27 (Machine Gun) Battalion
CHAPTER 15 — Tebaga Gap
After losing Tripoli—the last of Italy's African empire— the Axis forces withdrew across the Tunisian frontier to the Mareth Line, between the Gulf of Gabes and a range of mountains, the Monts des Ksour. Leaving these defences in the hands of an Italian garrison, the enemy struck northwards against the Allies in central Tunisia where he roughly handled 2 United States Corps at Kasserine; but he was unable to consolidate his gains, and threatened by Eighth Army in the south, returned to the Mareth Line. It seemed certain that he contemplated an attack to stave off the threat from that quarter. Eighth Army, therefore, formed a firm base at Medenine, against which General Montgomery expected Rommel to expend his strength in vain.
At very short notice on 1 March the New Zealand Division was ordered to Medenine, 200 miles west of Tripoli. About midnight, after rations, petrol and ammunition had been drawn and the other preparations completed, 4 Company set off with 5 Brigade, which travelled without stopping except for meals until it reached its destination late next day. Sixth Brigade and Reserve Group arrived on the 3rd, and by mid-afternoon the Division was ready for action, with 5 Brigade holding an eight-mile front west and south-west of the village, 6 Brigade in a reserve position, and 4 Light Armoured Brigade in support. Between NZ Division and the coast were 7 Armoured Division and 51 (Highland) Division.
If the Germans attacked, all the field regiments within range, on receipt of a codeword, were to bring their fire to bear on the threatened part of the front; the anti-tank guns were to hold their fire until the enemy tanks were at almost point-blank range. The mortars and machine guns covered mutually supporting infantry posts: sixteen Vickers, under Captain Blair's (4 Company) command, were disposed with 5 Brigade, 3 and 11 Platoons with the Maori Battalion, 10 Platoon with the 21st, and 12 Platoon with the 23rd; 2 and 3 Companies were under 6 Brigade's command, and the rest of the battalion in Reserve Group.page 321
From 3 Platoon, situated just off a wadi which ran through the Maoris' right flank, it was possible to see several hundred yards to the immediate front and a long way to the right front; 11 Platoon, on a slight ridge on the Maoris' left, overlooked 3 Platoon and probably had the best view in 5 Brigade of the whole front.
From 11 Platoon's headquarters Blair watched the enemy approach across the plain in the misty early morning of 6 March. ‘It was a magnificent sight…. The attack was one of Tanks and mechanised Infantry with some tanks out in front and the Inf. following close behind and this was the position up until the Artillery commenced to fire. At this stage the Inf. transport appeared to halt due no doubt to the well directed Arty fire which fell in amongst them, and this may have created a bigger gap between tanks and Inf. than was actually intended.’
The enemy drove across 5 Brigade's front, and some tanks came up the wadi towards the Maori Battalion and 3 Platoon, whose pits were on a forward slope. ‘On each flank were the Maoris who were spoiling for a fight and to the left were two anti tank guns from a British regiment,’ writes Ffolliott-Powell. ‘… The first sign of trouble was when a tank slowly came into sight about 4000 yds away, closely followed by a second. Turning in our direction they halted and the commanders began to make a leisurely survey of the country…. After what seemed to us an interminable period they came on and then we could see many others bringing up the rear. They were well spread out at this time but they converged into the wadi and it seemed to us that there were hundreds of them. I must say the cool manner in which they slowly came on had a very depressing effect on our morale….
‘By this time we were able to make a count of the number of tanks and we made it thirty-two. They were mostly Mark 3's and 4's with a few small Italian tanks to their rear in company with one huge Tiger. This was our very first view of this breed and it was most discouraging. This big chap, however, stayed well behind the others. All our men were well down by now and it was only by a rapid peep now and again that we could see what was going on. The commander of the leading tank was still perched on his turret when only some five hundred yards off but a sharp burst by a Maori on his Bren gun made him take to the inside of his tank very rapidly. At this stage they were nearly up to the tapes marking the edge of a dummy minefield and we wondered what the deuce was going to happen next….page 322
‘It was they who began the firing, suddenly opening up with all the guns they possessed. Explosive and incendiary bullets with tank shells for good measure…. We fairly burrowed into our holes all the deeper. One of our spare men was hiding behind a sangar, but not for long. A shell hit it and he stood not on the order of his going. He just went….
‘The leader of the tanks then … turned toward the left closely followed by three others. This was the signal for the anti tank wallahs to get going and this they did with the most remarkable results…. With their very first shots the gunners set the leader on fire. The other three got the same treatment in double quick time, two of them burning and the last one knocked out properly. As the crews of the flamers tried to get out we got going on them with the Vickers but they gave us the slip and dived into a small wadi just behind them…. the Hun had evidently had enough because he began throwing smoke bombs and started a retreat…. One fellow remained behind, however, and he engaged the two anti tank guns [while] his friends made off. This little duel … looked for all the world like a tennis game with everyone peering over the edge of their slit trench watching the contestants. Then, he too made off…. A truly grand victory from the Tommy gunners…. The way in which they held their fire was an example to us all. The range when they began firing was only about 350 yards at the most.
