Excerpted from:Lieut.-Commander P.K. Kemp, complied under the direction of a Regimental committee, The Staffordshire Yeomanry (Q.O.R.R.) in the First and Second World Wars (Gale and Polden, Aldershot, 1950).From The Real Counties of Britain by Russell Grant. Oxford: Lennard Publishing, 1989.
The Battle of El Alamein The armoured break-through The Advance to Fuka Capture of Mersa Matruh A short period of rest.
OVER 200,000 shells of all calibres were fired in the first four hours of the attack on the German line, an unforgettable sight in the darkness of the Egyptian night. At 2210 hours on the 23rd the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved slowly forward behind the barrage, reaching the start line in front of Mitereiya Ridge at midnight, where they halted before the opening of the foremost British minefield.
At 0200 hours on the 24th the Regiment passed through the Brigade start line. Their tank strength was 15 Crusaders and 28 heavies (Grants and Shermans) and they surged through the gaps in the British and enemy minefields, pushing on to the Mitereiya Ridge where, by first light, the tanks were hull down behind the ridge, having made better progress than either of the other two regiments in the Brigade, the Notts Yeomanry [Nottinghamshire Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry] and the 3rd Royal Tanks. The Crusader squadron led by Major Farquhar, M.C., was sent on ahead and lost five of its tanks on an enemy minefield, four others being put out of action by enemy guns. By this time the slowness of the advance, caused by the great difficulty of negotiating the enemy minefields, had given the Germans their opportunity to bring up their own armour and further anti-tank guns, and here were a number of brisk counter-attacks on the Regiment’s line, all of which were beaten back with substantial losses to the enemy. Out of the Brigade’s total of over forty enemy tanks the Staffordshire Yeomanry claimed seventeen, with two guns in addition, during the day’s fighting, Sergeant Fuller, in Major Meynell’s tank, claiming five. The Regiment’s own losses were two heavy tanks and nine Crusaders.
As the day drew to a close, the remaining tanks of the Regiment withdrew into close leaguer to reorganize for a further sortie on the 25th. Orders were received for the whole of 8th Armoured Brigade to reconnoitre the minefield which had caused all the trouble to the Crusaders, to pass through it, and to take up battle positions on the El Wiska Ridge, which was the objective of X Corps, during the hours of darkness. Accordingly, at 2200 hours, the Regiment proceeded, passing through the minefield under a fairly intensive fire and losing two more tanks on the mines. It was bright moonlight, and as the tanks approached their objective, the Commanding Officer deployed to some extent because of the brightness of the night. Neither the Notts Yeomanry nor the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment had succeeded in crossing the minefield and it was not until 0400 hours that the latter Regiment eventually did so. The Commanding Officer repeatedly asked for permission to defer his advance to El Wiska until daylight, but his requests were refused and at 0520 hours, in company with yd Royal Tank Regiment, “A” and “B” Squadrons of the Staffordshire Yeomanry advanced up the ridge, after Colonel Eadie had carried out a reconnaissance in his own tank behind a screen of the remaining Crusaders, using the Buffs’ carriers as a protective screen to the right flank of the Regiment.
As the heavy squadrons were ordered up, they ran into a devastating fire from enemy 88-mm. guns on either flank. An immediate withdrawal was ordered, in which 9th Armoured Brigade, on the Regiment’s left flank, and 3rd Royal Tank Regiment joined. But before the retirement could be effective, ten tanks had been lost and heavy casualties suffered by the Regiment. The Second-in-Command, Major Wilmot Longstaff, was killed, and with him Captain Lord Lewisham, Captain Dennis Bennett, Lieutenant Gordon Lock and Lieutenant John Newbiggin. Many other officers and men were wounded. Colonel Eadie rallied the Regiment on the reverse slope of Mitereiya Ridge, forming the remainder of the tanks into a composite squadron, and then returned to the ridge, supporting 9th Armoured Brigade when they were attacked by enemy tanks in the evening.
At midnight orders were received to withdraw for rest and reorganization to the Qattara Road, which was reached at 0530 hours. The men of the Regiment had had practically no rest since the night of the 22nd, when they first assembled in the concentration area, and all were dog-tired and quite unfit for further action until they had been able to clear off some of the arrears of sleep. Their tank strength had been reduced by losses to two Crusaders and fourteen heavies.
On the morning of the 26th the Brigade moved to the northern sector of the front, where it was held in reserve. The Staffordshire Yeomanry were engaged in reorganization and re-equipment, a task made all the more difficult and uncomfortable by regular dive-bombing attacks by German Stukas. The ceaseless noise of the artillery away to the west was a constant reminder that the battle was still being fought as fiercely as ever. Little news of the progress of the attack was coming through from the front, apart from local reports of armoured actions too isolated to give a complete picture of the fighting. But it was still obvious that the enemy minefields were going to prove a bigger difficulty than had been thought and that there was still much heavy fighting in store for the Regiment before there could be any real break-out from the Alamein line.
During the afternoon of the 26th the men were able to get some sleep, which proved a wonderful restorative. They were still in great heart in spite of the mauling the Regiment had received on the 25th and, with reinforcements coming along, both in men and tanks, were soon ready for the next attack. During the day of the 27th the Staffordshire Yeomanry stood to, but were not moved up to the front line and, apart from numerous dive-bombing attacks which caused little damage, the day passed quietly.
