Baptism of Fire in the Robaa Valley 31 January 1943

Discussion in 'North Africa & the Med' started by Instructor6, Feb 4, 2023.

  1. Instructor6

    Instructor6 Member

    On the 16th January 1943 a week or so after their difficult battle around Green and Bald Hills in Northern Tunisia, the 5th battalion the East Kent Regiment - universally known as the Buffs was relieved and moved to the town of Beja. The officers and soldiers of the battalion were looking forward to a rest out of the line. Although they had not seen as much fighting as some of the other units in the 78th Division they had been on the move since landing in the initial assault near Algiers in November and were tired.

    They were not new to battle for the Buffs had experienced a tough time in France in 1940 and recently had a several engagement with both Italian and German troops. Unfortunately their time in reserve would be short and also the following day the battalion’s existing CO Lieutenant Colonel Penlington handed over command of the unit to Lieutenant Colonel A D “Ginger” Mckechnie. One of his first orders would be to order his men to end their briefest of rests and head back to the front.

    This order did not endear him to his men especially as all the officers and men were fond of their old Colonel and were not clear why he had been relieved of command. He also had two other strikes against him for Ginger Mckechnie was a Territorial Army officer and worse still he was not even from the regiment. He had been commissioned into Worcester and Forester’s Regiment but spent much of his time with the Honourable Artillery Company. Alexander Mckechnie probably had hoped that he might be given a grace period to get to know his battalion while they were in reserve before going into combat but it was not to be. Instead very quickly his unit was on the move and on January 31st the new CO found himself with his battalion facing a German tank attack.

    At 07.24 that morning while in their positions at the small hamlet of Sidi Said in the Robaa Valley his leading companies watched with deep concern as a column of German tanks including 2 huge Tiger tanks advanced down the road towards them. It appeared to his soldiers that their new COs period in command of the 5th Buffs might end up being very short. After all if their new boss managed to lose most of his battalion within days of taking command he was unlikely to be around for very long. The individual concerned, Alex Mckechnie however did not seem all that perturbed. It is true that their CO was located over a mile down the road but as will be revealed Ginger was also aware that he held a few hidden cards. The reasons for the uncomfortable position that Mckechnie and the 5th Buffs now found themselves facing was due to developments elsewhere. On January 18th while the battalion was resting near Beja the Germans intervened to end their time off. General Von Arnim had developed a plan to take advantage of the over- extended Allied positions in Northern Tunisia.

    He had previously identified that the weak, ill equipped and poorly supplied French forces located in central Tunisia made a tempting target for his combat experienced and recently reinforced army. In the middle of January Von Arnim tasked Major General Weber the commander of the 334th Division with undertaking series of attacks. This operation was codenamed EILBOOTE (German for courier or fast express) would have two aims. The first part of Operation EILBOOTE as designed to be a diversion but could cause significant damage to British forces on located in and around the town of Bou Arada. The main attack was designed to inflict damage on French units of the 19th Corps and split their forces in two by driving over the mountains and down the Ouselltia Valley 100 miles south of Tunis. Arnim’s plan was deliberately designed to strike close to the boundary between the French 19 Corps and the British 5th Corps but also to cut French forces based on one side of the Dorsal range from those on the other side. Since the events associated with the diversionary German attack near Bou Arada are in part described in an excellent recent couple of posts elsewhere (by bexley84), I plan to focus this story on the German attack in the Robaa Valley and its impact especially on the 5th Buffs who formed part of 36th Infantry Brigade of the 78th Infantry Division and Ginger Mckechnie.

    The story of the French forces in Tunisia during this stage of the Tunisian campaign has been seriously overlooked. At this point the French forces under the command of General Juin held almost one a half of the Allied front line covering Central and southern Tunisia despite the odds. The French colonial forces were not only poorly equipped, armed and supplied, but held large swathes of territory and faced experienced German forces well equipped with tanks and artillery. This made their troops extremely vulnerable to counterattacks led by tanks, modern artillery and the Luftwaffe which held local air superiority. This is what happened when the German launched Operation EILBOOTE on January 18th 1943.

