CHAPTER 9 — Tebaga Gap…
During the two days succeeding the action at Medenine 200 reinforcements reached 24 Battalion while it still remained in its battle positions. This added strength made possible the formation of four rifle companies in place of the three to which the unit had been reduced at El Alamein. Intensive training of the newcomers began at once but was cut short by orders to move on 11 March. Immediately before the battalion left Medenine about eighty other ranks, all of whom had seen much service, were sent back to Tripoli as LOB troops under Major Stringer.
Starting at 8.30 p.m. the battalion journeyed back to Ben Gardane, turned sharply to the south-west, and halted from mid-afternoon till nightfall. Under way once more, it passed through Foum Tatahouine in darkness and on southward, leaving the main road at daybreak to strike due west and emerge two hours later on the landward side of the Matmata range. Needless to say this journey was not undertaken merely for the sake of covering vast stretches of desert in the least possible time, but in conformity with a long contemplated plan of action.
Within the perimeter of the assembly area all vehicles were camouflaged; movement by day was restricted to a minimum and training was carried out by night. Enemy aircraft did not appear, and the only hostile action was that of wandering Arabs who indulged their predatory instincts by stealing a surprisingly large number of lamps. Local fauna consisted mainly of large, green scorpions, so abundant in rocky ground that a party of amateur naturalists was able to collect a petrol tin full of them.
Conolly, 24 Battalion's commanding officer since El Agheila, had had his rank of temporary lieutenant-colonel made substantive on 20 February. Boord, confirmed in his position as Adjutant; had become a temporary captain. A Company was still under Captain Aked, while C had been taken over by Captain Seal in succession to Captain Yeoman, wounded at El Alamein. B and D were now commanded respectively by Major Andrews1 and Captain Dew,2 the latter having recently joined the battalion. The field returns of 20 March showed a strength of 26 officers and 613 other ranks.
At dusk on 19 March, with 24 Battalion leading in desert formation of nine columns, 6 Brigade moved off behind the armour and artillery. Having covered nearly forty miles by 11 p.m., the column halted. There was a moon, and difficulties of navigation did not arise on the march as the tracks of the leading vehicles were easily followed; but to reach its place of dispersal 24 Battalion was required to swing left and take position on the brigade perimeter's left flank. Passing over gently rolling downs with occasional patches of soft sand, the companies became separated and lost their bearings, with the result that Colonel Conolly and his adjutant reached their unit's destination to find only C Company present. D and A Companies came in during the night, but B and Headquarters Companies made no appearance till dawn.
It had been intended to lie up concealed during the day of 20 March, but the movements of 27,000 men and 1700 vehicles page 161 are not to be easily concealed. The enemy having got wind of our outflanking movement, General Freyberg was ordered to continue his march by day, and instead of lying up the column moved on.
Low sand dunes made the going difficult; vehicles stuck fast and had to be pulled out; before long 24 Battalion had lost all semblance of formation. At midday progress was held up by a minefield, but lanes through it had been made by engineers and the traffic poured across with little delay. Beyond this obstacle the going improved by degrees and gradually 24 Battalion resumed its correct formation. Early in the afternoon the column came upon a formed road, and, turning along it to the west, arrived at Bir Soltane, a small oasis around which were deserted enemy fortifications—the first to be encountered. Beyond this place a large herd of camels stampeded at the terrifying sight of a modern army on the move. ‘They ran clumsily in front of the convoy for several miles before swerving to the left and coming to a standstill to watch us pass with stupid eyes. A ragged, bare-foot Arab boy ran after them, wailing every now and then in his native tongue.’3
Without warning American fighter-bombers came out of the sun and dropped their bombs before realising the New Zealanders’ identity. One bomb landed close beside Sergeant Trevelion's4 jeep, sending aloft a column of earth and stones which buried the vehicle as it subsided. But suddenly, before the onlookers' horrified gaze, the entombed jeep's engine started up and out of the mass of rubble it came, with no one hurt. In an instant the supposed tragedy became an uproarious comedy.
