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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: 7th Battalion
June 1942 - December 1942: 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 (7th Battalion in 154 Brigade with the 1st Battalion), 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 The brigade was withdrawn from the front on 3 November and for the next five weeks was part of the force pursuing the retreating Germans beyond Benghazi and Tobruk but not in direct contact with them until 8 December at the village of Mersa Brega on the coastal road. The 1st and 7th Battalions were put in to try to circle round this village and cut the road beyond. They succeeded, only to find that the enemy had already left; but they suffered many more casualties from mines which the Germans had laid to cover their retreat.
January 1943 - April 1943: North Africa
The battalion’s next close contact with the enemy was on 19 January 1943 in the advance along the coastal road towards Tripoli at a strongly defended feature on high ground which was promptly named ‘Edinburgh Castle’. After a first failed attempt next morning by a fighting patrol supported by tanks to open up a route round this, it was decided that the 1st Battalion would try to capture it next night while the 7th Battalion and other units would try, under cover of darkness, to get round by the coast and cut the main road behind the Germans. The enemy decided not to stand and fight, and the 1st Battalion was able to enter the ‘Castle’ without opposition. However, in retreating the Germans managed to cause may casualties among the 7th Battalion. Tripoli was successfully occupied two days later. The Germans had now withdrawn to a strong defensive position centred on Mareth, just inside Tunisia, where the Matmata Hills left only a narrow passage, blocked by the Wadi Zigzaou, between them and the sea through which to advance north towards Tunis. Contact was made with the enemy in mid February near Medenine, On 6 March the Germans attacked without success and then withdrew. The next contact was at Wadi Zigzaou on 23 March, but before the battalion had to mount an attack across this the enemy again withdrew. The next obstacle 15 miles (24km) ahead on the advance towards Tunis was Wadi Akarit between the coast and Roumana Ridge. On 6 April 152 Brigade was allotted the task of attacking the southern end of this ridge, while the 7th Battalion followed the successful crossing of the wadi by the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders to attack the northern end of Roumana Ridge. It suffered considerable casualties before it could reach the base of the ridge still in possession of the Germans. In the afternoon it came under heavy attack from enemy tanks and the 1st Battalion was ordered up to help it. During the night both battalions were pulled back about a mile, but next morning it was found that once again the Germans had slipped away north. By this time, however, the battalion had captured a large amount of weaponry and taken a thousand prisoners, and it was not further engaged with the enemy.
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 they eventually made on the coast of Sicily on 10 July, landing just west of Pachino Point, the southernmost tip of the island. The first contact with the enemy was after crossing the River Dittaino at Gerbini, a small hamlet with a railway station, some barracks on a ridge in front of the station and an airfield to the east. During the night of 18 July the battalion, preparing to attack the airfield next day, managed to penetrate the forward German positions undetected; but when it was discovered next morning it had to endure two days of heavy fighting. On the night of the 20th a full scale attack was mounted on the barracks and station by the 1st Black Watch and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. Although the barracks were found to be unoccupied, the company of the Argylls attacking the station was annihilated, and the 1st Black Watch was swept off the ridge in a fierce counter attack. The decision was then taken to withdraw behind the river Dittaino. Meanwhile during the night of the 18th the 5th Black Watch had succeeded in crossing the River Dittaino to attack the village of Sferro, 3 miles (5km) to the north-west of Gerbini and some 8 miles (12km) from the town of Paterno, but had been unable to take the village. The Gordon Highlanders managed to do so the following night, but that particular part of the front then became static for the next ten days. It then became imperative to capture the Sferro Hills to the north to make it possible for Canadian and American troops to attack and take Adrano on the west of Mount Etna. The attack began just before midnight on the 31st. The first objectives were taken by the 1st and 7th Black Watch, but when the 7th pushed further forward it ran into strong opposition and suffered severe casualties. Just before dawn next day it was possible to bring up extra guns and ammunition and after some more fierce fighting the Germans withdrew. After this there were no more than minor skirmishes on the advance north, the campaign being virtually over when the Americans entered Messina on 14 August. The battalion with the rest of 51st Division crossed to the Italian mainland on 8 September, but six weeks later was shipped back to the UK, eventually to take part in the D-Day operations in Normandy and beyond
June 1944 - May 1945 : D-Day and beyond
After its return to the UK in October 1943 the 51st Division remained there in training for D-Day. The 7th battalion sailed for France from Tilbury on 9 June 1944 and on the 19th came under heavy enemy shell and mortar fire in the Bois de Bavent, suffering many casualties. After the fall of Caen on 11 July, the battalion was engaged at different times and in different ways in the great push north to help the Americans close the Falaise Gap. The Seine was crossed on 31 August and the Highland Division had the great satisfaction on 2 September of being back in St Valéry where its predecessor had had to surrender in 1940. The battalion expected to be part of the battle to capture Le Havre but in the event there was very little resistance from the Germans and the battalion did not even have to engage in any fighting. Much the same followed at Dunkirk where the job of the battalion was to be part of the siege to force the German garrison into surrender. The siege was still in force on 7 October when it was withdrawn. After some skirmishing to force crossings of the River Maas in Holland it 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. On 8 February 1945 the battalion was one of those leading the attack into Germany itself through the Reichswald. 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. It was pulled out of the line early in March to train for the crossing of the Rhine, which it did at 9.30pm 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. On 30 March the Guards’ Armoured Division passed through the bridgeheads which had been secured and some rest was then possible. Some scrappy fighting followed on the way towards Bremen and Bremerhaven, but the crossing of the Rhine was the last major engagement before VE-day.
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