    All of the above is by way in part of explaining why General Anderson the First Army commander was forced to send weary British troops to reinforce the French. In this case the Tunis Division of the French 19 Corps south of the German held town of Pont De Fahs 35 miles SW of Tunis. The threat created by Operation EILBOOTE to the French led Anderson to send orders to McKechnie and the 5th Buffs and other units on the 20th January to move from Beja to the small town of Robaa Oulad Yaha in the Robaa Valley. There the British 36th Brigade assumed responsibility for the defence of the valley against what was an anticipated German attack.

    The original German plan for EILBOOTE assumed the main attack would begin near the Kebir Reservoir move briefly down the Robaa Valley for a short distance until it reached the junction of a road leading over the mountains south east to the OUSELLITA Valley. It was not intended to drive further down the Robaa valley. That the German move down the Robaa Valley was just part of a wider operation whose aim to destroy French forces further south was of course unknown both to the French and Anderson. On its arrival Mckechnie‘s battalion reinforced by a single squadron of the 17th -21st Lancers.

    After arriving in the small town of Robaa on the 21st McKechnie and the 5th Buffs took up positions around the town but on the 25th January the battalion moved up to just north east of the hamlet of Sidi Said - about 8 miles north of Robaa. For the next few days the 5th Buffs patrolled and improved its positions. The engineers laid mines and their attached anti-tank platoon gunners emplaced their 6 pounder guns. Meanwhile on the 28th January substantial reinforcements had arrived -the 6th Royal West Kents from the 36th Infantry Brigade, a squadron of the Derbyshire Yeomanry and the 12th Royal Horse Artillery (RHA).

    Furthermore the brigade was reinforced by the 2nd battalion of the US 16th Infantry Regiment. This unit was part of the 1st Infantry Division which was nicknamed the Big Red One. It had landed in Algeria at Arzew and engaged briefly in fighting with Vichy French units before it moved to Tunisia in January and had therefore not yet encountered the German army in battle. The initial German attack on Djebel Mansour ran into to fierce resistance from the 1st Parachute Brigade and the attack over the mountain road got bogged down. In addition a Combat Command of the 1st Armoured Division was placed under French command and sent to the Ouselltia Valley. The offensive was then halted on Von Arnim’s orders. However on the 28th January Von Arnim ordered Operation EILBOOTE resumed and he specifically encouraged an attack down the Robaa Valley.

    Ginger McKechnie placed his A and C companies in positions respectively on the north and south side of the main road. His other 2 rifle companies were located with his Headquarters Company and Battalion HQ about 1.5 miles south and closer to the few mud houses of the hamlet. The area on both sides of the road had a number of gullies and trees which made off the road vehicular movement by the Germans difficult and created something of a choke point. His right flank was protected first by the 6th Queens Own West Kents and then the Americans of the 16th Infantry located in the hills.

    Although A Company of the Buffs was shelled and mortared on the 30th January there had been no significant signs of a major armoured attack and the battalion’s situation improved somewhat when companies of the 6th Queens Own Royal West Kents took up positions to protect their left and right flanks. The 2nd Battalion of the 16th Infantry was also now located to their north east and G Company of that unit had secured a key position on Hill 727 which overlooked the valley. During that move the company also incurred some casualties including their company commander who was killed trying to recover a wrecked jeep. The patrol was only able to withdraw because their attached British Forward Observation Officer -Captain Cracknell of the 12th RHA was able to call down accurate artillery fire. On the night of the 30/31st January the Americans detected and heard vehicular movement but could not confirm its location so no report was made to 36th Infantry Brigade.

    It was thus something of a surprise and shock to the 5th Buffs when at 07.24 on the morning of the 31st January a column of 8 tanks were sighted as they drove south down the road. This column was part of Kampfgruppe Lueder named after the CO of the 501st Panzer Abteilung (i.e. Battalion) and comprised of the 2nd Company of the battalion supported by the I Battalion of the 69th Panzer Grenadier Regiment and possibly a 2nd company of tanks from the 10th Panzer Division. Most stories say that the leading tanks were two Tigers but the 5th Buffs war diary is unclear on this issue and German armoured tactics were to lead Tiger Battalion advances with Mark III or IV tanks. The leading tanks advanced machine gunning both sides of the road and the infantry crouched down in their slit trenches. The soldiers watched with increasing nervousness as the first couple of tanks drove to within 200 yards of their location and then almost up to their positions and nothing had happened.

