27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 14 — The Pursuit
The battle had been won. Rommel had begun to withdraw the troops he could extricate from the battlefield—which did not include thousands of Italians1 who were left stranded without transport—and on 4 November Eighth Army set out in pursuit of the fleeing enemy.
The break-out was thrilling. ‘We were moving Westwards into the setting sun and at one stage the whole skyline was silhouetted with prisoners marching back,’ says Lieutenant Gardiner. ‘Actually thousands of them in long lines. It did one's heart good. We drove right through their lines and gun positions with all their arms on the ground and in their pits. If only we had time what loot we could have got.’
While the British armour was still confronted by the anti-tank screen behind which Rommel hoped to conduct an orderly retreat, the New Zealand Division was despatched on a wide sweep around the southern flank—actually the first of a series of ‘left hooks’—with the object of blocking the road at Fuka, 60 miles west of the Alamein Line.
The Transport Platoon had been busy throughout the battle recovering and repairing vehicles so that the battalion would be ready to leave when the order was given. Sergeant Pulford's resourcefulness in retrieving trucks, often under shellfire, from the minefields and during air raids won him the MM. Many of the vehicles had been through the 1941 Libyan campaign and with the battalion ever since and were due for engine changes, but still they were made to go. ‘One group especially need favourable mention—the mechanics and fitters—they never seem to sleep, those people,’ wrote the CO. ‘Every little stop and they were tinkering about with something….’
Many of the troops had to embus on the battlefield; they then drove in single file along the dusty, congested tracks through the minefields, and deployed in the open desert. Fourth page 299 British Light Armoured Brigade, which came under the Division's command to lead the advance, did not get away until after midday, and then set off along a thrust line which the provost had marked with black diamond signs on iron pickets. Fifth Brigade Group (with which 3 Company travelled) left its bivouac area near the Alamein station in the morning and was clear of the minefields by mid-afternoon. Sixth Brigade Group (2 Company still with it) handed over its section of the line to Highland troops in the morning, but did not get clear of the defences until six o'clock, by which time the armour leading the Division had reached a point well inland from Daba, where it laagered for the night.
Behind 6 Brigade came Reserve Group, which included the battalion less 2 and 3 Companies. The CO had been wakened at three in the morning to receive his orders. ‘We were to get ready for the chase! Then followed a hectic day of trying to collect everybody and disperse everybody in some sort of order so as to be able to move out under control.’ The group eventually got away without 4 Company, whose B Echelon vehicles did not arrive with the necessary stocks of rations and petrol until after six. As it was then getting dark, Captain Snedden, OC 4 Company (Major Cooper was now battalion second-in-command), decided to stay the night and moved his vehicles back out of the range of enemy guns. Next day 4 Company, together with three armoured cars, became the escort for the Division's second-line transport carrying petrol, rations and water.
Fifth Brigade pulled in behind 4 Light Armoured Brigade's laager south of Daba about midnight, and an escaping party of Germans and Italians bumped the rear of the column shortly afterwards. In the wild shooting that ensued some fifty New Zealanders were killed, wounded, or captured, none of them in 3 Company.
Sixth Brigade and Reserve Group travelled all night to catch up. Next day's objective was the 300-foot Fuka escarpment. Still pushing on in front, the armour had several brushes with small groups of enemy. Occasionally one or two enemy aircraft flew over the widely dispersed transport, and when a few bombs were dropped Staff-Sergeant Symons2 (3 Company) received wounds of which he died three days later.page 300
South of Fuka the armour encountered a minefield (at least partly dummy), fenced off a lane, and went through. Enemy guns shelled the approaching transport, and the New Zealand artillery deployed to engage targets on the high ground to the north. The enemy shelled the minefield gap while 5 Brigade sped through, but no damage was reported.
Fifth Brigade had been given the role of blocking the road west of the escarpment, but as darkness was falling and the armour and artillery were out of touch, the brigade took up a defensive position about ten miles from the road. The enemy who had defended the high ground—the New Zealand objective —with guns and tanks withdrew after dark.
Men of 6 Brigade and Reserve Group, still the other side of the minefield, were standing about in the half-light at daybreak on the 6th when a strange column drove across the desert on their left. Lieutenant-Colonel White told some of his men to investigate, but before they had time to get going the enemy opened fire. Several anti-tank guns retaliated immediately from their laager positions and knocked out four or five vehicles. ‘No. 1 Platoon,’ says Captain Blair, ‘dashed out with guns mounted on the trucks and fired on the convoy and Crisp had one mounted on his jeep, my driver and wireless operator piled into my jeep and we went out to join in the fun.’ Some Bren carriers also gave chase. ‘The MMGs certainly had some effective shooting and captured most of the prisoners, even my jeep rounded up a few….’ Two lorries at the tail of the column were captured, and altogether 400 or 500 prisoners, mostly Italians, were rounded up, and fifty British troops who had been captured the previous evening were released.
That day the Division advanced to the plateau south of Baggush. The Baggush Box was found to be unoccupied. The sound of gunfire could be heard farther west. Rain, which began in the morning, was falling steadily. Some men attempted to dig bivvy holes, but these soon filled with water; they then huddled rather miserably in the back of their vehicles. By mid-afternoon the desert was flooded, and by nightfall most of the transport was immobilised. It rained all night and was still raining next morning (the 7th). It was cold too. Some of the vehicles were pushed and hauled onto higher, firmer ground, and men rigged up more or less rain-proof shelters.
