Gerbini Battle, 154 Brigade Commander's Account
Sicily, 14th August 1943
Subject - The Battle of Gerbini.
14 Aug 1943
Main 51 Div
This brief account of the Battle of GERBINI is forwarded, as the deductions (particularly number 2) may be of value to other Bdes in the Division and also it is hoped, the underlined portions of the deductions will be taken up with higher authority.
(signed T Rennie)
154 Infantry Brigade
20/21 JULY 1943
The Gerbini positions commanded not only the crossing of the River DITTAINO WEST of GERBINI but also provided flank protection for the German positions NORTH of GERBINI which denied the crossing of the River DITTAINO on the front of the Highland Division.
GERBINI itself formed part of the comparatively well-organised aerodrome defences. It was realised at the time that the defences were stronger than those which had previously been encountered.
During the early afternoon the Bde Comd discussed with the Div Comd a plan to attack the position. The object of this was to give greater depth to the Brigade position and by holding the feature possibly force the enemy to withdraw from his defences to the NORTH which had been holding up attempts to cross the DITTAINO. The Div Comd ordered that the provisional plan be made forthwith and a squadron of Tanks be placed under command of the Bde for the operation. A recce was carried out and the plan communicated to Comd Gps at Bde HQ at 1530hrs. The tank squadron had not arrived in time for this conference. A final Commanders Order Group was ordered for 1900hrs. At 16.30 hrs the Bde Comd left to attend a conference at Div HQ, as he left the Bde he met the tank Sqn Comd and told him he would get full details of the plan from the Brigade Major. At the Div conference at 1700hrs it was decided that the GERBINI attack would take place that night supported by two Fd Regts and one Med Bty. The artillery support for the attack had already been worked out by Lieut. Colonel Sheil, 120 Fd Regt with Comd 7 A&SH (the Bn that was to carry out the attack). The detailed arty fire plan is attached at Appendix A .
The plan for the attack was as follows. 7 A&SH were to carry out the attack (see marked map) and were to secure objectives A,B,C,D and E. They were to cross the start line SAIDA GERBINI 7575 at 2200 hrs. The attack was to be carried out with C Coy on the RIGHT who on reaching the railway were to turn N.W. (using the railway as axis) capturing areas A and B and consolidating on the latter. D Coy on the left were to turn WEST on reaching the road (using the road as axis) about 751745 and capture and reorganise on areas C and D.
Bn.HQ with B Coy were to move to area A, the latter prepared to patrol NE top cover the reorganisation of C Coy at B. A Coy was to be prepared in moonlight or at dawn to capture and clear the area E supported by the Sqn of Tanks. The Sqn of Tanks was to cover the reorganisation of 7 A&SH. A Coy of 1 BW, who were holding the A.Tk ditch 742737 was to clear the road NOTH into GERBINI for the carriers, A.Tk guns, and transport of 7 A&SH; which was to proceed by that route to GERBINI. The Sqn of Tanks was to proceed to 7 BW area and 7BW were to cover and guide them to the railway and road junction 757745 where they were to be taken over by 7 A&SH.; The arty was to support the attack by a timed programme of concentrations on A,B,C,D, E, and F. F was also to be a counter preparation task as it was thought that a counter attack might form up in this area were there was some cover. F.O.Os were attached to the Bn HQ 7A&SH;, 1 BW, and 7 BW and to the Sqn of Tanks. The 4.2 mortars were to support the attack by timed concentrations on C and E. Two platoons of M.Gs were to neutralise the Southern outskirts of GERBINI743745. The 1 BW less the Coy at 745737 was to hold the position previously vacated by 7 A&SH. The transport of 7 BW was to join that Bn and one Coy of that Bn was to be held ready to move in MT at half an hours notice.
Shortly after the advance started C Coy encountered heavy fire and all the officers became casualties. Colonel Mathieson, Commander 7 A&SH, decided to continue with his plan to avoid loosing the advantage of the arty concentration. The tanks eventually arrived about midnight. At this time A Coy were being subject to counter-attacks by enemy infantry and tanks, One troop of the Sqn was directed to support this Coy by firing at the flashes of enemy guns and L.M.Gs restored the situation. About midnight some enemy were seen moving to the southern outskirts of GERBINI 745745. D Coy sent two sections to clear up this area; as a result it transpired that the enemy were in considerable strength. Colonel Mathieson used his reserve Coy ( B Coy) to subdue the enemy in that area.
Up to 0100hrs the fighting had been fierce and continuous with no respite. After this there was a comparative lull during which time Major Lindsay McDougall visited A coy and reported it established in position. Major Routledge, Commander of the Tank Sqn, made touch with Colonel Mathieson and the decision as to where the tanks ere to harbour was made. There were two alternatives, the wooded area at GERBINI or the re-entrant S.E. of GERBINI.. The wooded area at GERBINI was chosen as it was thought that this would give greater support to the infantry.
