Among the many hundreds of badges and devices worn by the various regiments of the British Army throughout the different periods of their respective histories, there are very few badges, official or unofficial, which were created and worn to commemorate a particular regiment's achievements in one specific battle, although of course many badges proudly bear battle honours so heroically won in the past.
One such unofficial badge which was so created and which is not widely known to exist by many collectors of militaria or which has often been wrongly identified, is the Beja Battle Badge of 172nd Field Regiment R.A.
The badge itself is stamped out in white metal in the shape of a shield with a raised edge. The centre is covered with a dark red felt and mounted on it in white metal is a Tiger tank pierced by Crusader's sword (the sign of the First Army) and small plate bearing the single word 'BEJA'. The badge measures 2 inches by 2Â¾ inches and has a pin brooch fastening on the back.
The badge was worn without too much regimentation either above the right breast pocket of the Battle Dress Blouse or on the right sleeve below the badge of the 46th Division. Thus it is that this little known badge has a small but nonetheless important part in the history of the badges and insignia of the Royal Regiment of Artillery.
It is thought that less than 200 of these badges were produced, this example being in very good condition with just minor loss to the red felt insert at itâ€™s upper edge.
Behind the creation of this badge is a story of courage, heroism self-sacrifice and devotion to duty which compares with anything in the history of the Royal Regiment or indeed I venture to suggest with anything in the history of the British Army. This is a summary of that story.
The story really starts in January 1942 when a new Territorial Regiment, 172nd Field Regiment R.A., was formed at Hastings with personnel largely taken from the 3rd and 5th Coast Defence Regiments R.A. The new Regiment was soon to join the Territorial 46th (North Midland) Division and be affiliated to 128th Infantry Brigade consisting of 3 Battalions of the Hampshire Regiment. The 172nd Field Regiment R.A., was made up of three batteries - 153, 154, and 155, each armed with eight 25 pr Field Guns.
A year later the Regiment was posted to North Africa with 46th Division to join the 1st Army in its final push for Tunis. After a 'swim' in the Mediterranean when their troopship was sunk by a German submarine and all their equipment was lost, but mercifully few men, they were re equipped and ready to take up their position north of the town of Beja, at a place called Hunts Gap. 153 and 154 Batteries were deployed astride the main road to Mateur covering Beja, in support of the main force of 128th Infantry Brigade whilst 155 Battery was supporting the 5th Battalion, The Hampshire Regiment, some twelve miles North-East of Hunts Gap at Sidi Nsir. They had been established there as an outpost and patrol base whose object was to give warning of any impending enemy attack and if necessary to gain time.
On the 26th February 1943 the Germans commenced 'Operation Ochsenkopf' in which they launched a determined attack towards Beja, the vital centre for the Allied Communications, with the intention of breaking through the 1st Army lines. The main thrust of this operation was led by an armoured Battle Group including the 10th Panzer Division under the command of Colonel Rudolph Lang together with a number of the new and much vaunted 'Tiger Tanks'.
Thus it was that just after 6 a.m. on the 26th February, 155 Battery and the 5th Hampshire's came under fire from mortars and the first stage in the battle for Beja had begun and was to last nonstop for twelve hours. Before long F Troop was in action against tanks as they advanced down the main road, No. l gun, commanded by Sergeant Henderson, over open sights. Three tanks were hit and the road blocked where it passed through a minefield.
Throughout the morning F Troop and to a lesser extent E Troop were under constant mortar and machine gun fire and also experienced several attacks by eight Messerschmitt who raked the gun positions with machine gun and cannon fire during which a number of men were hit and ammunition vehicles set on fire. Ignoring the risks the Gunners salvaged what they could and manhandled ammunition to the gun positions under heavy fire. At this point it would have been possible to withdraw the guns and engage the enemy tanks and vehicles from a safer distance but the Battery placed the protection of the Hampshire's first and remained in position so they could engage the infantry, machine guns and mortars who were closing in on the Hampshire's positions.
At 3 p.m. the supply route for ammunition was cut by enemy infantry and no more ammunition could pass. Shortly after this enemy tanks attempted to advance down the main road. The leading Panzer Mk VI was hit three times by Sergeant Henderson's gun. Then a Panzer Mk IV which tried to pass was knocked out and a further one set on fire by the same gun. Soon both troops were in action against enemy tanks over open sights. But the enemy had the advantage of being able to engage the guns from hull-down positions and thus they engaged the guns one by one, setting on fire ammunition dumps, killing or wounding the detachments and eventually smashing up the guns themselves. But for nearly an hour the enemy was held at bay. 'Then at 4 p.m. another attack was launched against P Troop from its southern flank. Again Sergeant Henderson and his crew destroyed the leading tank but then received a direct hit and were put out of action. As the enemy tanks advanced the three remaining guns engaged them at ranges of 50 - 10 yards; Lieutenant Taylor, the only officer on the gun position, and all available survivors, including cooks and the fitters running from gun to gun and servicing them in turn.