The desert became a swamp in which the New Zealand Division and the lorry-borne troops of the armoured divisions were bogged, while the remnants of Panzerarmee, saved from page 301 probable encirclement at Mersa Matruh, fled away along the road to the west.
The Division was in urgent need of petrol. It had left the Alamein Line with what was estimated to be sufficient for 200 miles, but because of the heavy going in the mud and the leakage from the flimsy petrol cans, the supply was enough for only half that distance.
The column of 200 vehicles carrying rations, water, and petrol for another 200 miles, accompanied by 4 Company and the three armoured cars, could not get clear of the Alamein defences until late in the evening of 5 November, and then halted for the night because many of the trucks had lagged behind in the dense dust and the darkness, and the numerous gunpits and trenches might have damaged many others. Next morning the column proceeded along the diamond track to Alam Halif, about half-way to Baggush, where supplies wer to be issued. The B Echelon vehicles from the Division took two days to make the journey to this replenishment point and back again over the waterlogged desert.
The next issue of supplies was to be made at a landing ground south of Baggush in the afternoon of the 7th, but it was obvious that the supply column could not get there in time. ‘Raining like hell—made very little headway,’ wrote Corporal MacLean. ‘Trucks bogged everywhere—spent 2 hrs about dusk endeavouring unsuccessfully to extricate Mr. Morgan's pick-up—axle deep in porridge. Wet as a shag—slept under tarp on wet ground.’ The trucks were extricated from the mud in the morning of the 8th, and the Division received its petrol and rations that day.
British and American forces landed in French North Africa on 8 November. ‘Great rejoicing when we learn the news,’ a 2 Company man wrote in his diary. ‘Looks as though Rommel is mafeesh and we will get a “Cooks Tour” through Cyrenaica —hope so.’ But Rommel was not yet finished.
The weather improved and the ground dried out sufficiently for Eighth Army to resume the advance. While 7 Armoured Division was to go by the inland route south of the escarpment to the Libyan frontier, the New Zealand Division was to follow the main coastal road.
Passing within sight of the Minqar Qaim battleground, the Division concentrated south of Mersa Matruh. Sixth Brigade page 302 (accompanied by 2 Company) was to remain at Matruh because of the increasing difficulty of supplying the pursuit force; the rest of the Division, led by 4 Light Armoured Brigade, passed through the minefield gap near Charing Cross on the 9th and headed along the main road to the west. The armour clashed with a rearguard and was just short of Sidi Barrani at nightfall.
Still trying to catch up with Reserve Group, 4 Company reached Kilo 78 on the Sidi Barrani road that evening. Second-Lieutenant Kaye, sent on ahead next morning, found Battalion Headquarters at Kilo 109, but by the time the company got there the battalion had gone. Reserve Group was then speeding westwards. ‘We started in desert formation,’ says Lieutenant-Colonel White, ‘but soon ran into the defences of Sidi Barrani where mines were suspected, and failing any instructions I took to the main Rd in single vehicle column and went flat out to get somewhere, but where I wasn't sure! However at Buqbuq I caught up with some of the leading elements which were held up by some Hun delaying action and so deployed my command off the road…. We were ordered on again, following the road on a three vehicle front. About 1400 hrs there was a hold up which looked like it might develop into an overnight stay…. There was a terrific mass of vehicles on the road…. some of my people just bivvied on the side of the road as they couldn't find out where I was….’
With 5 Brigade, 3 Company bypassed Sidi Barrani by cutting across the desert two or three miles south of the road, and then had trouble in squeezing in among the transport, including RAF convoys, that crowded the road. The brigade pushed on towards the foot of Halfaya, on the way passing many destroyed and abandoned enemy vehicles, some still burning; much of this must have been the work of the Desert Air Force.
The enemy still held Halfaya Pass, which had proved an exceptionally strong defensive position in earlier campaigns. This time, however, the garrison, mostly Italian, was taken by surprise by 110 men of 21 Battalion, without supporting arms, in an assault before dawn. Within a few hours, on 11 November, the only enemy who remained in Egypt were prisoners of war.
A large demolition completely blocked the road near the top of the 600-foot escarpment behind Sollum, so everybody had to go by the only alternative route, up Halfaya Pass. ‘There was a terrific traffic jam,’ says White. ‘Traffic was piling up behind and there were five lines of vehicles nearly nose to tail for page 303 several miles…. To add to the confusion many mines had been left by Jerry set indiscriminately and unmarked, and it was ordered that vehicles must not disperse. What an air target we would have been. However all the air activity on Jerry's part was some machine gunning of the top of the pass by a few fighters about or before 0900. Later I didn't notice any of our vehicles knocked out so he couldn't have done much damage.
‘We could see Sollum a few miles away across the bay. The day wore on with order gradually being restored [4 Company located Battalion Headquarters]…. We got away at 1430. The sides of the road had been mined and it was a case of sticking to the centre of the road. We passed a few vehicles minus wheels through swinging too far off the beaten track…. We made good progress then until last light when we bivouacked in the open desert roughly south of Bardia.’
With 6 Brigade, 2 Company entered Mersa Matruh on 10 November. ‘We are camped in an area which apparently has been a complete Iti QM dump,’ wrote Corporal Clemens. ‘The boys are in smartly for loot but the place has been gone over before we arrive. We stumble across a ration dump which had been fired but find quite a lot of good stuff on the outskirts of where the blaze has been—should live very well for a time on Iti tinned tomatoes, green beans and peas…. Some of the boys find a dump of Iti short wave radios and by the time we are finished we should have a radio per truck.’
