Africa with the Eighth Army

This page contains the memoires of Cpl John Carroll, 5503537

Joining up

On 15th February 1940 I began my army service at Albany Barracks, Parhurst, Newport, Isle of Wright.

Britain and Germany were officially at war. The British Expeditionary Force was in France, in the period since known as the Phoney War, or ‘Sitzkrieg’ due to its lack of activity in France.

I joined the ‘W’ Company, 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment at Wakefield, Yorkshire when the Battalion reassembled after being evacuated from the beaches of Dunkirk.

During the summer of 1942 I was transfered to HQ Company Bren Gun Carrier section.

After being taught to drive and how to assist in repairing and replacing the damaged tracks I was promoted to Corporal, in charge of one of three carriers of Sgt Cochrane’s section.

The other Bren Carrier commanders were:

  • Sgt Cochrane: Dvr Pte Bert Venn. Gnr Pte Gary Edwards
  • Cpl Joe Whitehorn: Dvr Pte ‘Wally’ Wall. Gnr Pte ‘Bunny’ Austin
  • Cpl John Carroll: Dvr Pte? Frank Godel. Gnr Pte Charlie Grist

These are my recollections of Tebourba, Tunisia, Nov/Dec 1942……..

Africa bound…

On the journey by sea to N.Africa all the vehicles and drivers were transported on one ship which docked at Bone. The rest of the us were transported on another ship which docked at Algiers. Here we boarded trains bound for the front.

The trains were French, and had written on the carriages “10 Horses or 40 Men”. It was so cramped inside that poor fellows in the middle were supported by those men crammed in beside them. Fuel must have been scarce for these trains, as every so often we would stop when there were trees and cut them down to use as fuel for the engine.

Eventually we arrived at Medjez el Bab where we joined the 2nd Battalions transport. That evening, shortly after dark the convoy travelled to Tebourba.

Having to concentrate on following only the dimly lit rear transmission light of the vehicle in front and trying to ensure that the carrier kept in the centre of the road so as not to get stuck in one of the drainage ditches on either side of the road meant that we had no ide of what the surrounding countryside was like. We assumed that it was just a sandy desert.

Arrival at the front

We eventually turned off the road at Tebourba and drove through the houses into the 2nd Battalion’s positions in a wooded area.

At daylight we could see that Sgt Cohrane’s carrier section were located near the edge of a wood on the right flank of the position. This was about 100-200 yards from the single track railway line, on a flat area of land of about 400-500 yards wide. There was little vegitation growing in this area, and hidden below in a valley was the River Medjerda.

I am not certain if it was later in the morning on the day of arrival or the following morning when Sgt Cochrane was told that his(our)carrier section had been loaned(seconded) to the Infantry Battalion, the East Surreys who lay on our right flank.

We immediately withdrew to the rear end of the wood and into the buildings (hopefully unobserved by the Germans). As we left the cover of these and headed towards the bridge over the River Medjerda we came under German mortar fire. this stopped when we entered the small hamlet of El Bathan, probably because the Germans did not want to damage the bridge. It could be however that we were hidden from their view by a small group of houses nearby.

On our right-hand side in El Batha was a tall 3-4 storey building. Beneath this was parked an unoccupied Bren carrier, so we parked alongside it. Sgt Cochrane then immediately set off on foot to get further instructions. When he got back he told us that we were to go immediately and attack a German machine gun position that was firing at the East Surrey’s troops.

An attack in a stubble field….

On our right-hand side in El Batha was a tall 3-4 storey building. Beneath this was parked an unoccupied Bren carrier, so we parked alongside it. Sgt Cochrane then immediately set off on foot to get further instructions. When he got back he told us that we were to go immediately and attack a German machine gun position that was firing at the East Surrey’s troops.

Sgt Cochrane led the way, followed by my carrier and then Cpl Whitethorn’s carrier as we drove along the Djedeida and Tunis Road.