Away on the left appeared white sandhills of the inner desert, and towards evening a range of rugged hills appeared on the northern skyline. This was the Djebel Tebaga, the western wall of the vital gap leading in towards the coast, through which it was designed to force a passage.page 162
Twenty miles north-west of where the New Zealanders lay, two low, narrow ranges approached to within five or six thousand yards of each other, leaving a passage between them scarcely five miles long that gave on to open desert beyond. Roman legionnaries had fortified this gateway to their African territory against barbarian inroad by building a wall across its southern entrance. Frenchmen and Italians had both thrown up earthworks on the same spot in later days. It was now guarded by Italian infantry.
After a clash with enemy armour on the morning of 21 March our tanks advanced to the El Hamma road, some 2000 yards from the enemy's defence lines. Moving forward battery by battery, the Corps artillery took up positions south of the road and began to engage the enemy guns. The Brigadier and the commanding officers of 25 and 26 Battalions went forward with General Freyberg to reconnoitre, while 6 Brigade remained halted.
It was now clear that Axis forces held the line of the Roman Wall, in front of which rose Hill 201, a feature commanding the valley's southern entrance. A minefield, an anti-tank ditch, and a line of wire masked the ruined Roman Wall, bulging forward in the centre to include Hill 201. Since the capture of this hill must obviously precede further operations, 6 Brigade was ordered to attack and capture it at 9.30 p.m. on 21 March. The 25th and 26th Battalions were to carry out the assault.
That morning 24 Battalion moved three miles north-west, passing through fields of wheat a foot high, to the left of where the medium batteries had taken position. The scent of wild flowers filled the air, while away in front tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade fired at targets invisible to the infantry, and as the Aucklanders watched them they crawled slowly over a ridge and disappeared. Early in the afternoon the battalion again moved a few miles forward. From their new positions the troops could see some way into the gap which appeared to be ‘about three miles wide, rimmed with high hills’. Two miles or more beyond its entrance several high hills rose up on the floor of the valley—a geographical feature that the Aucklanders would have cause to remember in days to come. Already our tanks could be seen trying to move forward in face of gunfire from page 163 German batteries and tanks. Colonel Conolly, who had attended a brigade conference, returned later in the afternoon, bringing news of the coming night's operation, and at the same time informing his officers that their battalion was to remain in reserve. For the present there was nothing to be done but wait upon events.
The attack on Hill 201 succeeded. Long before dawn both battalions were on their objectives and a large number of Italian prisoners had been taken. The 8th Armoured Brigade and New Zealand Divisional Cavalry followed through the minefield gap at dawn to exploit north and north-west. The Divisional Cavalry swung left in an attempt to get behind the enemy's position but was held up before reaching the El Hamma road. The 8th Armoured Brigade advanced 1000 yards beyond the Roman Wall and engaged the enemy from hull-down positions, but could get no further. After the initial success resistance had stiffened. At dusk 26 Battalion moved forward to take over ground occupied by the armour during daylight. On its left 25 Battalion remained in occupation of Hill 201.
The men of 24 Battalion were enjoying the spectacle of long columns of prisoners being marched to the rear, when orders were received to move up on the left of the field artillery's positions. The battalion sat down practically among the guns and remained there till next day (23rd), when the Colonel went forward with the Brigadier to reconnoitre the ground on 25 Battalion's left. Conolly returned with the news that his unit would extend 6 Brigade's front to the left that night, and then went forward again with his company commanders to show them how the land lay. Captain Neal5 of the Anti-Tank Platoon and Second-Lieutenant Stead,6 Intelligence Officer, were both wounded on this reconnaissance. On the night of 22-23 March 26 Battalion had advanced north of the Roman Wall and extended its right towards the foothills. The 25th Battalion had taken ground to the west without opposition, page 164 while the Divisional Cavalry patrolled along the foothills of Djebel Tebaga, but as yet no infantry was in position on the Roman Wall west of the El Hamma road.
The 24th Battalion embussed at 7 p.m. and was driven through the minefield gap to a point on the El Hamma road east of Hill 201. From there it moved on foot and took up position just forward of the Roman Wall, between road and foothills. With D Company left, C Centre, B right and A in reserve, the battalion was strung out over a front of 3000 yards or more. By midnight it was fairly in position.
