CHAPTER 10 — On to Tripoli
On to Tripoli
FROM 13 November till 5 December 1942, the battalion remained in the desert south of Bardia. At first, as was customary in the days after battle or strenuous moves, relaxation and recreation were considered more important than training. With the weather growing colder, the inevitable goal-posts appeared and inter-company and inter-unit games of rugby were played. Battledress was issued on 15 November. In turn, the companies undertook guard duties for a Sherman tank park, for a prisoner-of-war cage at Capuzzo, and for a newly established supply depot. To bring the newly appointed or promoted NCOs up to standard, an NCOs' training course was organised with Second-Lieutenant Robins,1 recently posted back to the unit after a term on the staff of the Maadi School of Instruction, as chief instructor in weapon training and Second-Lieutenant A. F. Bailey in charge of training in drill and duties. Lieutenant Frank Foster,2 7 Field Company, also gave the infantry companies special instruction in ‘Mines, Enemy and British’ and in ‘Booby Traps’. In general, however, while they recognised the value of knowing as much as possible, the infantry were well content to leave the sappers to handle mines and booby traps. Just when a plentiful supply of tents had been secured from Tobruk and the battalion's 1st XV had been picked and had gone into strict training, orders arrived to move on.
Tobruk, Derna and Benghazi fell in quick succession, and by 23 November the enemy was behind the strong El Agheila defences, which the Eighth Army had so far been unable to penetrate. On 29 November Colonel Romans put an end to all rumours that the Division would be returning to Maadi for Christmas by announcing that the return to the Egyptian Delta would be via Tripoli, and probably via Tunisia. On 5 December the move forward began. By this time the 23rd was in good shape, although somewhat depleted in numbers. Small reinforcements of men recovered from jaundice or light wounds had page 218 joined the unit at different times since leaving Alamein: such officers as Captains Norris, Black, Thomson and Orbell, Lieutenants Marett, McArthur, Grant, Ian Wilson, Hoggans and Bailey had all returned, along with 73 men. Nevertheless, there were only 26 officers and 471 other ranks on 5 December. Later in the month, when it was known that the 8th Reinforcements were about to arrive in Maadi, requirements were 7 officers and 260 other ranks to bring the unit up to strength. But, if under strength numerically, the battalion was at this time made up of veterans, tried in a series of campaigns.
On 5 December the 23rd led the 5 Brigade convoy across Cyrenaica to a bivouac near El Adem. Next day, in rain and heavy going, they moved on via Bir Hacheim to west of Msus. Thereafter the route turned south past Saunnu to an area near El Haseiat, where the New Zealand Division was concentrating for the next phase of the campaign. In four days the unit covered 350 miles. This move was mainly over rough going and hard on trucks, but the drivers, the mechanics and other members of the transport platoon had worked wonders with their old vehicles. Their work was normally taken for granted, but, in fact, they were an indispensable part of the battalion during all these moves across North Africa.
To drive Rommel out of El Agheila frontally was bound to be a difficult undertaking. On two previous occasions the enemy had retreated behind the naturally strong defences of this position only to re-emerge when strong enough to scatter the Allied forces. The strength of the El Agheila position lay in its resemblance to the Alamein line: its northern end near Marsa Brega rested on the coast and its southern, which curled back to the west, on salt marshes and a sea of soft sand believed to be impassable to heavy vehicles. Barbed wire and mines added to the hazards of a frontal attack. The Long Range Desert Group and other British patrols, notably one under Captain P. D. Chrystal of the King's Dragoon Guards, had reconnoitred the area in the south and had proved that a ‘left hook’ or outflanking movement would not be impossible for such an experienced mobile force as the New Zealand Division. The general plan, therefore, was for 51 Highland Division to attack along the coastal road towards Marsa Brega with 7 Armoured Division probing on the front farther south, while the New Zealanders, with the British 4 Light Armoured Brigade under command, executed a wide outflanking movement in the south and emerged from the desert to cut the Tripoli road page 219 fifty or more miles west of El Agheila. As the Royal Scots Greys, with their Sherman tanks, could scarcely be expected to dispose of 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, it would appear that the intention was more to threaten the enemy's only line of withdrawal than to cut him off. By this time, the administrative position had improved considerably and supplies were coming forward from Tobruk and Benghazi. The stage was set for the next advance. The 23rd spent 10 December in overhauling vehicles and equipment preparatory to beginning the 250-mile outflanking move.