On 28th October the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved up at 1815 hours to relieve the Bays. They leaguered close in front of the divisional artillery positions, so that any sleep that night was out of the question. At first light on the 29th they took up their battle positions in the line, opposite the 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions, with the Notts Yeomanry on their left. There were a number of German anti-tank guns, all extremely well sited, in the neighbourhood, and what fighting there was took place at long range, although there was a good deal of irritating sniping from derelict tanks lying out between the two opposing lines. During the day one Crusader and two Grants were lost on the minefields, though all three were recovered later with only their tracks blown. The incident served to show that the danger from mines was still a very real one and that the enemy fields were still a potent factor in holding up the British offensive. At last light on the 29th the Notts Yeomanry were heavily attacked by enemy tanks and the Staffordshire Yeomanry at once moved across to their support, although in the gathering darkness it was difficult to identify and engage the targets.
Once again the Regiment was ordered back into reserve and once again there was an opportunity for all ranks to make up their arrears of sleep. On the 31st four Shermans and three Crusaders arrived, bringing up the Regiment’s strength to thirteen Crusaders and sixteen heavies. And on this day the first real news of success came through, when it was learned that the Australians had broken through up in the north and had reached the coast, cutting off a large pocket of the enemy.
On the following day, 1st November, there was an air of expectancy throughout the Brigade. The first signs of a crack in the enemy line were becoming apparent and hopes of a break-through at this third attempt were high. During the day General Montgomery’s orders for Operation “Supercharge” were received, an attack which was designed to force the line some miles south from the coast and break out into the open country to the westward, wheeling up towards the coast in the neighbourhood of Mersa Matruh. During the afternoon Colonel Eadie addressed the Regiment on the forthcoming operation. The men were all in high spirits and confident that at last they would succeed in breaking through the German line and reaching the open desert behind it.
The Staffordshire Yeomanry moved up at dawn on 2nd November along the main coastal road and then down the Diamond” track, passing through our own and the enemy minefields without much difficulty, a passage made possible by the sterling work of the Royal Engineers and Provost companies. The armour ran into enemy tanks and anti-tank guns as soon as they were through the last minefield and carried out an excellent shoot, putting three German tanks out of action and knocking out a number of guns. The Staffordshire Yeomanry took up a position on the left of 2nd Armoured Brigade, advancing with them in the direction of Tel el Aqqaqir. They were heavily shelled there by German 88-mm. guns, Sergeant Butler’s Crusader being knocked out. Another Crusader was also lost on a stray mine. During the advance Captain Cope, with the supply echelon, was killed, a sad loss as the echelon had been doing very gallant work. For the night the Regiment leaguered near Tel el Aqqaqir with the Brigade.
On the 3rd the advance was continued, with the Notts Yeomanry on the left and the Staffordshire Yeomanry on the right. It was still very slow and carried out in the face of severe shelling throughout the day, a large number of anti- tank guns being put out of action. Two of the Regiment’s tanks were set on fire by a surprise 50-mm. anti-tank gun, Major Cartwright’s, who was seriously wounded, and Captain Nicholl’s, who suffered burns. A third tank was hit but was later recovered. Once again the Regiment leaguered with the Brigade for the night. On the way back to the leaguer the Staffordshire Yeomanry met a good deal of confusion, running into columns of the 9th and 22nd Armoured Brigades. After a short halt the respective parties were sorted out, but the incident, in spite of the delays caused, had a heartening effect on the men by giving them yet another opportunity of realizing the vast number of heavy tanks possessed by the Eighth Army. Once back in leaguer the tank crews slept while the fitters worked through the night on tanks and wireless sets.
Out again on the 4th the Regiment were able to appreciate the successful work of the previous day, for by now there was no opposition and the tanks moved across country which was littered with destroyed German and Italian tanks and anti-tank guns. Later, the Corps Commander, in a visit to the Brigade, told them that that day they had successfully achieved the most difficult role which armour could be asked to perform. The Brigade advanced to Bir el Abd at 1600 hours, crossing the main enemy supply route to the south, which bore further witness to the great execution done on the previous day in the shape of numbers of burnt-out tanks and other equipment. As the advance continued the success of the battle became apparent, as miles of vehicles could be seen streaming out over the desert as far as the eye could reach, all making for the west in pursuit of the beaten enemy. It was a wonderful and inspiring sight and a fitting reward for all the hard fighting of the previous fortnight. It was open country now, and full speed ahead to exploit the greatest victory of the war so far. Everyone was in wonderfully high spirits, made even higher as more and more news from other units was received to show the extent of the breakthrough. And at last light came still further news of the capture of General von Thoma and of many thousands of prisoners making their way to the rear areas.
There was still better news in store, though as yet it was hidden from the Regiment. In the Atlantic and across the Bay of Biscay were steaming great convoys carrying two armies, one British and one American, to land in north-west Africa and to attack the enemy from the west. It was part of the over-all planning of the African campaign, co-ordinated with the movements of the Eighth Army, and the two attacks from east and west were destined to drive the enemy completely out of Africa before six months were past.
Galal was reached on the following morning after an all-night march and, after a short pause for rest, the Regiment pushed on towards the west. So fast had been the advance since the previous day that the enemy was taken completely by surprise and an unsuspecting column of Italian M.13 tanks, moving fast towards their rear, bumped into the Brigade and paid heavily for having been overtaken by the swiftness of the British dash to the west. Thirty-eight of them were dispatched by the Brigade, and a further ten were caught by the Staffordshire Yeomanry and knocked out, as well as a German Mark III. The total score of the Brigade on this day was fifty-three tanks, and over 1,000 prisoners were captured.