It soon became evident that the land on this side of the River Mefjerda was much greener and more cultivated. Tall trees ran along both sides of the road and tall hedges grew on the river side of the road.

We drove along the road for a short while and then we followed the lead carrier through a gap in the hedge into a cultivated field of wheat or something similar. Immediately onour left was another tall hedge that formed the end of the length of the field.

We must have arrived here at harvest time, as the field was cut short, with only stubble at the entrance and a full 6 feet high crop at the far end.

We formed up the carriers line abrest and began to cross the field.

Minutes before our arrival a squad of about 10-15 German soldiers had begun to make an advance across this same field from the other direction, and we were to meet face to face.

Seeing the enemy we gunned the carriers and drove right towards them firing everything we had.

On our carrier Charlie Grist opened up with the 2″ mortar that was welded to the top of the engine cover while I fired the Bren through its aperture hole in the front plate of the carrier. Frank Godel was driving , making sure that the engine didn`t stall and make us a standing target, as speed was our best defence.

It is only now writing this, that I realise that with the high dense hedges either side of the field, the only way of escae for the Germans was back the way they had come, through the uncut crop area, although there was probably not enough time to do this as everything happened so quickly.

We drove through the advancing Germans, all of them falling to the ground, until we reached the end of the cut section of the field where we turned around and drove back once more through the German troops.

Some of the Germans hadn`t been killed by our first charge, and were firing at us from the cover of the stubble, so we tuned around once more and like the cavalry of old, charged the enemy once more; firing at any sign of movement. On passing through the fallen Germans on the ground the second time I passed the Bren back to Charlie, as the welding of the mortar meant that it could only be fired to the front of the carrier.

When we reached the exit once more, we drove out of the field onto the road and headed back to El Bathan. That was it for day one, as we recieved no further instructions.

Day Two….

The following daywe were ordered to try to stop some German snipers in the trees who were firing at the East Surrey’s troops.

As we drove along the Tunis road, this time going a little further than on our previous engagement, we came under fire from German anti-tank guns so we did a rapid turn around and retreated back in the direction of El Bathan.

When Sgt Cochrane had decided that the carriers were no longer visible to the anti-tank guns we stopped and parked the carriers. We dismounted the vehicles and taking our rifles and Bren guns began walking back along a deep drainage ditch on the right hand side of the road towards the direction of the snipers.

We hadn`t gone very far along this ditch when we saw a group of Germans advancing along this same ditch, headed towards us! Luckily we noticed them seconds before they saw us, and opened up on them. After a brief exchange of fire Sgt Cochrane decided that it was time to withdraw back to the carriers, and then back to base at El Bathan. We didn`t take any casualties, and I don`t know if the Germans did either.

We received no further orders that day…….

Day Three….

On the morning of the third day at El Bathan I was ordered to take my carrier and crew to a place concealed from the Germans on the area of ground to the left of the Tunis road where we could observe and report back any movement of advancing Germans troops. On the other side of the river was the right flank of the 2nd Hampshires.

It was a bright and clear day. There appeared to be a lot of small arms fire from the 2nd Hampshires area. i remember watching some small dots of soldiers running up the slope of a small hill. Possibly this was Major Le Patourel and his men attacking the German machine gun posts for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC), for his leadership and gallantry.

There had been no attempt by the Germans to cross to our side of the river, so at dusk we returned back to base at El Bathan. I don`t know what Sgt Cochrane and Cpl Whitehorn’s carriers did that day. After dark Sgt Cochrane informed the section that the East Surrey’s were going to withdraw in this area, and I think it was one or two days before the 2nd Hampshires also withdrew.

Pulling out……

We were ordered to drive down a sloping earth path at the rear of the tall building to the river bank and follow at the rear of an already assembled small convoy of around six vehicles. We were to pull out along an earth path at a much lower level than the main tarmac road, and after about 200 yards it became aparent why this was so when we saw and heard continuous and heavy machine-gun fire including tracer crossing the higher level.