On 11 December the ‘left hook’ force advanced about 30 miles. The next day was very wet, but on 13 December the Division began the swing to the south and west with 4 Light Armoured Brigade leading, 6 Brigade following and 5 Brigade bringing up the rear, all in desert formation. Recent rains kept down the dust, wireless silence was observed and it was hoped that the secrecy of the move could be preserved. The force covered some 90 miles, crossing the huge steep-sided wadi where the bulldozers had prepared the way at Chrystal's Rift, and laagered about 40 miles north-east of Marada. The advance continued next day, sometimes over very rough desert and sometimes through soft sand. On the night of 14–15 December, page 220 a move in three columns at a speed of 4 miles per hour covered 24 miles. Early on 15 December wireless silence was broken: two enemy reconnaissance planes flew overhead that morning and later in the day the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry armoured cars came under enemy ground fire. Towards evening the 23rd received orders to occupy a sector in a brigade defensive position to the north. After 9·30 p.m. it reached the area indicated and occupied a temporary defensive locality. Near Wadi Matratin 90 Light Division, deployed as a flank guard, prevented 6 Brigade from blocking the main road, along which 21 Panzer Division withdrew without interference during the night of 15–16 December. Next morning, in full view of the 23rd, 15 Panzer Division, moving at great speed, escaped through a gap between 5 and 6 Brigades. The outflanking force was not strong enough to cut off these German divisions.
Nevertheless, it was thought that some of the German rearguard might be cut off in Nofilia. A 5 Brigade operation order of 16 December announced that the Highland Division had arrived at El Agheila and 7 Armoured Division at Marble Arch, and that the brigade was to move by desert route to Nofilia with ‘23 NZ Bn leading and responsible for speed, halts and direction, 28 NZ (Maori) Bn on right. 21 NZ Bn on left….’ At daybreak on 17 December, 6 Brigade moved off behind 4 Light Armoured Brigade, followed by 5 Brigade. Before noon the force came under shellfire. Fifth Brigade, on General Freyberg's instructions, passed to the south of Nofilia in an attempt to cut the road about ten miles to the west.
Brigadier Kippenberger decided to mount a brigade attack. Quickly, but without fuss or apparent hurry, he ordered the 23rd to get across the road and face east, the 28th to cover the right flank on the south of the road and the 21st to cover the left between the 23rd and the sea. All three units were to go as far as possible in their trucks and continue on foot when that was rendered necessary either by enemy fire or by the going.
About 2 p.m. the 23rd carriers, forming a screen in front of the brigade, turned north towards the road. They soon came under heavy fire from armoured cars and a tank or two, as well as from anti-tank and other guns. At this time, most of the carriers had Spandaus and Bredas as well as their normal Bren guns mounted on them and were able to bring down an immense amount of machine-gun fire on a target. As one enemy gun on a forward knoll appeared to be holding up the advance, page 221 a carrier manoeuvred into position and its gunner, Private E. J. Bullot,3 brought his machine gun into action. Getting on to the target quickly, he maintained a high rate of accurate fire, inflicted a number of casualties on the enemy and forced them to withdraw. His carrier then advanced to a point where, in spite of counter fire from armoured cars, he was able to shoot at long range at the enemy transport moving westward along the road. But the carriers could not continue to advance in the face of the heavy fire of the enemy flank guard.
Time did not permit the giving of detailed orders but the principal order to reach the men was one they all understood. It was ‘Push on!’, accompanied by a wave of the Colonel's arm in the direction the battalion was to move. And so to cheerful shouts of ‘Push on!’, the 23rd trucks were forced forward at their best pace. The sand was soft and deep, the going extremely heavy, and the trucks lurched from side to side as they plunged forward. Shells rained down amongst them, setting one A Company truck on fire but otherwise, thanks to the soft sand, doing little damage.
