Chapter 9 — The Pursuit
COLONEL FOUNTAINE was at a conference at Brigade HQ when the shelling occurred, and he returned with the news that within twenty-four hours the Division would commence its mobile role. Latest information confirmed that the enemy was withdrawing, leaving a strong rearguard force to delay the Eighth Army. The New Zealanders, with the 4th Light Armoured Brigade and the weakened 9th Armoured Brigade under command, were to head south-west to cut off the Italians in the south. Subsequently this plan was changed and the Divisional Group was directed on Fuka, 65 miles to the north-west. The 154th Brigade would relieve 6 Brigade, which was to move along lighted lanes through the minefields to a divisional assembly area near Sidi Ibeid. The route to this area lay immediately to the east of a line to be established by the armour on the morning of the move. Each brigade was to retain supporting arms under command. Rations to last eight days and petrol for 200 miles were to be carried.
The relief was completed during the morning of 4 November. The troops marched a short distance to the rear to wait for transport and the order to move. At 9 a.m. B Echelon and the transport arrived and everyone settled down in the hot sun to await further orders. B Echelon had received its share of shelling during the past three days. One officer and five other ranks had been wounded and a 15-cwt. truck destroyed. A cooks' truck and a jeep had been damaged by mines. At 10 a.m. Brigade HQ advised that the move to the brigade assembly area would begin about 2 p.m. Lieutenant Piper tested the route through to this point and reported that the going was bad with numerous soft spots. All ranks knew they were in for a dusty ride.
Two o'clock passed without any orders from Brigade HQ and it was nearly 5 p.m. before the vehicles set off southwards. Two hours later they joined the rest of 6 Brigade Group. Only a few miles had been covered and everyone was caked with page 212 dust. The prospect of many more hours' travelling in this manner was not pleasant. At the assembly area the battalion vehicles took up their position in the Brigade Group, and without delay the columns headed south-west towards the minefields and the divisional assembly area. The route was lit by green lamps and was very much worse than that covered by the battalion earlier in the evening. Soft patches of sand many times bogged down lines of vehicles. Around each truck cursing soldiers shoved or worked with picks and shovels to free it. The carriers did a great job, ranging up and down the columns helping to free those trucks worst held, but there were not enough of them. To the men it seemed that they got their trucks on to firm ground only for them to sink in once more. Desert formation was abandoned and before the night was through companies and platoons were all mixed up. Time was important to the success of the outflanking move, and 6 Brigade, the last of the Division's formations to move out, was already hours late.
While 6 Brigade was struggling to reach Sidi Ibeid the Division left the assembly area and moved north-west. The leading 6 Brigade trucks were guided to the route by the light from a burning vehicle, and in the early hours of the morning joined the tail end of the Division's columns. The Division was moving very slowly, and gradually more and more of the brigade vehicles arrived. Some were still missing when Brig Gentry gave orders to halt. While the cooks prepared breakfast the missing trucks arrived. Ahead the drive on Fuka had begun in earnest.
At 9 a.m. the Brigade Group formed up and set out in the wake of the Division. Before long it had caught up with the long columns of vehicles, tanks, and guns now moving behind the enemy defences and heading straight for the coast. The tanks and AFVs were in front and the pace was slow. To the Allied pilots who flew overhead the Division must have presented a marvellous sight—thousands of vehicles spread across the desert, each one throwing up its little cloud of dust. All day the advance continued, the columns turning left or right to avoid soft patches or skirt minefields. Stops were fairly frequent, and on several occasions the armoured screen brushed against enemy rearguard parties. The route was strewn with abandoned page 213 or burnt-out vehicles, tanks and guns—signs of the damage done by Allied aircraft. During one of the longer halts equipment and food was salvaged from this wreckage.
At 5.30 p.m. the Brigade Group reached the minefield south of Fuka, but instead of following the rest of the Division through the gap it turned south-east to laager for the night. The columns made slow progress and it was eight o'clock before the vehicles had dispersed and the troops debussed. It had been a long, tiring day, particularly for the drivers. That night strong pickets were posted but nothing untoward happened. By morning the general situation had changed considerably. Under cover of darkness the enemy had managed to withdraw the bulk of his forces east of Fuka, except for thousands of Italians without transport. Three British armoured divisions driving westward from the Alamein Line during the previous day had penetrated deep into enemy territory and, with the New Zealanders, would continue the pursuit.
About 7 a.m. on the 6th an enemy column was sighted moving south-east across the front. The battalion's anti-tank guns and Bren carriers were quickly in action. Several went racing across the desert to cut off the enemy. Shortly afterwards they returned with about 600 prisoners, most of them Italians. About fifty men from 22 Armoured Brigade, who had been captured a few hours earlier, and some wounded were freed. The Italians seemed pleased to be captured but the Germans were unsmiling. Meanwhile, plans to continue the pursuit in daylight had been finalised. The immediate objectives were Baggush and the Sidi Haneish airfield, urgently needed by the RAF. Sixth Brigade and the two armoured brigades were to lead the Division and move by separate routes towards this area, with 7 Armoured Division moving on their left.
By 9 a.m. 6 Brigade was on the move. At the minefield gap south of Fuka it was delayed while the balance of 9 Armoured Brigade moved through. Once through the minefield the group opened up into desert formation—a grand sight in the bright sunlight. Soon afterwards the state of the going slowed up progress. There were many hold-ups, none of which was caused by enemy action. Later heavy rain showers kept down the dust but made conditions unpleasant for those in trucks with leaky page 214 covers or with none at all. At five o'clock the group reached the escarpment south of Baggush and a halt was ordered. The vehicles dispersed and the men bedded down for the night. The armoured units reported the aerodrome and Baggush clear of the enemy. As darkness fell gunfire was heard to the south-west but few worried about it.
They were more concerned about the heavy rain which began shortly afterwards. Open trenches quickly filled with water, while tarpaulins and groundsheets kept the rain out only for a while. Nearly everyone rushed to the trucks and spent the night huddled up inside or under them.
By dawn the desert was a sea of mud. Here and there were great pools of water in which the men were shaving and washing. The rain had ceased but nearly everything, including bedding and clothing, was soaked. Drivers tried to move their vehicles, which only became bogged deeper than ever.
Not only was the battalion completely immobilised, but the rest of the Eighth Army, including a supply column bringing badly needed supplies, was held up by the mud. Without these supplies the Division could not continue the pursuit. The enemy, moving back along the main road, was less affected by the weather and made good his escape. More rain fell during the morning and conditions became very unpleasant. At midday the cooks provided a hot meal, and a very welcome meal it was! The skies cleared during the afternoon and the cold southerly wind rapidly dried the ground. Meanwhile the carriers had been pulling the heavier vehicles on to firmer ground. General Freyberg expected the supply column to arrive overnight and made plans to continue the advance next day, 8 November.
New Zealand positions bombed by Stukas — pre-Alamein period
The barrage at Alamein, 23 October 1942
Wheel tracks in the desert at Alamein
Bogged down near Fuka — shaving from puddles
After lunch the group began to move, but it soon ran into difficult going. Many vehicles became stuck and had to be hauled out by carriers and, in a few cases, by bulldozers. Stops were frequent and by 5 p.m. only eleven miles had been covered. In the meantime armoured patrols had entered Matruh to find it deserted. This news caused a change in plans. A halt was ordered and the troops bedded down. Sixth Brigade was to occupy the town in the morning while the rest of the Division continued to advance on Sidi Barrani and Halfaya Pass.
* * *
Next morning Col Fountaine was ordered to move into Mersa Matruh. The battalion moved at ten o'clock, but because of the traffic moving west it was 6 p.m. before all troops had reached the town. The rifle companies bivouacked alongside the salt lakes close to the town while Battalion HQ and HQ Coy occupied the Western Barracks. Recently vacated by Italians, these quarters were in a disgusting condition.
In the morning everyone was out exploring the town or fixing up new quarters. Cleaning up the barracks took several days. Matruh had been used as a base depot and contained large stocks of food and equipment. In their haste to get away the Italians had left most of this behind. Some of the buildings had been blown up but the enemy had not been able to complete this task. Captain Wilson and his staff stacked cases of jam, tomato relish, macaroni, spaghetti, tinned meat and cheese for future use. The troops concentrated more on the stocks of clothing, equipment, confectionery and wine. Some of this, although useless to soldiers, had a commercial value, but Cairo and its black market was a long way off. The wines, a mixture of good and bad, were freely distributed and drunk, sometimes with unpleasant results. The better quality wines seldom caused lasting ill-effects, but this was not the case with such fiery concoctions as ‘Purple Death’.
Sixth Brigade did not leave Matruh until 20 November. The eleven days there were not spent in festivities. Matruh became page 216 a forward supply base for the Eighth Army and ships arrived regularly at the wharf or at Smugglers' Cove nearby. Each day large parties from the battalion were detailed to help with the unloading. The days passed quickly. On the 11th Padre Scott, who had returned to the battalion about the middle of October to replace Father Kingan, held a memorial service in honour of the 49 men who had lost their lives in the recent action. A few days later reinforcements arrived, in all seven officers and 69 other ranks, the majority being men who had been on the sick list.
Their arrival enabled Col Fountaine to carry out some reorganisation and build up the strength of his rifle companies. The mortar, anti-tank, and carrier platoons were detached from HQ Coy and became known as Support Company. Captain McKinlay was given the command. Major Richards succeeded Maj Morten as battalion second-in-command, Capt Ollivier took over A Coy, and Capt Sinclair1 C Coy. Lieutenant Kennedy, who had assumed the duties of Adjutant when 2 Lt Seal was wounded and again when Lt Barnett was wounded, was confirmed in that appointment.