From 0100 hrs till dawn fighting continued sporadically with pockets of the enemy still resisting in the captured areas. At 0450 the Bde Comd ordered the Coy of 1 BW at the A.Tk ditch to clear the road into GERBINI for the A.Tk guns and a further Coy of 1 BW to take its place on the A.Tk ditch. He then proceeded with Colonel Sheil, 120 Fd Regt RA to the A.Tk ditch 742737. On arrival there, considerable enemy fire was being directed from the southern outskirts of GERBINI against the attacking Coy of 1 BW which was pinned down in the area 747745. It was decided then to send the carrier platoon, 4 A.Tk guns, and a portion of the transport of the 7 A&SH through the 7 BW who were to guide them to the road and rail junction 757745. The detachment under Captain Campbell reached the 7 A&SH; and were suitably dispersed. Meanwhile the second Coy of 1 BW had arrived and was ordered to clear the southern outskirts of GERBINI attacking by a covered approach from the S.E. The final stage of this attack was to be covered by smoke screen. The attack was successful but enemy small arms fire was still coming from locality B. The remaining 4 A.Tk guns of the 7 A&SH and two A.Tk guns of 1 BW were marshalled at the A.Tk ditch and sent into GERBINI under cover of a further smoke screen. The leading portee was blown up on a mine just SOUTH of GERBINI but the remainder reached their destination and were dispersed in areas D and C. Colonel Blair, Commanding the 1 BW, was at this time shot in the leg by a sniper and had to be evacuated. Major Baker-Baker was sent for and ordered to take command of 1 BW and to reorganise the GERBINI position in conjunction with & A&SH. News then came in that Colonel Mathieson and Major Routledge had been killed in the latter s tank while in the process of planning the attack on E.
At this stage the Bde Comd retuned to his HQ where he obtained permission from the Div Comd for 5 Camerons to come temporarily under his command. Colonel Sheil meanwhile went into GERBINI taking forward two fresh O.Ps and later returned to Bde HQ to say that reorganisation was continuing satisfactorily and the position was secure but that touch with A Coy had been lost.
The Bde Comd obtained authority from the Div Comd for the 5 Camerons (less one coy and four A.Tk guns holding the bridgehead 712714) to move to the area MASSA GERBINI to take the place of 1 BW which was now committed to operations in GERBINI. The Bde Comd then went to GERBINI where by this time (about 1000 hrs) the situation had deteriorated. A heavy counter-attack had been launched by the Germans from the N.E. Areas C and D were under heavy small arms fire. Two German armoured cars were brining down fire to bear on the southern outskirts of GERBINI from the S.W. and one or two S.P. guns or tanks were firing from area E which was at that time partially held by a Coy of 1BW. Three Sherman tanks had been hit by S.P. guns in the GERBINI woods; the remainder were head to tail on the road immediately SOUTH of GERBINI. The Bde Comd ordered one troop to take up hull down positions on the spur at E and the remainder to rally in dead ground immediately SOUTH of GERBINI prepared to cover any threat from the WEST. Two tanks of the troop sent to E, which had moved far out onto the open and level ground, were hit. The remaining tanks, some of which were incapacitated owing to rounds stuck in the barrel left the area of operations in a southerly direction. The Bde Comd seeing one troop of tanks behind the house at 759759 proceeded there and ordered the troops to deal with the armoured cars in area 7574. Two of the tanks of this troop were however incapacitated and this troop also withdrew. The Bde Comd then returned to his HQ and asked for another Sqn of Tanks to proceed to the bridgehead 7271 and arranged a counter attack tasks for the 5 Camerons, and for the Sqn of Tanks when they arrived.
While the Bde Comd was at his HQ Major Baker-Baker now the senior officer at GERBINI considered that the GERBINI position was becoming untenable. As he was unable, owing to his wireless set having broken down, to communicate with the Bde Comd, he decided on his own initiative to withdraw Southwards and hold the A.Tk ditch. This withdrawal he conducted in an orderly manner and very exhausted and battered Coys of 7 A&SH were extricated under cover of artillery concentrations. C Coy of 7 A&SH were still holding the position on the road and rail junction 756745 where under the command off C.S.M. Loudon, the Coy had held its position throughout the day and also destroyed two German armoured cars. This coy was ordered to withdraw through 7 BW. The 7 A&SH were withdrawn to rest and food in the DITTAINO bridgehead.
This action was magnificently fought by 7 A&SH from 2200hrs 20 July to 1100 hrs 21 jolly and there is no doubt that the Germans suffered as heavily if not more heavily in casualties than our own troops. The 7 A&SH ended the day with 8 officers and 415 men. A Coy had suffered heavy casualties and the whole company was missing. The Coy had apparently run out of ammunition as a message to this effect was sent to Bn HQ during the night.
