Next day we moved forward about six miles and were ordered to dig trenches for protection in case of attack from the air. We had hardly started to dig when, at about 3 p.m., transporters arrived and we were told we were moving immediately.
We travelled all night, going west and finally stopped at 7.30 a.m. Next morning at 3 a.m. we moved off again, travelling till 2 a.m. next day – ‘Feeling tired,’ my diary says unsurprisingly.
Next morning: ‘Up about 7.45 a.m., made breakfast. Not much variety left in rations now, couple tins of bacon, plenty bully. Bacon, bully and biscuits for breakfast.’
Later we learned the reason for our hurried move. A Scottish infantry regiment had tried to storm the Mareth Line. They were crossing a deep wadi when it started to rain heavily, turning the wadi into a rushing torrent. Some of the infantrymen had crossed it but couldn’t get back. They were annihilated. The ones left on the south side had to withdraw. We understood now the reason for our surprising move west, for the new plan was to go round the mountains and catch the enemy from the rear. We, the 2nd Armoured Brigade, were about to make history.
The transporters had taken us the length of the south side of the mountains, and now for the first time tanks were to be used to advance during the night. As the Regiment moved round the mountains we ran into an area of almost impassable sand: ‘What a journey, thick heavy soft sand, and the tank rolled just like a ship. Terribly dusty.’
I think this area was one of the worst we had ever attempted to cross; and to make matters worse, there were in addition, locusts flying about in thick black clouds. With great difficulty we made our way through the sand and started the journey east along the northern side of the mountains.
We moved and stopped, moved and stopped, and then on Friday, 26 March, we sat and waited for the full moon to rise. I later wrote to my mother saying I had always liked a full moon but that night I hated it – something she never forgot.
Our objective was the village of El Hamma behind the Mareth Line. We had the 9th Lancers with us, and the New Zealand infantry, who at first were in front but then we moved through them. After advancing several miles we ran into a contingent of German troops and vehicles. They were taken completely by surprise. As we attacked with guns blazing, soldiers jumped out of their blankets and ran in every direction. We shelled their vehicles; there was complete chaos, with fires everywhere.
In the moonlight a tank appeared about 300 yards ahead. ‘Let him have it, Jackie,’ yelled Nobby. I did, and it went up in flames. The noise was deafening.
We pushed on, right into the middle of the enemy encampment where there was utter confusion. Vehicles were running about not knowing which way to turn, some even coming towards us. We fired at everything in sight. We sent up more vehicles and tanks in flames and completely overran an anti-tank gun position. The crew ran past us to give themselves up. Tracer bullets raced across the sky. It was fierce, intense, yet, in the moonlight an eerie experience that left one with a feeling impossible to describe.
And then we were through them. Our squadron thankfully had suffered no casualties, though two tanks and their crews had been lost from other squadrons. Hundreds of enemy soldiers had given themselves up to the New Zealand infantry mopping up behind us. This part of the operation had been a resounding success, but our objective was still El Hamma.
As dawn broke we found ourselves moving across a wide grassy plain. Our squadron was leading, two troops in front and two behind. We ran into opposition, but nothing too serious and we overcame these pockets of resistance without much trouble, with no losses of tanks or men.
We could see El Hamma ahead now. Between us and the village were trees and dense undergrowth. We trundled slowly and cautiously forward, our troop and No. 3 Troop in the lead. One of their tanks, commanded by Corporal Jim Nolan, was to our left and slightly ahead; I could see it through my periscope.
Then the quiet was suddenly shattered by a terrific bang. Anti-tank guns hidden in the trees ahead opened fire. I saw Jim’s tank hit and it immediately burst into flames. He and his turret crew baled out, all three of them on fire. They ran about screaming … and all died. The other two crew members never got out of the tank.
Then we were hit too. I found myself covered with blood, but it wasn’t mine, it was Nobby’s. He’d been hit on the head and he dropped straight down into the turret behind me. Our wireless operator lay on his back on the floor in a state of terror, beating the floor with his fists and his heels. Colin, our driver, shouted over the intercom, ‘My periscope’s shattered, I can’t see where I’m going.’
Without stopping to think, I jumped up, took Nobby’s seat and, half out of the tank, saw we were still heading straight for the trees. Shells were flying everywhere. Any minute I expected we’d be hit again.
‘Jink, Colin, jink,’ I shouted.
Colin zigzagged but we were still going forward. I yelled at him: ‘Pull on your right stick as hard as you can.’
He did as I said, and we made a complete U-turn. ‘Put your foot down. Let her go.’
Colin kept his head, did as I directed and we kept going until it was safe to stop. We were all very shaken. Nobby had a bad cut on the head. We saw a Red Cross vehicle not far away and handed him over to the people there, then turned to assess the damage to the tank.
The shell that had shattered Colin’s periscope had hit us on the track. Part of it was sheared in half, the pins broken at one side and just holding the track together at the other. We were amazed that after the jinking and U-turn the track had still held. If it had broken we wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale.
The tank had been hit all over the place, probably by shrapnel from the same shell. Looking up the gun barrel we could see bumps inside. If another shell had been fired through it, the whole gun would surely have exploded.
We moved back about twenty miles to a workshop and there they were able to repair the track, but couldn’t do anything with the gun. They told us to go further back to the REME. We were glad to get there; we had hardly eaten anything for the last three days, we were nearly out of water, our bacon was used up and we only had bully beef left. At least now we could eat with the REME.
We heard that the attack behind the Mareth Line had been successful, and Gabes and El Hamma had been taken. Meanwhile our tank was beyond repair and they started to strip it to use some parts as spares.
My diary for 31 March, written while with the REME says, ‘Have to go to a different place for meals now, about a mile away, quite a tidy walk … Heard news on wireless. Things seem to be going OK out here. I hope and pray that it’s soon over and please God we soon have a chance of going home …’
Ted Wanless came to REME and with him as commander in a new tank we rejoined the Regiment which was resting now. We were sorry to have lost Nobby Clarke; he had been a good courageous commander, who always kept his nerve. Unlike another commander I once had who, when we surprised several lorryloads of German soldiers, ducked down in the tank and screamed: ‘Don’t shoot, don’t shoot! If you do they’ll shoot back.’
I did shoot and scattered them, and they didn’t shoot back. That commander recovered his composure and we had no further problems.
We were still well over 200 miles from Tunis, and the enemy, though on the retreat, was fighting all the way, but Tunis was our goal.