7th Argylls at Wadi Akarit
Account of the Battle by Captain Cameron
7th Argylls at Wadi Akarit
The following description of the The Battle of Wadi Akarit is taken from The History of the 7th Argylls by Captain Ian C Cameron.
"On the 31st of March the complete carrier platoon under Capt. Adamson, the Intelligence Section under myself, and three patrolling parties of one N.C.O. and seven privates from B, C, and D companies commanded by Lieuts. Faid and Bowden and Capt. Joe Corcoran respectively, moved up to the New Zealanders' area where a keep was formed in front of the Wadi Akarit position. The task was to gain information of enemy intentions and dispositions, and to get to know the ground.
"Patrols were sent out each night, and observation posts were established well forward of the keep. Patrol reports and Intelligence information indicated that the positions held by the enemy along the line of the Wadi Akarit and the anti-tank ditch were strongly fortified. Enemy transport movement was observed going on all the time, and it was deduced that the enemy were reinforcing. The position itself formed a natural barrier against attack, as from the sea for some distance inland the wadi was impassable for vehicles. Where the wadi became shallow and passable for vehicles, a very effective anti-tank ditch was constructed which linked up with the hills farther south known as the Djebel Roumana.
"On the 2nd of April, after three days' rest, the battalion moved to a brigade concentration area near the Oasis de Usseps about three miles east of Oudref. The harbour party, which left the old location before the main part of the battalion, under the command of Lieut. Walter Lees, failed to turn off the main road at the correct place, and ran on into the enemy lines. An attempt was made to turn the trucks, but the enemy mortar and machine-gun fire was so intense that the order was given, "Every man for himself." Three other ranks including my batman, Private Lang, were the only troops who escaped back to our own lines, and the remainder of the party, consisting of two officers and twenty other ranks, were taken prisoner.
"The plan of attack for the battle was somewhat complicated. The 51st Highland Division were on the right of the Eighth Army attack but 'south of the coast road, the 50th Division in the centre, and the 4th Indian Division on the left. The New Zealanders were to be ready to push through the gap which the attacking infantry made. On the extreme right, north of the coast road, the Guards Brigade were to create a diversion by pushing forward under an artillery barrage and maintain positions close up to the enemy's foremost defended localities.
"Of the 51st Highland Division, the 154th Infantry Brigade were on the right, and the 152nd Infantry Brigade on the left. The 154th Brigade ordered the 7th Argylls to attack and capture the positions on the Wadi Akarit, and the antitank ditch to the north of Djebel Roumana. The 7th Black Watch were then to pass through us and mop up by swinging left along the anti-tank ditch with a view to linking up with the 2nd battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders of the 152nd Brigade, who were to mop up by swinging right along the Djebel Roumana. Our commanding officer named the Argyll objectives after the Regimental Battle Honours, such as Somme, Balaclava, Corunna, Beaumont Hamel, and Alamein.
"The place chosen for the attack was immediately west of the junction of the Wadi Akarit and Oglat es Smala, and the battalion were to break through the enemy positions on a front of one thousand yards and form a bridgehead. Air photographs showed the principal defended localities to be a long low sand-hill running parallel to the Wadi Akarit about three hundred yards behind it. On the right of the front there was another position three hundred yards beyond the sand-hill, and two strong positions were behind the anti-tank ditch which ran north-west from the wadi. Up till a few days before the attack no minefields were discovered by our patrols. On the night of the 4th of April, however, a patrol discovered a minefield one hundred yards deep which covered the length of the wadi and the antitank ditch. The mines were mostly the wooden box type, newly laid, widely spaced, and easily seen.
"On the evening of the 5th of April I went forward with Capt. Lord Guernsey of the 1st Black Watch to lay and light the start-line, which was on a slope facing Akarit about 1,800 yards due south. At 7 o'clock in the evening the battalion left its location by march route and marched a distance of seven miles to the start-line. On arrival at the start-line all troops began to dig themselves in, and at 1.30 a.m. breakfast was served. After breakfast everyone lay in his trench j taking the advantage of about two hours' sleep before the attack began.