Finally by about 5.30 p.m. F Troop was silenced and the tanks surrounded E Troop who again fought to the bitter end engaging tanks at ranges of 10 - 20 yards. The tanks smothered the gun positions with machine gun fire and any man who moved was immediately shot whilst some tanks went round the gun position swivelling on their tracks and crushing in the slit trenches. At 5.51 p.m. the last dramatic message reached HQ at Hunts Gap over the wireless "TANKS ARE ON US" followed a few seconds later by the single letter V taped out in Morse code - then silence.
Of the nine officers and one hundred and twenty one other ranks on the gun positions or in the Command Posts and Observation Posts at the start of the battle only nine survived and escaped to join the remainder of the Regiment. One officer and seventy eight other ranks who were at the wagon lines or detached from the Battery also survived and reached Regimental lines. The rest of the Battery were killed wounded or taken prisoner. Of the Hampshire's who fought just as heroically and gallantly alongside the Gunners, two hundred reached safety.
The gallant action and sacrifice of 155 Battery provided the vital delay in the advance of Lang's Battle Group and thus gave the rest of the Regiment time to prepare and summon further support, so when the next day the German tanks advanced down the narrow road towards Hunts Gap and Beja, 153 and 154 Batteries, supported by three batteries from other Regiments of the Divisional Artillery plus the R.A.F. were ready and waiting for them.
Before long the road was blocked with smashed and burning tanks. As the Germans struggled to recover their damaged tanks and vehicles fate took a favourable hand - it poured with rain and soon the heavy German tanks were hopelessly stuck in the Tunisian mud! The Gunners of 172nd Field Regiment R.A. took remorseless revenge for their lost comrades of 155 Battery! By the 5th of March Lang had been ordered to withdraw with barely five tanks left and nearly forty destroyed which was to earn him the unenviable nickname of 'Tank Killer".
Immediately following the battle the Commander of the 5th Hampshire's, Lieutenant Colonel H. Newnham, voiced the feelings of his Battalion when he recommended to the Commander 128 Infantry Brigade "most strongly that the performance of 155 Field Battery should be put on record and that at a more suitable time when it is possible to collate information, just tribute may be made". This was supported by the Commander of 128 Infantry Brigade, Brigadier M. A. James V.C., in a memo headed 'Citation for Gallantry' which he passed to HQ 46 Division "I very strongly support the remarks of Comd 5 Hamps and I recommend that the facts be recorded so that when sufficient eye witnesses can be obtained, if His Majesty considers it advisable, balloted awards of the Victoria Cross may be made to members of this very gallant Battery"
Sadly despite the fact that this action was reported in the Illustrated London News, dated 23rd June, 1943, under the heading 'THE V.C. BATTERY' and accompanied by a vivid drawing by war artist, Bryan de Grineau, depicting 155 Battery's last stand, this award was never made. One 'Official' reason given to the C.O. of 172nd Field Regiment R.A., later for the failure of the award to be granted was "too many, prisoners"!
Nevertheless the bravery of the Gunners of 172nd Field Regiment and of 155 Battery in particular did not go unrewarded and the following Gallantry awards were made:
Distinguished Service Order : Lt. Col. W. D. McN. Graham - C.O. 172nd Field Regiment R.A. Military Cross : Capt. J. S. Perry R.A. 154 Battery R.A. : Major J. S. Raworth R.A. 155 Battery R.A. (Battery Commander) Distinguished Conduct Medal : LBdr R. S. Hitchin 155 Battery R.A. : Sgt. R. Henderson 155 Battery R.A. Military Medal : Gnr. R. Kennard 155 Battery R.A. : Sgt. E. R. Lodder 155 Battery R.A. : Gnr. W. Shelton 154 Battery R.A. : Bdr. G. H. Wallis 155 Battery R.A. Mentioned In Dispatches : Capt. S. T. Bormond R.A. 155 Battery R.A. : LSgt. M. A. W. Benham 154 Battery R.A. : B.S.M. Green 155 Battery R.A. : Lt. P. G. King R.A. 155 Battery R.A. : Capt. R. F.Lawrence R.A. 155 Battery R.A. : Gnr. J. Lewington 155 Battery R.A. (Killed in Action) : LBdr. N. H. Lovelock 155 Battery R.A. : Gnr. K. A. Pearson 155 Battery R.A. : Sgt. Perryman 155 Battery R.A. : Lt. R. J. H. Taylor R.A. 155 Battery R.A. (Killed in Action)
There were those at the time who felt that the importance of the success in this battle was very much underrated by High Command, but not by the Germans. A German Afrika Corps Commander talking to Brigadier Graham many years after the war admitted that their failure at Sidi Nsir and Hunts Gap "marked the end of our hopes of victory in North Africa". Indeed within two months of the battle for Beja, Tunis had been taken and the Germans had surrendered at Cap Bon.
However the pride of the C.O. of 172nd Field Regiment R.A., in the achievement of his men in their baptism of fire was such that he felt that all those who had been actively involved in the destruction of the German tank force should receive some recognition for their courage and bravery. Thus he personally designed and subsequently had made by Arab craftsmen in Tunis, a badge to commemorate the battle. It was awarded mainly to those members of the Regiment who were in the gun crews, Command Posts and Observation Posts at the time of the battle.
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