James Hill (British Army Officer) - Second World War - North Africa

North Africa

As an insufficient number of transport aircraft were allocated to the brigade, it was only possible to transport 3rd Parachute Battalion by air. The rest of the brigade arrived at Algiers on 12 November, with some of its stores arriving slightly later. By the evening, reconnaissance parties had travelled to the airfield at Maison Blanche, with the remainder of the brigade following on the morning of 13 November; it was quartered in Maison Blanche, Maison Carree and Rouiba. After several ambitious airborne operations were planned but then cancelled by British First Army, on 14 November it directed that a single parachute battalion would be dropped the next day near Souk el-Arba and Béja; the battalion was to contact French forces at Beja to ascertain whether they would remain neutral, or support the Allies; secure and guard the cross roads and airfield at Soul el Arba; and patrol eastwards to harass German forces. 1st Parachute Battalion was selected for the task, to which Hill objected. The battalion had been forced to unload the vessel carrying its supplies and equipment itself, and had also to arrange its own transportation to Maison Blanche as no drivers were provided at Algiers; when it had arrived at Maison Blanche, it had been subjected to several Luftwaffe air raids that targeted the airfield. Hill argued that as a result his men were exhausted, and he did not believe all of the battalion's equipment could be sorted out within twenty four hours; as such he asked for the operation to be postponed for a short period, but this was denied.

Hill faced further problems as he planned for the operation. The American pilots of the Dakota transport aircraft that would transport the battalion were inexperienced and had never conducted a parachute drop before, and there was no time for any training or exercises. There were also no photos of the airfield or the surrounding areas, and only a single, small scale map available for navigation. To ensure that the aircraft found the drop zone and delivered the battalion accurately, Hill sat in the cockpit of the leading Dakota and assisted the pilot. The Dakotas were escorted by four American P-38 Lightning fighters, which engaged and drove off two roving German fighters, but as the Dakotas approached the Tunisian border they encountered thick clouds and were forced to turn back, landing at Maison Blanche at 11:00. It was decided that the battalion would conduct the operation the next day, which allowed the paratroopers to rest for a night. 1st Parachute Battalion took off on the morning of 16 November, and enjoyed excellent weather that allowed the transport aircraft to drop the battalion accurately around the airfield at Souk el Arba. Most of the paratroopers landed successfully, but one man was killed when his rigging line twisted around his neck mid drop, throttling him; one officer broke his leg on landing, and four men were wounded when a Sten gun was accidentally fired. The battalion's second in command, Major Pearson, remained at the airfield with a small detachment that collected the airborne equipment and supervised the burial of the casualty.

Meanwhile, Hill led the rest of the battalion, approximately 525 strong, in some commandeered trucks towards the town of Béja, an important road and railway centre approximately forty miles from the airfield. The battalion arrived at approximately 18:00 and was welcomed by the local French garrison, 3,000 strong, which Hill persuaded to cooperate with the paratroopers; in order to give the garrison and any German observers the impression that he possessed a larger force than he actually did, Hill arranged for the battalion to march through the town several times, wearing different headgear and holding different equipment each time. A short time after the battalion entered Béja, German aircraft arrived and bombed the town, although they caused little damage and no casualties. The next day, 'S' Company was sent with a detachment of engineers to the village of Sidi N'Sir, about twenty miles away; they were to contact the local French forces, believed to be pro British, and harass German forces. The detachment found the village and made contact with the French, who allowed them to pass through towards the town of Mateur; by nightfall the force had not reached the town, and decided to encamp for the night. At dawn a German convoy of armoured cars passed the detachment, and it was decided to set an ambush for the convoy if it returned, with anti-tank mines being laid on the road and a mortar and Bren guns being set up in concealed positions. When the convoy returned at approximately 10:00 the leading vehicle struck a mine and exploded, blocking the road, and the other vehicles were disabled with mortar fire, Gammon bombs and the remaining anti tank mines. A number of Germans were killed and the rest taken prisoner, with two paratroopers being slightly wounded. The detachment returned to Béja with prisoners and several slightly damaged armoured cars. After the success of the ambush, Hill sent a second patrol to harass local German forces, but it was withdrawn after it encountered a larger German force that inflicted several British casualties; Béja was also bombed by Stuka divebombers, inflicting civilian casualties and destroying a number of houses.

On 19 November, Hill visited the commanding officer of the French forces guarding a vital bridge at Medjez el Bab, and warned him that any attempt by German forces to cross the bridge would be opposed by the battalion. Hill attached 'R' Company to the French forces to ensure the bridge was not captured. German forces soon arrived at the bridge, and their commanding officer demanded that they be allowed to take control of the bridge and cross it to attack the British positions. The French rejected the German demands, and in conjunction with 'R' Company repelled subsequent German attacks that lasted several hours. The battalion was reinforced by the American 175th Field Artillery Battalion and elements of the Derbyshire Yeomanry, but, despite fierce resistance, the German forces proved to be too strong, and by 04:30 on 20 November the Allied forces had yielded the bridge and the surrounding area to the Germans. Two days later, Hill received information that a strong Italian force, which included a number of tanks, was stationed at Gue Hill. Hill decided to attack the force and attempt to disable the tanks, and the following night moved the battalion, less a small guard detachment that remained at Béja, to Sidi N'Sir where it linked up with a force of French Senegalese infantry. Hill decided that the battalion's section of 3 inch mortars would cover 'R' and 'S' Companies as they advanced up Gue Hill and attacked the Italian force, while a small force of sappers would mine the road at the rear of the hill to ensure the Italian tanks could not retreat.

The battalion arrived at the hill without incident and began to prepare for the attack; however, just prior to the beginning of the attack there were several loud explosions from the rear of the hill. The anti tank grenades carried by the sappers had accidentally detonated, killing all but two of them. The battalion lost the element of surprise, and Hill immediately ordered the two companies to advance up the hill. The force reached the top and engaged a mixed force of German and Italian soldiers, who were assisted by three light tanks. Hill drew his revolver, and with his adjutant and a small group of paratroopers advanced on the tanks, firing shots through their observation ports in an attempt to persuade the crews to surrender. This tactic worked on two tanks, but upon reaching the third tank Hill and his men were fired upon by the tank's crew; Hill was shot three times in the chest and his adjutant wounded, although the tank crew were swiftly dispatched with small arms fire. Hill survived because of prompt medical treatment, and was replaced as commander of the battalion by Major Pearson, who supervised the routing of the rest of the German and Italian soldiers.

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