Chapter 10 — The Fall of Tunisia
The Fall of Tunisia
THE battalion remained in the Gabes area until 7 April. During the week drivers worked on their trucks and company commanders took their men on short route marches. Little else was done. Most of the men were showing the effects of the long spell in the desert. All were tanned and many had lost a considerable amount of weight; some were feeling the strain of long, tiring journeys, action after action, sleepless nights and the constant tension. All realised that the battle for North Africa was not yet over. The enemy had withdrawn to a defensive line based on the Wadi Akarit and the high hills west of it. This wadi, waterlogged for most of the year, was in itself a formidable obstacle, and hills covered the approaches to it. The 30th Corps, supported by the New Zealand artillery, was to attack this line on 6 April. The New Zealand Division, under command of 10 Corps (NZ Corps had been disbanded), was to be prepared to exploit success.
The day before the attack took place D Coy was ordered to report to the CRE, Col Hanson.1 He was personally commanding a party of sappers detailed to clear two lanes through the enemy minefield and anti-tank ditch in 50 Division's sector at Wadi Akarit. Early on the 6th the battalion was ordered to be ready to move, but 24 hours passed before the troops embussed and the Brigade Group set out in the wake of the Division along the road to Gafsa. The enemy had by this time been forced out of his Wadi Akarit positions and the Division was continuing the pursuit. Progress was very slow for the tracks were in poor condition. Flight after flight of Allied aircraft droned overhead to harass the retreating Germans. Large groups of Italians were walking dejectedly back to prisoner-of-war cages.page 256
It was dusk by the time the battalion reached the wadi and the minefield. In pitch-black darkness the drivers began to negotiate the narrow lanes and defiles which led through them. At 9.30 p.m. the convoy halted for the night. Twenty-eight miles had been covered in the day and the battalion was several miles north of the wadi. D Coy, which had watched the attack on the wadi, had rejoined the battalion en route.
The company had had an interesting experience. When the members of Col Hanson's party reached Wadi Akarit about eight o'clock on the morning of the attack, they expected to find 50 Division through the minefield and well on the way to the objective. Such was not the case. In fact the Division appeared to be making no real progress. Enemy defensive fire was very heavy, but it seemed that the minefield was the real deterrent. After waiting an hour the sappers went to work and cut a walking lane through the minefield. One of the D Coy platoons then moved forward across the anti-tank ditch and took up a position on an escarpment beyond it. The rest of the company went to work with picks and shovels to help the sappers fill in the ditch. The forward platoon and the Crusader tanks with the party engaged the enemy and reduced the volume of fire on the area. The minefield was a particularly treacherous one, and it was after 2 p.m. before two lanes were completed. By this time the greater part of 50 Division was in the wadi, but what was left made full use of the lanes. Colonel Hanson in his report on this operation pays tribute to the co-operation and alertness of the D Coy men who, together with the tanks, made the dangerous task of the sappers much easier.
The pursuit was continued on the 8th, the battalions moving in nine-column formation along dusty tracks. Ahead the armoured screen and 5 Brigade were feeling their way forward, with the enemy withdrawing on contact. The Eighth Army was making a three-pronged drive, with its immediate objective the ports of Sfax and Sousse. The 10th Corps, with 2 NZ Division on the left and 1 Armoured Division farther inland, was driving up the coastal road. Progress continued to be slow and by nightfall only 13 miles had been covered. A very early start was made on the 9th, but the columns soon met trouble in the form of a wide stretch of soft ground. Many of the lorries page 257 were stuck in it and had either to be dug out by the men or pulled out by carriers and bulldozers. Later the battalion crossed the Mahares railway line into better country. By 1.30 p.m. 34 miles had been covered before the brigade halted to investigate a report of an enemy pocket south-east of it. Not much was known about this pocket except that it included tanks and was about five miles away.
Colonel Fountaine was ordered to make the investigation. A strong patrol was formed under Lt R. D. Westenra.2 It was equipped with wireless and consisted of the Carrier and Mortar platoons, a troop of two-pounders, and two six-pounders. At first the enemy could not be found, although an Italian officer complete with batman and staff car was picked up. When it was nearly dusk two enemy tanks were seen only 900 yards away. The crews were standing alongside and obviously had not noticed the approach of the patrol. Within five minutes the anti-tank guns were ready to fire. The first shot fell short, the second was nearer, and the third set one tank alight. The other was soon knocked out also. In the gathering darkness the Germans scattered and could not be found. Closer inspection of the tanks revealed them to be Mark IIIs, one of them a Special. The patrol returned to find that the battalion had not moved and the troops had settled down for the night.
The advance continued for the next four days through more heavily cultivated country. The trucks motored through fields of barley three to four feet high, across railway lines, through tiny villages, along creek beds, through acres of prickly cactus and seemingly endless groves of olive trees. One of these groves, containing about two million trees, was reputed to be the largest in the world. Everywhere flowers of every hue and many different varieties carpeted the fields in a riot of colour. Huge bunches were tied to the radiators of trucks and, with the olive branches thrown over the canopies for camouflage, gave the convoy a holiday appearance. On the 10th the battalion moved 40 miles. That night news was received of the capture of Sfax. Slower progress was made on the 11th and 12th, the battalion covering only 24 miles.page 258
On the 13th the rate of advance became much faster, and by mid-afternoon the Brigade Group had travelled 40 miles and was bivouacked only a mile south of Sousse, which had been captured the day before. Three carriers, with Sgt Pearce3 in command, were sent out to nearby villages on patrol duty—a pleasant task as the local inhabitants gave the soldiers a warm welcome. After dusk the battalion moved again, this time through Sousse to a reserve area about twelve miles north of the town.