Meanwhile the Division had continued the pursuit. Halfaya Pass was captured; Sollum, Sidi Azeiz, and Bardia fell without a shot being fired. It became apparent that Rommel did not intend making a stand east of El Agheila. The divisional columns did not go beyond Bardia but armoured columns of the Eighth Army took up the pursuit. On 8 November American and British forces had landed in North Africa and the Axis commander was now facing two fronts.
* * *
On 20 November 6 Brigade left Mersa Matruh to rejoin the Division. The journey to the divisional camp site near Sidi Azeiz was made in easy stages. A late start was made on the 20th and the columns travelled only 16 miles before halting for the night. Seventy-eight miles were covered the next day, and about 3 p.m. on the 23rd the camp came into view. It was nothing to enthuse over—just another piece of desert. During page 217 the next few days efforts were made to improve conditions in the camp. Semi-permanent living quarters and cooking establishments were set up and roads and tracks levelled and improved. Football and hockey grounds were also prepared.
Twelve days were spent here, and as soon as the necessary equipment arrived from Maadi sport took up most of the time. At irregular intervals working parties were sent to unload cargoes at Bardia and Fort Capuzzo. There were a few short route marches and some lectures on mines. Once or twice bathing parties were taken to the beaches, but most of the men had to be content with the showers of the Mobile Shower Unit. Water was strictly rationed, and each man was permitted to stand under a trickle for sixty seconds. After some practice everyone got used to washing off most of the desert grime within the time limit.
The weather had become much cooler, especially after dusk, and battle dress was being worn again. The epidemic of jaundice which had taken such heavy toll of the unit since June eased off almost completely, but mild outbreaks of colds and influenza took its place. The weather had little effect on sports enthusiasts. After a series of trial games battalion teams were selected. The Rugby team played two games, losing to 23 Battalion and winning its match against 21 Battalion. Much greater rivalry was shown in inter-company and platoon games, which were often very spirited. In a very willing match the sergeants defeated the officers by nine points to nil.
Highlight of the spell at Sidi Azeiz was the arrival of a large surface mail, the first for a long time. With growing excitement the men watched drivers unloading from their trucks bag after bag of parcels, papers, and letters. The letters were read in private but the parcels were shared at dugout parties for some time afterwards. Beer was still short but the majority of the men had their store of wine. There was little to do in the evenings. A piano had been brought from Matruh, and around it a crowd gathered almost every night. Early in December the Mobile Cinema Unit showed a film in the open. That night the piano was deserted.
Each night at six o'clock a crowd collected around the radio to hear the latest war news. Everything was going well. The page 218 Russians were striking back and the Japanese advance had been stemmed. The Eighth Army was swiftly advancing towards the El Agheila line, where it was expected that Rommel would make his next stand. As the days went by and the armoured units drew nearer to this line, the troops realised that the Division would soon be called back into action. Another 87 reinforcements had joined the battalion, bringing the unit strength up to 498.
Orders to move to the battlefront were received on 3 December, and within twenty-four hours 6 Brigade was on its way. Its destination was El Haseiat, an isolated spot south-east of Agedabia. Each brigade group was to move independently by an inland desert route across Cyrenaica, and the 342-mile journey was scheduled to take five days. Bren carriers were left behind to come forward on tank transporters by the main road.
As the last vehicles moved off from the camp area there was little to show where 500 men had stayed for a fortnight. Here and there were rectangles of petrol tins that had been used to line dugouts; left behind, too, was the piano—upright in the centre of the desert waste. It could no longer be carried and was left to rot and rust. Soon it was hidden from sight by the thick clouds of dust thrown up by the departing column. That night the brigade camped about six miles east of El Adem. The battlefields of the campaign of November 1941 were not far away. As the trucks passed Pt 175 and the Sidi Rezegh mosque, all eyes turned to gaze at those desolate spots where so many New Zealanders had lost their lives. In the minds of those who had survived were bitter memories of how they had stood defenceless against enemy tanks. In one short year how different was the story!
Early the next day, the 5th, the columns moved past the El Adem airfield. Its edges were lined with the wreckage of German and Italian planes, piled high out of the way. Allied aircraft were already using the field and several big transports landed while the trucks roared past. For the rest of the day the view was sand and more sand, and at dusk the brigade camped near Bir Hacheim, a desolate spot made famous by the Free French troops six months earlier. All that now remained were a page 219 few burnt-out tanks and lorries and some barbed wire half buried in the sand.
The rest of the journey was monotonous and uninteresting and at times most unpleasant in the thick, swirling dust. On the 5th the brigade changed direction, heading south-west towards its destination. Three days later it halted at El Haseiat and the troops settled down to await the arrival of the rest of the Division. As the wait was likely to extend over several days, tents were pitched and slit trenches made comfortable. The Brigade Group remained in desert formation and, for security reasons, movement of vehicles in the area was strictly curtailed. Trucks and tents were camouflaged and a strict blackout enforced after dark in case enemy reconnaissance planes appeared. Sappers advised that most of the tracks around the area were mined. While waiting the troops prepared for the action which they knew lay ahead. Equipment was cleaned and oiled. Instructors from the specialist platoons gave lectures and NCOs attended a two-day course of instruction at Brigade HQ. The Carrier Platoon arrived and took up its position in the battalion formation.
During 10 and 11 December the Eighth Army's plan to breach the El Agheila line was explained in detail to officers and senior NCOs, who were taken to Divisional HQ for the purpose. Colonel Fountaine was able to illustrate his talk with the aid of a small plaster model of the front. This showed the terrain, enemy troop dispositions, and known and suspected enemy minefields. The enemy line was formidable. It had been prepared after the Libyan campaign of November 1941. Near the coast the front was protected by salt marshes and deep minefields. Hills ran south of these to end in tracts of soft sand, believed impassable to heavy vehicles.
The Division had been given a very important role. Supported by 4 Light Armoured Brigade, it was to sweep around on the southern flank and come up behind the enemy line. This bold outflanking move had been made possible by the discovery of a route through the soft sand. A patrol of the King's Dragoon Guards, led by Capt P. D. Chrystal, had reconnoitred the route from El Haseiat to Marble Arch during the first week of December. Chrystal's Rift, six miles broad with deep, precipitous page 220 sides, could be used by the divisional columns after the route had been prepared by bulldozers.
After negotiating this rift the Division was to head for the coast and Marble Arch with the object of cutting the enemy's supply line to El Agheila and blocking any withdrawal. The success of the ‘left hook’ depended largely on whether the New Zealanders could get near their objective before the enemy was aware of the threat to his rear. At the same time two British divisions were to launch a frontal attack on his main defences at Agheila.
On the 11th 6 Brigade Group moved 42 miles south-west to a divisional assembly area, where it formed up in desert formation behind the tanks and AFVs. Rain fell during the night, and although unpleasant at the time, it kept the dust down the next day. By nightfall on the 12th the heads of the columns were close to the rift. The vehicles remained in open formation and the troops slept close by. More rain fell. In the morning the battalion vehicles began to move slowly through the narrow gap. Speed was increased on the far side and the columns had covered 60 miles before a halt was ordered. No reconnaissance planes had been sighted and it was believed the enemy was still unaware of the move, although reports from El Agheila indicated that he was already beginning to withdraw westward.
For the third night in succession it rained. On the 14th when the troops embussed a thick fog enshrouded the vehicles. A closer formation was adopted and the advance continued through barren country and along fairly good tracks. Later the fog lifted but low-lying clouds prevented enemy air observation. Thirty-five miles had been covered when the Brigade Group halted for lunch. At a conference at Brigade HQ early in the afternoon Brig Gentry explained the changing situation to his battalion commanders. All reports indicated that the enemy had already withdrawn part of his forces to the vicinity of Marble Arch and that the bulk of what was left at Agheila would soon be on the move. In view of this the Division would move north-west with all possible speed towards Marble Arch. On reaching the Via Balbia, the main coastal road, 24 and 25 Battalions would consolidate on the low hills on both sides of it, 26 Battalion remaining in reserve. Fifth Brigade Group would page 221 remain in a reserve area south of 6 Brigade, while the armoured force would cover the western flank. This would leave the enemy only a few coastal tracks by which he could escape.
The advance was continued at 4 p.m. and a stop was not called until half past ten. Nearly 80 miles had been covered. The armoured screen was now close to enemy territory. On the morning of the 15th more rain fell. The troops were ready to embus at 7.30 a.m., but the start was delayed nearly three hours while the tanks refuelled. Latest reports indicated that the enemy was holding 6 Brigade's objective and plans were changed. The brigade was directed to move farther west to Bir el Merduma and north to cut the coastal road. Fifth Brigade was to take up a position on the southern flank, facing east. Wireless silence was broken and the race to the coastal road was on. Fearing enemy air attacks, the CO dispersed the Anti-Aircraft Platoon amongst the columns.
After crossing 15 miles of rough, stony country the columns reached a level stretch of desert. Speed was increased and before long the Brigade Group had outstripped the slower-moving tanks. At 4 p.m. the Divisional Cavalry reported it had encountered the enemy. Half an hour later the brigade halted but within a few minutes was on the move again. The country became hilly and progress much slower. Colonel Fountaine went ahead to join the Brigade Commander on a reconnaissance. A few minutes before 7 p.m. the order to halt was given. The Colonel returned from the reconnaissance but immediately went back to Brigade HQ. While he was away the troops had a meal of cold rations.