Trucks from B Echelon brought up hot breakfast before dawn (24th), as the new position was overlooked from the north and east. Batteries on 24 Battalion's left opened fire at sunrise and drew a certain amount of retaliation. The enemy's artillery had obviously been reinforced. Towards midday tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry began to concentrate on the battalion's left flank. In attempting to shell a bottleneck through which the armour would have to pass, enemy guns plastered A Company's area heavily and continuously, causing several casualties. In the afternoon, when the shelling had died down, Captain Aked arrived at Battalion Headquarters, furiously angry at having been pinned down in his own lines for two and a half hours. His battle dress was torn by shell splinters in several places, but he himself was unhurt. Hurricane tank-busters flew over to deal with German armour and ‘one of them came back slowly on our left, crash landed on top of the ridge and turned over on its back. Our fellows soon had the pilot out—an Aussie, unhurt except for scalds —cursing like a trooper. He was quickly rushed to an ambulance.’7
‘About 4.30 p.m.’, writes Captain Boord, ‘I went up to the OP to have a look. Our armour like squat black beetles was hull down on a hill some 500 yards out—firing occasionally at some Jerry tanks also hull down about 1500 yards from them. I could only see one enemy tank in full—a Mark 68 —a terrific thing with the 88 protruding right out over the front of the tank, firing occasionally at our chaps who could only see his gun and turret, though from our position we could see practically the whole of the body—too far away to do any good with our anti-tank guns.’page 165
Enjoying excellent observation from high ground on both flanks, the enemy appeared to be digging in about 3000 yards forward. He had lately been reinforced by 164 German Division and, at our present rate of advance, seemed likely to hold his ground for some time. Having come so far so fast, our troops were becoming slightly puzzled at what seemed hesitation on the part of their leaders. As yet the general situation was unknown to them.
On the night of 20 March 50 Division had assaulted the Mareth Line, crossing the Wadi Zigzaou on the coastal sector and establishing three strongpoints on its further side. The wadi, however, was a formidable obstacle which the supporting armour had great difficulty in crossing. On 21 March, while 6 Brigade was capturing Hill 201, 50 Division expanded its bridgehead, but heavy rain on the 22nd demolished the tank bridge over the wadi and grounded the light bombers preparing to deal with the tanks of 15 Panzer Division. An armoured counter-attack recovered some of the ground so dearly bought, and although a portion of the bridgehead was still maintained, General Montgomery decided to withdraw across the Wadi Zigzaou and reinforce New Zealand Corps at Tebaga Gap. The 1st Armoured Division of 10 Corps lay to the west of Medenine as Army reserve. It was now ordered to cross the range and move round in the track of New Zealand Corps. The drive through Tebaga Gap awaited its arrival.
Returning from a brigade conference at midday on 25 March, Colonel Conolly at once told his company commanders the news that the main effort was being switched from Mareth to Tebaga. With the arrival of 1 Armoured Division, now well on its way and due the following afternoon, the New Zealand Corps would attack behind its own tanks, form a bridgehead, and pass the armoured division through to El Hamma.
A preparatory reshuffle was necessary, and company commanders spent most of the afternoon reconnoitring their new positions. That night (25th) 24 Battalion moved to its start line 1000 yards forward of the Roman Wall, sidestepping to the right and shortening its frontage to 1500 yards. When this realignment was accomplished, C Company's right flank rested on the El Hamma road, joining up with 23 Battalion, while page 166 D, the other forward company, was on its left, with A Company 500 yards to the rear in support. B, the reserve company, occupied a detached position on the left. The battalion carriers were concealed in rear of the Roman Wall.
East of the El Hamma road the positions occupied by 25 and 26 Battalions were closely overlooked by Hill 184, the capture of which was an essential preliminary to the occupation of start lines forward of the Roman Wall. An attempt by A Company 26 Battalion to take this feature on the night of 24 March had been unsuccessful, and it still remained in enemy hands. Fifth Brigade, which had been occupying a position in rear on the Corps' left flank to guard against possible attack by 10 Panzer Division, was now required to move forward into line with 6 Brigade east of the El Hamma road, but before it could do so with any degree of safety, Hill 184 had to be disposed of. The task was allotted to 21 Battalion, which attacked at 1 a.m. on 26 March and, two hours later, was able to announce its capture of the vital high ground. Now that the coast was clear, 28 and 23 Battalions took over on 6 Brigade's right from the 26th, which in turn relieved 25 Battalion on Hill 201. The 25th Battalion then moved out to the extreme left and relieved the Buffs, a unit of 8 Armoured Brigade, which had recently occupied ground in the Tebaga foothills captured by armoured patrols. At dawn on 26 March the two New Zealand infantry brigades lay well concealed on their start lines with both flanks secured.
