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North Africa

DURHAM LIGHT INFANTRY 1942-43

By Paul Goldstone
   
“B” Company, 9th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry
– North Africa and Sicily, 1942-1943

Raised from “Geordies” from Newcastle-upon-Tyne in the north of England, “B” Company saw action in France in 1940, where the Company suffered heavy losses before being evacuated from Dunkirk.

North Africa

After rebuilding in England, “B” Company was sent to the Middle East. The Geordies broke out from encirclement at Gazala in June 1942, retreating back to Mersa Matruh.

At Mersa Matruh on 27 June “B” Company was attacked by overwhelming numbers of German infantry and panzers. After fierce fighting, in which Private Adam Wakenshaw would be posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross for manning a 2-pounder gun despite grievous wounds, the Company was encircled and eventually overrun. Survivors from “B” Company were formed into a Composite Company with the other remnants of the Battalion.

In July 1942 the Company was ordered to take part in an ill-conceived night attack against Axis positions at Alamein. When daylight came, the promised tank support was nowhere to be seen - the Geordies found themselves surrounded by German panzers and overrun.

Right: Private Adam Wakenshaw, VC
Private Adam Wakenshaw, VC
The Badge of the Durham Light Infantry

During September and October, the Company received fresh reinforcements and trained for the forthcoming Alamein offensive. On 2nd November 1942 the Company went back into battle. At 12.45am “B” Company formed a line behind the white tapes of the start line, drank a rum ration, and fixed bayonets. The night air was suddenly shattered by hundreds of guns opening fire.

Following the creeping barrage, the Geordies advanced into an inferno of smoke and dust, Major Teddy Worrall keeping the company under control by blowing a hunting horn. Fire from Machine guns raked the advancing line, but onwards the company advanced, into the German trenches where the defenders were dealt to with bayonets and grenades in savage close quarters fighting.

Left: The Badge of the Durham Light Infantry.

Following the creeping barrage, the Geordies advanced into an inferno of smoke and dust, Major Teddy Worrall keeping the company under control by blowing a hunting horn. Fire from Machine guns raked the advancing line, but onwards the company advanced, into the German trenches where the defenders were dealt to with bayonets and grenades in savage close quarters fighting.
Matilda Scorpion flail tank

Most defenders, from 115. Panzergrenadier Regiment, surrendered, shattered by the barrage and some hysterical. As dawn broke, tanks of the Wiltshire Yeomanry rumbled through their positions to continue the offensive.

The Company rested for a few months, when in March 1943 it was sent back into battle, this time to break the vaunted Mareth Line. At 11.p.m on 20th March, “B” Company set off behind the creeping barrage. Matilda ‘Scorpion’ flail tanks led the way, clearing passages through the minefields. Major Worrall led the way, blowing his hunting horn. 

A Mareth Line Bunker today

Hit in the chest, the Major continued to lead from the front, urging his men forward.     

They reached the Wadi Zigzou, the men scrambling up the steep sides despite enemy machine-gun and rifle fire – some of the men formed a human ladder to get up the sheer sides. Once out of the wadi, “B” Company tackled the Ksiba Ouest stronghold, held by the 8th Bersaglieri Regiment.

Worrall himself led the attack, crawling forwards under fire and cutting the barbed wire to allow his men to assault one pillbox. About eighty Italians were taken prisoner, and the Ksiba Ouest strongpoint was seized (and Worall’s wound was seen to – though Worrall was more concerned with the loss of his revolver and horn during the fighting!).

Fighting continued to rage in the salient however. At 1.30.pm. the next day disaster struck - 15. Panzer Division attacked. Valentines of 50th Royal Tank Regiment, up to support the DLI, were no match for the panzers, and by 3.p.m. the Geordies were attacked from three different directions. After firing off the last of their ammunition, the survivors withdrew back across the Wadi Zigzou. “B” Company saw no further action in North Africa, and it enjoyed several weeks well-earned leave in Egypt.

Sicily

On 10th July 1943 “B” Company was one of the first units to land in the invasion of Sicily. Brushing aside light Italian resistance, the Company marched towards the strategically vital Primasole Bridge. On the night of the 15th July the Company was attacked by Italian armoured cars, which were all destroyed. That morning the Geordies advanced northwards to secure the bridge.

However, German paratroopers from the elite 1. Fallschirmjager Division were also moving south to gain control of the bridge.

Destroyed houses
As “B” Company advanced across open ground towards the bridge they came under intense machine-gun fire. A few platoons forded the river, but ran into fanatical German resistance in the vineyards on the north bank around the bridge.
 
Regrouping, the next night “B” Company tried again. Fording the river upstream of Primasole Bridge, the Geordies met intense automatic fire from in the vineyard and a sunken road north of the bridge.
The area around Primasole Bridge

The battle became a bitter close quarters fight, as neither Geordies nor Fallschirmjager were willing to retreat. 

At 6 a.m. some German tanks joined in the battle, but the counter-attack was destroyed by British shellfire. At 7 a.m. Sherman tanks of 44th Royal Tank Regiment crossed the Primasole Bridge, breaking into the vineyards and machine-gunning about them. This was to prove decisive – by midday exhausted Fallschirmjager began to surrender.

The battlefield was a hell’s kitchen, of smashed weapons, overturned ammunition boxes, and bodies of British and German dead. But the Durham Light Infantry had successfully taken Primasole Bridge.

Recreating the DLI Battles

A player wishing to refight the battles of the Durham Light Infantry in 1942 and 1943 has a variety of interesting scenarios to choose from. The attacks at Alamein and the Mareth Line are best represented by The Big Push scenario, while Primasole Bridge is best represented by a Free-for-all battle, with the Primasole Bridge as the objective for both sides.


Last Updated On Wednesday, August 12, 2009 by Wayne at Battlefront