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

Sunday, April 26, 2020

Hunting Tigers

A word of caution about today's story, some of the details come from a copy of The War Illustrated, and thus were released by the British Ministry of Information during the war. This does not necessarily preclude them from being accurate, it’s just they may have been embellished a bit. That said the battle did happen, and there's plenty of eyewitness accounts and photographs to show that it happened at least close to the description.

In the early months of 1943 the war in North Africa seemed to be winding down as the Germans were pushed into Tunisia, and US forces were starting to arrive in large numbers. Then came Kasserine Pass, which showed the Germans were still able to launch armoured offensives. Shortly afterwards the Germans planned another large armoured attack, Operation Ochsenkopf, this was due to start on the 26th of February. British forces, the night before, noted flares being fired, sporadic mortaring and harassing machine gun fire. They quickly concluded this was to mask the sounds of German tanks moving up into position. On the morning of the 26th the German assault began with heavy mortaring of the allied lines. Eight armoured attacks were directed out from the Germans lines, one was aimed towards the town of Beja.
To get to that town there was only one real access point, called Hunt's Gap. However, defending it were a small force of infantry, the 128th Brigade. This brigade had only recently been formed, and some soldiers had been enlisted for only six months. Heading towards them was the armoured might of the Afrika korps, hardened veterans, some crewing the new Tiger tanks. Knowing the difficulty of the position, upon taking up position a few weeks earlier one of the battalions, 5th Battalion of Hampshire Regiment was deployed forward to Sidi N’sir. To support them they had the eight 25-pounders of the 155th Battery, Royal Artillery. Their mission was to conduct a delaying action. Heading down the road towards them was Kampfgruppe Lang, with nearly eighty Panzers, of which twenty were Tigers, plus supporting infantry artillery and even air power.
At 0600 an observation post (OP) from the infantry looking along the main road reported a column of tanks approaching. The artillery was able to fire several salvos at targets of opportunity along this route due to the reports from the OP. This bombardment carried on for about 45 minutes, until the Germans had closed with the British position, when they launched their first assault. This assault was met by the 25-pounders. As is usual in the Royal Artillery, one gun was dedicated to anti-tank work as they were expecting the German attack. Three German Panzers advanced and the 25-pounder knocked all three out on the road. To make matters worse for the Germans, the 25-pounders had waited until the Germans were in the only gap of a minefield, now the wrecked Panzers were blocking the road. However, the Germans continued their assault using a nearby hill to cover the advance of their infantry. To make matters worse the OP was under attack and had its radio smashed and was overrun about 1000. Then the Luftwaffe appeared. They began to strafe the 25-pounders in their gun pits, and strike at targets along the road leading back to Hunt’s Gap. There are stories of vehicles being set on fire, whilst carrying ammunition for the guns, and soldiers grabbing valuable boxes of ammo out of the burning trucks before they exploded.

Throughout the day a bitter firefight raged between the Hampshire's and the Germans as the Germans pressed forward enveloping the British position. Whenever a German tank appeared the 25-pounders would engage and either destroy it or drive it off. This enabled the infantry to hold, even so the thirty AFV's with infantry had managed to work their way to within 600 yards of the guns by midday. By 1500 the Germans had managed to work around the strong-point and cut the road to the rear. Surrounded, the battered British troops were now cut off from supply or evacuation. After half an hour of intense battering the Germans launched their knockout blow.
This is claimed to be No1 gun of F battery.
Thirteen Panzers moved up, and formed a base of fire, as a column of tanks led by a Tiger roared forward heading directly for the British lines, confident there were no anti-tank weapons that could destroy it. No 1 Gun, F Battery, promptly proved that there was a gun that could tackle the Tiger. Three rounds of 20lb armour piercing shot powered by a Super Charge propellent, slammed into the Tiger's turret, destroying it. A Panzer IV tried to pass the wrecked tank only to be hit by the same gun. Finally, the gun set another tank on fire. At this point the Germans decided to withdraw. The tanks pulled back to hull down positions, then one by one they concentrated their fire on the 25-pounders until they had killed the crew or smashed the gun. As you would expect, scratch crews for the guns were created from any manpower that could be found such as cooks, batmen and signallers. With these scratch crews the guns were brought back into the fight, only to be taken under fire again, and the Germans closed up, some managing to get within 10 yards of the infantry, but each time they were repulsed. Another assault was launched at 1730, this time the gunners managed to hit seven German tanks. By darkness one gun still remained in action, along with a smattering of support from the infantry.

That night it is claimed there was a signal received it said "The tanks are upon us. ..- " [..- is the Morse code for V]. With the battle over the order to retreat was given. 155th Battery had started the battle with a strength of 130 personnel, of which just nine retuned to friendly lines, two of which were wounded. The 5th Battalion managed to save about 100 men. They fell back to Hunt’s Farm overnight. There was no sign of the Germans on the 27th, they were too busy licking their wounds, the attack came on the 28th. The delaying action had cost the Germans a day, and the damage done in that action had added another day.
Two shots showing German forces after the battle at the Sidi N’sir train station, which was one of the main focuses of the fighting. Of particular interest is the US T30 HMC in the top picture being used by German forces.
By the time the Germans started their attack the British had reinforced Hunt’s Gap. Seventy-two 25-pounders, and fifteen 5.5in guns were now in battery to back up the 128th Brigade. The Brigade had been furiously digging in, laying minefields and siting their anti-tank guns. The artillery was zeroed in on a perfect killing ground. To add to the firepower two squadrons of Churchill tanks had joined up, and later in the day the air would be swarming with Hurricane IID's armed with 40mm cannons.

A Tiger at Hunts Gap. The vehicle has just been demolished by US engineers after the battle. On he map above it is at the location marked "tanks hit by artillery". It is a well documented site, and a detailed rundown can be found here.
Bitter fighting occurred for the entirety of the 28th, starting before dawn. By the morning of the 29th the Germans were down to just six operational tanks, and so the attack was over.

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