The attack was planned to take place at 4 p.m., by which time the armoured division would be in readiness. The 8th Armoured Brigade, with each of its three tank regiments leading one of the infantry battalions, would cross the Roman Wall as the barrage came down on its opening lines, and would then move behind the barrage with heavy tanks in the lead, followed by light tanks, after which would come the infantry carriers. The infantry would follow on behind the armour as it crossed their start lines and make for the first objective, which lay 2000 yards ahead along a line running at right angles to the El Hamma road. The final objective was 3000 yards beyond the first, along the line of the Wadi Hernel and beyond the summit of the pass. The El Hamma page 167 road was the right boundary of 24 Battalion's advance, and its point of contact with 23 Battalion's left. On 6 Brigade's western flank, 25 Battalion was to give supporting fire to the advancing troops and also assist the Divisional Cavalry in mopping up the Djebel Tebaga foothills. The 1st Armoured Division would move up in rear of the assaulting lines, pass through New Zealand Corps on its final objective at dusk, and wait there till the moon rose soon after 11 p.m. before going on to capture El Hamma.
A dust-storm was blowing on the morning of 26 March, but it abated to some extent after midday and the air cleared. This was fortunate as a concentrated air attack was to be made on the enemy lines half an hour before zero by fighter-bombers and tank-busters. Tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade lay concealed in wadis and behind spurs on the high ground to right and left. Under a continual rain of fine blown sand the men of 24 Battalion had to lie close, as their trenches were on an open flat. Gradually the day wore on, and early in the afternoon the period of suspense merged into one of sustained action. Captain Boord describes the battle's opening phase:
At 2.30 p.m. I started clock watching. We packed our fighting kit. At 3 p.m. the mediums opened with smoke on the Jerry OPs —not very effective in blinding them as there was a strong cross wind blowing. At 3.159 the tanks started to move out of the hills. We could sense the excited murmur which swept through the lads and heads began to show above the parapets. A magnificent sight, two lines of them, Shermans and Crusaders, steaming slowly out of the hills towards us—grim, squat, powerful and businesslike they looked moving along with the effortless motion of ships of the line. As they approached us Jerry opened up with Field guns and 88s, and shrapnel began to whip over our pit. We sat in the bottom and looked at each other. Slowly the minutes dragged by. At 3.30 p.m. the first fighter sweep put in an appearance, patrolling overhead and swooping down to strafe German positions. A big flight of heavy enemy bombers put in an appearance but were frightened off and dropped their eggs behind their own lines, much to our amusement and satisfaction as we saw many smoke columns denoting burning trucks.page 168
The tanks were in position and swung to face the enemy; then at 4 p.m. down came the barrage a mile away—a roaring, crashing hell of dust, smoke and red hot steel splinters. The tanks moved slowly forward, first the Shermans, then 150 yards behind the Crusaders, some of which had our chaps on their backs à la Russe, and as they passed the forward troop positions more scrambled aboard. Then another hundred yards behind went our carriers. Slowly they all moved forward while the barrage still pounded the earth out in front. The CO hopped into his carrier and moved off, leaving me to bring on Bn HQ at Zero hr. I moved up to the crest of the small ridge behind which we were dug in. An odd shell or two was still falling in our area but most of the enemy fire was concentrated on the armour ahead and to our right. The minutes passed slowly and then at 4.23 the barrage made its first lift and the forward troops rose out of their slit trenches and moved forward. I watched A Company which was in support, and when I saw Ted Aked get his chaps up I gave a yell to our blokes and out of the ground they came. We had to move slightly left to jockey ourselves into position. and then we settled down for the advance. In front was an amazing sight. Away in the distance through the dust and smoke we could see the fires of Jerry's burning vehicles and our planes strafing up and down his lines. Our vision was mainly limited by the barrage —a curtain of grey dust and black smoke churning the earth as it crept forward. Close in behind it was the line of Shermans, then the Crusaders, and following them the Bren Carriers—each armoured vehicle spaced out with equal distances, and all moving slowly forward. Behind them [came] the infantry, the forward coys with their forward platoons, the men strung out in lines, each man 6-10 yards from his neighbour—miniature figures in the distance, all walking steadily onward. A Coy, because it was nearer me, looked bigger, and it followed half way between and in rear of the two forward coys, and behind their (A Company's) rear platoon came our first section. Over all raged the clamour of the planes and the shriek of shells, but the whole set piece moved steadily forward—not a man nor a vehicle out of place—a magnificent sight, giving one the impression of irresistible force.
