CHAPTER 9 — Tunisia to Italy
The enemy forces had now retired into the Mareth line, about 180 miles to the west of Tripoli. This was a strongly fortified position, prepared by the French before the war as a precaution against Italian aggression, and extending from the coast north-east of Mareth for 20 miles or more in a south-westerly direction before swinging to the north into the Matmata Hills, 30 miles south-west of Gabes. The main defences consisted of several independent but mutually supporting strong-points with concrete pillboxes and gun emplacements and had both natural and artificial anti-tank obstacles. The original line had been extended from the Matmata Hills for another 12 miles to the north-west across the Tebaga Gap, through which a road running to the north-east gave access to El Hamma and Gabes. The new works at the Tebaga Gap included prepare infantry positions with weapon pits, wire, and a short anti-tank ditch. The defences there did not appear to be highly developed and had little depth.
Fifty-first (Highland) and 7 Armoured Divisions had followed the enemy and were in contact opposite the Mareth line, the former on the right and the latter with its left on Medenine. The enemy was in a difficult situation with British and American forces gradually closing in from northern Tunisia and the Eighth Army gathering strength opposite the Mareth line. In mid-February he had already, with considerable initial success, attacked the Allied forces in the north in the hope of crippling them before Eighth Army could concentrate, but the approach of the latter had forced the enemy to assume the defensive in the north and return to the Mareth line with the bulk of his armour to attack there before his opponent was ready. This attack was expected on 4 March in the Medenine area, and 2 NZ Division was ordered forward to be in position in that locality by the afternoon of 3 March.
Sixth Brigade left Suani Ben Adem for Medenine, about 160 miles to the west, in the morning of 2 March. Travelling throughout the night, 25 Battalion reached Medenine the following morning. The greater part of the journey was over the page 269 asphalted coastal road which, although cratered in many places, provided easy going, but the 50 miles of road beyond Ben Gardane was badly potholed. Burnt-out vehicles, road demolitions, and marked minefields were familiar signs of the enemy's retreat. Headlights were permitted as far as Ben Gardane, 25 miles west of the Tunisia-Tripoli border. It was a tiring journey, very cold, with the men cramped for room, and it was a relief to reach the position.
The brigade was in reserve on high ground to the north-east of Medenine, 25 Battalion being on the left, facing west, with its left flank two miles north of the town. The frontage of 2000 yards was held by D Company (Morrison) on the right, B Company (Wilson) in the centre, and C Company (Norman) on the left; A Company (Matthews) was in reserve.
The Division's front was held by 5 Brigade, which had arrived the day before, its forward troops being about four miles to the west and south-west of Medenine. It was in touch with a British brigade on its right and armoured forces were patrolling to the front and on its left. As divisional reserve 6 Brigade had to be ready for a mobile, supporting, or counter-attack role, or to hold the position it occupied. In the last case its left flank was open to attack from the south and Colonel Morten concentrated there, in C Company's area, all his anti-tank guns (including his two six-pounders), with the exception of one two-pounder left with D Company and another with B Company. His reserve company was also on the left flank, about 800 yards behind C Company. Sixth Brigade mobile reserve strengthened both the left and right flanks of the battalion by preparing positions for two troops of anti-tank guns and two machine-gun platoons, but these positions were not to be occupied until so ordered.
The troops stood to arms at a quarter to six next morning (4 March). The day was beautifully fine after a chilly night that had been disturbed a little by Desert Air Force bombers passing overhead and by the crash of their bombs in the distance. A field of oats of two acres accommodated part of 25 Battalion, which enjoyed a fairly quiet day. In the late afternoon there was some excitement when about twenty aircraft were manoeuvring overhead and the anti-aircraft guns were very active; three aircraft were shot down and, after much argument as to their identity, it was learnt that they were German.page 270
During the night while the companies practised night operations, fire from the artillery nearby added a realistic touch. Extensive movements of enemy tanks and transport reported by air during the day had pointed to the possibility of an attack the following day, but all remained quiet though small parties of enemy infantry, transport, and armoured cars were seen. A projected relief of 28 (Maori) Battalion by 25 Battalion, and of the Coldstream Guards on the right of the Maoris by 24 Battalion, caused Brigadier Gentry and the two commanding officers and their staffs to make a series of reconnaissances; a few hours later officers of the Northumberland Hussars and 2 Cheshires reconnoitred 6 Brigade area in readiness to relieve the two battalions, but in the early afternoon the proposed reliefs were cancelled.
For 25 Battalion and the remainder of 6 Brigade Group in their somewhat retired positions, 6 March opened with a rumble of guns. There was considerable artillery fire to the west and south-west all day, though only two shells fell in the battalion's position, bursting near B Company without effect. There was also much air activity, including enemy dive-bombing, which had the men moving rapidly into their slit trenches throughout the day; little damage was done.
For troops holding the forward positions the picture was different. About 6 a.m. fairly heavy enemy shelling commenced and for the next hour and a half enemy transport, guns, and tanks advanced eastwards from the hills west and south-west of Medenine. Orders had been issued to withhold fire until tanks were at point-blank range, and it was remarkable to see the enemy advance proceeding while the Allied guns remained silent. The attack was easily repulsed and there was no further attack that morning. In the late afternoon about 1000 enemy infantry and forty tanks advanced against Pt 270, an important tactical feature about five miles west of 25 Battalion. It was met by devastating artillery fire and repulsed with heavy casualties. Farther north, beyond the right flank of the Division, an enemy infantry attack gained some initial success which was nullified by a counter-attack. By dusk the enemy was retiring, and next morning it seemed unlikely that the attack would be renewed.
There was considerable air activity at dawn, and an Italian pilot who had been shot down landed near 25 Battalion. The church service at 10 a.m. was interrupted for a few minutes by an air raid and ‘there was a real good dog-fight at noon. page 271 Plenty of air activity for the rest of the day’, according to Wakeling. As no lights were to be used it was a case of ‘early to bed’. Reinforcements of one officer and 112 men arriving after noon next day brought the battalion very close to its war establishment, the strengths of the companies being HQ 351, A 110, B 101, C 103, D 108. Intensive training was carried out during the next three days and the opportunity was taken to give the trucks a disruptive design to aid camouflage. All men in excess of 90 per cent of war establishment were classified as LOB and, with Major Porter and Captain Wroth, left the battalion in the afternoon of 10 March for the New Zealand Advanced Base at Tripoli.
To deal with the Mareth line General Montgomery decided to attack in the coastal sector and at the same time carry out a wide turning movement around the enemy's inland flank. New Zealand Corps comprising 2 NZ Division, 8 Armoured Brigade, King's Dragoon Guards, 64 Medium Regiment, RA, and General Leclerc's (Free French) force was to undertake the turning operation.
From 11 to 17 March the various groups of New Zealand Corps (other than the French, who were some 40 miles to the south-west of Medenine) were moving by a circuitous route to an assembly area about 50 miles south-south-west of Medenine. This route ran through Ben Gardane, 43 miles to the south-east, thence 70 miles to the south-west through Foum Tatahouine to Bir Amir, and then about ten miles westwards to the assembly area. Sixth Brigade Group was the first to move, Brigade Headquarters leaving early on the 11th. Twenty-fifth Battalion followed a little later in the day, halting for a few hours at a staging area about 70 miles away, and then, travelling throughout the night, reached its area another 70 miles farther on a little after daybreak. It was cold and dusty in the vehicles and, as no headlights were permitted, the journey was slow and the driving difficult, with the vehicles constantly opening out and closing. The battalion had no accidents, but elsewhere in the Brigade Group one vehicle was blown up on a mine and a gun tractor and some 3-ton trucks capsized.
The orders required that all precautions were to be taken to avoid observation and identification during the move. Arrangements were made for wireless deception and silence, the fernleaf signs on vehicles were obliterated, and shoulder titles and hat badges removed. After arriving at the assembly area in the morning of 12 March vehicles were to move as page 272 little as possible during daylight, and then only at reduced speeds to avoid raising dust; no fires or lights were permitted after dusk; no tents were to be pitched and bivouacs were not to be erected before 6 p.m.; no anti-aircraft gun or weapon of any sort was to open fire upon enemy aircraft unless it dropped a bomb or opened fire.
While the remainder of the New Zealand Corps was assembling, 25 Battalion continued to carry out such training as was possible under the restrictions imposed. Conferences and tactical exercises without troops were held for the officers. A plaster model of the area where operations were expected to take place page 273 was used to explain the overall plan, first to the officers and then to the senior NCOs, so that before the battalion left the area, the leaders of all ranks had been well briefed and the men had a good understanding of the impending operation. Air photographs of the enemy position at Tebaga Gap became available after a few days and were a very valuable aid to realistic discussions and planning.
On the 17th a strong, cold wind with much dust, followed by rain the next day, made conditions very unpleasant. ‘Very cold and wet night. Packed ready for a move but no move. Real winter's day’ read an entry in a diary. The battalion carriers rejoined a couple of hours after midnight, titles, badges, and vehicle signs were replaced, and at dusk on 19 March 6 Brigade Group resumed the advance on the Tebaga Gap. The wind had eased and the sky had cleared as 25 Battalion closed to night-visibility distance and moved off over rough, scrubby country abounding in sand drifts and wadis which gave the drivers some difficulty. The Brigade Group was following the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry and armour at the head of the Corps until the early morning, 25 Battalion halting for the night about 2 a.m. some ten miles east of Ksar Rhilane and 40 miles south of the Tebaga Gap.
After breakfast, as the battalion was on its way once more, artillery fire in the distance dispelled any illusion there may have been that in these wide desert spaces the war was far away. The march continued slowly all day, over rough country at times, crossing many dry creek beds which forced the columns to converge on occasions. Towards evening American Warhawk aircraft attacked but the battalion was not involved, and after travelling about 30 miles it halted just after dark. Some distance ahead artillery in action could be seen.
Early the following morning, 21 March, Colonels Morten and Fountaine1 (26 Battalion) accompanied Brigadier Gentry on a reconnaissance with General Freyberg of the enemy position at Tebaga Gap. The Gap was a defile about four miles wide, with high hills to the south-east and north-west. The road through it gave access through El Hamma to Gabes on the coast, 30 miles to the north-west of the coastal end of the Mareth line and about the same distance from the Gap. Allied troops passing through the Gap would therefore be a grave menace to the enemy holding the Mareth position.page 274
Although the difficulties of the desert approach from the south, which the New Zealand Corps had just accomplished, were commonly believed to prevent any large force appearing at the Gap, the enemy had made some preparations against such a contingency. His defences ran north-west across the Gap, following generally the line of the old Roman Wall, which the passage of centuries with their countless sand-laden winds had reduced to an archæological curiosity, a mere two-foot wall of rubble in many places. A few hundred yards in front of the wall, that is, on its south-western side, and almost in the middle of the Gap was Pt 201, a defended outpost; a minefield extended across the front and barbed-wire entanglements protected part of the defences. Further works to the north-east gave some depth to the position.
Following the reconnaissance and in accordance with his instructions to capture Pt 201, Brigadier Gentry, in the late afternoon of the 21st, issued his orders. The attack was to be made by 26 Battalion on the right and 25 Battalion on the left, the inter-battalion boundary running north and south through the centre of the objective. A start line 3500 yards from the objective was selected. On the battalions' leaving the start line at 9.30 p.m., the artillery would open fire on the enemy forward positions about a mile away, the fire remaining there for twenty-one minutes and finishing with one round of smoke per gun. The fire would then lift 300 yards and after one minute lift again, and continue on Pt 201 at the rate of one round per gun per minute as a guide for the advancing infantry.
The infantry rate of advance was to be 100 yards in one and a half minutes as far as the enemy forward positions and thereafter 100 yards in two minutes. The axis of advance to the centre of the start line would be lit with the usual provost lights, ending with two blue lights. Units not taking part in the attack were to remain where they were. A section of engineers was attached to each of the two battalions to clear lanes through the minefields, 2 Section 8 Field Company being with 25 Battalion.
