 22nd Armoured Brigade now returned to the Division in place of the 8th Armoured Brigade, which had only twelve fit tanks left. The Division was now approaching the outposts of the famous Mareth Lines. The next big obstacle before the Eight Army, the Mareth Line, was a formidable proposition. It had originally been constructed by the French against possible attack by the Italians from Libya and lately had been strengthened and made up to date by the Italians under German supervision. From Zarat on the coast it stretched for twenty-two miles along the Wadi Zigzaou, which had been widened and deepened to form a strong tank obstacle and which was covered by a system of concrete and steel 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, and, except for one or two narrow tracks, impassable for wheeled traffic. The country south of the Matmata hills was, in the opinion of both French and Germans, impracticable for any large outflanking movement. The next move for the Eighth Army was to secure the approaches to this line, and especially the important road centres of Medenine and Foum Tatahouine and the airfields near the former place. The Queen’s Brigade with the 12th Lancers on February 17th slowly pushed along the main Ben Gardane road as far Nefatia. The road and indeed most of the country was a mass of mines, and the Brigade had to halt during the 18th while the Royal Engineers cleared the way ahead. On the night of the February 19th/19th the 22nd Armoured Brigade advanced along the road to within three miles of Medenine, the Queen’s Brigade and artillery following. The Queen’s battalions then advanced on the town, an undistinguished collection of white houses and mud huts round a square, which the successfully cleared. They then went on, as fast as mine clearing allowed, to a position east of Metameur.

Here they linked up with the 22nd Armoured Brigade, which under cover of the early morning mist had branched to the right of Medenine and made straight across country to cut the main Mareth road north of the Tadjeras. They reached a low hill overlooking the road just before the mist lifted. When it did so they found their position was completely overlooked from the Tadjera hills, and although they managed to find some cover in the broken ground, they were severely shelled. The next night the enemy slipped back from the Taderas, which were occupied by the 22nd Armored Brigade. The main hill, high and rocky and surmounted by a white building, had splendid observation across the plain to the Matmata hills and was tactically most important. Two days later the Queen’s Brigade took over and consolidated this feature and the general area west and north of Metameur. It was not pleasant work as not only the paths and tracks but the whole countryside was strewn with mines and there was not sufficient equipment to clear them..

On February 24th the Brigade made another night advance and occupied the high ground Kef Abdallah, point 214, and Zemlet El Lebene, about four miles north west of the Tadjeras, on which they were relieved by the 201st Guards Brigade, just arrived from Syria. The Highland Division had also come up on the right. The Queen’s new position were vital for the attack on the Mareth Line, but holding them was not plesant. They were in full view of the enemy and there could be no movement by day. The ground was very rocky and compressors had to be used to prepare the positions. Shelling, though not heavy, was almost incessant. The advance of the Queen’s Brigade since Tripoli had been very hard work; latterly many of the men had no proper rest for three days and nights and were very tired.

The Battle Medenine: The Opening Situation

The situation of the forward trrops of the Eighth Army at this time was not too secure. On February 15th the enemy had lauched a strong attack against the 2nd United States Corps in the south west of Tunisa. The Americans were driven back and the enemy penetration threatened the flank of the rest of the First Army to the north. General Alexander, now in command of all land forces, had ordered General Montgomery to exert all possible pressure on the Eight Army front to relieve the First Army.

Although his administrative arrangements were far from complete, General Montgomery ordered his only two leading divisions (7th Armoured and 51st) to push forward right up to the Mareth Line and, if possible, scare the enemy out of it. The advance succeeded in distracting the enemy from the First Army. Rommel broke off his attack on the Americans, and by February 27th 15 Panzer Division had returned to the Mareth Line and 21st Panzers were on their way. The German 90 Light and 164 Divisions and four Italian Divisions were already in the line. The two forward divisions of the Eighth Army were dangerously exposed, and only one road, showing bad signs of wear, was available both to reinforce them and build up the important and necessary administrative area round Ben Gardane.

General Montgomery ordered up with all speed the 201st Guards Brigade, the New Zealanders and the re-equipped 8th Armoured Brigade, and considered that when these had arrived he would have the situation in hand. But this would not be before March 4th, and until the Eighth Army was dangerously unbalanced. So the last days of February and the first days of March were anxious times, but luckily they passed quietly with only occasional shelling. The time was however, one of feverish activity by the Queen’s Brigade. Everyone was certain that an enemy attack was imminent, and during this period of suspense every effort was made to improbe the position. Anti-tank guns were carefully sited and dug in, in concealed positions along the whole front.