    Suddenly a Verey flare) shot into the sky and at 7.37 AM at least 10 anti- tank guns opened up from hidden flank positions on both sides of the road. The German tanks came under fire from at least 2 troops of 6 pounder anti- tank guns from A Battery of the 72nd Anti-Tank Regiment Royal Artillery (RA) along with a couple of 2 pounder anti-tank guns of the 5th Buffs. According to his obituary the commander of 2 Troop, Lieutenant Stanley Edwards was wearing a grimy set of pyjamas under his trench-coat as he directed his 6 pounders gunfire. He had gone to bed in a well-hidden truck at 2am changed into his pyjamas then been woken up at 6am by the sound of vehicles and had not had time to change into battledress before the tanks arrived.

    While Stanley Edwards’ sartorial standards might not have been those expected of an army officer he had ensured that his gunners aim was true and they scored multiple hits on the leading 3 tanks. According to one account written at the time the anti-tank guns waited until the tanks exposed their sides before commencing fire at between 680 and 800 yards well within range. The first 5 armour piercing (AP) solid shot shells are reputed to have glanced off the sides of the lead tank which is believed to have been a Mark VI Tiger but the next 3 are reported to have immobilised or destroyed the tank. In tandem with firing their 6 pounder guns the anti-tank crews also ensured the tank crews were closed up as they engaged the tanks with light machine gun fire probably using Bren guns. This made it difficult for the commanders and gunners to spot the anti-tank positions or manoeuvre.

    What seems to be less clear is whether it was the 6 pounder shells or anti-tank mines that caused 3 tanks to be ablaze. The 5th Buffs war diary says 2 tanks hit a mine other accounts credit the damage and then destruction of all three tanks including a Tiger to the anti-tank guns. Despite this success neither Edwards nor the Buffs were able to rest on their laurels for the first attack was followed by a second starting at about 0825 and this one was supported by German infantry. Within 30 minutes the first 3 tanks were completely ablaze and a further 3 had ceased to fire. What has since attracted much attention by those interested in such matters was that one of the tanks set ablaze was a Mark VI Tiger tank and the first to be destroyed in Tunisia. A second Mark VI was also immobilised. The loss of 6 tanks seemed to have deterred a further tank attack for the Buffs watched the remaining German tanks withdraw up the road. The Germans had not given up and for the next 8 hours the 5th Buffs, the 6th Queens Own Royal West Kents and the 2nd battalion of the 16th Infantry came under attack by the Germans. At one point during the day German infantry had infiltrated past French troops and the West Kents were forced to use one of their two companies located to the east of the valley to counter attack to stop them.

    The Americans were positioned in the hills to the north east to protect the forward right flank of the brigade. G Company managed to hold on for a time to the isolated but tactically important conical Hill 727 which overlooked the valley and the road running south east but was then pushed back. After losing 2 further positions the battalion finally managed to stop the German advance with the help of the 12th RHA. Meanwhile the companies of the 5th Buffs near the road were regularly probed by tank forays and the Panzer Grenadiers. Both sides also suffered as both RAF and Luftwaffe aircraft bombed and strafed troops and vehicles.

    Two attacks by Hurri Bombers (Hurricanes fitted as Fighter - Bombers) from 225 Squadron RAF during the morning may have helped finish off the destruction of some of the stationary tanks. According to one of the pilots involved the 2nd attack the Hurricanes carried out also “well and truly clobbered a German infantry unit”. One of the aircraft was shot down though the pilot was safe but tragically one of the bombs appears to have accidentally caused two casualties to British troops. The remaining immobile Tiger attracted the attention of both British and German personnel, including the commander of 256 Company RE who wanted to study it. The 5th Buffs war diary suggests that an attempt was made to recover it that afternoon but it is unclear how that might have been achieved. The only tank unit nearby was the 17th/21st Lancers and their recovery vehicles might not have had the power to recover the Tiger.

    What is clear is that at about 16.00 a small party from 256 Field Company Royal Engineers sortied out into no man’s land to inspect the Tiger and attempted to inspect or immobilise all the tanks. They were led by Major Brown a Canadian officer on loan to the 1st Army who commanded 256 Company RE. Brown and his men came under fire and Brown was wounded. It is likely that the same happened to the German party who tried in daylight to recover their tanks since they were actively discouraged by the 5th Buffs. It was the Germans however who were successful later that evening or night and they managed to recover the second Mark VI tank and according to one source either 2 or 3 of the Mark III tanks.