A slight hitch in placing the lights on the axis caused Brigadier Gentry to delay the start half an hour. Meanwhile, in the early afternoon, 25 Battalion had moved forward for two hours over a track from which the loose sand had been removed by bulldozers, and halted in desert formation while tanks and artillery were engaging the enemy. It was during this halt that the brigade order for the attack was received, and at 5.30 p.m. page 275 the battalion advanced another two miles, debussed, and marched about half a mile to its forming-up position. During the move the battalion was machine-gunned by a low-flying Ju88 but suffered no casualties or damage.
It was bright moonlight when at 10 p.m. 25 Battalion crossed the start line with two companies forward, C Company (Norman) on the right and A Company (Matthews) on the left. D Company (Morrison) was in the centre behind the leading companies, with Battalion Headquarters following and B Company (Wilson) in reserve in rear. After advancing about 1500 yards without opposition, the first three companies and Battalion Headquarters passed through the minefield and over a deep anti-tank ditch with little difficulty, though heavily laden men had some trouble scrambling up the steep sides of the ditch. At this stage C Company, losing direction a little, deviated to the right and, encountering a double-apron wire entanglement while under heavy small-arms fire, overcame the obstacle and captured its first objective; this was a strongly prepared position which was actually in 26 Battalion's area. Many Italians were captured.
To cover C Company's original frontage, A Company Inclined to the right and D Company came up on its left, the three companies covering the front. The final objective, Pt 201, lay about 2000 yards ahead, and after reorganising C Company continued the advance. The enemy appeared to be taken completely by surprise and the company, still well to the right, secured the south-eastern slopes of Pt 201, capturing many Italians, including a colonel, and much war material. C Com- page 276 pany then reorganised to meet a possible counter-attack; its casualties were three killed and ten wounded, the latter including Lieutenant Riddiford2 and Second-Lieutenant Treadwell.3
The advance continued until it was discovered that the battalion was about 400 yards to the right of its objective. A Company then worked to the left and advanced to the top of the hill, where it encountered no opposition until, on crossing the skyline, it met spasmodic and badly controlled fire. Nos. 7 and 8 Platoons then charged forward and effectively silenced all opposition. Meanwhile 9 Platoon had worked forward and taken further machine-gun positions and prisoners, rejoining the company on the objective. A Company then moved to the forward slopes and, under considerable shellfire, dug in to the west of C Company, with 9 Platoon on the right about 300 yards north-east of the trig, 8 Platoon on the left about the same distance to the north of the trig, and 7 Platoon about 200 yards behind 8 Platoon. A few unsuspecting enemy callers and escapees were captured while the company was digging itself in. There were many prisoners and much material, including three field guns, three trucks, and many medium machine guns. A considerable quantity of rations was found and appropriated, the German bread being especially relished as a fine change from hard biscuits.
D Company (Morrison) followed behind until the minefield was reached, when it came forward on the left of A Company. The enemy then opened fire with machine guns and 20-millimetre Bredas. The wire entanglement gave some trouble as a Bangalore torpedo failed to explode, causing delay while several gaps were cut by hand. All three platoons suffered casualties. The company then charged through the wire and attacked the first enemy positions, which were quickly overcome by the use of bayonets and grenades. No. 17 Platoon captured a Breda gun and killed the crew; 18 Platoon charged and captured a small field gun and some prisoners and then advanced half-left to cover the company and battalion left flank. There it surprised a number of the enemy near several vehicles, which it immobilised, and knocked out some machine guns, capturing a great many prisoners in deep dugouts near a couple of small hills and in a wadi. Crossing the wadi, the platoon took more machine guns and prisoners on the flat ground beyond.
During these operations 16 (Reserve) Platoon had advanced straight ahead towards the left of Pt 201, mopping up dugouts page 278 and taking prisoners. On its final objective the platoon captured four 75-millimetre field guns. Continuing its advance, 17 Platoon (on the right of 18 Platoon) advanced to the top of Pt 201 and took four 80-millimetre field guns. On the objective D Company dug in on the left flank of the battalion with A Company on its right; 17 Platoon was 400 yards north of Pt 201 in touch with 16 Platoon, 350 yards to its left, and with 8 Platoon of A Company 200 yards away to the right; 18 Platoon was 600 yards west of Pt 201. While the company was digging in Major Morrison ordered all three platoons to carry out aggressive patrolling, with most fruitful results. D Company had taken about 500 prisoners and fifteen 75-mm and 80-mm field guns for a casualty list of only nine men wounded.
The enemy positions were well sited and deeply dug and, held in strength as the number of prisoners and the capture of over 100 machine guns revealed, should have offered very stout resistance. A personal account by a man of the battalion is illuminating:
‘At 2200 hours the infantry advanced expecting to encounter heavy opposition. They negotiated a deep tank trap safely but had a few casualties in a minefield behind it. Next came a small trench whose occupants were taken prisoner with no great effort. About 300 yds further the Battalion was stopped for a rest and smoke and the idea spread that the attack was over. … When they started again, after about 15 mins, the men went forward smoking and talking up the ridge. On the top they were surprised to find a semi-circle of perfectly sited positions unoccupied. A search was made and in deep dugouts behind they found the Italian garrison who were not prepared to show any fight. While the prisoners were being sorted more Ites showed up, totally unaware there'd been any attack. They had been in a neighbouring area visiting another unit. It was learnt from the Ites that the 19th Light Panzer were due to take over that evening but had not showed up and actually they arrived next morning, but after recce dug in some distance away … the positions were amongst the most perfectly sited the Battalion had seen.’
B Company (Wilson), in reserve behind Battalion Headquarters, advanced ten minutes after the leading companies had crossed the start line. No so fortunate as the other companies, the company was pinned down in the minefield for fifteen minutes by enemy artillery defensive fire while the leading companies were capturing the feature just beyond. Here tragedy befell the company, all its headquarters becoming casualties page 279 through mines and its commander, Captain Wilson, being killed. After the minefield was crossed, 12 Platoon from reserve was pushed forward between C and A Companies to the crest of Pt 201 about 200 yards ahead, from which it gave covering fire to the troops attacking round the flanks. The capture of the final objective, Pt 201, was completed about 11.30 p.m. and, with the exception of 12 Platoon, B Company took up a position at the rear of the battalion on the reverse or southern slopes of the hill. Its casualties were one officer and four other ranks killed and three other ranks wounded.
The anti-tank platoon also struck trouble in the minefield, as Private Hawkins relates:
‘Waiting on the starting line we all took good nips and joked and the show looked fine. Half-an-hour later it was just merry hell as well-dug-in Bredas went “glug-glug-glug-glug” and red-hot tracer shells skimmed the ground; as LMG fire sprayed the area with illuminated death; as S-mines4, telemines, and mortars went off on all sides. Our model show had developed into a nightmare. The Breda shells flew lower still. Bill and Jack Gospod5 appeared to be squirming around and then laughed. I thought they were drunk. A shell, they found, had gone clean through Gossie's pack. Then someone called “Jack Lawrence6 (Sgt) has been hit”. We dashed to him but there was an inch hole drilled in his tin hat. Twenty yards to my right there was a flash and a bang and an S-mine collected Bill and Gos in the arms and Ray in the legs and groin. The place was absolutely lousy with them, planted amongst the young corn, and though bayonets stuck in the ground marked the presence of some, the majority were passed unobserved.
‘Then suddenly it was all over. D Coy … had worked around the flank and appeared silhouetted on the hill-top behind the enemy, whence, in the most thrilling sight of my life, they delivered a rapid and overwhelming attack on the key positions. Soon Hill 201 was in the hands of the Battalion. Support groups came up and the position was consolidated.’
The battalion's casualties during the actual attack on 21–22 March were three officers and forty-seven other ranks. One officer and ten other ranks were killed, and two officers and thirty-seven other ranks were wounded.page 280
Twenty-fifth Battalion's position on Pt 201 was under enemy observation from the high ground, particularly that to the north-west. It was well prepared against tank attack by the siting before dawn of three 17-pounder, ten 6-pounder, and three 2-pounder anti-tank guns for all-round defence, and in addition was covered by such of the Corps artillery as had been moved within range.
As dawn broke, 6 Platoon of 2 MG Company attached to 25 Battalion, which had just dug positions on the northern slopes of Pt 201, was fired on by 47-millimetre guns situated on a ridge 1500 yards away. This caused an immediate reaction by the machine-gunners, whose heavy fire forced the enemy to retire; they also engaged enemy vehicles at long range. Later in the morning a Crusader tank on occupying the ridge destroyed one of the 47-millimetre guns and secured the surrender of about 200 Italians.
The battalion mortars were active after dawn against any targets which presented themselves; a mortar section with D Company silenced four field guns at 950 yards range, causing thirty-eight Italians to come over and surrender; anti-tank guns at 2600 yards were silenced and various machine guns were fired on. Mortars with A Company were also engaged with machine guns and those with C Company fired on infantry in positions to their front. The machine guns and mortars were particularly valuable at this stage, when the artillery was moving forward and was required to conserve ammunition for vital tasks.
Exposed to observation as it was, 25 Battalion during the day experienced a good deal of artillery fire, suffering ten casualties, including Captain Matthews, the commander of A Company, who was wounded. The New Zealand Corps artillery responded briskly to the enemy guns and its counter-battery bombardments were very effective. Crossings over the anti-tank ditch and through the gaps in the minefield were widened and improved during the early hours to assist the advance of the armour. As early as 2.30 a.m. a squadron of Sherman tanks under command of 6 Brigade commenced to move forward through the gap behind 25 Battalion, following the carriers but ahead of the other supporting arms of the battalion. At first light an armoured regiment advanced through the obstacles and was followed by the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry. Enemy artillery was quickly in position on the high ground on both sides of the Gap, and heavy fire from 88-millimetre guns page 281 at long range and from other anti-tank guns at shorter ranges prevented the armour from pushing through and exploiting success as had been planned. Little effort appears to have been made to exploit success.
From their elevated position on Pt 201 the men of 25 Battalion had a grandstand view of all that occurred. They watched the RAF bomb and machine-gun the enemy positions and saw the first Spitfire and Hurricane tank-buster aircraft in action; this was most impressive though some of the first targets were ill-chosen. The armoured regiment and the Divisional Cavalry did not get more than 2500 yards beyond Pt 201, though they were collecting prisoners throughout the morning and were engaged at times in hull-down actions with enemy tanks, which soon appeared in increasing numbers. Several small ineffective enemy air attacks took place during the day.
At 7.30 p.m. (22 March) 6 Brigade was to take over from the armour the responsibility for the front, and by that hour the two forward battalions after dusk were to straighten the front. Twenty-fifth Battalion was to move its right flank farther to the right (or east) and swing its left forward a little. Twenty-sixth Battalion on the right was to advance level with 25 Battalion, but its right flank was to be refused or swung back to the south-east. Except for some fighting on the right of 26 Battalion, the new front was established without difficulty, 25 Battalion moving B Company (Captain Hewitt) forward and farther west on the left flank of A Company, the foremost defended localities of the battalion being generally a little short of the Roman Wall.
Wakeling said in his diary:
‘Mar 23. Stand-to at daylight as our tanks moving forward. Shelled consistently all morning as bty of our 25-pdrs moved in close behind us. Coy formed up again so went back with Capt Hewitt. Plenty of shelling off-and-on during the afternoon and the total of prisoners around the 2000 mark. Moved forward about 1000 yards at 7 and dug in.’
