Below is an account of the battle that my Grandfather Frederick John Milsom died.
From an account by Brigadier W.D.McN.Graham, D.S.O., O.B.E., who commanded
172nd Field Regiment RA
Y the end of February 1943 a long withdrawal in front of the Eighth Army had convinced the German High command that their best hope of successful and conclusive operations in North Africa lay in an all-out offensive against the First Army. They planned therefore to break through to the vital communications at Beja and, by continuing the drive westwards, to isolate the northern wing of General Anderson’s widely dispersed British, American and French forces: and so to Algiers!
Leaving 15th and 21st Panzer and 90th Light Divisions to hold General Montgomery, they moved 10th Panzer Division with great secrecy via Mateur into the mountainous area west of that town. To this force they allocated a group of Messerschmidts and, more potent still, 501st Heavy Tank Company, consisting of their entire resources of the much vaunted and as yet untried Mk VI Tiger tanks. These tanks were reputed to weigh 90 tons and to combine the advantages of impenetrable armour and a huge gun.
For the opening phases of this attack they selected Sidi Nsir, a detached locality in the hills 12 miles east of Hunt’s Gap, Beja, a wild country of stony djebels and barren valleys. The force at Sidi Nsir consisted of the 5th Battalion the Hampshire Regiment and 155th Battery (Major Raworth) of 172nd Field Regiment RA; its object was to gain time and act as an outpost to the main force of 128 Infantry Brigade, in support of which the remainder of 172nd Field Regiment were deployed astride the main road at Hunt’s Gap, covering Beja.
155th Battery had arrived in North Africa towards the end of January after a swim in the Mediterranean, their ship having been sunk by a German submarine. They lost all their equipment, but only a few men, and with remorseless drive and energy were re-equipped and in action three weeks latter- just in time to meet 10th Panzer Division at Sidi Nsir, and in time, too, to fight with the battalion with whose name their own will be imperishably linked, the 5th Battalion the Hampshire Regiment.
On February 25th the Divisional Commander (Major-General Freeman-Attwood), the CRA (Brigadier Rigby) and the Commanding Officer of 172nd Field Regiment made a special visit to Point 609, the predominant OP at Sidi Nsir, and stayed there for two hours without seeing any signs of enemy movement or activity. From this OP one can see right down to Matuer, and with a telescope on a fine day can distinguish the windows in the houses; but there are huge valleys and reverse slopes hereabouts behind which a large force could remain concealed.
That night an abnormal number of green and white Very lights were seen, and by dawn the mountains and valleys all around were alive with the movement of troops, guns, tanks and infantry columns.
Soon after 6 a.m. on February 26th F Troop came under fire from mortars behind Chechak Ridge and replied with artillery fire. From this moment until dark, F Troop and to a lesser degree E Troop and the command posts, cooks’ shelters, etc, were under increasingly heavy mortar fire. At 7 a.m. enemy tanks attempted a direct assault down the main road from Mateur. F Troop engaged them, No 1 gun over open sights. Three tanks were hit and the road was blocked very conveniently just where it passed through a protective minefield. No 1 gun remained in action in spite of mortar and machine-gun fire. Captain Lawrence had decided to stick to his observation post on the Chechak ridge. Later his bravery in an attempt to escape from prison cost him his life.
At 9.40 a.m. Point 609 was heavily attacked by infantry. Communication was broken, WT sets smashed by enemy mortars and all lines cut. Lieutenant McGee was wounded and taken prisoner. (He subsequently escaped, reached the British Isles in Italy and had the desperate ill-fortune to be drowned on his way back home.) From this moment on, the battery had but secondary ‘eyes’ over-looking the Mateur road, which must have been packed with enemy tanks and vehicles.
At 10.15 the CO visited Major Rawford on the gun position. F Troop was then under observation at a range of about 800 yards, and the track leading down to the command post was under very heavy and accurate mortar fire, rounds falling every three seconds or so. On all eight guns the CO found the detachments full of cheerful and determined courage. Lieutenant Taylor and Sergeant Henderson (both of F Troop) in particular stood out by reason of their undaunted offensive spirit and the inspiring example they set. Sergeant Henderson was the No 1 of No 1 gun, specially placed on the top of the slope to deal with enemy tanks trying to use the Mateur-Sidi Nsir road. Taylor was the only officer on F Troop position, and he fought there until he was killed.
At this time Messerschmidts attacked from a height of about 200 feet and racked the gun positions with machine-gun fire and cannon fire. A number of vehicles were burning along the road Sidi Nsir- Hunt’s Gap, some of them filled with ammunition and ammonal; but the risks were ignored by officers and men alike as they cheerfully salvaged and carried the shells throughout the action. The wounded acted stoically; none grumbled or complained.
By noon enemy tanks (reported to number 30) and infantry had wormed their way into positions around the flanks of the guns. All this time the battery was completely occupied in engaging enemy infantry, machine guns and mortars, which were closing in on the Hampshire company positions.
The battery fired as many as 1,800 rounds per gun during the fierce, relentless day. Bren guns claimed four Messerschnidts – a triumphant reward for days of patient shooting on the balloon range at Lydd before leaving England.
The gallantry of the infantry, isolated on the tops of stony djebels, was superb. Both artillery and infantry were equally determined not to let their opposite numbers down.
