"FOUM TAHAHOUINE"

 

Chapter 5

FORWARD TO TUNIS

On 5th March, Rommel addressed his troops... and said that if they did not take Medenine and force the Eighth Army to withdraw, then the days of the Axis forces in North Africa were numbered . . . . He should have known that the Eighth Army NEVER WITHDRAWS; therefore his attack could only end in failure---which it did ....

We will show Rommel he was right . ... The days of the Axis forces in North Africa are indeed numbered.

In the battle that is now to start the Eighth Army. (a) Will destroy the enemy now facing us in the Mareth position. (b) Will burst through the Gabes Gap. (c) Will then drive northwards on Sfax, Sousse and finally Tunis ....

FORWARD TO TUNIS! DRIVE THE ENEMY INTO THE SEA!

GENERAL MONTGOMERY'S dispatch to the troops,
March 1943

14TH LFA ---ADS--- "D" SECTION

AT FOUM TATAHOUINE, where an old Arab fort commands the pass, we came across fields of beautiful flowers instead of flat dull featureless desert. The flourishing palm trees and mountain ranges were very reminiscent of California. Although they looked serene and majestic, death lurked in them and the noses of 88's were ever haunting and looking down.

Sometimes we got a rumor Jerry had broken through here and there, and sometimes the guns were close and sometimes far. Men who were burned from fires set by the enemy patrols or peppered by mines and shrapnel comprised the majority of our casualties, and we shuttled them to the MDS of the brigade in the rear.

We moved about more at this southern outpost of the Mareth Line than at any other time throughout the desert campaign. The time for movement always came. We would start the car. The form of the vehicle ahead disappeared in the billows of dust and we got it in our eyes. Gradually we lost direction, sense of time, and sense of everything. We left the movement to take several stretcher cases to the rear. We came back searching for the constantly moving ADS.

Later we learned that through all this maneuvering we had been cut off from our main outfit, the 7th Armoured Division, and as with the experience of coming out of an accident, the shock of what had transpired set in. It was an uncanny feeling for we had been unaware of our predicament. If we had known that we were encircled, I often wonder what the reactions would have been for we were a group of men accustomed to the sight and company of other units. We had a brief mental taste of what the LRDG's had been going through during the entire desert campaign.

At one point we remained stationary at a place about 3 kilos from a small town. I was asked by Colonel Evans to see if I could get some French bread which we heard was on sale in the town. Also I was asked to inquire if there was a chemist's shop or drugstore which developed and printed films. I questioned the Tunisian Arabs, and they told me the way to the baker's where I learned that I had to have a formal chit from the French commandant to buy bread. This I didn't get, for bread was rationed and taking advantage of our military authority would have deprived the townspeople of this vital commodity. Also a false rumor had spread that their bread was being issued to our troops. But this pertained to only a few loaves that had been given to a patrol unit that had arrived there in pursuit of the retreating Jerry.

14TH LFA---ADS---MDS

In the market place, which had only carrots for sale, the Arabs and Jews could give me no information as to the whereabouts of a chemist's shop. As I turned the car around to return to our camp, we were amazed to see coming through the market place a white blonde young thing known as a female. The sergeant who had come with me on this jaunt to look after the vehicle nearly fell out of the car. I hailed her in French, endeavoring to get information about getting the film printed. She ignored me and kept on walking. I called her several times but she still wouldn't look in my direction. Finally I raced the car toward her, holding out a roll of film and yelling, "Mademoiselle." She turned and stopped while I clambered out of the car, practically falling over the ammo case on the running board. I stuttered my questions in French, and blushed with embarrassment. She calmly shook her head and told me that there were no such shops. She turned and left, and her print dress swayed rhythmically to her short high-heeled steps. I got back in the car. The sergeant and I just sat back and enjoyed the last sight of her. "Just, imagine," he said. "White skin!"

Shortly after we got back to camp, three Bedouins, Abdullah, Ali, and Hassan, came in out of the blue; they had walked a hundred miles from Gabes. After questioning them as to the whereabouts of Jerry, I rewarded them with a handful of tea. With only a pinch of it they brewed up enough of the strong yellow tea over a hastily made brush fire to serve a regiment. They kept pouring the hot liquid and leaves back and forth from one cup to another. This indeed was a new type of brew.