The brigade had turned off the divisional axis of advance shortly before sunset to head directly towards the coast. Consequently it no longer had the armoured screen in front of it. The coastal road was believed to be only about four miles away, and a carrier patrol, including three from the battalion, was sent out to report on the route the brigade would have to follow. It was now believed that the greater part of the enemy force was still east of the Division. In view of this Brig Gentry decided to continue the advance without waiting for the patrol's return.
By the light of a moon partly obscured by clouds, the trucks left the flat desert behind and began to cross a series of sharply page 222 defined ridges. Before long trucks were jammed nose-to-tail. Each time a ridge was crossed another loomed up ahead. There was terrific din as hundreds of vehicles accelerated to climb the steep slopes. Several were stuck in narrow gullies and the trucks behind had to move around them. Four miles were covered in this manner before another halt was ordered. The difficult going had caused some confusion. Column formation had been lost and trucks of the Artillery and other units were intermingled with those of the battalion. After a lot of shouting and cursing everything was gradually sorted out.
The carrier patrol had not returned so another was sent out with orders to keep in wireless contact. After it had gone about 1000 yards the Brigade Group followed. The going became more and more difficult, but by 9 p.m. three more miles had been covered. A halt was ordered and the Colonel went to Brigade HQ to learn the latest developments. Both carrier patrols had returned. They had been forward another 1000 yards and had heard traffic movement, presumably along the coastal road. A wadi difficult to cross barred access to it.
Brigadier Gentry and his senior officers went forward in 26 Battalion carriers to make a more detailed reconnaissance. After travelling about 1200 yards they ran into heavy machine-gun and anti-tank gun fire. The carriers immediately wheeled and turned back but the leading two were hit. Three men were wounded, two of them mortally. The Carrier officer and the surviving wounded soldier were taken prisoner. The rest of the party withdrew to safety.
Colonel Fountaine returned to the battalion at 9.30 p.m. He found that the troops had debussed and were deployed along the ridges. The transport, most of which had halted on the crest of a wide ridge, had started to move back into the wadis, a move accelerated by a few shells which had landed in the area. The CO ordered company commanders to deploy their men along the main ridge with C Coy on higher ground on the right and B Coy on the left. Defensive positions were to be sited to face north-east along a front of approximately 1500 yards. The flanking companies were each to have three two-pounders and four six-pounders (7 Anti-Tank Regiment). The remaining two two-pounders were to support A Coy. The page 223 mortars and machine-gunners were similarly divided among the companies.
Shortly afterwards Battalion HQ was set up in a wadi about 400 yards to the rear, with the transport park and the carriers not far away. In the meantime the ridge had come under heavy shell and mortar fire. It slackened off half an hour later to recommence at irregular intervals throughout the night. About 10 p.m. Lt Piper went forward to determine the position of the three companies. He found A and C Coys hard at work digging in along the crest and reverse slope of the ridge. Because of the nature of the terrain Maj Smith had moved B Coy about 600 yards farther forward. Signallers were laying line to each of the companies and by 3 a.m. everything was complete.
Ahead 24 and 25 Battalions, after overcoming some opposition, were consolidating along a ridge beyond that occupied by the battalion. A carrier patrol had ventured as far as the coastal road but did not attempt to molest the traffic on it, deciding to await the arrival of minelaying parties. One company from 24 Battalion tried to gain a foothold on the high ridge north of its position but was driven back by enemy tanks. There was no sign of 5 Brigade on the right flank. The situation became much clearer at dawn. The ridge north of 24 Battalion obscured the road from view, and the enemy was apparently strongly entrenched on it. Fifth Brigade was in position several miles to the south-east. Through an error in navigation during the night 6 Brigade had swung too far to the west. This was serious, for it meant that the tanks and artillery units which were to have supported the infantry now had to cover the wide gap. Headquarters 30 Corps reported that a large enemy force was moving towards the New Zealanders. Seventh Armoured Division was slowly moving through the El Agheila defences—too slowly to be of immediate help.
It was a beautiful sunny morning and little was happening in the battalion sector. The forward battalions were under heavy shellfire, but scarcely any of it reached the reserve area. Early in the morning some movement was noticed on a high plateau about 2000 yards west of B Coy. Thinking they would be friendly troops, nobody took much notice. Colonel Fountaine was not so sure and sent Lt Piper to investigate. This officer page 224 came under spandau fire when about 350 yards from the crest of the feature. The CO, who was watching with field glasses, ordered C Coy to attack.
The 25-pounders fired a concentration on the plateau, and as the three platoons fanned out and crossed the wadi mortars, two-pounders, and Vickers guns began firing. The leading troops climbed the slope under fire from a lone spandau. Near the top they made ready to charge, but when they did they found the enemy had gone, except for two rather scared Germans. In his haste to get away the enemy left behind five 50- millimetre guns, an unusual type of portée, and other equipment. Two of the guns were sited to cover 6 Brigade's transport and could have caused considerable damage. Suddenly spandau fire from an enemy truck about 800 yards away caused everyone to dive for cover. The platoons returned the fire and Capt Sinclair wirelessed for artillery and machine-gun support. Very soon afterwards a jeep mounting a Vickers gun raced across the wadi and up the slope. By the time it had arrived the enemy vehicle was gone.
While this was going on enemy tanks and trucks were driving through the gap between the two brigades. They succeeded in escaping but left behind several tanks, 12 anti-tank guns, 30 spandaus, and a number of trucks—a heavy loss to the enemy in view of his earlier losses. The rest of his forces withdrew during the night by way of the Via Balbia under cover of a rearguard from 90 Light Division. A mobile column set out after the enemy, 4 Light Armoured Brigade following shortly afterwards.
After midday all enemy activity in the vicinity of the battalion sector ceased. A hot meal was brought forward, and shortly afterwards a warning order was received to be ready to move. The enemy portée had been driven back to Battalion HQ where it excited some interest, more particularly as it was loaded with good underclothing, socks, and food. The one bottle of brandy found was eagerly claimed. Later in the afternoon more detailed instructions were received from Brigade HQ. The Division was going to continue the chase, the immediate objective being the village of Nofilia, which was reported to be strongly held. Sixth Brigade Group would be in reserve and page 225 was unlikely to take part if an assault developed. The rest of the Eighth Army was held up in the vicinity of the El Agheila position by mines and demolitions.
At 4 p.m. the battalion set out to rejoin the rest of the Brigade Group, several miles south of the position. B and C Coys were late in arriving, C Coy because it had a long way to march and B Coy because most of its personnel were bathing in a rock pool and were loath to leave it. By nightfall the battalion had taken its place in the brigade formation. At ten o'clock next morning, 17 December, the long line of vehicles began moving south-west. At 3 p.m. there was temporary hold-up as the columns passed through a British field battery which was engaging targets north-east of the brigade. Another nine miles were covered, making 48 for the day, when a stop was made.
At a conference after tea the CO outlined what had happened during the day. As it neared Nofilia 4 Light Armoured Brigade had been engaged by enemy artillery and armour. While this action was continuing the Division had turned south and then west for a short distance. Sixth Brigade had halted, and 5 Brigade had attempted to cut the main road west of Nofilia and complete its encirclement. The defenders were estimated to number about 5000 and were supported by 20–25 tanks. There was a possibility that, finding his normal escape route blocked, the enemy might drive south, and for that reason normal defence measures were to be taken by 6 Brigade.
Although this was done the troops were left in peace. In the morning came rather startling news—Nofilia had been found deserted. Fifth Brigade had succeeded in blocking the main coastal road, but under cover of darkness the enemy had got away. Everyone expected the Division would continue the chase at once, but the day passed without further orders. It was the same the next day. Two days later rumours were silenced. Sixth Brigade moved to a new bivouac area about six miles north-west of Nofilia and close to the main road. A three weeks' spell from jolting trucks and flying sand lay ahead.
* * *
While drivers repaired the damage caused to their trucks by the long journey across the desert, sports committees were page 226 formed in each company. The camp site lay in undulating tussocky country and the sand seemed cleaner than usual. Football and hockey fields were soon cleared and teams selected. As usual keen rivalry was shown between companies and platoons. The battalion Rugby team lost both its matches, being defeated by 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery and, for the second time, by 23 Battalion. On several occasions the companies marched to the coast for a swim. A rifle range was set up nearby and a tournament arranged. The winners were Pte R. Patrick (rifle) and Pte D. M. Harkness (Bren gun).
A battalion sports meeting proved highly successful, with some close finishes to the running events. Representatives were chosen to compete at a brigade meeting. Unfortunately, the day before it took place the men had an 18-mile route march. Only one representative gained a title, Lt G. T. Kain winning the high jump. Little training was carried out and was confined to a few route marches and lectures. Selected personnel were sent to HQ 30 Corps to attend specialist courses in patrolling and minelifting.
Christmas Day, 1942, the third since the battalion left New Zealand, was celebrated in time-honoured custom. Considering the distance the Division was from its base, the commissariat arrangements were excellent. The cooks provided tomato soup, turkey, pork with apple sauce, baked and boiled potatoes, green peas, carrots and gravy, while for those who had any room left there was plum pudding and sauce. A bottle of beer and 50 cigarettes were issued to each man. Officers and sergeants served the meal in liberal quantities. After it was over the men rested. An excellent day was capped by the arrival of a large number of bags of mail and parcels. There had nearly been no plum pudding, for the half-gallon daily ration of water was insufficient for boiling puddings. The day was saved by the discovery of a large pool of surface water, which was strained into 44- gallon drums and used for the puddings. It was muddy and green but served admirably. Almost everyone thought it would be his last Christmas away from home.
