The Battle of Tebourba Gap 29th November – 4th December 1942

The 2nd Battalion the Hampshire Regiment sailed for North Africa on 11th November 1942, arriving in Algiers on 21st. Initial Allied landings, the week before, had already secured Morocco and Algeria; Tunisia only, remained untaken. The British 1st Army captured Medjez-el-Bab and Tebourba between 24th and 29th November, but violent counter-attacks from the enemy halted their advance.

On the evening of 29th November the 2nd Hampshires relieved 6th Northamptons, East of Tebourba and by midnight the platoons quickly set to digging themselves in. They were overlooked by high ground to the right and to the front. Despite all this the Hampshires fought steadfastly and denied passage to the enemy, against the odds, for four gruelling days.

The first day of battle, on 30th November, the Hampshires suffered heavy shelling from enemy guns and mortars, as well as substantial air activity. Such action was not to let up into the second day, and towards the evening of 1st December the enemy attempted to establish men and machine guns in a nearby farm.

Z Company mounted a counter-attack but were left exposed as they advanced and suffered heavy casualties as a result. The farm was reached and recovered however, and eventually set alight by enemy fire. The platoon was ultimately forced to withdraw due to the depletion of its men. After dark, Lieutenant Wright, second in command of “Z” Company, although himself wounded, went out with stretcher-bearers and brought back eight badly wounded soldiers and all seven men who had been reported missing. For this action he was awarded the Military Cross.

On the third day of battle the enemy opened fire on the whole front from high ground and advanced in strength. Enemy tanks advanced to the right of “Y” Company’s position, with one firing directly into the right-hand platoon from a range of only twenty yards. Battalion headquarters was hit by tank and mortar fire, inflicting multiple casualties.

X Company repeatedly repulsed the enemy with bayonet charges. At one stage the Western end of the wood was defended only by Captain Thomas and five men; he gathered his few men together and, firing a Bren gun from the hip, led a most gallant bayonet charge clean through the enemy tanks to the infantry beyond and drove them back. Captain Thomas was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for this valiant action. Eventually, however, the enemy prevailed and all who remained of “X” Company were one officer, one sergeant and five men.

After dark, when enemy attacks had died down, the battalion was ordered to reposition itself about a mile and a half in the rear, with its right on the river and its left holding a high feature known as Point 186.

The fourth and final day of battle saw the enemy mounting heavy artillery and mortar attacks along the whole front, and after furious battle, they captured some high ground. In attempt to recapture this ground Major Le Patourel led four volunteers: Lieutenant Lister, Sergeant Wells, Private Winkworth and Private Cotterell, to its pinnacle, under heavy fire, to dislodge enemy machine guns.

The party was heavily engaged by the machine-gun fire and Major Le Patourel rallied his men several times and engaged the enemy, silencing several machine-gun posts. Finally, when the remainder of his party were killed or wounded, he went forward alone with a pistol and some grenades to attack the enemy machine-guns at close quarters, and from this action he did not return…. Major Le Patourel’s most gallant conduct and self-sacrifice, his brilliant leadership and tenacious devotion to duty in the face of a determined enemy were beyond praise. For this action Le Patourel was awarded the Victoria Cross.

Meanwhile the battle continued furiously and the enemy were held off throughout the morning, but despite the Hampshires’ dogged fighting, the enemy continued their attacks until its opposition was too depleted to continue. They moved round both flanks to reach the railway from both sides, moving inwards in a pincer movement to close the Tebourba ‘Gap’. The surviving Hampshire soldiers were forced to withdraw and escape the enemy in small groups.

Tebourba was a memorable battle, a most gallant stand, in which the 2nd Battalion, to all intents and purposes unaided, enabled the Medjez position to be held against the most desperate attacks. By the close of the battle the 2nd Hampshires had lost four hundred and ninety five men; around seventy two percent of their initial strength.