By the morning of 23 March the enemy had reinforced his position with tanks and infantry and was using tanks defensively to provide a screen for his guns. Early in the morning the British armour had attempted to infiltrate the enemy positions on the right or eastern flank but had met with severe artillery and anti-tank fire and had made little progress. During the morning 25 Battalion's position was bombed on three occasions by enemy aircraft and once by the RAF, all with no effect. In the afternoon ground strips and smoke were used page 282 to direct the RAF to the enemy positions. The battalion ‘had a large V of cut-down kerosene tins burning all night to direct 'planes, right next to us,’ wrote Captain Webster (A Company). ‘This was the first time the Battalion had been in charge of one of these guides and were not too happy about it as it was in full view of the Hun but he never wasted a shell on it.’ Throughout the day there was considerable artillery activity on both sides, including counter-battery exchanges.
After dark 24 Battalion occupied a position on the left of 25 Battalion, extending the front along the general line of the Roman Wall to a point about 3600 yards north-west of Pt 201. The armour, which had moved over to the left flank where the ground was more suitable, advanced slowly the next morning and the artillery, concentrating on any targets that presented themselves, seemed to be gaining the ascendancy. Enemy aircraft on three occasions again dropped bombs near the battalion, again with no effect, and one aircraft was seen to be shot down. By nightfall tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade had secured high ground on the left, 4000 yards north-west of the battalion's forward positions, and a Divisional Cavalry patrol was 2500 yards north of the battalion.
On the other flank a French force had infiltrated the enemy positions on the high ground south-east of 6 Brigade and was attacking the following day to link up with the right flank of the brigade. In the late afternoon of 24 March the appearance of a lorry, preceded by a motor-cycle, on the El Hamma- Kebili road, and moving steadily towards the New Zealand position, intrigued the men of 25 Battalion on the forward slopes of Pt 201. Unfortunately, as so frequently happened on such occasions, someone—this time the New Zealand machine-gunners—opened fire at a range of 2000 yards and so prevented the much closer view the expectant infantrymen had hoped to obtain. The following morning bombs were dropped at the rear of the battalion's position by an enemy fighter-bomber and during the day there was the usual shelling, which the men were beginning to find very irksome. No doubt the enemy infantry felt the same about the shelling they were receiving, probably much more so.
Immediately the armour had passed through, New Zealand Corps would, with the greatest possible despatch, destroy the enemy in the hills on either side of the Gap so that it could rejoin the Armoured Division in the Hamma-Gabes area without delay.
The attack by New Zealand Corps was to be made on a two-brigade front, 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left, with 8 Armoured Brigade superimposed over the whole front. The attack would be supported by the whole of the Corps artillery, reinforced by two field regiments and one medium regiment of 10 Corps. A creeping barrage was to be fired, with timed concentrations on known enemy positions and batteries. Eighth Armoured Brigade during the attack was to move in advance of the infantry and at 4 p.m. would cross the start line, which in the centre was about 600 yards north-east of the Roman Wall, followed at 4.15 p.m. by 5 and 6 Brigades.
The rate of advance to the first objective, 2000 yards from the start line, was to be 100 yards in one minute, and to the second objective (a further 2700 yards) 100 yards in two minutes. There was to be no pause on the first objective. The Divisional Cavalry in support of 6 Brigade would move north-east along the foothills on the western flank and assist in mopping up.
On the capture of the final objective 5 Brigade was to exploit along the high ground to the east while 6 Brigade completed the mopping-up of enemy pockets in the foothills to the west. Before the attack several adjustments in the dispositions of the forward troops were necessary. On the night before, 5 Brigade was to take over the existing forward defence line of 6 Brigade and was to capture Pt 184, a dominating feature on the right flank, which completely overlooked the start line.
Twenty-sixth Battalion was to be relieved by the Maori Battalion and would then take over the 25 Battalion area to the east of the road and forward of Pt 201, to 1000 yards beyond the Roman Wall. Twenty-fourth Battalion was to remain on the left flank as far as the road, with its forward line level with 26 Battalion.
Twenty-fifth Battalion, on relief by 26 Battalion, was to relieve a battalion of the Buffs on the left flank. For the operation 25 Battalion was allotted one machine-gun platoon and those anti-tank guns of 33 Anti-Tank Battery already supporting it, and was also to take over 57 Anti-Tank Battery, RA, from the Buffs.page 285
All these preparations were to be completed in darkness and movement after dawn was to be restricted to a minimum to prevent the enemy discovering the start line dispositions. However, 25 Battalion moved over to the left flank in the early afternoon of 25 March and relieved the Buffs as arranged, a strong wind and a good deal of dust reducing enemy observation. Only light shelling was experienced during the move.
In the very early hours of the 26th, 21 Battalion was firmly established on Pt 184 and the other battalions then moved to their allotted positions, though a company of the Maori Battalion could not reach the start line by dawn and so dug in a thousand yards short of it. The tanks also moved up in darkness into wadis and behind spurs ready to advance through the infantry in the afternoon.
On 6 Brigade's front the attack was to be made by 24 Battalion. There were two objectives: one, the high ground 1000 yards ahead, and the other a wadi another thousand yards farther on. From its position on rising ground on the left flank, 25 Battalion was to support the attack with observed fire and also assist the Divisional Cavalry in mopping up on that flank. The battalion was also to be prepared to advance to the line of the final objective on the left of 24 Battalion, a diversionary operation to widen the front of attack and so reduce concentration of fire against that battalion. It was to be supported by overhead fire from 1 MG Company, which had joined 25 Battalion the previous night.
During the many hours of daylight preceding the attack the men lay concealed in their slit trenches. The casualties since the attack on 21–22 March were one officer and twenty-two other ranks; of these, three other ranks were killed, one died of wounds, one officer (Captain Matthews, A Company) and eighteen other ranks were wounded.
The absence of any increase in the enemy artillery fire, except against the newly captured positions of 21 Battalion, was evidence of the success of the measures taken for concealment, though perhaps some credit should go to the windy and dusty conditions which reduced visibility, especially as the enemy had the wind, and therefore the dust, in his face.
Punctually at the arranged time, 3.30 p.m., the Allied air attack on enemy positions and gun emplacements began and the tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade moved from their concealed positions towards the Roman Wall on their way to the start page 286 line. After half an hour's air attack the guns opened fire and the tanks, followed by carriers, crossed the start line and commenced their advance.
From their elevated positions about 3000 yards west of the left flank of the first objective, 25 Battalion saw the first wave of the fighter-bomber attack sweep low across the enemy position, shooting up everything in sight, a most impressive display. The battalion's position was also strafed, causing one casualty. Earlier in the afternoon a United States pilot had baled out of his burning aircraft and landed in the battalion area, where he was joined by another pilot on his way to the rear. One Spitfire pilot, shot down just prior to the attack, remained with the battalion for the operation; much amusement was caused later on his remarking that he would rather do ten crashes than take part in another ‘ground show’.
The leading troops of the attacking battalions crossed the start line fifteen minutes after the barrage opened and followed the tanks and carriers towards the first objective. Seventeen minutes later, 25 Battalion advanced on its diversionary and mopping-up role. The battalion had two companies forward and two in support, C Company on the right supported by B Company, and A Company on the left supported by D Company.
C Company (Captain Norman) encountered heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and sent two sections forward under the covering fire of the remainder of the company. The sections advanced to an enemy position on a spur in line with the first objective of 24 Battalion and about 2000 yards out from its left flank, and, with a spirited attack with the bayonet, captured the position. The enemy immediately behind the spur retaliated, however, with small-arms fire and hand grenades and forced the sections back to take cover. From there the two sections inflicted many casualties on the enemy with rifle fire, resulting after dark in fifty men coming over and surrendering. C Company then moved up and occupied the enemy position, capturing fourteen heavy machine guns and so emphasising the great value of the operation to 24 Battalion. C Company lost four men killed and six wounded.
On the battalion's left flank, A Company (Captain Webster) had orders to advance 1000 to 2000 yards provided the enemy was not too strong. Webster had one platoon of medium machine guns, one section of mortars, and one section of carriers under command. The line of advance was roughly page 287 parallel to that of the main attack. A supporting machine gun, firing so low that it endangered the advancing men, and indeed is reported to have removed a cloth star from Lieutenant Mahar's shoulder, delayed the advance of the company until a message by runner corrected the error. A Company then crossed the start line at 4.40 p.m., about eight minutes late, supported by the fire of the machine guns and mortars, and for the first 600 yards met with little opposition excepting some machine-gun and 50-mm fire from the right flank. About 200 yards short of the objective the company encountered heavy fire. Only 8 Platoon, some men of Company Headquarters, and a few men of 7 Platoon were able to advance, and these pushed on across a wadi to a small hill beyond.
It was then discovered that the enemy had four Mark III and four Mark IV tanks about seventy-five yards to the front. Four of these moved across the front and came round into the wadi behind the company's forward troops, thus cutting their line of retreat. Several men who were trying to get back were killed or wounded and it was then decided to stay in the position until dusk. The enemy gave the men no respite, mortaring and sniping from the front and machine-gunning from the tanks in rear. The tanks appeared to have only armour-piercing ammunition for their 75-millimetre guns since, fortunately, no high-explosive shells were fired.
The forward troops of A Company were in this serious plight when 25 Battalion's anti-tank platoon intervened. Lieutenant Williams7 had taken a six-pounder forward to deal with enemy machine guns in derelict tanks, and after firing on these discovered the cause of A Company's distress. The six-pounder was immediately brought into action and destroyed a Mark III tank, so discouraging the others that they kept down in the wadi to avoid the six-pounder and from there were unable to harass A Company. Lieutenant Williams had been carrying out a reconnaissance on foot, despite the heavy fire, and after dealing with some enemy machine-gun posts in derelict tanks, he fortunately noticed A Company's predicament. For his ability, courage, and leadership he was awarded the Military Cross.
At dusk the enemy tanks withdrew, and as only one third of A Company had reached the forward position and there was a large gap on the right flank, the company withdrew to its page 288 former position. It was later discovered that the anti-tank platoon allotted to A Company had been diverted to protect D Company, which had sent 18 Platoon forward to keep in touch with A Company. While A Company was held up by the low-firing machine gun, 18 Platoon had five casualties, and when that company encountered the tanks, the platoon took cover in rear. Nos. 16 and 17 Platoons of D Company had also gone forward a little but had been pinned down by machine-gun fire, coming mostly from the tanks. The company lost its commander, Major Morrison, who was wounded when the anti-tank jeep, in which he was accompanying the anti-tank officer, Lieutenant Baker,8 was blown up on a mine, Baker being killed.
Although Pt 209, a very strongly defended feature on the right of 5 Brigade front, the objective of the Maori Battalion, gave serious trouble and was not finally subdued till late in the afternoon of the following day, 1 Armoured Division had passed through the forward New Zealand battalions by dusk and had then laagered until the moon had risen, when it continued the advance towards El Hamma.
After dark, when it was learnt that the main attack had been successful, 25 Battalion withdrew to the position it had left earlier in the afternoon. Patrols then sent forward discovered that the enemy had withdrawn. The casualties suffered by the battalion during the operation, though subject to some uncertainty regarding actual dates, were one officer and thirty-six other ranks: ten other ranks were killed, one officer and twenty-five other ranks were wounded, and one man was a prisoner of war.
On the morning of the 27th the battalion was under orders to be ready to move at thirty minutes' notice, but owing to enemy activity on the right flank, especially at Pt 209, the start was delayed until just before dusk. The transport was then brought forward and the battalion moved a short distance along the road to take its place in the Brigade Group towards the tail of the column, ahead of 24 Battalion and the Brigade Workshops; the head of the brigade was at the second objective of the previous day's attack, three miles north-east of the Roman Wall. No further move was made that night.
At dawn (28 March) the leading troops of the Corps resumed the advance and shortly afterwards a clash with the enemy, requiring the deployment of the artillery, resulted in the cap- page 289 ture of about 1000 Italians. A little later the New Zealand column turned to the east to avoid the El Hamma bottleneck, where the enemy was still opposing the advance of the armour.
