Captain Darryl Hollands – Steamroller Farm 1943

The previous evening a German counter-offensive had cut the road between El Aroussa and Medjez el Bab. The commander of Y Division, a scratch force holding this sector of the front, had no idea of the enemy’s strength and he decided to probe the area of Steamroller Farm, four and a half miles to the north, and the pass lying immediately beyond. The troops detailed for the task included a company of the 2nd Coldstream Guards, A Squadron 51 RTR, equipped with Churchills, and a troop of field guns. Hollands, a quiet man with immense resources of physical courage, had already been awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal when, as a sergeant, he had rescued a pilot from a burning aircraft at Dunkirk; now, he was commanding A Squadron’s 1 Troop.

As the force approached Steamroller Farm it was apparent that it was heavily defended and the squadron came under fire from an anti-tank gun screen sited beyond an intervening wadi. A fierce fire fight ensued, during which the tanks were also dive-bombed by a Stuka squadron. At this point the squadron commander, Major E. W. H. Hadfield, was ordered to break through ‘at all costs’ and secure the high ground around the pass. Hadfield now had only nine of his Churchills left and he felt that these would be sacrificed to no purpose if they were committed to such an attack. Nevertheless, he had to comply in some way and ordered 1 Troop to advance on the objective, forgetting that casualties had reduced its strength to a single tank, Hollands’ own Adventurer.

The chances of survival, let alone success, were very slim, and in these circumstances Hollands’ reaction was to give himself up for dead, get on with the job, and do as much damage as he could in the process. Adventurer moved forward, only to find the way ahead blocked by the wadi. Hollands told his driver, Trooper John Mitton, to reverse some little distance, and then swung the tank towards the road on the right, which crossed the wadi on a causeway. This placed the vehicle broadside on to the enemy, but fortunately the latter’s view was interrupted by scrub and their shots cracked harmlessly past. Reaching the road, Adventurer turned left, heading for the causeway, and had just rounded a bend where the scrub ended when it came face-to-face with an Eighty-Eight at thirty yards’ range. The tank rocked to a standstill and got in the first shot, wrecking the gun.

Hollands set off again, believing that he had had his share of luck for the day. Adventurer roared across the causeway, turret traversed left towards the enemy. The road began to climb and, rounding a double bend, Mitton braked sharply when he encountered a barrier of camouflage. For the second time in minutes he was confronted by the yawning black muzzle of an Eighty-Eight. It suddenly vanished within a huge belch of flame. From within the vehicle came a clatter of falling equipment. The round had simply scoured its way along the top of the turret, tearing away the extractor fan casing and smashing the rear stowage bin. In the turret the gunner was frantically struggling to bring the main armament to bear but was thwarted by a loose round that was temporarily fouling the traverse gear. The black muzzle belched flame again, but for some reason the second round missed completely. Meanwhile, Trooper Hank Howsen, the hull gunner, was methodically loading a fresh belt into his Besa machine-gun. He snapped the cover shut, pulled back the cocking handle, laid the weapon and fired a long burst through the Eighty-Eight’s camouflage. The gun crew took to their heels pursued by Adventurer with Hollands firing his Thompson sub-machine-gun and hurling grenades at them from the turret.

Having twice survived sudden death by a whisker, Hollands was fighting mad. Clearing his jammed traverse gear, he turned left off the road and headed for some infantry positions on high ground near pine trees, overrunning slit trenches on the way to the crest. From this, he could see that the enemy had parked their transport, amounting to 27 vehicles, further along the road behind a spur, and his gunners set them ablaze. As Adventurer was now completely alone in the heart of the German position he asked Hadfield to reinforce him as quickly as possible. However, so intent was Hollands on his work of destruction that he was barely aware of the passage of enemy aircraft overhead at about 1730. They dropped paratroops to reinforce the garrison of Steamroller Farm, with the result that A Squadron found itself even busier than before. Hadfield could spare only one tank, that of Lieutenant J. G. Renton, who set off along the same route.

Meanwhile, Hollands had become involved in a very personal duel. A German in a camouflaged slit trench immediately ahead of Adventurer kept bobbing up and shooting at the tank with a rifle grenade thrower. Two belts of Besa and three armour piercing rounds failed to solve the problem. Mitton recalls that when a fourth AP was fired into the ground just short of the trench, ‘It seemed to vanish in a cloud of smoke and dust. The net flapped wildly, breaking free from the blast. When the dust settled the German crawled out, stood looking dazedly at the tank, turned slowly, dropped his rifle and staggered away.’ No one aboard was inclined to take the matter further.

At this point two PzKw IIIs appeared close to the head of the pass. Hollands was unable to depress his main armament sufficiently to engage them but Renton had now come up alongside and his gunner, Trooper Nicholson, put three rounds into each. Shortly after 1800 Hollands received the order to withdraw. Hardly had the move begun than his radio failed completely and with it the intercom. Climbing out of the turret, he sat on the front of the vehicle, directing Mitton with hand signals through the open visor. When they stopped briefly to put two AP rounds into the second Eighty-Eight, the engine stalled and refused to restart. Renton overtook and the two crews attached a tow chain under mortar and machine-gun fire, Renton being wounded as he scrambled back aboard. Adventurer’s engine started at the first pull and the two tanks succeeded in reaching their own lines, picking up the crew of a burning Churchill on the way.

As the combined force was clearly too small to capture the objective, it was ordered to withdraw by the commander of Y Division. A Squadron’s losses amounted to three killed, eleven wounded, three tanks destroyed, two disabled and the rest damaged to a greater or lesser degree. At first, no one was inclined to believe Hollands’ and Renton’s story, but three days later the infantry took possession of the area and reported even greater damage than had been claimed, including two PzKw IIIs, eight anti-tank guns, two light anti-aircraft guns, two mortars, 25 assorted vehicles and up to 200 personnel casualties. The Fight at Steamroller Farm had effectively destroyed the enemy’s chances of taking El Aroussa; an intercepted radio message from the German battlegroup commander, who was evidently unfamiliar with the characteristics of the Churchill, justified his withdrawal on the grounds that he had been attacked by a ‘mad tank battalion that had scaled impossible heights.’ Hollands received the Distinguished Service Order, Renton the Military Cross and Mitton the Military Medal.