The 8th Army at the Battle of the Wadi Akarit 6th April 1943
First published in hardback - Sentinel Press 2007
Dedicated to the men who marched and fought with the Desert Army. Their drill were bloodless battles and their battles bloody drills.
Foreword Alistair Campbell of Airds Unicorn Pursuivant of Arms
It is with much pleasure but with a distinct sense of unworthiness that I write these few lines. There are so many people who have had a much better claim than I to write this foreword.
But the March Of Time is inexorable and there are now few survivors of this epic encounter.
"Epic" is no overstatement. Wadi Alkarit was the German's last major stand against the victorious advance of the 8th Army; their position, dominated by the two features of the Djebel Tebega Fatnassa and the Djebel Roumana was a daunting target; no wonder that General Montgomery classified the battle that followed as the hardest he had fought while in command of the 8th Army.
Barrie Barnes has produced a remarkable account, it ranges from his admirably clear setting of the scene, through the terse and laconic entries in unit War Diaries to the vivid and usually confused first hand accounts of those in the front line who could only see what was immediately visible to them in the fog of war.
The accounts of the Victoria Crosses awarded to members of each of the Divisions involved highlight the bravery of the British and Indian soldiers that fought at Akarit. These men were giants in their day; I have been lucky enough to know quite a few of them. Most of them returned after the war to a hundrum peacetime existence; they did not boast of their exploits and many of them showed the marks of a life that had been less than easy; many looked old and tired and sometimes a little shabby; but they were true heroes.
Perhaps the spirit of what took place can be summed up by the story of Major John Lindsay MacDougall of Lunga of the 7th Argylls who, wounded as he was, charged the approaching enemy masses with the five surviving members of his company headquarters shouting "No surrender, 'C' Company! Charge!" as he hobbled after them on his improvised crutch. My father put him up for the Victoria Cross but he received instead the Distinguished Service Order. Known as "No Surrender John " to his men, he was later wounded again in Sicily and died of his wounds as a prisoner of war.
At a time when any self-pride in Britain's past is unfashionable, when the famous regiments mentioned in these pages have virtually all disappeared, and when most of the figures in this story have passed on, it is all the more important that such events as the Battle of Wadi Akarit should be remebered.
Barrie Barnes has produced an outstanding book and we are all much in his debt.
If Alamein was the 8th Army's finest hour, Barrie Barnes argues in this meticulous book that the Battle of the Wadi Akarit did not fall far short of that triumph. It was the last great pitched battle between the 8th Army and their old adverseries, the German and Italian Panzer Army Africa. The author has interviewed many battle survivors, from gunners, sappers and army chaplains to spitfire pilots, tankmen and front line infantrymen. This single days action cost the 8th Army nearly 700 dead, with three times that number maimed and wounded. It forced the Axis units to retreat and, the author argues, only Montgomery's failure to attack earlier with his armour prevented the retreat from becoming an utter rout. This book is a careful and considered account of an often forgotten action in the Tunisian desert, based on the words (over two hundred interviews) of the men who fought it.
Naval and Military Press.
By the time I had written and published three books I had done hundreds of interviews with veterans of both world wars, as I talked to the men of the 50th Division I noticed they all mentioned a place called the Wadi Akarit. This meant nothing to me and I pressed on with other projects, the name Wadi Akarit kept coming back to me, the men who spoke of it did so in a tone that led me to believe this place was very important to them and that their experiences were deeply etched into their minds. I decided to look into the matter but could find no book that dealt only with the action that was fought there on 6th April 1943. Montgomery said it was one of the hardest fought battles he had directed while leading the famous 8th Army and I could not understand why it had been so neglected, taking second place to Alamein and Mareth. The name Scipio intrigued me, it turned out to be the name of the Roman general who defeated Hannibal in 200 BC, the great Scipio Africanus, whoever named this operation knew his history. By reading regimental histories and any other book that referred to Akarit I began to realise what an important and terrible event this was for the men who fought there. I stepped up my interview programme and advertised all over Britain for men who had served with the units who fought there, the principal ones being the 51st Highland Division, 50th Northumbrian Division and 4th Indian Division. Men from all walks of life began to contact me and for five years I recorded their memories and copied numerous photographs they supplied me with. All of this work revealed a forgotten event that was about to slip into history unrecorded as the veterans grew older, many passed away after my interview but their families kept in touch, eager to see the book and to find out what had happened that day. Some of the interviews were funny: Leonard White of Hull said that after the battle when they were burying the dead and picking up body parts from the battle-field he walked back to the Padre with a leg in his hand and asked what he should do with it, he was told to drop it into a grave with a soldier, as he walked away he was smiling, when asked what he was smiling about he said "when archeologists dig this up in a thousand years they'll think he came from the Isle of Man" The humour relieved a tense situation. Other interviews were tragic and moving and some of the old boys broke down and cried when they recalled what they did as young men, Harold Johnson of the Black Watch said: "It was like a nightmare, people were getting killed, I threw myself down and as I looked up four of C Company fifty yards in front of me got a direct hit with a big one, as the sand and dust cleared I can vividly remember one gattered boot standing there. The rest of them was all up in the air and then pieces of them started raining down, it was terrible. Anyone who says they weren't frightened are bloody liars because I was terrified". The book follows the bloody progress of each battalion of each division during the battle and was published in hardback in 2007. First hand accounts and contemporary photographs paint an all too vivid picture of this Tunisian killing ground. As darkness fell on the battle-field the 8th Army consolidated its new positions, over 600 British troops lay dead on the field with three times that number maimed and wounded. In the darkness the rumble and roar of enemy transports could be heard as the Africa Corps pulled back, the failure of Montgomery to push his armour through earlier in the day and to exploit a break-through, so destroying the Axis forces once and for all, has been a bone of contention to many who fought there and to military historians ever since. The reasons for this are gone into in great detail in the final chapter. This study puts the spot-light on one of the 8th Armies' forgotten victories, Akarit has always been put in the shade by Alamein and Mareth and as such has received scant attention from military historians. But the men who fought there and Montgomery himself remember it as one of the fiercest actions they took part in and it has been my privilege to meet them and give them a voice.
© 2015 Barrie Barnes