That night the Staffordshire Yeomanry leaguered three miles west of Galal and in the morning of the 6th the Brigade Group advanced along the line of the railway towards Fuka. The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, leading the Brigade, was held up for a few minutes by tanks and anti-tank guns along the line of the escarpment west of Fuka, but the resistance was only slight and the enemy retired after two of their tanks had been set on fire by the Brigade artillery. The Crusader squadron of the Regiment was sent forward by the Colonel to seize the aerodrome, on which were found thirty derelict aircraft and a number of burnt-out lorries and abandoned equipment. In the afternoon the available tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, together with the Buffs’ carriers, were formed into a column and swept the country to the east between Fuka and Galal from the main road to the sea in search of prisoners. One hundred and forty, of whom thirty-five were German, were captured and the column found heaps of abandoned lorries, guns, and anti-tank guns.
The day ended in humour. Lieutenant Tiptaft, sent to arrest a party of the enemy, approached them with his tommy gun at the ready. At the critical moment the magazine dropped out, but his determined countenance, unshaven for a week or more, had the desired effect and all were safely gathered in.
On the 7th the whole army continued their rapid advance, the 8th Armoured Brigade moving along the coastal road to the outskirts of Mersa Matruh. Heavy rain had made it necessary to stick to the main road to prevent any danger of bogging, and although the congestion was intense, the speed of the advance remained rapid. Four miles short of Mersa Matruh the leading Regiment was held up by anti-tank fire and the Staffordshire Yeomanry took up a position on the high ground to the left of the Brigade, remaining there till nightfall, when they leaguered in the wadis below the hills.
Mersa Matruh was entered on the 8th, the heavy tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry being first into the town, entering by the old smugglers’ road. Orders were received for the Regiment to proceed at full speed to Charing Cross, a road junction south-west of Matruh, and the Regiment’s tanks advanced at their best speed parallel with the road joining the two places. One mile short of Charing Cross it was discovered that the road and its edges were mined, and the tanks were halted while the Royal Engineers made a reconnaissance and found a route through the mines after a certain amount of clearance had been done. The Regiment succeeded in reaching a position on the main road half a mile west of Charing Cross and halted there to await orders. When they came they were for the Staffordshire Yeomanry to move back and re-form and re-equip for further action later in the west.
By early morning on the 9th the Regiment was back on the coast, Colonel Eadie having selected a pleasant place among palm trees and beaten the rest of the Brigade to it. Here the Staffordshire Yeomanry rested and bathed, and took life comparatively easy while reinforcements came up and the Regiment sorted itself out again.
Casualties had been heavy in the battle and due to these and disabled tanks, only two tank commanders, the Commanding Officer and Major Farquhar, had come right through from 23rd October, while only one tank, the command tank Defiance, although hit several times by H.E., remained out of the original number. But the Regiment had done a wonderful job and their behaviour in their first big action had been superb. A few days of rest and recreation near the sea worked wonders, and when the time came to move up to the front again they were keen, confident, and fully prepared for whatever task the Army Commander should give them.
Attack at El Agheila Break-through at Wadi Zem-Zem Capture of Tarhuna Advance to, and fall of, Tripoli.
FOR the next fourteen days the Staffordshire Yeomanry remained in their pleasant position near the sea. It was good to be able to rest and reorganize after their strenuous days during the battle of El Alamein and to let the tide of war flow away to the westward for a few days. The time was spent in re-equipping the Regiment, in testing the guns of the new tanks on the range, in static wireless schemes, and, on the lighter side, in bathing parties and football matches against other units in the Brigade.
It was good, too, to learn of the progress of the advance. The Axis forces had been driven clear of Egypt by 12th November with a loss of 59,000 men killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, and 500 tanks captured or destroyed. By the 20th the Eighth Army had reached and occupied Benghazi, and still the enemy was on the retreat. On the other side of the continent, Algeria and Morocco had capitulated on the 11th and the combined Allied armies in that theatre were preparing for their eastward drive towards Tunis. And even in Russia, where the past summer had brought an almost uninterrupted stream of German successes, the tide seemed to be on the turn. There was still bitter fighting in Stalingrad, it is true, but on the other fronts the cold weather, coupled with fierce Russian counter-attacks, was driving the Germans back. Even on this far-way front the achievements of the Eighth Army were making themselves felt, for Rommel was calling insistently for more men and supplies and thereby preventing any reinforcement by the enemy of his long front in Russia. The news everywhere was good, as fine a tonic for the Regiment as their rest beside the Mediterranean.
By the 17th of November the tank strength of the Staffordshire Yeomanry had been built up again to 17 Crusaders, 11 Shermans, 15 Grants, and one General Lee. Six days later the Brigade received orders to concentrate in the El Adem area, and on the following day, the 24th, tanks were loaded on to transporters at 0830 hours and, leaving Charing Cross at 1300 hours, moved off on their long journey across the desert. Revised orders received on the 26th gave the new destination of the Brigade as Benghazi, but again they were changed and finally the Regiment fetched up, on 3rd December, six miles north of Agedabia after covering a distance of 650 miles, the longest run yet made on transporters. As soon as the tanks were unloaded they proceeded under their own power to a position eight miles south of Agedabia, where the Regiment leaguered for the night.
During the afternoon of 3rd December, while the tanks were moving up to their new position, the Commanding Officer, accompanied by Lieutenant Stewart, carried out a reconnaissance of the battle positions to be taken up by the Brigade on the Agheila front, where the enemy was attempting to make a stand. And on the following morning the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved off as a Regimental Group to Fort Gtafia on their way up to the front. They were delayed for a short time by a small minefield in the Gtafia area, but, forming single file, the tanks found a way round and finally reached their positions near Bir Berrise, just forward of Brigade H.Q. in the evening. The squadrons were disposed in open formation and had made their advance under cover of British fighters, with the result that there had been no enemy air activity throughout the day’s march of thirty-six miles.
