The War Diary

87th Anti-Tank Regiment (7th Haytor Bn. The Devonshire Regt) in North Africa, 1943

The regiment’s active service was short but costly. It was disbanded in May 1944 (some sources say July 43) and all its personnel sent to other units. Except for the band!

With thanks to The National Archives at Kew. Excerpts from the war diary of the 87th Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, 19th February to 30th June 1943 with some comments and additions.

The War Diary

B Troop, 87th Anti-Tank

B Troop, 87th Anti-Tank, Chagford, Devon, 1942 (Via Freddie Friend)

87th ATR, under command of Lt Col F.E.C Lewis[1], began its deployment to North Africa from Chagford and Wyvern Barracks in Exeter, Devon in mid-February 1943. Initially equipped with the 2-pdr Anti-tank gun the unit was to deploy with the Ordnance QF (Quick Firing) 6-Pdr.  The regiment moved via train from Newton Abbot, via Crewe (where lunch was supplied by the WRVS) to Glasgow. On 20th February the troop train stopped within 100yds of the vessel that was to move them south, the ocean liner S.S Letitia, a Donaldson Atlantic ship requisitioned at the beginning of the war. On 25th February the Letitia set sail in a convoy of 12 troop ships escorted by HMS Ramilles[2], 5 destroyers and 5 corvettes[3]. The war diary states simply that “many men were sick”. The voyage was largely uneventful although it was evident the regiment was disappointed to lose a Tug-o-War competition to 3 Commando; however they regained some pride when “Sgt Cottingham outboxed a commando sergeant in a welter-weight bout!”

The unit disembarked at Oran, Algeria, on 04 March 1943 in time for closing battles of the North African campaign.

The diary notes a number of logistical and training moves as the regiment prepared for action and got used to its surroundings. On 15 March the CO and Adjutant visited US MOVCON to arrange transportation from Assi-ben-Okbar to L’Arba. On the 16th they conducted practice air attack drills with American P-39 Airacobras. On the 19th the diary notes American soldiers firing warning shots at “Marauding Arabs”. Then the move to L’Arba began, the regiment scribe bemoaning US convoys ignoring the rules of the road set by US MOVCON! 133 Bty appears to have been dragging its feet and unloaded near Boufarik on 22 March before moving to Beni-Mansour, one Quad braking down. A move to Ain-M’Lilla (172 miles) and then a 14 hour journey in heavy traffic to Souk Ahras followed. On March 24 the regiment moved 59 miles on a “fine day” to a bivouac area in the region of Sakiet-Sidi-Youssej/Youssef and Le Ket, keeping “excellent march discipline” over the total distance of some 600 miles.

The unit strength on 20 March 1943 was 511 men, including 66 Bombardiers (Corporals) and 65 Sergeants, with 30 officers.

It is here the first of many short detachments begins. On 28 March 131 Battery moved to Bou-Arada, an area likely close to the front line, taking over the positions of 81 Anti-Tank Regiment, who apparently left their gun positions in “very bad condition”. At this point 131 Battery had been placed under command of 93rd Anti-Tank Regiment commanded by a Lt Col Scott-Elliott[4]. By 04 April all the batteries were again together and moved to Sbiba, via Le Kef. On 06 April they reached El Ala and the “Forward Concentration Area”. 132 Battery was placed under the command of 128 Infantry Brigade, commanded by Brigadier James, VC MC and harboured near the Corps HQ while 131 and 133 stayed at El Ala. A recce reported the front was “very quiet” with intermittent shelling.

On 8th April 87 ATR’s war began. 128 Infantry Brigade launched an attack on Pichon, Tunisia with one 132 Battery’s K Troop with the right battalion and I Troop with the left. 131 Battery moved with 152 Field Regiment along the wadi west of Pichon. K Troop came under severe mortar fire on the Pichon road and the unit suffered its first casualty when Lt J.A.C Kent was killed and multiple vehicles and equipment damaged. One of the troops guns was reportedly run over by a Churchill tank. One Quad (tyres & body) and one recce truck were punctured by “T.M Fire” (this is likely a WW1 era reference and T.M likely means “Trench Mortar”).

At 1400 that day the war diary states that Lt Meredith on recce “surprised an enemy MG post, capturing two prisoners and the machine gun”, not to be outdone at 1430 Major Edmunds & DR(Driver?) killed 2 enemy, took one prisoner and another MG. The diary does not state that during this action Gunner Wilcox was awarded  the Military Medal for the part he played in this action.

A sirocco blew through at this time, for three days. On the 10th April 131 Battery deployed from El Ela/Ala west of Fondouk to cover a gap in the line. Both 132 and 133 were now under 128 Infantry Brigade and moved to an area on the main road east of Pichon. On the 11th dive bombers struck and 131 Battery had one wounded.

Many changes occurred over the following days. Moves to Kairouan (12th April) and north of El Houak Station (14th) followed before Regiment HQ and 131 Battery established themselves at El Aroussa on 20th April. On 22nd April at 1330hrs 131 Bty took up anti-tank positions in support of a unit of the Welsh Guards. 133 Bty was by now under command of 6th Armoured with 2 troops in position on the left flank of the Corps. On April 23rd 60th Rifles took over from the Welsh Guards and the diary notes that there were 64 Anti-tank guns (all 6-pdrs) covering the left flank.

On April 24th “vast air activity” occurred over the Bou Arada/Goubillat road (an example of an air attack on Bou Arada can be found in a Pathe News clip from the period[5]). Gunner Marsh (service number 4126455), 132 Bty, was killed and Gnr Monkton wounded by an “AA shell”.