    Throughout the day and into the evening German infantry and tanks endeavoured to outflank and destroy the garrison at Sidi Said and those of the Americans in the hills but they failed to do so. Moreover they also suffered significant casualties at the hands of the 25 pounder guns of the 12th RHA which were directed by Observation Parties located within the company positions of the 5th Buffs. The East Kents’ infantry companies added to the problems faced by the Germans whenever they tried to advance and in addition 12th RHA also hit another German tank and an armoured car while several trucks were shelled and also bombed.

    In the hills to the north east of the 5th Buffs, G Company of the 2nd Battalion 16th US Infantry came under heavy mortar and then infantry attack from 3 sides and having suffered several casualties and the loss of its mortars was forced to withdraw. To their credit and despite their losses, G Company and the other 2 companies E and F then held firm and inflicted significant losses on the Germans. Like all inexperienced Allied troops in Tunisia they were learning their profession under fire.

    However by 22.00 that evening all the action died down and the Germans ended their assault. It had been a very busy day for Ginger McKechnie, Stanley Edwards and many other soldiers but it ended with the British still in possession of the local real estate while their American allies retained most of their defensive positions in the hills. Although all present expected the Germans to renew their assault the following day this was not the case and although the British positions were shelled there were no further attacks and Kampfgruppe Lueder withdrew north back towards Pont de Fahs.

    Although there is no formal tally of German losses it is likely that the Germans probably lost 4 Panzer III tanks, one armoured car and several trucks destroyed. The action at Sidi Said in the Robaa Valley also led to the complete destruction of a Mark VI Tiger tank and damage to a second. This event was important as no Tiger losses had occurred during previous battles in December 1942 and the tank was gaining a reputation for being invincible. What remained of the Mark VI tank was inspected by technical officers from the British Army a couple of days later and they were able to learn a great deal of value. In addition to the tank and vehicle losses the German infantry suffered significant casualties during their attacks both in the valley and in the hills estimated at last 200 men killed or wounded or captured.

    The 5th Buffs lost only 2 men recorded killed that day and a number of wounded while the anti - tank gunners seem to have led a charmed life for no losses can be identified. The 12th RHA were surprisingly less fortunate and lost at least 2 of their gunners killed on the 31st January. In addition the two companies of the West Kents located in the hills to the east lost 3 soldiers killed and a number of wounded during the fighting there. One of the dead was Lance Corporal Kench who probably died without knowing that he had been awarded a Military Medal for his gallantry on a series of patrols in November-December 1942 near Djebel Aboid. The 16th Infantry lost 5 officers and 60 men killed and wounded or missing. Worse still their pride was a little dented as they had lost possession of Hill 727 and were unable to regain it as they were relieved by a French unit a few days later.

    Although some of his soldiers may have been taking odds and whether their new CO was going to remain in command on the morning of the 31st January by the following day all bets were off. Ginger McKechnie was a successful stockbroker in civilian life and he also proved to be an excellent CO. Although they may have had doubts initially when he assumed command the officers and men of the East Kents quickly learned to respect and then admire their new boss for his coolness under fire that day at Robaa. They also warmed to his avuncular command style though they also learned that he had high standards.

    Alexander McKechnie would adroitly command the 5th Buffs through the rest of the Tunisian campaign winning a DSO in April 1943. He would then continue as CO throughout the Sicilian campaign, fight at Termoli in Italy and lead the unit nearly all the way to the Sangro River in November 1943 when he handed over command. Subsequently and unusually he would briefly command an Infantry Brigade in Italy earn an OBE and after long service back in the TA retire in 1960. His battalion, now commanded by a different officer, ended their war in Austria after fighting their way through Tunisia, Sicily and the whole of Italy including the Battles of Termoli and Cassino. By the end of the war they had built a reputation in the 8th Army as a formidable fighting unit.

    The CO of the 5th Buffs was not the only one who learned under fire in the Robaa Valley and went on to build a reputation. It had been the 2-16th Infantry’s first battle with the Germans and they had been forced to give up one of their positions, though their performance in this action had been worthy of praise. They were a proud outfit and their commander Lieutenant Colonel Joe Crawford was tough 38 year old West Pointer. He and his officers and men didn’t like losing even one of their positions but they learned from this experience and many others during the rest of the Tunisian campaign and in Sicily. The battalion’s officers, NCOs and soldiers rapidly became skilled and tough soldiers.