Tons of equipment and bulk stores of all kinds, including clothing, foodstuffs, wines and confectionery, had been abandoned by the enemy. The New Zealanders were employed in salvaging material and unloading supplies from ships. ‘It has not taken our crowd long to get organized for there are about 6 big boats waiting to unload supplies,’ Clemens wrote on the 11th. Two days later, when Eighth Army entered Tobruk, ships were passing along the coast bound for that port—‘further evidence we are right on the job this time.’
Sixth Brigade left Matruh on 20 November. ‘They could not have picked a worse day to move…. Bitterly cold and sandy—grateful for our warm clothes.’ The men had been issued with battle dress and winter underclothing a few days earlier. ‘A very monotonous trip and it reminds me of the one page 304 we were undertaking a year ago almost to the day but by night. What a lot has happened since then!!’ The convoy passed a large bedouin encampment, crossed the Libyan frontier and headed northwards to the Division's bivouac area near Sidi Azeiz, which it reached on the 22nd. When 2 Company arrived the whole battalion was together again.
The Division had settled down for an indefinite stay in this locality. Bivvies had been dug in and football fields prepared. The wells round about were cleaned out, tested and fitted with pumps; the water ration was a gallon each day for every man, and extra was supplied for washing.
The Italians had left the small town of Bardia in a disgusting state. ‘They will not cover their excreta—leave it everywhere— hillsides, houses, Moslem Mosque, Christian Church, even behind the altar.’ In the harbour were a few sunken or beached barges and small vessels; huge dumps of ammunition and tinned food had been abandoned on the shore. ‘Did we get into that smartly,’ wrote Lieutenant Gardiner, who took a swimming party to the beach. ‘We eventually came across the Iti Ration point and got all the tinned food and grog we could possibly handle. Most of the tinned food was our own which they must have got when Tobruk fell…. The grog comprised Cognac, wine and Zibib in barrels.’
The weather deteriorated. It was windy, dusty and cold, and there were heavy showers of rain, thunder and lightning. The New Zealanders were camped on a very flat stretch of desert, and many bivvies were flooded. The swimming parties were less popular, and football aroused great enthusiasm. The battalion's A and B fifteens won their matches in the divisional knock-out competition.
Corporal Gardiner, who had been captured at Minqar Qaim five months earlier, returned to the battalion on 25 November. He had managed to avoid being sent to Italy and had been admitted to hospital at Benghazi suffering from dysentery and malnutrition. He says he ‘went through the wire on the night of 11th Nov with a jerrycan of water and some sugar I had looted from an Italian lorry during an air raid the night before. I hid in an old latrine outside and close to the compound walls. The next day a S. African friend strolled past and whispered that it was OK to come out as the Italians were evacuating the hospital and leaving us there with four days’ rations. I returned to the compound that night. Next morning, the 13th, the Ites page 305 changed their minds and decided to move us out. They sent troops in to round us up and I was doing my best to keep out of sight and close to my escape hole, when a long range recce Spitfire flew low over the hospital. The Italians in their usual style became slightly disorganised and I was able to get back into my latrine again. Stayed there for the next six days as Jerry trucks were calling a hundred yards up the road for fuel. Left hideout on the 20th to look for tucker and found a tin of blown Itie meat which I had just eaten when an armoured car of 11th Hussars came up the road. Had first cup of tea for 5 mths with the Rifle Bde.’
The El Agheila position, occupied by what remained of Panzerarmee, blocked the road to Tripoli along the shore of the Gulf of Sirte. Protected on three sides by salt marshes, soft sand and broken ground, and on the fourth by the sea, this was a naturally strong position where twice previously a pursuing British force had been halted and turned back. This time a frontal assault was to be combined with a threat to the enemy's only line of retreat. While 51 (Highland) and 7 Armoured Divisions attacked the defences from the east, the New Zealand Division, with 4 Light Armoured Brigade under command, was to swing wide out around the enemy's southern flank in a 250- mile ‘left hook’ and block the coastal road near Marble Arch, west of El Agheila.
The journey of about 360 miles across Cyrenaica to El Haseiat, a track junction where the Division was to assemble before starting on the ‘left hook’, took about four and a half days. Sixth Brigade Group (which included 2 Company) set out on 4 December; a Divisional Group (including the battalion less the two companies with the infantry brigades) and 5 Brigade Group (including 1 Company) followed next day.
From Sidi Azeiz the route lay along the Trigh Capuzzo, where wrecked tanks, trucks and aircraft, and many graves revived memories of the 1941 offensive. ‘We passed the Rezegh Blockhouse and Mosque,’ wrote one of the men who had fought there with 3 Company. ‘I am strangely stirred by their sight and could not get to sleep for ages tonight thinking of our scrap there just over a year ago….
‘We passed through the Bir Hacheim area…. Mute but eloquent testimony is given of what a great and bloody battleground this was. I have never seen so much smashed up tanks and transport in such a small area. We had to take great care page 306 in negotiating several minefields. Neat cemeteries contain the graves of many gallant Frenchmen.’ After that it was ‘very monotonous sitting all day watching this dreary desert.’ The track lay through Msus to Saunnu, ‘a fortress advantageously built on high rising ground commanding a view of all the nearby countryside. I could easily imagine it as a French Foreign Legion outpost à la P. C. Wren.’
