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Operation Corkscrew - Chapter 1

by norfolk

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Archive List > British Army

Contributed by 
norfolk
People in story: 
Reginald Nuttall Norfolk W E Clutterbuck
Location of story: 
Mediterrean Theatre
Background to story: 
Army
Article ID: 
A8488678
Contributed on: 
13 January 2006

5th/18th June 1943

OPERATION CORKSCREW
(The first ever conquest of axis territory)

Foreword

Operation Corkscrew was the capture of an island, Pantelleria. The Tunisian campaign was over and the Italian yet to begin, consequently Corkscrew was neither a 1st Army nor an 8th Army operation but an independant force mounted by Allied Force HQ at Algiers. The result is that Corkscrew has been overlooked in official war histories and very little has been written for the record; and yet the capture of Pantelleria, the first ever conquest of Axis territory, was essential to the forthcoming Sicily landings by denying the Luftwaffe use of its airfield thereby opening sea-lanes for the support of the Sicily operation, raising the siege of Malta and opening the passage to India via the Suez Canal. The account which follows records something of Operation Corkscrew, not in terms of higher command, but from the limited, personal, view-point of an ordinary man on the ground.

Chapter 1of3.

"What's happened to those confounded tanks" my Colonel said.
No!....not "Tanks, Armoured, Churchill" but "Tanks, Braithwaite, Water, for the storage of".

What,is a Braithwaite Tank? To begin with, it is large!.....comprising many steel panels bolted together to the size required and those my Colonel was confounding were four in number, each with a capacity of about 20,000 gallons.

Why was my Colonel so agitated? It was all to do with Operation Corkscrew, so called because its intention was the capture of the island of Pantelleria situated, like a cork in a bottle, in the narrowest part of the Mediterranean between Tunisia and Sicily. Although only a small extinct volcanic island it was important because the Luftwaffe was there, which posed a considerable threat to shipping in support of the forthcoming Sicily landings.....the capture of the airfield was imperative.

A serious matter was the possibility of there being no drinking water, therefore it fell to us Sappers to do something about it .....hence the Braithwaite Tanks. It was said they had left Algiers in a number of railway waggons: but not a sign of their arrival at Sousse. No wonder my Colonel was becoming more agitated by the minute!!

He looked at me because I happened to be nearest. "Go find them and get them here" he commanded. Ever anxious to please my Colonel, Driver Cross and I loaded our utility truck with tins of M&V (McConachie's meat and vegetable stew) and bully beef, water, petrol, tea-makings and, with brew-can hanging on behind, set forth to back-track the railway, to Algiers if necessary, until the missing Braithwaite tank-parts were discovered.

Shortly, outside Sousse, the railway reduced to a single track with the occasional station.....well, not so much a station as an Halt. These consisted of a loop-line to enable trains to pass, a siding, signal and a bit of a platform with a wooden hut housing a bad tempered arab resentful of anything calculated to disturb a quiet life. If the tanks were anywhere they would be at one of these halts so the strategy was to follow the railway line as closely as possible and check the halts as we went along. To start with, this was fairly easy using metalled roads but when Driver Cross and I found ourselves in wilder country these deteriorated into dirt tracks and sometimes nothing at all which was rather frustating as progress became slow; D Day was ever nearer and my Colonel was no pretty sight when roused to anger.

We were soon past Kairouan, one of the holy cities of Islam, and on through Fondouk and Sbeitla arriving at Kasserine before darkness. Numerous railway waggons were inspected on the way but no sign of our Braithwaite Tanks so Driver Cross and I decided to make camp for the night at Kasserine Halt to be on hand in case of any rail movement before dawn, although the usual bad tempered station-arab assured there would be none and disappeared into the night. So Driver Cross and I lit our fire, cooked our M&V and settled down besides the truck for sleep before the trials of the morrow.

Once away from the coastal region and the towns, the total stillness of the night in Southern Tunisia seemed to enfold one's whole being: and the stars!..... a myriad of stars, ablaze in a dark velvet sky; so bright, as glittering diamonds, that one could surely reach up and pluck one for one's own.