The next few days were occupied with continuous patrols and reconnaissances of the enemy’s forward positions. These were in the form of “spectacles,” covering the El Agheila-Mersa Brega front. There was very little enemy activity during these days, except for spasmodic artillery fire and occasional air raids, most of which were quickly broken up by the fighters of the Desert Air Force. During this comparatively quiet period, Major Ian Spence, then Brigade Major, 8th Armoured Brigade, was appointed to the Regiment as Second-in-Command, reporting for duty on 9th December. On the same day the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved to take up a new position to the north of the Notts Yeomanry.
The operation for breaking through the enemy positions at El Agheila consisted of a frontal attack, combined with an outflanking move round to the south. This was to be carried out by and New Zealand Division, and “A” Squadron of the Staffordshire Yeomanry were temporarily attached to their armour, the Royal Scots Greys, moving off at 0730 hours on 12th December to join up with them thirty miles south of Hassiat.
The remainder of the Regiment moved forward on the 13th, proceeding very slowly via Bir Es Suera, through an enemy minefield, towards El Barrachim, where they formed close leaguer for the night. The next day was foggy in the early morning as the Staffordshire Yeomanry continued to advance slowly through the minefields south of Giofer. The fog cleared after about three hours and in the evening the Regiment took up battle positions and carried out a good shoot at some Italian M.13 tanks, dug-in infantry, and guns, which were forming a defensive box across the road. Seven M.13’s were destroyed for certain, together with some Italian lorries. The enemy retaliated with fairly heavy shelling, but very little damage was done.
During the night the Italians pulled back from their positions and, when the Regiment continued their advance on the morning of the 15th, eleven burnt-out M.13’s were found on the deserted battlefield of the previous day, most of them on the Staffordshire Yeomanry’s front. The Regiment was ordered to reconnoitre a route to the south of the anti-tank ditch, which in fact, stretched from the main road to the marshes on the south flank and covered a very strong enemy position astride the road. The tanks made a longish detour to the south to negotiate this ditch, which was well protected by anti-tank guns, and although the Crusader squadron effected a crossing, five Grants got into difficulties in soft ground while attempting to follow. Near the coastal road the leading squadron came under heavy fire from German 88-mm. guns from the front and right flank. These were promptly engaged, three of them being knocked out. Three Crusaders were lost and also one Grant, in which Lieutenant Smith was seriously wounded. During the day’s fighting the Regiment took 70 prisoners, all from the 90th (German) Light Division, their units being 609th Anti-Tank Battery and 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
At last light the engagement was broken off, but by that time the enemy positions had been penetrated and they were already pulling back. There could be little doubt that it was the successful passage of the anti-tank ditch by the Regiment’s armour which was mainly responsible, causing the enemy to believe that he was being outflanked, as a result of which he decided to retire. It had been an extremely difficult manoeuvre and the Brigade Commander, Brigadier Custance, came up in the evening to congratulate the Regiment on its achievements in the course of a really hard day’s fighting echoed a few days later when similar congratulations were received from the Commander of 7th Armoured Division Major-General Harding.
The Brigade moved forward during the next two days to a position astride the Merduma-Nofilia track, where “A” Squadron rejoined the Regiment. A battle practice for General Montgomery was held on 23rd December, and Christmas Day was spent in the same area. After a church service in the morning the regimental cooks produced an excellent Christmas dinner, which was followed by an impromptu concert. Although not, perhaps, an ideal way of spending Christmas, it was the best that could be done in the circumstances and was much appreciated by everyone.
The 27th of December saw the Brigade on the move again transporters coming up on the 28th to take the regimental tanks to a new concentration area twenty-five miles south-west of Sirte. It looked probable that the enemy would attempt to make his next stand on the line of the Wadi Zem-Zem, and on New Year’s Day Colonel Eadie, together with most of the senior officers of the Regiment, made a reconnaissance of the battle positions to be taken up by the Staffordshire Yeomanry when the next stage of the advance was made.
During the early days of January the tank strength of the Regiment was made up to twenty-five Crusaders and twenty-eight Shermans and Grants, the highest number yet reached. It all pointed to a new and big thrust forward, and there was considerable excitement among the Regiment as to its next objective. On 8th January it became known that this was to be Tripoli and on the 12th the Regiment moved, with the Brigade to the Wadi Chebir. The Staffordshire Yeomanry remained there on the 13th, and on the 14th advanced in three columns to the Gheddahia-Bungem road, where the Commanding Officer addressed all squadrons and explained to them the forthcoming battle, which was timed to begin the following day. A sudden raid by approximately fifteen M.E. 109’s, which dropped delayed-action bombs in the R.H.Q. and “C” Squadron areas, fortunately did no damage and resulted instead in the loss of three of the enemy aircraft. It was exceptionally cold that night, but throughout the Regiment there was an air of tenseness as to what the morrow would bring.
The Staffordshire Yeomanry moved off at first light and came under shell fire as soon as they crossed the Gheddahia-Bungem road. As the Brigade moved forward the Staffordshire Yeomanry were on the right, the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment in the centre, and the Notts Yeomanry on the left, with 131st Infantry Brigade in reserve. Ahead, behind the Dur Umm-Er Raml ridge, lay the 15th (German) Panzer Division, supported by Italian M.13 tanks. The enemy seemed reluctant to engage his tanks and the day was spent mainly in artillery duels against a number of German 88-mm. guns. Lieutenant Matthews’s Crusader was knocked out by a direct hit and he was unfortunately killed, his driver being seriously wounded. Apart from that, the Regiment suffered no other losses, although the Notts Yeomanry and the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment lost about ten tanks in a battle against German Mark III and Mark IV Specials, of which they claimed five.