At Haseiat the Division paused until 11 December, a chilly, overcast day when a move farther south was made. Rain that night and again the next day settled the dust. Early on the 13th the Division, now totalling about 3000 vehicles and self-contained in supplies, set out into a trackless sea of sand and gravel. A suitable route had been found through the six miles of undulating sand in Chrystal's Rift, and the heavily laden trucks packed the damp surface tight and hard as they followed each other through on three lanes.
The ‘left hook’ at El Agheila
An early start in a thick fog, which cleared later in the morning, was made on the 14th. The columns headed westwards over broken, stony, terrace country—‘very like behind Maadi Camp’—across the Agheila-Marada track, and continuing by moonlight until nearly midnight, north-westwards into Tripolitania. Next morning the objective, the high ground south-east page 307 of Marble Arch, was found to be occupied by the enemy, so the Division detoured farther west towards Bir el Merduma. By this time the Highlanders had entered El Agheila and 7 Armoured Division was in action against the German rearguard at an anti-tank ditch west of the village. There was still a chance of cutting off the retreat of at least part of Panzerarmee.
The armour led, followed by 6 Brigade, Divisional Headquarters and Reserve Group, and 5 Brigade in that order. In the late afternoon 6 Brigade passed Merduma, crossed Wadi er Rigel, and halted a few miles beyond. It was then ordered to advance northwards and attempt to cut the road. Fifth Brigade and the tanks were to hold the inland flank, and Reserve Group was to put out a gun line to protect Divisional Headquarters.
Brigadier Gentry called his unit commanders to the head of the column. General Freyberg met them before they moved off, greeting them with the words, ‘Gentlemen, we have a chance to make history.’
At dusk six Bren carriers from 24 Battalion were sent ahead to reconnoitre the coastal road, and because they did not return after a reasonable time, a second patrol was sent out with instructions to report back by wireless at the end of every mile. The first patrol actually reached a point near the road, along which the rumble of traffic could be heard, but on its way back passed the brigade column, which had deviated from its axis of advance.
The distance to the road was much farther than had been anticipated, and the going grew progressively worse. Captain Moore3 (OC 2 Company) says, ‘we started off on the bearing of 45° which was supposed to cut the road close to a large roadhouse shown on the map. The Bde I. Officer, Capt Ball4 of 27 (MG) Bn, led the way in a P.U. followed by the Brigadier page 308 in a staff car. From my jeep close by I could see Capt Ball standing with his head and shoulders through the hatch in the cab of his P.U. trying to hold the compass steady and direct his driver on a course of 45°. As we were driving over a series of ridges this was very difficult….’ The column veered to the east in Wadi Matratin.
Brigadier Gentry and the battalion commanders reconnoitred in three carriers. Moore was told that there was not room for him and he would have to stay behind. ‘At first I was not very pleased about this, but after a few minutes realised I was very fortunate as the carriers ran into quite a packet of trouble.’ They had gone only a few hundred yards when they were fired on by an anti-tank gun which put one carrier out of action and compelled the party to return. The Brigadier reported to the GOC that he was in contact with the enemy about a mile and a half from the road, and being told to use his discretion, decided to attack.
In the very early hours of the 16th 24 Battalion charged the position from which the anti-tank gun had fired, and 25 Battalion advanced on its right. The 24th wiped out the crews of the anti-tank gun and several spandaus, and then came under machine-gun and mortar fire on the crest of a ridge. The assault was pressed home, and the enemy made off in trucks.
To help 24 Battalion consolidate on the ridge, 5 Platoon went forward with the anti-tank guns, mortars and carriers. ‘Major Webb5 [the CO] informed me,’ says Lieutenant Dixon,6 ‘that owing to darkness only a cursory recce. had been possible and that he believed both his flanks were vulnerable, particularly his left flank….’ Dixon therefore placed No. 1 Section on the right flank and No. 2 on the left, where he understood two gullies converged. At dawn, however, the country presented a different picture altogether; even after No. 2 Section moved to higher ground, a ridge immediately in front obscured the road.
From the other flank No. 1 Section was able to engage targets on the road along which the enemy was still retreating. The only effect of the shooting that could be observed was the speeding up of the vehicles as they passed through the field of fire. The section had better shooting against a 50-millimetre anti-tank gun and a machine-gun nest about half a mile away. page 309 The crew was driven off the gun and the hostile machine-gun fire was kept to a minimum. The enemy directed his mortars against the Vickers, and before withdrawing laid a smoke screen across their front.
The 24th Battalion made a determined attempt to seize the ridge which obscured its view of the road, but was held up by a German counter-attack until all traffic on the road had ceased.
Back at Brigade Headquarters, farther inland, 4 Platoon had been given the task of protecting the rear and left (west) flank. ‘At first light,’ says Captain Moore, ‘I had noticed some movement on a ridge about 2000 yds to the west which overlooked our position. Later when I saw the Brigadier & Lt Col Fountaine7 by the armoured command vehicle I asked them who these people were. Col Fountaine replied that it was a platoon of his. I suggested that I would go out there and see if a pn of vickers would be of any assistance, they seemed to me to be well out on their own. I left my driver behind and taking a member of nearest pn for company drove my jeep about 800 yd towards the ridge, where I found 2 carriers…. Their crews were trying to identify the people moving about on the ridge. Suddenly we were fired upon and as our vehicles were in a hollow we couldn't understand how the Jerry could aim so accurately until I noticed that one of the carriers had a black pennant flying at the top of his radio aerial. The first shot had smashed the speedo in my jeep…. So I asked my companion to back the jeep so that I could get a shot at a couple of bushes on the overlooking ridge. “Sorry,” he said, “I can't drive.” On telling him to take the vickers which I had mounted on the back of the jeep he said that he had never fired a vickers. Finally we got cracking and several bushes on the ridge scattered as so much camouflage, showing up the long snouts of 50 mm anti tank guns looking our way.’
