Remembering the DLI hero who led his men into a hail of Italian gunfire - then faced a German Panzer division

Francis Dilston with a photograph of his father Ralph.
Francis Dilston with a photograph of his father Ralph.
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It was brief and to the point.

Seventy-five years ago, CSM Ralph Foster Diston distinguished himself when he urged the men of the Durham Light Infantry (DLI) forward in an attack at Wadi Zigzaou in Tunisia.

Ralph Diston, who served his country with distinction.

Ralph Diston, who served his country with distinction.

Yet he barely mentioned his astonishing courage when he wrote a letter home to his wife soon after.

Today, with the help of his son Francis, we give Ralph the praise his actions truly deserve by detailing the full extent of his Second World War bravery.

The date was March 21, 1943, and it was the midst of the famous Battle of the Mereth Line.

Or, in other words, it was one of the huge attempts by Montgomery and his men to crush Rommel.

The many medals of Ralph Diston.

The many medals of Ralph Diston.

The DLI had orders to seize a redoubt (a temporary fortification).

Ralph Diston led his men by example – and won the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions. The report which accompanied it was signed by General Bernard Montgomery himself.

It described how CSM Diston showed a “complete disregard of danger” and “magnificent leadership” through the attack, which lasted throughout the night.

He personally led assaults on enemy fortified positions and cleared trenches.

He found hideouts within the huge redoubt that he and his men attacked.

And, as the commendation said, “his inspiring leadership rallied the dwindling numbers of his company on numerous occasions”.

It was never more important than when the remaining men of the DLI took the final surrender of the Italian enemy. They rounded up 120 prisoners.

But their amazing actions were not yet over. The next afternoon, the exhausted men had to face German tanks and infantry which arrived at the position.

They were surrounded on three sides and the German attackers were only 200 yards away.

Despite what looked like a desperate situation, CSM Diston went round every one of his men and rallied them. With great coolness, he urged them to greater efforts - and they responded.

They defended their position until their ammunition ran out, and only then did they finally retreat to safety.

CSM Diston guided them through the only exit that was left to them - back to an anti-tank ditch, where they armed themselves with more ammunition.

CSM Diston was wounded in the victory and spent some time in hospital. But in a letter home, he barely mentioned his award.

His actions were mentioned in brief in the Sunderland Echo in July 1943. Yet by then, its context had become such a tragic one.

With the headline ‘DCM Hero’s Death’ it told how Ralph – from Hendon in Sunderland – had died of wounds sustained in Sicily. He was 30 years old.

He had died at Catania in Sicily during the assault on the Primosole Bridge across the Simeto river.

The British believed its capture would speed up their advance and led to the defeat of the Axis forces in Sicily.

But the Germans had gathered in force and established a defensive line.

The DLI were among the British units to attack, but CSM Diston paid with his life in an attack which only secured the bridge three days after the start of the operation.

It was down to his son Francis to tell us more about the father who had served his country so bravely.

“He was quite well liked by the men,” said Francis, 79, from Pallion – a regular in the British Army himself, making him a third-generation military man.

“He was employed at Vane Tempest Colliery before he joined the Army and he was in the Army for some years.

“In the letter to his wife, he barely mentions his award. As he was my dad, I thought it would be nice for him to get some recognition.”

We are happy to pay tribute to a remarkable man.

We would love to hear from more people across Wearside and County Durham who want to pay tribute to their own relatives who served and fought for their country.

And with the 100th anniversary of end of the First World War marked by Armistice Day on November 11, we would especially like to hear from those wanting to honour those who died in the Great War.

To share their stories, email chris.cordner@jpress.co.uk