During the day leading elements of the Division had en countered stiffening resistance, and it was apparent that the Eighth Army was close to another enemy line, in country very suitable for defence. The wide plain through which the Division had been advancing ended in a series of hills and ridges rising to the west, leaving only a narrow coastal strip of flat ground following the main road to Tunis. Farther inland a high range of mountains stretched across the front. When 5 Brigade, with armoured support, attempted to cross the plain towards the hills, it came under heavy fire from enemy positions on the high ground which commanded an excellent view of all movement in the area. The greater part of the plain was under cultivation, with olive groves giving the only concealment. It was obvious that the hills would have to be cleared before the advance on Tunis could continue. At dusk 5 Brigade was dug in on the plain and the armour had withdrawn behind it.
After dusk on the 14th the battalion moved forward another seven miles. Next day it was ordered to occupy a sector on the right of 5 Brigade. This move was completed after dusk, the companies going forward in transport to occupy positions alongside 28 (Maori) Battalion. The 25th Battalion moved in on the right. C Coy, on the left flank, straddled the Enfidaville- Kairouan road, and A Coy extended on the right as far as the Sousse-Enfidaville road. B Coy was in reserve in front of Battalion HQ. D Coy remained in the bivouac area. Enfidaville, a small town on the main road to Tunis and in the centre of the plain, lay almost directly ahead of A Coy.page 259
The supporting arms were brought forward and sited to cover the front. The ground was soft and fairly level, with long grass and olive trees all around. Every effort was made to camouflage the digging and all trucks were sent to a reserve area before dawn. No sound came from the enemy, but mosquitoes were causing a lot of trouble. Since dusk they had been swarming around in their hundreds, stopping all but the hardiest from sleeping. For practically the whole time the battalion was in the Enfidaville area the mosquitoes were troublesome. Nets were not available, and lack of sleep had an important bearing on the results of attacks and on the ability of the troops to withstand the constant strain.
Daylight on the 16th gave the troops a better idea of the ground ahead of them. Directly in front of the sector it sloped down to a wadi and then rose gently into a series of sharply defined ridges and spurs. Most prominent of these was the nearest one, a high, rocky spur known as Takrouna. From this point the enemy had observation over the low ground falling away to the coast and across the area where the Division was deployed. About halfway to the ridges and slightly right of the battalion lay Enfidaville.
At this stage it had been decided that the main thrust in Tunisia would be made on the northern sector where the British First Army was operating. The Eighth Army, which was to take part in the landings in Sicily, was to be rested as much as possible and would not attempt a large-scale offensive. Nevertheless it was to exert as much pressure as possible on the southern flank so that the enemy would be compelled to divide his forces. Plans to attack the high ground west and north-west of Enfidaville were drawn up. On the 10th Corps' front 50 Division was to take over the coastal sector, with the New Zealanders on its left and 4 Indian Division farther inland. Headquarters 30 Corps was withdrawn from the battle to rest and reorganise.
After dusk 201 Guards Brigade moved forward and took over the coastal sector. The 25th Battalion moved into reserve, and 5 Brigade extended to the left to allow 26 Battalion to take ove part of the Maoris' sector. These moves were completed without enemy interference. C Coy remained close to the Kairouan page 260 road, with B Coy on its left and A Coy alongside the Maoris. Listening posts were set up some distance beyond the FDLs and reconnaissance patrols sent out. Battalion HQ and D Coy were established in wadis to the rear. The battalion was now deployed across an 1100-yard front, and from it Takrouna appeared to be much higher and more prominent. As the sector could be observed by the enemy, meals were brought forward during the hours of darkness.
For the next two days little of note occurred. The enemy shelled the Kairouan road at intervals and C Coy was subjected to some mortar fire. On two separate occasions a light truck or car ignored the sign ‘Enemy Ahead’ on the Kairouan road and continued blithely into Enfidaville. One was greeted by a volley of shots, the other by silence. Neither came back. After dusk the slightest noise was sufficient to cause an enemy machine-gunner near Enfidaville to open fire. He soon became known as ‘Itchy-fingered Joe’. On several occasions he forced reconnaissance patrols to take cover. These patrols, which went out each night, ventured over a thousand yards beyond the lines but made no contact with the enemy. They reported that a wide minefield extended across the front, with an anti-tank ditch and a deep wadi beyond it. After dark on the 17th a platoon from C Coy went forward with a party of sappers who made three crossings over the ditch and the wadi (Wadi Moussa). The latter, a natural tank obstacle, lay about 2000 yards from the FDLs.
Meanwhile, preparations to attack the Enfidaville-Takrouna line had been completed. The attack was to begin at 11 p.m. on 19 April. While the main thrust was being made by the New Zealanders, the divisions on both flanks were to conform with any gains made. Amongst the men there was a general impression that the enemy would not make a determined stand and would soon try to get out of the country. Intelligence reports stated that his defences were of great depth and each vantage point strongly manned. Thickly-laid minefields and anti-tank ditches stretched across the flat and in places trees had been felled to improve fields of fire, leaving the stumps and trunks to block the passage of tanks. It was unlikely that the low ground would be strongly defended. Little was known page 261 about the enemy force in the hills, but elements of 90 Light Division had been identified in the area and it seemed probable the New Zealanders would meet both Germans and Italians.