The high standard of mutual cooperation between the three Bns of the Bde was significant in many instances which occurred during the fighting.
It should be remembered when making deductions from this action that this was the first occasion during the campaign in SICILY in which the Division encountered really serious opposition, and in which a really strong and immediate counter attack developed. At no time during the battle was the situation such as to permit a careful reorganisation of the positions captured, as small pockets of enemy resistance continued to hold out. During the night German lorried reinforcements were infiltrated into the area and at 1100 hrs a very heavy counterattack as delivered by infantry and S.P. guns supported on the flanks by tanks and armoured cars. Defences were well and deeply dug and in most cases the camouflage over these defences made them difficult to locate in the dark. Deductions can be summarised as follows:-
1. An attack against an organised position containing pill-boxes and many earthworks requires time and very careful planning. In this case the attack was laid on during the previous afternoon.
2. In view of this experience it appears that our arrangements (contracted in the desert) for reorganising the A.Tk defence of a captured position requires thorough overhauling. In the desert the enemy was generally completely evicted from the captured area, thus allowing some hours of darkness and quietness for reorganisation. In this battle conditions were, as already described, quite different. It seems now that the A.Tk plan for reorganisation down even to the sighting and responsibility of each gun should be worked out beforehand. A.Tk defence should follow up the various stages of the attack, making good ground as it is captured. Guns, particularly Pheasants, should be sited in the vicinity of the start line to fire well forward; not only in an A.Tk role but also in the close support role firing HE. Support A.Tk guns should be pushed well forward to reorganise on the reserve coy positions when captured, and in turn also to provide close support to the forward coys. Forward A.Tk guns should then be pushed forward to carry out their pre-allotted tasks in the area of the forward coys when those areas are captured. All guns should be carefully camouflaged before the attack, so that they can, should it be necessary, give support initially from exposed positions. The forward movement of the guns should be controlled by a very responsible officer (in case of Bns the 2nd i/c) who should have by his side an arty officer, prepared, should it be necessary, to bring down smoke to cover the forward movement. All ranks in the Bn should understand this procedure so that they can cooperate to the full extent to aid this move forward if A.Tk guns either by smoke or fire. Finally it seems imperative that each A.Tk Bty should have at least one troop of S.P. A Tk guns for quick reorganisation in forward areas.
3. An attack in which tanks cooperate requires very careful examination of ground by troop commanders, and very close preliminary cooperation between troop commanders and the infantry Company and Platoon Commanders with whom they are to cooperate. In this case time was limited. The Sqn Commander knew the plan at 1700hrs and this left only three and a half hours of daylight for recce. It appears however that in this operation that orders were not given to Troop commanders till after dark and no troop commanders therefore saw the ground or the infantry with whom they were to cooperate. Although the time was short it seemed that better use would have been made of that three and a half hours had the Troop Commanders been brought forward either with the Sqn Commander or shortly after. The ground could have been viewed from the A.Tk ditch 734737, which was in close proximity to the HQ of 7 A&SH and where officers of that Bn could have been readily available to discuss plans.
4. Apart from the A.Tk guns, the infantry at present have no anti-tank projectiles in the form of rifle grenades ore bombs as effective as those used by the Germans.
1. Details of the fire plan in support of the GERBINI attack are as follows:-
- Phase I : Z to Z+15 : Concentrations A,B,C and F : (2 r.p.g. per min)
- Phase IIA : Z+15 to Z+30 : Concentrations B and D : (2 r.p.g. per min)
- Phase IIB : Z+30 to Z+45 : Concentrations E and F : (2 r.p.g. per min)
- Phase III : Z+45 to Z+65 : Concentrations E and F : (1 r.p.g. per min)
The following arty was engaged on this fire plan:-
- 127 Fd Regt
- 120 Fd Regt
- Bty 70 Med Regt
- Z to Z +5 on concentration C (S.W. corner) 20 rds per mortar.
- Z +45 to Z+60 on concentration CE(S.W. corner) 20 rds per mortar.
3. In Phase 1,
- A was engaged by308 bty 128 Fd Regt.
- B was engaged by one Tp of 70 Med Regt.
- C was engaged by two Btys and all 127 Fd Regt.
- F was engaged by one Tp 70 Med Regt.
In phase IIA
- B was engaged by 308 Bty and one Tp 70 Med Regt.
- D was engaged by two Btys 128 Fd Regt, 127 Fd Regt and one Tp 70 Med Regt.
In Phase IIB and III
- E was engaged by one Bty 128 Fdv Regt, all 127 Fd Regt and Bty 70 Med Regt.
- F was engaged by two Btys 128 Fd Regt.
Phase II was extended for 15 minutes to Z+80
In all cases the Med Bty fired at HALF the rates given above.