Another special meal was served on New Year's Day. Three day's later the brigade moved to a divisional assembly area south of Nofilia. The 18-mile journey was completed on foot page 227 as General Montgomery intended to review the troops on the march. Eleven miles had been covered by midday and the brigade halted to await the General's arrival. A strong north-westerly wind and flying sand made conditions very unpleasant. When the General arrived the troops marched past the saluting base in column of route and then continued to the assembly area, arriving about 4 p.m. Later the same day officers met in the Advanced Dressing Station tent and listened to a talk by the Eighth Army Commander. After congratulating the brigade on its achievements, the General outlined the Army's immediate and future objectives. In a confident manner he forecast the course of the campaign, even predicting when certain objectives would be captured. Before his talk ended there were few who did not share some of his confidence.
During the next four days several desert exercises were carried out with tanks. In the first one the companies practised advancing on an objective with tanks in close support. Later this exercise was repeated on a battalion scale and finally as a brigade. In these operations the tanks moved with the infantry so that they could give each other protection. This was a radical change from the tactics employed earlier at Sidi Rezegh and El Mreir.
Throughout the spell there had been little to do in the evenings. Occasionally there was a sing-song, and on 6 January the Padre and a few helpers staged a concert. The performers from the unit gave a really good show and the large audience showed its appreciation. The highlight of the programme was Cpl Bill Pollock's2 rendering of the song-hit ‘My Little Gippo Bint’. During his long service with the battalion this NCO was always ready with his ukelele and inexhaustible fund of yarns to help pass monotonous hours.
Meanwhile, supplies had been built up and the Division was ready to join in the advance through Tripolitania. Fifty-eight reinforcements, including three officers, had joined the unit, some returning from a spell in hospital. On 9 January 6 Brigade Group set out in a south-westerly direction towards another assembly area. A tactical exercise was carried out on the way. page 228 By nightfall the column had covered 44 miles. Next day, a Sunday, the brigade moved west 60 miles and reached the assembly area about 2 p.m. The troops rested on the 11th; during the day the carriers arrived on tank transporters. Late in the afternoon General Freyberg visited Battalion HQ. Officers attended a conference at which the General gave an outline of the immediate plan of operations.
Three divisions were to take part in the advance on Tripoli: the 51st Highland along the coast, 7th Armoured inland, and 2 NZ Division through broken country farther inland still. The Divisional Cavalry's AFVs and tanks of the Scots Greys would lead the divisional columns, with 6 Brigade Group directly behind. After passing through Beni Ulid, 5 Brigade Group would replace 6 Brigade as the leading brigade of the Division. Several deep wadis and narrow gorges lay in the path of the advance. Two of them, the Wadi Zemzem and, beyond it, the gorge through the Gebel Nefusa, were expected to be defended by enemy rearguards.
The advance began the next morning and ended twelve days later when the battalion bivouacked near Giordani, about 20 miles south of Tripoli. Throughout the 300-mile journey scarcely any contact was made with the enemy, except that on several occasions shells landed unpleasantly close. The only casualty was a carrier which was blown up on a mine. On the 18th the battalion columns were negotiating some rough, hilly country when several enemy vehicles were sighted in a wadi. A few rounds from a Bofors gun induced the enemy party to surrender. Five armoured cars and four lorries were captured, of which the drivers retained one containing MT spares and the Anti-Aircraft Platoon acquired a four-tonner mounting a Breda ack-ack gun.
After the brigade crossed the Wadi Zemzem, which was undefended, rough country slowed up the columns. The going became progressively worse as the vehicles neared and began to climb through the Gebel Nefusa, a high range of hills west of Tarhuna. Often it became necessary to move in column of route to negotiate canyon-like wadis, hummocky stretches of desert, soft patches of sand and the rocky escarpment barring the entrance to the gorge leading onto the coastal plain south page 229 of Tripoli. The gorge was extensively mined, and several demolitions had to be cleared. B Coy was detailed to assist with this work.
On the north side of the hills the roads became better and drivers and passengers alike gave a sigh of relief. Progress continued to be slow for the armour was feeling its way forward cautiously, being content to shell enemy rearguard parties and wait until they withdrew. The troops had little idea of what was going on and showed more interest in the Italian farm settlements. After seven months in the desert it was refreshing to gaze on green grass and cultivated fields and watch the wind- mills turning in the breeze. At night the companies were generally sent forward to picket the tank laager, and from the crews the men learned of events during the day.
The 51st Division was making good progress along the coastal road, and on the 21st enemy forces were reported to have evacuated Tripoli. Sixth Brigade Group halted after dusk on the following day, when only about 40 miles from the objective. There was no move on the 23rd, and during the afternoon advice was received that armoured cars of the 11th Hussars had entered the town that morning. On the 24th the troops embussed and the battalion moved in convoy along the main road towards Tripoli, turning west along a secondary road after 30 miles had been covered, to bivouac a few miles past the communal village of Giordani. The camp site was a poor one on sandy ground on the fringe of the green coastal belt. The trucks dispersed under cover and the troops soon settled in. Armed bands of Arabs were reported in the vicinity and pickets were posted around the camp and vehicle park.
* * *
Although few expected it, the Division remained based on Tripoli for the next five weeks. More than half this time was spent in bivouac near the town. Little was done the first few days. Drivers started to repair the damage suffered by trucks and carriers during the recent advance, while the troops cleaned the sand from all equipment. The dust had penetrated everywhere, even into packs and bedding. A large mail arrived, together with a number of parcels. A few route marches com- page 230 pleted the training. On the last day of the month selected personnel took part in a ceremonial church parade in Tripoli. Two days later the battalion moved 24 miles to a much better camp site near Suani Ben Adem, where the men pitched their tents on green grass underneath the trees.
On 4 February a big ceremonial parade was held near Tripoli, at which the salute was taken by Mr. Churchill. The parade ground was about three miles from the camp. Rehearsals were held on the 3rd and on the morning of the 4th, and lunch was served under the shade of some bluegum trees. The march past took place in the afternoon. To those taking part and to the onlookers it was an inspiring spectacle as unit after unit — thousands of troops with vehicles and guns—passed the saluting base. After the inspection Mr. Churchill gave a short talk.
A week later the battalion moved into Tripoli to take over guard duties from a battalion of the Black Watch. The troops were billeted in houses and schools and for eight days mounted guards at three waterpoints and at a flour mill. On 19 February Sudanese troops took over those duties and the men were detailed in ever-increasing numbers for wharf work. At this time the Eighth Army, with its long line of communication, was badly in need of supplies to enable it to continue the pursuit. The port had been repaired and a constant stream of ships was arriving. Before many days had passed the men were called on to do shift work, and each morning and night large parties left for the wharf. Although long hours were worked there was little danger of enemy interference in daylight, but after dusk enemy bombers frequently appeared. The ‘wharfies’ took cover and the anti-aircraft guns all around opened fire. When a raid was over the men went back to work as before. If, as happened on occasions, Naafi supplies—tinned fruit, chocolate, etc.—found their way back to the billets, the Eighth Army in turn received its supplies in record time and the ships' captains were grateful for the quick turn-round.
6 Brigade Group laagers for the night, Tripolitania
Point 201, the feature in the centre, was taken by 25 and 26 Battalions as the first phase of the breakthrough at Tebaga Gap
The amenities at Suani Ben Adem and at Tripoli were quite good. The weather in the main was warm and the days sunny, although at times high winds and rain squalls made conditions unpleasant. Battle dress was generally worn. Fresh vegetables were bought from Italian farmers and these helped to vary the diet. There was never much beer. A local brewery was operated under Allied control but its output was very small. Plenty of wine of varying quality could be bought from local farmers or at the market. The troops' Egyptian money was called in and BMA3 lire issued, while the civilians used Italian currency. For the first fortnight of the Division's spell there were many hilarious parties and cases of over-indulgence. Disciplinary measures were taken and good quality wines purchased and sold through the company canteens. The arrival of over a hundred reinforcements from Egypt by sea enabled the Colonel to reform D Coy. The Anti-Tank Platoon was formed into two troops, each equipped with two two-pounders and two six- pounders. NCOs and trained men from the other rifle companies were drafted into the new D Coy under Capt Aiken.4 All four companies were still considerably below full strength.
Meanwhile, Eighth Army was advancing into Tunisia. By the end of February the leading elements had reached the Mareth Line, behind which the enemy was regrouping his forces to hold the line and also to counter the British and American assault from the west. The German radio declared that at last the Eighth Army had met its conqueror. Knowing that General Montgomery would soon attempt to prove this wrong, all ranks felt that their days in Tripoli were numbered.page 232
On the last day of February the battalion returned to the Suani Ben Adem area, making part of the journey on foot. In the new camp all ranks settled down to await orders to move forward, the general belief being that the Division would then take part in the assault on the Mareth Line. There had been no preliminary planning or series of conferences which generally were a guide to impending actions. As a result, orders received early on 2 March to prepare to move immediately west to Medenine, 180 miles away, caused some surprise. The situation was more easily understood when it became known that the Division's role was to be defensive. The enemy, having repulsed the British and American forces in northern and western Tunisia, had brought the bulk of his armour south to the Mareth Line. To delay the assault on this line, it was expected that he would shortly attempt a counter-attack to break up the Eighth Army concentration facing it. Delay would enable Axis reinforcements to reach Tunisia and allow the enemy time to consolidate.