Beyond the start line the ground dipped and then rose gently towards the first objective. In the base of the shallow depression thus formed a few stunted bushes grew amongst low hummocks. Across this arid expanse 24 Battalion's right forward company, C, advanced in extended order with little check or hindrance, the few casualties suffered being caused by mortar fire. Reaching the first objective and continuing on without a pause, the company at once ran into stiff opposition. On its left the ground rose sharply, culminating in a ridge which commanded the whole line of advance. The slopes of this ridge offered little cover; along its crest lay the enemy's main line of defence, with infantry well entrenched and anti-tank guns sited on its reverse slopes ready to deal with any armoured vehicle crossing the skyline. The two highest points were also the most strongly fortified. Held by German troops with Italians on their right, these twin summits rose up in the centre of 24 Battalion's line of advance. A minefield covered the position but did not extend across C Company's front to the El Hamma road.
Passing two troops of abandoned field guns, C Company came under mortar and machine-gun fire from the ridge. The tanks in front had increased their speed to catch up with the barrage and were moving at a pace too fast for infantry. Several enemy posts were overrun but came into action again when the armour had passed, causing much delay and many casualties to the troops who encountered them later. Passing to the right of the minefield, C Company continued to advance; from now onwards its left flank was in the air, but the infantry were under positive orders to press on at all costs regardless of armoured support or any other consideration.
On first encountering the minefield some of the leading tanks were blown up. Those following swung inwards towards the El Hamma road, leaving the strongly defended ridge still in enemy hands. Advancing on C Company's left, D Company ran into this powerful nest of opposition and, without armoured support or artillery barrage, could make no immediate headway. On the right of the El Hamma road 23 Battalion was advancing steadily towards its final objective, while 1 Armoured Division, a formidable phalanx of throbbing steel, rumbled slowly forward along the Corps axis. Farther still to the right, page 171 28 Battalion was deploying to the east to attack Hill 209, from which the tanks had been forced to turn away. Along the valley floor the attack was going through, but resistance from high ground on either flank hindered the New Zealand Corps' advance.
Harassed by fire from strongpoints which should have been dealt with by a parallel advance on its left, C Company suffered most of its casualties at this time. While the company was mopping up pockets of resistance overrun by the armour, the men with automatic weapons who had ridden forward on the tanks were sorely missed. The company's strength being diminished and the situation somewhat critical, it was not possible to spare men for escorting the large number of prisoners taken, who in most cases were merely disarmed and sent back down the axis. Some of them, however, picked up weapons later on and attacked our troops from the rear. Alone among the companies of 24 Battalion, Captain Seal's men had reached the vicinity of their final objective by 6 p.m. The company commander sent patrols forward to the Wadi Hernel, and some of the battalion's carriers, ordered forward by Conolly for this purpose, extended his left towards the position that should have been occupied by D Company. He expected a counter-attack from the north, ‘and several times from about 2000 to 2200 hrs what appeared to be light attacks did in fact eventuate. In all cases, however, they turned out to be small parties of enemy troops which were lost and confused and were attempting to find their way back to their own lines…. These small parties were easily dealt with, and showed little inclination to fight when they realised their position.’11
On the left of C, D Company also reached the first objective without difficulty and, passing beyond it, arrived opposite the minefield from which the tanks had turned away. Nos. 16 and 18 Platoons crossed the minefield and advanced under heavy fire against the ridge. As they diverged to either flank, 17 Platoon came up into line between them. Twenty prisoners were taken, disarmed, and sent to the rear without escort. The advance continued, though from now onward the three platoons page 172 lost touch with each other and acted as independent units. On the left Second-Lieutenant Cater,12 of 16 Platoon, was killed while carrying a wounded corporal to safety. His place was taken by Sergeant Gabolinsky,13 who led the platoon forward till every one of its men, including himself, had become casualties.