    It is worth noting that Joe Crawford would go on to build a distinguished combat record in command of another infantry battalion in Sicily and then as the CO of an Infantry Regiment in Italy. Two and half years after the fight in the Robaa Valley the 2nd Battalion 16th Infantry would show its mettle when it landed under a hailstorm of German fire on two strands of sand called Easy Red and Fox Red at a place codenamed Omaha. Many lesser battalions would have broken on that day and never got off the beach, but the 2-16th lived up to one of its division’s mottos - No Mission too Difficult, No sacrifice Too Great, Duty first.

    In command of the battalion on that day was a 27 year old officer Herbert Hicks who had been the Regimental supply officer for the 16th Infantry in Tunisia and knew all about the battalion’s battle in the Robaa Valley. By now his battalion’s officers and men were tough and capable veterans of 2 campaigns and numerous battles so Hicks and his men fought their way off the beach against the worst of odds. In Hicks case this was quite literally as he personally attacked and destroyed 2 German machine gun nests. Other officers and men demonstrated the same bravery for officers and men of the 2nd Battalion were awarded a staggering total of 21 Distinguished Service Crosses for their actions on the 6th June.

    It is also worth noting that despite the many losses the French troops suffered in January- February 1943 they too would learn under fire and be transformed in the crucible of battle. Subsequently in 1943 the French would rebuild, retrain their forces and equip their units with modern American arms. When summoned to Italy in late 1943, the French troops would also demonstrate that they too could achieve great things in the mountains near Monte Cassino and then later across France after they had landed on the French Riviera as part of Operation Dragoon.

    In conclusion it is not too much of a reach to say that this small battle in the Robaa Valley helped create three amazing combat leaders and also forged the fighting spirit and skill in at least two infantry battalions and also among the French troops that would enable them all to later establish a battle record worthy of enduring fame.


    This list below is just a short list of the main sources for this post.


    Chaplin, H D - The Queens Own Royal West Kents Regiment 1920-1950 Naval and Military Press, 2004.

    Knight, C - The Historical Records of the Buffs, the Royal East Kent Regiment 1919 -1948. Medici Society 1951

    Shores, C - A History of the Mediterranean Air war 1940 -1945. Volume 3 Tunisia and the end in Africa, November 1942 - May 1943. Grub Street Publishing, 2016.

    War Diaries - National Archives

    · WO 175/495 - 5th Buffs War Diary January & February 1943

    · WO 175/509 - 6th Queens Own West Kents January & February 1943

    · WO 175/213 - 36th Infantry Brigade War Diary

    German Reports - Foreign Military Studies

    The battles of the 334th Division and Group Weber: from the end of December 1942 to May 1943. (Report MS #D215)

    US Sources

    16th Infantry Regimental Association website

    Other sources

    · Daily Telegraph Obituary of Lieutenant Colonel Stanley Edwards


    This story was all but finished and ready to be posted, when the author learned accidentally of the existence of a detailed account of the Tigers in the attack at Robaa published in 2021 as a three part article entitled “The Canadians who Captured the First Tiger Tanks where No Canadian Forces Fought” on the website of the Laurier Centre for Military and Strategic Disarmament.

    This 3 part series was written by Dr Bruce Newsome who is a respected historian who has written a book on Tiger tanks in Tunisia. It is an excellent detailed account of the action and especially addresses all aspects of the operations of the Mark VI Tigers on that day. Reading Dr Newsome’s articles revised some but not all of this author’s thinking about the battle and has resulted some last minute changes and additions to this post that prevented its publication until today.

    He recommends that anyone who has serious interest in this action and especially in the Tiger tanks at Robaa read Bruce Newsome’s account which is excellent. At some later point, the author may decide to make changes to this account in the light of further research based on a more leisurely review of Dr Newsome’s research but for the moment he was keen to publish it close to the date of the action as it is about more than just the Tiger story.
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  2. Instructor6

    Instructor6 Member

    Map from the British Official history of the Second World War -Destruction of the Axis Forces in Africa Volume 4 by Major General Playfair

    The main relevant maps for the battle area are 1:50,000 scale Djebel Mansoor GSGS series 4225 -which sadly is too big too load and also Djebel BARGOU from the same series

    You can also access very useful maps on the 16th Infantry Association website and by viewing the 3 Bruce Newsome articles on the Laurier Centre site in Canada .

    Attached Files:

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