During the night the enemy retired from his positions on the Wadi Zem-Zem, which was crossed by the Brigade at first light the following morning without opposition. Once over, the tanks moved on fast behind the retreating enemy, giving him no opportunity to prepare positions on which to attempt another stand and hustling him back along the coastal road. In the vicinity of Sedada a German anti-tank screen was encountered, but it was soon put out of action with the loss of two of their guns. There were two severe dive-bombing raids in which the Regiment’s anti-tank battery and attached artillery suffered some casualties. The Staffordshire Yeomanry leaguered for the night just south of Sedada, and at about midnight heavy explosions were heard as the enemy, retiring from that place, blew up the aqueduct behind them.
The 17th of January saw the advance continue, but considerably slowed down by the difficulties of crossing the Wadi Need. The Regiment had to lengthen their route to the northward before they could find a suitable crossing-place, but eventually they managed to get to the other side over very bad going. They leaguered for the night on the far side, making sure by this move that they would be the leading Regiment for the morrow’s advanced.
Once again the stony ground made very bad going for the armour, with numerous deep wadis to add to the difficulties. Eventually the Regiment’s tanks were able to get down into the Wadi Tmasla, which had a flat, sandy bed, and once again there was a chance to move at a fair rate. At last light the Staffordshire Yeomanry reached a position near the Tarhuna-Beni Ulid road, where considerable movement of enemy transport was observed. Colonel Eadie sent out one troop of “C” Squadron, under Captain Neilson, to attempt to block the road, but a strong enemy infantry position, supported by guns, on the ridge to the east of the road prevented any really offensive action in the dark. Lieutenant Underhill’s tank was holed by a shell from an 88-mm. gun, but fortunately without casualties. During the night a bombing raid carried out by German machines, in which the bombs fell about a mile ahead of the Regiment, had a somewhat surprising result when thirty-eight Italians scuttled down the road into the arms of the Regiment in order to give themselves up as prisoners of war.
An early start on the 19th soon ran into trouble with very heavy shelling from the high ridge to the north. The day was spent in artillery duels, an attempt to outflank on the left ending in failure. It looked at this moment as though the advance might well be held up in front of Tarhuna for some considerable time, as the enemy was in an immensely strong position on the high ground, giving him complete command of the road, and was well dug in. The ground approaching the ridge was very soft, and quite impracticable for all but tanks.
However, as so often before, the Germans pulled out during the night, and on the 20th the Staffordshire Yeomanry entered Tarhuna, where the Italian Governor surrendered unconditionally. This was the signal for the Arabs to do a little looting and the Commanding Officer ordered “C” Company, The Buffs, up to restore order. Tarhuna was an attractive place, with its neat white houses among the trees and plantations, a welcome contrast to the stony, inhospitable ground over which the Staffordshire Yeomanry had been advancing.
During the afternoon the Regiment took up positions along the Tarhuna-Tripoli road, and the Battery carried out a most successful shoot against the enemy rearguard, silencing six or seven 88-mm. guns. As the enemy shelling denied the use of the road to our armour, the Staffordshire Yeomanry leaguered for the night in the grounds of an Italian farm at Abia Miggi. They remained there all the following day, grateful for the opportunity of a rest in such lovely surroundings, while the infantry, supported by medium artillery, attacked the enemy positions and cleared a way for the further advance of the armour.
So far all had gone extremely well and Tripoli, the Eighth Army’s goal, was now within reach. In the early morning of 22nd January the Brigade moved cautiously down the Tarhuna-Castel Benito road, which had been blown in many places, but once out of the pass and through the range of hills northwest of Tarhuna, better progress was possible. The tanks pushed on fast towards Castel Benito and at 1600 hours were within five miles of the town, which was still held by the enemy, with their usual gun screen disposed in the wooded area alongside the road.
An attack on the town by infantry, supported by all available artillery, was laid on for 2100 hours. The attack, as it proved, was unnecessary, for the enemy abandoned the town during the evening. The advance of the armour was held up by the demolition of the anti-tank ditch at Castel Benito, but the Royal Engineers had made a passage of it possible by 0400 hours on the 23rd, when the tanks of the Regiment moved forward.
Tripoli was entered by the 11th Hussars, the Armoured Car Regiment to 7th Armoured Division, at 0530 hours on the 23rd, and the Staffordshire Yeomanry breakfasted in sight of the city and saw General Montgomery speed down the road in his car to savour this great achievement of the Eighth Army. There were thoughts of a triumphant drive through the streets of Tripoli, but instead the Regiment was ordered to by-pass the city and make for the road to the west of it. By early afternoon they reached Zanzur, nine miles west of the town, where they camped for the night.
It had been a most successful campaign, a wonderful piece of planning from the first. And through it all the Staffordshire Yeomanry had fought in the great tradition of the Regiment, calm and confident and with great dash. There is a note in Colonel Eadie’s personal diary that it was the proudest day of his life when the Regiment reached Tripoli, and he pays a worthy tribute to the men of the Staffordshire Yeomanry and to its supporting arms, who had all achieved so much in one of the greatest campaigns which the whole war was to produce. They had made an advance of 1,350 miles in exactly three months, and had fought some of the hardest battles of the whole war.
Ben Gardane and Medenine The Mareth Line The “Left Hook” Attack on El Hamma and turning of the Mareth Line Wadi Akarit and the advance to Enfidaville Junction with First Army and U.S. Forces Fall of Tunis and Bizerta End of the Desert campaign.
THE Staffordshire Yeomanry settled down after the capture of Tripoli for a few days of rest and re-equipment in a pleasant place some twelve miles from the city. The advance from the El Agheila-Mersa Brega line had taken a heavy toll of the armour and replacements were necessary before carrying out the next stage of the campaign. On Sunday, 31st January, the Regiment paraded for a memorial service for those who had fallen and were missing, and on 4th February a representative body of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, led by the Commanding Officer, took part in the parade in Tripoli, where they were inspected by Mr. Winston Churchill. He had flown out from England for the conference with President Roosevelt at Casablanca and had remained in the country for a visit to the Eighth Army’s front.