In the centre Lieutenant Friend led 17 Platoon towards the strongpoints on the ridge's summit, but finding himself separated from the rest of the company he halted ‘behind three Sherman tanks which were stationary and close together in line ahead’.14 The best course, it seemed, was to swing right, join up with C, and if possible reduce the troublesome strongpoints by an attack from the rear. Captain Dew came up at this moment and concurred with the decision, which was then put into effect as described by Lieutenant Friend:
After a survey of the position we proceeded up the hill, engaging groups of enemy slit trenches by fire and movement. Upon each rush, however, we were subject to automatic fire from the strongpoint on top of the hill, from the positions on elevated ground behind us and also from the erstwhile PW to our right who had regained their slit trenches and weapons. Although we killed and wounded a number of the enemy our own casualties were heavy, including Cpl H. M. Hill15 killed, and Cpl W. Howat severely wounded. About three-quarters of the way up to the strongpoint we went to ground while I sent a man to the rear to request that the three Sherman tanks in the wadi advance behind us to provide fire in hull down position to cover our further advance on the strongpoint. They refused to do this and ended any argument by proceeding up the wadi toward the final objective. I considered the possibility of communicating with A Coy but this course seemed out of the question in view of the fact that they were some 400 yards to the rear at that juncture.
Before we were about to make a final effort some dozen Huns broke and ran from a position about 30 feet ahead. While firing at these myself I must have come into view of the strongpoint, page 173 and was wounded by a burst of Spandau fire. Our strength by then (1750 hrs) was reduced to Cpl L. P. Atkin16 and about eight or nine men whom I ordered to go to ground in cleared slit trenches in the vicinity.
We remained in that position until about 2030 hrs when the strongpoint was eventually taken in an attack by A Coy.
On D Company's right, 18 Platoon had reached the enemy's defences on the high ridge before being finally pinned down. ‘It was reported to me later’, writes Lieutenant Friend in his report, ‘that 2-Lieut Woodhouse [Woodcock]17 and his runner got right up to the strongpoint, the occupants of which offered to surrender. Before the Huns could be put in the bag, however, both New Zealanders were treacherously killed by a burst from an enemy automatic located a short distance to the flank.’
Many of D Company's men hoped for a chance of returning to settle accounts with these foes who surrendered and shot simultaneously, but battles provide neither for leisure nor for independent expeditions.
The supporting company, A, advancing at an interval of 500 yards behind C and D, came under heavy machine-gun fire when once beyond the first objective. Nos. 7 and 8 Platoons were forward on the left and right respectively when it was reported back to Captain Aked that several tanks were out of action in front of the minefield. Ordering 9 Platoon to ground, Aked went forward to see for himself. Several tanks were burning and D Company's mortars were also knocked out. There was no sign of either of the forward companies and heavy fire came from the high ridge. Aked now sent 7 Platoon round the minefield's western edge to capture a low hill from which he hoped it might be possible to turn the strongpoints on the ridge's summit. The remaining two platoons he sent forward further to the left under the lee of the ridge, and he then brought his mortars into action against the ridge itself. Under their fire the platoons worked their way slowly forward.
Shortly before 5.30 Captain Boord, who had been following on with Battalion Headquarters, joined A Company and conferred page 174 with Captain Aked. Boord then went forward alone to reconnoitre. As he climbed to a point of vantage a Crusader tank backed past him into dead ground. From beyond the summit he was making for an enemy tank appeared to be firing on the reserve company (B). Boord could see the two strongpoints on the ridge occupied by Germans, while at the same moment smoke bursts in the barrage announced that our guns were about to cease firing; but at this instant he was hit by rifle fire from the left. While Aked went out and helped him back, the Germans held their fire till he was once more under cover.