Montgomery proposed to deploy his forces so that the enemy thrust could be contained with the least possible effort and the preparations to breach the Mareth Line not impeded. Two divisions were already deployed across the front: 51 (Highland) Division along the coast and 7 Armoured Division inland of it. The 2nd NZ Division would move to the southern flank around Medenine, about 15 miles east of the Mareth defences and 20 miles from the coast. As the enemy thrust was expected about 4 March, 6 Brigade was to be in position by dusk the night before.
At 10 a.m., three hours after the warning order, the battalion was on the move following Brigade HQ along the coastal road. Good progress was made until after midday, when traffic congestion caused a series of irritating halts, slow-moving tank transporters causing most of the delay. Early in the afternoon the CO joined Brig Gentry and the other battalion commanders and raced ahead of the convoy to reconnoitre the new sector. After dusk the convoy increased speed, and at 8 p.m. the battalion passed through Ben Gardane. For almost twelve more hours the long line of vehicles forged steadily westward, with only a few short halts to break the monotony of the journey. page 233 About an hour after midnight an enemy plane circled overhead. Flares bathed the convoy in light and everyone expected the bombs to follow. Fortunately only one bomb was dropped; it exploded fully a hundred yards from the nearest battalion vehicle. It was after dawn when the battalion finally reached its sector. Drivers were showing signs of strain, and the troops felt more like sleeping than turning to and preparing defences.
Sixth Brigade was to occupy high ground north-east of Medenine. Fifth Brigade, already in position, was on lower ground south-west of the town. Brigadier Gentry sited his three battalions in a rough semi-circle, 25 Battalion facing west, 24 Battalion north-west, and 26 Battalion north. In view of the possibility of a sudden enemy attack no time was lost in preparing the defences, and by nightfall the work was almost completed. A, B, and C Coys were in the forward positions, and the supporting arms had been positioned to give all-round fire. Vehicles were dispersed at the rear and were camouflaged. The carriers, which had been left at Suani Ben Adem, came forward on tank transporters.
Sixth Brigade was in a reserve position. Fifth Brigade was west of it, two brigades of 7 Armoured Division north and north-east, and the whole sector covered by a light armoured screen. Around the brigade, as every man noticed, were many artillery units and large tank forces. Measures to counter the enemy thrust had been carefully planned. Several approach routes were open to him: the most likely were by the roads leading from the Mareth defences and converging on Medenine. A high hill, Pt 270, gave first-class observation over all these routes. The 51st (Highland) Division occupied the coastal sector, 201 Guards Brigade and 131 Brigade the ridges west of Pt 270, while 5 Brigade covered the approaches west and south of Medenine. Tanks of 7 Armoured Division were grouped on the coastal sector, while 4 Light Armoured Brigade covered the open flank of 5 Brigade. Dummy minefields had been prepared in front of the positions to divert enemy tanks along a route to where anti-tank guns had been sited. Unless the enemy broke through this line, which almost surrounded 6 Brigade, there was little likelihood of the battalion being involved in the fighting.
Nevertheless strong pickets were posted after dusk and patrols page 234 were sent beyond the lines. Except for some shelling the night passed quietly. It was much the same the next night and the next, and there was a growing conviction that the enemy had thought better of his plan. During the daytime a few shells landed in the sector but most of the enemy artillery fire was directed on the airfield near Medenine. The RAF was operating from this field and for a time continued to do so in spite of the shelling. There was intense air activity on both sides and the troops were interested eyewitnesses of several dogfights.
At 6 a.m. on the 6th a sudden increase in the shelling indicated something afoot. This was confirmed by wireless reports that enemy armour and infantry were moving down from the hills across the low ground. Everything went according to plan —the Allied plan. When the enemy tanks came near enough for anti-tank gunners to fire over open sights, the order to fire was given. Almost simultaneously the artillery opened fire on the concentrations of enemy infantry and transport. The results were disastrous for the enemy, who lost heavily in men and tanks. Sixth Brigade took no part in the fighting but 5 Brigade was slightly engaged. Allied planes passed overhead throughout most of the morning, but in the afternoon it was the enemy's turn. The battalion sector was strafed and bombed on four occasions. Only one man was wounded. A time bomb dropped in B Coy's area was viewed from a safe distance and with some concern. The Anti-Aircraft Platoon, firing the captured Breda, shot down an Me109.
The sound of shelling continued after dusk and at intervals throughout the night. At daybreak on the 7th a heavy inter- change of shellfire which lasted over an hour was followed by complete silence. Reports indicated that the enemy had suffered heavy losses before retiring. Fifty-two tanks had been knocked out and many prisoners taken. The air activity did not slacken; planes were passing overhead most of the time. Shortly after 10 a.m. seven Me109s bombed and strafed the sector. They came in with the sun directly behind them and caught everyone by surprise. Four men were wounded, including two members of the Signal Platoon. B Coy lost its cookhouse and its two cooks were wounded.page 235
After this raid enemy air activity ceased. Three days passed before another move was ordered, and everyone enjoyed the short spell in pleasant surroundings. Green grass and spring flowers abounded and olive trees gave protection from the warm sun. Over a hundred reinforcements arrived. Some came from Maadi and others had been transferred from other units. Their arrival increased the unit strength to 29 officers and 589 other ranks, as compared with a full establishment of 35 and 789. To bolster the numerically weak rifle companies, the CO drew on HQ Coy and B Echelon personnel.
On 10 March orders for a move to an assembly area were received. For security reasons all means of identification were to be removed. During the day 61 LOBs, under the command of Maj Richards, left for the New Zealand base at Suani Ben Adem. Early next morning the battalion moved down to a brigade concentration area near the main road. Shortly after arriving there the Brigade Group moved off in two columns, heading south-east towards Ben Gardane. By 11.30 a.m. 47 miles had been covered, and the convoy turned south onto a desert track. Half an hour later the direction was again changed, the head of the columns moving south-west towards Foum Tatahouine. By 2 p.m. another 24 miles had been travelled. The brigade halted after moving into desert formation.
After tea the journey was continued, the vehicles moving in column of route along lighted lanes. For several hours fairly good progress was made, but after passing Foum Tatahouine short halts became more numerous and drivers had to slow down to negotiate soft patches of sand and rough going. Finally, at six o'clock in the morning, the brigade reached the assembly area, where the battalions fanned out into desert formation to face north. The 150-mile journey was over.
Seven days were spent in this locality, which lay about 70 miles south of Medenine and east of the Montes des Ksours, a range of mountains running south from the Mareth Line. The troops dug in and every effort was made to conceal trucks and tents from air observation. The movement of vehicles was cut to a minimum and a strict blackout enforced. Sixth Brigade Group had been the first formation to arrive, and during the page 236 week the remainder of NZ Corps assembled, the total force stretching for many miles over the desert.
Because of the site selected for the assembly area everyone guessed that the Division was going to attempt another left hook. This was confirmed during 14 and 15 March when full details of the plan of operations were released. Officers and senior NCOs were taken to Divisional HQ, where they were able to study a large plaster model of the Mareth Line. This showed clearly the formidable task ahead of the Eighth Army.
The main enemy fortifications had been built by the French to meet possible Italian attacks from Tripolitania. In the north, near the coast, the line consisted of several independent but mutually supporting strongpoints after the pattern of the Maginot Line. These strongpoints contained concrete pillboxes and gun emplacements and followed the line of the Wadi Zigzaou, which in itself was a natural tank obstacle with sheer banks up to 70 feet high in places. Salt marshes and deep minefields covered the approaches. About twenty miles from the coast the line ran up into the junction of the Matmata Hills and the Montes des Ksours. The former, impassable to any large tank force, ran back at right angles to the Mareth Line and parallel with the coast for a distance of about forty miles and ended in a high peak, the Djebel Melab. From this peak a recently built chain of defences ran across a narrow valley to another range, the Djebel Tebaga. It was to this narrow gap the New Zealanders were directed. The Eighth Army was no longer moving west. It had turned the corner into Tunisia and was driving northward.
The Army Commander's plan was somewhat similar to that used at El Agheila. The New Zealand Division, built up to form NZ Corps, was to move south, cross through a gap in the Montes des Ksours, and move north-west below the Matmata Hills to the gap between Djebel Melab and Djebel Tebaga. After overcoming opposition in this area it was to drive towards the coast, the objectives being El Hamma and Gabes. By this means the enemy forces at Mareth would be outflanked and their escape route blocked. The NZ Corps' operation was to be so timed that its Tebaga thrust would coincide with an attack by 30 Corps on the Mareth defences on the night of 20 March.page 237
The Saharan force, comprising the remnants of several Italian divisions supported by a number of tanks, was reported to be manning the Tebaga defences. General Freyberg had under command 2 NZ Division, 8 Armoured Brigade, the King's Dragoon Guards, some British artillery, and General Leclerc's Fighting French force (recently arrived from Chad), a total of about 27,000 men and 320 guns. By achieving tactical surprise General Freyberg hoped to crash through the Tebaga defences before the enemy was able to divert armoured reserves to oppose the Corps. For this reason the approach moves were to be made at night, so that by dawn on the 21st the vanguard would be within striking distance of its first objective. Sixth Brigade would follow the armoured screen and, in the event of the latter being unable to deal with the opposition in the gap, would be called in to clear the way.