"At 4 o'clock in the morning the artillery barrage opened up on our left, which was an indication that the 50th Division had started their attack on Pt. 85, an .enemy outpost in front of the anti-tank ditch on the left of the Djebel Roumana. At 4.15 a.m. an artillery barrage opened up in our sector, chiefly to disguise the noise created by the scorpions, which had moved forward to gap the minefield, supported by mortar detachments of the battalion under the command of Lieut. David Goodall and eight Valentine tanks of the 40th Royal Tank Regiment towing 6-pounder anti-tank guns of the 241 Anti-Tank Battery who were in support of us. The Valentine tanks were later to support us with machine-gun fire. They and the Royal Engineers' working parties for bridging the anti-tank ditch were seriously hampered by enemy shelling and machine-gun fire throughout the morning. Later, however, in spite of intense shelling, both the gap and the bridging were completed, and by midday the tanks were able to cross the anti-tank ditch.
"At 5.15 in the morning we advanced across the start-line supported by a terrific artillery concentration. B company was on the right under Capt. ]. C. Meiklejohn, D.S.O., A company on the left under Capt. ]. L. Robertson, the navigating party under myself moving in between the two forward companies. C and D companies, with Advance Battalion Headquarters in between, followed 700 yards behind, and Major R. Mathieson, T.D., brought up Rear Battalion Headquarters 700 yards behind the rear companies.
"B company was to capture the long sand hill on the right, and A company was to seize the anti-tank ditch and capture the nearer of the two posts beyond it, pause for fifteen minutes, and then push on and capture the second post, after which they were to reorganize 600 yards beyond the ditch. During the fifteen-minutes pause C company was to pass through B company and capture the final objective beyond. D company was in reserve, and moved behind A company to give depth. At the last minute fresh air photographs revealed that the enemy positions were very nearly doubled. A strong position was discovered in front. of the sand-hill on top of the wadi whose banks were about twenty- four feet high, and several machine-gun posts appeared on our side of the Akarit. Things went well with us to begin with, and very little shelling or machine-gun fire came down on our start-line. After we had advanced across the open for about six hundred yards, however, the enemy guns opened up and shelling became very heavy .. Enemy machinegun fire came at us from both flanks. This fire steadily increased and caused a considerable number of casualties.
"The advance of the battalion continued in good order, and on reaching the minefield it was found to be no worse than had been expected, and although only A company were able to use the gaps made by the scorpions, the rest of the battalion walked through the minefields without sustaining many casualties, as the mines were easily seen. The anti-tank ditch was the next obstacle to be surmounted. This ditch was about ten feet deep with steep smooth sides, and could not be climbed without assistance. It was rather amusing to find several Italian prisoners assisting C company over the ditch with the aid of rope ladders.
"About this time the shelling was the heaviest the battalion had yet endured in any battle, and this heavy shelling continued all day long. Both A and B companies captured their objectives on time, and prisoners, mostly Italian, began to flow through. When it was observed that B company's attack was going successfully, C company pushed through them to their objective, which they secured. D company, who were in reserve, had little fighting to do up till now, and reached their position without difficulty. On the other hand A, B, and C companies had sustained a considerable number of casualties, and were consequently very weak. A counter-attack was to be expected, and a threat by the Germans who tried to attack B company in the rear was beaten off by B company and one platoon of D company, supported by our artillery and the machine guns of the 1/7th Middlesex Regiment. Meanwhile both the left-hand ·companies and Battalion Headquarters were subjected to intense shelling by ,enemy guns of various calibres, and machine guns from the Roumana hills kept up a continuous chattering. At 8 o'clock in the morning the 7th Black Watch attacked and passed through our position.
