The US 34th ‘Red Bull’ Division takes Hill 609

US infantry advancing, somewhere in Tunisia.

US infantry advancing, somewhere in Tunisia.

The rocky summit of Hill 609.

The rocky summit of Hill 609.

The US Army in Tunisia had faced a number of setbacks as they became adjusted to hostilities. It was widely recognised that they were quick to learn and the final battles of the North African front were to demonstrate that they could put their learning into operation. The battle for Hill 609 is sometimes regarded as a ‘coming of age’ for the US Army during this campaign.

A two pronged assault on Tunis was now squeezing the Germans, with the British forces coming up from the south and the Americans pushing from the west. Both encountered strategically important German defensive hilltop positions which dominated the surrounding landscape. Hill 609 was a massive 2000 foot rocky outcrop from which guns could be directed over a wide area.

This feature had originally been included in the sector of the 1st Infantry Division who captured it but were later repulsed by a vicious German counterattack. For the protection of our own force it was necessary that we secure the hill whether it was included in our own sector or not. Accordingly, one battalion of the 135th Infantry stormed it and thereby enabled a further battalion to pass through its position to the southeast of the major bastion of Hill 609.

Known to the Arabs as Djebel Tahent, this was an enormous mass of rock, its lower slopes covered with vegetation and lined with a number of crude rock walls twisting along the slopes. Direct approach from the west was extremely difficult since the face of the mountain rose almost sheer. On the eastern face, however, an easier approach was possible and it was decided therefore that the way to assault the position was from the German side.

The enemy defending the hill came from a German airforce regiment called “Regiment Barenthin” after its original commander. These troops were deeply imbued with Nazi doctrine and were boldly and courageously led. They were on a par with the present-day [1945] German paratroops. Right at the top of Hill 609 these troops had prepared a citadel blasted out of the rock. Only one way up was known, and this was a goat trail which led in from the northeast.

By 1 May the Division had placed four battalions in a circle around the mountain and, supported by a tank company of the 1st Armored Division and by the heaviest artillery fire we could muster, the assault was begun. The bravery and discipline shown at Fondouk were now reinforced by the wisdom taught during the training period at Maktar and the infantry made encouraging progress.

Finally there was nothing left of the enemy position except the stronghold at the very top. The Germans here were trapped, but so long as they remained in occupation of their positions they could bring down very heavy artillery fire on us, directed from the splendid observation post which Hill 609 formed. Using a screen of artillery shells very skillfully the infantry closed to hand grenade and bayonet range. Darkness had fallen and fighting of the most bitter kind took place in conditions where only excellent control and leadership prevented friend from killing friend.

Toward morning one platoon succeeded in forcing its way up the goat trail, which the Germans had believed was not a feasible means of approaching their positions, and took the stubborn men of the “Barenthin” Regiment by surprise from the rear. Temporarily stunned, the enemy was quickly overcome and Hill 609 was ours. Immediately a battalion was placed in occupation of it and our artillery forward observers accompanying the foremost infantry elements soon were directing fire upon the rapidly retreating enemy causing great havoc.

See The Story of the 34th Infantry Division

Omar Bradley, commanding US forces was to intervene to allocate tanks to the battle. Much of the terrain did not suit them but there was a sufficiently viable route for them to make their advance and take on the German strongpoints:

Seldom has an enemy contested a position more bitterly than did the German high on Hill 609. For he knew once that rampart fell, he had no choice but to withdraw to the east and thus open a path to Mateur on the ank of his Tunis line.

After a day of savage ghting up the hill’s steep slopes, the 34th Division reached an Arab village under the cliff on the south side of 609. Higher up on the promontory, crack German infantrymen had barricaded themselves in the crevices. From those positions they continued to empty automatic fire on Ryder’s troops.

Later a prisoner from the Barenthin Regiment who had defended Hill 609 protested our use of tanks in this attack.

“We could have held out against your infantry for another week,” he boasted, “but we didn’t expect to see tanks. As a matter of fact you had no right to use them. We had been told that was not tank country and as a result we had few defenses.”

With this successful attack against Hill 609 the 34th rid itself of the poor reputation with which it had emerged from Fondouk. The following September Ryder sailed with his division from Tunisia to Italy.

In two terrible years of campaigning in the mountains there the 34th Division put in a total of 605 days in the line. Altogether in World War II it suffered approximately 20,000 casualties — almost one and one-half times its full strength.

See Omar N. Bradley: A Soldier’s Story

A US Army tank crew take a break somewhere in Tunisia.

A US Army tank crew take a break somewhere in Tunisia.

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Joe Zwack February 18, 2019 at 1:04 am

My dad, Joseph A. Zwack, was there, as was my uncle, Harley Key. Dad was a Second Louie at the time. The were members of the 34th Division, 133 Infantry Regiment, (Either 1st or 2nd Battalion), Company A, out of Dubuque, Iowa. Company A, was a National Guard Company, that was nationalized as a part of the WWII effort. Also there from Company A was Catholic Chaplin Rev. Al Hoffman, who was wounded several times, and lost a leg while crawling to help a wounded German soldier.

Todd Wolfe May 2, 2018 at 8:14 pm

My Grandfather was there; Orris Nordland, Co. H, 135th Inf., 34 ID. Actually survived it all, N. Africa and Italy. All the years I knew him, he would not talk about it, any of it. Only time I heard one of stories during his life was when the Army presented him a Bronze Star for actions at Kasserine, some 30 years afterwards in the 70’s. He passed in 1981 and since then, more of the stories started to come out. They truly were the greatest generation.

Rick Korzep March 17, 2018 at 5:20 am

My father also fought here. Walter Korzep, a corporal at the time with the 168th regiment. His telling of the fight up Hill 609 gave rise to one of my favorite sayings when I think I am having a hard day at work. “At least nobody has told me to fix bayonets today.” As others have said here, he carried those battles with him until he passed in 2008.

Dan Schwandt January 30, 2018 at 10:51 pm

My dad, Bruno H. Schwandt, always shook his head and said “no good” when he talked about Hill 609. In talking with him, Hill 609 seemed to bother him more than any other place he was at during the war. He talked often about Monte Cassino as well. I wish I would have asked more questions, even though I thought I asked them all. He passed away on July 23, 2011. He was thinking of all his buddies that died at the end of his life. He could never understand how he managed to live through the war and be lucky enough to raise a family. Dan Schwandt

Harold Regan November 26, 2017 at 9:57 pm

My father was also there. 2nd Lt. Harold T. Regan, leader of 2nd platoon, Company “A”, 1st Battalion, 135th Infantry Regiment, 34th Infantry Division. Wounded later in Italy and sent home. Was one of those veterans who would never talk about his war experience. Since his death I’ve been trying to reconstruct his service via the Internet.

Jim Murphy May 3, 2017 at 1:52 am

My Dad was there. He had hill 609 carved into his helmet liner. He fought this place until he passed away in 1995.

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