First phase of Enfidaville battle, 19–22 April 1943
On the 18th aerial photographs of the area were available, and officers and NCOs studied them while the CO explained his plan. The four rifle companies would all take part in the assault, with A and C Coys taking the main objective and B and D Coys doing the exploitation. In the advance B Coy would follow A on the left and D Coy would follow C on the right. When the leading companies had consolidated and the barrage had lifted, B and D Coys would pass through to carry out their task. A heavy artillery barrage would be fired in support of the attackers, who would move off from a taped start line a short distance south of Wadi Moussa. The CO did not expect to meet opposition until after the men had crossed the Enfidaville-Takrouna road and were nearing the ridges. In this area was another anti-tank ditch and several enemy positions. The country was very broken, with numerous wadis and low ridges.
Italian farmhouses occupied by troops on the outskirts of Castelfrentano
Clearing up the camp after a flood in the Volturno area
Preparations for the attack were continued during the 19th. As soon as it was dark Sgt Street,4 of the ‘I’ section, led a party of sappers and divisional provosts through the minefield. The sappers went to work with their detectors and began clearing the lane, the provosts marking its limits with lighted standards. It was a difficult and dangerous task in the darkness. The fields of wheat and oats were more than waist high and were thickly sown with all types of mines, many of them booby-trapped. The lane was long and tortuous, but it was completed without casualties to men or vehicles. At the start line Lt Piper and some of his men were helping the brigade ‘I’ section tape the line. Unfortunately there was insufficient tape or standards to complete the job, and C Coy's section was not marked.
Back in the battalion sector the men had a hot meal and were waiting for the order to move forward. The night was perfect. The sky was cloudless, and when the moon rose it illuminated the landscape almost like daylight. The air was cool, almost chilly. Except for the mosquitoes and an occasional burst of spandau fire, no sound disturbed the eerie stillness. About ten o'clock the companies began to move through the corn and the minefield to the start line. Both the companies had some difficulty locating it, A Coy because its guide had failed to turn up and C Coy because its section was not taped. Despite this all were in position before the barrage began. Two Germans were picked up in the long grass not far from the FDLs.
Promptly at eleven o'clock the first salvo of shells crashed down some distance ahead and the Vickers began their vicious- page 264 sounding rat-tat-tat. A and C Coys moved off and were followed shortly afterwards by Battalion HQ and B and D Coys.5 In little more than an hour both objectives had been taken, and B and D Coys were only waiting for the barrage to lift so that they could complete their tasks. Scarcely any opposition had been encountered. A number of trenches were found beyond the second anti-tank ditch but the Italians in them seemed dazed and offered no fight. Dust and smoke blotted out the moon and reduced visibility, but good formation had been retained throughout and the leading platoons had no difficulty keeping up with the barrage. A Coy had the bad luck to be sandwiched between the barrage and the shells of a 25-pounder firing short. Near the Takrouna road 11 Platoon saw a dark object approaching and, believing it to be a staff car, opened fire. A terrified bullock, apparently unharmed, quickly turned and fled in the direction of the hills.
Deep trenches, recently vacated, were found on both objectives, and while the barrage remained stationary some of the men occupied them. The rest sheltered in folds in the ground. Enemy reaction to the advance had been almost negligible. A Coy, which had been lightly shelled, was more concerned about the short-firing 25-pounder. When the barrage lifted two platoons of this company went forward another 400 yards and took up a position among some olive trees. Captain Ollivier set up his headquarters on the crest of Djebel Ogla, with the reserve platoon nearby. C Coy swung round to secure the open right flank. Captain Sinclair sited his forward platoons in olive groves on the eastern slopes of Hamaid en Nakrla, with 13 Platoon facing east and north-east and 14 Platoon facing south and south-east. Company HQ was set up at the rear in some empty weapon pits, while 15 Platoon remained on the high ground so that it could command a better field of fire. B and page 265 D Coys moved through to take up positions along the line of the final objective. No opposition was encountered, and at 1 a.m. all four companies were busy digging holes in the hard limestone. Some of the men dodged this task by reoccupying the enemy's narrow but deep slit trenches.
Twenty minutes later the first of the supporting arms reached Battalion HQ, which had been set up in narrow, winding Wadi el Brek, at the base of Djebel Ogla. Within an hour the rest of the supporting arms had arrived and most of them were on the way to the companies. The Carrier Platoon and the tanks remained on the flat to patrol the right flank. Enemy shelling had become quite heavy, but it was not sufficient to stop signallers from laying lines to each company. Captains Ollivier and Sinclair had both reported personally to Col Fountaine, giving details of their company and platoon dispositions. Captain Ollivier reported that his company had suffered light casualties, the most serious being the CSM, WO II Mangos, who had been badly wounded in the leg when he moved too close to the barrage. Captain Sinclair brought with him five Germans whom he and his runner had captured on the way to Battalion HQ.