Despite the intensifying shell and tank fire, the battalion pressed on. A few trucks stuck and others made headway with difficulty. The desert grass of that coastal area gave an illusory appearance of firmness and the trucks which slowed down became better targets for the mortar bombs, the shelling and heavy machine-gun fire. Seeing how strong the enemy were, and in view of his lack of tanks and the distance 21 and 28 Battalions still had to travel, Brigadier Kippenberger sent Major Connolly forward in his jeep to tell Colonel Romans to debus and attack on foot and, if necessary, to dig in on the last ridge overlooking the road. Before Connolly could reach the Colonel, the latter had signalled to his men to continue the advance on foot and, setting them a fine example, led them forward until they were about 3000 yards from the Via Balbia. On his arrival, Connolly was halted by the usual greeting the Colonel gave his second-in-command in such circumstances: ‘Get back to your B Echelon!’ His message delivered, Connolly assisted in calling in the company commanders for an Orders Group and in getting the Bren and mortar carriers forward to return some of the fire which was steadily increasing as the infantry approached the road.page 222
Unfortunately, just after the Orders Group had dispersed, a tank or armoured car opened fire along the wadi where its members had met and Captain Peter Norris, one of the 23rd's most promising officers and a potential battalion commander, was killed by a direct hit. Lieutenant Ian Wilson took over command of A Company, getting the orders and information from Captain Ted Thomson, commander of C Company. As the men advanced, they ran into quite heavy fire from guns of various calibre and from tanks and infantry, all obviously well prepared in a flank-guard position. As Sergeant Minson chronicled, after commenting on the death of Norris, ‘There were other casualties, including Lieut. Ian Wilson, one of the finest officers we have ever had.’ Signals were now passed along telling the men to dig in where they were.
As the infantry began to dig in with C and A Companies on the left, facing north, and B and D on the right, facing east, the unit's heavier weapons began to arrive. If only a squadron or even a troop of tanks could have joined in, the road might still have been cut, but a single infantry battalion had no chance of success in daylight. Private J. R. Johnston gives the picture of the frantic efforts to get the supporting arms across the soft sand and into action: ‘Everything seemed to be one mad rush. Shelling and machine gun fire was very thick and most unpleasant. However, we got the mortar into action and did not [do] bad.’ Although they much preferred to fight from carefully dug-in positions, the battalion's anti-tank guns soon came up and joined in the action. Captain Robin Deans and Lieutenant Don Grant directed their troops to firing positions and quickly had their two-pounders pumping off shells at the enemy guns. Sergeant Hector H. McLean4 took his portée as far forward as possible, got his gun into action with all speed, knocked out a 50-millimetre anti-tank gun and forced two enemy armoured cars to withdraw. Shortly afterwards, the combined fire of the anti-tank guns and mortars knocked out another gun and two trucks. At this stage, McLean's portée was badly damaged by tank fire and its courageous driver, Private Norman H. Jones,5 lost a leg. Jones was shortly afterwards given a blood transfusion at the RAP by Captain Johnson, the RMO. This was one of the few transfusions given as far forward as an RAP up to that time.page 223
Even after darkness fell, the enemy kept up a steady fire from tanks and machine guns on the ridge occupied by advanced elements of the 23rd. Tracer shots appeared to be going here, there and everywhere, but did little damage. The Brigadier told Colonel Romans to keep up the pressure on his front as, with the 21st mounting a night attack on the left flank, he expected the flank guard to withdraw. To assist the 21st, Colonel Romans sent Captain Thomson with C Company to try to cut the road. Thomson had been leading his company forward during the late afternoon with his usual energy and determination and he now led them out on this patrol. Accompanied by three carriers, a troop of anti-tank guns, and a section of 7 Field Company sappers well supplied with mines for mining the road, the company came under mixed MMG and anti-tank-gun fire, but pressed on until shortly after 11 p.m., when the men could see the road. The sappers laid 160 mines and then pulled back about 400 yards from the road. About 5 a.m. on 18 December, Thomson reported that several tanks could be heard moving on the road. When this report reached Brigade, Brigadier Kippenberger, unwilling to risk the decimation of an infantry company, ordered its recall. No doubt he was influenced by a report received a little earlier from the 21st that it was impossible to reach the road in face of the determined resistance of enemy tanks and infantry. Nevertheless, the pressure exerted would appear to have speeded the enemy's departure. Before 9 a.m. 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported Nofilia clear of enemy.