No. 7 Platoon was recalled as it could make no progress, but 8 Platoon, with No. 9 on its right, was edging slowly forward. Captain Dew appeared on the scene, announcing the heavy losses and obscure situation of his company. Shortly afterwards Colonel Conolly arrived and at once gave orders for A Company to capture the strongpoints on the high ridge. The sun had set and Aked decided to attack at dusk with the bayonet, in a single line as his numbers were much reduced and 7 Platoon had not yet come in. Under cover of mortar fire 8 and 9 Platoons advanced on the left and right, with Company Headquarters in the centre. For the first hundred yards the enemy made no response, being evidently taken unawares, and when eventually he opened up, his fire was high and ragged. Numbers of rifle grenades fell among the attackers but did them little harm. Holding their fire till within fifty yards of the objective, the Aucklanders let fly with all they had and took the position at the bayonet's point, killing or capturing all Germans found in occupation. They then exploited forward for 300 yards down the ridge's reverse slope, but the enemy they encountered appeared to have lost heart and offered only slight resistance.
The positions on the ridge were found to be of great strength and lavishly manned, but knowing that they faced a division notoriously addicted to attacking by night, the Germans had sited most of their machine guns on the reverse slopes, which fact accounted very largely for the ineffectiveness of their fire during the final assault. Strangely enough, the position had been untouched either by artillery fire or aerial bombing. page 175 When A Company rallied after the attack, it was found that over ninety prisoners had been taken, together with 32 spandaus and four 75-millimetre anti-tank guns.
The Aucklanders had not been alone in their exploit. While returning from the final advance down the reverse slopes, Captain Aked had asked some question of a man walking beside him. To his surprise the reply came in an unmistakably English voice. ‘Who the hell are you?’ Aked demanded, and the answer came, ‘I'm a tankey, sir.’ It transpired that seven men of the Royal Tank Regiment, whose vehicles had been knocked out, had gone forward as unannounced volunteers with A Company to finish off affairs with the bayonet.
As battalion reserve, B Company was last to leave the start line. Moving 500 yards in rear of Battalion Headquarters, it reached the first objective and paused while Major Andrews went forward to discover the situation. Boord had just been brought back wounded to A Company headquarters, while the company's platoons were edging forward as previously described. Colonel Conolly was up forward, directing the battle from his tactical headquarters. Throughout the action he experienced difficulty in maintaining contact not only with Brigade Headquarters but also with the Royal Tank Regiment. ‘I had to resort to climbing into tanks and sending messages over the tank wireless network.’18 Conolly now sent a signal by radio to B Company, ordering Andrews to move forward on the line of C Company's attack, over ground clear of the enemy, and take the troublesome strongpoints in rear. B Company's signaller, however, failed to deliver the message, and Andrews was left to his own devices. Conolly had previously impressed upon his subordinates the absolute necessity of pushing on in face of all odds. Bearing this in mind, and believing a frontal advance to be suicidal, Andrews decided, after consultation with Aked, to move his company out to the left, link up if possible with 25 Battalion, which was operating in conjunction with the Divisional Cavalry in the Tebaga foothills, and then take the enemy's strongpoints from the west. Had Conolly's signal been received, B Company would have moved forward along a route already fairly well cleared by Seal's page 176 men. In the event, Andrews chose a dangerous line of advance when a far safer one lay open.
B Company now moved out some way to the west before swinging right and advancing in extended order across the minefield. Emerging from dead ground over the crest of a rise, the company was brought to a standstill by heavy small-arms fire. ‘The action’, writes Major Andrews in his report, ‘resolved itself into a straight out shooting match with the range only 100 to 200 yards, and was fought between groups and individuals. The air was thick with smoke and dust with a hot wind in our faces, and the enemy was clearly rattled by our sudden appearance, as they kept jumping about and running to and fro.
‘On my immediate front, our accurate fire bowled most of them and some Italians began yelling and throwing up their hands, but were rallied by two Germans, a sergt. and a Red Cross chap, both of whom we killed. (The sergt. had on him the Iron Cross and Italian Croce di Guerra so must have been a hot number.) On my immediate left was a knoll and some enemy appeared on it. I yelled to men behind me to watch it and Sgt Sisterson19 very coolly shot five of them with his rifle, all through the head. Others accounted for some, and Sgt Mjr Bowman20 and Cpl Dallard21 led a rush up it (the knoll) from the rear and cleared it. (This was, though we didn't know it till next day, the extreme flank of the enemy position, so we had almost achieved our object.)
