Irish Guards suffer heavy losses in hilltop battle

A 25-pdr field gun in action at night during the assault on the Mareth line, 30 March 1943.

A 25-pdr field gun in action at night during the assault on the Mareth line, 30 March 1943.

The 1st Battalion, Irish Guards had only just arrived in Tunisia, just in time to celebrate St Patrick’s Day in the town of Bone. They arrived at a critical moment, with the Allies attempting to put the final squeeze on the German and Italian forces. They went straight to the front line just as the fighting intensified.

On this occasion John Kenneally was just an onlooker:

Our No 2 Company (103 officers and men) were ordered to do a probing attack on Recce Ridge. This meant advancing across the valley in the dark, climbing the mined slopes, a quick in-and-out battle on the ridge and then a withdrawal in daylight back across the valley. It looked a sticky job. Suicidal, even.

We had ‘stood to’ at dusk, and at midnight we watched silently as No 2 Company moved out. The night was clear and we could see the stars but there was little moonlight, We watched and listened intently.

Everything was unusually quiet, except for the occasional illuminating flare that went up, but that was quite normal. Just before 5am the silence was shattered by our own artillery behind us opening up. They laid a heavy barrage on the top of Recce Ridge. The noise was ear splitting and it lasted for about fifteen minutes. When the barrage ended we could hear heavy machine-gun fire and the thumping of grenades.

Firing became intermittent and the artillery put down smoke, presumably to cover the Company’s retreat back down the slopes. After the smoke we heard light automatic fire and occasional rifle shots, then nothing. It was daylight now. We watched and waited for No 2 Company to reappear, but they never did. Out of 103, five wounded guardsmen were the only ones to return.

Within two weeks of arriving in North Africa the Battalion had lost over a quarter of its men and it had no clear idea of what had happened to them. The were conflicting accounts from the five survivors.

Lieutenant D.G. MADDEN the Intelligence Officer for the Battalion submitted this report of the attack, made in the early hours of 30th March:

The attack was carried out on the orders of higher command with the object of checking the despatch of reinforcements to ROMMEL. Although it proved costly to the Battalion, it is hoped it served its purpose in the higher command’s general plan. The Company moved off at 0045 hours and at 0530 hours reported that they were in position below the crest of RECCE RIDGE. Soon after Mortar and rifle fire were observed on the face of the ridge and Major BUCKNILL called for artillery support on the Eastern edge of the ridge. This was quickly forthcoming.

At 0600 hours the artillery programme commenced and shortly afterwards the Company crossed the ridge. From then on for the best part of two hours much machine gun fire was heard and large parties of men were seen going up and down the ridge. This could not be understood as the wireless communication had broken down.

Meanwhile Lieutenant McINERNEY and two detachments of mortars had gone out on the left to cover the withdrawal. They were joined by Capain ROYLE, an R.A. F.O.O. who had got back, and who reported that he had seen a section of No. 2 Company being taken prisoner. Otherwise he could furnish no information.

The mortars covered the withdrawal of 5 wounded men (Sergeant DEAZLEY, Sergeant MEARS, McCAFFERTY, and two gunners) and then were ordered to withdraw. Major GORDON-WATSON had come up to join them. THey came down the track towards No. 3 Company, but found it under heavy shell fire, turned and tried another way. As they came to the railway bridge they noticed, just in time, a wire stretched across the road to which was suspended a mine. Major GORDON-WATSON with complete disregard of his own personal safety leaped out of the leading carrier and undid the wire. The carriers returned safely.

There seems little doubt that the Company fulfilled its task of getting into the gullies on the other side of the crest, this being borne out by Sergeant MEARS, one of the wounded, who returned yesterday.

A German C.S.M. who did not enjoy the proceedings and left at the earliest possible moment reported in at No. 1 Company this morning. He described a confused melee at the top of the hill and apparently was under the impression that we had won the day.

See TNA WO 361/935

John Kenneally was to conclude:

As ordinary infantry soldiers, by the very nature of things, we were not privy to the ‘Grand Design’. We had to do as ordered and follow the man in front – very much a case of ‘Ours not to reason why, etc’. I suspect our battalion officers were in a similar position, but the powers-that-be threw No 2 Company’s lives away.

As was said in the First World War, ‘It was not the Germans who took our lives, it was our own Generals who did for us.’

Later, Recce Ridge was captured by a full battalion of the 78th Division supported by Churchill tanks. No 2 Company was completely replaced by first line reinforcements from the camp in Algiers. These new arrivals were very relieved to find anything left of the 1st Battalion – there had been persistent rumours in the rear echelons that most of the battalion had been wiped out. It was a grim-faced battalion that moved out of ‘Happy Valley’ (a misnomer if ever there was one).

See John Kenneally: The Honour and the Shame

Trucks carry supplies of petrol and ammunition to the front line, 30 March 1943.

Trucks carry supplies of petrol and ammunition to the front line, 30 March 1943.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

jim collins November 19, 2014 at 4:47 pm

My father Patrick Francis Collins was in the 1st Battalion Irish Guards and looking at his records was involved in the attack.He was machine gunned and treated by a German doctor then held as a prisoner of war until the end of the war..He passed away in 1969 when I was 15 years old so never got to hear about this….I have a picture of him with some other Irish Guards that must have been taken before they went into this conflict…I have no idea of any of the other men in the photo…

Ferg (ferguson) Handley August 14, 2014 at 6:22 pm

Warren, your cousin here! I’ve got a photo of Uncle Charles, can you email me on redmescalero@aol.com

Pauline, Frances Mears June 6, 2014 at 12:59 pm

Our dad was sergeant Mears, what they must have gone through , one can only imagine

warren hayes March 24, 2014 at 4:02 pm

Hi I am trying to find out as much information as I can about my uncle Pvt Charles Handley, Guardsman 1st battalion Irish Guards. He was killed in action in Tunisia on 30 April 1943. He is buried at Massicault war cemetery just outside Tunis. He died over twenty years before I was born and my parents passed away many years ago so there is no one I can ask about him.
Any information on him or what his battalion may have been doing on 30th April 1943 would be much appreciated. I am hoping to visit his grave in September this year.
Many Thanks
Warren Hayes

terry mc carthy November 6, 2013 at 8:18 pm

this is only half the story!! what about the support company losses in bren and mortar carriers their crews in this action??

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