This sharp engagement at Nofilia was almost entirely a 23rd action. It enabled Colonel Romans, a leader of great courage and also a daring opportunist, to display some of the qualities for which he will always be remembered. The verve and gay enthusiasm with which he entered on the advance under fire and gave his shout of ‘Push on!’ were typical of the man. Those present long remembered Nofilia, not so much as a successful action but as one when the speed of the advance and the dash of all ranks were unexcelled. All ranks who knew Peter Norris mourned his death and in B Company they lamented the deaths of two of their finest soldiers—John Trotter, the CSM, who had led several bayonet charges at Alamein, and Private Jock Brand,6 who had recently been awarded the MM for his exploits in escaping from the Salonika page 224 prisoner-of-war camp and bringing back useful information from Greece. But as such engagements go, the 23rd escaped lightly with only twenty casualties. At a service conducted near the graves of the fallen, Brigadier Kippenberger spoke of the losses of ‘this good faithful battalion, the 23rd.’ Not without sacrifice was this reputation earned.
Fifth Brigade spent 18 December in the area west of Nofilia. The mechanics were able to spend the day on very necessary maintenance of vehicles. On 19 December the Brigadier announced that the brigade would spend the next ten days at least in the area. In case Rommel seized the opportunity of a lull in the chase to strike back, units occupied a brigade defensive position, with the artillery in the centre of the triangle formed by the three units. In fact, the battalion's operational responsibilities were very light: the carriers visited areas where enemy dumps were thought to be situated and carried out other reconnaissance work. On 21 December General Montgomery addressed the senior officers of the Division and congratulated them on the success of the El Agheila left hook, ‘a very fine performance’. He held—and this was particularly interesting to the 23rd—that it was arguable whether or not a full, heavy armoured brigade could have been moved round the enemy's flank with the New Zealanders, and that without one it was virtually impossible to hold any large enemy force which might have been cut off. He announced that once supplies had been built up the Eighth Army would continue the advance.
Sports programmes, football practices and matches, and preparations for Christmas meanwhile occupied the men. Despite the distance from Benghazi, which was fast becoming the main forward port, the Eighth Army did its utmost to provide good Christmas fare for its soldiers. Of course, initiative was not lacking at the battalion level. With memories of the ‘bully beef and biscuits' Christmas in Libya in mind, Major Connolly had been very busy procuring the best Christmas supplies, and, as was customary with him, the interests of the men were not neglected in favour of the officers’ mess. Word was passed round that Christmas dinner was to be something special, but nobody really expected the fare the cooks provided. Christmas Day was observed in traditional fashion: church services included Communion at 7·30 a.m., a Mass for the Catholics at Brigade at 10 a.m., a service and parade attended by the Brigadier at 10.30, and soon after midday a dinner at which the menu read: ‘Soup, fish, chicken, turkey, pork, green page 225 peas and carrots, boiled and roast potatoes, plum duff’; each man also received a bottle of beer and a rum issue. Extracts from the diaries of two 23rd soldiers provide a contrast between low expectations and happy realisation, the very reverse of normal experience. Thus Bickley on 22 December: ‘Christmas will soon be here but what a Christmas!’ But on 25 December: ‘Christmas Day! We had a most magnificent Christmas—a most surprising Christmas too, considering our position here. After church parade, our parcels arrived, there were 5 for me….’ On 20 December Minson wrote: ‘… now we are busy making football fields and preparing for Xmas. They are promising us a lot of stuff, but I'm afraid it will be like the last one—bully beef and biscuits.’ But on 25 December he wrote enthusiastically: ‘Xmas dinner has been and gone and I take back all I said about the Army. It was wonderful. Our officer (Cliff Hunt7) had a movie camera and I'll more than likely get a job in Hollywood if the promoters get hold of it. The only trouble was that I was not acting; it was the treble rum issue, plus the beer. We had everything you could wish for, plus a big parcel mail, which made it a real Xmas’.
