Ras El Eleba - March 27th 1942

Discussion in 'North Africa & the Med' started by Flamula, Mar 26, 2021.

  1. Flamula

    Flamula Member

    On this very day in Libya at Ras el Eleba, 79 years ago; a raid took place. The target was an enemy observation post on a hill overlooking a large expanse of the western desert . I've a couple of resources on this, as well as my Grandad's own notes and recorded recollections from that particular day and so I'm keen to post a recount of it here in the hope that there may be more information out there available. I'd love to see a photo of the place from ground level or any other accounts of the same assault so do shout up if you've any related info.

    Location:- Ras el Eleba (Ra's al 'Ilbah) also Ras al aleba (Look up co-ords 32.19114,22.76186 on Mapquest or Bing Maps for better resolution imagery, google is not so good, you can see the area is still covered with craters).

    My Grandad T.R. "Tommy" Atkinson was with 232 Field Coy Royal Engineers, and I've interspersed his retelling of the incident with dates and info from the 5th Green Howards war diary with whom his section was attached.

    24th March:-

    "We’d been stooging about on patrol between the lines for two days. “We” meaning a force of about three hundred blokes from our brigade - 150th infantry detachment , artillery (four 25lb, 4 Bofors, 4 heavy MG’s, medics and us 15 sappers)."
    On 25th March at first light column leaves Bir Naghia under Lt. Col. W. E. Bush with 3 sub columns, they are to harass enemy outposts at Ras El Eleba and Gabr El Aleima (known to British troops as 'the pimple'). Reaching their allowed positions patrols were sent out to recce the observations posts and report back all that could be found out about these outposts. The patrols were very diligent, and remaining undetected they returned by 7:30am on 26th March and reported to Brigadier Haydon.

    Lt Lindrea was able to attain the high ground on Ras el Eleba and he located two outposts, one east, and one west, along with the positions of several machine gun posts to the north and south, he relayed the best approach to attack the outposts and noted that the guards 'stood to' at 02:45am while he was on the west of the hill.

    Lt Blunt had led the patrol to Gabr El Aleima, and while he was able to establish that the enemy was holding it in force, the layout and positions of defences remained difficult to establish. The Brigadier and Col. Bush decided to stage an attack on Ras El Eleba that night with Capt. Rhodes leading "C" Company and a subsection of Royal Engineers.

    "We'd laagered for the night when our officer called us together and asked for volunteers for a little raid on a fortified observation post. It’s just a small "do” they said, but they needed us to blow up any heavy guns or anything they couldn’t deal with. With reluctance Al “Russ" Russell, Bris Naish and myself agreed to go with Sgt. Jock Young and Lt. Vasey. So we armed ourselves, drew gelignite and detonators from the stores and reported to the Green Howards Unit."

    "We boarded our wagons and drove for about half an hour then debased, tightened the laces of our patrol boots (which were thick sponge rubber soles with suede uppers, a flat sole no heel or toe, they did not leave tracks and so were ideal for skipping around on this kind of job)."
    Lt Lindrea who had carried out the reconnaissance mission the night before, navigated C Company to their start positions and at 01:30am March 27th the moon went behind a cloud.

    "We followed for what seemed like a long way, then we were told to form a line fix bayonets and prepare to charge."
    The enemy was very alert and as soon as the attack started the troops were met with a wall of machine gun fire from every direction.

    "They all started to shout and yell as we charged forward. Suddenly the dark night became illuminated with flare, tracer bullets and grenades, all heading our way. We were in the middle of it. I tried to keep in touch with Russ on my right but there were blokes coming from behind and suddenly I’ve an I-tie immediately in front of me pointing a pistol. I supposed it was instinct as I slashed down with my bayonet at his hand and the pistol fell. As I did, I belted him in the face with my rifle butt so that he fell too, then I was over him and away. To my right, things were hectic with flares lighting it up like day. The Sergeant carrying the detonators was hit, a tracer round or grenade fragment hit one of them and that was the end of that."​

    The first objective being gained and the capture of some Italian sentries after 2 hours of intensive fighting the sheer weight of fire forced the section to withdraw.

    "So, making myself less of a target I lay down to gather my thoughts and wish I was somewhere else. I was soon joined by the medic asking if I was okay. ‘What’s going on?’ I asked. “It’s all over!,“F**k off back! “ came the reply."​

    During the confusion of the withdrawal the captured Italian sentries escaped and a number of British were cut off or left behind. "C" Company lost the officer leading the attack; Capt Rhodes, and 20 other ranks.

    "Waiting till the flares went out, I was up and away to follow our tracks back to the wagon. I was whacked, I was shaking and aware that there was someone with me, but as our truck lurched forward the enormous spare wheel fell on my chest pinning me and I could not move. I couldn’t breathe and my senses were going."​

    "I remember very little after that. I don’t recall getting back up to the laager or my slit trench until the sun was up and ‘Pick-Shaft’ Vasey (so named because he carried a pick shaft with him on the attack) was waking me to get my report."
    Throughout the day of the 27th considerable artillery fire was used to great effect on the various armoured German and Italian patrols sent to patrol the area following the raid and that night Lt Lindrea returned once more to the area to attempt to locate any of the "C" Company men who had gone to ground in the area, and although many Verey lights were put up by the patrol it was unable to find any of them. Throughout the night artillery continued to bombard the positions at both Ras el Eleba and Aleima to cover patrols attempting salvage operations in the area and this continued until the 30th when troops were withdrawn back to Bir Sferi where they contacted 6th Bn D.L.I. who were relieving them.

    "It wasn’t til 50 years later that a reunion with some of the lads when “Pick Shaft” was mentioned that I discovered that the other bloke on the truck was Al Russell, and he was the one who lifted the wheel off my chest and took care of me back at camp. Since then we’ve been in constant touch and my daughters have adopted him for saving their dad."​

    "As a postscript, I will add that of the five of us who set out on this raid, only three returned. As mentioned Sgt Jock Young was killed when explosive he was carrying detonated, and ‘Bris Naish was captured."
    The company would be wiped out only a short while later during the beginning of the Gazala offensive, my Grandad was one of the few to escape being captured there and fought through the rest of the war with 233 R.E. through El Alamein, invasions of Sicily, Italy and Germany. Al "Russ" Russel was one of the 3000 captured when ammunition ran out and spent the rest of his war in various POW camps. I'm unsure of the fates of any others mentioned.
    ltdan, DavidW and Owen like this.

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