I started a quick sketch of them, drawing directly with a brush, a thing I rarely did in my larger drawings. Usually I first blocked out my design lightly in pencil, then drew with ink. This was done mainly to avoid errors and wasting hard-to-get paper. While sketching these three, I learned from them that Jerry was just over the hill a few kilos away. No sooner had I learned this than, right in the middle of the sketch, the Tiggy corroborated their reconnaissance and we were on the move again. In order to pack and get away, I finished the picture in such a rush that I drew the cane Abdullah was carrying right through the crossing lines of his abeyah.

During the entire year the sun beats down with such fury and sadistic intensity that the temperature was frequently well above 100°. The winter months, however, were quite mild and it was usually cool enough to wear a heavy sweater or a leather jacket. The crystal-clear nights were intensely cold during all seasons and many nights were spent under as many blankets as could be scrounged.

As we were in an advanced unit with the supply lines so greatly lengthened, our water ration was cut. We were issued one canteen of water every other day. The water in this forward area was strongly brackish and tasted pretty bad, for Rommel had continued to salt the wells as he retreated.

ADS ON THE MOVE

With the scarcity of wells, dishwashing became an art. There was usually a pail half full of warm, sometimes soapy water. This had to do for rinsing the mess tins of anywhere from fifty to a hundred men or more. The water took the food out of the inside of a mess tin or dixie and neatly deposited it on the outside. Grease never came out and the tea stained the enamel cups. When dishwater was nonexistent the last remains of tea were used. Tea corroded the metal tins, but amazingly we kept the eating implements clean.

As we lost touch with the outside world for months at a time, mail became more important to everyone than water or food. The words, "Mail call," electrified a unit. A man expecting mail and receiving none soon became curt, fed up, on edge, and really "browned off." When he did receive one small note, he was ready to bear and tackle anything. Books and magazines were shared. I always looked forward to Life magazine for I followed the art work of their war correspondents all over the world.

One painting in particular, "The Sinking of the Wasp," caught my eye and shivered my being with its intense dramatic depiction and draftsmanship. The inferno of horror on this aircraft had personal significance for me at the time for I knew its flight-deck officer Stuart Frost. It had even more significance for me later on when I chanced to meet its artist, Tom Lea, in Algiers, and we talked away about art into the wee hours of the morning. His enthusiasm for life was like an atomic generator. He was on his way to China to paint Chiang Kai Shek, and as he was short of some good water-color paper I gave him a pad of my own. Years later in reciprocation I received a Texas Stetson from him. Although it was incongruous in New York City, I wore it on many a festive occasion. His switch from painting to writing The Brave Bulls exemplified the enthusiasm that so impressed me on our first meeting. His generosity in writing the foreword to my book is more than gratefully appreciated, for he truly knew the trials and tribulations of war reporting.

As Rommel withdrew behind the Mareth defenses, he issued a statement to his men that if they didn't take Medenine the days of the Axis were numbered in North Africa.

The Germans made four attacks on March 6. Nearly 150 panzer tanks were thrown in and the infantry followed them. The battle raged and by dark the Germans withdrew, badly beaten. British artillery mowed down the tanks. The infantry was routed. Antitank guns did the trick and we ourselves didn't lose a tank. There were only very slight casualties on our side. At Foum Tatahouine we were LOB (left out of battle).

Montgomery at this time issued a statement to his troops indicating why the Axis was doomed in North Africa.

First, he explained, Rommel had stretched his supply line and reinforcements too far when he pushed the 8th Army to El Alamein. He should have stopped sooner to consolidate his lines and improve his lines of supply.

Secondly he underestimated the resources of the 8th Army when he retreated so far back into Tunisia, endeavoring to stretch our supply line beyond speedy reach of reinforcements. Again he should have stopped sooner and staked all on a pitched battle which would have decided the control of Africa one way or the other.