Almost immediately the convoy stopped again and Sgt Cochrane told us that the lead vehicle’s wheels on the river side had gone over the edge, and that it was impossible to either get the vehicle backon the path or push it completely into the river, to allow the rest of us to pass. We were told to immobilise the vehicles as best we could, throw anything taht we could not carry into the river and start walking forwards.

As we walked further along the path the machine-gun fire could still be heard and seen above where the vehicles had been abandoned, but not it was now not above us so we were allowed to climb up the bank. We the discovered that we were now in Medjez-el-Bab on the Tunis road, in the village of Tebourba opposite where the 2nd Hampshires had turned into the wooded area.

Close to the junction was what appeared to be an abandoned Bofors anti-aircraft gun.

We stopped walking just before dawn in a wood not far from the road. It was considered not advisable to be seen in this area by the enemy aircraft during daylight. I seem to remember seeing flames burning at the far end of the wood from us……

I cannot remember exactly what happened next, or exactly when we left the East Surreys. Presumably we continued to walk in the direction of Medjez – el Bab until we reached the 2nd Hampshires. My colleage Frank Godel, who now lives in Jersey, also believes this is what we did.

Although the action in which we fought at El Bathan was insignificant compared to that which the remainder of the 2nd Hampshires achieved at Tebourba, I like to think that what we did helped the east Surreys to hold this part of the line a few days longer.

Following my time in Africa, I took part in the Salerno landing and then fought at Monte Casino…..

After Tebourba…..

After the Battle of Teboura John Carroll took part in the Salerno landings in Italy, advancing with the Eighth Army up through Italy. He fought in the early stages of the Battle at Monte Casino, ending up in N.Italy by VE Day.

Sgt Cochrane
Following the fighting in the El Bathan area, Sgt Cochrane recieved the Military Medal, presumably on the recommendation of the senior surviving member of the East Surreys. Sgt Cochrane fought with the section as they moved into Italy, being promoted to Quartermaster Sargeant and then Company Sargeant Major. He was killed in action in the Rimini area of Italy.

Charlie Grist: ( my carriers gunner)
Wounded in Tunisia, Charlie Grist rejoined the 2nd Hampshires for the Salerno landings in Italy, and fought with the 128 Inf. Brigade at Monte Casino, until they were withdrawn in the spring of 1943. He developed sugar diabetes and was sent back to Britain, and discharged from the Army. He passed away in 1950.

[John says:] “……….I do not know what happened to the remainder of the HQ carrier platoon, although some of us met again later in Cairo, Palestine and Beirut when the 2nd Hampshires were posted to those areas as a break from the winter positions around Monte Casino, Italy in 1943.”

Our Water Ration

“They say that dehydration is a soldier’s worst enemy; and yet we were issued just one canteen of water a day. It is no myth that it was so hot that you could fry eggs on the sides of the tanks (or Bren carriers in our case). The problem was getting the eggs; which were in short supply in the desert”

Mountain-top lookouts

“The local people in N.Africa used to go to the tops of the mountains to pray. I suppose they felt nearer to heaven there. Of course, when we saw a spec on top of a mountain we didn`t know if it was a German lookout watching us and spotting their artillery, or a local in prayer. We daren`t shoot, just in case; as we wanted and needed the local population to be on our side……..”

Monte Cassino

After landing at Salerno John Carroll advanced with the Eighth Army to Monte Cassino.

Perched on a hill overlooking the surrounding area, Monte Cassino dominated the surrounding area. German troops were dug in around the protected monastery and when John arrived every effort was made not to damage the building.

“We weren`t allowed to damage the building, which made it very hard for us; but Jerry was in side you see. We could only fire through these slots in the walls. When the Yanks arrived all that changed. The first thing they did was to flatten the place with bombs…….”

Note: This is John would have been unaware of the change of top-level policy on the bombing of Monte Cassino