The Kerkennah Islands Operation
WAR DIARY. APPENDIX ‘C’
REPORT ON “KERKENNA ISLANDS” OPERATION
The object of the operation was to seize the Islands which were thought to possess some defence guns of large calibre under AXIS control, to prevent any interference in the running of a convoy of merchant ships which would enter SFAX harbour as soon as the town had fallen.
The total force of Commando-trained personnel was 10 officers 36 O.R.’s of whom 23 were BUFFS and, under my command. We left MALTA by M.L’ s on April 5th and arrived in TRIPOLI harbour the next morning. We had a forced wait there of 6 days, which however, was pleasantly spent.
On the afternoon of the 13th we left TRIPOLI for SFAX and arrived there early next day. There, the plan of the operation was given to all ranks, and was as follows:-
That night at 2300 hrs we would leave SFAX and arrive 1 miles due NORTH of KERKENNA ISLANDS at 0015 hrs. We should then shore in assault boats steering by compass, but aided closer to the beach by a dim light shewn by two ‘pilots’ who had gone in previously by boat. The attack on the gun ‘positions was to be made at first light with the BUFFS as the assault group, and the remaining being used as a covering force. We had wireless communication with SFAX by 18 set, and would the opposition be too great, a CHINESE Gunboat, the “APHIS”, with 6 inch guns was lying off SFAX harbour, and would on request, bombard the position, with, we were informed, extreme accuracy. As our ‘lying up’ position before the attack was to be within 400 yds of the guns, we sincerely hoped so. Also, 2 Jeeps and 5 M/Cs were to be landed at 0800 hrs by L.C.M. on the NORTH coast of GHARBI (the WESTERN island). Further communication was to be by Very Light signals, and direct contact on M.T.
All went off well and exactly as planned, with the exception of the arrival on board my ship at the last moment, of one Intelligence officer sent by 8th Army, and two U.S. War Correspondents, chewing gum. The Americans thought the whole thing a “hell of a lot of fun”, and were tickled to death by the sight of the men literally armed to the teeth, and looking, as they put it, “highly explosive”.
The landing was made at 0230 hrs, and all boats arrived together in good formation. The water inshore was shallow and the last 100 yds was covered on foot, carrying the boats. The Americans were not prepared for any wet work, and were greatly incensed at having to get their shoes and socks soaked. As is now known, there were no guns, nor indeed, any AXIS military personnel, so I will skip the “attack” on the positions.
The Intelligence officer from the 8th Army rather damped my spirits before we set off, by proclaiming that if we met anything more ferocious than a stray goat, he would be very surprised, and upon seeing the colossal amount of arms we were taking, he burst into peels of merriment. I didn’t exactly see the joke then, but having discovered a palm tree at least 15 yrs old, growing sturdily in the genre of one of the gun pits, the funny side struck me and most of the men too, and to cap it all the thought of an ugly-looking gun boat laying off 12 miles away ready to bombard the place was almost too much. We turned East and marched to the one and only village on the island. The distance was about three miles through good cultivation on very flat ground, and palm trees. The march was very quiet and sombre owing to the disappointment at finding ourselves deprived of our anticipated ‘scrap’ in fact the only talking during the march was by the two correspondents, who could be heard from time to time, proclaiming the fact that “Geel, do my poor old dogs bark, or do they?”. Eventually they lagged further and further behind until they were out of sight. They appeared later when we had been in the village ‘square’ for some considerable time, and with two considerable time, they sank into the barley stalks, fast asleep.
The L.C.M arrived at the appointed time, and landed stores. rations and No.11 sets. It then went on to SHARKI, the EASTERN island, in order to lend the M.T. and troops who were to ‘sweep’ the villages and coastline. I was required on this island, which possesses 8 villages of reasonable size, to not act as an Arabic interpreter, so I handed over my command to C.Q.M.S. Stone, and took with me Sgt. Butler and 4 O.R’s.. The remainder of the party for this island were R.W.K’s, making a total strength of 2 officers and about 20 men. We spent a very pleasant 4 days on the islands, the people of which are TUNISIAN ARABS, and most speak good French. They were extremely perplexed at our arrival, and would hardly believe that we had landed in small collapsible canvas boats. As one said quite simply, “Why didn’t you come in Motor Boats as the Italians did last year?”
However, we were very welcome, and were kept busy visiting Sheiks, and drinking innumerable cups of coffee. The women are very brightly dressed in typical eastern clothing, the children very healthy compared with most Arab types; both women and children however, were very scared of M/C’s, which many had never seen before.
We left these magnified mud-flats (as indeed they are – the highest point being only 43 ft.) on April 19th by local fishing craft. Journey back to SFAX took 6 hrs with a fair wind, and glorious blue sky and sea, and was one of the pleasantest trips I have had.
There were many sighs of regret when we at last went aboard the M.L’ s for our journey back to MALTA, although not a few were looking forward to a bottle of beer, and a good wash.
We arrived in MALTA harbour on Wednesday morning 21st April 1943.
Signed. D. Huggett Lieut.
28 April 1943.