By this time Colonel Fountaine, convinced that the troops on the ridge were hostile, had ordered his C Company to attack. The 25-pounders fired a concentration, and as the infantry advanced, the two-pounders, mortars and one of 4 Platoon's sections began firing. The enemy retreated, leaving two scared Germans, five 50-millimetre guns and some equipment. Spandau fire came from a truck about half a mile away, and Moore raced up onto the ridge to engage it with the Vickers on his jeep. The enemy disappeared.page 310
Meanwhile a gap of 10 miles—probably more like six— had been reported between 5 and 6 Brigades. Fifth Brigade, reinforced by units from Reserve Group, faced east and was supported by two field regiments, three batteries of six-pounders, and three machine-gun companies. The tanks were grouped on the right flank. Before daybreak Lieutenant-Colonel White set out for the gunline. ‘I called in at HQ on the way,’ he says, ‘and was put on to another job, which was a redistribution of the MGs and A/T in my group for a daylight stand. I got the MGs going and was off to contact the A/T bloke when I was caught in a spot of shelling.’ While moving to the left flank to support 21 Battalion, 4 Company was also caught. ‘About 9 a.m.,’ writes Corporal MacLean, ‘our pln [No. 11] set off to take up new posns—necessary to drive through enemy barrage. … Mel Homer (Pln sgt) was killed—shell burst in front of truck.’
Divisional Cavalry, pursued by German tanks, retired through 1 Platoon's positions (with 21 Battalion). ‘The Panzers had a good look at us,’ says Lieutenant Crisp, ‘and after firing a few rounds discovered the gap [between 5 and 6 Brigades] and shepherded the main body of German Infantry (Trucked) through.’ After the tanks had gone, 1 Platoon fired several bursts at the trucks at a range of about 4000 yards, ‘with no discernible result.’ Although shelled by the artillery and pursued by the British tanks and a mobile column, which included 11 Platoon's Vickers in carriers, the German column escaped with very few losses.
The New Zealand Division, after deploying in the darkness on unknown ground, had been unable to prevent the enemy from breaking clear.
Early next morning (the 17th) the Division started off westwards again, with the intention of cutting off a strong enemy rearguard at Nofilia by another ‘left hook’.
A brisk action began shortly before midday when tanks of the Royal Scots Greys and Divisional Cavalry encountered German tanks and guns near the village. Fifth Brigade swung round to the south of this fight, and about ten miles beyond the village was ordered north to the road, then about three miles away. The 23rd Battalion was to get astride the road, the 28th was to cover its right flank, and the 21st was to cross the road to carry the line to the sea, which could be seen sparkling in the sunlight.page 311
With 23 Battalion, 2 Platoon went over the crest of an escarpment and down towards the road, along which German transport was retreating at top speed. The battalion was shelled by a German flank guard near the road; the infantry debussed, but could make little headway. ‘Took Pln up when called,’ wrote Lieutenant Aislabie,8 ‘3 wounded … too late to get in posn before dark.’
The Maoris, on the right, were ordered to halt facing towards Nofilia, in case of an attack from that direction. Captain Joseph spotted an enemy observation post on high ground in front of the battalion and told 3 Platoon to engage it, but it had gone when the guns were in position ready to fire.
On the left 21 Battalion, the last to go down towards the road, had difficulty in getting through the soft sand, and also encountered a strongly held position. The accompanying 1 Platoon fired on a mobile observation post at extreme range on the left flank, with the result that it packed up and disappeared.
After dark ‘There was quite a bit of firing from our own positions and quite a bit of milling about near the road,’ says Joseph. ‘A/A Breda used against our positions in light scrub. …’ At daybreak all was quiet; the Germans had completed the evacuation of Nofilia.
Before Eighth Army could resume the advance, sufficient stocks of ammunition, petrol and rations had to be accumulated, and these had to be brought overland from the ports of Tobruk and Benghazi. The New Zealand Division, therefore, halted near Nofilia. The engineers cleaned out and repaired the wells, in which the water was brackish and tasted strongly of the dieseline the enemy had used to pollute them. Trips were made to the beach, beyond a salt marsh and some sand dunes, but the sea and the wind were too cold to make bathing really enjoyable.
Christmas Day was bitterly cold. The brightest spot in the day was the sermon by Padre Underhill, who came from 25 Battalion (to which he had been transferred) to take a full battalion church parade. At that time the machine-gunners were without a padre of their own, and as 1 and 2 Companies were still attached to the infantry brigades, this was a reunion. Christmas dinner, by company arrangements, included such page 312 items as oyster soup, roast pork and chicken, apple sauce, tinned potatoes, peas and beans, plum pudding and brandy sauce, fruit salad, and a bottle of Canadian beer. ‘The “brass hats” have certainly treated us well considering the terrific lines of communication and the priority of war materials.’