Fifth Brigade Group had orders to remain behind to clear up the enemy still holding out on the right flank, while 6 Brigade Group was required to wait until 8 Armoured Brigade and the New Zealand gun group had passed through. Twenty-fifth Battalion did not move till nearly noon, when the column progressed slowly over rough country. It was a tiring day, hot and dusty, with many starts and stops, though the monotony was somewhat relieved by the frequent sight of abandoned enemy guns, vehicles, and equipment of all descriptions.
In the early afternoon the brigade column was bombed by eight Ju88s, which killed seven men and wounded twenty-three others throughout the brigade; bombs fell among 25 Battalion transport, killing Corporal Wood and wounding eight others. A couple of hours later enemy fighter-bombers attacked, fatally wounding Captain Ball,9 the Brigade IO.
About dusk the battalion closed to three columns to negotiate the defile across Wadi Merteba, about three miles to the east of the El Hamma road, and a couple of miles farther on changed to desert formation and halted for the night. The news then received that the Eighth Army held all the strong-points of the Mareth line was at least some recompense for the trials and dangers of the past week, and hopes were high that the campaign in North Africa was nearing its end.
Early the following morning, the 29th, it was learnt that the enemy had retired from El Hamma and also from positions ahead of the New Zealand Corps, which continued its advance on Gabes, 15 miles to the north-east. Having completed its task at the Gap, 5 Brigade had moved by a secondary road to a position five miles south of the battalion and was also advancing on Gabes, gradually converging on the divisional axis.
Twenty-fifth Battalion, which the previous night had halted some distance in rear of 6 Brigade, resumed the march at noon. It was another day of starts and stops and also of blinding dust, which was reduced a little when cultivated areas appeared. One halt was made to let General Leclerc's force through; another, of almost seven hours, was caused by the brigade changing from desert formation to column of route in order to use the road to Gabes, which 5 Brigade had reached first.page 290
On reaching the road after dark that day, 25 Battalion halted for the night and dispersed. Early next morning it formed up in nine columns, but owing to severe congestion ahead, especially in Gabes, did not move till noon, when it advanced, first in three columns and then in column of route, along the road. Gabes was reached after an hour's run and, passing through the town, the troops reached a staging area a couple of miles to the north-west.
The next day the men had the luxury of a swim at the beach before the battalion again moved off to the brigade area astride the main Gabes-El Hamma road, west of Gabes. The route crossed a landing ground which had been ploughed and mined, and because of delays due to cross traffic and congestion a halt was called a couple of miles past the landing ground, the march being resumed in the morning of 1 April.
Six days were spent in the brigade area, the main activities being maintenance of vehicles, sports, swimming at the Gabes beach, and a few route marches. At times enemy bombing was heard in the distance, but on Sunday, 4 April, it came a little nearer and apparently caught a truck which could be seen burning not far away. A couple of days later bombers were over most of the night, and just before dawn a very strong barrage which continued for hours was fired against enemy aircraft over Gabes.
It was a beautiful day, with scores of Allied fighter-bombers overhead, when on the 7th the battalion moved off once more. The route lay to the north and there were the usual delays due to obstacles and traffic congestion. After travelling 35 miles in thirteen hours the battalion at 10 p.m. halted at the tail of the Division, three or four miles to the north of Wadi Akarit. Commenting on the day's run, Wakeling wrote:
‘Off at 9. More planes overhead than I have ever seen in one day. A lot of Yankee planes about now. Kept moving until 11 p.m. over rough and dusty country and Jerry gave us a scare when he dropped a flare not far away. Chilly night and plenty of mosquitoes.’
The Wadi Akarit had been strongly held by the enemy after his retreat from the Mareth line. The forward troops of the Division had probed the position, and when it was found the enemy intended to defend it, the Division, which was being reserved for a mobile role later, was relieved on 2 April. Supported by New Zealand artillery three days later, an Indian and two British divisions secured a bridgehead through which page 291 the New Zealanders and other troops were to advance. For a time it was not possible to move the Division through, and on the morning of the 7th, 6 Brigade and 8 Armoured Brigade, supported by an artillery barrage and extensive air support, were to attack. However, the enemy withdrew during the night 6 – 7 April and in the morning the leading troops of the Division passed through. By nightfall, when 6 Brigade had caught up with the rear of the Division, the leading troops, including 5 Brigade, were 15 miles beyond the wadi.
The following day the battalion, with the rest of the brigade, slowly followed up the advance, which was meeting with occasional opposition from tanks and guns of enemy rear-guards. The route was over fairly flat country with many oat crops, and after travelling 12 miles the battalion halted for the day. It was windy and dusty and there was much activity by Allied fighter-bomber squadrons, each of eighteen aircraft, a cheerful sight for the advancing troops. Evidence of the successful operations ahead was provided throughout the day by the passage of Italian prisoners, driving their own trucks back through the battalion. That night by 10 p.m. the advanced troops of the Division had reached their objective, 20 miles farther to the north near the Sfax-Sbeitla road. The day was a notable one, not only for the successful operations but also for the gaining of contact with 2 United States Corps and the capture of the GOC Saharan Group, General Mannerini, and his complete staff.
Making an earlier start on 9 April and travelling for an hour before breakfast through large areas of wheat, 25 Battalion by noon had covered 29 miles and then halted for lunch. While halted the column was attacked by four Me109s which dived low and dropped a couple of bombs without effect. In mid-afternoon the battalion passed through the rest of the brigade to take the lead in place of 26 Battalion, which had been sent out to deal with enemy tanks and infantry reported on the right flank. By dusk the advanced troops of the Division were still south of the Sfax-Sbeitla road, which was held in some strength by the enemy.
Enemy aircraft could be heard overhead most of the night and the battalion seemed to be fortunate to escape casualties as there was heavy bombing all round. It was a very pleasant journey next day, with good going through cultivated country, the fields of oats sprinkled with poppies making an attractive picture, though no doubt the farmers in the battalion viewed page 292 the poppies with some distaste. In the afternoon large areas of olive trees stretched as far as the eye could see. The night was spent in an olive grove, and being the right forward battalion of the Brigade Group, 25 Battalion put out a gunline on the right flank.
The next day, Sunday, 11 April, was beautifully fine. Voluntary services were arranged by the Padre and, on an extra issue of water being made, the men washed both themselves and their clothes, which were hung on the olive trees to dry while the men remained stripped to the waist. This was the situation when orders came late in the afternoon for an unexpected and hurried move, causing a great rush to pack and dress. The move was a short one, the halt for the night being made to the west of La Hencha after 11 miles had been covered.
Administrative difficulties were still concerning the Higher Command as Eighth Army was being maintained along the single road from Tripoli, 300 miles back, and it was urgently necessary that the port of Sfax, just captured, should be got into working order forthwith. The operational role of the Division probably saved 25 Battalion, amongst others, from another spell as waterside workers.
Sousse, a little over 60 miles to the north, was the next objective of the New Zealand Division, which had its leading troops within 12 miles of it. It was taken without opposition in the morning of 12 April and the advance was continued towards the next target, the town of Enfidaville, 25 miles farther on. That day 25 Battalion had made an early start, halting for breakfast on the way. After various halts, and accompanied only by Brigade Headquarters and 33 Anti-Tank Battery, the battalion moving on at dusk finished the day's journey of 43 miles a little before midnight near Bourdjine, 16 miles south of Sousse. This night journey had been undertaken because of the congestion on the roads, which had halted the brigade for several hours. The remainder of the brigade rejoined the following morning and the column, moving at speed along the main road during the afternoon, passed through Sousse and ended the day's march of 28 miles a little before dusk. As the troops passed through Sousse and other centres they received an enthusiastic welcome, the warmth of which—so characteristic of the French—rather surprised the men.
During the day 5 Brigade had been in action against a strong enemy position near Takrouna, three miles west of Enfidaville, and had encountered stiff opposition which made it probable page 293 that the whole Division would have to take part. Early the following morning, 14 April, 6 Brigade was at half an hour's notice to move, and shortly afterwards 25 Battalion and 6 Field Regiment were sent forward. In a single column the battalion moved up the coastal road, adopting desert formation nine miles from Enfidaville. Three miles farther on, a village was being shelled by the enemy and, halting the battalion, Colonel Morten ordered the carriers and B Company (Captain Gaze10) to continue the advance.
The carriers reached the outskirts of Enfidaville, where enemy opposition prevented further progress. Supported by tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade, they then attempted an outflanking movement from the east. Meanwhile, B Company had taken up a position a little over five miles south of the town. The enemy had excellent observation to the south, and a couple of shells which landed close to the main body of the battalion led to some rapid digging and consequently better shelter from a number of shells which followed soon afterwards.
Early in the afternoon the mortars and anti-tank guns were sent forward. By dusk the carriers and tanks were 2000 yards to the north-east of Enfidaville and within a few hundred yards of the main road running north-east from the town. There they encountered enemy infantry and gun positions, covered by a minefield, and took a prisoner from III Battalion 47 PGR.11 The battalion was then ordered to advance to within 3000 yards of the town by dawn, and in the meantime to send patrols into it at midnight and at 3 a.m. After dark Battalion Headquarters with A, C, and D Companies advanced four miles to a position just ahead of B Company, where it had two companies forward, D on the right and C on the left astride the road, A Company being in support. At the times ordered reconnaissance patrols under Lieutenants Sanders and O'Connor were sent forward. Sanders's patrol saw no sign of the enemy and reported the town clear, but O'Connor's patrol found enemy posts, including a machine-gun post, and was fired on. A compressor was heard in the town.
The following morning 25 Battalion was instructed to prepare to carry out a company raid at midnight, but a few hours later this order was cancelled as a full-scale attack was thought to be necessary. That morning B Company was withdrawn to the B Echelon area, receiving en route some attention but no page 294 casualties from the enemy artillery, just a little ‘hurry up’, to use a popular term. The artillery of both sides was moderately active throughout the day, the New Zealand artillery engaging enemy infantry east of Enfidaville and the enemy employing counter-battery fire and accurate ranging on the road.
That night two companies of 26 Battalion were moved up on the left of 25 Battalion, linking the left of the battalion with the right of 28 Battalion of 5 Brigade, which was in position to the south of Takrouna. During the night there was a little ineffective enemy rifle, machine-gun and mortar fire at times against the forward posts; just before midnight a patrol of twelve men under Lieutenant Bourke,12 sent out to deal with the machine-gun post located the previous night, found it abandoned but was fired on by a machine gun in another position. A and D Companies each sent out two reconnaissance patrols on the flanks, one of A Company's patrols observing a small enemy patrol it was unable to attack.
The next morning (16 April) about 9 a.m. there was heavy shelling, the battalion OP receiving three direct hits. In the afternoon D Company, as well as jeeps on a reconnaissance, was also shelled. After dark a relief was to take place, troops of 50 Division taking over the coastal sector from 6 Brigade. It was a somewhat complicated relief as C Company was relieved by the Scots Guards and A and D Companies by the Grenadier Guards, while the Coldstream Guards were on the right flank. The reliefs commenced at 9 p.m. and within an hour heavy enemy artillery fire fell in front of C Company, suggesting enemy anticipation of an attack, but no further activity followed. To guard against any enemy enterprise during the relief, C Company had a patrol forward and towards the railway line on the left and D and A Companies provided protection on the flanks. A little after midnight the relief was completed and the battalion assembled by companies in the rear, calling up company transport by wireless as required and moving to an area about nine miles to the south.
The men were glad to find that the mosquitoes, which had been a real trial, were less numerous in the new area. A quiet day followed, though the artillery in front was active most of the time and many aircraft were passing overhead. Already well established in the rear, B Company did a two-hours' route march in the morning, the men being very much interested in the dozens of Arabs moving back with all their goods and chattels, sheep, page 295 goats, Jersey cows, and some grand hacks. The following day, Sunday, voluntary church services were again held, and in the afternoon, while Battalion Headquarters had a route march, the companies visited Hergla beach, ten miles away; though the beach was rocky and the water rather cold, the men enjoyed a refreshing swim. There was a fascinating spectacle in the afternoon when enemy aircraft bombed the main coastal road to the east of the battalion. All anti-aircraft guns within range, and probably many that were not, opened fire, small arms from 25 Battalion and other units in the vicinity joining in. There were many claimants of the one aircraft shot down. Although for the moment they were out of the battle, the men had a disturbed night; the atmosphere was close, it was too hot to sleep, the mosquitoes were again very bad, and the troops on both sides up at the front were very noisy.
