22. Into Tunisia
22. Into Tunisia
During the next day we closed up against the new enemy positions along the Wadi Akarit. It was a confused, tiring sort of day, and by late afternoon I was so bad tempered that Ross severely reproved me. We crossed from one side of the road to the other, finally crossing again to the coastal side and about 4.30 p.m. were in contact with enemy positions forward of the wadi. I intended to attack these positions with 21 Battalion after dark but while we were preparing to do so Division cancelled the project and we settled down in a defensive position and patrolled forward instead. I had worked myself into a bad temper again and was very nasty to everyone I could see until Joe finally ordered me off to bed.
At daylight on the 31st I was still anxious to tackle the enemy positions temptingly forward of the wadi and ordered the Twenty-third up level with the Twenty-first in readiness. It was not the army policy to fight partial actions, however, and at 8 a.m. we were ordered to take up a line after dark from the coast to the road, and meantime to stay quiet. This we did, getting a little ineffective shelling. We carried out our reconnaissance and moved smoothly into position during the night, though it was nearly dawn when the last units reported in.
By this time I had recovered my good humour and I thoroughly enjoyed going along our new front in the morning. The men were in good spirits and seemed to have no objection to the prospect of another battle close ahead. It was plain that the enemy were standing in strength in the high ground beyond the wadi, and could only be turned out by a set-piece attack. The army plan was to assault with 4 Indian, 50, and 51 Divisions, and to use New Zealand Division to exploit; so that evening we were relieved and moved back to a reserve area near Gabes. Here we spent several days page 295 more or less comfortably in reserve. Brigade Headquarters' marquee was erected and the poker school resumed business. There was more enemy air activity than for a long time, several fighter-bombers coming over for quick raids, usually just before or after last light. One game was interrupted by the instantaneous disappearance of all players under the table.
The country-side filled with troops as the concentrations were completed. There were several conferences at Division. General Montgomery came round and spoke to all officers and N.C.O.s, expressing complete confidence that final triumph in Africa was near. He also issued another of his Special Orders. It fell a little flat with us as we had already received several and felt no need for further exhortation.
Orders came out on 6 April: the other three infantry divisions were to do the attack; 2 New Zealand Division was to exploit; 50 Division to make and mark a gap in the minefields and establish a bridgehead. That done, we were to move through in nine columns, with 8 Armoured Brigade leading. There was an interesting order of march:
8 Armoured Brigade less B. 2 Echelon.
2 New Zealand Divisional Cavalry.
Gun Group (4 Field Regiment).
5 New Zealand Infantry Brigade Group.
Main Headquarters 2 New Zealand Division.
2 New Zealand Division Reserve Group.
5 New Zealand Field Park.
6 New Zealand Infantry Brigade Group.
1 New Zealand Ammunition Company.
B. 2 Echelon Group.
Rear Headquarters 2 New Zealand Division.
2 New Zealand Division Group.
That is, we were leading with the heavy armour, followed by the light, and we had been successful in inducing the Armoured Brigade to be separated from its beloved B. Echelon transport. Usually in our long desert moves this stretched for miles behind the armour, holding everyone else up and causing an immense amount of ill temper. Yet there page 296 were plenty of good reasons for its being close behind its own Brigade and the severance on this occasion was a minor victory for the infantry brigadiers. The guns had to fire their parts in the bombardment and barrage programme and then find their places in the column. The marshalling and traffic control of this huge mass of vehicles was a most complex and difficult task, brilliantly performed by the staffs and provosts.
The barrage opened at 4.15 a.m. on the 6th and sounded terrific. It was a real Eighth Army Montgomery barrage. We stood round the A.C.V. almost awed, and after a while, just before dawn, heard distant and clear the pipes of the assaulting Highland battalions.
When day came the low hills beyond the wadi were still covered in shell-bursts and it soon was plain that the enemy were fighting back hard. During the morning 5 Brigade formed up in its nine columns with 100 yards between the vehicles in each column, waited hours, and then in fits and starts moved slowly forward. All day heavy fighting went on ahead and the thudding of guns never ceased. In the late afternoon we moved smoothly forward for some miles. I rather expected to have to put on a night attack but we were told to halt and go to bed, and we had an undisturbed night.
