The 128th Brigade as part of 46th Division, left UK for North Africa on 6th January to reinforce the meagre and tired 1st Army; Since the failure of the ambitious dash to capture Tunis at the beginning of December, the 1st Army had been hard put to it to hold its positions in Tunisia against very determined enemy counter-attacks. The 128th Brigade were immediately transhipped into small vessels and were taken along the coast to Bone. There the 3 battalions hastily disembarked, for Bone was a frequent target for enemy aircraft, and indeed an air attack began before disembarkation was finished. The Brigade marched to a new and uncompleted transit camp some 5 miles east of the town. Here it remained until the end of January.
At the end of January 128th Brigade moved forward and took over the defensive positions in the hills in front of Beja, holding an extensive position astride Hunts Gap. This was a particularly vulnerable part of the British positions, as Hunts Gap was the only tank run into the area.
The 1/4th Battalion, took over the sector at Ksar Mezouar and the 2/4th took up defensive positions astride the Beja–Mateur road and in the hills to the left. Later the 1/4th moved farther south, while the 2/4th extended their positions to include Ksar Mezouar and Guessa Farm, a frontage of some seven thousand yards. These two positions were vital for the defence of the key position of Beja if the enemy attacked through Hunts Gap.
The 5th Battalion was “out in the blue” some 12 miles in advance of the other battalions, where it had taken over from the 1st East Surreys at the village of Sidi Nsir. Its task was to serve as a buffer in front of the main position, with the duty of delaying the enemy to allow time for the main position at Hunts Gap to be reinforced if attacked. Sidi Nsir was no more than a cluster of stone hovels inhabited by a few Arabs, some twenty-five miles north-east of Beja, with a small railway station. The road from Beja follows a broad valley as far as Sidi Nsir, where it leaves the railway and turns east through the hills.
During the three weeks before the battle each battalion provided patrols forward from Sidi Nsir, often making contact with the enemy. The Germans now planned to launch a major offensive to break through the Allies’ encircling positions, to join Rommel’s army, hard pressed by the British Eighth Army in south-eastern Tunisia. The 5th Battalion had worked hard improving its defensive positions against the expected assault.
The Germans attack began on 26th February, taking the form of eight different thrusts, westwards and south-westwards, with more than half the total strength put into the offensive. One of these thrusts was launched south westwards, directly at Sidi Nsir, in a violent attempt to smash through to Beja. It was precisely to check such an attack that the 5th Hampshire had been put out at Sidi Nsir, and the Battalion had to bear the full force of the attack.
The first sign of enemy attack came on 22nd February, when a patrolling platoon of ‘B’ Company clashed with three enemy companies. Their positions on the rocky djebels and open valleys had left them exposed to the eye of the enemy, who surrounded them and engaged them in lengthy fighting, eventually eliminating them. Soon after this the enemy also opened machine gun and mortar fire on the front and right of ‘B’ Company’s position.
Additional signs of the impending attack were noticed on the night of 25th/26th February when the enemy proceeded to fire flares and machine guns for prolonged periods. It was supposed that this was in order to cover the sounds of the preparing tanks and vehicles. The full extent of these preparations however, were not realised until the next day, with the launch of an all-out attack on the 5th Hampshires.
More than half of the enemy forces’ total strength was put into this offensive, and the necessity and good planning of the 5th Battalion was confirmed when the advance was made from Mateur to Beja, with the 5th bearing the full force of the attack.
At 6.00am one of the Hampshires’ two outlaying platoons reported intense mortar fire, and shortly afterwards enemy tanks were reported approaching. Soon a long line of tanks were moving down the Tunis road where they were temporarily detained on a minefield and engaged by 155 Field Battery, Royal Artillery, who eradicated three tanks. By 10.00am communication was lost from the Hampshires’ only observation point on the Mateur road, as they were overrun.
Communication with another outlying post was, likewise lost, following an attack from two companies of enemy infantry. Battle continued steadfastly with near constant air attacks adding to the confusion. The Hampshires, however, succeeded in shooting down two aeroplanes.
B and D Companies were meanwhile under heavy mortar fire and A Company was suffering under intense attacks. Mortars and infantry guns were brought up to engage the railway station, where the Hampshires’ Headquarters were housed, and it began to seem that the enemy would eventually break through.
Throughout the morning every enemy tank was met by the accurate fire of the Hampshires’ 155 Battery field guns. This relieved the pressure on the rest of their Company and Platoon positions, but soon led to their own observation post, telephone lines and wireless transmitter being destroyed.
Guns and ammunition vehicles were dive-bombed, and supply vehicles were set on fire, forcing the Hampshires to salvage their supply of ammunition from the flames. Loss of men at the guns was severe. The road, used to convey twenty five pounder ammunition to the guns, and running straight to Sidi Nsir station, was now cut by the enemy.
A column of tanks advanced towards the heart of 155 Battery, but initially failed against the retaliation of the gunners, who succeeded in taking out three tanks, to deal a fatal blow. On repeating their advance however.
F Troop was wiped out. B Company was overrun and, with no contact with A, B or D Companies, the Commanding Officer ordered remaining companies that could be withdrawn to remove to Hampshire Farm. From here about one hundred men moved overnight to the command post of the 2/4th Hampshires in Hunts Gap to form a defensive line.
By the time the enemy mounted its attack on Hunts Gap, 5th Hampshire, further infantry and artillery reinforcements were in place to defend it.