A heavy attack on the enemy's Enfidaville-Takrouna position had been planned for the following night, 19–20 April. It was to be on a two-division front, with 2 NZ Division on the right and 4 Indian Division on the left, and with 7 Armoured Division covering the open left flank. The New Zealand attack was to be on a front of about 4600 yards and of about the same depth from the start line, with 6 Brigade on the right and 5 Brigade on the left.
For 6 Brigade's attack, 26 Battalion was to be on the right and 24 Battalion on the left, with 25 Battalion in reserve. Tanks under brigade command were to support the attack and afterwards protect the flanks. About an hour and a half after the attack started at 11 p.m., 25 Battalion would occupy the area vacated by 26 Battalion, and would be supported by 33 Anti- Tank Battery, less one troop accompanying 26 Battalion. Three 3-ton trucks of 25 Battalion were to be near the Brigade Control Post north of the assembly area to take prisoners of war to the rear. Twenty-fifth Battalion's position was to be that held by 26 Battalion on the left of the battalion four days before. The battalion was not to move before midnight.
The day of the attack was quiet, with early showers, and the night cloudy with a half-moon. The barrage started to time and was an impressive sight as, an hour later, the battalion made its way to its new position, which was occupied by 2.30 a.m. The barrage had then ceased, and a little later the welcome news was received that the initial stages of 6 Brigade's attack had been successful. The battalion stood-to at 5 a.m. and the men found it very cold after lying in the slit trenches for a couple page 296 of hours with no blankets, any slight chance of sleep they might have had being dispelled by the plague of mosquitoes. Further news of the attack showed that, except for defensive fire, the attack had been unopposed, and although the battalions were not quite on the second objective, the brigade was firmly established with supporting arms dug in and one regiment of tanks well forward.
It was now for 25 Battalion to interpose on 5 Brigade's front, as in the afternoon, having been placed under command of that brigade, Colonel Morten received orders from Brigadier Kippenberger to relieve 23 Battalion after dark. That battalion was now very low in strength. Twenty-fifth Battalion was instructed to move on foot to 24 Battalion's position, which lay to the east of 23 Battalion, and then to proceed north-westwards and effect the relief. This involved a march of about six miles.
At 7 p.m. (20 April) B Company and Battalion Headquarters went off, following 6 Brigade's axis to the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road, and thence north-west along the road to 23 Battalion's position. They were led through a minefield 1200 yards east of Takrouna by guides from 23 Battalion. The route passed through a field of oats of hip height and up a damp wadi, a great contrast with the desert. The men arrived wet with perspiration and dug in under the fire of snipers.
C, A, and D Companies followed an hour later. Bren carriers were used to carry ammunition, but except for supporting arms no other transport was used. Apart from a little shelling along the road, the relief was completed without incident before midnight. The four companies formed a perimeter defence, A Company astride the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road in the south-east sector, B Company close to the road in the south-west, D Company in the north-west, and C Company in the north-east sector, a more-or-less circular position approximately 600 yards in diameter. There was a gap of about 1000 yards between the eastern limits of C Company and the western flank of 24 Battalion, but during the night D Company of 24 Battalion took up a position about 700 yards east of 25 Battalion to cover the gap.
The battalion's mortars were sited within the perimeter and two six-pounder anti-tank guns, in positions near the road on the southern flank of A and B Companies, covered the eastern and western approaches along the road. The other anti-tank guns were sent back as the country was naturally tank proof page 298 and additional guns may well have drawn fire. The carriers were on the eastern flank just north of the road in the shelter of high ground to the north of them. During the night a good deal of activity was noticed on the top of Takrouna and it was learnt that the enemy had recaptured part of the summit.
Early the following morning 5 Platoon of 2 MG Company from the west side of Takrouna was sent up to 25 Battalion, and came under very heavy mortar and machine-gun fire while taking up a temporary position for the day. After dark one section was placed on the southern flank of A Company to cover the road to the west and also the front of C Company to the north-east; the other section, from rising ground on C Company's front, had fields of fire mainly to the west and north-west. During the day the enemy's positions were heavily shelled, particularly Pt 136, a thousand yards north-west of the battalion. The enemy artillery was also very active and the battalion had an unpleasant time, its positions being shelled and mortared all day and snipers on the high ground, which dominated the position on all sides, presenting a constant danger. During the morning eleven of the enemy from Djebel Bir, the commanding hill to the south, came in and surrendered, having evaded capture when 28 Battalion took the feature the day before.
In the afternoon three Crusader tanks under battalion command came forward and had a marked effect in reducing the activities of the snipers. Further relief came in the afternoon through the capture by troops of 21 and 28 Battalions of the summit, village, and slopes of Takrouna with over 300 prisoners, thus removing mortars and snipers which had constantly harassed 25 Battalion. Although the battalion had been under fire all day its casualties were surprisingly light, one man (Private Ashby13) of 12 Platoon being killed and seven, including Lieutenant O'Connor of D Company, wounded. The wounded were evacuated via a deep wadi which, after mines had been removed from it, gave a covered route via 24 Battalion.
That evening, 21 April, Brigadier Kippenberger with his Brigade Major visited the battalion and, to improve its tactical position, instructed Colonel Morten to secure the rest of the Cherachir feature by a silent attack by one company, to send patrols to establish contact with 21 Battalion on Takrouna, and to reconnoitre westwards along the Zaghouan road. The page 299 proposed attack was cancelled when a patrol report by Sergeant Mendelssohn14 of C Company convinced Morten that the operation would incur many casualties. The patrol had encountered the enemy and was forced to retire with one man wounded. Patrols had already made contact with 21 Battalion on Takrouna, and a patrol from B Company under Lieutenant Ralfe,15 reconnoitring for tanks 800 yards to the west along the Zaghouan road, was fired on by a machine-gun post. Another patrol, under Lieutenant Sanders of D Company, went out 1000 yards to the north-west to Pt 136 without encountering the enemy, though digging was heard there, the approaches were occupied, and the patrol was fired on.
Just before dawn the following morning (22 April) 25 Battalion fired Very lights to indicate its forward positions to the mortars and attached machine guns of 21 Battalion, which had relieved 28 Battalion on Takrouna. Three tanks came forward and by first light were in positions from which they could support the battalion.
The enemy had continued his intermittent shelling throughout the night and during the day there was a considerable increase in his concentrations. Between 10 a.m. and noon the shelling was severe. The whole of 25 Battalion's position received attention and the wadi running through it was systematically searched by fire. In this period the battalion had five killed and five (including Captain Macaskill) wounded. In the afternoon the severe shelling continued but was more spasmodic. One officer of the attached machine-gun platoon was wounded by mortar fire and a Vickers gun put out of action. Takrouna, to the south-west of 25 Battalion, and to a lesser extent the remainder of 5 Brigade's front, were also severely shelled throughout the day.
Brigadier Kippenberger had decided to regroup his brigade that night. Twenty-fifth Battalion was to relieve 21 Battalion on Takrouna and also was to change its dispositions elsewhere to avoid further heavy shelling next day. The positions on the low ground on the southern slopes of Cherachir, which had been taken over from 23 Battalion, were now of little value unless the crest also was held, and Colonel Morten was instructed to withdraw to fresh positions on the northern slopes of Takrouna and Djebel Bir.page 300
After dark Battalion Headquarters moved to a position on the east side of Takrouna and A and D Companies relieved 21 Battalion on that feature, A Company on the north-west slopes in a counter-attack role and D Company on the northern slopes. C Company remained in its position north of the road astride the wadi and facing generally north-west. B Company occupied positions on the north-west slopes of Djebel Bir about 300 yards north-west of Pt 132. The two six-pounder anti-tank guns remained in their positions facing east and west along the Zaghouan road and the mortars were allotted to C and D Companies. No. 4 MG Platoon relieved 5 MG Platoon and took up positions with D Company.
These arrangements were completed without incident. On the 23rd the enemy artillery was not quite so severe as before. At Battalion Headquarters two men were wounded and two trucks and a carrier damaged. Some heavy concentrations fell on the battalion's area, mostly however on the ground vacated the previous night, a matter of considerable satisfaction to the men on the higher slopes to the south. The Corps and Divisional Artillery were active on counter-battery and other tasks, amongst them the new role of indicating targets for the Allied aircraft by firing smoke on enemy gun-positions which were silent when the aircraft appeared.
The men were looking forward to relief that night. They had had a strenuous three days in a position dominated by the enemy, as some extracts from Wakeling's diary emphasise:
‘Apr 21. Shower before dawn. No sleep and pretty wet in a slit trench. Shelled and sniped all the time. Told at night we are to move out and assist the Maoris. One of our worst days. Our move cancelled at 7 p.m. and a rather hectic night but had a short sleep. Fred Ashby killed in 12 PI.
‘Apr 22. A filthy morning as our tanks came up near us and he gave them L. Shells flying all day and many narrow squeaks. Two men killed in 10 PI—Culshaw16 and Scott.17 Pulled back on to another feature after dark after burying Joe Kelleher18 who had been killed in 12 PI. Dug in on a steep face and plenty of lightning and a little rain. No sleep and muggy and plenty of mosquitoes.page 301
‘Apr 23. Shelled out of our holes about 7.30 and moved further round as the Hun plastered us. Two of 11 Pl buried in a slit trench with a direct hit bringing total killed up to 6 for three days and no chance of doing anything about these guns as his OPs still have all the advantage. Plastered on and off all day and a good sight in the afternoon as four groups of our eighteens went over Jerries' lines. We are to move out to-night. Will be rather sticky getting out and everyone's nerves at cracking point. Our heavy arty had a plane up this afternoon so hope they have done some good further back. No news of other than our own little area for four days now. Relieved by the Camerons at 8.30 but on leaving found out that one of our Sgts had been hit in a minefield and Jack and I had a rotten 5 hrs getting him fixed up and back to our ambulance. Shelled and sniped while doing so. Back to Bn at 3.30 a.m. and still in gun range. Lynn Hurst19 wounded by a mine also.’
That night, 23 April, 5 Brigade was relieved by 152 (Highland) Brigade and 25 Battalion by the Camerons. The enemy apparently had advanced his forward positions a little and small-arms fire interfered with the relief, causing casualties and delaying the movements of various parties of both battalions. Booby traps and mines, which were still numerous in the area, were a constant danger, the battalion losing two men killed and seven wounded during the relief, which was completed just before midnight. The battalion returned to its own brigade and bivouacked in the B Echelon area. During its absence a change of brigade commanders had taken place, Brigadier Parkinson20 relieving Brigadier Gentry on 22 April.
The battalion's casualties while under command of 5 Brigade were two officers and twenty-six other ranks: eight other ranks were killed; two officers (Captain Macaskill and Lieutenant O'Connor) and eighteen other ranks were wounded.
The need for officers with the rifle companies was now acute and Colonel Morten decided to use officers from Battalion Headquarters and HQ Company. Captain Weston (HQ Company) was appointed to command A Company; Lieutenant page 302 Mahar (Quartermaster) to B Company; Lieutenants Buchanan (Intelligence Officer) and Williams (anti-tank platoon) to C Company; Lieutenants Hoy (Transport Officer) and Robertson21 (Mortars) to D Company.
While the relief of 25 Battalion by the Camerons was taking place, a further advance at 10 p.m., to deepen the salient held by 2 NZ Division and 56 (London) Division, had been made by 6 Brigade. Twenty-sixth Battalion on the right and 24 Battalion on the left had made a silent advance of about 2000 yards without opposition, thus advancing the forward localities to a distance of about three miles to the north of Enfidaville. Supporting arms were in position and contact had been established with 201 Guards Brigade on the right, while on the left the left rear of 24 Battalion was in touch with 51 (Highland) Division 200 yards in advance of the right flank of 25 Battalion's former position at Cherachir. The tanks were well forward.
