CHAPTER 8 — Tripoli and Medenine
After a fortnight's rest close to one of the beaches on the Gulf of Sirte, 6 Brigade moved out into the desert south of Nofilia. On the way 24 Battalion marched past the Army Commander, who took the salute'just as we were jumping a wadi’, and that same night addressed the assembled officers of 6 Brigade. Five more days of the routine of preparation, and then the brigade was heading westward once again.
The enemy had made a rapid retreat of more than 200 miles during the latter part of December, and his forces now held a defensive line running south-west from Buerat on the coast to the junction of two wadis south of Gheddahia. The position was not naturally as strong as that of El Agheila, nor had there been much time in which to strengthen it artificially; moreover it lent itself readily to an outflanking movement. In view of these considerations it was doubtful whether Rommel would attempt more than a delaying action, but our own communications had been unduly lengthened by the long advance from El Alamein, and an attack on Buerat was not immediately practicable. Nor were preparations facilitated by a disastrous storm which struck Benghazi on 4 January and raged for two days, creating havoc among the shipping. Once Eighth Army was committed to an attack on the Buerat position, the burning question of supplies made it essential that our forces should move straight on to Tripoli with the greatest possible rapidity. Any serious check in the advance might entail grave consequences.
By 14 January 2 NZ Division was concentrated in the desert some thirty miles south of Buerat, preparatory to embarking once again on an outflanking march. While 51 Division pressed forward along the coast, the New Zealanders, with 7 Armoured Division on their right, were to move round the enemy's southern flank and make for Tripoli, via Sedada, Beni Ulid, and Tarhuna.page 151
Practising the rapid formation of an anti-tank gunline en route, 6 Brigade started from the vicinity of Nofilia on 9 January, crossed Wadi Tamet on the 12th, and reached the assembly area next day. The country was more than usually desolate and sparsely populated, being cut up here and there by intersecting wadis which formed obstacles to the advance and provided positions in which the enemy might fight delaying actions. Early on 15 January the Division moved off towards Wadi Zemzem with its Divisional Cavalry in advance, followed by 6 Brigade in desert formation, with 24 Battalion leading on the left. Gunfire was heard in front and our armour encountered the enemy rearguard astride the Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track.
After making a stand for which he paid a price in tanks, the enemy withdrew, but a few of his shells landed among 24 Battalion's vehicles, wounding Lieutenant Carr.1 That night the battalion halted west of the Gheddahia track, taking up a defensive position on the brigade's left flank. Next day the advance continued across Wadi Zemzem without opposition until the approaches of Sedada were reached, but the enemy was merely using delaying tactics, shelling our armour and then retiring before a regular attack could be mounted. On 17 January 6 Brigade entered the defile of Sedada, with 24 Battalion immediately behind the Royal Scots Greys. In open country on the further side, Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly and his adjutant, Second-Lieutenant Boord,2 who were travelling in rear of their battalion, watched the traffic diverge into two streams—those of the armour and their own transport. Headquarters 6 Brigade now appeared on the scene and began to follow the course taken by the armour. Conolly conferred with the Brigade Major, maintaining that his own battalion had gone the right way, but he was overruled and Boord raced to the head of 24 Battalion to stop it. Captain Aked and Second-Lieutenant Friend,3 the Intelligence Officer, who were page 152 leading the advance, both assured him that there was no mistake about the route. Boord then got in touch with Divisional Headquarters, explained his position, and was told that it was correct. Conolly himself now came up to say that the Brigade Major had realised his mistake, and that the remainder of 6 Brigade was following on. That night 24 Battalion formed a protective screen for the Divisional Cavalry, and on the following morning received a graceful acknowledgement from the Brigadier that its course had been correct from the beginning.
Along the coast 51 Division was making rapid progress. More than two-thirds of the way to Tripoli had been covered, but owing to the enemy's rapid withdrawal and the skilful manner in which he had placed road demolitions, 2 NZ Division did not make contact on either 18 or 19 January. On the latter date 24 Battalion passed through Beni Ulid in the wake of our armour and artillery.
‘We… found ourselves on the lip of a deep ravine’, writes Second-Lieutenant Boord, ‘looking down on the palms and green fields of the oasis of Beni Ulid. It certainly was a change after the desert and the nearest approach to the oasis of my imagination. The surrounding desert for miles in every direction was destitute of all growth—a wilderness strewn with stone—and suddenly without any warning one comes upon this fertile spot. The valley was only about a third of a mile wide, girt by steep brown sandstone walls. The floor was flat—dotted with palm and olive trees and green patches of clover. On the further side of the valley close against the steep sandstone cliffs was the age old village of Beni Ulid— square flat low houses of the brown sandstone of the cliffs…. We travelled down the steep slope and across the flat to climb steeply again on the further side, over a rough track to avoid the mine-riddled road, and then as we reached the top and the desert plain again back to the main road to travel at a good 30 miles an hour through the billowing clouds of dust….
