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Dmitry Yudo aka Overlord, jack of all trades
David Lister aka Listy, Freelancer and Volunteer

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Battleship Sherman

Disclaimer: the accounts from which I draw this are all a bit blurred. So this article might be wrong. The web indicates two books that hold details on the subject are 'Mailed Fist: 6th Armoured Division at War 1939-1945' and 'Welsh Guards at War'. I do not own either of these so they may prove me utterly wrong!

As Axis forces in Tunisia collapsed during May 1943 the Germans formed a line across a natural feature called Cape Bon. Other divisions and units were halting in place as they ran out of supplies or somewhere to retreat too and either surrendered or fought to the last man. The rate of surrender was reported by the Allied newspapers at over 1000 new POW's every hour. At one Allied POW camp there were reports of the camp not being large enough to hold them all, and the prisoners milled about outside the wire.
However a few German units formed a new front line and began to dig in across the bottom of Cape Bon. On one flank was the coastal town of Hammam Lif. The line ran from the town right by the sea, through the Djebel-er-Rorouf mountains to Zarhouan and Enfidaville.

Into Hammam Lif the Germans poured Kampfgruppe Frantz. It consisted of the 19th Flak Division, and a fallschirmjager battalion. This was reinforced with the remains of the Herman Goering Division and two Panzer Grenadier Regiments. The mass of 88 Flak were well sighted, and the German infantry were dug in on the high ground overlooking the town. As the lead British tanks approached this monstrous position a 88mm sighted to fire directly down the main road destroyed the lead tank causing the British to halt. The Germans then began to bombard the stalled armoured unit with nebelwerfers, mortars and other indirect fire weapons. The Germans confidently expected they could hold for at least six days.
That afternoon the Welsh Guards began the assault. The first of the Djebel-er-Rorouf mountains was to be assaulted. Each of the five peaks were 600ft tall, steep sided with very rocky terrain. Storming the first crest in the face of fierce German defences took the whole afternoon and all the grit and determination that the Welsh Guards could muster. As light faded the Guardsmen began to clamber down the mountain to assault the others. With one company acting as porters over the course of the night the other peaks were captured. Although only one was defended the Welsh Guards had to climb the rocky slope under a constant barrage of grenades. Eventually they charged the peak, capturing the thirteen defenders. The other peaks took time to capture just due to their sheer cliff like sides. However by first light the mountains were all in British hands. This action had cost the Welshmen twenty four killed, and fifty wounded. Now it was time to storm the main town.
 This task fell to the 2nd Lothians and Border Horse Tank Regiment, equipped with Sherman's. One of the officers was Allan Waterston. The plan was for the three squadrons to charge the town. The front was only a few hundred yards wide between the sea and the start of the mountains, and remember there was a Flak division, equipped with 88 mm's pointing at that gap.
First his squadron scrambled over a railway line towards the coast, here things started to go wrong immediately. A coil of wire wrapped itself around Waterston’s neck, while the tank continued to advance at full speed. The wire began to tighten, choking him and preventing him from ordering his driver to halt. Within seconds he was going to get jerked out of the tank and hung, or decapitated. He managed to get his gloved hands under the wire and heave it over his head, just in time. Waterston, in his autobiography then says "The enemy began to react strongly and we found ourselves in some unpleasantness".
With hails of 88 mm rounds sleeting across the open ground, slamming into tank after tank Waterston led his troop into a wadi and used it to move closer to the Germans. As he emerged at full tilt by the sea his troop was alone. Then things began to deteriorate even further as one of his tanks struck a mine. The Germans had mined the approach to Hammam Lif as well. Coming under concentrated 88 mm fire Waterston sought the only cover he could find, the sea. Charging into the ocean with his second Sherman following him they began to race through the gauntlet of German fire. Each impact threw up a column of water over twenty feet high. Now partially submerged (One of the advantage of a British Sherman is that it possibly had a diesel engine so wouldn't flood as easily), his tanks formed a line, with their wake trailing behind them, and splashes of 88 mm impacts all around, for all the world looking like a naval battle.
Using this hull down cover, in the surf, Waterston found his tanks abreast of Hammam Lif and turned sharp right into the town. Under constant small arms fire the two Sherman's blasted into the town's centre. From there he was able to take the Germans under point blank fire from the rear, destroying four 88 mms. This lessened the volume of fire the Germans were putting down the gap and allowed further reinforcements to advance and capture the town. That day the 2nd Lothians and Border Horse lost twenty two tanks, if it wasn't for Waterston's actions it's likely they wouldn't have captured the town. For his actions that day he was awarded the Military Cross.
His dash and daring later served in Italy where he captured the bridge over the Arno River, which some sources say is the bridge in the background of the Mona Lisa. Alan Waterston died in 2014 aged 92.

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