During the 24th a few shells landed in the battalion's area and two men were wounded. Many of the men were still feeling the strain of the last few days and did not welcome the news that the battalion was again to move into the hills that night. Another advance of about 1200 yards to Djebel Terhouna and Djebel Srafi by 26 Battalion was planned for 10 p.m., a silent operation with the artillery standing by, and 25 Battalion was to occupy the rear company areas of that battalion, taking up a position facing north-west to deepen the defences.
Twenty-sixth Battalion secured Djebel Terhouna with little difficulty except for mortar and shell fire; strong opposition was met at Djebel Srafi, and after severe, prolonged fighting the southern slopes were occupied but were under persistent sniping and mortar and artillery fire.
Twenty-fifth Battalion went forward at 9.30 p.m. and took up its allotted position a mile and a half east of Takrouna. It had two companies forward, facing north-west on a front of 1100 yards; C Company was on the right and D on the left, with A and B Companies in support echeloned slightly to the left or south-west some 700 yards back. Each of the forward companies and B Company on the left of the support line had a six-pounder and a two-pounder anti-tank gun, while A Company on the right of B Company had two anti-tank guns on portées. The carriers were near Battalion Headquarters.page 303
At 6 Brigade Headquarters the situation at Djebel Srafi was not clear for some time and it was decided that if the attack there had not fully succeeded, a company of 25 Battalion and 3 Royal Tank Regiment would be placed under command of 26 Battalion for a further attack. At four the following morning, Anzac Day, A Company of 25 Battalion advanced to the vicinity of 26 Battalion headquarters, a mile to the north-north- east, but a few hours later, after it was reported at dawn that Djebel Srafi had been taken, A Company rejoined the battalion. Later it was learnt that the enemy still held the northern slopes of the Djebel as well as Pt 141 north-west of it, so at 8 p.m. A Company returned to assist 26 Battalion. Again it was not employed, and before dawn next morning went back to 25 Battalion, only to go forward again five hours later. Still the company was not used, and finally at 9.30 p.m. rejoined its unit. What the men of A Company thought of this ‘see-saw’ has not been recorded, but no doubt they thought that marching was better than fighting.
The brigade was relieved that night, and by midnight 25 Battalion had been relieved by 2/5 Battalion of the Queen's and went back to a rest area 15 miles south of Enfidaville. Arriving there a little before dawn, the troops were quickly bedded down in company areas, awakening to a late breakfast and an easy day. The battalion reorganised and rested for the next eight days. Hot showers on the first day, bathing at the Schott Maria beach, the posting of 139 reinforcements (including four officers —Lieutenants Beattie,22 Berry,23 Sargeson,24 and Sutton25) and an address by the Hon. F. Jones, New Zealand Minister of Defence, were the principal happenings of the period.
With the arrival of the four additional officers, some changes in appointments took place. Headquarters Company was commanded by Captain Wroth, with Captain Webster second-in- command; the other officers of the company were Lieutenants Williams and Webb (Anti-Tank), Mowat (Mortar), Hoy (Transport), Mahar (Quartermaster), and Frost26 (Carriers). Captain page 304 Weston was in command of A Company and Lieutenant Sanders second-in-command; the platoon commanders were Lieutenants Beattie and Melville.27 B Company was commanded by Captain Gaze, with Lieutenant Ralfe second-in-command and Lieutenants Bourke and Finlay platoon commanders. C Company's commander was Captain Norman, second-in-command Captain Stevens, and platoon commanders Lieutenants Castelli28 and Berry. D Company had Captain Hewitt commanding, Lieutenant Robertson second-in-command, and Lieutenants Sutton and Sargeson platoon commanders. The day following these appointments, Major Young29 arrived to command D Company and Captain Hewitt became second-in-command of the company in place of Lieutenant Robertson, who was evacuated sick.
A little training was done along the usual lines, though one unusual feature of it was how to deal with cactus hedges as obstacles, a case of history repeating itself as the New Zealand Mounted Rifles in Palestine in the 1914–18 war had much trouble with them.
On 4 May 2 NZ Division began a move to the left flank, where that day the French 19 Corps was attacking; the Division was to support the French flank, prevent the withdrawal of enemy troops for action against the First Army, and be ready to go forward if the French attack succeeded. The following day 6 Brigade in divisional reserve moved to the vicinity of Djebibina, 15 miles to the west; 25 Battalion early in the morning travelled in column of route and, after a two-hour run, dispersed at seventy-five yards' interval in its new position. On the way the men could see Takrouna, ten miles to the north, being lightly shelled by the enemy. In the afternoon a few enemy fighter-bombers passed over but dropped no bombs near the battalion.
For the next three days 6 Brigade was in divisional reserve while the Division carried out operations in the Djebibina area. Training was resumed immediately. In the evening of 8 May the Division, with the exception of 5 Brigade Group which was to follow the next day, returned to the area south of Enfidaville. It had been a sunny day after heavy rain the night before and there was an entire absence of air activity. A powerful enemy page 305 searchlight was illuminating the roads in the forward area and the display of flares was impressive as the battalion, leaving after dark, travelled back to its bivouac area.
The following day, 9 May, the Division was required to provide a relief for 169 Brigade, the left brigade of 56 (London) Division, which that night was to attack along the coastal sector, and 25 Battalion was directed to effect the relief. As the battalion was to take over a brigade position its supporting arms were substantially increased to two 6-pounder troops and one 17-pounder troop from 33 Anti-Tank Battery, and one machine-gun company of sixteen medium machine guns. In the afternoon Brigadier Parkinson, Colonel Morten, and other officers reconnoitred 169 Brigade's position, four miles to the north of Enfidaville, and at dusk Colonel Morten and B Company went forward to take over the position, the remainder of the battalion following an hour later. As the battalion went past the artillery positions the guns were firing a heavy barrage in support of 167 Brigade of 56 Division, which in an attack that afternoon had reached its objective but was forced to retire.
Twenty-fifth Battalion completed the relief a little after midnight, taking over a front of three and a half miles. D Company was on the right, with its left forward localities 500 yards east of Djebel Terhouna and extending about 1000 yards to the north-east. A Company held the centre, with its right 1400 yards south of Terhouna and a front of about 1200 yards, while C Company extended the front about one and a half miles farther to the south-west. B Company was well forward, immediately behind the junction of A and C Companies. The powerful machine-gun support greatly strengthened this over-extended front, with one platoon on the right of D Company, one in the gap between D and A Companies, a third between A and C Companies, and the fourth in the centre of C Company's position. The sixteen anti-tank guns and the six 3-inch mortars were suitably disposed in a carefully co-ordinated defence. Djebel Srafi lay 1400 yards west of the southern flank of D Company, and the left flank of C Company, about 2000 yards east of Takrouna, was facing Djebel ech Cherachir, which was 800 yards away to the west. The role of the battalion was to hold the position against a possible counter-attack, and the carrier platoon provided a mobile reserve for such a contingency. Eighth Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, was on the right of D Company.page 306
The company positions were heavily shelled at intervals, the enemy using all types of ammunition and many of the mortar bombs failing to explode. The New Zealand and other artillery were firing heavy concentrations over a wide front and fire from both sides continued throughout the day. During the night of the 10th, under orders from 6 Brigade, the battalion sent out three patrols to ascertain if the enemy was still in position. A patrol of four men from D Company, sent out at 9 p.m., reconnoitred buildings a mile to the south of Terhouna and found no enemy there, but the reverse slope was occupied; this patrol was repeated in the early morning with the same result. A patrol from A Company found the enemy holding Pt 141, a little to the north-west of Djebel Srafi. As a result of these patrol reports French forces on the left of the battalion commenced an attack at dawn on the 11th against the high ground north and north-east of Takrouna, through the position formerly held by 25 Battalion in that locality. About 10 a.m. the battalion could see French troops on the high ground one and a half miles north of Takrouna and about the same distance to the west of C Company. A patrol of three carriers under Lieutenant Frost was sent out to make contact but was forced to retire by very heavy machine-gun and mortar fire.
A reconnaissance by Colonel Morten, Captain Gaze, and Lieutenant Frost was then made to find an advanced position for B Company, the battalion's reserve, but the positions selected were under enemy observation and contact was not firmly established with the French until 9 p.m., when the reserve platoon from C Company, with supporting weapons, advanced 1500 yards to the north-west. This move of C Company's had the distinction that it was the last alteration of the Division's dispositions in an operational role in North Africa.
During the morning of the 11th two German prisoners of war were taken in C Company's area. Heavy artillery fire that morning wounded three men of A Company, and a nebelwerfer which was observed by 25 Battalion's OP was quickly dealt with by an artillery concentration. This was the first time this weapon had been encountered by the battalion, though the men had been told of it in the previous July. ‘The men were engaged in peacefully sleeping, reading, etc., round their slits,’ wrote one man, ‘when suddenly they heard a most-terrifying moaning. For a few seconds there was a wild scramble and slit trenches finally finished up with about five deep. The sole casualties were caused this time by the undignified scramble for page 307 cover.’ Throughout the war the Germans developed several nebelwerfers or rocket launchers. These included the 150-centimetre type of six barrels which fired separately, in ten seconds, either a high-explosive rocket of 75.3 lb or a smoke one of 78 lb, with a velocity of 1120 feet per second, the respective ranges being 7330 and 7550 yards; also the 21-centimetre of five barrels which fired an HE rocket of 248 lb with a maximum range of 8600 yards. Both types were mounted on a two-wheeled carriage with a split trail.
There was also a ten-barrelled self-propelled weapon (15- centimetre Panzerwerfer 42) on a light armoured half-track vehicle, and several others, including a 30-centimetre mobile launcher of six frames firing 277 lb rockets with a maximum range of 5000 yards.
They were very noisy weapons, less accurate than artillery, and the rocket had poor fragmentation.
Heavy shelling in the afternoon killed one man of D Company and a second nebelwerfer opened fire and was shelled by the artillery. The Allied air forces were also active, and a familiar formation of light bombers known as the ‘Faithful Eighteen’ at least maintained its popularity through its continuous attacks upon the enemy. The enemy artillery fire, fierce in the morning and a little less so in the afternoon, appeared to have no particular purpose or plan and gave the impression that the enemy was merely getting rid of his stocks of ammunition. It was a type of fire very unpopular with those subjected to it as experience and judgment were of no value in avoiding it. This fire was answered by heavy artillery concentrations on enemy gun and infantry positions, the largest counter-battery programme staged in the North African campaign—thirty-one hostile batteries engaged in four hours—and fired by 10 Corps artillery. Nebelwerfers, which seemed to be spraying the Enfidaville area indiscriminately, were treated as priority tasks and were heavily engaged.
Since early in May 18 Army Group, which had been reinforced from Eighth Army, had been driving towards Tunis and Bizerta from the west. The enemy defences were pierced after fierce fighting and two armoured divisions were passed through for exploitation, reaching Tunis on the afternoon of 7 May. Here they separated, 7 Armoured Division moving to the north and 6 Armoured Division driving across the base of the Cape Bon peninsula towards Hammamet. At the same time 1 Armoured Division advanced towards the centre of the enemy page 308 positions opposite Eighth Army, and an infantry division linked up with the left flank of 19 French Corps.
The end of the war in North Africa was obviously near at hand. Attempts, initially without success, were made to induce the enemy to surrender unconditionally. Rumours were rife throughout the battalion, most of them false or at least premature. However, the fires and demolitions reported on all fronts and the tens of thousands of prisoners that were being taken were clear enough indications that enemy resistance was about to cease.
