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To War With The Bays: 33 - Making Slow Progress

...On 23 April, Good Friday, I wrote: 'Reveille 4.30 a.m. Packed up and moved at 5 a.m. Now (8 a.m.) we're very near the front line and waiting to go in. May God see us through this day safely ...'

Our objective was to take a ridge three or four miles ahead of us. As we pressed forward we saw German soldiers laying mines....

British troops press on slowly across North Africa, fighting their way towards Tunis.

To read earlier chapters of Jack Merewood's vividly told account of his military experiences please click on To War With The Bays in the menu on this page.

The Regiment had to have more tanks and men to replace those lost in the recent battle, so we stayed here for a few days to regroup. During this time we kept the guns clean and the tanks in good working order, and had an excellent lecture by a brigadier on fighting tactics in this type of country.

I had the chance to write some letters, and we played cards. A mobile bath unit appeared and we all had welcome baths. Some of us walked over to a nearby aerodrome and the RAF boys showed us around the planes. We watched one of them go off on a bombing mission, and waited till it came back. The pilot said he'd seen very little to bomb. In return, we invited them to look round the tanks. We got on well together.

There were a few empty shacks around, which we decided to explore unwisely as it turned out, since we found ourselves covered with fleas. We caught a lot, but not enough. After a very uncomfortable night we sprayed our blankets with petrol, and hoped we'd seen the last of the problem.

Later in the day we loaded the tanks on to transporters and moved off next morning at 5.15, travelling north up the coast road. After fifty-seven miles we took the tanks off the transporters to continue under our own power, and at 10.30 stopped for breakfast. After breakfast we drove on all day with occasional stops.

The countryside was littered with burned-out vehicles, equipment, German helmets, - evidence of the retreat. We passed a knocked-out 60-ton Tiger tank, a massive thing.

On 11 April, 1943, I wrote: 'Today we should have been in Tunis, but well, we should be soon. Traded a couple of old shirts and a pullover for fifteen eggs. My bit of French came in handy.'

Next day, when cooking the eggs for breakfast, we found three of them to be bad.

Trucks arrived from 'B' Echelon bringing rations, water, petrol and some mail, and there was Ronnie. His squadron office was always with the Echelon, usually a few miles behind the front line. Even so they were vulnerable to the bombing, and it was good to see him and know that he was all right. The trucks stayed overnight so we were able to spend a few hours together.

We continued on our way north. The troops ahead of us were slowly, oh so slowly, pushing the enemy back. We (the 8th Army) were now about to join the Americans and the 1st Army.

We envied the Americans their good cigarettes we often had to make do with Italian ones and they were terrible. We smoked constantly, and soon used up the tins of fifty English cigarettes that were issued from time to time. Sometimes we had the doubtful bonus of 'V cigarettes. They were awful things - in a purple coloured packet with a yellow letter 'V on the outside. They were made in India. The tobacco, if it was tobacco (which we doubted), was coarse and dark. But then they were cigarettes and better than nothing at all.

Back in the Catterick days no naked lights were allowed within twenty yards of a vehicle. Here in North Africa we smoked inside the tanks.

On 14 April we were on transporters again. Besides its being a quicker way to move tanks it was also much cheaper, as the tanks only did about a mile to a gallon of petrol. We left about 8 p.m., after a very hot day, so that night we all slept in the tank, on the transporter. Bob Buckland, our operator, and I made reasonably comfortable beds in the turret, had a decent night's sleep and listened to the wireless in bed.

We awoke about 5.30 a.m. to find we were still travelling. My diary says: ' ... finally stopped at 11.30 a.m., so had breakfast and dinner at the same time. Got ten eggs (for tomorrow's breakfast) for an old shirt, slept in the tank all afternoon, then moved off again at 1 a.m.'

Next morning I awoke at 7.15 ... 'still moving. Passed through a nice little town, Le Kef, about 10 o'clock. Finally left the transporters at 11.30 p.m. about eighty-five miles from Tunis. Got stuck in a stream but got out. Heard a cuckoo! Very nice scenery around here.'

When the rest of the Regiment came up I could see 'B' Squadron about two miles away, so I walked over to visit Ronnie - making sure I was back before dark.

On Monday, 19 April, 'About 3.30 a.m. it started to rain, so Buck and I moved our beds into the tank, but Ted, Colin and Harold got wet outside .. . had cigarette issue (70 Vs). Then at dinnertime got "canteen goods", 96 Kensitas cigarettes, a bar of chocolate, a packet of P.K. chewing gum and a tablet of soap. Pay up at 2 p.m. Played solo in afternoon, won ten francs. After tea, in tank when Ronnie poked his head in. We listened to the news then I walked him partway "home".'

Next day the tanks left but we went only a few miles before calling a halt at 2 p.m. in an olive grove. The weather was still hot, but there were often sudden showers. Harold and Bob were on guard that night and I slept under the tank.

Guard duty came round very regularly and even after a tiring day it was always someone's turn to be on guard. When you came off guard duty you would generally brew up and get the breakfast ready. Many times there wasn't time for breakfast - we ate what we could, when we could. The occasions when we had time to cook eggs, bacon, or porridge were a treat.

On 23 April, Good Friday, I wrote: 'Reveille 4.30 a.m. Packed up and moved at 5 a.m. Now (8 a.m.) we're very near the front line and waiting to go in. May God see us through this day safely ...'

Our objective was to take a ridge three or four miles ahead of us. As we pressed forward we saw German soldiers laying mines. They ran when they saw us, but one of our tanks took one of them prisoner. We had no accidents on the mines, and reached our objective without loss. We then pulled back a short distance to close leaguer at 7.30 p.m. and moved out again at 5 o'clock next morning.

Over the next three weeks or so, we made our slow progress towards Tunis. All the time we met with opposition but slowly and surely we pushed our way forward. The plan was for us to do six days in action and then three days off, alternating with the 9th Lancers and 10th Hussars. This was only a loose arrangement, because if all three regiments were needed, the one resting was called back into action indeed this happened to us once. We weren't too happy about it, but there was no alternative.

My diary for 24 April: Up at 4.30 a.m., no breakfast. Moved off at 5 a.m. and took up position where we left off yesterday. Now it's 10 a.m. and we've advanced another two miles or so. Were shelled heavily few minutes ago but quieter now. Shell landed about ten yards away, punctured a couple of water cans - and frying pan. Easter Saturday, I could think of a better way to spend it, though next year ... Had jam and bread (a bit we had left rather dry) and water. Shelling got heavier so didn't move further forward.

Our progress was painfully slow.

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