‘About 20 miles past Beni Ulid we left the road and formed up in our desert formation. The rest of the day we remained stationary —transport roared along the road and gradually the Bde took shape. We were told we would not move till the next day. To the north and north-west we could see the steep forbidding hills through which we must pass to strike at Tripoli. Out in front was the armour, pushing page 153 slowly into the hills. Once or twice dull detonations and large clouds of dust told of bombing raids on the forward elements. We did nothing—just basked in the sunshine and drank tea—then to bed while the transport still roared in endless monotony along the road. ‘Next morning we packed up but did not move till lunch time —5 Brigade had gone through and now much to our disgust we were in reserve.’
The 51st Division had entered Homs and exploited beyond as far as Corradini. The 7th Armoured Division was approaching Tarhuna, while 6 Brigade prepared to struggle over the Djebel Nefusa range in the wake of 5 Brigade. On 22 January the enemy fought a delaying action at Azizia and succeeded in holding up 5 Brigade's advance. Meanwhile 6 Brigade toiled over the range through Italian colonist settlements—the first that had so far been seen. Houses surrounded by gardens lined the roads that wound among hills covered with green tussock. Windmills pumped up water from the wells. Many of the houses were deserted, but from some of them bewildered, nervous Italians peered out at the passing troops. Next day, when 6 Brigade debouched on to the coastal plain, a pall of smoke appeared on the northern horizon. Tripoli had fallen and the long advance was at an end.
Since the march had begun on 15 January 24 Battalion could scarcely be said to have been in action. Soft going and the difficulties of desert navigation had been the principal enemies. A few miles south of Azizia the unit halted and bivouacked for two days before moving on to the outskirts of Bianchi, a new Italian colonial settlement, geometrically planned and laid out, with green shutters on its white houses. The settlers turned out to watch the troops pass through and thankfully accepted gifts of cigarettes and biscuits. Trees with star-shaped leaves and red berries aroused the New Zealanders' interest, and Captain Borrie procured some seeds to plant in his Dunedin garden, only to discover later that he was dealing with a product well known in his own profession. Ornamental as the trees might appear, they were grown not for the sake of appearance but for the production of castor oil.
The local Italian police having had their rifles taken away, certain Arabs improved the occasion by searching out old page 154 blunderbusses and intimidating the Italian civil population. Nervous tension ran high and on 26 January reports were received that disturbances had broken out. A Company sent out a patrol supported by carriers, but it transpired that the report was without foundation. At the beginning of February a move was made to Suani Ben Adem and there for the next fortnight the battalion remained. It was a pleasant spot as may be gathered from the extract from an officer's letter quoted below:
About a week ago we moved to this new area—a beautiful place —evidently a district that has been colonized for some considerable time. Rows of tall eucalyptus trees line the roads and the boundaries of the farms and hide the farm buildings. The fields have been levelled and are planted as orchards—rows of apple and plum trees, and, just where my bivouac is situated, alternate olives and almonds. The latter are a great show—all bursting into blossom—wonderful delicate white blossoms with a faint pink centre. Between the trees corn is generally planted but in some places vegetables flourish. The farm buildings were in rather a mess. The Germans had been through the houses, pulled open all the drawers and cupboards and strewn the contents in every direction. However we quickly established satisfactory relations with the owners….