The battle positions were mostly in full view of the enemy occupying the high ground five miles away, so could only be occupied by a thin screen during the day while the rest of the battalions were held back in the dead ground behind except at night. Both by day and night there was active patrolling, arduous both from the nature of the country and long distances covered. During this time Lieut.Colonel Kaulback, commanding 1/6th Queen’s was wounded and the Officer in Command of 476 Battery killed by a shell which fell on their O.P. Major F.A.H. Wilson assumed temporay command. The brigade sector was held with all three battalions forward: 1/5th on the right (with the 1st Black Watch of the 51st Division behind them), 1/7th in the center, and 1/6th on the left in touch with the 2nd Scots Guards of 201st Guards Brigade. In reserve behind the hills were tanks of the 22nd and later, 8th Armoured Brigades. Both these and the 201st brigade were under command of the 7th Armoured Division. There was no wire and practically no minefields, but very strong artillery support, with which the closet liaison had been arranged.

By March 4th the New Zealand Division had come up on the left of the Guards, and although 10 Panzer Division had now been identified on the enemy side in addition to 15th and 21st, the Eighth Army was confident that it could withstand the enemy attack. The enemy intensions had become clearer. Three armoured columns had been located, one in the Mareth area and two in the Matmata hills.

On March 5th Rommel, avery sick man, addressed his troops in the mountains overlooking our positions and told them that unless they could drive back the Eighth Army the days of the Axis in Africa were numbered. For the Queen’s Brigade the day passed quietly, but there was little doubt that the big attack would come the next day, so “Stand To” was ordered at 0430hrs, an hour earlier than usual.

Battle of Medenine – The First Attack

On March 6th as usual the morning mists lifted about six o’clock, a heavy enemy bombardment opened. It was not, however very accurate, and it appeared that the enemy had no detailed knowledge of our dispositions. Our forward posts could see tanks and infantry moving up for the attacks. It was clear that the attack for which all had been waiting was on its way and was coming from the west against the front of the Queen’s Brigade and the Tadjeras to the south-east. On the 1/5th Queen’s front only infantry attacked. They were the Spezia Italian Division, and “C” Company, whose front was chiefly engaged, drove them back with heavy losses. The 3-inch mortars gave splendid support. The front of the 1/7th Battalion was held by “B” Company on the right covering a pass through which a minor road ran from the south-west, “C” Company in the center on the high ground, and “A” Company on the left guarding a wide wadi through which another round wound. The two danger spots were well guarded by anti-tank guns. “B” Company pass having two platoons of Royal Artillery anti-tank guns, while the Anti-tank platoon of the 1/7th in depth covered “A” Company wadi.

Enemy Tanks and infantry came against this front line as soon as the mist lifted. A column of tanks came into view of No.5 gun of the 1/7th Anti-tank Platoon under Sergeant Andrews. As he had been trained, he allowed four to proceed along the track and the opened fire on and knocked out the next two. He then successfully engaged the first four while the rest, about a dozen all told, swung into hull down position on the “A” Company front, from which, almost defiladed from the anti-tank guns, they could bring damaging fire across the battalion front. They offered small targeys, but Sergeant Andrews managed to engage them. The parapet of his gun was smashed and he ordered the rest of his crew to take cover while he continued loading and firing the gun alone. Two more tanks were knocked out and the enemy prevented from entering the vital wadi. The remaining tanks managed to work into a smaller wadi running to the east and were engaged by No.7 gun (Sergeant Crangles) and No.8 gun (Sergeant Vincent). One tank was disabled, but No.8 gun was put out of action. No7 gun was also heavily fired on both by small arms fire and armour-piercing ammunition and the gun shield riddled in twenty places. But Sergeant Crangles continued to fire it, and his bren-gunner by his fire to deny the enemy observation, until at last a direct hit put No.7 gun also out of action. The crew fixed bayonets and prepared to resist to the last, but three undamaged tanks first overran the covering infantry platoon (10 Platoon, “B” Company 1/6th) and then took Sergeant Crangles and his party prisoners. In all No.7 gun claimed fourteen tanks. Sergeant Andrews and Crangles were awarded the D.C.M for this fine performance. In conjuction with these tanks, infantry had been endeavouring to advance on all company fronts, but were heavily fired on and went to ground about 1,000 yards from our forward posts, where the artillery and mortars continued to deal with them.