During the night, patrols from A and D Companies repeated the patrols of the previous night and found the enemy still holding his ground. Until seven o'clock the following morning, 12 May, an unusual silence seemed ominous as being ‘the calm before the storm’, and so, to some extent, it proved to be. At that hour the artillery engaged a few enemy targets, and shortly afterwards the enemy heavily shelled the company positions, continuing throughout the morning. Nebelwerfer fire was again particularly troublesome, and the heavier 21-centimetre weapon had made its appearance. One such mortar, from a position in front of the French, about 2800 yards north-west of D Company, bombarded the vicinity of 6 Brigade Headquarters and, as was to be expected, was at once engaged by 4 Field Regiment (originally commanded by the Brigadier), with 25 Battalion providing observation for the guns.
The enemy artillery again seemed to be firing blindly and the Corps artillery as before replied briskly with concentrations, including one of ten rounds' gunfire against the headquarters of 90 Light Division. The New Zealand artillery took its full share in the strenuous bombarding, two field regiments during the day firing a total of over 10,000 rounds. The AFPU (a British Army Field Photographic Unit), which in the morning had arrived at 25 Battalion headquarters, was taken to a suitable position from which to photograph these artillery concentrations. Four formations of the Allied air forces, with a total of seventy-two medium bombers, repeated an attack of the previous day and made an impressive and cheering sight as they passed over or near the battalion in the middle of the afternoon.
Late in the afternoon Brigadier Parkinson discussed with Colonel Morten a proposal that 25 Battalion should attempt to collect prisoners, but it was decided not to do so until the position on the battalion's front had clarified. Elsewhere, enemy troops were surrendering in very large numbers, but the Italian page 309 First Army under General Messe, which included German formations, still held its position, which extended from the north of Saouaf (about ten miles north-west of 25 Battalion) across the French front to the high ground north and north-west of the battalion. Further patrols from the battalion on the night of 12–13 May found Pt 141 still occupied, but there was little activity that night.
Early in the morning of the 13th four armoured cars of 56 Division, engaged in mopping-up the enemy, passed through 25 Battalion's position. Shortly afterwards prisoners arrived at the battalion in force, but it was not till about 10 a.m. that the men realised that ‘the show was over’. It appeared that the Germans, who were from 90 Light Division, wished to surrender to the New Zealanders, and to 25 Battalion (which was the only New Zealand battalion in the front line when hostilities ceased) came the distinction of accepting the surrender of many of the men of that famous division, which over a lengthy period had frequently been in action against the New Zealand Division. While the Germans seemed pleased to be taken prisoner by the New Zealanders, the New Zealanders themselves ‘seemingly enough’, in the words of the battalion's war diary, ‘felt that a long and bitter feud had at long last been written off as closed.’
The prisoners taken by the battalion numbered 64 officers and 1755 other ranks. Of these, 16 officers and 419 other ranks were Germans and the remainder, including 2 officers and 211 other ranks of the Air Force, were Italians. The battalion provided transport for many Germans in addition to those included in these figures.
The battalion's casualties—one killed and four wounded— were surprisingly light considering the duration and the intensity of the enemy artillery fire. The last man killed in Tunisia was Private Baines30 of D Company, while Private Page31 was the last man wounded.
At 2.45 p.m. on 13 May General Alexander sent a signal to Mr Churchill: ‘Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores.’
In the afternoon 25 Battalion withdrew to the area south of Enfidaville, preparatory to returning to Egypt. At dawn the page 310 following morning thirty other ranks, the leave allotment for the battalion, went to Tunis under Captains Norman and Hewitt, and another fifteen had the same privilege the next day. Summer clothing was issued before the journey to Egypt commenced, and was a great relief from the heavier clothing. It was a pleasure to have clean clothes once more, though in many cases the bush shirts were a very bad fit. In the brief interlude of three days before commencing the journey to Egypt, the men enjoyed the swimming at the beach and the relaxation following the end of hostilities, aided by the rare luxuries of two bottles of beer for each man and an issue of goods from the canteen, both at the expense of Regimental Funds.
At the close of the campaign in North Africa the officers of 25 Battalion were:
Lieutenant-Colonel T. B. Morten
Major R. L. Hutchens
Major R. R. T. Young
Captain C. Weston
Captain G. C. Gaze
Captain R. G. Stevens
Lieutenant (T/Capt) E. K. Norman
Lieutenant (T/Capt) I. C. Webster
Lieutenant (T/Capt) N. K. Sanders
Lieutenant (T/Capt) S. M. Hewitt
Lieutenant (T/Capt) T. G. Ralfe
Lieutenant (T/Capt) I. S. Robertson
Lieutenant J. Finlay
Lieutenant J. L. Williams
Lieutenant R. S. Webb
Lieutenant T. C. Buchanan
Lieutenant J. Mahar
Lieutenant R. S. Mowat
Lieutenant K. F. Hoy
Lieutenant A. M. Sargeson
Second-Lieutenant (T/Lieut) A. Castelli
Second-Lieutenant (T/Lieut) G. B. Slade
Second-Lieutenant (T/Lieut) H. E. Frost
Second-Lieutenant F. C. Irving
Second-Lieutenant V. A. Melville
Second-Lieutenant J. B. Maypage 311
Second-Lieutenant R. W. Berry
Second-Lieutenant A. J. Beattie
Second-Lieutenant A. H. Sutton
Captain V. T. Pearse, Medical Officer
Rev. M. L. Underhill, Chaplain
Several awards were made to members of the battalion for services in the recent operations. They were:
DSO, Lieutenant-Colonel Morten and Major Morrison
MC, Captain Norman and Lieutenant Williams
Bar to MM, Lance-Sergeant W. Penman
Commander-in-Chief's commendation card, Lieutenant Frost
For services during the operations at the Alamein line in October 1942, Captain L. C. McCarthy, then the battalion's Medical Officer, was awarded the MC.
On 15 May the Division commenced the long journey to Egypt. The movement was carefully planned with easy stages of about 120 miles, the Division being divided into flights ‘A’ and ‘B’ for the journey. ‘A’ flight left the first day and arrived at Maadi Camp sixteen days later. ‘B’ flight followed on the second day. The tracked vehicles did not accompany the Division but were moved under separate arrangements, and were handed in before the departure of their units, each of the carriers being accompanied by two men of its unit.
With 6 Brigade and the New Zealand Artillery groups, a total strength of 427 officers and 6546 other ranks with 1605 vehicles, 25 Battalion started for Egypt. Halts for a complete day for vehicle maintenance and attention to routine matters were made on 19 May near Tripoli (when the men left out of battle and other men of the battalion from the New Zealand Advanced Base and Convalescent Depot rejoined) and on the 25th near Benghazi. A washout at a deviation round an enemy demolition about 30 miles beyond Misurata also halted progress for a few hours on the 20th.
On the second day of the journey an A Company truck carrying 8 Platoon had the misfortune to strike a mine east of Gabes but escaped lightly with the spare driver injured in the leg. page 312 The arrangements for the march worked well, though the age and condition of the vehicles and the shortage of new tyres caused a certain amount of trouble. Nevertheless, in the whole of the two flights only thirteen vehicles were evacuated and fourteen towed in. The drivers themselves, as well as the Light Aid Detachment and the Brigade Workshop, were kept busy attending to the vehicles, the major repairs being the replacement of broken springs and attention to front hubs and gears, and all concerned deserved great credit for their successful efforts.
The entertainment and exercising of the men were not overlooked. On 19 May during the day's halt near Tripoli, Patriotic Fund parcels and a bottle of beer per man were issued; the men did a two-hours' march or organised recreation, shower baths were made available, and three hours' leave to Tripoli was granted to those who had not previously visited the town. The Kiwi Concert Party also entertained the troops. On the 22nd an early afternoon halt was made in the vicinity of Nofilia, where the Mobile Cinema Unit played its part, and at a halt the next afternoon the Cinema Unit gave another entertainment; here the chaplain conducted a memorial service for those who had fallen in the Tunisian campaign.
At the full day's halt near Benghazi the Cinema Unit was again to the fore. A little before midday on the 24th the battalion halted within ten miles of the town, and half-day leave was given that day and the next to enable all the men to visit it. On the resumption of the journey, and after by-passing Benghazi, the battalion passed through Barce, Derna, and Tobruk, so that the troops could see these towns which had figured so largely in the desert campaigns. The battlefields where the battalion had been engaged naturally attracted much attention, and members of the unit who had not taken part in them had the opportunity of learning a good deal more about these historic fields.
Other matters also attracted attention; during the advance from Alamein the whole desert had appeared to be littered with abandoned enemy vehicles, weapons, and equipment, but due to the admirable work of the salvage units, these had completely disappeared. The enemy cemeteries, too, were much admired for their orderly state and layout, the unit of each soldier being designated by some piece of equipment from that unit.
The border between Libya and Egypt was crossed just before noon on the 28th and halts were made at Buq Buq that after- page 313 noon, then near Mersa Matruh, and at El Daba; the road then ran through the Alamein battlefields and Amiriya to the Wadi Natrun, where a halt was made on 31 May. Next day the great journey of 1900 miles in seventeen days ended at Maadi Camp.
Passing through Cairo, the battalion received a good welcome from the people, and the old familiar street scenes, the Nile, the Pyramids, and the approaches to Maadi gave a touch of home-coming to its return after an absence of over fifteen months.
The vital topic of the day was the furlough scheme, under which, for the first draft, all the married men of the first three echelons and (to be selected by ballot) 70 per cent of the single men of those echelons were to be granted three months' furlough in New Zealand. There were a few exceptions, such as certain officers who for the moment could not be spared and those for whom replacements would have to be trained. The furlough party embarked at Suez on 15 June. The departure of highly trained and war experienced officers, senior and junior NCOs, and men tore a great hole which was felt in every part of the unit. It was a major task of reorganisation and training to fill the gaps and restore efficiency.
For those remaining, two weeks' service leave was granted. Drafts departed, normally at fortnightly intervals commencing on 5 June, to destinations which included Cairo, Alexandria, Sidi Bishr, and Palestine. Liberal daily leave and the use of unit transport to Cairo were also arranged.
The next four months were to be spent at Maadi, though of course this was not known at the time, and the usual routine was soon established. There were various events of interest. On 14 June troops from 25 Battalion took part in a victory march of the United Nations in Cairo. On 25 June there was a wedding of outstanding interest to the battalion when its Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Morten, was married at Maadi to Sister J. K. Tyler of the New Zealand Army Nursing Service, the officiating clergyman being the former chaplain to the battalion, the Rev. M. L. Underhill,33 who on the previous day had been appointed to the New Zealand Convalescent Depot; he was succeeded on 20 July by the Rev. H. G. Norris.34
On 28 June there was a rather curious affair, involving a high degree of improbability, when at 5.30 p.m. the battalion page 314 received a warning that a parachutist attack on an airfield of unknown location was thought to be possible. One full company, consisting of one platoon from each company and commanded by Major Possin, was held in readiness at half an hour's notice and formed part of the total force of one squadron of tanks and two companies of infantry to be provided by the Division. The following afternoon advice was received that the alarm was over.
By 9 July the arrival of 150 reinforcements had brought the battalion almost to full strength and three days later training commenced in earnest. Many officers and NCOs were attending courses of instruction both within and outside the unit, and, due mainly to the furlough scheme, there were large numbers of transfers, appointments, and promotions of officers and NCOs. During June, July, and August, sixteen officers joined or rejoined, fourteen were attached to the battalion, and twenty-two (including nine on furlough but exclusive of several sent to courses of instruction) left for a variety of reasons, such as employment on divisional or brigade staffs, transfer to other units, and sickness. Seventy-seven NCOs had been promoted, some of them two or more steps in rank; fifty-five privates were appointed lance-corporals, and twenty-seven of these gained further promotion during these three months.