Long before daylight the battalion had consolidated in its new position. Colonel Fountaine had good reason to be satisfied with the night's work. The rifle companies were all in position and contact had been made with 24 Battalion on the left. Wireless communication with the companies and with Brigade HQ had functioned satisfactorily during the advance and the companies were now linked by phone. The sappers had done a good job in clearing the lane through to Battalion HQ so quickly. Subsequently this lane was used for the supporting arms of 24 Battalion, which were then guided to that sector. The latter's No. 11 set had broken down during the advance, and from 3 a.m. all messages to Brigade HQ were relayed through the 26 Battalion set. Shortly before dawn a hot meal and blankets were brought forward.
At 5 a.m. the enemy retaliated. For an hour shells and bombs of all sizes exploded amongst the olive groves and on the barren slopes where B and D Coys were deployed. The concentrations were so heavy that at one time it was thought the page 266 enemy was preparing to counter-attack. Nothing happened and the shelling eased off until later in the morning, when the sector was again plastered for a lengthy period. Fortunately the troops were well dug in and casualties were suffered only as the result of a direct hit.
On the flat the British tanks were also being heavily shelled. Three, apparently disabled by mines, were not moving. The rest separated into two groups, one moving along the Takrouna road and the other to the lower slopes of Djebel Ogla. On the right flank a patrol from C Coy entered Enfidaville, and later 201 Guards Brigade linked up with the company. On the other flank the situation was not as good. Fifth Brigade had encountered very strong opposition at Takrouna and on the lower ground to the right of it. At dawn 23 Battalion was holding a position north of the Takrouna road on the southern slopes of Djebel Cherachir and a small party was established on part of the Takrouna feature. Heavy losses had been suffered by both sides.
For the next three days there was stalemate on the 6 Brigade front. Fifth Brigade cleared Takrouna and was relieved by elements of 51 (Highland) Division. On the 21st Brig Gentry relinquished his command to return to New Zealand as Deputy Chief of the General Staff, and Brig Parkinson6 took over. Both paid short visits to Battalion HQ and the companies during the day. It was unsafe to stay long for enemy shelling and mortaring was almost continuous—some consider it the heaviest and most concentrated of the campaign. The troops were pinned to their trenches for most of the day and often far into the night. Despite its severity casualties were relatively light, although many of the men were badly shaken. Seven were wounded on the 19th and 20th, and on the 22nd D Coy re- page 267 ported two men killed and four wounded. During a period of very heavy shelling the same day a tank officer with B Coy was wounded. Corporal Welsh7 left his trench to attend to him. Disregarding the officer's order to go back, Welsh bandaged him and, with shells exploding all around, assisted him to the RAP.
Corporal Welsh's action put new heart into the men, who not only had to stand up to the enemy fire but also had to contend with some very troublesome mosquitoes. Several men were evacuated with eyes completely closed by bites. Many others, while not as badly affected, were unable to sleep for the pain and irritation of their bites. The forward troops kept constant watch for any enemy movement in the hills and ridges ahead. Whenever anything was sighted a report was sent back and artillery, tank, or mortar fire directed on it. By the 23rd enemy fire from some of these points had slackened off or had ceased altogether. Allied planes made constant attacks, and while they were around the enemy's guns remained silent. An aircraft recognition signal in the form of a letter ‘T’ was placed on the reverse slope of the ridge ahead of B Coy.
Hot meals were brought forward during darkness. Because of the shelling only small parties were permitted to go back for meals at one time. The bullock seen by B Coy during the attack was found out in front of the sector by two men from C Coy. It had been killed by a shell splinter. During a lull in the shelling a hind-quarter was cut off and eaten with some measure of satisfaction.
Second phase of Enfidaville battle, 23–26 April
Tenth Corps was trying to increase its hold in the high ground by a series of limited advances, and during the 24th Brig Parkinson, and in turn Col Fountaine, received orders for a second night advance. Only 26 Battalion was to move, the objectives being Djebel Terhouna and Djebel es Srafi, two ridges lying north and north-west of the existing FDLs. To preserve the continuity of the line, B Coy 24 Battalion was to occupy Pt 107 south of Srafi. After both objectives had been captured the Guards Brigade would again conform on the right flank.
Both features were visible from A Coy's sector. Srafi was a barren ridge rising to the north-east towards Terhouna and about 1500 yards half-left of the FDLs. Beyond Srafi, divided page 269 by a low saddle, lay Pt 141. No plans for the capture of this hill had been made, but 24 Battalion was to maintain harassing fire on it if opposition was encountered on Srafi. Terhouna was an equally barren feature on the right of Srafi and about 1800 yards away. A wide wadi devoid of cover, and under observation from high ridges to the north and north-west, lay between the FDLs and the two objectives.
The Colonel planned to attack using A and B Coys. Both were to form up on Djaje and at 10 p.m. move down into the wadi, A Coy to Srafi and B Coy to Terhouna. Linesmen and supporting arms were to follow the companies as on the previous night. The support was to be the same—a section of mortars and a troop of anti-tank guns, with machine-gunners covering the right flank. Battalion HQ and D Coy would also move forward after dusk and dig in along the reverse slope of Djaje. All four rifle companies were at this stage numerically weak, although B Echelon had been combed for replacements. Few of the platoons contained more than 15 men and all were feeling the strain of the long campaign, particularly the lack of sleep and the heavy shelling of the past few days.