The parade for Mr. Churchill was an impressive affair—the first time the Div. has paraded as a Div., and believe me we have a lot of men. However the weather was fine and it went off well. We were all keyed up to hear what the PM had to say, hoping we would hear something of our future once the Tunisian campaign is completed, but we were disappointed. Beyond congratulations and promises of more hard fighting we heard nothing.4
Men who got leave to visit Tripoli admired the town's fine esplanade and modern buildings surrounded by sub-tropical gardens. The harbour full of shipping destroyed by the Desert Air Force was a sight to be seen, but no trams or buses ran, the shops were empty, and visitors were obliged to take their own rations. On 12 February 24 Battalion moved into the town and supplied parties for work on the wharves, returning to Suani Ben Adem at the end of the month. A further stay in this pleasant spot would have been more than welcome, but all such hopes were almost immediately disappointed.page 155
When Tripoli fell the Axis forces had no choice but to continue their withdrawal westwards. By the beginning of February Italy had lost the whole of her African empire. Rommel had retreated into Tunisia and was preparing to make a stand at Mareth, on the Gulf of Gabes. Ben Gardane, an outpost of his line, fell on 15 February, Foum Tatahouine and Medenine a few days later. The main position was now unmasked. General Montgomery had planned to attack it on or about 20 March, but on 15 February the enemy struck at 2 United States Corps in western Tunisia and drove it back upon Tebessa. For a while the situation was serious, and the Eighth Army was called upon to exert pressure in the Mareth sector in order to draw off Axis forces from the north. Montgomery at once sent 51 Division and 7 Armoured Division along the coast and the Gabes road respectively to probe towards Mareth, fully realising at the same time that, should Rommel break off his northern offensive and transfer his forces rapidly to the south, these two divisions would run the risk of being overwhelmed. The Army Commander's anticipations were at least partially fulfilled. When 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions appeared behind the Mareth Line late in February, the New Zealand Division was ordered forward to redress the balance of strength and prepare to meet the attack which now appeared imminent.
Having received warning orders the previous day, 24 Battalion left Suani Ben Adem at 11 a.m. on 2 March and travelled in column of route along the main coastal road. After halting for an hour at 5 p.m., the column resumed the journey and moved on throughout the night. In Tripolitania the road was good, but beyond the Tunisian frontier it was very bad and, unfortunately, it was this latter part of the journey that had to be made in darkness. Having covered 170 miles in something less than 24 hours, the battalion debussed and at once took up its battle position. Between the Mareth road and the sea coast the three infantry brigades of 51 Division held an extended line, with 23 Armoured Brigade slightly retired and situated close to Divisional Headquarters. The 7th Armoured Division lay astride the road itself north-west of Medenine. In its centre an isolated, dominating hill, Point 270, better page 156 known as Edinburgh Castle, was held by the Guards Brigade, with 131 Brigade on its left and two armoured brigades in rear. The New Zealand Division screened the village of Medenine, with the three battalions of 5 Brigade forward and 4 Light Armoured Brigade drawn back on the left to guard that flank against attack along the Foum Tatahouine road. Sixth Brigade remained in reserve with its battalions grouped two or three miles north-east of Medenine, in a position from which 5 Brigade's line might be reinforced or a counter-attack delivered if such should prove necessary. Little wire and few minefields covered the British front, but the defenders were exceptionally strong in armour and artillery. Included among the 500 anti-tank guns sited round Medenine were some of the new 17-pounders recently issued in Tripoli.
The 4th and 5th of March were days of expectation. Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly and his company commanders reconnoitred Hill 270 as there was some idea at one time that they might take over the Guards' -position. This, however, they were not required to do. Early in the morning of 6 March a mist enveloped the whole front, and before it lifted the enemy guns opened fire. Then, as the mist cleared away, tanks appeared advancing in three columns, one from Mareth, one from the hills east of Toujane, and another from between the Hallouf defile and Kreddache. Early in the proceedings tanks appeared before the lines of 21 and 28 Battalions, but it soon became clear that the main thrust was being delivered further north against Hill 270.
The ensuing battle was one between artillery in position and advancing armour. Holding their fire till the tanks had arrived within a few hundred yards of the infantry positions, our anti-tank guns opened up on the advancing armour, while field guns dealt with the enemy's soft-skinned vehicles coming up in rear. By ten o'clock the attack had been beaten off with negligible loss to the defenders.
Sporadic fighting broke out again in the afternoon, culminating in a full-scale attack by tanks and infantry towards evening. This also was broken up by gunfire without our infantry coming into action. At dusk the enemy withdrew to the north-west with heavy losses in tanks, having accomplished nothing.page 157
Throughout the day the Aucklanders had enjoyed a view of the battle, taking no part in the engagement, though at times they were put to some inconvenience by enemy fighter-bombers which swooped down out of the sun and dropped bombs in the lines. That night they remained on the battlefield.
3 Capt L. C. Friend, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Suva, 3 Nov 1913; bank officer; IO 24 Bn 1943; GSO 3 (SD) HQ 2 NZEF1943; OC 1 NZ Interrogation Sec 1944; OC Allied Interrogation Det, Italy, 1944; wounded 26 Mar 1943.
4 Letter, 2 Lt Boord, 10 Feb 1943.