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.

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