On the 1/6th Queens front tha attack had come rather later. It appears that the enemy had first advanced against the Guards Brigade to the south, and it was only after being diverted bt their (dummy) minefield and fire that they reached the 1/6th. At any rate it was not until about 1000 hours. That eighteen Mark IV Special tanks and several companies of German Infantry attacked the battalion front. The majority of the tanks were spotted by our defensive fire some distance from our forward posts, but a number managed to reach and take cover in some of the small wadis leading into our positions. Some of these, as mentioned above, overran 10 Platoon of “B” Company on the right, of which Lieut.M.S. Davis and his Platoon Sergeant were the only survivors. The various tanks which had reached our forward positions were then engaged and largely destroyed by the most efficient liaison between 1/6th Battalion and its supporting artillery, especially Royal Artillery 408 Battery, who repeatedly and most effectively engaged targets asked for, and directed by, our forward companies. There was now a pause on the whole brigade front and no fresh attacks developed for some hours, though both artillery and forward companies were kept busy engaging the enemy already there and preventing the damaged tanks from being repaired.

Battle of Medenine – The Later Attacks.

About 1400 hours, a warning came from Brigade Headquarters that an enemy message had been intercepted and that another attack was on the way, and a little later it duley arrived. On the 1/5th battalion front it was again infantry combined with heavy shelling and motaring. The main attacks came against “D” Company on the right, which at times was almost surrounded. An Italian platoon captured point 170, a feature only occupied by us as a outpost position and from which we had withdrawn. On occupying it the Italian infantry danced and cheered with wild enthusiasm, but our artillery and mortars opened up on them and very few Italians survived. The enemy got no further, but parties remained intermingled with the defence and were not cleared for some time.

On the 1/7th Queen’s front further tanks during the morning had managed to join the earlier survivors in the wadi on the left, and their fire made any movement in the battalion area extremely dangerous, especially for “A” Company, whose left forward platoon was only 80 yards from the wadi. At “A” Company request, 510 battery engaged the area and shells poured into it, but smoke and dust made observation difficult. In the afternoon a number of tanks were seen forming up in close order in the wadi for the renewed attack. Fierce fire from both 146 Field and 69 Medium Artillery Regiments was brought down. Only seven tanks started, one blew up, and the others found the fire was so intense that they withdrew and made no further attempt to advance. They were later engaged and mostly knocked out by the Shermans of the 1st Royal tank Regiment.

On the 1/6th Queen’s front also tanks and infantry started to attack about 1430 hours. Large numbers of vehicles could be seen unloading infantry, but defensive fire was so intense that no infantry and few tanks got through it. Those tanks that did manage to approach were hotly engaged, and all forward company commanders were busy in observing and correcting the fire of the gunners. The penetration was completely checked with very heavy casualties to the Germans.

The History of the 7th Armoured Division States that over 100 tanks took part in this attack alone on the Queen’s Brigade front. About 1600 hours the only air attack of the battle took place. Eighteen Stukas attempted to dive bomb the 1/6th Queen’s position, but were so hotly received that they never came down to effective bombing distance and were quite harmless. A third tank and infantry attack followed in the late afternoon on the 1/6th Battalion front and also on the fronts of the Guards and New Zealanders to the south. They tried again to work up the crucial wadi between “A” Company, 1/6th, and the Scots Guards, but were stopped by our artillery and the fire of our own tanks from hull-down positions. This was the last attack, though the 1/5th Queen’s was busy till nightfall with the parties still on their front. After dark “A” Company swept and cleared the whole ridge, which was patrolled till dawn.

The Battle of Medenine – The End of the Battle.

On the rest of the front there was after dusk a period of uneasy silence. The night was wet and cold. The quiet was broken by the noise of vehicles moving close in front of our positions, and patrols reported that the enemy were trying to remove their less damaged tanks and cars. Once again a call was made on the artillery and a tremendous weight of fire brought down on the front.

Before dawn all battalions “Stood To”, prepared to receive a renewed assault, but none came. At first light a wonderful sight was revealed; within a few hundred yards of the Queen’s Brigade positions the ground was littered with disabled and abandoned tanks and vehicles, twenty-seven tanks on the 1/7th Battalions front alone. Many had clearly been left in the course of being repaired and had tow-lines attached, a tribute to the effectiveness of our night gun fire. Captain T.J.Kilshaw, O.C. “A” Company, 1/6th, with Captain W.L.Johnson finished off a number with petrol and sticky bombs.