But, apart from, or in addition to, a good Christmas, morale was high in the battalion at this time. The war was going well, the advance to Tripoli was continuing without severe casualties and with these pleasant periods of rest while supplies were built up. A psychiatrist, sent out by the War Office to study the psychology of veterans and their reaction to battle conditions, spent some time with the battalion. He confessed that the high morale of the men ‘staggered’ him. Expecting to be told, ‘Leave to Cairo or return home to New Zealand’, he asked several men to name the first thing they would like for themselves. Almost invariably the answer was ‘Mail and then beer’.
On 27 December the Brigadier announced a training programme, with the main emphasis on sport and recreational training, as no move was contemplated for some days. At rugby, the 23rd beat the 26th and an ASC team and lost other games. On 30 December 30 Corps asked the Division to provide 1500 men to clear landing grounds in the Hamraiet area so that the RAF could support the next stage of the advance. As the normal troop-carrying vehicles were away on supply tasks, the infantry had to march and be lifted in stages for over 100 miles. For six days from 3 January 1943, working parties from 5 Brigade units page 226 removed stones and did all the other manual work needed to clear landing strips. They experienced some bombing and strafing raids while on this work, and 11 were killed and 30 wounded. Writing later of these days, but also recalling other times of stress, J. W. McArthur paid tribute to two of his men, R. W. Stone and J. Marshall8: ‘It wasn't till much later that one really realized the sterling worth of these two. Many chaps were later decorated for only a fraction of what these chaps did as a matter of course. I remember Bob Stone during a raid on the landing grounds being constructed in the Hamraiet area—everybody flat on the ground with Bob out in the middle firing his mounted Bren and cursing because he could not get another mag. on before they got away. Jim Marshall was a tower of strength both then and during the static line in the southern area at Alamein.’
In the second week of January 1943, the build-up of supplies had progressed sufficiently for the Eighth Army to begin its drive on Tripoli, its goal for so long past. Once again General Montgomery planned to advance along the coast road with 51 Highland Division and with the New Zealanders outflanking the enemy in the Buerat position. This time 7 Armoured Division was to give greater strength to the left hook. Rommel was short of supplies and, although he mounted a number of rearguards and sought to impose the maximum delay, he did not seriously contest any defensive line. Within ten days the Buerat position had been turned and Tripoli itself taken. So far as fighting was concerned, this campaign was the tamest in which the 23rd participated, but the actual day and night moves were exciting enough since no one knew just when contact would be made with the enemy and when he would stand and make a fight of it.
On 11 January 5 Brigade Group assembled and joined the rest of the Division. On the following day the Wadi Tamet was crossed. That day General Montgomery issued another of his personal messages ‘to be read out to all troops’. He declared: ‘The Eighth Army is going to Tripoli…. Nothing has stopped us since the Battle of Egypt began on 23 October 1942. Nothing will stop us now. ON TO TRIPOLI.’
To conceal the Division's moves to the south and west, all the usual precautions were taken. Camouflage nets were used in bivouac areas, vehicles faced north at all halts to ensure that page 227 no sunlight glinted on their windshields, dusty tracks were avoided, no fires were lit during the hours of darkness, and wireless silence was observed. On 13 January a night move of about 16 miles brought the leading elements of the Division to the Wadi Bei el Chebir, still some miles short of the enemy outposts but within attacking range. Seventh Armoured Division, moving parallel to the New Zealanders but closer to the coast, attacked on 15 January and the enemy withdrew from all forward posts. The next day was one of slow movement with many delays caused by minefields, real and dummy, but with little contact with the enemy. For the 23rd, it was merely another day of truck riding, first in desert formation across a sandy plain covered with scrub, and then in column of route to negotiate the Wadi Zemzem. And so, day by day, the advance continued—across the Wadi Nfed and the Wadi Sofeggin—with, on 19 January, the good news that Misurata had fallen to the Highland Division. Late that evening the brigade began an all-night move through Beni Ulid, then north to the Tarhuna road, and again took the lead from 6 Brigade. Minefields provided the only problems.
