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

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Spank the Tank

In late November 1942 , twenty sappers of the 1st Parachute Squadron, Royal Engineers were picking their way across the Tunisian landscape. Overhead a bright moon bore down, and the peaceful night sky was frosted with stars. Their mission was to emplace mines and set up an anti-armour ambush on a road. This road led to an harbour area with a large number of Axis forces, including tanks. Once these forces were in place two companies of Para's, covered by a section of three inch mortars and supported by some ex Vichy Senegalese infantry whom had decided to join up with the Paras, would launch a frontal assault on the Axis position. The harbour was on the slopes of a place called Gue Hill.

It was similar to an ambush launched about a week earlier. They had convinced the German forces near Béja that the Paratroop force was actually three times its size, by the simple expedient of marching through the town three times, but switching headgear each time. The Para's had moved to Mateur where they got word of a large German convoy protected by armoured cars that had moved past. So they mined the road and when the convoy returned they attacked with Gammon bombs and small arms. This resulted in several captured German armoured cars and quite a haul of POW's.
This time though things were to start disastrously. The force had tried to approach stealthily however much to Lt Col Hill’s annoyance most of the farmhouses had dogs which barked as his men passed, luckily that didn't seem to alert the Germans.
Due to the difficulties in fusing the Hawkins mines which were to be used to seal the road, they had been fused earlier. One of the sappers had his store of fused mines carried in a sandbag, fifteen minutes before the attack was due to start he stumbled and fell into a Wadi, landing on the sandbag. The Hawkins mine is a pressure activated device of about a pound of explosive. When the igniter is cracked it leaks an acid onto a chemical which reacts causing the device to explode. During his fall the unknown sapper cracked one of the detonators. The resulting explosion caused a chain reaction in the other explosives carried by the Engineers. All but two were killed in the three explosions.
Diagram of a Hawkins mine
The accident had another effect, it caused a part of the Axis to retreat, and the remainder of the defenders on the hill to open fire wildly spraying fire all over the place.
Lieutenant Colonel James Hill was in charge of the force. Born in March 1911 in Bath, he had gone the traditional route to college then into the army as an officer. However after a number of years in service he left to marry. Three years later he was recalled when war broke out and first served as part of the BEF in France. He commanded one of the evacuation beaches at Dunkirk and was on the last ship to leave. After conducting some staff duties he joined the brand new Parachute Regiment, which led him inexorably to Tunisia.
Lt Col Hill upon realising that the Germans were getting away launched an immediate assault. The first position was a stone wall and the Allied forces stormed forward, into the German fire. After a few minutes of close combat the wall had changed hands. However a new problem was evident.
Lt Col James Hill
Three German Panzers were dug in further up the slope, these were blazing away with everything they had. Lt Col Hill decided to do something about the three tanks. He had with him his trusty revolver and his swagger stick, nothing else. His force was only armed with Gammon bombs at best, but Lt Col Hill didn't need these.
He vaulted the wall and charged the first tank. Arriving at the tank unscathed by its fire he stuck his pistol into a vision port and sent a single round pinging around inside. The tank crew immediately bailed out yelling "Italiano!". With his first tank captured Lt col Hill charged the next. Again a single round from his revolver caused the Italian crews to bail, and surrender.

Finally it was time for the third tank. This time he found that the vision port was sealed. His response to this was to hit the tank, very hard, with his swagger stick.
This too had an effect, two German troopers emerged with their hands up to surrender to Lt Col Hill. The third, a giant of German, sprung out of the hatch. As he leapt out he opened fire with an SMG. Three bullets hit Lt Col Hill, one each in the chest, neck and arm. Instantly the German was cut down by friendly forces.

Lt Col Hill's Adjutant, Captain Whitelock, had also been injured by a hit to the face and neck. Both were loaded into a sidecar of a captured Italian motorcycle and driven, at speed, to the regimental aid post at Béja. However the only direct route which was safe to travel at speed in the dark was along a railway line. The motorcycle combination fitted in-between the rails and as a result hit every sleeper as a sharp bump.
James Hill later in life
After a brief spell of convalescence, in which Hill decided the best way to train himself back up to standard was to climb out of his hospital ward window at night. He then returned to Britain where he took command of British paratroops On D-Day and halted the German attack in the Ardennes. He also led troops into the parachute drop during the crossing of the Rhine, where he was nearly run over by his batman and Jeep as they landed in a glider. He served until 1945, then became a reservist until 1949. James Hill died two days after his 95th birthday in March 2006.

Image credits:
paradata.org.uk, www.bafc.org.uk and www.lexpev.nl