It rained heavily that night and a cold wind still blew next day. ‘We did not get up until nine and rather a surprise to go on a route march at 10—3 Christmases in the Desert now and a route march each Boxing Day.’
On New Year's Day the battalion A team lost to Divisional Signals in a semi-final of the Rugby competition; the final, between the signalmen and the Maoris, was to be played at Tripoli.
On New Year's Day, also, 1 Company left with 5 Brigade to construct an airfield for the Desert Air Force near Wadi Tamet, about 100 miles west of Nofilia. This was ‘one of the most unpleasant jobs 5 Brigade ever had to do,’ wrote Brigadier Kippenberger. An area 1200 yards square was bulldozed level, and the men had to pick up ‘several million stones’, load them into trucks and cart them away. A night of rain, thunder and lightning was followed by a two-day westerly gale and a severe dust-storm. The enemy's airfields were not far away, and although Spitfires, with the pilots in their seats, and the ack-ack guns stood ready, it was impossible to prevent his fast fighter-bombers from making frequent attacks; there was seldom more than a second's warning, and the nearest slit trenches were at the end of the field. Forty-odd New Zealanders were killed or wounded, but 1 Company's only casualty was Private Davis,9 who was wounded by an ack-ack shell which landed in the camp area about a mile from the airfield.
In the dust-storm on 3 January the rest of the Division moved about 10 miles inland from Nofilia. The westward advance was resumed six days later, and 5 Brigade rejoined the Division near Wadi Tamet on the 11th. The engineers bulldozed tracks into this huge dry watercourse, and ack-ack guns were posted on the escarpments while the transport went through. Enemy aircraft did not interfere. The advance was continued at night, and on the 14th the head of the Division was about 20 miles from the Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track, on the far side of which enemy tanks and guns held some high ground.page 313
The objective was Tripoli. While 51 (Highland) Division was to go by the main coastal road, 7 Armoured and 2 New Zealand Divisions, advancing side-by-side with the New Zealanders on the left, were to take the more direct desert route.
The Division was reinforced by the Royal Scots Greys, a regiment with forty-eight tanks (about half of them Shermans). Divisional Cavalry and the Greys led, followed by 6 Brigade, Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group, and 5 Brigade in that order. The battalion, less 1 Company with 5 Brigade and 2 Company with the 6th, was still part of Reserve Group. Vehicles carried petrol for 350 miles, and rations and water had been issued to last until midnight on 22 January.
The enemy resisted all day on the 15th at Dor Umm er Raml, the high ground beyond the Bu Ngem track, but the New Zealand infantry did not have to deploy, and the machine-gunners were not required to fire a shot. They heard gunfire and bombing ahead of them, and saw several tanks burning. Next day the enemy fell back steadily, and late in the afternoon the Greys went into action against a rearguard a few miles south of Sedada. The Division followed slowly through Wadi Zemzem, remarkable for its tall scrub and ‘some bushy topped trees thick as a man's waist’. Enemy aircraft reappeared, but with little effect. A landing ground north of Wadi Zemzem was completed on the 17th, and put into use almost immediately by the Desert Air Force. The stream of transport planes bringing supplies and equipment reminded some New Zealanders of the German occupation of Maleme.
Steep banks, mines and demolitions made it necessary to go through Wadi Nfed in single file. Beyond Sedada—a fort, a few houses, some trees and crops—the country was very rough and rocky, and more mines, including many S mines, were encountered. The only possible route was the road into Beni Ulid, a walled town with a fort perched on a cliff above an almost canyon-like wadi. Most of the Division saw Beni Ulid and its huge olive trees and tall palms in bright moonlight. A good, tarsealed road then led ‘up hill and down dale, with high, steep, rocky hills all around—like parts of Otago Central.’
Gebel Nefusa, a range of hills very precipitous on the northern side, formed a natural semi-circular barrier from the coast east of Tripoli to beyond Garian in the south-west; it was penetrated by only three roads: the one along the coast, another from Tarhuna, and the third from Garian. While the Highlanders pressed along the coast and 7 Armoured Division fought page 314 its way from Tarhuna, the New Zealand Division crossed a stretch of sand to Tazzoli, an Italian settlement in the hills a few miles farther west. Fifth Brigade now travelled ahead of the 6th.
At Tazzoli the New Zealanders met their first Italian civilians. The settlement ‘looked quite nice in the distance but we found the elegant white houses had been sadly neglected inside. Every house flying the white flag and the colonists seem a usual peaceful peasant type…. I think with the poor land at their disposal they have done well.’
The engineers bulldozed a track down a defile to the coastal plain, on to which the Division descended. The tanks, guns and lorries worked their way over sandy, humpy ground to the Garian-Tripoli road. Farther north, at Azizia, this road passed beneath a small, solitary hill.
The enemy still held Azizia on 22 January. The Greys exchanged shots with German tanks which bobbed up and down among the sandhills, and the artillery also went into action. After dark 5 Brigade, with the Maori Battalion leading, drove up the road. When the head of the column was about two kilometres from the village, a flare went up from the top of the hill; it was followed instantly by a dozen others on a front of half a mile on each side of the road; this was the signal for defensive fire, which crisscrossed on fixed lines across the front. If some of the weapons had been directed straight down the road, 5 Brigade might have suffered severely.