While 7 Armoured Division attacked rearguards in positions near Tarhuna, the New Zealand Division was diverted farther to the west, via Tazzoli, to the Garian-Azizia road to Tripoli. Many old ruins on the surrounding hills indicated closer settlement in earlier times and, on 21 January, the route entered the well-cultivated lands of the Italian settlers. Here the scenery changed from brown, yellow and grey to green. About midafternoon on 22 January, 5 Brigade struck the road about 12 miles south of Azizia.
Shortly afterwards, Brigadier Kippenberger gave his orders for an advance on Azizia. The 28th was to act as advanced guard on the main road, with the 23rd on the left and the 21st on the right. About 5 p.m., after the battalions had begun their advance, the Brigadier, Colonel Bennett9 of the Maori Battalion, and Colonel Romans had a short conference with General Freyberg, who said that an intercept message stated that the enemy forces in Azizia and Suani Ben Adem had been ordered to hold these places until seven o'clock that night. The Maoris sent a company forward to see how strongly Azizia was held, while the brigade moved forward by bounds. When about a mile and a half from Azizia, the column halted as it was obvious page 228 that the Maori company had stirred up plenty of trouble in the town. Defensive fire, mainly from tanks and guns, crisscrossed the front. Little of it came straight down the road but some of the 23rd's trucks were hit by shrapnel splinters and three casualties were sustained. After consulting the GOG, the Brigadier decided that, for the sake of the few hours involved in waiting for the enemy to withdraw, he would not be justified in launching an impromptu attack. The maximum fire power was made available to the Maoris and the 23rd carriers were sent forward to shoot up any enemy transport while all 5 Brigade's vehicles withdrew to safety.
Next morning Azizia was clear of enemy and the brigade was ordered to push through to Tripoli. ‘5th Brigade is being given the honour as we have had the most fighting during the Egyptian campaign,’ wrote one 23rd private in his diary that day. The order of march was the 28th, Brigade Headquarters, the 23rd and the 21st. The move was along a tarsealed road lined with gum trees and with green fertile land on either side. ‘A real treat for the eye. Beautiful surroundings, it really made one homesick,’ wrote Stone. Fifth Brigade entered Tripoli by the Azizia Gate on the afternoon of 23 January, but 51 Highland Division already had troops there.
Tripoli itself, the place New Zealand soldiers had dreamed about reaching for years, was more than a little disappointing. The sights on the waterfront were fine enough. Indeed, the wide palm-fringed esplanade was better than the one in Alexandria, but there were none of the amenities for which Cairo was famous. Soldiers could buy nothing to eat. The shops were mainly small hole-in-the-wall affairs and they contained only rubbishy souvenirs. The troops did enjoy a good bath, however, after their weeks in the desert. ‘The bungalow in the garden had a porcelain bath so several of us heated water and had a scrub. What a relief it was to feel clean again!’ This was a typical comment. Apart from cheap red wine, there was nothing to drink in Tripoli. Consequently, few were sorry when on 26 January they handed over guard duties to the Highlanders and marched out to a bivouac area at Castel Benito. There the 23rd stayed for over a month. The battalion entered on the routine of a training camp with mounting and relieving of guards, drill and other ‘spit-and-polish’ exercises. But life would have been dull without some play. The men played football and engaged in other activities. At the 5 Brigade sports meeting held on 10 February, the Maoris emerged the victors and the page 229 23rd took the wooden spoon. But Corporal R. Stone won the competition for stripping and reassembling a Bren gun in the shortest time, an event unknown to peacetime sports meetings. His time was 1 minute 17 seconds. Later on, Private Burford10 of D Company set what was claimed to be a Middle East record by completing this task in 70 seconds.
