Indian and Gurkha troops attack Germans in Tunisia

Ghurkas in action with a 6-pdr anti-tank gun in Tunisia, 16 March 1943.

Ghurkas in action with a 6-pdr anti-tank gun in Tunisia, 16 March 1943.

Everyone seemed to accept that the end was nearing in North Africa, the Germans were wondering where the Allies would strike next, and the Allies were doing their best to keep them guessing. Yet the fighting in Tunisia went on unabated. The final battles as the Allies moved on to the capital Tunis were as bitterly fought as ever.

All too often this meant assaulting German hilltop positions which were heavily defended, the battles often resolved to hand to hand engagements and casualties were invariably heavy. In the thick of the action were Indian and Ghurkha troops, just as they had been all the way through the campaign.

Havildar-Major Chhelu Ram was to be awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions on the night of 19th-20th April, his citation gives us some idea of the nature of the fighting:

No. 8638 Company Havildar-Major Chhelu Ram, 6th Rajputana Rifles, Indian Army.

This N.C.O. displayed most conspicuous bravery, determination, and devotion to duty during the attack by the 5th Indian Infantry Brigade on the DJEBEL GARCI feature on the night of the 19th/20th April, 1943.

He was with one of the two leading Companies, and during the advance to the Battalion’s second objective, the forward troops were held up by an enemy machine- gun position on some high ground. Company Havildar-Major Chhelu Ram armed with a “Tommy” gun immediately rushed forward through the intense machine-gun and mortar fire and single-handed silenced the post, killing its three or four occupants and thus enabling the advance to continue.

When the leading Companies were approaching their third objective the enemy brought down intense machine-gun and mortar fire on them which mortally wounded the Company Commander. Company Havildar-Major Chhelu Ram went to the officer’s assistance in a completely exposed position and attended to him, during which he himself was seriously wounded.

He then took command of his own Company and elements of the other leading. Company and quickly reorganised them. Almost immediately the enemy put in a heavy counter-attack and our troops began to run short of ammunition.

During the fierce hand-to-hand fighting which followed, this N.C.O.’s bravery and determination were beyond praise. Rushing from point to point, wherever the fighting was heaviest, hp rallied the men and drove back the enemy with the cry of “Jats and Mohammedans, there must be no withdrawal! We will advance! Advance! ”

He then advanced ahead of the two Companies. Inspired by his fine example, the counter-attack on this vital ground was driven back with bayonets, stones and rocks.

During this fighting Company Havildar-Major Chhelu Ram was again wounded, this time mortally. He refused, however, to be-carried back and continued to command and inspire his men until finally losing consciousness. A few minutes later he died from the effects of his wounds.

His magnificent action, leadership, and utter contempt for danger were an inspiration to his men and were the chief contribution to the holding; of what was essentially vital ground.

Ghurkas advance through a smokescreen up a steep slope in Tunisia, 16 March 1943.

Ghurkas advance through a smokescreen up a steep slope in Tunisia, 16 March 1943.

Also present on the DJEBEL GARCI that night were men from the Gurkha Regiment, famous for their fearsome use of the Kukri. There is this account of the battle from Jemadar (Lieutenant) Dewan Sing:

I was challenged in a foreign language. I felt it was not the British language or I would have recognised it. To make quite sure I crept up and found myself looking into the face of a German. I recognised him by his helmet. He was fumbling with his weapon so I cut off his head with my kukri.

Another appeared from a slit trench and I cut him down also. I was able to do the same to two others, but one made a great deal of noise, which raised the alarm. I had a cut at a fifth but I am afraid I only wounded him. Yet perhaps the wound was severe, for I struck him between the neck and shoulder.

I was now involved in a struggle with a number of Germans, and eventually, after my hands had become cut and slippery with blood, they managed to wrest my kukri from me. One German beat me over the head with it, inliicting a number of wounds. He was not very skilful, however, sometimes striking me with the sharp edge but oftener with the blunt.

They managed to beat me to the ground where I lay pretending to be dead. The Germans got back into their trenches and after a while I looked up. I could not see anything, for my eyes were full of blood.

I wiped the blood out of my eyes and quite near I saw a German machine-gun. I thought, ‘If only I can reach that gun I shall be able to kill the lot.’ By now it was getting light and as I lay thinking of a plan to reach the gun, my platoon advanced and started to hurl grenades among the enemy. But they were also falling very near me, so I thought that if I did not move I really would be dead.

I managed to get to my feet, and ran towards my platoon. Not recognising me, I heard one of my men call, ‘Here comes the enemy! Shoot him!’ I bade them not to do so. They recognised my voice and let me come in.

My hands being cut about and bloody, and having lost my kukri, I had to ask one of my platoon to take my pistol from my holster and to put it in my hand. I then took command of my platoon again. I met my company commander, who bade me go to the Regimental Aid Post.

I said, ‘Sahib, there is fighting to be done, and I know the enemy’s dispositions. I must stay and command my platoon.’ But he firmly ordered me and I had to go.

Yet before I went, one of my Bren gunners was hit, and my company commander, although wounded in the neck, took over the Bren gun and continued to fire it. Moreover, the doctor sahib, having bandaged me, refused to allow me to return to my platoon.

Jemadar Dewan Sing had over a dozen separate wounds on his head alone but survived and was awarded the Indian Order of Merit.

Earlier in the campaign. Men of the 4th Indian Division with a captured German flag at Sidi Omar, North Africa.

Earlier in the campaign. Men of the 4th Indian Division with a captured German flag at Sidi Omar, North Africa.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

CaitieCat April 20, 2013 at 4:42 pm

The Gurkhas and Punjabis (specifically, not to dismiss the other Indians who fought) were an incredible resource for the Commonwealth in this war, sending thousands and thousands of young men to fight in a war that had little chance of affecting them in their homes, and for a country that would revile them on a personal basis if, say, they tried to move in next door. They earned buckets of medals for bravery and extraordinary devotion to duty, and the war would have been damned hard to win without them – and yet the Gurkhas, in particular, had to wait nearly sixty years to be allowed the full range of benefits and pensions given to their white comrades.

Remarkable men, remarkable people.

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