April 12th, 1943, Gabes, Tunisia.
Since your departure in November, the Hospitallers have been, as the newspapermen like to say, “hot on Rommel’s heels”. We were in the thick of it at El Agheila, Beurat, Medenine, and the Mareth Line and have the scars and souvenirs to prove it.
‘Nefertiti’, the Churchill Mk IV in the enclosed snap, didn’t make it to Gabes, but I’m happy to say the chaps perched atop her turret – Frank ‘VFRHawk’ Clark (my gunner), Reg ‘Fishbreath’ Green (my loader), Paul ‘SpaceCowboy’ Brown (my driver), and Brian ‘CaptainKoloth’ Jones (my assistant driver) – are all still with me.
It would be comforting to ascribe our survival and modest success solely to competence forged on Salisbury Plain then honed in battle here in North Africa, but, as you know, war is rarely that simple.
We were thrown into the fray near El Aghiela on December 14, and things went rather well considering our greenness. VFRHawk opened his account with a bag that included a squat Semovente SPG, a quartet of trucks, and an armoured car sporting a paint-job Picasso would have approved of.
Our second action a few days later was a very different affair. Perhaps I should have admitted defeat when our 6-pounder gave up the ghost for no discernible reason after slinging just two rounds. Opting to soldier on gun-less alongside Tintagel and Saurian, the other tanks in the troop, doubtless won me some regimental brownie points, but, judging by the stony silence inside Nefertiti, it wasn’t a popular decision everywhere.
Fortunately, VFRHawk and Captain Koloth had ample opportunity to vent their spleen in a constructive manner. Amongst targets mauled by our coaxial and hull MGs that day were an AS.42, a heavy mortar team, and an Opel Blitz truck. Engaged at point-blank range, the latter gave us a fright by disgorging a ready-for-action flamethrower team moments before it perished.
Was there a sly ‘serves-you-right’ grin or two when mid-afternoon I descended into my burrow like a spooked rabbit, my left-hand scratched by a bullet fired from a sidecar-mounted MG 34?
Nefertiti and her homely handmaidens spent Christmas dozing under canvas and camo nets near Mersa Brega. As the local beach was mined and the local flies legion and aviation averse, when the Scammel transporters arrived to whisk us west along the coast to our next start line, it was almost a relief.
The troop nailed a brace of Pz IIIs during the fight for Beurat, but it was our interaction with a pair of cunningly positioned Pak 40s in the environs of the old French fort that is my abiding memory of January 15, 1943. Because we’d encountered few of these capable AT guns previously, perhaps we didn’t show them sufficient respect that day. Over-confidence in the Churchill’s thick hide combined with a lack of HE (Fishbreath hadn’t been able to lay his hands on HE shells for months) and infantry support (requested but not forthcoming) almost led to disaster. Before VFRHawk succeeded in punching 57mm holes through the small portions of gun shield that weren’t obscured by stout masonry, Saurian was set ablaze by Panzergranate 40, and Nefertiti and Tintagel had several very close shaves.
Later that day, with help from summoned Hurribombers and an itinerant Valentine, we went to the aid of a Marmon-Herrington armoured car that was in a spot of bother further along the coast. The RAF and the Valentine got most of the scalps, but the way SpaceCowboy utilised the scant cover available, and Fishbreath’s and CaptainKoloth’s quick hands facilitated VFRHawk’s speedy sharpshooting, was wonderful to behold. By chance I seem to have been blessed with four fast learners who rarely flap or fall out. Bizarrely, the only serious disagreement we’ve had since November was sparked by a discussion about the relative top speeds of horses, greyhounds, and camels. CaptainKoloth was a stable lad before the war and had no time whatsoever for SpaceCowboy’s strident canine claims.
Fishbreath managed to source ten HE rounds prior to our action at Medenine on March 6. We made good use of them as Rommel’s boys were in an unusually aggressive mood that day.
On the 27th the troop was in action again and demolished a veritable white elephant stall of retreating Axis equipment. After we’d laagered for the night, VFRHawk had the bottle to ask ‘The Pasha’ if we could start adding ‘kill rings’ to Nefertiti’s gun barrel as the krauts do. Predictably, he was sent away with a huge flea in his ear.
That business at the Mareth Line in late March the papers called “Monty’s left hook” – the Hospitallers were in the van. We’d barely entered the Tebaga Gap when we ran into a troop of sideskirted* Panzer IVs Ausf Hs. Whoever was in charge of them certainly knew their stuff. There was a lot of dust blowing around, but it didn’t prevent them KOing Tintagel at long range with their first fusillade. I guided SpaceCowboy into a patch of broken ground that afforded us a smidgen of protection and we attempted to slug it out. Looking back, that was a mistake on my part. We probably should have kept moving.
* and slightly anachronistic
At Bovington the instructors love to tell students that Churchills have thicker frontal hull armour than Tigers. What they rarely mention is that section in question is pretty small – just the vertical strip directly in front of the driver and assistant driver. The round that potted us struck lower and, astonishingly, managed to kibosh the drivetrain and engine without wounding SpaceCowboy or CaptainKoloth. All credit to my crew – no-one panicked. A split-second after I’d ascertained that everyone was still in one piece, VFRHawk was squeezing the trigger on his pistol grip and Fishbreath was pulling another round from the ready rack. The next few minutes are a bit of a blur but I believe it was Dodo, our remaining wingman, that eventually dispatched the Panzer that had us in its sights. The kill was enough to dishearten the other hornet. It retreated and the advance rolled on, leaving us sipping tea in the shadow of poor, oil-pissing Nefertiti.
I intended to call Nefertiti’s replacement Nefertitii. However, the new tank arrived with ‘UNBREAKABLE’ chalked on one of its flanks – a name everyone felt was too propitious to discard. She lived up to her name on the first day of the Battle of Wadi Akarit, although a Pak 40 did relieve her of a few of her ration boxes and water cans before falling victim to VFRHawk’s hardworking coaxial MG.
How we managed to cross Libya without encountering a single 88, I’ll never understand. For a spell it looked like we might even reach Tunis without tangling with Rommel’s deadliest AT weapon. Our improbable good fortune finally ran out on a muddy rise near Enfidaville on April 20. The 88 announced its presence by de-turreting Yvain, the Churchill on our right. We might have suffered the same fate if deft driving by SpaceCowboy hadn’t quickly put topography between us and the threat. From our new, safe vantage point we picked off a Panzer III and a Panzerjager I, leaving just us and the bogeyman in the area. How should we deal with him? The more I contemplated our unenviable situation (any movement risked exposing us to the tank killer) the harder I found it to make a decision. If the fellow overseeing the 88 hadn’t decided to pack up and trundle away, I might never have left that hollow.
Our last meaningful contribution to the war in North Africa occurred later that day and made the skies a little safer for the Hurricanes and P-40s that had, on numerous occasions, helped us out with bombs and bullets. From a tank that minutes earlier had been transformed into a smoky pillbox by a roadside Teller mine (thankfully only SpaceCowboy sustained injuries in the blast – and they were light ones – and Unbreakable can be repaired) VFRHawk eviscerated an AA halftrack with one barely perceptible twitch of his right-hand index finger.
According to Fishbreath, who’s been assiduously keeping score since El Agheila, the troop clobbered seventy vehicles and twenty-two guns en route to Gabes. More importantly, perhaps, considering the rumours of an Italian invasion already circulating, we’ve learned many important lessons – lessons that will, I’m sure, stand us in good stead in the days to come.
Write soon with your news, and give my love to Mother, Ivy, and Frank when you next see them.
All the best,