In Tunisia the Germans had very nearly exhausted their ability to mount offensive operations, after attempts to break through the American lines at Kasserine and the British at Sidi Nsir and Medenine had eventually all come to nothing. Yet they remained a potent force and the substantial Mareth defence line had now to be overcome.
The forces to assault the Mareth line were now gathering in earnest. Amongst them were the men of the 2nd Battalion, The Rifle Brigade, who had been in the desert since Sidi Barrani in 1940 and had travelled in the pursuit all the way from El Alamein. Albert Martin was a Rifle Brigade Sergeant whose section had a special night patrol assigned to them :
Our orders were to relieve the battered 6th Queen’s Regiment that night in their position north west of Medenine, just short of the heavily fortified Mareth Line which, we assumed, would be receiving our undivided attention before very long.
Handover of positions was completed during the night, the Queen’s being mightily relieved to get away from that dangerous area. They had borne the brunt of Rommel’s recent attack, the attack he made after giving such a mauling to the Americans at Kasserine.
Strange affair that. Just when Rommel had burst through the Allied lines on the western front, had inflicted massive damage and was in a virtually unstoppable position he switched direction and made a fierce assault on the Eighth Army front, suffering, as Monty would say, a bloody nose in the process. He was repulsed with heavy losses and retired to defensive positions on the Mareth Line.
Clearly, that would be the nut to crack before we continued our advance. Rommel was now a spent force in North Africa. He was relieved of his command and returned to Germany.
At 5.30 a.m. there was a stand-to, trying hard to come to terms with an alien scenery of valley, hills and vegetation, the outcrop of rocks in the foothills so perfect for concealing an 88 or a troop carrier. We were on the receiving end of shelling throughout the day, not heavy but enough to get our shovels active and our slit trenches a few inches deeper.
This was our first hostile fire of 1943; the veterans quietish and pensive, the newcomers excited and chattering. It didn’t take long to become involved. The cleverly placed and strongly protected gun emplacements tucked into the folds of the foothills were proving difficult to take out with our artillery and the expanse of flat open ground in front of them would make a direct assault a costly operation.
So it was decided to call in the RAF and my section was detailed to lay markers for a night bombing run. There was nothing really hazardous about the job because it was most unlikely that we would encounter enemy forces in the vicinity. They were intent on defending, not harassing or attacking. But timing and precise compass work was vital.
Bearings on the target area were taken during late afternoon from a point which was then marked with empty ammo boxes. The position of the boxes was then carefully noted and a bearing taken from there to our night time start point.
This was successfully completed and in the early hours, in pitch dark, we were back at the boxes, the platoon commander in a jeep and me and the section with a six-pounder portee stacked with four-gallon petrol tins cut in half, and three jerry cans full of petrol.
Then, in a straight line along our compass bearing for 1.2 miles exactly – bringing us to a point 1000 yards short of the enemy guns. Petrol tins laid in a straight line six feet apart, three or four inches of petrol in each.
Then the tricky part. Quickly a match to the petrol, and off like the clappers. Between 45 and 75 seconds the bombers were due. As far as I know it worked. Never got much feedback, but there was pretty intensive bombing in the vicinity of the guns.
The few moments it took to light the petrol were hairy. To deliberately illuminate oneself in the dark of the night seemed the height of folly. I felt extremely vulnerable, expecting any second a ferocious riposte. But it never came. Whilst Jerry was probably still wondering what was happening the bombs struck home.