Once supplies of good ‘plonk’ had been located, the company canteens did a roaring trade. Thus, D Company's canteen, ‘The Blue Duck’, was very popular and there were many sore heads on Sunday church parades. But, if parties were a regular feature of life at Castel Benito, the biggest and best party of all, and certainly the best put on by the officers' mess, was held on 10 February to celebrate the 100th birthday of Mr. George Henry Romans, the CO's father, the ‘Grand Old Man’ of Arrowtown, whose fame had long been known in Otago and was now to spread throughout the Division and, indeed, the Eighth Army. Of course, colossal supplies were required for this party. NAAFI supplies had been saved up for some time but even more were required, and Major Connolly went to Eighth Army Headquarters to see what could be obtained. He met with little success at first and was eventually referred to a brigadier who held the appointment of DA & QMG, Eighth Army. Here he was not very well received and was turning somewhat disconsolately away, muttering something not very complimentary about the ‘Pongos’, when a sharp voice inquired, ‘What's the matter with you, Kiwi?’ It was General Montgomery himself, and when he learned of the special occasion—after all, there was no other commanding officer in the Eighth Army, or possibly any other army, whose father's 100th birthday had to be celebrated—he gave orders that the 23rd's needs should be met so far as available supplies would allow. Dick Connolly thus managed to retire with two cases of gin and one of whisky where none had been forthcoming before the General's intervention. It was a good party, attended by officers representing all units in the New Zealand Division and some from farther afield.
Special parades figured prominently in this period of waiting and training at Tripoli. On 30 January Captain Orbell and 40 selected NCOs and men went to Tripoli for an Eighth Army church parade and special march past the Army Commander. On 4 February the New Zealanders paraded for Mr Winston page 230 Churchill, who took the salute and gave one of his brief but inimitable addresses. ‘When I last saw your General, Bernard Freyberg, my old friend of so many years of wars and peace, the Salamander, as he may be called, of the British Empire, it was on those bluff and rocky slopes to the south of Alamein…. But what a change has taken place since then. By an immortal victory, the victory of Egypt, the Army of the Axis Powers…was broken, shattered, shivered, and ever since then, by a march unexampled in all history for the speed and force of the advance, you have driven the remnants of that army before you until now the would-be conqueror of Egypt is endeavouring to pass himself off as the deliverer of Tunisia…. He is now coming towards the end of his means of retreat and in the corner of Tunisia a decisive battle has soon to be fought.’ General Freyberg later described the parade as ‘the most impressive and moving parade of my career’. In the 23rd, Minson wrote: ‘We had one of the biggest and best parades I have ever been on—for Churchill. From what I can gather our home-coming is a long way off yet.’ He was right.
As the accumulating of supplies was a first priority task in preparation for the next advance, the 5 Brigade infantry were employed as wharf labourers from 12 February onwards. They put up records for unloading the vessels, and if they deducted their own small pourboire from NAAFI and similar supplies, they argued that this was small compensation for the dangers they had experienced and little enough in comparison with what similar workers in New Zealand received by way of ordinary pay and ‘danger money’.
Of great importance in the life of the battalion was the arrival of reinforcements from Maadi. Some of the earlier ones were old hands returning after recovering from wounds or sickness, but the later and larger parties were drawn from the 8th Reinforcements, who had arrived in Egypt on 5 January 1943. They were the first to arrive from New Zealand since 20 October 1941. The Eighths who joined the 23rd—4 officers and nearly 120 men—made a good impression; they were fine physical types, keen to learn and anxious to live up to the traditions and past record of the battalion. Colonel Romans greeted them on arrival and told them what was expected of them. In their new companies, parties were quickly arranged to welcome them.page 231
Thus, when the order to move came, the 23rd was nearly back to full strength. Its members were in good heart after their six weeks' rest in what one of their number described as ‘for us a veritable paradise’. Their memories of Castel Benito were mixed. They recalled the green fields, the bluegums and other trees, the additions to normal fare which came from working on the wharves, and the days and nights of heavy rain. Minson recorded: ‘We have had a pretty gay time here…. They tell me that during our stay in Tripoli we (in A Company) have drunk nearly 800 gallons of plonk—120 men. I will be pleased to be able to drink good old beer again.’
On 28 February, while the Catholics attended Mass celebrated by Father Henley, the rest of the battalion attended a brigade church parade and marched past General Freyberg. The ‘gay time’ was nearly over.