Although it was finally decided that the attack should be a silent one, some doubt was expressed at Battalion HQ and Brigade HQ as to whether this was wise. The Division was now very close to the enemy gunline and further advances would probably meet stiffer resistance. Captain Ollivier reported that enemy troops had been sighted on Srafi and Pt 141 early in the morning, and he pressed for artillery support. At length it was decided to arrange for support and leave the question of using it until the latest ‘I’ report was received from Divisional HQ. This report stated that an enemy line ran from Pt 141 along the crest of Srafi, with a strongpoint on the northern end of the objective. Enemy troops had been seen on both features during the day but doubt was expressed whether they were still there. Eventually it was decided that the attack should be a silent one.
At ten o'clock the two companies moved silently down the ridge into the wadi. At the bottom they followed a rough cart track for about 500 yards before parting, A Coy to the left towards Srafi and B Coy half-right towards Terhouna. It was page 270 10.20 p.m. and the silence was unbroken. On the right B Coy began to climb the spurs which ran up into the plateau-like objective. Nos. 11 and 12 Platoons were in the lead, with Coy HQ and 10 Platoon following, the whole company still travelling in column of route. Suddenly enemy machine guns and mortars opened fire. Most of this fire was directed on the wadi and the approaches to the spurs. No. 10 Platoon and Coy HQ, which were most affected, moved hurriedly to cover and dug in along the lower end of the spurs. Major Smith, who was travelling with the forward platoons, ordered No. 12 to take cover while he led No. 11 into position.
In extended formation this platoon continued up one of the spurs to the crest of the feature. Several times heavy mortaring forced it to take cover, but at length it reached its position on the right of Pt 130 where the troops occupied abandoned enemy trenches. Major Smith returned to 12 Platoon, which was still under cover halfway down another spur. The enemy mortaring had increased considerably and the wadi and lower reaches of the spurs were being swept by spandau fire. Some of this fire was coming from the general direction of Srafi, and the Company Commander decided to find out more of what was happening there before taking 12 Platoon forward on the left flank. The CSM, WO II Lock, who had been left in charge of Coy HQ, could tell him little. Battalion HQ had received no message from A Coy for some time. It was long after midnight by this time and B Coy HQ was being heavily mortared. Major Smith, the only casualty, was mortally wounded.
The CSM took over. His main worry was to get the Company Commander back to the RAP and locate the supporting arms. He went forward and told the two nearest platoon commanders what had happened. As soon as Lt Airey,8 from 10 Platoon, arrived to take over the company, the CSM left to guide the stretcher-bearers to Battalion HQ and the RAP. The small party safely crossed the bullet-swept wadi, and after reporting to Battalion HQ Sergeant-Major Lock found the supporting arms. The route followed by B Coy in its advance was page 271 under very heavy fire at this juncture, but the CSM, with his uncanny sense of direction, found an alternative and safer route. The mortars and anti-tank guns were sited on the spurs and the machine-gunners took up positions to cover both flanks. Meanwhile, Lt Findlay9 had moved 12 Platoon forward on the left flank and Coy HQ had withdrawn to the shelter of a small wadi, not far from where Lt Ross was with his carriers.
By daylight the company had consolidated on its objective. No. 11 Platoon was well forward on the right flank with No. 12 on its left rear. No. 10 Platoon had also moved forward and, being closer to Srafi, was under heavy fire most of the time. The position was by no means secure. Lieutenant Airey at Coy HQ was unaware of the location of the forward platoons and knew that it was impossible for 40 men adequately to defend a 1000-yard front. The whole of the objective was under observation from high ground on the flanks and ridges north-west of it. Fortunately, on the immediate front the plateau dropped away sharply to a cliff face and there was little likelihood of a counter-attack from that direction. The enemy's fire had not slackened off, and although the company was not suffering casualties, movement was practically impossible. Many of the men had been able to occupy enemy trenches which they camouflaged as best they could. Small-arms fire on the left flank indicated that the opposition on Srafi had not been quelled.
This was indeed true. After branching off to the left A Coy had continued on towards Srafi. Nos. 7 and 9 Platoons were in the lead and were making for the south-western end of the objective with the intention of working their way north along it. Both platoons reached the ridge without meeting opposition. They deployed and began to work their way along it. Before they had gone far they ran into intense small-arms and machine-gun fire, some of it from positions close at hand. No. 9 Platoon charged two of these posts and took several prisoners, but at length were forced, together with 7 Platoon, to retire to the reverse slope. Company HQ and 8 Platoon following had also gone to ground on the reverse slope not far from the others.
The volume of enemy fire increased rapidly, with the machine-gun posts on high ground on the right firing along the reverse page 272 slope and the wadi. Mortars ranged on the platoons, which were unable to dig in. Already one platoon commander had been killed, and the fire was too heavy to permit either attack or withdrawal. For a long while the company was pinned down. Captain Ollivier had decided that help would be needed to capture Srafi as it was evidently strongly held. As soon as the enemy fire permitted he gave the order to withdraw. A runner was sent to find 7 and 9 Platoons and inform them of the decision. The forward platoons, out of touch with Coy HQ, had reached a similar decision and were already on the move.