Early next morning Division told us that enemy withdrawal was imminent and, sure enough, at 8.45 a.m. we started to move through the gap that 50 Division had made, and slowly but without check passed through the hills and out on to the Tunisian plain. On the way we saw numerous dead, including one body completely severed at the waist. There were also four beautiful new Italian heavy antiaircraft guns, each of which had received a direct hit and had its mangled crew lying round it. When we had passed through the hills, we moved into our familiar desert formation. While I was waiting for this to be completed a German officer approached me. ‘Where are you Eighth Army people going?’ he said. ‘Tunis,’ I replied. ‘Where then?’ ‘Berlin!’ He shook his head and trudged on, trying to find someone with time and inclination to take him prisoner.
We moved steadily north during the day with the armour page 297 ranging far ahead. At 5 p.m. we were ordered to halt and form a gun line facing east. This we did, 23 Battalion going a further eight miles to provide cover for the armour during the night. During the day Ross and I had found an Italian quartermaster's stores and had looted several pairs of excellent boots. We quite improperly traded one pair with an Arab for a dozen eggs—a very bad bargain.
The move north continued during the 8th, in fits and starts behind 8 Armoured Brigade, which we thought was very slow. The main enemy retirement was along the coastal road and our intention was to swing right and get across the road somewhere near Sfax; but an enemy flank-guard of tanks and 88's imposed delay as it fell back on the plain ahead of us and the prospects of interception grew steadily smaller. Towards evening the enemy tanks made off and we made a comparatively swift move of eighteen miles in the dark, crossing some very rough country. It had been a long and tiring day but when we halted near midnight I hardened my heart and sent the Twenty-third on to the left of and past the armour in order to get astride a road which ran across our front and which we had hoped to reach during the day. The battalion had an extremely rough journey but was rewarded by collecting eight trucks and ninety prisoners of 10 Panzer Division without trouble next morning. One of the trucks was well loaded with cigarettes captured from the Americans.
Friday 9 April was horribly cold and windy. We moved off early and after about twenty miles halted while some sort of armoured battle went on ahead. I went up and watched for some hours and thought that no one seemed in a great hurry. There was talk of our doing a night attack and also of another night move, but both ideas were dropped and we ended the day where we had halted at noon. Fighter-bombers were over occasionally, the only casualty being Alan McPhail who collected a nice wound in the leg. Just before dark we were attacked by Stukas, the first we had seen for six months. There were ten of them, but they were in great haste to get their bombs away and no harm was done.page 298
Divisional conference was held at 6.30 next morning. Intelligence said that 90th Light and 15 Panzer were still south of Sfax and we were to move on Sfax to cut them off. But just before we moved, we heard that the 11th Hussars were in the town and we had been given the slip again. Accordingly we trundled north-eastwards through immense olive plantations to a wretched hamlet called La Hencha. There was no further opposition and it was plain that there was no more chance of getting across the enemy line of retreat. We took the matter philosophically and got on with the Brigade Headquarters chess tournament in the evening.
For some reason we thought that Sunday 11 April would be a rest day and we did spend a peaceful morning and, being near running water, most of us had a bath. In the afternoon we moved again, however, and halted long after dark. We saw no sign of any enemy but heard of the armour having small brushes ahead.
The move was resumed early on the 12th and we had a long and tiring day. The walls of the great Colosseum at El Djem were visible a few miles away and, while the Brigade was getting on the move, Ross, Joe, and I went over to inspect it. This Colosseum was said to be second only to that at Rome, and it was certainly a most imposing and well-preserved ruin. It made a great impression on the whole Division and the amphitheatre later constructed at Maadi was called El Djem. After an inspection and having discovered and admired the arrangements for accommodating and producing lions and martyrs respectively, we overtook the Brigade and went on ahead of it to Msaken, a considerable town on the coastal road.
Eighth Army was finding that road movement was a very different matter from travel over the desert and there was a frightful congestion. I came on Generals Horrocks and Freyberg having a conference on top of a tank, both looking so tired they could hardly stick on.
We were directed on an objective north of Sousse. I went back to the head of the Brigade and then ahead again with the idea of finding a way of by-passing the town. The L.O.s accompanied me in their jeeps and we spent hours trying to page 299 discover a route through a maze of narrow, deeply rutted lanes among cactus hedges and olive-groves, but it was no use. We nearly got mixed up in a small armoured battle and eventually had to go back, meeting the head of the Brigade just in time to prevent it from plunging into this tangle.
We passed through the outskirts of Sousse and joined the traffic on the main road, where we all streamed slowly along two and three abreast in an apparently inextricable confusion of units and arms.
