Much has been written about the role of the junior officer in the First World War, where they were expected to lead from the front in attacking the opposing trenches. The life expectancy of an infantry subaltern was very short.
Circumstances in the Second World War were more varied but the infantry officer was often to find himself in battle situations that were very similar to the previous conflict. The attacks in Tunisia were often against hilltop or mountainous positions over rocky ground with little cover. The casualty rate was high for all ranks but even worse for officers.
The actions of Lord Lyell at Dj Bou Arara were exceptional but they do illustrate what the expectations were on officers to sustain the momentum of the battle with their personal leadership:
Lieutenant (temporary Captain) The Lord Lyell (57781), Scots Guards (Kirriemuir, Angus) From the 22nd April, 1943, to 27th April, 1943, Captain The Lord Lyell commanded his Company, which had been placed under the orders of a Battalion of the Grenadier Guards, with great gallantry, ability and cheerfulness
He led it down a slope under heavy mortar fire to repel a German counter attack on 22nd April, led it again under heavy fire through the Battalion’s first objective on 23rd April in order to capture and consolidate a high point, and held this point through a very trying penod of shelling, heat and shortage of water.
During this period, through his energy and cheerfulness, he not only kept up the fighting spirit of his Company but also managed through Radio Telephony, which he worked himself from an exposed position, to bring most effective artillery file to bear on enemy tanks, vehicles and infantry positions.
At about 1800 hours on 27th April, 1943, this officer’s Company was taking part in the Battalion’s attack on Dj Bou Arara The Company was held up in the foothills by heavy fire from an enemy post on the left. This post consisted of an 88 millimetre gun and a heavy machine gun in separate pits.
Realizing that until this post was destroyed the advance could not proceed, Lord Lyell collected the only available men not pinned down by fire — a sergeant, a lance-corporal and two guardsmen — and led them to attack it.
He was a long way in advance of the others and lobbed a hand grenade into the machine gun pit destroying the crew. At this point his sergeant was killed and both the guardsmen were wounded. The lance-corporal got down to give covering fire to Lord Lyell who had run straight on towards tnc 88 millimetre gun pit and was working his way round to the left of it.
So quickly had this officer acted that he was in among the crew with the bayonet before they had time to fire more than one shot. He killed a number of them before being overwhelmed and killed himself. The few survivors of the gun crew then left the pit, some of them being killed while they were retiring, and both the heavy machine gun and 88 millimetre gun were silenced.
The Company was then able to advance and take its objective.
I here is no doubt that Lord Lyell’s outstanding leadership, gallantry and self-sacrifice enabled his Company to carry out its task which had an important bearing on the success of the Battalion and of the Brigade
See The London Gazette 12 August 1943