Thirdly Rommel, in withdrawing his panzers from their Mareth positions and sending them all the way across Tunisia for what turned out to be an ineffective and short-lived attack on the American positions, and then sending them back to the Mareth Line to attack the 8th Army, had thus spread-eagled his armor and as at Alamein distributed and exhausted his reserves.

PALMS AT FOUM TATAHOUINE

Although there were many battles to come before the expulsion of the Axis from Africa, this message from their field commander fired the 8th Army for the closing kill. The Mareth Line, known as the "Little Maginot," stretched some twenty-two miles from the sea near Zarat to the Matmata Hills in the west. It now stood between the 8th Army and the Allied Forces in northern Tunisia. The stiffest battle since Alamein faced the "Desert Rats." The line had been built by the French to stop the Italians in Libya who had ridiculed it three years before when they turned east to march on Egypt. Now, having themselves been defeated, they were defending it with the Afrika Korps and reinforcements of the German SS Elite.

There were three main stages to the Mareth Line; first, forward positions which contained concrete pillboxes and emplacements for small arms and antitank guns covering the ways across Wadi Zigzaou; second, concrete positions in the gaps between these, making the line continuous; third, artillery support positions to the rear which covered the forward localities. The key approaches to the Mareth Line were the strong frontier outposts built to block the foothills. The first, Ben Gardane, was a village defended with four concreted strong points on the main roads; the second was Foum Tatahouine, where the roads were covered by three strong points built into the commanding features. Medenine, an important road center, was similarly defended but intended mainly as a base for mobile counterattack.

The Mareth Line was built on the assumption that it could not be outflanked. The Germans had worked over the original French defenses and had improved them strategically with tank ditches, mine fields, and dug-in emplacements.

Ben Gardane and Medenine had been taken by the 8th Army and now the 25-pounders were aimed at the Mareth. The difficult frontal attacks on this Rommel stronghold were undertaken by the 51st Highland and the 50th Northumbrian Divisions. The latter was trained in pillbox assault warfare. The main feature of the battle was the silent flanking movement to the south of the New Zealanders brought from Tripoli. The Indian Division, expert mountain fighters, went in on a short flanking movement to divert the enemy. Later the 1st Armoured followed the New Zealanders by swinging through the edge of the Sahara with the protection of the RAF. At the same time, further west, General Patton's American 2nd Corps made a drive to Gafsa to force Rommel to spread his strength as thinly as possible.

Rommel was kept on the move exhausting his strength because of the 8th's outflanking movements, though he succeeded in stopping the thrust on the coast. The most crucial time in the battle was the early hours of March 23 when Montgomery speedily switched the whole attack to the extreme west and discontinued his efforts on the coast. The New Zealanders made their encirclement, at El Hamma surprising the Germans who had thrown a tank force against them to keep them from reaching Gabes, and completely surrounding the entire Afrika Korps. The Germans were forced to withdraw hastily from their Mareth positions through the Gabes Gap; when they withdrew they left the Italians behind to protect them while they made a getaway.

As the main attack began, Wee Wee and I were hastily recalled from the ADS of the 14th LFA at Foum Tatahouine to a car pool servicing the Northumbrian Division and other divisions along the line. When we arrived our guns were sending over a tremendous barrage with a continuous roar from a hundred shells. As they quieted down Jerry retaliated with his artillery, and it was almost as fierce as ours. This was Alamein all over again with our eighteen bombers going over and the wounded pouring in; and we ourselves were on the go, working without a letup. As I waited for patients I hen-scratched sketches on the run. The battle wasn't as one-sided as Alamein had been; the line was hard to crack. The 50th Division secured its objectives protected by barbed wire against cross fire from the flanks. The casualties were heavy and we worked more steadily than we had in Egypt. Some tanks succeeded in crossing the wadi and their losses were considerable. Sappers had difficulty clearing paths for vehicles. More and more casualties kept coming in and we went on working with no sleep.