"No fewer than three German counter-attacks were launched during the morning against A company, all of which were broken up by accurate artillery fire. About 1 o'clock in the afternoon the familiar eighteen bombers of the R.A.F., known to the Germans as the "Eighteen Indomitables," passed over. This was a very welcome sight until they accidentally dropped their bombs on A company, who as a result suffered a number of unnecessary casualties. Throughout all this time the enemy shelling continued to be intense, and Battalion Headquarters as well as the companies came under this unpleasant shelling.
"Shelling and mortaring of the minefield gap caused many casualties, and in some instances ambulances which were evacuating the wounded through the gap received direct hits from armour-piercing shells. At 4 o'clock in the afternoon eight enemy tanks appeared on A company's front about 2,000 yards away. Bodies of infantry were then seen advancing, but our artillery again broke up their counter-attack.
"At 6 o'clock that evening the most formidable counter-attack of all developed from a force estimated at two battalions with tanks in support. Some of the 7th Black Watch were seen to withdraw, and our A company, which had gone rather farther than was intended, were ordered to draw back three hundred yards at dark. This was done successfully, and A company took up new positions in line with the forward platoon of D company.
"Our companies opened up with all they had and halted the German counter-attack. One body of infantry, however, penetrated to within fifty yards of C company's headquarters, but Major John' Lindsay Macdougall, M.C., was undismayed. Although already wounded, he ordered the' only five men he had, consisting of his sergeant-major, his batman, his clerk, his runner, and his wireless operator, to charge with him, shouting at the same time, " No surrender, C company." Ever after this Major Macdougall was called "No surrender John." Twelve of the enemy were taken prisoners, several were killed, and the remainder fled when they saw the bayonets of C company coming at them.
"This was the last German counter-attack, and as dusk came the battle died gradually away, but what a battle while it lasted! It was the most vicious and furious battle that the battalion had yet to endure. The shelling had been intense all day long, and the positions were even stronger than the air photographs showed, and were bristling with guns and weapons of all kinds. At night vigorous patrolling was carried out. German patrols were also active, and one instance of the trickery of the enemy is shown by the following story.
"A patrol of twelve Germans approached C company, and in the darkness spoke to some of the Jocks in Oxford English. One suspicious Jock asked his platoon commander, Lieut. Archie MacVicar, "Are there ony English aboot here?" Lieut. Mc Vicar replied that there should not be, and the Jock then said, "Well, there is something funny afoot." The enemy patrol was then soon discovered and held up at the point of the bayonet. Two Boches were wounded and all but one were taken prisoners.
"So ended the battle which will always be remembered by Argylls as the toughest one-day battle they had yet experienced. We took seven hundred prisoners and captured an enormous amount of booty, including seventeen antitank guns, two light anti-aircraft guns, two infantry guns, eight anti-tank rifles, sixteen medium machine guns, seventeen light machine guns, three heavy mortars, seven light mortars, and a great amount of other equipment.
"We suffered very heavy casualties during the battle, and among the killed were Capt. Dougie Adamson, the carrier officer, who received a direct hit from a mortar bomb. Lieut. Pat Stewart Barn and Lieut. Tommy McGill were killed during a heavy spell of shelling on Battalion Headquarters. Thirty-eight other ranks were killed and over a hundred other ranks were wounded. Among the officers wounded were the commanding officer, Lieut.-Col. Lorne M. Campbell, D.S.O., ,T.D., Major John S. Lindsay Macdougall, M.C., Captain M. J. G. Bate, the padre, Captain T. C. J. Sinten, Lieuts. Marshall, Bowden, and Kinghorn, and myself. The commanding officer made light of his wound, and when asked if he had been wounded in the neck, he replied that he had merely cut himself shaving. Actually it was a mortar bomb which had wounded him.
"It was for this battle that our commanding officer was awarded the Victoria Cross for gallantry. In France in 1940 he was awarded the D.S.O. for gallant leadership during the ordeal of the 51st Highland Division at St. Valery. At Alamein he received a bar to the D.S.O. for his outstanding part in the capture of important objectives.
Lieutenant Colonel Lorne Campbell VC, DSO