"It has to be recorded that Captain Hans Jungwirth's men of the 1st Battalion of the 5th FJR behaved with extraordinary chivalry towards our wounded, whom they saw as belonging to the same paratroop fraternity as themselves"
...After an hour or so, the battalion's position became untenable, and Frost decided to consolidate his remaining force for a last stand on the highest hill feature about a mile to the south. Abandoning its now useless heavy equipment, and leaving its surgical team behind in German hands, the 2nd Para withdrew under fire up the steep slope of the hill called Sidi Bou Hadjeba, beating a German patrol to the crest, and took up new defensive positions. Peter Stainforth's section was assigned to be part of Major Ross's C Company now reduced to less than fifteen men.
Throughout a long, hot and bloody afternoon the battalion held on while the numbers of killed and wounded grew. It was shelled, mortared but repelled both infantry and tank attacks at close quarters. Peter claimed that he and his men knocked out at least one of the brutes which appeared over the crest of the hill ten yards away. Then, just when the situation was looking desperate, two more Messerschmidts joined the battle, but attacked their own troops by mistake, causing so much confusion that the Germans drew off as dusk fell.
Frost was now able to put into action the plan of withdrawal. What remained of his force would split up into Companies, and on the 'Gone away' call of his hunting horn each party would slip down onto the plain, and retire on a compass bearing for Massicault where Allied forces were thought to be. Another night march of at least fifteen miles lay ahead for men exhausted by battle and lack of sleep. They knew the enemy lay all around but it was now a case of do or die. So when the hunting horn sounded, like shadows, they melted away.
Frost had already made the painful decision to leave all his numerous wounded behind. Accordingly, he ordered Lieutenant Playford, one of the 'walking wounded', to go down to MacGavin's Field Dressing Station to seek German help in getting the wounded off the hill and under cover. Otherwise, out in the open in the bitter cold, they would not last the night.
It has to be recorded here that Captain Hans Jungwirth's men of the 1st Battalion of the 5th FJR behaved with extraordinary chivalry towards our wounded, whom they saw as belonging to the same paratroop fraternity as themselves. Not only did their stretcher parties work for long hours in carrying our helpless casualties off the hill, but went out repeatedly during the night to try and find a wounded officer of 'C' Company who cried intermittently for help. Sadly this failed. At the same time in the Arab hut, their Medical Officer operated alongside Jock MacGavin to save the lives of the worst of our casualties, while Padre Murdo MacDonald, although himself wounded, held torches, passed instruments and assisted in any way he could. British and German, deadly enemies but a few hours earlier, worked together in Christian harmony to ease the suffering of their fellow men.
The march that night for exhausted men after two days of battle and three nights without sleep was an ordeal that few could forget. Part of it was across ploughed land baked hard in the sun with furrows fifteen inches deep, difficult to cross fully conscious but half asleep it represented an ankle-breaking hazard. Men fell, were dragged to their feet, and half carried for mile after mile. They forded a brackish river, which men parched with thirst tried to drink, and were promptly sick. Yet the columns pressed on hour after hour, until at dawn, still out in the open, Peter now with the 'A' Company party, took refuge in a large French farm. Then Johnny Frost's hunting horn rang out in the early morning silence, not far away.
After a narrow escape from detection by a motor cycle patrol of 5 FJR, the eighty men of 'A' Company, who were at that dangerous moment snoring loudly in a barn, sprang to life, and departed swiftly to join Frost's Headquarters party in an Arab farm a mile away on the edge of the next range of hills. With Frost was Dennis Vernon and two sections of Sappers which, added to the headquarters people, the new arrivals made up a force of about 130 men, armed with rifles, a few Bren guns and Stens, and precious little ammunition. Not much to fight another battle that afternoon, which was to be their unhappy lot.
Not surprisingly the Arab farmer who had seen his home taken over by terrifying apparitions, armed, tired and hungry, had rushed to a German outpost on the other side of the hill, and brought the enemy, this time the 3rd Battalion of 5 FJR, down on Frost's group like a ton of bricks. Fortunately, believing Frost's party to be no more than fifty strong, their commander sent only a company to investigate, but that was quite bad enough.
They mortared 2 Para. at the start, killing one of Peter's Lance Corporals, then advanced behind a machine-gun barrage which swept the thick cactus hedges behind which the British burrowed for protection. When the Germans closed, they were met with well-aimed rifle fire, which killed quite a few, and kept the rest at bay until, mercifully, the sun went down. Then the welcome notes of Frost's hunting horn rang out, and tired as they were his men leapt to their feet as one, and went like the wind up a track into the hills under the cloak of night.
By a miracle another call on the hunting horn reformed the column in the moonlight, and they set off once more across rocky ground on what they hoped would be their last leg of the road to safety. Dawn, however, found them at a French farm owned by a widow and her two pretty daughters, and Frost was forced to call a halt. There he learnt that German armoured troops occupied the open country to the north, and the only securely held Allied town was Medjez-el-Bab still fifteen miles further west. As German patrols visited farms in the area, Frost decided to push on to Medjez after a two-hour rest.
So, almost stupefied by exhaustion, the column stumbled on, battered and bruised from falls in the hills. They followed a rough track to Ksar Tyr, then, desperation overcoming caution, they left the protection of the hills and made direct for Medjez over open ground. Three miles out from the town an American armoured half-track intercepted the column and took on board three or four Paras who, through injury, could go no further. The rest marched on up the main road into Medjez, even 'forming threes' and 'marching to attention with arms sloped' at the outskirts, past French Zouave sentries who returned the salute!
So ended Lieutenant Peter Stainforth's baptism of fire. It might not have been the worst that he would have to face, but it was the most savage and protracted. Of the six hundred officers and men that set out on that pointless expedition on the 29th November only a quarter returned on the 3rd December. Major John Ross and ten men, all that was left of 'C' Company, came in three days later, and Alan Scott Fleming brought in another half a dozen Sappers the following week. A few stragglers found their way back, including Captain Doug Crawley, blinded by a mortar burst on Sidi Bou Hadjeba, who drove in with Captain Ron Stark in a pony trap. But that was the sum total of all that returned.
Not Found Wanting, pp.425-7
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