In some of the defenses the enemy held out and we got a hammering. Enemy fighters and bombers came over bombing and strafing our trucks while we endeavored to evacuate the wounded. By March 21 we held a bridgehead and another artillery barrage expanded our foothold. Enemy reserves of the SS Elite began to arrive and the fighting mounted in fury. Casualties came in like a running stream. It rained and our air force was bogged down. The Germans counterattacked, recapturing what objectives we had taken. The griff from the wounded was terrible but their morale was higher than that of the casualties at Alamein.

From the wounded we learned that the much-feared Indian Gurkhas had gone in. We were fortunate to have these squat, high-cheekboned Mongolians from the mountains of Nepal on our side, for they were notorious hill and night fighters. Silently stalking their prey like panthers, they carried vicious-looking long curved knives, called kukris. These swung from sheaths tied behind to their belts. Tradition says that a Gurkha cannot draw his knife from the sheath without drawing blood. They were taught to use these weapons from childhood and to wield them with murderous effect. As the American Indian collected scalps, these commando soldiers of India collected ears and were well known for this habit throughout the desert by both armies.

Enemy wounded came in first, the Italians and then the Germans. Some of Hitler's SS Elite reinforcements dribbled in. We had heard so much about them that curiosity got the better of us but they were like any other men put out of battle.

In between runs between the ADS and MDS, Wee Wee and I got to the cooks at the car pool who were also on twenty-four-hour duty. When we were refreshed with bully-beef stew and tea, we were called back for more runs.

Shuttling back and forth between evacuation points, ambulance drivers were questioned as much as the wounded by the MO's at the dressing station concerning the battle. Occasionally we were given a shot of rum to keep us awake; at other times Wee Wee and I pulled our vaudeville harmonica and guitar playing routine, getting the wounded to sing now and then.

Midday on the twenty-second, during the drizzle, I waited for patients while Wee Wee helped the MO's in the tent. He came over to tell me we had a good wait before loading up. Outside of the time it had taken to grab a bite to eat on the run it was the first short breather I had had to check the ambulance and to relax for an hour to do a painting of the scene. It was good to wield a brush again and to move the colored water over the soft paper. I was fortunate enough to complete the painting before an orderly hailed me over to the tent and back to duty.

LITTER CASE

CASUALTIES

"ADS TRUCK"

SKETCHES ON THE RUN

 

THE FOLLOWING LETTERS TELL THE REST OF MY NORTH AFRICAN EXPERIENCES

Mrs. Corey---

This is a letter Cliff started before he was wounded. I thought you would like to have it.

Elmer W. Lower

Clifford Saber
American Field Service
APO-616
c/o Postmaster
New York

May 14, 1943

Dear Mom:

Thanks to Mr, Henry H. West, of General Motors, and his kind secretary, Ninio, the latter taking down this letter in shorthand and typing it for me. I am finally able to send a letter off to you. I would have written you sooner, only I had what is known as "diplopia," which is double vision. I've wanted to write ever since I got into the hospital. I think I worried more about not being able to write you than about my illness. However, I hope this will clear up a lot of things you have wondered about.

We were out in the blue, on a 72-hour duty without a letup. I had been driving and evacuating patients all day and night. It was two o'clock in the morning when Wee Wee took over the wheel. We were returning to the MDS to pick up wounded. It was a beautiful night when out of nowhere appeared this huge bomber. It looked as though it were perched up on the crest of the hill on the road ahead of us. I thought it was one of our planes, until Wee Wee yelled, "Watch out for the rear gunner!" I saw the flash of the gun and felt the bullet hit me. At first I thought I was grazed, and Wee Wee gave me the impression that I had been. I guess he didn't want to alarm me. As soon as I was hit, everything turned red, and I had the sensation that someone had poured a bucket of hot lava over my head which started to envelope my entire body. I tried to say something to Wee Wee but my voice just did not seem to come out. My lips moved but there was no utterance. In endeavoring to move, I discovered that my left arm and leg were paralyzed. Wee Wee immediately stopped the car and yelled to Al Bowron, who was returning behind us. He drove up alongside, and they both bandaged me up and rushed me to the MDS.. Throughout all this I was conscious. As a matter of fact, just before I was hit Wee Wee and I were singing "Worried Mind." And even as they were rushing me back to the MDS and I lay on the stretcher inside the ambulance, I managed to sing a few bars of the tune. Al and Wee Wee's split-second timing in bandaging me and rushing me to the MDS I think helped save my life. I do not remember very much about my arrival, except seeing some of the boys; but hours later I remember awakening in the operating room and listening to the surgeon speaking to the nurse as he was operating on my head. I had a local anesthetic which was injected at the base of my skull. I spoke to him and he told me I had a large hole in my head and that the right side of my brain was injured. I think he worked all night on me: 7 hours. As he was tinkering with my skull it felt and sounded like someone opening oysters. He assured me that I would be all right, and noticing my restlessness, said that he had done so many operations that he could do this blindfolded. I was evacuated and flown down the line to a base hospital. I thought the plane ride was actually worse than being shot, as it was not one of our big transport planes. From this base hospital I was flown back to where I am now. Until a few weeks ago, my head was encased in a plaster cast.