Apart from the abandoned vehicles, all enemy had gone. The battle had been a disastrous defeat for Rommel and the Axis. They had completely failed to make any penetration into the Eight Army positions and had lost nearly half of the 150 tanks thay had launched to the attack. As General Montgomery writes;

It was a model battle and a triumph for the infantry and the anti-tank guns, who without wire or minefields had stopped and destroyed the organised attacks of three Panzer Divisions and their supporting infantry. The infantry chiefly concerned were the three battalions of the Queen’s Brigade, though the 201st Guards brigade also played a fine part and the black watch and Maoris saw some action. Very great credit throughout was undoubtedly due to our artillery, whose close liaison and prompt help time and again turned the scale. Infantry can seldom have been better supported.

Our losses were small indeed. The 1/5th Queen’s lost Lieutenant B.T.Opperman killed, Captain G.L.Lilly and Lieutenant K.H.Wheelar and a number of other ranks wounded. The 1/6th Queen’s lost 2 men killed, 7 wounded and 20 missing, and the 1/7th Queen’s 1 killed, 9 wounded and 10 missing.

The commander of XXX Corps, Lieut General Sir Oliver Leese, wrote to Lieut general I.T.P. Hughes, their former Brigade and Divisional Commander as follows concerning this action:

” You will be delighted to hear that your old Queen’s Brigade has done magnificently. The Brigade led the whole advance from Tripoli up to the Mareth Line and had many encounters with German rear guards. A few days ago Rommel lashed out at the Eighth Army and the brunt of the attack fell on the Queen’s Brigade. The three Queen’s battalions, especially the 1/7th, without mines or wire ‘saw off’ the attack of two Panzer Divisions. On front of the 1/7th alone there were twenty-seven dead tanks. Everyone agrees it was a most magnificent performance”.

View from one of the gun pits of the 1/7th Queen's on the morning after the Battle of Medenine, you can just make out the smoulding German tanks.

The Capture of the Mareth Line.

Ater the triumph of the Medenine, the 131st Brigade was very tired and extremely glad of a week’s rest. It was now full springtime and the countryside was bright with flowers and alive with birds. There were changes in command, Lt Col. L.C.East of the 1/5th was appointed D.P.M. at Alexandria (he was later awarded the D.S.O. for his fine work in command) and was succeeded by Lt Col. R.N. Thicknesse of the Royal Ulster Rifles took over the 1/6th from Maj. F.A.H. Wilson, who had commanded since Lt Col. Kaulback was wounded on March 2nd. The only episode of note during this period was a tragic one, when a night patrol of the 1/7th Queen’s got into an anti-personnel minfield and lost one officer (Lt.Godfrey) and twelve men killed and two wounded.

General Montgomery was now fre to go ahead with the preparations for his attack on the Mareth Line and could be seen frequently on the summit of Tadjera studying the countryside. X Corps, with the 1st Armoured, 50th and 4th Indian Divisions, was arriving and the start of the attack was fixed for March 20th. The general plan was that there would be a strong holding attack by the 50th Division and the 23rd Armoured Brigade against the Wadi Zigzaou on the coast sector while the New Zealand Division with attached troops (including a most gallant Free French Force under General Le Clerc who had come up from the depths of the Sahara) were to make another wide turning movement through the desert to the south. This was believed by the enemy to be impassable for a large mechanized force, but a practicable route had been discovered by our invaluable Long Range desert Group. The X Corps with the 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions were to be ready to exploit success and meanwhile to guard the centre. Before the battle smaller operations were necessary to destroy the last enemy covering positions and mislead him as to the direction of the main thrusts. The chief of these preliminary attacks was to be against the Zemoula or “Horseshoe” circle of hills, which overlooked the area, which our artillery must occupy to support the attack on the Wadi Zigzaou. This attack was allotted to the 201st Guards Brigade, who were attached to the 7th Armoured Division, so they were moved up opposite the feature, while the Queen’s Brigade were on March 15th relieved in the Zemlet El Lebene by the 4th Indian Division and moved a few miles north to positions on the Guards Brigade left. The 1/6th Queen’s was on the right next to the Guards, 1/7th on the left, and 1/5th in support.

