More from the ‘51st Highland Division in North Africa & Sicily’ by Captain James Borthwick, Officer-Observer of the division; this time, it’s the turn of the Seaforth Highlanders:
It was a hospital in Tripoli. My batman, James Duffy, had just been admitted. He was very ill, but the nurse had had a tiring day, and her temper was frayed.
“What’s this? Another Jock who can’t take it?” she snapped, though half in jest.
The surgery doors opened, and two stretchers were wheeled through the room. Both men were Seaforth Highlanders, and each had lost a limb. They would never walk again, but they were full of the goodness of life.
“We’re for the tartan-funnelled steamer,” they called out. “Don’t you wish you were us, bound for Bonnie Scotland?”
Duffy looked at the nurse. “There’s two more Jocks who can’t take it,” he said.
The nurse had the grace to blush.
But the Seaforth Highlanders can also dish it out. I remember the thrill I experienced at seeing them first go into battle. It was the second morning of Alamein. Our forward infantry were having a bad time from German machine-gun posts.
As the Seaforth Highlanders marched through them, their pipers playing, they joked with the others. “Don’t worry; we’ll put this right,” they said.
And on they marched, across the sands, through the machine-gun bullets, ignoring the mortar bombs falling around them. The Germans and Italians, in their deep-dug douvres, were liquidated.
It was these lads from the far north who punched the hole on November 1 that began the chase to Tripoli and Tunis. But not without hard fighting. The Germans, hard-pressed, conscious of defeat, threw the Geneva conventions to the winds. Corporal Bill Paxton of North Berwick told me how a German ambulance drew up. They halted fire, and a German machine-gun crew jumped out and opened up. It was then that Piper McLeod of Stornoway, going out to attend the wounded, was shot dead by a German sniper. “The bastards,” Pte. Sam Lord told me, “but we avenged his death. One of our lads crawled out with a grenade and put paid to that filthy crew.”
On then to Tripoli, to the hills of Homs where the 90th Light, Hitler’s crack troops, had entrenched themselves. Major Alan Gilmour, of Rosehall, Sutherland, led his company on tanks in an attempt to smash a way through the road. But as one by one the tanks were knocked out, another method had to be found. So the Seaforth attacked from the flank, marching miles across the hills and wadis, and got above the Germans. “It was like shooting sitting birds,” Pte. Jock Marshall of Grangemouth told me. The Germans got onto their trucks and fled. The way to Tripoli was open.
When the way of the Mareth gap proved too costly, it was the Seaforth Highlanders who entered the inferno to let our forward infantry back. And at Wadi Akarit the Seaforths stormed Roumana Heights and took thousands of prisoners. The Germans counter-attacked in force, and with the Highlanders thin on the ground, bade fair to break through. But the clerks, stretcher-bearers and orderlies picked up rifles and held the Nazis off. On the topmost ridge was Sergeant Donald Chisholm of Stornoway and half a dozen men. They held the fort against the odds. “One sniper was a nuisance,” Pte. James Smith of Keiss, Caithness, told me. So, being a ghillie, he stalked him with a grenade. The sniper ceased to snipe. It was the end in Africa for Rommel.
But Sicily was ahead, and in the town and monastery of Francofonte the German parachutists had fortified themselves. The first Seaforth Highlanders nearly fell into a trap. One German jumped in front of Lt. Cochrane from Ibrox with a tommy gun. “You’re my prisoner,” he told him. “Am I hell,” said Lt. Cochrane, and shot him dead. I spoke to Hutton Bremner, the Motherwell footballer. He had been a prisoner for a short time. “How did you get away?” I asked. “Waited till my sentry turned his back, hit him on the head with a stone, and walked through the German lines,” he replied. But another battalion of the Seaforth Highlanders had made their way through the orange groves on the flank to take the town.
Sergeant Dick Primrose of Bridgeton entered the town just before dawn to find some soldiers being marched through the streets. He could see they were Scots, but they didn’t answer his greetings.
Then he noticed that they were under escort, with a German officer at their head. “It’s alright, lads. They’re surrounded. Take away their arms,” he said, menacing his revolver. The tables were turned, and the captors made captive. It was only later Dick Primrose revealed he was alone, and his revolver was empty!
And in Sferro Hills, where the last German stand was broken, the Seaforth Highlanders nobly played their part. On the wooded slopes of San Antonio the Germans were in force. Every bush, every tree, hid a machine gun nest. Through a hail of machine-gun bullets the Seaforths attacked. “The lads went fighting mad,” Sergeant George Walker of Arbroath told me. “It was the only way we could have done it.” One officer, shouting “Caberfeidh,” the Seaforth war cry, jumped into a machine-gun pit and dispatched the occupants. Twice the wood was cleared, and the prisoners streamed back through our lines. The battle for Sicily was over. The Seaforth Highlanders had been in on the death.