Brigadier Kippenberger decided against putting on an impromptu night attack, and the brigade withdrew a few miles— all except a 30-cwt truck from No. 2 Section of 2 Platoon, which had broken down. ‘Our vehicle—capable of slow advance could not cope with swift withdrawal & we very soon lost contact with our formation,’ says Sergeant Mack. ‘We dug in & at sunrise [23 January] with neither friend or foe in sight decided to proceed towards Tripoli (Some repairs having been made to truck …). We made good progress & heartened by evidence that British tanks (tracks crossing road) had outflanked the town we eventually arrived when the day was still fairly young—The remainder of the morning was spent in sightseeing.’
These machine-gunners were probably the first New Zealanders to enter Tripoli. The 11th Hussars, followed by the Highlanders, had reached the city earlier in the morning; the first New Zealand unit, the Maori Battalion, arrived in the afternoon.page 315
Fifth Brigade entered Tripoli; the rest of the Division bivouacked outside the city. While reconnoitring near Bianchi, where 6 Brigade was to go, General Freyberg, Brigadier Gentry and Brigadier Weir10 (who was visiting the Division) were ambushed and fired on at very close range. The GOC, his ADC (Captain Griffiths11) and driver escaped and went to get help.
The battalion's Intelligence Officer (Lieutenant Gardiner) was leading a reconnaissance party from Reserve Group along a road in the vicinity when General Freyberg's car drew up, its windscreen shattered by machine-gun fire. Gardiner was asked who he was, what his party was doing, whether he had any machine guns, and was told to ‘go for your life. See if you can either get the Brigadiers back or contain the Hun at least, I will send up reinforcements.’ Griffiths was to show the way.
Gardiner briefed his reconnaissance party—‘a gang of cooks, bottle-washers, Majors, Captains, etc.’—and headed towards the crossroads where the ambush had occurred. He had a pistol-grip Browning machine gun set up in his pick-up, and with this ‘loosed off a few bursts straight down the road—it was rather funny to see the settlers run out of the various farm houses with pieces of white rag on sticks.’
When close enough to see smoke from a burning car, the party stopped and deployed to the right and left of the road. ‘A small mortar bomb or something like it burst in the air but apart from that we heard and saw nothing.’ Gardiner, accompanied by his driver and a corporal, then drove right up to the crossroads, where he captured an armed Italian; a German got away but surrendered later. ‘… it was clear the opposition had taken off so I moved back to the staff cars…. A driver who we later discovered was mortally wounded told me that he thought they had got the two Brigadiers and taken them off. Another with a wound in his leg said he saw them [the Brigadiers] beat it in the direction he was moving when he got hit and he was not sure whether they had made it or were picked up. He mentioned Hun armoured cars having gone on up the road to the West. There seemed to be only one thing for it— follow them….’
About half a mile farther along the road Gardiner and his page 316 two companions ‘ran into two groups of Iti. Colonial Troops working on the road…. I decided to take some prisoners so loaded up the truck…. After going another three quarters to a mile we stopped again and as there was no sign of the Hun I acceded to my driver's suggestion—now made for the third time—“I think you had better put about Sir.”
‘We had gone back about a mile when over a hill on the road came a tank, straight at us. It was 3/400 yards away when it let off a burst of M.G. fire which appeared to come right at us. We stopped and all got off, most with hands up. It was the Div. Cav. in one of their light tanks. The Sergeant in charge swore and declared he did not fire at us, he was only clearing his guns….’ This tank and another one continued the chase, but did not overtake the Germans.
When Gardiner got back to the crossroads he discovered that the two Brigadiers had not been captured after all. Brigadier Gentry said he had never run so far or so fast in his life; Brigadier Weir's comment was ‘I'm too old for this, I'm too old for this.’
‘Our Coy area,’ wrote a 4 Company man, ‘is set among low partly covered sand dunes surrounded by small farms each of which has a windmill pump and cistern…. So we've spent the day washing off 3 weeks’ accumulation of dust and dirt from our bodies and clothes, shaving, haircuts etc. It's great to feel fresh and clean again…. Great feed of fresh vegs for dinner. … first fresh greens since—well, it's a hell of a long time ago….’
‘Last night T— and I ventured forth to collect a turkey from a farmhouse,’ a 1 Company man confided to his diary. ‘The expedition was doubly successful. We brought home 2 bonzer turkeys. The luckless birds were beheaded and hung up overnight. Today the boys gathered a sackful of cauliflowers and carrots. Well, this afternoon we got to work. T— and R—boiled the turkeys and then roasted them. The vegetables were cooked. B— and I made an oven and baked a batch of very unsuccessful scones. Still, we were happy. The feed tonight was wonderful!! The best tuck in I've had in 3 years. The turkeys were delicious. My belly is full and all is well with the world.’
Tripoli itself was disappointing. ‘Very few shops open—no large ones in sight—streets very dirty—no cafes open—no food available except sweets and dates for which the vendors ask page 317 exorbitant prices…. As there is little for the boys to spend their money on, two-up and crown and anchor are rife….’ The money quickly gravitated into a few pairs of hands. Back in camp there was much carousing on the local vino rosso (1942 vintage).
The battalion assembled among the olive groves and orchards, in blossom, on the Suani Ben Adem-Castel Benito road; 1 Company returned from 5 Brigade, and 2 Company from 6 Brigade. Lieutenant-Colonel White relinquished command on 31 January to return to New Zealand; he was succeeded by Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin.