It was about 2 a.m. when Capt Ollivier reached Battalion HQ and told the Colonel what had happened. Company HQ and 8 Platoon were then safely back at the start point, but the other platoons were missing. The CO decided that another attempt must be made to capture the feature, this time with a stronger infantry party and artillery and mortar support. Captain Sinclair was called to Battalion HQ and plans for a two-company assault quickly made. Both companies were to assemble in the wadi and at 3 a.m. make a frontal attack on the ridge. The assault was postponed half an hour to permit better co-ordination of mortar and artillery support. Two sections of 26 Battalion mortars and one of 24 Battalion were to assemble in B Coy 24 Battalion's sector and fire 40 rounds apiece on Srafi and twenty on Pt 141. Artillery concentrations were to be laid on Pt 141 and the ridges to the north-west, where much of the enemy artillery was located. While this was being arranged news was received of Maj Smith's death. Sergeant Newall,10 7 Platoon's commander, arrived at Battalion HQ and reported that the missing A Coy platoons were down in the wadi awaiting further orders.
At 3.15 a.m. the artillery opened fire on the enemy batteries. In the bullet-swept wadi the two companies formed up, C Coy on the right. The mortar concentrations were fired, and as soon as they shifted to Pt 141 the order was given to advance. Guided by Cpl Munro11 of A Coy, C Coy moved forward page 273 towards the eastern end of the objective. No. 15 Platoon (Lt R. A. Boyle) right and 13 Platoon (Lt G. J. Thomas12) left were leading, with 14 Platoon (Lt A. J. Fraser) and Coy HQ following close behind. On the left A Coy was advancing in the same formation as before. Neither company commander had had time to give his men more than a brief outline of the task ahead.
Hostile mortar and machine-gun fire became steadily heavier as the troops approached their objective. Even at this stage the enemy was mortaring the crest of Srafi where his own troops were established. The forward platoons of C Coy concentrated on two spurs running up into the main ridge, while the reserve platoon covered the ground in between. Contact was made with the enemy and fighting soon became very severe. Italian troops, well dug in and plentifully supplied with automatic weapons and grenades, fought well, but the New Zealanders, firing from the hip, pressed forward. One after another the enemy posts were silenced with grenades and bayonets. There was no suggestion of a charge for each line of weapon pits was thought to be the last. Contact was lost with A Coy, which was also heavily engaged.
The closeness of the fighting caused the platoons to become scattered and the assault developed into a series of section and individual actions. The deeds of Pte Carter13 and L-Cpl Jameson14 may be taken as representative of the fighting and led Capt Sinclair to comment: ‘In this action the credit must go to platoon commanders, section leaders, and individual soldiers. Information was scanty and unreliable—the time which would shield our movements was short—all ranks fought with courage, determination and intelligence—most of the fighting consisted of platoon and section attacks against machine-gun posts. These posts were annihilated.’
Private Carter was a member of the left-hand section of C Coy, and when machine-gun fire from the flank wounded his section leader and endangered the rest of the company, he led page 274 the remaining four men in a bayonet charge. In rapid succession three machine-gun posts were put out of action. In a similar situation L-Cpl Jameson, of A Coy, charged a strong machine-gun post on his own initiative with rifle and bayonet. Although mortally wounded, he silenced it.
On the crest of Srafi Lieutenants Thomas and Boyle, both of whom had only a vague impression of what was the objective, decided they had not gone far enough and set out towards Pt 141. Boyle was wounded soon afterwards and Sgt Cameron15 took over. Close fighting continued as the two platoons moved over the crest into the saddle which divided the two features. No. 15 Platoon went astray in the darkness but No. 13 continued on to the right of Pt 141. After some severe fighting the remaining Italians were induced to surrender. By this time the platoon had become very scattered and Lt Thomas had only a sergeant and two privates with him. Hostile fire was still coming from the reverse side of Pt 141 so Thomas decided to continue. The prisoners were sent back towards Srafi unescorted, it being expected that 14 Platoon following would round them up. The four men set off to clear the slope, but on looking back Thomas noticed that the prisoners had returned to their posts again. The party was now caught between two fires and one of the privates was wounded. The four made a dash for Srafi, and all safely recrossed the saddle between Srafi and Pt 141.
Meanwhile No. 15 Platoon, although separated from Lt Thomas's party, had also continued down into the saddle and encountered heavy opposition. What happened is best described by one of the soldiers who took part. An extract from his diary reads:
Anzac Day—Easter Sunday—we raced across a bullet-swept gully and up onto the first ridge—heavy mortaring—literally a withering hail of MG fire—heavy casualties. Enemy calling out to us in English … many taunting remarks … ‘Come and get us Kiwi!’ … ‘We're coming you bastards!’ … Many unlocated MG posts ceased fire as we approached only to recommence firing when we had passed. More casualties from this unknown fire that was shooting men from behind. Subsequently dealt with by reserve platoon. Enemy defences in some depth. page 275 Penetrated outer ring and were at close quarters. Bitter hand-to- hand fighting … shooting at point-blank range … grenades … even bayonet fighting occasionally in evidence. Fired point-blank at an officer who stood up in his trench to throw a grenade at me. Only two of us left in the section … isolated from the rest … temporarily dazed by another grenade which burst a short distance away … German mortar stonk on the area … on his own troops too … other bloke is wounded. Another MG post suddenly opened fire quite close to us … bullets began to spatter viciously … preparing to toss grenades at two Italians who appeared from nowhere … blinding flash … a soaring sensation … and a hard jolt … came to … Platoon sergeant (J. H. A. Cameron) ran over … looked a mess … half my clothes blown off … a flare shot up … we could see excited Italians down at the bottom of the hill … still surrounded … enemy yelling on us to surrender. We remained perfectly still. After a while decided to make a break for it … enemy ran up the hill after us, yelling and screaming as they came … stick bombs exploded behind us … my leg is broken … Cameron helps me on … we get there … only four of platoon left … at wounded collecting post…
The enemy was bringing increasingly heavy fire on the crest of the ridge and the reverse slope, not so much from machine-guns as from mortars and field guns. Captain Sinclair withdrew his men to the reverse slope and, with Capt Ollivier, tried to form a line of defence. A Coy had had a similar experience to C Coy. The western end of the ridge was a maze of enemy-occupied trenches. The three platoons were heavily engaged and advanced in the face of heavy small-arms fire. Lieutenant Hansen,16 the only platoon officer in the company, was wounded when charging an enemy post early in the attack. He refused to be evacuated and led his men forward until the objective had been taken and the company had gained control of the crest of the ridge.