In preparation for tasks of this nature, part of the time in the assembly area was spent in practising night attacks on prepared defences. They were unpleasant days for the skies were cloudy and the weather much cooler. Gusty winds caused the sand to fly. The approach route for the advance was reported page 238 to be rough and sappers went ahead to bulldoze tracks. At the same time Fighting French troops began driving north-west through the Matmata Hills, mopping up enemy outposts. On the 18th the carriers arrived and the battalion was ready to move. After dusk the next day the newly formed Corps began its 100-mile advance to Tebaga.
The battalion finally got under way about 7.15 p.m. and seven hours later reached a staging area, 35 miles from the starting point. It had been tough going, with many tricky wadis and sand dunes along the route. Only skilful driving had enabled the battalion to retain its formation. In the staging area the trucks were widely dispersed, and before long all ranks were sound asleep. The next day, the 20th, was fine and sunny, and this caused a change in plan. As there was every likelihood of enemy aircraft discovering the force during the day, the advance was continued in daylight instead of waiting until dusk. Wireless silence was broken and the troops prepared for another long spell in the trucks.
By 10 a.m. 6 Brigade Group was under way and, with numerous short halts delaying progress, it continued to move forward until dusk. All day Allied planes had hovered about, and early in the afternoon there was a dogfight overhead. At 5 p.m. American aircraft strafed the columns but did not damage any 26 Battalion vehicles. Forty-two miles had been covered when the halt was ordered, and Djebel Tebaga could be faintly seen in the failing light. The armoured screen had already brushed against several enemy outposts, which withdrew on contact. Aerial reconnaissance reports indicated that the enemy was now aware of the threat to his flank and was making strenuous efforts to strengthen his defences. A second defence line had been located in the Tebaga Gap area and considerable movement was noticed near it.
Next morning the Corps continued its advance, the armoured screen manœuvring into position to drive through the Gap. At ten o'clock the battalion was ordered to halt. Four miles had been covered and Djebel Tebaga was now clearly in view. The Battalion Commander went forward to join a brigade reconnaissance party and while he was away met General Freyberg. The General indicated that 6 Brigade would almost certainly page 239 be called on to clear the enemy FDLs. This was confirmed later in the day, when the tanks and AFVs moving into the Gap were held up by extensive minefields and by an anti-tank ditch which stretched across the valley at its narrowest point. In preparation for the attack Brig Gentry ordered 26 Battalion to move up on the right of 25 Battalion at the head of the Brigade Group. This move was completed by 2 p.m. and the troops debussed and settled down to await further orders. Considerable inconvenience had been caused during the move when the trucks drove through swarms of locusts. The tanks ahead were probing the enemy defences and drawing heavy fire on themselves and on an artillery unit near the battalion. Allied fighters and bombers were harassing enemy movement and, judging by the columns of smoke, were meeting with some success.
Detailed orders for the attack were not received at Battalion HQ until 5 p.m. Shortly afterwards Col Fountaine called his company commanders together to explain the situation and give his own orders.5 Minefields, a deep anti-tank ditch, and apron wire covered the approaches to the enemy FDLs, which stretched across three miles of front. A high feature, Pt 201, in the centre of the line was the important point, and as it covered the approaches to the valley it was expected to be strongly held, as also might be the high hills on the east side of the Gap. A second line of defences lay behind 6 Brigade's objective. The importance of this narrow valley had been appreciated many centuries earlier, for the Romans had built a wall across it to keep out invaders. This wall still existed, and the enemy line ran more or less parallel to it. Intelligence reports stated that both lines were still held by Italians, supported by tanks, but German troops were expected to relieve them in the very near future.page 240
The Breakthrough at Tebaga Gap
Two battalions, the 25th and 26th, were to make the assault, the former on the left. Both were to form up along a taped start line, approximately a mile from the enemy FDLs, in readiness to attack at 9.30 p.m. The inter-battalion boundary had been fixed along a line running through Pt 201. Smoke shells would be fired on this feature as a guide. The supply of ammunition was limited and artillery support would be confined to covering fire during the advance. In the battalion sector B Coy would form up on the right of the start line, with D Coy alongside it and A Coy on the left. The three companies would attack in this formation. On the objective A Coy would extend page 241 right from Pt 201 to D Coy, which in turn would link up with B Coy, directed to clear a hill feature on the eastern side of the valley. C Coy, in reserve, was to follow D Coy and assist sappers to fill in the anti-tank ditch. As soon as a lane had been cleared the supporting arms were to come forward.
* * *
After the conference was over and darkness had fallen, the area became a scene of noisy activity as artillery regiments moved into position and trucks moved to and fro with loads of ammunition. The men had little more than an hour in which to get ready but the majority were already half prepared. Before the companies left for the start line, word was received that the assault had been postponed until 10 p.m. because of a delay in taping the line and lighting routes to it. At 8 p.m. the troops embussed and the loaded vehicles began moving slowly along rough tracks towards the Gap. An enemy plane strafed the trucks at the end of the column but did no damage. After travelling about two miles the trucks stopped and the men continued the march on foot. Lieutenant Piper went ahead to locate the start line. Aided by bright moonlight, the companies reached it and formed up with plenty of time to spare.
During the 30-minute wait an uncanny silence fell over the front. Not a shot was fired and the men spoke in whispers. Suddenly the first salvo of shells whistled overhead to land with a crash a mile away. The men were quickly on their feet and soon moved off into the gloom. Battalion HQ followed and last came C Coy. The moonlight enabled the leading platoons to advance fairly rapidly, and they had crossed the minefield and were approaching the anti-tank ditch before the enemy seemed aware of them. Intense small-arms fire drove the men to cover. Most of the men crawled forward to the ditch, which was more formidable than had been expected: it was very deep and much too wide to jump. It was simple to slide down one side but not easy to clamber up the other with equipment on. An anti-tank gun began firing along the ditch, and those caught in it re- doubled their efforts to get out. Fortunately, before many casualties had occurred, 11 Platoon on the right flank charged the enemy gun post and silenced it and a nearby spandau. The page 242 platoon lost several men in this sharp engagement; its commander, Lt T. R. M. Hobbs6 was wounded but carried on.
Half an hour had passed and the artillery fire had ceased except for the smoke shells falling on Pt 201. The companies had crossed the ditch, and both A and D Coys were pinned down by the small-arms fire and enfilading machine-gun fire. A short distance ahead lay the apron wire and the enemy trenches. It seemed folly to attempt to charge through such a curtain of fire, but during a lull Cpl Marett7. dashed forward, gapped the wire, and called on his section to follow him. Within a few minutes others were following his example, and in a short time both companies were engaging the enemy at close quarters Yelling at the top of their voices, the men charged and with grenades, rifles, and bayonets cleared the first line of trenches. A second line received similar treatment. The result was never in doubt, and within half an hour D Coy's front was quiet. A Coy encountered much more opposition, particularly in the high ground east of Pt 201. By the time this area had been cleared 25 Battalion had captured the main objective. The platoons were somewhat scattered but a large number of prisoners had been taken. The enfilading fire had almost ceased.
This was occasioned by B Coy's capture of its objective. This company had been less affected by the ground fire, and immediately after the capture of the anti-tank gun had continued on towards the hill feature, 10 and 11 Platoons leading. A sharp engagement on the crest of the hill and the fight was over. The Italians showed little fight and many were taken prisoner. Lieutenant Hobbs was wounded a second time and evacuated. The booty included many of the machine-guns and mortars which had been causing so much trouble to those on the flat.
Battalion HQ and C Coy had borne the brunt of enemy machine-gun and mortar fire and had been forced to take cover near the minefield. Over an hour passed, and it was not until the flanking companies had reached their objectives that this fire slackened sufficiently to allow them to move forward. Dur- page 243 ing this period ten men were wounded. The wireless set broke down and all communication with the forward troops was lost. While Lt Piper went back to get another set the group moved forward, C Coy to help the sappers and Battalion HQ to a shallow wadi north of the wire. Communications with Brigade HQ broke down temporarily when the Divisional Signals wireless van accompanying Battalion HQ was blown up on the northern edge of the minefield.
By midnight the front had quietened considerably, but Col Fountaine was still anxiously awaiting news of the forward companies. Before ten minutes passed all three fired success signals. This was very reassuring, but the CO was still not aware of the location of each company headquarters. Lieutenant Piper had returned from Brigade HQ with a new wireless set but some difficulty was experienced in communicating with the companies. At 1.30 a.m. Sgt Hardie8 was sent forward with some members of the ‘I’ section to locate A and D Coys. The party had not gone far when it met Lt N. Buchanan of D Coy. Captain Aiken had been mortally wounded and Buchanan was endeavouring to link up with A Coy. He had with him several A Coy men who had become separated from their platoon during the action. Eventually A Coy HQ was found to the right rear of Pt 201. Captain Ollivier's forward platoons were close together on high ground to the right of 25 Battalion. As D Coy had swung slightly right to maintain a link with B Coy, a wide gap existed between the left-hand companies.
It was clear that the main objective—the capture of the enemy FDLs—had been achieved. By 2 a.m. the three companies had dug in along a front facing north-east and running approximately parallel to the Roman Wall. Enemy guns were firing but few shells were landing in the battalion sector. The newly formed Support Group functioned well, and by 2.20 a.m. the supporting arms had reached Battalion HQ, where guides from the companies were waiting. The carriers dispersed in the wadi and the anti-tank, mortar, and machine-gun platoons went forward to the companies. The attached platoon of machine-gunners, No. 4 Platoon 27 (MG) Battalion, was sent page 244 to Maj Smith. Shortly after this a squadron of tanks began to move from behind 25 Battalion's positions through the battalion sector.
