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A Short History of the 8th Armoured Brigade

CHAPTER II

 

Medenine to Tunis.

While the rest of the Brigade rested and re-fitted in Tripoli, the Composite Regiment under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Jim Eadie was engaged in operations away to the West in the El Assa area. During February the formation moved out through El Uotia and Ben Gardane to Medenine where, on 6th March, the enemy delivered a heavy counter-attack and sustained a very bloody nose. The Germans then withdrew behind the Mareth Line. The 5th Royal Horse Artillery left the Brigade and their place was taken by 111 Field Regiment Royal Artillery on 14th March. The Brigade joined the 2nd New Zealand Division under Major-General Freyberg, V. C., an association which was to continue to the end of the campaign. Lieutenant-Colonel Silvertop was now in charge of the 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment and Lieutenant-Colonel Donny Player had replaced Lieutenant-Colonel "Flash" KelIet who was acting as 2nd in command of the Brigade. The 8th Armoured was now on the eve of one of its greatest actions. In company with the New Zealand Division they were to carry out the famous "Left Hook" round the end of the Mareth Line.

On 19th March the Brigade formed up in 9 columns and moved forward. The first enemy opposition was encountered at Wadi Medfid, where General Leclerc's French Force had been heavily engaged. Across appalling country a continuous advance was maintained towards the objective, the "bottle-neck" know as "Plum". This feature, formed by the confluence of two ranges of hills on Djebel Melab formed the gateway to Gabes which, in its turn, commanded the only line of retreat from Mareth. In the course of this advance a stiff battle took place in the vicinity of the Roman Wall and it was here that the Brigade suffered the great loss of Colonel Kellett, D. S. O., who was killed by a direct hit on his tank. He was replaced by Colonel Ronald MacDonnell, D. S. O., 9th Lancers.

A frontal attack on the Mareth line had failed, and the weight of the attack was now to be thrown into the Left Hook, the 1st Armoured Division being despatched to reinforce the New Zealanders. On 26th March the Brigade was launched towards El Hamma, a bloody battle ensuing in which they penetrated deep into the Switch Line. Having gained all their objectives Brigadier Harvey and Colonel MacDonnell, both old members of the 2nd Armoured, had the great satisfaction of standing on their tanks and giving a View-Holla" as their old Brigade drove through the gap which had been made. The game was now up and the enemy began to stream westwards from the Mareth Line.

After receiving the congratulations of General Montgomery and Major General Freyberg the Brigade, desperately short of sleep, moved out and fought a stiff action at the Wadi Akarit on 6th April. It was here that Tiger Tanks were encountered for the first time. Lieutenant-Colonel Ian Spence was now in command of the 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment as Lieutenant-Colonel Silvertop had been wounded at the Roman Wall.

SdKfz.181, Tiger Sfax was by-passed and the advance continued at great speed on good roads to Sousse till finally the strongly-defended Enfidaville - Takrouna position was encountered. Here the Brigade again supported the New Zealanders in the bitter fighting which resulted in the capture of Takrouna; during this action Lieutenant-Colonel Player was killed, his place being taken by The Viscount Cranley, M.C.

Christmas was celebrated at Nofilia where, as if by magic, all the usual delicacies were produced. The move westward via Sirte was re-commenced on Boxing Day and on January 15th the attack on the Buerat - Bungem line was launched. After a stiff fight the enemy withdrew, pursued by the 8th Armoured Brigade with the Staffordshire Yeomanry in the lead. A rear-guard position was encountered at Wadi Zem Zem where anti-tank guns and tanks were dug in on the reverse slope. The crossing was forced, not without heavy casualties, and the advance continued in face of a series of rearguard positions. Two heated engagements took place at Sedada and at Tarhuna where the hilly nature of the country assisted the delaying tactics of the enemy. It was in the latter action that General Harding was wounded while standing on the top of the Brigade Commander's tank. Brigadier Custance then assumed command of the Division. Tarhuna was the first town occupied by civilians to be captured by the Brigade and it was surrendered by the Burgomaster to the Staffordshire Yeomanry. Ground conditions now became almost impossible, but the 11th Hussars who were operating with the Brigade found a way through. In an operation conducted mainly on roads Castel Benito was passed after a sharp encounter and on 23rd January the 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment entered Tripoli in the wake of the 11th Hussars. On 24th January a composite force consisting of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, 1st Buffs, 5th Royal Horse Artillery and 7th Medium Regiment advanced to the Zavia area, Southwest of Tripoli.

From Alamein to Tripoli the 8th Armoured Brigade operated without support of infantry, other than its own Motor Battalion, and in every attack it was in the lead. Every type of country was traversed but those who took part in this great advance will never forget the thrill of entering the well-watered country filled with trees and houses at Tarhuna. Before this water had been rationed to half a gallon per man per day. A Victory Parade was held in Tripoli at which the Prime Minister took the salute. This chapter of the history cannot be closed without making special mention of two outstanding officers, Lieutenant-Colonel Kellett of the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry and Lieutenant-Colonel Pyman of the 3rd Battalion Royal Tank Regiment. With their names must be coupled the three Light Squadron Leaders, Major Crisp, Major Christopherson and Major Farquhar.

Three days after entering Tripoli Brigadier Custance who had trained the Brigade and led it throughout this brilliant advance handed over command to Brigadier "Roscoe" Harvey.

On the 8th May the 1st Derbyshire Yeomanry of the First Army and the 11th Hussars of the Eighth Army entered Tunis simultaneously, and all resistance ceased on the 12th. General Messe, commander of the Italian Army, would surrender only to the Eighth Army, the necessary negotiations being carried on through the medium of the wireless in the Command Tank of the Staffordshire Yeomanry.

Thus ended the great campaign in which 8th Armoured Brigade had travelled the 1850 miles from Alamein, fighting desperate battles against a better-equipped enemy, in blistering heat by day and intense cold at night, in blinding sandstorms and through seas of mud, sustained by a ration of sand-impregnated, half-melted bully beef. It was under such conditions that the 8th Armoured Brigade remained in the lead throughout.

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