It was almost daylight when the fighting ceased. The two company commanders formed a combined headquarters in a central position and the men began digging in on either side. It was impossible to extend along the length of the ridge. Heavy losses had been suffered and a quick muster revealed that fewer than seventy men remained in the two companies. Some of page 276 these were suffering from slight wounds or from blast. No supporting arms had arrived, but the party was grimly determined to hold on until help came. At daylight the enemy counter-attacked. Leaving their half-finished trenches, the combined force manned the brow of the ridge and fought off the enemy. As the Italians withdrew they came under fire from Germans on Pt 141. Back they came onto Srafi, and once again the concentrated small-arms fire of the defenders drove them back. The Italians suffered heavily and eventually withdrew. A few managed to reach some weapon pits on the hightest point of the ridge.
These pits dominated the companies' positions and it was essential they should be cleared. Sergeant Newall moved 7 Platoon to a position about 50 yards west of the enemy. Although neither party had direct observation of the other, the platoon was able to prevent the enemy taking advantage of his higher position. This quick appreciation saved the two companies many casualties. Later the platoon was able to pick off any of the enemy who attempted to fire from this point. On the other side of the enemy post Pte Dickson17 was able to effect the same result by other means. He went forward and deliberately showed himself. As two Italians rose to shoot him, he opened fire with his Bren gun and shot them instead. Continuing this process he enabled Sgt Newall's party on the western side to pick off more of the enemy, until at length the post was silenced.
By 7 a.m. the troops had completed digging in but were still without support. The No. 18 sets were not working well, but some time before a message had been passed to Battalion HQ asking for tank support. The Adjutant wirelessed back, ‘“Brewers” (tanks) on the way.’ A runner was sent back to guide the supporting arms through and arrange some means to evacuate the wounded. With daylight came full realisation of the importance of Srafi to the enemy. Not only did it give excellent observation of the British sector to the south-west, but it also gave an equally good view of enemy positions to the west and north-west. For this reason it was expected that the enemy would make every effort to recapture the position.page 277
The ridge and the wadi behind it were under heavy shell and mortar fire which pinned down the weary troops. By eight o'clock the fire had increased to such a pitch that everyone thought another counter-attack was imminent. The tanks had not arrived so another message, more urgent than the last, was wirelessed to Battalion HQ. Back came the reply, ‘“Brewers” haven't got wings.’ This was too much for those waiting anxiously on the ridge, who retorted, ‘If “Brewers” haven't we may soon have.’ An hour later the first tank rumbled into the wadi, followed soon after by several others. A carrier and a jeep raced across the wadi and, despite the heavy shelling, reached the ridge in safety. The carrier was loaded with ammunition, which relieved any worries on that score, and both vehicles were used to carry out wounded. The men watched anxiously as the two drivers, Lt Ross and Mr. Gray of the YMCA, recrossed the wadi, again luckily missing the exploding shells.
Although the tanks reached the ridge at nine o'clock, they did not attempt to cross over onto the forward slope until midday. In the interim they drew heavy fire on the hapless infantry, who nevertheless derived a sense of security from their presence. Most of the wounded had still to be evacuated, and this remained a difficult problem throughout the day. Almost invariably the wadi was under very heavy fire, but Mr. Gray came forward several times in his jeep bringing comforts to the men and carrying back stretcher cases. Quite a few of the wounded, including some Italians, were lying out on the forward slope and down on the saddle. Snipers blocked every attempt to get these men back to safety, except on one occasion when Mr. Gray and a medical orderly crawled forward with a stretcher and dragged back a badly wounded man. Some of the walking wounded, seeking to avoid going through the wadi, moved south along the lower reaches of the ridge but were mistaken for enemy troops by 24 Battalion and fired on. One man was killed and two others received further wounds before the mistake was discovered.
Later, when three tanks moved over the ridge, the remnants of 13 and 14 Platoons accompanied them. Dugouts in the locality were examined, but no trace of the enemy was found page 278 apart from casualties. Enemy snipers were quiet, but hostile shelling continued unabated as all ranks lent a hand to carry back the dead and wounded of both sides. The tanks continued on and later returned to report that Pt 141 was clear of the enemy. The two company commanders decided that they did not have enough men to hold both features and accordingly did not move forward. Machine-gun fire from Pt 141 indicated that the enemy was still in possession of the feature and had remained hidden in his deep trenches while the tanks made their sweep. At 2.15 p.m. the CO informed the Brigade Commander that only Srafi could be held with any degree of safety.