In late 1942 the North African campaign saw the first German deployment of the Panzer Mk VI, the infamous Tiger. On 25 April the CO and Adjutant left the regiment to observe an example “knocked out by 6th Armoured”. Whilst it is possible this is a different Tiger, the timing suggests this was very likely the first intact Tiger captured in the North African campaign, Tiger 131[6], which was abandoned by its crew on 21st April at Medjez-al-Bab, the tank having been hit by several shells from Churchills of 48th Royal Tank Regiment, one round disabling the turret.

Between 26 and 30th April there was very little to report. At Attia on 26 April 5 “bombs were dropped” near Regimental HQ. The diary states they were a mix of high explosive and AP, which presumably denotes anti-personnel. The RHQ received more attention on the 27th when it was shelled with no casualties. This period of inactivity is captured on the 29th when an entry states “no activity anywhere on front” and the regimental band presumably found time to play music at a field hospital at Boufark. A handwritten letter of thanks from “AQMG IX Corps” included in the file holding the diary provides a direct link to the time.

As the campaign neared its end the danger had not passed. At Testour on 4th May Lt Gray and Gnr Richardson were killed by enemy shelling. Gnr Newton was wounded. All of the casualties were from 133 Bty.

By 7th May the regiment had moved again, to Massicault. “Orders received to deploy 3 batteries on left flank of 4th Division NE Massicault. Deployment complete by 1500”. The diary then includes a wonderful summary of 87th Anti-Tank’s campaign: “CO informed by armoured car that enemy tanks were seen escorting enemy column an hour before – so again we missed the opportunity of firing at an enemy tank”.

Sgt Freddie Friend stated that the regiment never did get to fire a gun at an enemy tank.

131& 132 rejoined 133 Bty on 9th May at Mohamedia. On the 11th May they received orders to deploy the 3 batteries on the right flank of 1st Armoured Division. RHQ moved to an orchard SW of Cretville. From there 128 Infantry Brigade again advanced. Thousands of German and Italian prisoners were now surrendering of which the regiment received 40. The batteries were then withdrawn to the RHQ area.

By the 14th the North African campaign was virtually over. The whole regiment went bathing at Hammam Lief and two more days of sports (football and cricket) followed. The weather is described as being “very hot”.

On the 18th the CO and Adjutant visited HQ 5th Corps to discuss the Regiment’s role in the Tunis victory parade. On the 20th the parade took place. At 1000hrs the regimental band played for one hour at the junction of Rue Gambetta & Tunis Road. At 1200 the regiment marched in front of Eisenhour and Giraud with Major Edmunds and the 41 other ranks of 131 Bty at the head of IX Corps, Royal Artillery. The diary states “turn out and marching very good”. Not everything went to plan though. At 1400 the band & drums marched past in front of the R.A guns and tents but a “bad error” resulted in the band & drums not playing past the British contingent, who did not have their own band proper. The regiment returned to Cretville that evening where a Farewell & Drumhead service was conducted.

On 22nd May the C.O, Lt Col F.E.C Lewis, inspected his regiment with a “very good turnout” noted throughout. On the 23rd the regimental band played in the Roman theatre at Carthege.

With an eye on the future a party (1 Officer, Fitter gun & four guards per battery) left the regimental HQ on 25 May for Souk El Arba, where there was presumably a depot, to attempt to exchange either one or several 6-Pdr guns for new 17-Pdrs. But they returned the next day empty handed having been told they had no authority to draw the equipment.

The regiment then moved again, for Beja on 27 May, Souk El Arba on 28 May, Am/Em Elia on 29 May before stopping 9 miles north of Setif on the 30th (on 23 May Setif had been declared out of bounds for French troops because of Arab hostility toward them). The diary bemoans the lack of trees, a “poor site” that was very hot.

The band was busy throughout June. More letters of thanks put it at 35 Station Hospital on 4th June and 103 General Hospital on the 29th.

Training was undertaken, likely still with the 6-Pdrs, with accuracy being described as variable. It was not until 17 June  that the first 17-Pdr guns arrived. Four guns with 3”CWT tractors (?) arrived from Bone. The allocation of 17-Pdrs is attributed thus: Two guns to 131 and one gun to 132 and 133 respectively! On the 19th the regiment’s Quads were handed over to 51 Division Artillery leaving 1 serviceable Quad.

The diary of 87th Anti-Tank Regiment for the North African campaign ends on 30th June 1943. The unit strength for June 1943 was 546 of 606.

[1] Lewis was posted to the Devonshire Regiment on 20 Nov 1940 from the East Lancashire Regiment with whom he had served since at least 1919. Gazetteers online suggest he retired in 1925 and it is possible he was recalled to service. A gazette from 26 Nov 1948 states “Lt.-Col. F. E. C. LEWIS (5763), having attained the age limit of liability to recall, ceases to belong to the Res. of Offrs 25th Nov. 1948”.  See http://www.london-gazette.co.uk/issues/34995/supplements/6616/page.pdf . Other internet searches seem to suggest he was a supporter of the Kennel Club!

[2] One of Ramillies’ 15-inch (381 mm) guns has been preserved and can be seen at the IWM in Lambeth. The Wikipedia entry suggests Ramilles was in dry dock in Plymouth under repair in Feb 1943 following service in the Far East, not entering service again until the June. The war diary suggests this is incorrect.

[3] According to the wikipedia entry for the SS Letitia the convoy number was KMF 10A.

[4] Major-General James Scott-Elliot, CB, CBE, DSO and Bar; born November 6, 1902, died September 12, 1996. His obituary can be read here: http://www.heraldscotland.com/sport/spl/aberdeen/maj-gen-james-scott-elliot-1.435370. 93rd Anti-Tank regiment, like 87th ATR was a regular army regiment converted to the Anti-Tank role.

[5] http://www.britishpathe.com/video/air-attack-on-bou-arada-tunisia/query/British

[6] Now part of the Tank Museum at Bovington, Dorset.