The Guards attack was launched on the night of March 16/17th under intense barrage, but encountered terrible minefields. They persevered with the greatest of gallantry, but had very heavy losses and were withdrawn at daybreak under a smoke screen to their original positions. The 1/6th Queen’s did what they could to support them with machine gun and mortar fire, but the range was too great for it to be effective. When the Guards were withdrawn the Battalion was very exposed. Any movement brought heavy artillery fire and there were a number of casualties. Later both Brigades were brought back east of the Medenine-Mareth road, though the 1/6th left two platoons as outposts in their former positions.

During the next four days the object of the 131st Brigade was to give the enemy the impression that the front was still fully active and that further attacks were pending or even actually taking place. Strong patrols were sent forward, especially to the Horseshoe. There was bright moonlight and on the first night the patrols could not get far, but on the night March 19th/20th the Battle Patrol of the 1/6th under Lt. P.Kline reached the top of the hill and wandered about on it for an hour, firing and throwing bombs, without meeting the enemy and coming only under fixed line machine gun fire. The next night the big attack started. The 5oth Division was at first successful and secured several bridgeheads across the Wadi Zigzaou, but the weather broke and it was not possible to get tanks and supporting weapons across. The enemy strongly counter attacked, eliminated the bridgeheads and re-established the line of the wadi.

The Queen’s brigade, in accordance with the roles of the 7th Armoured Division, had during this fighting moved some miles to the north, where it could support the flank of the Highland Division and north sector generally. They were under full hostile observation, hardly able to move at all by day and often heavily shelled.

The battle had not started well, but enemy had committed his main reserves to the coast sector and General Montgomery decided to pin him thjere while he transferred his main strength to the turning movement. He therefore dispatched X Corps Headquarters (under Lieut. General B.G. Horrocks) and the 1st Armoured Division to reinforce the New Zealanders. At the same time he ordered the 4th Indian Division to make a smaller turning movement up the Medenine – Bir Soltane road through the mountains as a link between the main battlefronts. The 7th Armoured Division (who reverted to XXX Corps) were now almost the only reserve and moved south to guard the vital Zemlet El Lebene – Tadjeras hills. The Queen’s Brigade reoccupied their old positions of the Medenine battle, where they waited while the New Zealanders and 1st Armoured Division forced their way up from the south to the “Plum” switch line, which the enemy had manned covering El Hamma, and on the 27th, aided by magnificent air support, broke through.

The defenders of the main Mareth Line hurriedly evacuated their positions on the night of the 27th/28th and managed to escape covered by mines and demolitions and helped by dust storms. Meanwhile the 4th Indian Division in the centre had made good progress up the Bir Soltane road, and the 7th Armoured Division were directed to move forward behind them and then strike north. The Queen’s Brigade were to move up the Merbah El Ossif pass on to Toujane, and on March 26th the 1/5th Battalion moved to a concentration area some miles south of the pass preparatory to clearing it. The rest of the Brigade moved up in rear. On the 27th the 1/5th Queen’s started to advance on the pass, but were checked by severe gun fire some miles short of it. The 1/7th were moved up in support, and before dark “B” Company, 1/5th reached the pass, which they found unoccupied but as usual heavily mined. Next morning the rest of the 1/5th went forward, but found the whole pass a mass of mines and were moved back to the Negueb Wadi area, where the Brigade concentrated until a way through could be cleared. Here they had two days much needed rest, with football and even a visit from a mobile cinema. On March 31st they drove up through the jagged hills to El Mdou south of Gabes, where the 7th Armoured Division concentrated, out of touch with the enemy for the first time since El Alamein. As a little used reserve formation their part in the battle had not been particularly interesting one, but the Division could well allow others for once to take the limelight.

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Jacks Story

from Dunkirk to Austria

Jack is third in from the left on back row

This story is about a World War II veteran called Jack, Jack joined the Army at the age of 20 years old on the 5th February 1940 and enlisted with the 662 Armoured Troops Workshop Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers (REME) his trade on enlistment was a mechanic. He saw service at Dunkirk, landed on the beaches of Algeria with the newly formed 78th (Battleaxe) Division, which has often been called the finest fighting division in the British Army, he was then involved in the race for Tunis and the landings of Sicily and Italy and the final push into Austria.