At the end of July and in August the companies in turn were sent off on a weekend trek of 85 miles over the desert route to the Red Sea near Suez. Training, including a five-hours' route march, was carried out en route, and at the sea further training and swimming sports took place. The going was poor and the men had a very rough ride. ‘The afternoon was spent in swimming, fishing by unsportsmanlike method and crab hunting,’ wrote one man. ‘After tea a concert was staged by some of the brighter social lights, then supper, and so to bed. Sunday being a day of rest was fully observed by all and after breakfast the water was thick with Kiwis again. Non-swimmers were given instruction. When the order was given to embus again, at 1 p.m., everyone cast a longing glance at the sea they'd enjoyed so much.’ D Company did some rather strenuous hill-climbing and found loose rocks a menace. The company also experimented with ST grenades in water and reported that they had a terrific blast effect in about six feet of water; no mention was made of fishing. B Company was particularly privileged to witness, as the men lay in their beds on the beach, a spectacular page 315 display of flares by the RAF. In August two picnics were arranged, one to the Delta Barrage and the other to the Cairo zoo; the arrangements were excellent.
On 14 August there was an unfortunate accident at the grenade range where D Company was training, when the explosion of a No. 69 grenade wounded Second-Lieutenant G. K. Smith,35 Lance-Sergeant Curtis,36 and Lance-Corporal King.37 Smith escaped lightly and returned to duty two days later.
In the middle of August General Freyberg inspected the battalion lines and then addressed the officers. Two days later he inspected a ceremonial parade of 6 Brigade and presented decorations and medals awarded for the campaigns in Greece, Crete, Libya, and Tunisia. In 25 Battalion Lieutenant-Colonel Morten received the DSO, Captain Williams the MC, and WO I Hampton, Sergeant Penman, and Sergeant Heine38 the MM. During the month the vehicles were re-camouflaged, receiving a basic coat suitable for European conditions. Rumours as to the destination of the Division were now rife, the popular selection being Italy, though the Balkans were not neglected. Opinion was of course influenced by the trend of tactical training towards operations in close country, the alteration in camouflage (though it was recognised that it could be a ‘blind’) and the end of the campaign in Sicily pointing logically to Italy.
At the beginning of September the arrival of ninety reinforcements brought the unit within nineteen of establishment, which in fact was exceeded by fourteen at the end of the month. In the middle of the month the battalion took its place in the movement of the Division to Burg el Arab on the coast, 30 miles south-west of Alexandria, for divisional manoeuvres preparatory to embarkation overseas. The destination was kept secret. The movement was an unusual one involving the longest march on foot ever undertaken by the Division.
The battalion moved off in its vehicles early in the afternoon of the 15th, via Cairo, Mena, and the desert road to the north. It halted at the 40 Kilometre peg, where the troops had a hot meal. The vehicles proceeded another 20 kilometres, at which page 316 point the drivers and spare men were to erect the ‘bivvies’ for the rest of the battalion, which commenced to march at 6.25 p.m. In a little under five hours the marching troops had covered the 12½ miles to the bivouac area. Next day the march commenced at 6 p.m., and in this way the battalion reached the 180 Kilometre peg after marching 87½ miles in seven days. The vehicles then took the troops to their destination at El Imayid, 50 miles south-west of Alexandria.
The men had found the continuous marching very strenuous, and the following comments from a diary are no doubt applicable to most of them:
‘Sept 15. Ready to move at 2 p.m. and not looking forward to this 6-hours' route march each night for a week. Taken out to 40 Km peg and after tea at 5.30 started off on our hike with the pipe band playing at the start line. All footsore and weary on arriving at our destination at 11.15 p.m.—our band played us in. 16th. Breakfast at 9 and slept when possible. Off again at 6 and fairly tough as feet a little tender and leg muscles pretty sore. Arrived to a tune by our band at 10.30 and all very tired and weary. 17th. All pretty stiff. On the way at 6 to another 20 Km and the band started us off. The worst night yet and most of us just made it but the band helped over the last half-mile. 18th. On the road again at 6 and not bad going for the first two hours but very tough for the last two. Making better time than was expected. 19th. Fairly tough night. Into bed as quick as numerous aches would allow. 20th. All pretty weary. On the road again at 6.20 and getting harder to keep going each night. Home once more at 10.30 and into bed very sore. 21st. Missed the last four hours march as sent to the camp site at the beach [on duty].’
On the day following the conclusion of the march the troops were given the opportunity to vote in the New Zealand general election; voting was continued throughout the day and again until noon the next day.
In the late afternoon of the 24th the battalion left for a brigade assembly area in the desert to take part in a training exercise. The men in the trucks had a very unpleasant ride over the rough and extremely dusty route and many vehicles were bogged in the loose sand. After remaining under cover during the 25th, the battalion joined in a brigade attack on a position protected by mines and wire, with the object of practising a breakthrough and then the holding of a bridgehead for the launching of an armoured brigade and gun groups. page 317 The attack was launched at 2 a.m. on the 27th under an artillery barrage and supporting fire from medium machine guns and ended at 7 a.m., the battalion returning to its camp by the early afternoon. Before the troops left the manoeuvre area General Freyberg spoke to the assembled officers, warrant officers, and non-commissioned officers and discussed the lessons of the exercise. He also told them that ‘the Division was moving to Europe in the near future’, and emphasised the necessity for security to prevent the enemy getting information about the Division and its movements.
Twenty-fifth Battalion now received four new six-pounder anti-tank guns in place of two-pounders, increasing the number of six-pounders in the unit to eight, much to everyone's satisfaction. All the drivers and the signal and mortar platoons had additional cause for satisfaction as they were issued with tommy guns to give better protection against increased risks of attack in the new theatre of war whilst carrying out, as was frequently the case, their somewhat isolated duties.
Towards the end of the month an interesting lecture on the conduct of men taken prisoner and on various secret matters connected with escaping was given by an officer of the Inter- Services Branch, who strongly stressed the necessity for safeguarding the information. Several route marches of one and a half hours were carried out on the hard roads to toughen the feet, as marching on sand was of little use for this purpose, and half an hour's physical training was done each morning. Tommy-gun practices were fired on the beach by all the men who had just received these weapons, and all the other weapons in the battalion were practised with, including a new anti-tank weapon, the Piat mortar. The urgent need for an infantry weapon to deal with tanks had been emphasised in several tragic encounters, and the Piat, designed for that purpose, created much interest. As usual there was a little ‘teething’ trouble in that the bombs first provided had to strike right on the point in order to explode, a defect which was soon remedied. The weapon then gave the troops a good deal of confidence and proved very effective in the fighting which lay ahead; five Piats were issued to the battalion. With operations in enclosed country in view, sniping assumed increased importance, eight sniper rifles being issued.
On 27 September all leave was stopped, New Zealand titles and badges were removed, and fernleaf signs taken off the vehicles or painted out. Truck signs were removed, the figures page 318 62 being chalked on in their place. On 1 October a warning order to move was received and cancelled. In preparation for the voyage the battalion was organised into ‘A’ and ‘B’ parties, this being done to guard against the loss of a complete unit if a ship were sunk. ‘A’ Party (C and D Companies; 2, 4, and 5 Platoons; Support Company headquarters, and administrative personnel) was under Major Norman. ‘B’ Party (A and B Companies; Administration Company; Battalion Headquarters; 3 Platoon, less administration personnel with ‘A’ Party) was under Colonel Morten.
Preceded by advance parties under Second-Lieutenants Collins39 and Coddington40 the previous day, ‘A’ and ‘B’ parties, moving independently, left on 3 October for the staging areas at Ikingi Camp, Amiriya. There they were accommodated in the special ‘ship camp’ organised for their respective ships, and two days later during the afternoon embarked at the Alexandria Docks, ‘A’ Party in the Reina del Pacifico and ‘B’ Party in the Dunottar Castle. ‘B’ Party was fortunate to have a wet canteen aboard and each man received two bottles of beer per night. ‘A’ Party had no wet canteen but fared better with canteen issues. Hammocks were provided but many men preferred to sleep on deck. The meals were good but not over-generous by New Zealand standards. Cigarettes were cheap at threepence for ten, and although on the Dunottar Castle the English beer was in lemonade bottles, it was very much appreciated, though its excessive effervescence required some ingenuity to bring it under control.
The weather was fine and the sea calm throughout the voyage. Just before dusk on the third day land was sighted and Mount Etna, 10,739 feet in height, was reported to be visible. Early next morning, 9 October, the convoy sailed along the coast of Calabria towards Taranto, reaching there at 8.30 a.m. The troops had breakfast, lunch rations were issued, and all stood by at half an hour's notice to disembark.
The battalion's officers on departure for Italy were:
Lieutenant-Colonel T. B. Morten, DSO, Commanding Officer
Major G. A. W. Possin, OC B Coy
Captain (T/Major) E. K. Norman, Bn second-in-command
Captain M. Handyside, OC D Coy
Captain (T/Major) I. C. Webster, OC C Coy
Captain (T/Major) P. W. Robertshaw, OC A Coy
Captain N. K. Sanders, OC HQ Coy
Lieutenant (T/Capt) S. M. Hewitt, OC Support Coy
Lieutenant (T/Capt) J. L. Webster, second-in-command B Coy
Lieutenant (T/Capt) T. G. Ralfe, second-in-command D Coy
Lieutenant (T/Capt) J. Finlay, second-in-command A Coy
Lieutenant (T/Capt) J. L. Williams, MC, second-in-command C Coy
Lieutenant (T/Capt) R. S. Webb, OC Anti-Tank Platoon
Lieutenant J. Mahar, Quartermaster
Lieutenant (T/Capt) K. F. Hoy, Adjutant
Lieutenant J. G. Coleman, D Coy
Lieutenant H. E. Frost, Carriers
Second-Lieutenant B. S. Edinger, Transport Officer
Second-Lieutenant A. H. Sutton, D Coy
Second-Lieutenant R. Easthope, Carriers
Second-Lieutenant D. J. Pocknall, Anti-Tank Officer
Second-Lieutenant (T/Lieut) J. Groshinski, Mortars
Second-Lieutenant R. W. Berry, B Coy
Second-Lieutenant A. Norton-Taylor, B Coy
Second-Lieutenant H. G. Smith, Intelligence Officer
Second-Lieutenant (T/Lieut) J. H. Sheild, Anti-Tank Officer
Second-Lieutenant (T/Lieut) J. W. T. Collins, C Coypage 320
Second-Lieutenant (T/Lieut) D. F. Muir, C Coy
Second-Lieutenant A. B. West, A Coy
Lieutenant N. M. Izard, Asst IO and Signals Officer
Lieutenant H. R. Cameron, C Coy
Second-Lieutenant E. C. Coddington, A Coy
Second-Lieutenant J. Fordie, D Coy
Second-Lieutenant N. Lawson, A Coy
Second-Lieutenant A. S. McWhinnie, Mortars
Second-Lieutenant J. S. Nelson, A Coy
Second-Lieutenant N. A. Rees, B Coy
Second-Lieutenant G. K. Smith, D Coy
Captain V. T. Pearse, Regimental Medical Officer
Rev. H. G. Norris, Chaplain
1 Col D. J. Fountaine, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Westport; born Westport, 4 Jul 1914; company secretary; CO 20 Bn Jul-Aug 1942; 26 Bn Sep 1942–Dec 1943, Jun-Oct 1944; comd NZ Adv Base Oct 1944–Sep 1945; wounded 26 Nov 1941.
4 Schu mines.
11 Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
20 Maj-Gen G. B. Parkinson, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Christchurch; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1896; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty 1917–19; CO 4 Fd Regt 1940–41; comd 1 NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941–42; 6 Bde Apr 1943–Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div (Cassino) 3–27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div Jun-Aug 1944; comd 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; Commander, Southern Military District, 1949–51.
29 Lt-Col R. R. T. Young, DSO; England; born Wellington, 25 Jun 1902; oil company executive; CO NZ School of Instruction, Feb-Apr 1943; CO 28 (Maori) Bn Dec 1943–Jul 1944, Aug-Nov 1944; wounded 26 Dec 1943.