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- Contributed on:
- 20 January 2006
Information provided by: Regimental Headquarters
Part of: The Black Watch (Royal Highland Regiment)
First Published: 25 June 2004
Facts and figures
Unit name: 6th Battalion
January 1940 - 01 Jun 1940: France
The battalion first went to France as part of the 51st Highland Division in January 1940. Soon after this it was transferred to 12 Brigade of the 4th Division. It moved forward into Belgium on 13 May. On the 15th it dug in on the Seine canal six miles north of Brussels to hold a bridgehead for the withdrawal of the 3rd Division from Louvain. On the 17th the battalion in its turn was ordered to withdraw. In a series of moves followed by stops to hold the line, frequently enduring heavy shelling, it came to a halt on the 27th with orders to hold the line of the canal between Bousbecque and Warneton to the south west of Menin. But by now the Germans were outflanking their opponents on every front and the battalion became part of the retreat to Dunkirk. In the confusion of the next days two platoons became separated from the remainder of the battalion, as a result reaching England two days before the rest. The remainder of the survivors of the battalion reached the Dunkirk beaches on 1 June and in small groups were successfully evacuated to England. The whole battalion then reformed in the Isle of Wight as front line defence against the expected German invasion. It remained in England and Scotland until March 1943, when it was sent to take part in the final weeks of the campaign in Tunisia.
15 Mar 1943 - 28 Apr 1943: Tunisia
The battalion moved from the Isle of Wight to the mainland in December 1940 and thereafter was successively in the areas of Newbury, Stockbridge and Camberley in England, and of Hawick and Selkirk in Scotland. From the latter area, still in 12 Brigade of the 4th Division, it sailed from Liverpool on 15 March 1943, disembarking at Algiers eight days later and moving up to near the front at Beja on 6 April. At that time the Germans were holding up the allied forces, which had landed at Algiers in November 1942, on a line some 45-50 miles (64-80km) west of Tunis. On 10 April the battalion took over a position from the Royal Irish Fusiliers (78 Division) and that night moved further forward to occupy a line of hills called Djebel Rmel held by tanks of the North Irish Horse, who then withdrew. This was some 2 miles (3.5km) ahead of any other British unit and overlooked from higher enemy held ground barely a mile away. Although this resulted in some enemy shelling next day casualties were light. The following day, however, a rearrangement of the company positions was attempted during daylight and heavy casualties were suffered from shelling throughout the day. The following day the enemy guns which had caused all the damage were put out of action by some medium artillery and, apart from some patrolling casualties, the battalion spent a fairly quiet few days in this position (although being at one time strafed by a few Stukas without suffering any casualties) before being relieved on 19 April by American troops. On 20 April the battalion moved up to the area of Medjez-el-Bab ready to follow through a brigade attack on an important road junction on the road from there to Tunis called ‘Peter’s Corner’. This attack on the night of 23 April failed to dislodge the Germans and the battalion as a result was held up on a feature called ‘Banana Ridge’. Next day B Company was ordered to mount a daylight attack on a small hill at Sidi Mediene to the south of ‘Peter’s Corner’ but suffered such serious casualties that it was ordered back without reaching its objective. Two nights later the whole battalion renewed the attack on Sidi Mediene and succeeded in gaining possession by use of the bayonet after three hours and further heavy casualties. An enemy counter-attack was beaten off the following night. Forward of this position was another hill feature, Sidi Abdullah, which A Company succeeded in taking on 28 April and beating off a counter attack with bayonet charges. The Germans then bombed the position from the air and attacked what was left of A Company with infantry and tanks, forcing it to withdraw. The opponents were units of the Hermann Goering Division, amongst the cream of the German army, and prisoners later said that the fighting in the ‘Peter’s Corner’ area had been tougher than anything they had experienced in Russia.
May 1943 - December 1943: Tunisia
The battalion was withdrawn from Sidi Mediene during the night of 30 April/1 May, receiving much needed reinforcements from the Royal Berkshire regiment before going into action again north of ‘Peter’s Corner’ on 5 May to take part in the final phase of the war in Tunisia. Suffering only light casualties it eventually formed part of a motorised dash across the base of Cap Bon during the night of 9/10 May, reaching the small town of Korba on the east coast before dawn. By this time the Germans and Italians were retreating before the 8th Army pushing up from Sfax with no idea that the British were already at Korba. A road block was set up just south of the town on a bend in the road behind a small hill. This enabled the battalion to capture groups of the enemy and hide them behind the hill before the next lot arrived. Most were Italians who put up no resistance, and the few Germans who tried to fight were quickly overcome. Within a few hours there was a considerable ‘bag’. Just before nightfall the next day an Italian officer arrived from the north with a flag of truce and the battalion signals officer was sent off with six ‘jocks’ to take the formal surrender of some 1200 men of a communications regiment in the hills in the middle of Cap Bon (to which were later added several hundred Germans). Unfortunately it was found that the Italians had destroyed the signals equipment which it had been hoped to capture too. On the morning of 13 May it was learned that all enemy resistance in Tunisia was at an end and a few days of relaxation were possible by the sea before the battalion was sent south to act as guards on temporary prisoner of war cages between Sousse and Sfax for a couple of weeks. Then, after several months back at Bougie and Djidjelli in Algeria, it moved by sea to Egypt where, on Christmas Day, it erected a tented camp in a sandstorm near Suez and engaged in two months’ training in amphibious landings on the Bitter Lakes (with short leave trips in relays to Cairo).
