With the East Surreys in Tunisia, Sicily and Italy 1942-45

Posted on Wednesday 4th July 2012

The Bin Laden connection – and the East Surrey Regiment in the second World War
In May 2011 US special forces found and killed Osama Bin Laden in Abbottabad, Pakistan. In addition to the painstaking intelligence work over a number of years to locate his whereabouts, is there a sequence of events which stretch back even as far as 1926? What is the connection with the East Surrey Regiment in the Second World War?
North West India 1926-37:
At Rawalpindi in November 1926 in what was then north west India, the East Surrey Regiment’s 1st Battalion (the Surreys) began an eleven year deployment. Although they were garrisoned at the main British Army base in Rawalpindi, the Surreys often moved in the heat of summer into the mountains for exercises. In May 1927 they marched 27 miles over three nights up to Kuldana, 7,000 feet high in the Murree Hills.
From their hill-top camp they could see in the distance the snow-capped Himalayas. In October of the same year at the end of summer, while most of the Battalion began the descent back to Rawalpindi, two companies set out on a forty mile trek across the mountains to Abbottabad. There they spent three weeks of inspiring exercises with the Gurkha Brigade.
Abbottabad is named after Major James Abbott KCB of the Bengal Artillery, who became the first Deputy Commissioner of the Punjab. In 1853 he moved the seat of Government to a new location, to be called Abbottabad. Major Abbott died in 1896 at the age of 89, and is buried in Guildford Cemetery in Surrey.
The Surreys’ training exercises around Abbottabad during the 1920s and 1930s, in the Murree and Simla hills of the mountainous north-west of India, now the Waziristan region of Pakistan close to Kashmir, would prove to be invaluable experience in the Second World War.
The Medjerda Valley, familiar to many who served in Tunisia. (Author)

OperatioN Torch - October 1942:
It is 70 years since the Allies’ Operation Torch invasion fleet left the Clyde estuary in Scotland on 26 October 1942, to land on the night of 7/8 November 1942 on the coast of North Africa. The East Surreys 1st Battalion were part of the landings by 78th Division at Algiers. The Surreys’ 1st and 1/6th Battalions fought through Tunisia, Sicily and mainland Italy, and became some of the Allies’ finest troops in mountain warfare.

By 26 November 1942, less than three weeks since they had landed near Algiers, the Surrey infantry approached Tebourba, a small town only 15 miles from Tunis. Tebourba was about 20 miles north of the strategically placed market town of Medjez el Bab, on the north side of the steep banked Medjerda River. In the midst of a countryside full of olive groves, Tebourba lay in ruins from heavy shelling and bombing. By nightfall after overcoming light defences, the Surreys had captured both Tebourba and the nearby bridge at El Bathan, which crossed the Medjerda River.

The Surreys, now reduced to around 500 men since landing in Algiers, hoped to be reinforced very quickly. General Eveleigh, the 78th Division commander, even had thoughts of entering Tunis on the next day. But there was to be no time. By mid-morning of 27 November the Germans counter-attacked with some 50 Panzers. So the battle for Tebourba and its nearby hill Point 186, began and went on for seven days.

Tebourba lay astride the only route that German tanks could take through the hills from Tunis to attack the Allies’ hold on Medjez. For those next seven days the Surreys, together with troops of the Northants and Hampshire Regiments, fought a series of desperate defensive battles. Eventually Panzers cut the road south back to Medjez el Bab, leaving the Surreys and Hampshires nearly surrounded. Orders to retreat to the south had them slipping away in the night from around Tebourba.

The Germans were building their forces in Tunis, and intended to drive the Allies back from both Tebourba and Medjez. By 5 December when the Surreys regrouped in Medjez, they comprised only 23 officers and 350 other ranks. They had paid dearly in stemming the onslaught by German Panzers, losing more than half their original strength of 796 in casualties.

By late December rain, mud and the Germans’ counter attacks brought the whole Allied offensive to a shuddering halt. Allied forces withdrew to Medjez and its surrounding hills. The surviving Surreys regrouped as best they could in the hills west of Medjez near the village of Oued Zarga. Operation Torch was at a standstill, and its future in the balance.
Medjez War Cemetery, where many of the Surreys lie. (Author)

Lt Col John Woodhouse after the war as CO of 22nd Special Air Service Regiment. (Michael Woodhouse)

The Surreys Battle Patrol, its leader lieutenant John WOodhouse, and the sas:
In February 1943 the Surreys took in reinforcements, one of whom was a Lieutenant John Woodhouse. In the subsequent Italian campaign, John Woodhouse led the 1st Surreys’ Battle Patrol. He and his men excelled in going behind German lines, often for many days, to gain information on enemy deployments, sometimes carrying out sabotage, or grabbing a prisoner to take back for interrogation.
After the Second World War in the 1950s and 1960s Woodhouse served with the SAS. Drawing on his experience with that Battle Patrol, he revolutionised SAS training and tactics, and helped overcome the Communist insurgency in Malaya and Borneo, and the confrontation with Indonesia. He subsequently became Lieutenant Colonel and CO of 22 SAS, and recognised in military circles as a co-founder, with his close friend Lieutenant Colonel Sir David Stirling, of the modern SAS.
Following the increasing success of SAS tactics in special operations, in places such as in Oman and Yemen, Woodhouse and Stirling subsequently provided advice and guidance to the US military, on the development of training and tactics for their own special forces.
Lt John Woodhouse leads the Surreys' Battle Patrol. Note that the 78th Division badge, a golden battle-axe, was worn over the left breast pocket of the battledress jacket by members of the Patrol. (Michael Woodhouse)

The Bin Laden connection:
When on 2 May 2011 US Navy SEAL Commandos raided the house of Osama Bin Laden in his refuge in Abbottabad, one can only assume that the Al-Qaeda leader would have been quite ignorant of any of the above history. He had probably no knowledge whatsoever of Major Abbott, who had founded Abbottabad. Similarly he almost certainly did not know of the connections between the East Surrey Regiment, Lieutenant Colonel John Woodhouse, the development of the modern SAS, and the similar initiatives in establishing American special forces such as the US Navy SEALS.
If Bin Laden had studied his enemy more thoroughly, he would surely have realised that to remain in the same location for so many years, would mean that special forces would inevitably find him. To follow the East Surreys through the Tunisian and Italian campaigns of the Second World War, is to gain an insight into the battlefield experiences from which Lieutenant Colonel John Woodhouse drew so many invaluable lessons. Veterans’ stories from those times recapture what it took to fight for seemingly every river and mountain.
Without this experience with the East Surreys, John Woodhouse would not have been able to make his remarkable contribution to the enhanced development of Britain’s modern SAS, upon which special forces of the US and other countries also evolved. And just maybe, Bin Laden could still be alive somewhere.

Further Reading

With The East Surreys in Tunisia and Italy 1942 - 1945
(Hardback - 240 pages)
ISBN: 9781848847620

by Bryn Evans
Only £25.00

The East Surreys were in near continuous action from November 1942, when they landed in North Africa (Operation TORCH) through to the end of hostilities in May 1945. During these three years of bitter fighting they cleared the Germans from Tunisia, took part in Operation HUSKY, (the invasion of Sicily) and fought up through Italy as far as the River Po.

Trained as mountain troops, the East Surreys saw set piece and patrol action in the Atlas Mountains, on the slopes of Mount Etna and Monte Cassino,…
Read more at Pen & Sword Books...

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