On the following morning, 5th February, a composite Regiment was formed from the Brigade and placed under the command of Colonel Eadie. They moved forward past Sabratha and Zuara to the Regdalin area, where they were to form a bridgehead over the marshy land on the Tunisian border while the Royal Engineers repaired blown bridges in preparation for the next stage of the advance. On the 8th and 9th a number of German Mark IV Specials attacked the regimental front, but were driven off without difficulty, three of them being hit. There was little sign of the enemy after that, and the Regiment remained in its bridgehead during an uncomfortable period of intense cold, heavy rain, and frequent sandstorms, until 14th February, when orders were received to move down to Ben Gardane, which was entered by the infantry on the following day. The Regiment pushed slowly on, crossing the Wadi Sabek and the Wadi Fassi to reach and cut the main Medenine road near Nefatia. There was practically no enemy activity apart from occasional shelling, as they were gradually pulling back to the Mareth line, where the next stand was to be made.
The composite Regiment was relieved in the line by the 22nd Armoured Brigade and moved back slightly to concentrate with the remainder of the 8th Armoured Brigade at El Uotia, a bleak, inhospitable area of desert where it was hoped that a period of rest might be possible. After a week of Brigade conferences, practice shoots and demonstrations, and a general cleaning-up, the Brigade moved to Ben Gardane on the 27th, only to be warned two days later that they were to make a rapid move to Medenine, where the enemy armour was advancing southward against the front held by 22nd Armoured Brigade.
By 4th March the move was completed and the Regiment was attached temporarily to the 4th Light Armoured Brigade and moved up into the line. On the 5th the Staffordshire Yeomanry remained in their battle positions all day, awaiting an attack that never materialized. But it came in on the 6th, after a series of light attacks to try to find the weakest spot, consisting of some 1,500 infantry supported by about eighty tanks. It was repulsed with heavy losses, the enemy losing fifty-two tanks, mainly to the Guards, New Zealand Division, and 131st Infantry Brigade, against whose front it was chiefly directed.
By 8th March the Germans were moving north again, their attack having proved extremely costly and gained them nothing. And for the next few days the Brigade concentrated once again in the Ben Gardane area, while the operational plans for the attack on the Mareth line were worked out. On 13th March the Brigade shooting competition was held and the Crusader troop of the Staffordshire Yeomanry carried all before it, winning a lamb as a prize. A Sherman troop of the Regiment was narrowly beaten in the final for the heavy tanks by a troop of the Notts Yeomanry after a draw.
The Mareth line was a strong, natural position, developed by the French before the war with concrete defences added on the Maginot-line model. All approaches to it were well covered by strong-points, and a system of military roads behind the line allowed of quick movement of mobile reserves. Rommel was holding the line with German and Italian infantry, while behind it he held in reserve two Panzer Divisions, the 15th and 21st, and also the 164th Light Division. It was a position which allowed of little strategical surprise, though a certain amount of tactical surprise might be achieved by the use of speed.
The final plan for the attack on the Mareth position made use of this element of speed. Combined with a frontal attack by XXX Corps there was to be a swift flank attack, or “left hook,” through El Hamma, to be carried out by General Freyberg’s New Zealand Corps, with the 8th Armoured Brigade under command. The move to the south began on the night of the 14th and the New Zealand assembly area, eighty miles down in the desert, was reached on the 18th. On the night of the 19th, with the Staffordshire Yeomanry as leading Regiment, the forces of the “left hook,” comprising 27,000 men and 6,000 vehicles, tanks, and guns, advanced to the high ground near Dumm es Chia on the first stage of the attack.
It had originally been decided to lie up during the day of the 20th and continue the advance by night in order to achieve some measure of surprise, but as it was reasonably certain that the enemy must know of the flanking attack, it was considered best to push on through the day at the best pace possible in order to create surprise by the speed of the attack. The force accordingly advanced in desert formation and raced to the north in order to break through to El Hamma and Gabes.
Contact was made with the enemy at about 1500 hours on the 21st. They were holding a position astride the Kebili-Gabes road where it runs through a narrow valley between the Gebel Tebaga range and the mountainous country at the south of the Mareth line. The New Zealand brigades, covered by artillery, attacked the position while the Engineers went forward to clear routes through the minefield in front of the enemy. The armour passed through on the following morning, being engaged by enemy tanks, of which three were destroyed without loss to the Regiment. For most of the day the Staffordshire Yeomanry were under heavy fire from German guns, but casualties were comparatively light, ten other ranks being wounded.
The 23rd of March was a quiet day spent in reserve. The bridgehead won by XXX Corps in the Mareth line itself was lost again after a heavy German counter-attack, and it was decided to make the “left hook” the main attack, X Corps, which contained the ist Armoured Division, being sent up to reinforce the flank attack. While waiting for the arrival of this armoured division, a number of smaller operations were carried out on both flanks of the main line of advance to secure the high ground and gain observation points.
During the night of the 23rd and the morning of the 24th the Regiment was heavily shelled. Lieutenant C. F. Dixon, Corporal Dorman and Trooper Parrish being killed, and the Padre, the Rev. L. F. Foot, the Medical Officer, Captain Harper, and Lieutenants Kennedy, Biddle, and Sinclair, wounded. Later in the day the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved to higher ground west of the El Hamma road, from where, on the 26th, the Brigade was to make a spectacular 6,000-yard advance under cover of a heavy barrage.