It was a Sunday afternoon as I got myself ready to meet Jack, I loaded the car with my computer, scanner and reference books and was feeling a little apprehensive as I’d never interview anyone before, but I was looking forward to it in the same breath. As I was driving down the M6 toll I kept thinking what am I going to ask, I guess a little late in the day to start thinking of questions. When I got there Jack was sitting on the chair looking a very young 84 years old (he was 85 the following day). I needn’t have worried about the questions because as soon as we’d introduced ourselves Jack said ‘So do you know how all this started?’ which straightaway put him in the driving seat and was quiet a relief. The next couple of hours were fascinating and I only wish they were longer as I sat there transfixed.

This is Jack’s story

I was in Dunkirk with the 11th Brigade which was part of the 4th Division, a week or two before the final evacuation we were sent back home. When they sorted us all out we were sent to a base in Bishops Walford in the Southern part of England still part of the 4th Division, its badge was a red circle with a quarter cut out, we were their with the 10th and 12th Brigade. They then took my Brigade from the 4th Division and sent us to Aldershot, we had about 3 months here before they sent us up to Scotland as part of the 78th Division, this was about the end of 41 we were up there for about a year but not long enough to see the new year out (Jack laughs). We had the East Surreys, the Northampshires, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the Royal West Kent’s, there were a lot more but I can’t remember them all…Jack recalls”we were training with live ammo you know to get us already!” After all our training we finally invaded French North Africa, Algiers this was at the beginning November 42. I didn’t sail to Algiers with my 11th Brigade until Christmas Eve and on the way over we got attacked by U boats but our escorts scared them off. We then set off for Tunisia to meet up with the 8th Army and push the jerries out of North Africa. My job with the advanced workshop was with the recovery section. Four of us would get into our Scammel truck with a lifting crane on the back and at night meet up with a motorcyclist who would give us a map reference of the tank we had to recover, we would then go out and recover the tank and bring it back to the workshop, if we could not recover it we would strip it of its parts and then push it over the side to keep the roads clear.

Jack and one of his many vehicles that he drove while in the REME

On our way to Tunisia we came across the jerry’s at Oued Zarga, Tangouccha, Heidous and Longstop Hill there was quiet a bit of fighting going on (Jack looks at a map and laughs…I had my hair cut there and points to Medjez el Bab). The weather was pretty bad and the mud stuck to your boots with every step. We finally met up with the Eighth Army at Tunisia in May 43 where we stayed for a while before being amalgamated into the Eighth Army. I stayed in reserve while the advance party invaded Sicily at the beginning of July 43 and do you the bloody Yanks dropped off our boys to far out and they had to swim ashore. I landed with the 78th Division at Taranto Italy where there was there a lot of fighting going on, we fought our way up to Foggia where there was a large airport. Here I got shell shock or whatever you call it and was taken back to Taranto and put on a hospital ship to Malta, anyway they sorted me out in Malta and sent me back to Enfidaville in North Africa where I was until Christmas 43, just after Christmas I was put on an American troop ship and sent back to Italy and landed around the Naples area but my regiment was on the East side of Italy. I was around this area for around three weeks and was going over to join our lot but they decided to bring them over to the Naples area ready for Cassino (Jack: do you know there were thirteen different nationalities). We tried and tried to get through Cassino but couldn’t do it, the Gurkhas were there they couldn’t do it. They then had a 100 bomber raid on it and then sent in the 2nd New Zealand Corps but they slung them back out again, yeah slung them back out again. Eventually they sent in the 2nd Polish Corps and there was terrible fighting for weeks before it was taken (Jack sighs…its history now). We were in Rome before D-Day (I mentioned to Jack about the famous D-Day dodgers song and he just laughed). We carried on North pushing through to Florence across the Gothic Line and up into Bologna where we were held up until the good weather came off we went again up into Austria.

Jack in a football team at Cassino

During this time Jack recalls being posted back to Florence to join up with the 6th Armoured Division and having to leave all his mates behind that he’d been with since Scotland, he also recalls losing six of his friends during this time. While doing this interview Jack was looking at a map of Italy recalling all the places he’d been and I guess having a map to reference from memories came flooding back as he paused took his glasses off and wiped his eye’s and said it brings it all back, I couldn’t help but think had I rekindle a memory he’d rather have forgotten. He also mentioned crossing the River Trigno which he said was dodgy and the River Sangro being bloody rough. He also recalls spending two nights in the rocks of the Gustav Line flushing out the jerries and the bitter fighting in Po Valley.