My wound is healing quite well, and the paralysis of my left arm and leg is gradually wearing off. I am even walking around now, although the sensation in my arm and leg is as if I were wearing gloves and six pairs of stockings. My double vision is clearing up and in a week's time I hope to have some glasses which will enable me to begin painting again.

Don't worry about me, for I hope to be with you again soon.

All my love,

Clifford
15th Scottish Base Hospital
Cairo, Egypt

 

"DESERT CLOUDS"

 

Chapter 6

INTO THE SEA

. . . And nothing has stopped us. You have given your families at home and in fact the whole world, good news, and plenty of it every day .... I doubt if our Empire has ever possessed such a magnificent fighting machine as the Eighth Army; you have made your name a household word all over the world ... .I am very proud of the Eighth Army.

. . . And now let us get on with the third task.

Let us make the enemy face up to and endure a first-class Dunkirk on the beaches of Tunis.

The triumphant cry now is:

FORWARD TO TUNIS! DRIVE THE ENEMY INTO THE SEA!

GENERAL MONTGOMERY'S dispatch to the troops,
8 April, 1943

 

8th ARMY COLLOQUIAL LANGUAGE

ARMY INITIALS

W.D. Western Desert
Coy British abbreviation of Company
RAMC Royal Army Medical Corps
ACC Ambulance Car Company
RAP Regimental Aid Post (furthest medical aid station in the battle area)
ADS Advance Dressing Station (about ten miles to the rear of an RAP)
MDS Main Dressing Station (halfway distant between the battle area and the nearest base hospital)
CCS Casualty Clearance Station (nearby to MDS and shipping depot of wounded to base hospital)
DDMS Deputy Director of Medical Services
MO Medical Officer
BH Base Hospital
HQ Headquarters
RASC Royal Army Service Corps
KRR King's Royal Rifles
LRDG Long Range Desert Group (the bearded submarines of the desert)
NAAFI Navy-Army-Air Force Institute (an organization which supplies all mobile canteens with their goods)
AAF American Air Force
SAAF South African Air Force
RAF Royal Air Force
AFS American Field Service

 

ANGLO-ARABESQUE IDIOMS

Baksheesh Arabic term of alms or anything gratis
Malish Never mind
Eggis Eggs
Bardine Not now, later
Shufti See
Bint Girl
Zig Zig Good time
Yal-la Get going
Imshe March (get going), emphatic Yal-la Imshe

 

FAMILIAR TERMS

Blue Desert
Wadi A dried-up river and water bed (gullies washed out in sudden desert rains)
Scrounge Minor looting, a Desert Rat's right in the desert
Aussie Australian
Digger Australian
Kiwi New Zealander
Itie Italian
Jerry German
Wog Arab
Gurkha Indian fighter
Maori New Zealand native fighter
Cherry Pickers 11th Royal Hussars
Civvy Street Home (civilian life)
V's Cigarettes issued by the British (ration --- 50 per man)
Brew-Up Tea
Tiffin Light noonday meal
Lorry Truck
Tiggys Workshops
Gruff Talk, gossip, rumors
Bully Beef Corned beef in tins
M & V Meat and vegetables in tins


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