The break of dawn found Driver Cross and I breakfasted and on our way. The debris of war lay strewn around, including the burnt-out hull of a German tank ("Tiger" not "Braithwaite") half blocking the road, for it was here that 2nd US Corps and 6th British Armoured Division with other elements of 1st (Br) Army fought battles against Rommel's Afrika korps. Now, this arid hill country lay at peace.....not a movement: not a living soul to be seen. On we pressed with our search; Haidra, Tebessa, Youks les Bains.....nothing to be found.

The terrain had deteriorated to a flat, stoney plain on the fringes of the Sahara and our passage raised great dust-clouds which only a few weeks previously would have invited the unwelcome attentions of Messerschmitt 109's. In the shimmering heat ahead appeared what we thought were buildings but on approaching they resolved into ruins.....but ruins with a difference; these were Roman ruins. There, standing in the silence and dust of the desert were stone columns, steps and walls of a long dead habitation. Some mason had crafted those columns perhaps 2000 years ago; perhaps then the country was green and fertile, and people had lived, worked and spent their lives here with family joys and sadness not that much different from ours today. And now?.....a few stones standing amongst the sand and scorpions as mute testimony to all that had gone before. It gives one cause for thought. One thing for sure.....they would not have been bothering much about Braithwaite water tanks!!

Onward again; by now Driver Cross and I were well into Algeria, had clocked about 250 miles, and were feeling not a little desperate, when another Halt appeared, shimmering in the distant heat, with waggons in its sidings: Would this be disappointment yet again? This desolate spot in the Southern Algerian wilderness was La Meskiana. "Go find them and get them here" my Colonel had commanded. The first part of his command had been accomplished for there were eight or so railway waggons full of Braithwaite panels, nuts, bolts, valves, the lot. The second part of my Colonel's command posed a bit of a problem. We could really do with a railway steam engine! The bad tempered station-arab was sitting outside his hut viewing our activities with mounting suspicion as we made our approach. This was going to be difficult. Language was the problem but my inadequate French, pidgin English and the odd arab word for good measure, would have to do. "Shufti.....les wagons qui restent la.....imshi Sousse.....go damn quick". And so it went on until he realised with horror that all we wanted was for him to stop a train so our waggons could be hitched on and taken to Sousse.....this had been commanded by the Big General of the conquering British Army and I was his personal representative who had come to see him specially to arrange this service. This cut no ice whatsoever but provoked a torrent of Arabic emphasised by much arm-waving. Clearly, anything of such enormity was quite outside his experience and certainly the Big Man in Algiers had given no instructions to cover such outrageous eventualities.

After a few minutes of this I concluded that willing co-operation was not to be, so I pointed my pistol at his stomach. The effect was quite remarkable and what hitherto had been altogether impossible became a pleasure. It was the first time I had pointed my pistol at any one and I became more than ever impressed by its power of persuasion. A key was produced from some unspeakable recess in his raiment; with due ceremony we all gathered round the signal, the key operated a large padlock and chain and the signal was set to stop. So far so good..... The comity of nations was restored by the production of cigarettes and, with a wary eye on the signal lest he had a change of mind, Driver Cross and I settled down to await the arrival of a train and the problems that that might bring.

Early next morning there were sounds and signs of an approaching train whereupon station-arab siezed a flag and leapt around like the proverbial camel-with-its-hump-on-fire whilst Driver Cross and I watched with interest. The train came to a clanking stop and an engine-arab peered down accusingly at station-arab followed by an exchange of arabic during which everyone shouted loudly and took no notice of anything anyone else was saying. Engine-arab was clearly winning the argument so Driver Cross and I confronted him. He was a large arab, backed by a grimy individual clutching a big shovel. It was explained that it was all quite simple.....it was only required that he move forward along the track.....back-shunt into the siding.....pick up our waggons.....draw out onto the main line.....and we would do all the work of changing the points!! Engine-arab was of sterner stuff than station-arab and you could tell he did not like it by the look on his face. He had not got where he was today by doing things at the say-so of some infidel with short trousers and bare knees and I was contemplating the old pistol routine when Driver Cross, with far more intelligence than his officer, produced the master-stroke by arriving with a cardboard box containing tins of M&V. This was the key to the pearly gates and, once passed up to the footplate, the deal was done and our waggons were hitched onto the train.

