Long and glorious is the history of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, but it may be doubted whether it contains any finer story than that of the stand of the 155th Field Battery on Feb. 26, 1943, in Northern Tunisia. Here is the official account, with photographs of one of the nine survivors and five others of the heroic band reported to be prisoners-of-war in Italy.
Lord Milne, veteran general of the last war, was filled with indignation. Rising from his seat in the House of Lords he criticized in severe terms the propaganda department of the War Office, and pointed out one or two notable omissions – the Rifle Brigade, the Royal Corps of Signals, and the cavalry regiments – from Lord Croft's recent statement giving the names of the regiments which had been fighting in Tunisia. Why were we told so little about our units and their leaders, he asked. Today wonderful deeds were being done about which people were told nothing. He would give on example. A battery of artillery was told to cooperate with an infantry regiment. At the end of the battle, when morning broke, every officer and 95 per cent of the men were lying round their smashed guns. The Germans knew what had happened; the Army knew what had happened; but when the report came to the colonel of the regiment it was marked "secret". Secret from whom? It was one of the things that ought to have been read by every unit of the British Army.
That was on June 3. Two days later the Ministry of Information issued an official account of a field battery's most gallant action in Tunisian fighting. There could be no doubt that this was the incident to which Lord Milne had referred. The date was February 26, 1943. The place was Sidi Nsir, in the hills twelve miles east of Hunts Gap, near Beja. The battery was the 155th who, with a battalion of the Hampshires, had been ordered to hold the place. If Sidi Nsir fell Beja, the key to the northern Allied line, already threatened by a strong German force, would fall too. With Beja in their hands the enemy would soon have made the Medjez el Bab salient untenable, and transport to and from the Algerian ports extremely difficult. They did not get Beja, because the time won by the 155th Field Battery and the Hampshires at Sidi Nsir sufficed to put Beja into a state of effective defence. But the artillerymen paid the price.
On the evening of February 25 no signs were visible of enemy movement. The Divisional Commander, his Commander Royal Artillery, and the C.O. of the Field Regiment to which 155 Battery belonged spent two hours examining the countryside from a dominating observation post and could detect nothing ominous. But during the night Verey light signals began to go up in the hills around Sidi Nsir, and at 6.30 next morning heavy mortar fire opened on the British guns. After 45 minutes shelling came a direct assault. German tanks drove down the road from Mateur. Four 25-pounders leapt into action, No. 1, specially placed at the top of a slope to cover the Mateur approach, firing over open sights. Three tanks were hit as they attempted to pass through a minefield and the road was blocked. Checked in their initial thrust, the enemy sent in lorried infantry who turned the battery's southern flank under cover of a hill.
Things began to look serious. The highest observation post, from which the whole countryside could be surveyed, was heavily attacked, its wireless transmitter was smashed, and its telephone lines were cut. Eight Messerschmitts swooped down on the guns and raked each in turn with machine-gun and cannon fire, inflicting heavy casualties. This manoeuvre was repeated many times. Several vehicles on the road back to Hunts Gap were wrecked and left burning, and the precious ammunition they carried had to be salvaged at imminent risk by the gunners. Bivouac shelters and dumps were in flames. Many men were wounded or killed. But the C.O. of the Regiment, visiting the battery, found all ranks cheerful and determined. Their offensive spirit was completely undaunted. None of the wounded complained.
By midday 30 German tanks, with self-propelled guns and infantry in support, had worked round both flanks and were within 600 yards. A little later the enemy opened small arms fire at close range. At 3 o'clock strong detachments of infantry were across the road to the rear and no more ammunition could pass. For several hours every round had been manhandled forward under heavy fire.
The battery might have saved itself many losses had it concentrated throughout the fire of all its eight guns at a range of 1,300 to 2,000 yards on the German tanks and artillery whose columns were cluttering the way up from Mateur. But its first duty was to protect the Hampshire companies by all means in its power, and it put first things first, by concentrating in support of the infantry.
About 3.30, on every ground of military probability, the battle was almost over. So at least the German Command reasoned. What was meant to be the death blow was struck by a column of tanks which raced along the road into the heart of the battery position. Thirteen other tanks gave covering fire with guns and machine-guns from hull down positions. A Mark VI led the attack. This was holed three times in the turret by shells from No. 1 gun of F Troop. A Mark IV tried to pass round the wreckage, but it also was knocked out by No. 1 gun. The same gun set on fire another tank. Then the surviving tanks drew back and shelled and machine-gunned both F and E Troops, whose positions were easily spotted, for they were now engaging the enemy over open sights. Hull down, the enemy tanks had a great advantage. Concentrating on one gun at a time they killed the detachments, smashed the guns and set the remaining ammunition on fire. When all seemed finished the Germans advanced again. But a surprise awaited them. At its dying gasp, the 155th Field Battery could still hit back. No. 1 gun of F Troop, whose crew had showed themselves heroes among heroes, destroyed the leading tank. A moment later a direct hit killed all the survivors; without a man left, No. 1 was silenced. Nos. 2, 3 and 4 fought on. One officer, batmen, cooks, all who could stand, ran from gun to gun, serving each in turn. Although the issue was decided they fought out the day to the last man and the last round at ranges which shrank from 50 yards to 10 yards.
At 5.30 the Germans, heavily mailed, moved on to crush E Troop as they had crushed F. At nightfall one 25-pounder and several Bren guns were still engaging at ranges of from 10 to 20 yards German tanks which were lumbering through the position, smothering the last resistance, swivelling round on their tracks and crushing in slit trenches. A few minutes earlier the last message had come over the wireless "Tanks are on us", followed by the single V tapped out in Morse.
When the battle began there were at the guns in the command posts and observation posts nine officers and 121 other ranks. But only nine survivors managed to make their way back to the British lines, and of these two were wounded. One of the nine was Gunner J. G. Bryce, who described in a letter to his wife, published in the News Chronicle, the closing scene:
We withstood the brunt of a powerful German attack – all on our own, with no support whatever, under continuous dive-bombing, mortar fire and eventually tanks (the last German Mark VI). We knocked out seven of them.
Everyone showed perfect calm and coolness, even when it was obvious the end was in sight. One gun crew were actually singing that song "Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition" when their gun was hit. But we held them all until all our guns were knocked out, and we were finally overrun by the enemy.
Then in the pitch darkness, through heavy rain and bitter cold, he managed to get past the German tanks and infantry on to the mountains. After four days in the open, sustained only by his water-bottle and a bar of chocolate, he struggled back to his base.
Of the men who did not come back some were taken prisoner. Their wives then learned at last the meaning of a sentence in a letter received from an enemy prison camp: "I was taken by the Germans on Feb. 26. See if the papers have any account of the battle on that day". They had to wait for three months. But for Lord Milne they – and we, and the world – might have had to wait perhaps for years before this was added to the immortal stories of British valour.