Various contradictory orders reached us but nothing could be done about them, a position that we accepted the more philosophically because a cancellation or alteration was certain to follow shortly. Towards evening we disentangled the Brigade, with some difficulty, and bivouacked between the road and the sea a few miles north of Sousse. Not knowing what was in front I sent the Maoris on to take up an outpost position near a horrible little village called Sidi bou Ali, and during the night one of their patrols struck a belated German rear party and had a brisk scrap. They killed two Germans and captured two, losing one man killed and two wounded. By midnight everyone was in and we were reorganized.
The Tunisian plain ended a few miles to the north and the enemy were in position from Enfidaville to the imposing massif of Garci fifteen miles inland. It was possible that they had not settled down properly and we went on next morning with a slight hope of gate-crashing into at least part of their position.
The Twenty-first went forward to help 8 Armoured Brigade whose Sherman tanks were having difficulty in working through the olive-groves towards Enfidaville. They complained that their tank commanders and gunners were perched too high to see under the branches. I went forward and found the General beside the road waiting for developments. We climbed on to the roof of a farmhouse but could see little, a few tanks and infantry carriers occasionally visible among the trees, odd shell-bursts among them. After several hours, he suddenly told me to take Garci and swing round on Enfidaville from the west. This was a major operation and I did not think it was on, but I knew that he would not want page 300 me to get committed to anything foolish and there might prove to be an opening.
We moved slowly by dusty cross-tracks, between high cactus hedges and through olive-groves, and emerged on to open ground two miles from the main road. 23 Battalion was leading, with its carriers well forward, the Maoris next, and the guns and other attached units following and occupying at least ten miles of road. Brigade Headquarters was behind the Twenty-third and I was up with the battalion, in the same clumsy White car that I had at Nofilia and with the same plucky driver, Twigden, who in civilian life was a bank clerk.
While the Twenty-third deployed from the track into desert formation, I had a careful look at the hills four miles ahead. Garci looked huge, at least a divisional objective, so I looked for something easier. Enfidaville was not visible, being in low ground, but between the two there was a prominent conical hill topped by a square white building—Takrouna. I decided to go for it. Once we were there Enfidaville would not be tenable for long. Monty had come up with the A.C.V., his head poking alertly through the roof. I told him to send the Maoris on when they arrived and rejoined Reg at the head of the Twenty-third. It was no use waiting for the guns, strung out behind over miles of narrow tracks, and we moved on at once. Reg ran his car alongside mine, I pointed and shouted and he sent an orderly on a motorcycle with orders to his companies. It struck me that it was not a very scientific way of starting a battle but the alternative was hours of delay waiting for the guns and completely under observation. It might come off if the enemy were completely unready, or if they were Italians only.
We had travelled only a few hundred yards when the first shell burst among the trucks, followed at once by salvoes of four in quick succession. We put on speed, about fifteen miles an hour, the trucks bouncing crazily and the crowded passengers being thrown about like peas in a bottle. The ground sloped gradually down to a tiny rivulet, the Wadi el Boul, and then rose as gradually for a mile to the foot of Takrouna. On the near side of the wadi there was a low, page 301 cactus-covered hill, dotted all over with the hovels of an Arab village. We carried on through the shell-bursts, no trucks being hit, reached the limited cover the hill and village provided, and debussed. The companies collected and moved steadily forward, obviously quite prepared to attack. Reg and I had stopped together on a shoulder of the hill where we had a good view. The little wadi 500 yards ahead was an uncertain obstacle, it would probably be difficult for wheels. A self-propelled gun which had come down the road in front of Takrouna was blazing high velocity shells straight at us and I estimated that at least three troops of 105 mm. were active. We were completely overlooked and there was still a mile to go. I decided that the little gamble had not come off, that we would go no farther, and told Reg to get into position on the hill and get his trucks under cover. While we were talking several shells burst extremely close; he said it was no place for me, and as I moved off one burst within five yards, covering both of us with dust.
The Maoris had become split up in their advance. They halted and took up positions on either side of the Twenty-third. Brigade Headquarters had halted under cover of the last of the cactus where I rejoined them. The guns were unable to find positions not under direct observation from Takrouna, and did not come into action. We reported the situation to the General, who made no remark: so we settled down for the night, very thankful that the Twenty-third had had only thirteen casualties. As at Nofilia we had been saved by the soft ground and, more than in that affair, by the speed of our advance.
Owing to some mistake in notifying code-names, Army got the impression that Enfidaville had been occupied and the B.B.C. announced its capture that night.