The Story of the 34th Infantry Division
Book I • Louisiana to Pisa

Chapter VI • HILL 609
Conquering [pp. 17-22]

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Chapter VI • HILL 609 • Conquering

   Without exaggeration it may be said that the Division was transformed during the next few days. After a very grueling and somewhat discouraging introduction to heavy combat all units passed through a rigorous week of training with special emphasis on night attacks and the cooperation between infantry and artillery in the assault behind a rolling barrage.

   By 22 April [1943] the Tunisian front had shrunk to a relatively small area in the northeastern corner where the Germans were preparing a strong defense of their last link with the African continent, covering Bizerte and Tunis. II Corps was moving rapidly and secretly to take over the extreme left flank of the Allied front and, initially, the 34th Infantry Division was placed in Corps reserve.

   By 24 April the American attack had progressed to a point where it was considered desirable to relieve a portion of the 1st Infantry Division. Accordingly, the 168th Infantry and later the remainder of the Division entered the line of the 1st Infantry Division's left. The sector of advance given to the 34th followed the railroad from Beja to Mateur along a river valley which also for a part of its length carried a narrow serpentine road.

   The terrain of northern Tunisia was quite a change from that further south. The hills, while just as steep, had considerably more vegetation and the lower slopes were extensively cultivated. As before, though, the higher peaks were bare and jagged and often so steep that to climb them, even without weapons or opposition, was a considerable feat. In order to further the Corps plan of seizing the important communication center of Mateur, to the northeast of our sector, it was first necessary to secure the dominating terrain - Hill 609.

   After stubborn fighting during which our troops showed that they had learned well how to follow an artillery barrage, the attack swung eastward into the hills which lay in the path of our advance to Hill 609. The 168th Infantry protected the left flank of the Division by seizing three high peaks on successive days while the 135th Infantry on the right proceeded to make progress at the rate of one hill a day, using the cover of night to deploy for its attack. The 133rd Infantry was used to support the 135th Infantry during this movement, for the exhausting fighting necessitated periodic reliefs of the assaulting battalions.

   By 29 April the Roman ruins lying about 1000 yards west of Hill 609 had been secured and on the following day there began the brilliant encirclement of the hill, during which one battalion of the 133rd Infantry began movement to the north and east while a battalion or the 135th Infantry seized Hill 531.

   This feature had originally been included in the sector of the 1st Infantry Division who captured it but were later repulsed by a vicious German counterattack. For the protection of our own force it was necessary that we secure the hill whether it was included in our own sector or not. Accordingly, one battalion of the 135th Infantry stormed it and thereby enabled a further battalion to pass through its position to the southeast of the major bastion of Hill 609. Known to the Arabs as Djebel Tahent, this was an enormous mass of rock, its lower slopes covered with vegetation and lined with a number of crude rock walls twisting along the slopes. Direct approach from the west was extremely difficult since the face of the mountain rose almost sheer. On the eastern face, however, an easier approach was possible and it was decided therefore that the way to assault the position was from the German side. The enemy defending the hill came from a German airforce regiment called "Regiment Barenthin" after its original commander. These troops were deeply imbued with Nazi doctrine and were boldly and courageously led. They were on a par with the present-day [1945] German paratroops. Right at the top of Hill 609 these troops had prepared a citadel blasted out of the rock. Only one way up was known, and this was a goat trail which led in from the northeast.

   By 1 May the Division had placed four battalions in a circle around the mountain and, supported by a tank company of the 1st Armored Division and by the heaviest artillery fire we could muster, the assault was begun. The bravery and discipline shown at Fondouk were now reinforced by the wisdom taught during the training period at Maktar and the infantry made encouraging progress. Finally there was nothing left of the enemy position except the stronghold at the very top. The Germans here were trapped, but so long as they remained in occupation of their positions they could bring down very heavy artillery fire on us, directed from the splendid observation post which Hill 609 formed. Using a screen of artillery shells very skillfully the infantry closed to hand grenade and bayonet range. Darkness had fallen and fighting of the most bitter kind took place in conditions where only excellent control and leadership prevented friend from killing friend. Toward morning one platoon succeeded in forcing its way up the goat trail, which the Germans had believed was not a feasible means of approaching their positions, and took the stubborn men of the "Barenthin" Regiment by surprise from the rear. Temporarily stunned, the enemy was quickly overcome and Hill 609 was ours. Immediately a battalion was placed in occupation of it and our artillery forward observers accompanying the foremost infantry elements soon were directing fire upon the rapidly retreating enemy causing great havoc.

   During this action the 34th Division found itself. After knowing bewilderment, bitterness, and hard experience, the 34th now had one of the most outstanding achievements of the Tunisian campaign to its own credit. In his official report to the War Department, General Omar Bradley, commanding II Corps, stated in regard to the fighting at Hill 609, "A strong enemy was repulsed. Fighting all day was intense and bloody. The enemy was engaged with bayonet and grenade, and there were many cases of outstanding bravery."

   During 2 and 3 May the Germans withdrew rapidly to Mateur and II Corps changed its dispositions, 1st Infantry Division crossing over to the left so that the 34th now became the right flank division.


Chapter V
FONDOUK
Beating

Chapter VII
EDDEKHILA
Exploiting

Return to the beginning,
The Story of the 34th Infantry Division
Introduction, Foreword, Contents

 

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