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- 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: 5th Battalion
June 1942 - 09 Apr 1943: North Africa
After the capture of the 51st Highland Division at St Valéry in June 1940 it was decided to reconstitute it in the UK around a nucleus provided by the 9th Scottish Division. Less than thirty members of the old 1st Battalion were available, but it was rebuilt and joined by the 5th and 7th Battalions which had not yet gone overseas. This newly formed division sailed for Egypt in June 1942 and arrived via the Cape of Good Hope, the Red Sea and the Suez Canal two months later, more or less simultaneously with Generals Alexander and Montgomery. The desert offensive of the previous year had failed to remove the Germans from North Africa, and now Rommel was again advancing against Egypt. At 9.40pm on 23 October the Battle of Alamein opened with a huge artillery barrage along a front of some 50 miles (80km). All three Black Watch battalions were in the van of the opening attack, advancing close behind the barrage through wire and minefields and in the face of machine gun and rifle fire. By dawn next day all their first objectives had been secured, albeit with heavy casualties. The 5th Battalion in 153 Brigade was withdrawn from the front on 3 November and was then part of the force pursuing the retreating Axis forces beyond Benghazi and Tobruk. On 15 January 1943 it was in the van of an attack on Buerat, where it suffered casualties from artillery and mines before the enemy withdrew. The next close contact came in mid February near Medenine when the battalion was again in the van of the 51st Division. The Germans attacked on 6 March, by which time both the 1st and 7th battalions had caught up. Although the 1st Battalion was nearly overrun the enemy decided to give up and withdraw. The 5th Battalion then captured and held some high ground overlooking the next physical obstacle on the road to Mareth, Wadi Zigzaou which 50th Division were to attack. This attack failed, but the enemy later withdrew. The next physical obstacle on the route to Tunis, some 15 mile (24 km) ahead, was Wadi Akarit between the coast and Roumana Ridge. The battalion was put in to help 152 Brigade successfully take the southern end of this ridge on 6 April. Although the attack by 154 Brigade on the northern end failed to take it, again the Germans decided to withdraw. The battalion was then sent forward to harass the retreating enemy and after some skirmishing entered the town of Sfax on the morning of 9 April. This was the battalion’s last action in North Africa.
May 1943 - October 1943: Sicily
Early in May, after the cessation of all fighting in Tunisia, the battalion moved to Djidjelli in Algeria to be trained in amphibious landings, which were eventually made on the coast of Sicily on 10 July, landing just west of Pachino Point, the southernmost tip of the island. The few Italians there quickly surrendered and on the subsequent advance inland no enemy were met until, four days later, Germans were found in possession of the small towns of Francafonte and Vizzini some 50 miles (80km) inland. Vizzini is perched on top of a hill and there was no way to get round it. Two companies of the battalion succeeded in overcoming some fairly fierce resistance and by nightfall, with some losses, they were in possession. Next was the advance across the Catanian Plain towards Paterna at the foot of Mount Etna. The battalion was able to cross the river Dittaino with little difficulty during the night of the 18th to attack the village of Sferro some eight miles (13km) short of Paterna. Unable to take the village, they had to lie up between it and the river throughout the next exceedingly hot day under constant shell-fire. The Gordon Highlanders managed to take the village next night but the front then became static and both they and the 5th Black Watch were relieved a few days later by 1st and 7th BlackWatch. The battalion was involved in some minor skirmishing during the subsequent push to Messina which was entered by American units on 14 August, thus in effect ending the battle for Sicily. The battalion crossed to the mainland of Italy with the 51st Division on 8 September and six weeks later was on its way back to the UK, eventually to take part in the D-Day operations in Normandy and beyond.
06 Jun 1944 - May 1945: D-Day and beyond
After its return to the UK in October 1943 the battalion remained there in training for the invasion of France. It landed on Juno Beach just after 8.0pm on D-Day, 6 June 1944. A couple of days later it was engaged in a short but fierce battle at the Château de Bréville during which a section was captured and shot in cold blood by the Germans. Early in July it was again in action in an unsuccessful attempt to take the village of Colombelles on the outskirts of Caen, losing an entire platoon in the attempt. Caen itself finally fell on 11 July. The battalion crossed the Seine on 31 August and expected to be part of the battle to capture Le Havre which, however, fell after very little resistance. The battalion was involved in some skirmishing to force crossings of the River Maas in Holland and had an uncomfortable time in the low lying land between that river and the lower Rhine when the Germans opened the sluice gates higher up eventually forcing a withdrawal to higher land. It followed the 1st and 7th battalions shortly after they had led the attack into Germany itself through the Reichswald on 8 February 1945. For the next few weeks it was in almost continuous action of one sort or another, steadily gaining ground against Germans who tended to withdraw rather than fight, but who nevertheless inflicted many casualties with their artillery. Finally it was pulled out of the line early in March to get ready for the crossing of the Rhine, which took place a few miles downstream from Rees, at 9.0 pm on 22 March. The actual crossing met with little resistance on the ground but came under severe shelling. However there were some bitter battles to take the small towns beyond, particularly Rees where the battalion was involved in house to house fighting. On 30 March the Guards’ Armoured Division passed through the bridgeheads which had been secured and the battalion had some rest. It was not quite the end of fighting, for there were further scraps to come, particularly some 20 miles (32km) short of Bremen, before VE-day.
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