Jacks burnt driving licence, which he retrived from his burnt out truck

We then started looking at his photo album which was full of information: call up papers, demob papers, route orders marked ‘top secret, driving licence, BBC broadcasts and more. I came across some burnt photo’s and his burnt driving licence when asking Jack what happened he said he’s truck had been hit by jerry artillery and caught fire but he managed to get back later and retrieve his wallet and jacket from what was left of his truck. When looking at his album he also remembered being sent to Alexandria for a refit and his unit being made up to strength before being sent back to Italy, Jack spent 31/2 years in Italy but says he doesn’t have very many pleasant memories of his time in the army he said he was there to do a job and just wanted to get back home. Jack was demobbed in Padua Italy

Thank you Jack for allowing me to interview you and publishing your story on this site

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The Gothic Line June-November 1944

The following story is one mans account of a part of one of the bloodiest battles in the Eighth Army’s campaign from the Western Desert to the Alps-“The Gothic Line”. Gemmano and the Coriano ridge left the 56th (London) Division with two brigades, the 46th Division looking just as bad, and the 1st Armoured was so badly mauled that it never reformed.

This is written by Trooper Tom Canning who served with the 145th Royal Armoured Corps. He went overseas to North Africa and then onto Italy where he was badly wounded at the battle of the Gothic Line.

Thank you Tom for your kind permission to publish your story and for the use of your photo’s of Coriano ridge cemetery, of which Tom has recently visited and of where many of his friends are buried “but not forgotten”.

The Gothic Line: The Battle for San Martina By Trooper Tom Canning

In the Battle of the Gothic Line in Northern Italy during aug/sept of 1944, we were given a two day respite for rest,recreation,replacement of vital equipment and reinforcement of losses sustained so far in the Battle, which had started for us some eighteen days before. This time the 'rest' came first which was unusual,to say the least.

We enjoyed this in the company of the Seaforth Highlanders of Canada, whom we were supporting with our Churchill Tanks, during Sept 13 -15th, at the small Town of Cattolica with it's white sandy beaches and blue Adriatic Sea. The rest of the 21st British Tank Brigade carried on with the battle with unfortunate results for the 12th Batt. RTR, who were mauled by an 88mm German a/tank gun from the south end of Rimini Airfield.

So in the late evening of the 15th we were once more on the move to take up our positions ready for another phase of the Battle for San Martina which was proving a very difficult nut to crack, as a major feature of Coriano Ridge which along with the San Fortunato feature were contributing a great deal of Tank killing practice for the German 88mm A/T gunners.Two troops had been detailed for the next attack by both "A" and "C" companies of the Seaforths, our 5th Troop 'A' squadron 145th R.A.C. led by Lt.Graham Douse and #3 Troop led by Lt. Geof. Reynolds, whose brother was commanding 'C' Squadron.

Early on the 16th there was still a problem with this 88mm gun and so we stood down while the Artillery had a few stonks in that direction. They obviously failed to knock him out and so the Royal Navy sent up two destroyers who blasted away for half an hour before departing. It was then the turn of the RAF who made a few fighting passes and strafed everything in sight, but promising to return in the a.m. to finish him off.

As good as their word ,three spitfires appeared and strafed us as we were having breakfast which did not improve our mood. When they were sorted out they strafed the 88mm. gun area and assured us that it was taken care of and that we could proceed, unmolested with our little 'skirmish'.

So at 13:30 hours the Infantry moved off up the hill and we followed shortly afterwards to arrive at the top by 14:00 hours. By 14:05 we realised that we were in a killing ground and that the Infantry were being cut to pieces and I was running out of smoke bombs to fire over them. This was completely ineffective as a breeze from the Adriatic was wafting it away .

Around 14:10, Alf Spence,Troop leaders W/op. announced that Lt. Douse was dead and he had fallen over Cockney Taylor who could not operate his guns and so they were withdrawing. The squadron Leader, Major Lyall Lusted of Dorking Surrey, was reporting the loss of Graham to Colonel E.V. Strickland when we were hit, and the force of the shot knocked me to the floor of the turret from where I heard Sgt Trevor Williams of Bradford yell "bail out'.