The plan to break through the enemy defences fell into three phases. The first was the capture of the high ground on the right flank to deny to the enemy observation of the assembly of the armour. The second, to which was given the code name “Supercharge II,” though it was more familiarly called the “Grand National” by the Regiment, was a massed attack by the 8th Armoured Brigade, supported by New Zealand infantry, to force a gap through to El Hamma. The third phase was the passing through of 1st Armoured Division to capture El Hamma itself.
The first phase was successfully carried out during the early hours of 26th March by the 21st (Auckland) Battalion of the New Zealanders in a moonlight attack. During the morning and early part of the afternoon 8th Armoured Brigade remained camouflaged in wadis just behind the start line, and by noon the advanced units of 1st Armoured Division arrived. The artillery was brought up into position, and all was ready for the “Grand National.”
In the meantime, the enemy had brought up reinforcements. 21st Panzer Division, holding the enemy line, was joined by the 164th Light Division, and the 15th Panzer Division was coming across from the Mareth line to help in countering the threat of the “left hook.”
At 1530 hours the first squadrons of Spitfires, Kittihawks, and tank-busters of the Royal Air Force roared overhead and swept the enemy positions in the greatest display of air support yet seen by the Eighth Army. Half an hour later, 200 guns of seven field regiments and three medium regiments of Royal Artillery opened up a concentrated barrage on a front of 5,000 yards, and at 1612 hours the Brigade crossed the start line, with the Staffordshire Yeomanry as directing regiment in the centre, the Notts Yeomanry on the right, and the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment on the left. The Shermans and Grants were in the lead, followed by Crusaders, then scout cars, and finally the New Zealand infantry in carriers, with 150 tanks of 1st Armoured Division bringing up the rear, followed by their motor Brigade in lorries advancing in nine columns.
It was a magnificent spectacle as the attack proceeded behind the barrage. It swept forward without a check and on the Staffordshire Yeomanry front five enemy tanks were knocked out, many anti-tank and field-gun positions overrun, and a number of prisoners taken. Seven heavy tanks were lost and seven other ranks killed, while among the wounded were Major Meynell and Lieutenants Hebden and Dennis. As the objective was reached, the Regiment took up a position in and around the Wadi Sisoub, while the 1st Armoured Division passed through to exploit the break-through, reaching the outskirts of El Hamma early the following morning.
There was excitement at first light on the morning of the 24th. The supply echelons of 1st Armoured Division were being attacked by some thirty German tanks from the right flank. By a swift movement the tanks of the Regiment were able to attack them on their flank and seven were knocked out before they withdrew, all of them Mark III’s and IV’s. Another party of twenty-eight German tanks arrived shortly afterwards from the hills to the westward, but did not come in close enough to be attacked, and the remainder of the day was spent in sustained artillery duels. During the evening it was learned that the enemy were withdrawing from the Mareth line, the “left hook” attack having succeeded in turning their flank. The news that they were once again in retreat was a cause of great satisfaction to the 8th Armoured Brigade, which had borne the brunt of the attack and which was congratulated on its achievements by General Horrocks, of X Corps, and by General Freyberg, of the New Zealand Corps.
With the success of the break-through, 8th Armoured Brigade was ordered to fan out north-east and east towards the coast road and at midnight the Brigade moved off, with the Staffordshire Yeomanry again in the lead, to make contact with the tail of 1st Armoured Division. As soon as that was done the Regiment was ordered across the Wadi Martuba to cut the Mareth-Gabes road, but was unable to reach its objective because of a group of German tanks, the rearguard of the retreating 15th Panzer Division, which attacked from the left flank. Six of the enemy were knocked out for the loss of one Sherman. During the action Colonel Eadie was slightly wounded, but was able to return to duty after two days, the Regiment being commanded in his absence by Major Ian Spence.
On 29th and 30th March the Staffordshire Yeomanry moved up the El Hamma-Gabes road, following the retreating enemy. There was no more than occasional shelling and there were no further casualties in the Regiment. Since the start of the operation the Regiment’s losses had been 1 officer and 12 other ranks killed, 6 officers and 44 other ranks wounded. Seven of the Regiment’s tanks had been destroyed by the enemy, three more lost on minefields, and nine damaged, while losses inflicted on the enemy by the Regiment were nineteen tanks, two armoured cars, and fifteen guns of various calibres. A considerable number of lorries and other soft-skinned vehicles had been destroyed and 124 prisoners captured. The enemy’s total losses were very much greater, for in addition to those killed and wounded, over 6,000 prisoners had been taken and more than fifty tanks destroyed, as well as a great number of guns and other equipment.
This “left hook,” in which the Staffordshire Yeomanry had played so notable a part, became one of the best-known operations of the whole of the desert campaign. It had proved the hardest battle since El Alamein, but it had succeeded in turning an immensely strong enemy position on the Mareth line, and the Staffordshire Yeomanry came in for much praise and many congratulations for their share of the great achievement. It had led, too, to the occupation of Gabes by the Eighth Army on 30th March, and once again the enemy was on the run.
There was to be little rest for the Regiment after the successful capture of El Hamma and Gabes, and on 6th April the Brigade, still with the Staffordshire Yeomanry in the lead, moved forward to the Wadi Akarit behind a barrage of some 400 guns. There was much very hard fighting during the day, especially for the Crusaders, which advanced up a wadi of which the exit was dominated by enemy anti-tank guns. Two of the Regiment’s tanks were knocked out and just before last light German infantry, supported by tanks, came in to the attack. Two of their tanks were hit and the attack was driven off. It was decided during the day that the only possible method of breaking out into the plain ahead was under a barrage, and the Staffordshire Yeomanry were selected for the task on the morrow.