06 Mar 1944 - May 1944: Italy
The training in Egypt in amphibious landings was not put into practice. Instead the battalion was landed by ship at Naples on 6 March 1944, by which time the Italians had joined the Allies. Four days later it was holding part of the front line in snow nearly 3000 ft (900m) up on Monte Ornito, some 15 miles (24km) south of Cassino. Supply was difficult, up mountain tracks. Mules were used for the first part, then everything, including water, had to be carried by porters. Life was cold and uncomfortable, and the enemy positions were not far away on the other side of the crest; but the strategic idea was to keep that part of the front quiet for the present, which seemed to suit the Germans. Nevertheless the battalion suffered a few casualties in patrols and from occasional enemy shelling. It was relieved on the night of the 18th, gaining a wonderful view of an eruption of Vesuvius on the way down the steep tracks in the dark. On 30 March the battalion was sent to relieve a French unit holding another part of the line to the east of Cassino overlooking the River Secco. Here the battalion was overlooked by enemy positions and all movement had to be after dark. Once again, however, the Germans were content to keep things fairly quiet and indulged in only light and sporadic shelling. The battalion was relieved over two days from 1 April and was put to practicing river crossings with tanks. By now the town of Cassino and the monastery on top of its hill had been reduced to ruins by allied bombing, but two attempts to breach the German defensive line, centred on Cassino, and so open the road north to Rome, had failed, with heavy losses. Allied forces occupied part of the ruins of Cassino town, with the Germans occupying other parts, and both sides on the ground in the town were at some places within feet of each other. The Germans on the monastery hill could observe all activity below so movement in and to the town was possible only at night. On 22 April the battalion took its place in the town, relieving the Coldstream Guards. Battalion headquarters was installed in the crypt of the ruined cathedral, with two companies forward, the other two companies, together with a rear HQ being held about a mile back. The two forward companies were in the open in and around ruined buildings. There were occasional bouts of enemy shelling and on the 24th the Germans succeeded in penetrating the position of one of the forward platoons and taking some prisoners. There was a change over on the 28th between the forward and rear companies, and B Company had to do a 48-hour stint in the very unsavoury and exposed ruined castle part of the way up the hill to the monastery.
04 May 1944 - 31 May 1944: Cassino
The battalion was taken out of the Cassino area during the night of 4/5 May (having suffered very few casualties during its time there) but was back in action on the 13th in the second wave of the final big offensive to break through the German defences. Early that morning, in thick mist, it crossed the River Rapido south of the town and began an advance behind a ‘creeping’ barrage (during which unfortunately some of the guns were firing short, causing some casualties). By midday its first objectives some 1500 yards (1370m) ahead had been secured. Next morning at dawn the advance was resumed towards the next objective, a small hill some 900 yards (800m) ahead, but this became badly disorganised when another thick mist developed, made worse by the smoke screen being put down by the supporting artillery. When the mist lifted it was discovered that the enemy forward positions had been penetrated, and the battalion came under a series of strong counter attacks for the rest of daylight hours, suffering fairly heavy casualties. For the next two days this position continued to be held under heavy shelling. Early on the morning of the 17th it was discovered that the Germans were pulling back and the advance was continued to cut Route 6, the main road out of Cassino towards Rome. Next day Cassino town fell to 10th Brigade. The battalion continued westwards towards Aquino airport, often coming under fire from enemy held positions on higher ground to the north, but on the 20th was relieved by a unit of the 4th Indian Division and pulled back through Cassino town to billets in the villages of Faiccho and Goioa for the last ten days of May. (The then commanding officer considered that the crossing of the Rhine in March 1945, in which he took part, was ‘a cake walk’ compared with this last Cassino battle.)