The whole Division paraded for the British Prime Minister, Mr Winston Churchill, who was not unmoved by the occasion and said: ‘All are filled with pride for the Desert Army; all are full of gratitude to the people of New Zealand who have sent this splendid Division to win fame and honour across the oceans. By an important victory, the Battle of Egypt, the Axis Powers who had fondly hoped and loudly boasted they would take Egypt and the Nile Valley, found their armies broken and shattered, and since then, by a march unexampled in history for speed and for the force of its advance, you have driven the enemy before you, until now the would-be conqueror of Egypt is endeavouring to pass himself off as the deliverer of Tunisia….”
To the Highlanders' massed pipes and drums, the New Zealand Division marched past Mr Churchill.
A week or so later Captain Moore was ordered to provide a guard for a certain building in Tripoli. ‘When I asked what I was supposed to be guarding,’ he says, ‘I was told some sort of conference, very Hush! Hush! Lt Brown [6 Platoon] & I went in to have a look at the building. It was roughly about the size of the NZ Forces Club Cairo and there seemed to be a red cap looking out of every window. The main entrance faced the road which ran along the waterfront. Across the road from the main entrance there was a Cafe with a large dance floor, under which was a large kitchen full of yelling and gesticulating Italians. Through the kitchen and then through a tunnel under the road we went, and after climbing a flight of stairs we found ourselves in the foyer of the hotel we were supposed to guard. We were immediately surrounded by British Military police and their C.O. pounced on us and wanted to know how we gained entry.
‘We told him…. Finally we found:page 318
There were four entrances.
That a conference of senior allied officers was to be held in Tripoli and they were all to be quartered in the hotel.
We were responsible for keeping people out.
That all people quartered there must use the main entrance.’
Brown's platoon (twenty-seven men) were given every tommy gun the company could find, so that all the doors other than the main entrance, which had a sentry with a rifle, could be guarded by men armed with sub-machine guns. At night roving pickets supplemented these guards. So frequently did the men on duty at the main entrance have to present arms that they wore off the skin between the thumb and forefinger of their right hands, which they had to protect with sticking plaster. Moore says that Brown counted thirty-seven present arms in twenty minutes.
Brown was close to the main entrance when a large, red-headed sentry, a man who was well known for speaking his mind, was on duty. He presented arms when a British major went through the door.
‘Don't bother saluting me,’ said the major.
‘I suppose you are just another one of the bludgers around here,’ replied the sentry.
‘Maybe you are right,’ said the major, who was in the catering corps and fortunately had a sense of humour.
The same red-headed private was on duty at the main entrance when Brown was doing his rounds the following day. A slightly built general came in the door. The sentry presented arms with tremendous vigour. The general stopped, ordered him to slope arms and then to order arms.
‘Very good,’ he said. ‘There will be no more presenting arms. You will only come to attention as a senior officer passes in or out.’
Brown breathed a sigh of relief: the sentry had not called General Montgomery a bludger.
This guard duty, which was taken very seriously, lasted nearly a week. When the senior Allied officers had dispersed, the whole platoon was treated to ‘a real slap up meal complete with assorted drinks. Probably organised by the Major of the Catering Corps and the Scotty Col in charge of the Provost.’
British bombing before the capture of Tripoli had littered the harbour with derelict ships. Now the dock facilities were restored and supplies for the Allied forces brought ashore as page 319 quickly as possible. Gangs of New Zealanders, employed as stevedores, unloaded 44-gallon drums of petrol and other stores in record time. They also profited by the opportunities this work offered: ‘Several cases of rum and whisky broached and half the boys get well lathered—much looting of foodstuffs and grog,’ a machine-gunner wrote in his diary. Next day, without remorse, he added, ‘The Naval authorities want NZs working on wharves as the ships get away very much quicker….’
Enemy aircraft attempting to bomb the port were met by a spectacular ack-ack barrage. Pickets from 1 Company were posted around the harbour to watch for any mines that might be dropped. The posts gave no protection against bombs—one or two landed uncomfortably close—and against the showers of metal from the barrage. There were no casualties, however: nor were any mines detected.
1 About a third of the Axis forces succeeded in making their escape; an estimated 10,000 were killed and 15,000 wounded, and over 30,000 (including 10,000 Germans) were captured. Eighth Army's casualties were approximately 13,500 killed, wounded and missing, and NZ casualties (between 23 Oct and 21 Nov) 380 killed, 1290 wounded and 41 prisoners of war.
Moore had a Vickers gun mounted in the back of a jeep. He writes: ‘… it was possible to clamp the tripod to the floor with the front legs in almost vertical position behind the back seat. The ammo box was held in a metal carrier which hooked on to and moved around with the gun. It was placed on the back so that if fired upon it was possible to drive into the nearest hollow, back up and fire gun without showing any of the vehicle.’
L. H. Lynch says ‘Dinty [Moore] had the aforementioned Vickers mounted, complete with tripod, in the back of MY Jeep. From then on life was hectic. Dinty chucked his bedroll aboard and lived off my ration box for the next 6 months. I usually had a dozen handgrenades under the seat and a few sticky bombs in the back of the jeep; that was Dinty's luggage!!’
10 Maj-Gen N. W. McD. Weir, KBE, CB, m.i.d.; Legion of Merit (US); Cambridge; born Heathcote Valley, 6 Jul 1893; Regular soldier; 1 NZEF 1914–19; GOC 4 NZ Div 1942; attached HQ 2 NZEF 1943–44; QMG Army HQ 1945; CGS 1946–49.