The prompt arrival of the supporting arms was a cheering sight to the infantrymen and a welcome contrast to other earlier battles. Although the plan had been hastily formulated and there had been an early breakdown in communications, all sections of the unit had functioned smoothly to make the attack a success. Nearly 300 prisoners had been taken, plus a considerable quantity of arms and equipment. The battalion casualties totalled 38, including five killed or mortally wounded. B Coy had two killed and ten wounded, A Coy one killed and eight wounded, and D Coy two killed and five wounded. Captain Aiken died from his wounds and Capt K. W. Hobbs9 became D Coy's new commander. Corporal Marett, who had led the charge through the wire, had been wounded in both legs in the subsequent close fighting. The enemy's casualties had been relatively higher.
As daylight approached on the 22nd enemy shelling and mortaring increased, particularly in the vicinity of the tanks still moving through the sector. At dawn hostile fire became very heavy, the tanks still being the main target. The artillery and the supporting arms, dug in behind each company, retaliated. There was a general sigh of relief as the last of the tanks disappeared beyond the Roman Wall. In the meantime a Divisional Cavalry squadron began moving across towards the right flank, where B Coy was being harassed by machine-gun, mortar and anti-tank fire.
The enemy anti-tank guns and mortars were firing from a hill feature a short distance north of the company and the machine guns from another hilltop on the right. A narrow wadi divided the two. The company retaliated and, with the aid of the supporting arms, brought heavy fire on the enemy party on its right. The Italians began waving white flags. Suspecting a trap Maj Smith did not order his men forward, but part of the Divisional Cavalry moved up to the gun positions ahead of the company. The Italians there readily surrendered. Meanwhile, page 245 the battalion carriers had moved forward to the party on the right and cleared the hilltop, taking 130 prisoners. To cap a successful twelve hours a hot meal was brought forward from B Echelon, now stationed at the debussing point.
There was little activity in the battalion sector for the rest of the day. Large numbers of Kittyhawks flew overhead and strafed the enemy lines north of the Roman Wall. Several Hurricane ‘tank-busters’ concentrated on a wadi where enemy tanks were assembling. Two columns of smoke bore witness to the success of their attacks. At irregular intervals Me109s flew high overhead. They dropped several bombs in the sector but caused no damage or casualties.
Intermittent shelling caused only one casualty, the MO being wounded in the arm. During the afternoon a shell landed close to a British truck which happened to be in the area. Captain Rutherford, as could be expected of him, ran over to see if anyone was hurt. He was dressing the driver's wounds when a second shell landed in practically the same spot. This time the doctor was wounded. He was evacuated and later returned to New Zealand aboard a hospital ship. Everyone was sorry to see him go for he had always been the first to reach the wounded no matter how heavy the shelling. Many men of 26 Battalion had reason to be grateful for the risks he took. Captain Fletcher10. succeeded him as MO.
Late in the afternoon company commanders were called to Battalion HQ and informed of plans for another advance which was to commence at dusk. This time the infantry were to occupy the ground won by the tanks during the day. No opposition was expected. Within half an hour of setting out A and C Coys had reached their new sectors, A Coy on high ground 500 yards north of Pt 201, and C Coy on the right in a position about 1000 yards beyond the Roman Wall. D Coy did not move.
B Coy met unexpected trouble. Ordered to occupy a high ridge north of the two hilltops captured earlier in the day, the company had moved off with the Vickers gunners remaining behind to give covering fire. As the leading platoons neared page 246 their objective they heard tanks and infantry moving along a wadi towards them. The 8th Armoured Brigade had noticed the enemy and was firing, but it was too dark to see them properly or judge their strength. Major Smith ordered his men to take cover behind the hill on the western side of the wadi and await developments. In the meantime the Machine Gun Platoon, having waited the agreed time, moved quietly forward to the objective. Without a wireless link, B Coy HQ was unable to let the platoon know about the untimely appearance of the enemy.
On reaching the crest of the objective the Machine Gun Platoon commander, Lt Titchener11. was confronted by enemy troops. Shooting began, and cries of ‘Infantry—where are you?’ and ‘Come out you bastards!’ were drowned by a volley of shots. Realising that the situation might prove troublesome for the machine-gunners, Maj Smith sent 10 and 11 Platoons over, but by the time they arrived the 35 Italians holding the ridge had surrendered. The enemy tanks had apparently withdrawn, and the company occupied its objective soon afterwards.
The Battalion transport ready to leave Maadi, September 1943
The move to Italy — the RAP packs up
The move to the Sangro — halting place near the Osento River
The hills beyond the Sangro — the Battalion sector is on the left
On the lower ground a section of mortars commanded by Sgt Kearney13. was trying to silence not only the sniper troubling B Coy but also another party on the flat. Hostile fire was also coming from a hill about 1000 yards beyond B Coy. So that he could direct more accurate fire, Kearney moved forward onto an exposed ridge. His action drew the attention of the snipers, but he retaliated by sniping the enemy. This went on for most of the day. Although wounded, Sgt Kearney continued to direct mortar fire on the enemy, causing casualties. At length the enemy party on the low ground had had enough and about twenty Italians waved white flags and surrendered.
Ahead, 8 Armoured Brigade was advancing against stiffening opposition. On the right flank Fighting French forces were slowly approaching Djebel Melab. In the morning enemy tanks and transport had been sighted in a wadi about 4000 yards farther up the valley. Kittyhawks and Hurricanes raided this area during the afternoon and columns of smoke were still rising at dusk. Enemy shelling, which had almost ceased during the afternoon, began again for a short while just before dusk. A carrier was destroyed in C Coy's sector and one man wounded. This brought the day's casualties to five. After dusk 12 Platoon was sent around to ascertain if the enemy party was still occupying its position alongside the Roman Wall. The dugouts were empty and the platoon promptly occupied the position. The ground was very chalky and before long the men were covered with white powder. Later in the night B Coy reoccupied its forward sector, 16 Platoon of D Coy moving forward to take 12 Platoon's reserve position.
It was now apparent that the enemy had strengthened his defences in the Gap by moving 21 Panzer Division and some artillery around to block NZ Corps' advance. The British tanks and AFVs had met heavy opposition during the day. On the other front the attack on the Mareth Line was not going well, and General Montgomery decided to exploit the success of NZ Corps by sending 1 Armoured Division around to the Gap and page 248 so switch his main thrust to the flank. The British division was expected to arrive on 25 March, and in the meantime NZ Corps was to clear the enemy from his commanding positions on both sides of the valley and air attacks were to be stepped up.
The 24th Battalion was brought into the line on the left of 25 Battalion. The 8th Armoured Brigade withdrew behind the infantry each night and indicator signals were lit to enable pilots to distinguish the Allied FDLs. Yellow smoke was fired during the day, and after dusk tins filled with sand and soaked with petrol were lit. To avoid mistakes 25 Battalion arranged its tins in the form of the letter ‘N’ and 26 Battalion the letter ‘O’. Each night pickets were posted to keep the fires burning and 150 gallons of petrol went up in smoke. The enemy shelled the blazing tins and his planes dropped butterfly bombs on them, but no casualties resulted. The Allied aircraft made no mistakes and registered some good targets during the next few days.
On the battalion front there was still one prominent feature, Pt 184, which had not been cleared. It lay about 1000 yards north of B Coy and had been bypassed by the armoured columns the day before. It was known to be occupied, as the forward platoons had been troubled by fire from it during the day. As it commanded a view over the whole of the three-battalion front, its capture was essential to the success of future attacks, in particular to deny the enemy knowledge of the strength of the forces participating. D Coy was detailed to capture it. During the afternoon of the 24th Capt Hobbs and his platoon commanders examined the hill from B Coy's sector. Later the same afternoon the Carrier officer, Lt Ross14. who had been out on patrol near Pt 184, returned to Battalion HQ with two German prisoners whom he had caught by surprise. When questioned they stated that one company from 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, 21 Panzer Division, had relieved the Italians on the hill.
Captain Hobbs decided to attack from the south with two platoons forward and one in reserve. The company supporting arms were to follow when the objective had been taken. The page 249 chief difficulty facing the attacking party was the limited time available to complete the task. The hill would have to be captured between dusk and moonrise—a period of three hours —otherwise the company would be silhouetted on the open slopes of the feature. Deciding that better results could be achieved if the enemy was caught by surprise, the Company Commander refused the offer of artillery support.
At 7.30 p.m. the company left B Coy and advanced across the wadi towards Pt 184. As the platoons began to climb the slopes of a hillock not noticeable from B Coy, a single shot rang out. The platoons immediately fanned out and began to advance more quickly. No. 17 Platoon worked around to the left and No. 18 to the right, leaving No. 16 and Coy HQ to come up in the centre. The men were moving as silently as possible. The leading sections of 17 Platoon had just reached the plateau-like summit when the enemy opened fire. Two men fell, both mortally wounded. The other two platoons were in a similar position and could not get over the edge of the plateau. Both withdrew slightly to gain cover from the heavy machine-gun fire.
