Under shellfire during attack on the Mareth Line

Matilda Scorpion flail tank, 5 November 1942.

Matilda Scorpion flail tank, 5 November 1942.

Close-up view of the revolving drum and chains at work on a Matilda Scorpion flail tank, 17 April 1943.

Close-up view of the revolving drum and chains at work on a Matilda Scorpion flail tank, 17 April 1943.

Activity on the Mareth line was hotting up as the 8th Army made preparations for their biggest attack since Alamein. A series of raids and probing attacks were being mounted, mainly at night.

For the gunners in the Artillery such attacks meant long hours of hard physical labour feeding the guns. Then the main hazard was counter battery fire from the German guns or possibly a bombing attack. For the infantry going forward there were these dangers plus plenty more.

Going forward with the infantry on the 16th March was Artillery officer Jack Swaab who went up to the Artillery Forward Observation Point. At the FOP a junior officer maintained observation of the fall of shot and communicated target information back to the guns, usually by means of a field telephone. On this occasion Swaab, who had only arrived in the field at the beginning of the year, was doing it for ‘experience’:

We left here at 6.30 pm and by about 9 had reached the infantry debussing point. There was a bright half moon and the night was noisy with our guns whose flashes could be seen round the horizon. Later the Boche air force joined in, bombing back areas by the light of bright yellow flares.

All this was the artillery preparation for the Guards and 50 Div. who put in the first attacks. By 2300 we were up at the F.O.P. where the Germans started shelling us fairly violently. Luckily we were in the middle and most of them fell just right and left of us.

At about 0100 our Vickers opened up with a most devilish pandemonium. firing cross the valley we had to cross. Overhead our shells were singing towards the ridge we could just see – our objective – and enemy shells and mortar bombs fell among us.

Once I heard a man screaming and sobbing as they scored a hit. I put on my tin hat and lay flat. Eventually the infantry (and my god, what guts these boys have got) went over the ridge and were driven back by m.g. fire but went on again, and we went after them with our cable reeling it out on foot.

Then the fun really started. They were shelling that valley quite hard. Once we were lying flat and if you imagine we were the centre dot of a domino 5, we had 4 all round us about 20-25 yards away. They don’t whistle when they get close but make a kind of screaming hiss which is very frightening.

I found a Gordon with his leg badly smashed by shell splinters. He was lying there in the smoke and cold so I gave him my coat. Later I managed to get a couple of stretcher bearers to him and thus got my coat back. The bearers were as gentle as women with him and I realised the goodness as well as the evil in men afresh.

Soon after this our artillery put down an ill~conceived smoke screen, which in the still night failed to rise at all, and soon we were groping and stumbling along in a dense fog which made us cough and stung our throats.

I don`t know what time it was when we crossed the Wadi Zeuss and got into the gap in the enemy minefield. Time lost its ordinary values, even tho’ I did check it frequently on the luminous face of my watch. The minefield gap lay just the other side of a marsh and was a thin lane marked by white tapes and lighted by tiny lights which seemed to shine like beacons.

Two Scorpions – the converted Matildas we use for clearing gaps – lay like huge unwieldy beetles. stuck in the bad going. Three machine gun posts stammered in front of us in the fog of smoke and the bullets buzzed and whee-ed over our heads.

On the right – a mine went up and I heard for the first time that curious wailing cry ‘Stretcher Bearers’ and again the groaning of the wounded. Sappers were everywhere, taping and picketing the gap: they are brave and efficient. But bravery in battle is a curious business.

It certainly is not accounted brave to be foolhardy and when shells are flying, you see people lying flat and making no bones about it. I believe that we suffered casualties around this point – I suppose it was about 0330 by then and we were feeling tired, cold, and footsore and craved a cigarette which we couldn’t have.

To cut a long story short we were on our objective soon after 0400. In the gloom figures poked about with tommy guns and bayonets.

See Jack Swaab: Field of Fire

Vickers machine gun team of 10th Battalion The Rifle Brigade, training near Bou Arada, 30 April 1943.

Vickers machine gun team of 10th Battalion The Rifle Brigade, training near Bou Arada, 30 April 1943.

The Vickers Machine Gun was one of the longest serving weapons in British military history, with the Mk 1 being employed in virtually unaltered form from its adoption in 1912 until 1968. The gun is a development of the Maxim system (see FIR 8095) wherein the Maxim toggle action is turned upside down, allowing for the body of the gun to be significantly smaller and, therefore, lighter. The heavy brass water jacket of the the Maxim was replaced by a lighter corrugated steel version. Various other changes were made which made the Vickers much easier to strip and service than the Maxim. During the First World War the Vickers became central to British infantry tactics and, from October 1915, all the Army's Vickers Guns were put under the control of a specialist unit, the Machine Gun Corps. This gave impetus to the development of sophisticated tactics, which made full use of the Vickers guns range, accuracy and extraordinary reliability. These tactics were founded on pre-plotted fire, which could, when necessary, be conducted in multi-gun barrages, indirectly against unseen targets and over the heads of friendly troops. Although the Machine Gun Corps was disbanded in 1922, similar tactics were employed during the Second World War, when use of the Vickers was deputed to specially trained battalions furnished from line infantry regiments. The Vickers was replaced in British service from 1962 onwards, by the L7 General Purpose Machine-Gun.

The Vickers Machine Gun was one of the longest serving weapons in British military history, with the Mk 1 being employed in virtually unaltered form from its adoption in 1912 until 1968. The gun is a development of the Maxim system (see FIR 8095) wherein the Maxim toggle action is turned upside down, allowing for the body of the gun to be significantly smaller and, therefore, lighter. The heavy brass water jacket of the the Maxim was replaced by a lighter corrugated steel version. Various other changes were made which made the Vickers much easier to strip and service than the Maxim. During the First World War the Vickers became central to British infantry tactics and, from October 1915, all the Army’s Vickers Guns were put under the control of a specialist unit, the Machine Gun Corps. This gave impetus to the development of sophisticated tactics, which made full use of the Vickers guns range, accuracy and extraordinary reliability. These tactics were founded on pre-plotted fire, which could, when necessary, be conducted in multi-gun barrages, indirectly against unseen targets and over the heads of friendly troops. Although the Machine Gun Corps was disbanded in 1922, similar tactics were employed during the Second World War, when use of the Vickers was deputed to specially trained battalions furnished from line infantry regiments. The Vickers was replaced in British service from 1962 onwards, by the L7 General Purpose Machine-Gun.

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