I was somehow propelled upwards and outwards without apparently touching the Tank and as I passed I noted that the shot had penetrated the engine and the exhaust was perpendicular. As I landed another shot hit the turret where I normally stood ! On running around to the port side I noticed that both the Driver Charlie Bailey of Keighley , Yorks and Harold Whattingham of London were well clear and long gone !

On reaching the rear of the Tank ,I just had time to acknowledge both Trevor and Harry Gray, our gunner from Halifax Yorks. when a shell/mortar bomb landed between and scattering us. As I ran back to our lines the nebelwerfers were raining down and I was hit again. I lay there for a minute until the next salvo and was hit for a third time. Finally getting back to where some infantry were lying with harry Gray, who was badly wounded as I could see his kidney pulsating. I jammed his field dressing into the wound and gave him his shot of morphine ,meanwhile the Infantry were swearing at me for moving around as the firing was intense.

The firing subsided and I could only lay there and watch five of our six Tanks blazing away with the ammunition 'cooking' off for hours. Trevor was moaning and obviously in great pain but was too far away to assist and I surmised, he went into a coma and died later in the evening. I then redressed harry's wound with my field dressing and injected him with my morphine and he settled down.

We were then picked up after darkness had finally descended and taken to the Seaforth's RAP and some sergeant jammed a cigarette into my mouth as I was obviously in shock - I didn't smoke until then !

Harry was among the first to go off and I followed on a four stretcher jeep with two other Seaforths and a Van Doo ( Quebec 22nd Regt) who had lost both legs and his morphine was wearing off. As we passed a field the whole place was lit up with the first experimental "Artificial Moonlight", which was supposed to blind the enemy forces and allow our Infantry to just walk over the Battlefield and subdue the enemy. Instead we watched in horrified fascination as we saw a battalion of our Infantry of the 4th Div. being slaughtered.

By dawn I was tucked up in bed - on my stomach - in the CCS at Ancona, after a very long day. three days later I was thrown out to a convalescent camp where the shrapnel entry wounds and blast were coming out in a rainbow effect which meant I was unable to sleep, dress, wash or feed myself and I was thankful for the assistance of some Infantrymen. I was not able to walk far and so kept missing the M.O. Days later I caught up with him and discovered that a large burn on my left calf had become septic and was soon back in the Hospital at Ancona. A week later to the 33rd Brit. Gen Hospital in Bari where I arrived with a case of malaria, and finally an annexe to 33rd Brit, Gen at Catania Sicily for surgery, where in January 1945 I was declared fit to fight once more !

Coriano Ridge War Cemetery, Italy

The following pictures have kindly been donated to this site by Tom Canning and are of Cariano War Cemetery in Italy. The site for the cemetery was selected in April 1945 and was created from graves brought in from the surrounding battlefields. Coriano Ridge War Cemetery contains 1,939 Commonwealth burials of the Second World War.

"They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them Lest we forget."

Taken from a copy of The Crusader Eighth Army Weekly

A Trooper Reflects…

On Going Home

By Trooper Blake

When I left England I was just twenty. In a few months I shall be twenty-five. I can’t grumble at that, because I’m a regular. But just because I signed on in piece time it doesn’t mean that I like staying out here anymore than the next man. As matter of fact, I would give a year's pay to go home, but I can’t and that’s that. Strangely enough I often forgot something during the last three years, - and that is the very obvious and important fact that before I go home I’ve got to get this war finished.

Perhaps you think that sounds a bit smug. But there’s no getting away from it. Back in England there’s a girl waiting for me. I haven’t seen her in five years, and I expect five years has changed her as much as it has me. But the important thing really is not the time we’re away but the fact the people we left behind have sufficient faith in us to go on hoping and waiting.

This attitude is not of cold philosophical fatalism. In war-time it’s easy to adopt the eat-drink-and-be-merry idea, but you usually find that tomorrow comes with just as much certainty as yesterday disappears. Once you begin to see things in their true perspective the giant Time dwindles away. After all what are a few years more or less in a life-time.

I’m not trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I know the life in the desert and I know the morning before the battle. I know the whole beastly experience of killing, the high spirits that went to Benghazi and the sinking hearts on the long journey back again. But it was worth it ten times over.

Now we all realise that we’ve got a big fight on our hands. And before we get aboard that ship again we’ve got to get on with the fight, until it’s finished once and for all. When it’s over we shall go home, back to those white cliffs and green fields we still dream about. And who shall say on that day that it was not worth the struggle, not worth the sacrifice?

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