It occurred to me that engine-arab was anything but well disposed and that it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that he stick our waggons into the next siding as an expression of his disapproval. There was only one thing for it.....I should ride "shotgun" to ensure safe delivery of Tanks, Braithwaite to Sousse. Driver Cross was left to make his own way back and to the disbelief and horror of engine-arab and grimy individual I climbed onto the footplate. They were obvious in their objection to having a lunatic aboard with a pistol but station-arab was fiddling with his signal, I had cigarettes and there was already an hour behind timetable so engine-arab opened the steam valve and with a jolt we were off.

Clearly intent on making up time, grimy-individual shovelled coal with fierce determination and the furnace got bigger and bigger, mountains of smoke poured from the chimney and the poor elderly engine was nigh bursting at the seams. It worked itself into a most alarming velocity and swayed and clattered through the Algerian wilderness. We stopped to take-on water at Tebessa and I was careful to keep a wary eye on grimy individual in case he hit me over the head with that shovel of his. Thence, into Southern Tunisia whilst grimy-individual wielded his shovel like the devil possessed.

We arrived in Sousse intact and our waggons were safely lodged in a siding......engine-arab and grimy-individual were well pleased to see the back of me!!

(By the way.....my Colonel was pleased also)

At last everything was unloaded and a trial- build, to find out how it all fitted together and if anything were missing, was completed successfully and all was safely gathered-in at the dockside of Sousse harbour. The tanks were loaded between four LCT (Landing Craft, Tank), to avoid eggs being in the same basket in the event of loss, together with a quantity of victaulic piping for use as a water main; and just in the nick of time.

At morning Parade, I announced that I was to take a detachment on an operation, the nature of which could not be revealed, and that anyone interested should give their name into the Company Office. One soon learns that appearances should not be taken at face value and that the macho. image does not necessarily signify mettle. Sapper Boot was not cast in the heroic mould and yet, as had been seen previously, he was the first to volunteer his name. There were others of the same ilk and the final party was a good cross-section of all types. Sergeant McVean had no choice. I detailed him to be my Sergeant and right-hand man.

And so, it came to pass that Sergeant MacVean and I, and our Sappers, boarded our LCI (Landing Craft, Infantry) at Sousse together with an infantry company of 1DWR (1st Battalion, The Duke of Wellington Regiment). Once on shipboard, soldiers experience a vague feeling of unease: strange smells, alarming rumbling noises, unaccustomed motion, below deck confined as in a metal tomb, above deck altogether exposed and nowhere to go. The sailor has an unenviable task. We set forth, encouraged by the usual soldierly banter with those of the Company left behind on the quayside, at about 1630hrs on 10th June 1943. For us, Operation Corkscrew was under way.

Pantelleria, or "Panty" to us, is a small island of volcanic origin of about 81/2 miles x 51/2 miles and dominated by a single mountain, Monte Grande, rising to 2000ft. The coastline is mostly rugged cliffs with but a single landing beach right within the harbour of the small town of Pantelleria itself. Behind the town, the terrain is terraced by stone walls, rising gradually to a plateau about 2 miles inland on which was established the airfield and main objective of the attack.

Numerous caves and underground galleries provided excellent machine gun emplacements, safe from air attack, to which should be added many concrete pillboxes with domed roofs and six or eight machine gun positions. In addition, a final count revealed some 120 coastal guns, ranging between 4" and 9"calibre, anti-aircraft and dual-purpose guns. Every creek and inlet was defended, with particular attention paid to the only feasible landing place in Panty harbour. The "obliques" (panoramic views photographed from low-flying aircraft), with which we were briefed, were marked up to shew the positions of these defences, which was a little alarming as the whole operation must, perforce, converge onto this single beach not 1/2 mile in length.

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