On the right flank on Terhouna the situation was largely unchanged. Chiefly due to the efforts of Sgt Welsh and WO II Lock, contact had been made with the three platoons and details of their location relayed to Battalion HQ. Throughout the day the enemy had continued to shell, mortar, and machine-gun the barren plateau and the approaches to it almost without a break. Early in the morning Welsh arrived at Coy HQ with news of No. 11 Platoon, which was in a very exposed position. Several times during the day he crossed and recrossed the open ground to report enemy gun positions and maintain contact. The CSM set out to locate the other platoons. He ran into heavy machine-gun fire which forced him to return. Lieutenant Ross arrived at B Coy HQ in a carrier and the two went forward, escaping by a miracle it seemed the concentration of enemy fire to which the company sector was being subjected. Contact was made with both platoons, which were well dug in and suffering no casualties. Subsequently Lt Ross crossed the open slope in his carrier many times, once carrying a hot meal forward. Captain Hunter18 took over command of B Coy and Lt Airey returned to 10 Platoon. At the end of the day no more casualties had been suffered.
By dusk the general situation had improved. Mortars, machine guns, and anti-tank guns were forward with all companies. On the right flank 201 Guards Brigade had moved forward to conform with B Coy's position, although there was a fairly wide gap between them and the New Zealanders. page 279 Signallers had laid lines to Srafi and Terhouna but found it difficult to maintain communications because of the heavy shelling of the wadi. Led by Cpl Menzies,19 the linesmen spent many hours ranging up and down repairing breaks in the line. It was dangerous work and casualties were suffered. Battalion HQ had not escaped the attention of the enemy gunners and the rear areas were often shelled. The Srafi casualties were all safely evacuated.
About 7 p.m. enemy shelling showed signs of easing, but there was no rest for the weary troops holding Srafi. Strong pickets had to be maintained, which meant that nearly everyone spent a sleepless night. The mosquitoes came at dusk as usual. Rations were sent forward from Battalion HQ and delivered without incident, except that C Coy's ration truck went astray and was not found until the early hours of the morning. To discourage the enemy from forming up for another counter-attack, three artillery concentrations were fired on Pt 141. The line was strengthened by the arrival of 18 Platoon. Commanded by Capt Molineaux,20 it was sent forward to plug the gap between B and C Coys. No. 10 Platoon was then sent around on the right flank and dug in between the Guards Brigade and 11 Platoon.
Hot meals were sent forward before dawn, and at daybreak the ‘hate’ session began anew. It ceased within an hour, to recommence at intervals during the day. It was noticeable that whenever Allied aircraft appeared the enemy guns were silent. In comparison with the previous day, 26 April was uneventful. General Freyberg and the Brigade Commander paid visits to Battalion HQ to discuss the situation with Col Fountaine. Late in the afternoon Brig Parkinson personally delivered the very welcome order that 6 Brigade would be relieved at dusk by elements of 56 London Division. A battalion of the Queen's Regiment would be taking over the battalion's sector.
When the time came for the relief to begin, the movement of transport attracted the attention of enemy gunners who shelled page 280 and mortared Srafi and the approaches to it. In a short time four men were killed and seven wounded. Captains Sinclair and Ollivier both suffered concussion but recovered sufficiently to hand over the sector to the British troops and lead the remnants of their companies to the waiting transport.
As far as the battalion was concerned, this was the end of the fighting in Tunisia. The past seven days, and in particular the last two, had been harrowing. The severity of the fighting on Srafi can be gauged from the casualties suffered—eleven killed and 26 wounded, more than a third of the number taking part. Casualties for the seven days totalled 70, including 23 killed. When the Mareth Line had been captured all ranks had thought that enemy resistance in North Africa would collapse, and such losses as were suffered around Enfidaville had not been expected.
1 Brig F. M. H. Hanson, DSO and bar, OBE, MM, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Levin, 1896; resident engineer Main Highways Board; Wellington Regt in First World War; commanded 7 Fd Coy, NZ Engineers, Jan 1940–Aug 1941; CRE 2 NZ Div Oct 1941–Apr 1944, Nov 1944–Jan 1946; Chief Engineer, 2 NZEF, 1943–46; wounded three times; Deputy Commissioner of Works, Wellington.
5 Appointments on the eve of action were:
2 i/c: Maj E. E. Richards
Adjt: Capt A. B. Kennedy
QM: Capt F. W. Wilson
IO: Lt D. C. Piper
A Tk: Lt R. D. Westenra
Carriers: Lt F. A. Ross
Padre: Rev. H. S. Scott
OC A Coy: Capt F. M. Ollivier
OC B Coy: Maj L. G. Smith
OC C Coy: Capt J. J. D. Sinclair
OC D Coy: Capt K. W. Hobbs
OC HQ Coy: Maj H. G. McQuade
Support: Capt A. R. McKinlay
MO: Capt I. H. Fletcher
6 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 Jan 1940–Aug 1941 commanded 1 NZ Army Tank Bde and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1941–42; 6 Bde Apr 1943–Jun 1944; commanded 2 NZ Div (Cassino), 3–27 Mar 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div, Jun–Aug 1944; commanded 6 Bde, Aug 1944–Jun 1945; commanded NZ Troops in Egypt and NZ Maadi Camp, Jul–Nov 1945; Quartermaster-General, Army HQ, Jan–Sep 1946; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946–49; Commandant, Southern Military District, 1949–51.