An early reconnaissance in the morning of 7th April proved the enemy to have gone and the chance was taken to get the Brigade across the wadi and to assemble on the plain. With the Staffordshire Yeomanry still the leading regiment, fast progress was made, overrunning some of the German supply echelons and capturing over 400 prisoners, some of them from 21st Panzer Division and 204th Panzer Grenadier Regiment. After a brief pause for luncheon, the Notts Yeomanry took up the running, but almost at once were held up by a group of twenty-six enemy tanks, of which thirteen were the new Tigers. Colonel Eadie was able to bring up the Regimental Group anti-tank guns just in time and a shooting match developed at a range of about 2,500 yards. One of the Tigers was knocked out by an “A” Squadron tank, the first to fall a victim to the Eighth Army, and at last light the enemy withdrew.
During the night the Regiment was ordered forward to join up with the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment ready for the morning. It proved an exciting move, with many reports of the enemy and no very clear indication of his whereabouts. The last part of the night was spent in a wadi which proved very bad going for the armour, but it was successfully negotiated at first light on the following morning and the Staffordshire Yeomanry linked up with the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment on the high ground near Djebel Houlges. After a brief engagement with a group of nine tanks, one of which was destroyed, the Regiment, still leading the Brigade, made a fast advance over the open country, reaching the bottom of the slopes of Djebel Rebat at 2130 hours.
The speed of the Brigade’s advance had caught the enemy by surprise, and a further quick advance on the morning of the 9th enabled the high ground at Djebel el Telil to be secured, which proved an admirable point for observation. An attack by forty-five tanks on the Brigade’s supply echelon was beaten off before much damage could be done, and three more enemy tanks were knocked out, the result of excellent shooting. In the evening the 2nd Armoured Brigade took over the Brigade’s front and the 8th Armoured Brigade moved round to occupy the nearby airfields.
It had been hoped that there would have been now a brief period of rest, for all were very tired after their hard fighting and the fast advance, but the hopes faded the following morning, 10th April, when orders were received to move forward again and cut the main Sfax-Sousse road south of El Djem. This was successfully achieved, and on the following two days the Brigade pushed on fast, through El Djem and Sousse, to the outskirts of Enfidaville, the next line on which the enemy was preparing to make a stand.
In the meantime, other events in Tunisia had been moving fast. While the Eighth Army had been fighting their way up from the south, the First Army and the Americans, attacking from the west, had been making good progress after a number of initial set-backs. Their offensive had opened on 7th April, and the enemy was daily being hemmed into an ever-contracting area. Yet, while it remained certain that his days in Africa were numbered, it was equally certain that there was a deal of hard and difficult fighting to be faced before he could be forced to surrender. The country was rough and mountainous, admirably suited to defence and difficult and restricted for armour, and it was only to be expected that the men of the Afrika Korps, caught as they were in a trap, would fight desperately to the last gasp.
And so they did. During the advance on Enfidaville, when “A” Squadron went forward to probe the right flank, Major the Hon. J. Y. Cunliffe-Lister was severely wounded in the concentrated shelling which the enemy put down on the Squadron, and shortly afterwards died from his wounds. Later in the day the New Zealand infantry, supported by tanks of the Regiment, twice attempted to advance on Enfidaville, but both times were driven back with heavy losses.
After a few days of comparative rest the Regiment moved forward again on 19th April to support the New Zealand Division in an attack on the Takrouna ridge. Although the Maoris of the Division fought their way to the top and held on there in the face of a tremendous fire, there was little real progress, and the days followed each other with largely fruitless local attacks by the armour, each time driven off by well-placed anti- tank guns in the hills. This was certainly no country for tanks, for there was little room for manoeuvre and every movement brought in its train concentrated shelling from the enemy.
It was 8th May before the first really good news came in. The First Army’s offensive which had resulted in the capture of Longstop Hill on 26th April and of Massicault on 6th May, had brought them to Tunis and Bizerta, both of which had fallen into their hands on 7th May. And now the enemy was pinned in on the Cap Bon peninsula and the curtain was being prepared for lowering on the last act of the African campaign.
On 11th May a variety of good news came in. 26th Armoured Brigade, coming down from the First Army front, reached Hammamet in preparation for an attack on Bou Ficha from the north and a subsequent link-up with 8th Armoured Brigade advancing from the south. And now events began to move fast. General von Arnim was captured on the following day by the 4th Indian Division and in the early afternoon came news of the surrender of the 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions. Only the 90th Light Division was holding out now and, after a concentrated attack by Bostons on their positions in the hills, the white flags of surrender could be seen. The commander of the Italian First Army, General Messe, refused to surrender his men except to the Eighth Army, a tribute to their magnificent advance across the desert, and after the necessary negotiations had been carried out over the air, he too came in to join the growing number of prisoners. There were nearly 250,000 of them, the majority of them Germans, and the famous Afrika Korps had been extinguished by the more famous Eighth Army.
So the campaign was over. It had called for the hardest of fighting against opponents who had been trained to a wonderfully high pitch of excellence. It had called for an immensely long advance across desert, scrub, and mountain, with all its attendant difficulties. But above all it had called for great fortitude, courage, and endurance, and for a heavy sacrifice. The cost of victory had been great, but the victory itself proved to the world that the British soldier had no peer when he set his mind to fighting.
From Alamein to Tunis the Staffordshire Yeomanry had borne a proud and important part in the historic achievements of the Eighth Army. They had frequently been in the lead of the great advance and had matched themselves against the toughest fighters the enemy could produce. They had come through it all in really wonderful style and in doing so had added to the Regiment’s list one of the proudest of all its battle honours.