05 Jun 1944 - 31 Jun 1944: Cassino to Florence
On 5 June the long slog to Florence began. At first there was little direct contact with the enemy as they chose mainly to withdraw rather than stand and fight, although they caused some casualties by heavy shelling as they withdrew. It was nevertheless hard work on foot through very hilly, wooded country. At one point the battalion received invaluable help from an escaping South African prisoner of war who knew the area well and, although he could have been entitled to continue his journey back to safety, insisted on spending two days with the battalion as a guide. On 12 June the battalion passed through the now liberated Rome, but it was not until the 29th that for the first time it met with serious German resistance, in the area west of Lake Trasimeno. Here again it was a matter of skirmishes and suffering casualties from shelling as one enemy position after another was attacked and held and then counter attacked. During the month of July the battalion had seven changes of CO as one after another was wounded. There was a short period of rest towards the end of July (during which the battalion provided a guard of honour for a visit by King George VI to hold an investiture in the field at Monte San Savino) before the advance north continued. This involved the battalion in a particularly hard battle to drive the Germans from the 2000 feet (610m) high Monte Scalari some ten miles (16km) south of Florence (given the code name ‘Corbett’). The attack on this began on 28 July and succeeded next day. But that night a series of three strong counter attacks were endured, and it was not until the 31st that the enemy finally gave up and the battalion could be withdrawn. To its great disappointment it was not part of the force which was then able to enter Florence a few days later. Instead the whole brigade moved back to Foligno, south east of Assisi and Perugia.
September 1944 - November 1944: Last battles in Italy
After four weeks of rest and recreation in the Foligno area, and reorganisation to absorb reinforcements, the battalion moved north during the night of 4/5 September to join the attempt to break through the German ‘Gothic Line’ in the area between the mountains and Rimini on the east coast. The first objective was a ridge of hills just west of the small town of Coriano, south west of Riccione, overlooking the River Marano. The attack began at 6.30am on the 14th and was successful in the face of strong opposition. Other troops then forced a crossing of the river, and three days later the battalion passed through them to attack and take another position a couple of miles further on. Another month then passed before the battalion became involved in the attacks first on the town of Cesena on the road from Rimini to Bologna, then on Forli about 15 miles (24km) further along this road. The first, on 20 October, involved some house to house fighting in the outskirts. For three days positions west of the town, over the River Savio, were held under heavy shelling, and then the battalion was able to withdraw into the town. On 7 November it moved forward along the main road to join those who had already reached the outskirts of Forli, and two days later was able to pass straight through the town virtually unmolested. But strong opposition was met on the far side and on the 10th a full battalion attack was mounted involving fierce fighting for every house. For the next three days the battalion continued to force its way forward against strong opposition, again with much house-to-house fighting, and then was allowed back into the town for a rest. But this turned out to be the last battle fought in Italy.
December 1944 - 18 Jun 1946: Greece
From Forli the battalion was sent to Taranto in southern Italy on the way to Palestine, and advance parties had actually left when orders came for 4th Division to go to Greece where irregular Greek communist forces (ELAS) were attempting to seize power in their recently liberated country and had attacked and surrounded the small British military force in Athens. The battalion disembarked in Faliron Bay on 15 December. That night it moved inland to occupy positions amongst coastal villas, the owners of which gave it a warm welcome. The battalion was part of the force which then slowly advanced along the main road into Athens, some three miles (5km) away, Leoforos Singrou. The ELAS forces wore no recognisable uniform, and many of the civilians were either forced or voluntary supporters. It was therefore a slow and dangerous business clearing the houses on each side of this road. ELAS troops in small numbers could and did infiltrate back during the night into areas cleared during the day, and their snipers became a serious problem. By Christmas a route into the centre of Athens had been cleared by the division, and the battalion’s task from then was the clearing of areas to the west and north, and helping the civilian population with relief supplies and ‘soup kitchens’. On 11 January the battalion began moving north out of Athens. A political truce signed in Athens on that day was to come into force during the night of the 14th , when ELAS forces were to start withdrawing behind an agreed line to the north. The battalion’s task was to ensure that they did so, but news of this was slow reaching the ELAS forces in the field. One of the battalion’s companies was ambushed and taken prisoner by ELAS on the 13th and suffered some casualties. Although the return of the wounded was arranged on the 14th, the remainder were taken north by ELAS and were not returned until the 29th. After this it was a matter of garrisoning Greece against any attempt by ELAS to restart the civil war. During the remainder of that winter the battalion was engaged in providing armed escorts for the taking of relief supplies of food and medicine to isolated villages up in the snow of the mountains of central Greece, and later was posted as garrison troops in places as far apart as Ioannina in the Epirus (where it celebrated VE-Day), Khalkis on the island of Euboea, Volos and Athens itself twice. After VJ-Day, home leaves and releases from military service began and eventually on 18 June 1946, while in Athens, came disbandment of the battalion and its placing in a state of ‘suspended animation’. Only two officers and 15 other ranks of those who had sailed with the battalion in March 1943 were still on strength at disbandment.
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