‘On our front, an enemy tank churned its way over the crest. Having nothing to have it on with, we all ceased firing and kept down. It did not advance further and shortly after made off. No doubt their own minefield, just behind us, was the reason it stopped.
‘On my right, 11 Platoon had a fierce fire fight with the enemy and actually used grenades, Sgt Exon22 and Pte Crockett23 being prominent. 12 Platoon were not involved to any page 177 great extent and gave covering fire. I was pinned down till dusk (about 1800 hrs). It was clear the enemy was too strong for clearing in daylight, but I extricated my coy at 1830 hrs, formed them up and went back to Bn HQ to see what the state of the poll was.’
It was after dusk when Andrews reached Battalion Headquarters. By that time A Company had stormed the strongpoints and Colonel Conolly had arrived on the scene. Finding that B Company was still strong and capable of further action, the Commanding Officer gave orders for it to move round the left flank once more and try if possible to get in touch with D Company and 25 Battalion. In case the troublesome tank should still be in its former position, he also sent a few men with sticky bombs. Andrews formed up his command as for a night attack and swung out to the left, making a slightly wider sweep than on the first occasion. Meanwhile the enemy had withdrawn, and B Company passed on west of the strongpoints that A had reduced with scarcely a check to its progress. Many German dead lay in the track of its former advance, and the wreck of a 24 Battalion carrier stood within twenty yards of a 75-millimetre anti-tank gun by which it had been knocked out. On the way B Company was joined by a few survivors of D, who had broken into the heart of the enemy position and stayed there, isolated, until relieved by the eventual success of our attack. Round about midnight Andrews' men consolidated their position close to the battalion's final objective on C Company's left flank.
The 1st Armoured Division had long since passed through the gap made by New Zealand Corps and was preparing to advance on El Hamma. On the right Hill 209 still held out and continued to do so till next day, but so far as 24 Battalion was concerned the battle of Tebaga Gap, an engagement that may come to rank with Austerlitz and Salamanca as models of its kind, had been fought and won with no little credit to the Aucklanders. Between 400 and 500 prisoners had been taken, together with a large and varied assortment of war material. Most of the prisoners were Germans of a crack corps, as the strongpoints on the ridge had been manned by 1/125 Panzer Grenadier Regiment. The Italians had been mainly page 178 on their right in the line of B Company's attack. The 24th Battalion's casualties on 26 March numbered 50 killed and 62 wounded. D Company had suffered most heavily, but A Company's losses were also severe. At one time nine men were believed to be missing but they all came in later.
In course of time a number of decorations were distributed among the Aucklanders in recognition of their fine showing on 26 March. Colonel Conolly received a DSO for his masterly handling of the affair, while Captain Aked was given an MC for an accumulation of distinguished services performed at El Alamein, El Agheila, and El Hamma. The latter award was also bestowed on Lieutenant Walters,24 of A Company, for his leading of 8 Platoon in its first attack on the strongpoints. Private O'Brien,25 Corporal Campbell,26 and Corporal Rabarts27 all received MMs for bravery and presence of mind displayed at such moments of danger or crisis as bring natural leaders of men to the fore. The occasion may not be untimely for pointing out that awards for gallantry are to some extent a question of good fortune as well as distinguished conduct. The fact that many brave deeds must go unrewarded by authority and unrecorded by the historian is a matter for regret, but one for which there is no present remedy.
The battalion's casualties for the period 20-28 March were:
|Died of wounds||–||8|
3 Letter, Capt Boord, 18 Apr 1943.
7 Letter, Capt Boord, 16 Jun 1943.
8 Probably a Mark 4 Special.—Narrator's note.
9 According to orders and other observers, Boord's timings are a little out. Tanks moved at 3.30 p.m. to cross start line at four o'clock. But some may have moved earlier.—Note by Editor-in-Chief.
10 Report on Supercharge II, Lt-Col Conolly.
11 Report on Supercharge II, Capt Seal.
14 Report, Lt Friend.
18 Report by Lt-Col Conolly.
27 2 Lt A. J. Rabarts, MM; born England, 16 May 1915; farm manager; prisoner of war 21 Mar 1944.