At 3 p.m. a column of the enemy infantry penetrated between Hampshire Farm, two miles or so to the west of Sidi Nsir – Beja road, and the gun positions, and no more ammunition could pass. Twenty minutes later, under covering fire from some 13 tanks in hull-down positions (firing MGs and guns), more tanks attempted to advance down the main road. A Panzer Mk VI was leading. This was hit three times by Sergeant Henderson’s gun. A smaller Panzer Mk VI tried to pass, but this in turn was knocked out by No 1 gun. Yet a third tank was set on fire by the same gun.
The enemy held back, shelling and machine-gunning the positions, particularly F Troop, which was more easily spotted. Both troops were now in action against enemy tanks over open sights. But the tanks in hull-down positions had a great advantage over our guns and engaged them one by one, setting ammunition dumps, killing or wounding the detachments and eventually smashing the guns themselves.
At four o’clock another attack was put in from the Mateur road against F Troop’s southern flank. Sergeant Henderson smashed up the leading tank, but immediately afterwards he and his entire detachment were knocked out by a direct hit. (Sergeant Henderson recovered later in an enemy hospital.) The tanks then came on over the ridge in front of F Troop, who still had three guns in action and engaged the enemy at ranges of from 50 to 10 yards with Lieutenant Taylor, the fitter, cooks and all the survivors running from gun to gun and servicing each in turn.
At this stage the slope of the ground, which is steep and convex, gave the gunners some much needed help, for the attacking tanks were handicapped by their limited ability to depress their guns. F Troop fired for over an hour more before they were finally silenced. Then the tanks moved down the road past F Troop and surrounded E Troop.
At 6.30 p.m. Bren guns and at least one 25-pdr of E Troop were still in action against the enemy tanks at point blank range.
A press report of the next day quoted what was stated to be an eyewitness account from the company sent out to try to link with the defenders of Sidi Nsir. It read:
A battery of 25-pdrs fought most heroically. The guns continued to fire when the ammunition in the gunpits was ablaze; the last surviving gun knocked out two tanks with its last two shots at ten yards’ range and the last man still on his feet was seen jumping from the gunpit and running towards the tanks with a bomb in his hand.
No doubt there was an element of exaggeration in this tale, as in many which followed after, but it gives some picture of the dogged determination with which this grim fight was fought to the end.
At length the tanks smothered the gun positions with machine-gun fire and gunfire, and any man who moved was at once riddled with bullets. Some tanks went round the positions swivelling on their tracks and crushing in the slit trenches.
At 5.51 p.m. the last message came back over the wireless, ‘Tanks are on us’, followed a few seconds later by the single letter ‘V’ tapped out in Morse.
Many, both German and British, thought that the battle was over. But in fact it had scarcely begun. One third of the guns of 172nd Field Regiment had been lost, but a precious 24 hours had been gained and the gallant action of 155th Battery had instilled a healthy measure of caution into the enemy, whose one real chance of success lay in speed.
At dawn on the 27th, headed by a group of Mk VI tanks, the menacing columns moved westwards along the winding, narrow single-track road to Hunt’s Gap. But long before the enemy reached Hunt’s Gap he was pounded continuously by a heavily reinforced artillery which had made full use of the 24 hours’ respite to establish extra ‘eyes’ in the mountains, as well as large dumps of ammunition. The road by which the enemy advanced stretched mercilessly for miles and, as luck would have it, it rained and rained and rained. It was if the enemy had walked deliberately into a carefully baited trap. His heavy tanks floundered in the mud. They became trapped on a narrow road from which they could not turn back. Their drivers were panicked by concentrations of artillery fire from a daily increasing weight of field guns, until eventually they themselves completely blocked their only route of advance.
Then, for ten days, field and medium guns hurled thousands of shells upon them, smashing their tanks and vehicles on the road and mowing down their infantry when they tried to get round over the barren hills. The gunners of 153rd and 154th Batteries took a remorseless revenge for their comrades of 155th who had died at Sidi Nsir. With them fought a battery of 71st Field Regiment under Major Hay, 457th Light Battery commanded by Major Gunn and the 20th / 21st Medium Battery detached from 5th Medium Battery.
The devotion and courage of Major Kensington, of 153rd Battery (afterwards killed at Salerno), and Major Jones, of 154th, were reflected in the gunners who served under them. And when at long last the enemy gave up the bitter struggle, some 30 to 40 of his tanks, including ten of his very limited force of Tigers and 50 to 60 other vehicles, lay smashed along the road to Hunt’s Gap. One prisoner stated that on March 1st his company went into battle over 200 strong and came out on March 5th with strength of 45.
Few of us who saw those smashed-up tanks with the bespattered Palm Tree sign of 10th Panzer Division can forget the unbelievable way in which the massive turrets of gigantic Mk VI tanks had been torn from their chassis and sometimes hurled a dozen yards or so away.
The gunners learned to respect those Hampshire’s on the rocky djebels of Sidr Nsir; and this respect was multiplied a hundredfold on the beaches at Salerno and in the mountains of Italy.
Much has been written about this battle, but the Regiment is content with the words of the CRA in his Special Order Of The Day:
For grit and devotion to duty the action of 155th Battery at Sidi Nsir compares with anything in the history of the Royal Regiment. It is no exaggeration to say that the fire of 172nd Field Regiment Group on the Beja road decisively influenced the battle in our favour.
ORDER OF BATTLE OF 172ND FIELD REGIMENT – February 1943
CO W.D McN. Graham. 2 i/c F.E. Jarvis. Adjt B.Shackleton 1. RSM Richards
(153) R.P. Kensington 2. (154) F. Jones. (155) J.S. Rawford.
1 Killed later by a mine. 2 Killed at Salerno by a sniper.