The enemy seemed to be firing on fixed lines, and No. 17 Platoon commander, Lt Buchanan, decided to try to stalk the enemy gunners. Taking several of his men, he circled the hill and went down into the fold which separated it from Pt 184. Here the party was able to move around in comparative safety, although flares put up by the enemy had set fire to the scrub. The men stripped off their web equipment and boots and crawled over the ledge towards the source of the firing. Buchanan soon decided it would be a useless waste of lives to attempt to continue up the steep, bare approaches to the enemy posts. He ordered his men to fall back and return to the wadi, while he and his sergeant crawled back around the hill to the rest of his platoon. Captain Hobbs had come to a similar decision. Mortars were ranging on the company, and as the moon began to rise he gave the order to withdraw. No. 17 Platoon was the only one to suffer losses. Five men, two of whom were known to be badly wounded, were missing.
When he learned what had happened, Col Fountaine ordered Capt Hobbs to take up a position alongside B Coy in case the page 250 enemy attempted to counter-attack. Heavy artillery concentrations were laid on Pt 184 and the lower feature, partly to prevent a counter-attack and also to allow the missing men to withdraw in safety. Later that night two of them reached the lines and a third, Pte Barber15. arrived about 11 a.m. the following day. This soldier had remained behind to attend to the badly wounded men. After they had died he worked his way forward in the darkness and eventually found himself at the rear of the enemy positions on Pt 184. Instead of crawling back the way he had come he stayed to note enemy defences in the area, changing his own position to get a better view. The information he brought back was of great value to 21 Battalion which had been detailed to make the second assault on the feature.
After D Coy's return the front quietened down except for the drone of Allied aircraft passing overhead. Early the next morning, 25 March, Lt Piper set out to locate the Fighting French forces which were supposed to have linked up with B Coy during the night. After some difficulty they were located two miles away. Meanwhile, D Coy had returned to its former position and a party from 21 Battalion had made a reconnaissance of the approaches to Pt 184. Shortly before midday an operation order for the expected attack on the enemy line was received. The 21st Battalion was to capture Pt 184 (which overlooked the proposed start line) during the night, and at 4 p.m. on the following afternoon a ‘blitz’ attack, similar to those so successfully employed by the Germans in France and Belgium in 1940, would be staged. The full weight of the Desert Air Force was to be thrown in to help NZ Corps and 1 Armoured Division crush the opposition and drive a wedge through to the coast. Fifth Brigade was to take over the battalion sector. Both New Zealand brigades would take part in the assault, backed by hundreds of tanks, guns, and planes. The 26th Battalion was to move into reserve and was unlikely to take an active part in the operation. Knowing this all ranks looked forward to watching the promised spectacle.page 251
During the afternoon and evening the infantry positions along the front were interchanged. Fifth Brigade moved into the line. The 28th Battalion took over from 26 Battalion, which moved over to occupy the western half of 25 Battalion's sector; 23 Battalion came in on the right and 25 Battalion relieved a battalion of the Buffs Regiment on the left flank. After dark patrols went out with sappers to search for mines which might obstruct the tanks during the attack. Behind the lines there was considerable activity as tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade took cover behind ridges out of sight of enemy OPs. Farther back artillery regiments were being deployed across the front. Trucks were everywhere.
Then came the thunder of the guns as the artillery began firing in support of 21 Battalion's assault on Pt 184. The infantry attacked from the west and captured the feature. The noise of this battle had hardly died away before the tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade began to rumble back behind the shelter of the Roman Wall and wadis to the rear of Pt 201. Despite all this noise and movement enemy guns remained silent, and the troops spent a peaceful night on picket or huddled down in trenches out of the biting wind.
Early in the morning (26 March) enemy shelling and mortaring began again but quickly slackened off when Allied planes circled overhead. The front became ominously quiet. At 3.30 p.m. the tanks began to move from their hideouts towards the Roman Wall. Shortly afterwards the battalion withdrew to the vicinity of Pt 201 to allow 24 Battalion to form up on the start line. By the time the men reached their new position the enemy was shelling the area heavily and the Allied barrage had begun. By five o'clock the companies were dug in and until dusk had a grandstand view of the blitz attack. It was a magnificent sight. At the rear hundreds of guns were belching fire, while overhead flew a constant stream of fighters and bombers. In the distance through the haze of dust and smoke, long lines of infantry and tanks were slowly moving forward. Behind them came another wave of tanks and infantry. Below the battalion tanks and motorised infantry of 1 Armoured Division were making ready to follow. As darkness fell they disappeared from sight and only the noise of battle remained.page 252
Early progress reports confirmed that the opening phases of the attack had been very successful. The western flank had been cleared and only one feature, Pt 209, remained in enemy hands on the eastern side of the valley. After moonrise 1 Armoured Division exploited NZ Corps' success and advanced to the outskirts of El Hamma. Throughout the night hundreds of prisoners, Germans and Italians, arrived from the front. They were still arriving early on the 27th when a warning order was received to be ready to move forward. Transport moved into the company areas. One driver was killed when C Coy was unexpectedly shelled by long-range enemy guns.
* * *
The battalion waited all day for further orders, and shortly before dusk moved forward four miles to bivouac near 23 Battalion's sector. New Zealand Corps was to continue its advance in the morning and join 1 Armoured Division south of El Hamma. Fifth Brigade was still engaged with the opposition on Pt 209 and was to remain behind to hand over the area to the Fighting French forces. It was believed that the enemy had again withdrawn in the face of the threat to his flank, and that the bulk of the Mareth force was already north of Gabes and El Hamma.
The advance was resumed at eleven o'clock on 28 March, 6 Brigade Group following the Divisional Artillery and the armoured screen. The Corps, moving in desert formation, was following the road to El Hamma. The tracks were very dusty and the route was strewn with abandoned and damaged enemy vehicles, guns, and equipment. After travelling eight miles the columns changed direction and turned east towards a high range of mountains, the Djebel Halouga. As a result of a change of plan NZ Corps was now directed on Gabes and the coast, while 10 Corps was to contain the enemy at El Hamma. This meant that the New Zealanders would have to circle around the southern spurs of Djebel Halouga before continuing north towards their objective.
The going became much worse as the columns neared the mountains, with low hills and deep wadis slowing down the rate of advance. During a halt for lunch 300 Italians marched page 253 in and surrendered to the battalion, after a skirmish with the Corps' advance guard. After a short delay while these prisoners were dealt with, the columns moved on again, following the line of black diamond pickets. Near the mountains 24 Battalion was left behind to guard the flank. The rest of the brigade continued to move south-east across very difficult country. The 25th Battalion remained in a deep depression, the Wadi el Merteba, and 26 Battalion halted after it had rounded the southern spurs of the mountains. It was 5 p.m. by this time, and the companies dispersed along the crest of a high ridge where they found a number of good wells. Ahead the armoured screen was engaging elements of 15 Panzer Division.
At dusk the British tanks disengaged and withdrew to laager behind the infantry, who had taken up defensive positions. A, B, and C Coys were forward on the ridge, with D Coy guarding the left flank. Mortars and anti-tank guns were sited to give all-round defence. The enemy shelled the area for an hour and during this period two men were wounded. In the morning the enemy had disappeared and the advance was continued. The armoured screen moved off early but 6 Brigade was delayed until midday. Even then progress was painfully slow, traffic being halted by road blocks and minefields. Fifth Brigade, moving from Tebaga by another route, cut across the front and entered Gabes, which was captured without difficulty. Since it was first to reach the town, this brigade took over 6 Brigade's position in the Corps' formation. However, it was held up until the bridge in the north-west end of the town had been replaced. A long line of tanks, guns, and vehicles stretched back down the roads and tracks to where 6 Brigade was vainly trying to get ahead.
After dusk 6 Brigade changed formation and moved in column of route along a lighted track towards Gabes. After travelling seven miles the convoy halted and vehicles dispersed on the sides of the road. Only 14 miles had been covered all day. An early start was made on the 30th, and by 9.30 a.m. the battalion had reached a staging area about six miles along the Gabes-El Hamma road. The troops were not left in peace for long. By 4 p.m. they were in trucks moving back towards page 254 Gabes to link up with the divisional columns forming up to continue the pursuit next day.
The last day of the month was a beautiful sunny one and swimming parties were soon on the way to the coast. Because of heavy road traffic the brigade's move to its reserve sector had been postponed until 5.30 p.m. When the battalion moved from the bivouac area across a ploughed airfield onto the road, a carrier was blown up on a mine. One man was killed and two wounded. Traffic on the roads was still heavy, and in the darkness the rifle companies took the wrong turning. The rest of the battalion reached the reserve area and was settled in by midnight. The missing companies did not turn up until the early hours of the morning. Later the same morning word was received that 6 Brigade would not be required to move for several days.
This marked the end of the battle to breach the Mareth Line. The enemy had again been forced to abandon his main defences in the face of a threat to his flank. His losses in men and equipment had been heavy. Although the battalion had taken part in the initial assault on Tebaga and had led the brigade in the later stages of the breakthrough, its casualties had been light—ten killed and 42 wounded. In comparison with the number of prisoners taken and casualties inflicted on the enemy, the results of the action were very favourable. Under Col Fountaine's leadership the battalion was functioning very smoothly as a team.
3 British Military Authority.
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
Signals: Capt K. W. Hobbs
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 J. D. Aiken
OC HQ Coy: Maj H. G. McQuade
Support: Capt A. R. McKinlay
Padre: Rev: H. S. Scott
7 2 Lt A. J. Marett, MM; Dunedin; born Dunedin. 22 Mar 1916; carpenter; twice wounded