‘As the Hun went back up the wadi our artillery started up just to help them on their way. They were having no success until suddenly we saw a small tank get a direct hit and just disintegrate into small bits.’
Lieutenant Gibson and several others went out from 3 Platoon to examine the knocked-out tanks—Gibson says ‘to count scalps and incidentally get ourselves some loot. We were bending over a wounded German when about a dozen Jerries rose up behind a stone wall 50 yds or so away. We were just wondering what the answer to that one was when a PI of 28 Bn came over the crest behind us and thanks to their timely arrival the prisoners came quietly.’
‘I am not too sure,’ says Corporal Gardiner, ‘that we had the situation under control [before the Maoris arrived] … a German officer pulled the trigger on Lieutenant Gibson, but the pistol, a small automatic, was jammed with dirt.’
Later in the morning 3 Platoon opened fire on what appeared to be German infantry forming up in dead ground about 2000 page 323 yards up the wadi. To the Maoris' disappointment, no attack developed from that direction. A group which started off at company strength was 11 Platoon's target. ‘This company, or rather the survivors,’ says Cramond,1 ‘took shelter in and behind a large white building which, according to my fire control chart, was 750 yards from our guns. As this could mean trouble, 11 called up Arty. fire. No further bother was experienced.’
Aircraft dodged and dived overhead and bombed ‘all over the place. Damned hard it was, too, distinguishing his planes from ours,’ wrote Ffolliott-Powell. ‘About 3.30 20 MEs & 16 Stukas came over together & dropped all their bombs away over to our right. Just after, a big mob of our fighter bombers went over & gave him a taste of his own medicine.’
Cramond assisted the artillery during the day by observing and correcting its fire. In the late afternoon, when the enemy attacked again, the whole divisional artillery concentrated on a large body of German and Italian troops with devastating fire. Corporal MacLean, who was with 11 Platoon's left-hand section, saw ‘masses of infantry debussing from trucks or troop carriers’ on the forward slope of the ridge about 2000 yards away. ‘We were not supposed to open fire till enemy infantry were practically on top of us but I'm sure we opened up on these when the arty got on to them. It looked a real massacre. Most of those who got away left the way they came, but a few kept on running till they disappeared from view under a crest.’
Private Andrews, who was in the right-hand section, says, ‘I fired 2 belts at them before they went to ground behind a ridge. All were disappointed that they didn't come on for we'd have slaughtered them.’
‘This time,’ says Ffolliott-Powell, ‘[the enemy] left the wadi severely alone and came in to our left and right. We left them alone till they were about 2000 yards off and then began firing. Naturally they took all the cover that could help but they had to come over several slopes and each time they appeared they ran right into our fire. We kept two men very busy bringing up more ammunition for half an hour and then the artillery took a hand in the fun. Our guns were getting quite hot by this time so we stopped firing for a while…. [The artillery] put down a lovely barrage…. their range was perfect. We had the box seat and saw them search out every little wadi and reverse slope. Then we spotted Jerry trying to set up an O.Pip so we page 324 switched to that and gave them the works and broke up that huddle. Truly these Vickers are a grand job in such cases. By this time, however, the artillery had done so much firing that the target was totally obscured so we stopped firing again and left them to it…. The advance stopped with [the enemy] hardly firing a shot other than with their Spandaus, whose bullets we could hear whistling over our heads.
‘Jerry had had enough…. He stayed where he was and dug himself in. All night we could hear him and cursed him for disturbing our sleep. With the dawn we fully expected a renewal of the attack but like the Arab of old he had stolen off in the middle of the night, apparently only leaving parties to dig graves for his dead. When we went out front later there was plenty of evidence of the accuracy of the artillery's shooting. Also one of the boys picked up a helmet with nearly a dozen holes in it, so we, too, must have done our share of the slaughter.’
That night, when the enemy withdrew to the fortifications of the Mareth Line, he left fifty-two tanks and many men on the battlefield. In this one-day battle—considered to be a model defensive battle—the only Vickers that did any shooting were those of 3 and 11 Platoons. Only one man in 4 Company (Private Mottram2) was wounded, and he stayed with his unit.
In his last battle before he left North Africa, Rommel had failed in his attempt to interrupt Eighth Army's preparations for an offensive against the Mareth Line. Thirtieth Corps was to deliver the frontal attack, and the New Zealand Division— built up and titled New Zealand Corps—was to make a wide turning movement around the enemy's western flank, a detour of 180 miles. The Long Range Desert Group had found a passage (Wilder's Gap) through the Monts des Ksour south-west of Foum Tatahouine; from Wilder's Gap the ‘left hook’ involved a long trek northwards to Tebaga Gap, a defile about two miles wide and four miles long between Djebel Tebaga and Djebel Melab. To outflank the Mareth Line the New Zealand Corps would have to force its way through Tebaga Gap, where the enemy was known to have disposed those troops he could spare from his main position.page 325
Lieutenant-Colonel McGaffin, at short notice, was given command of the reconnaissance party which was to go through Wilder's Gap and lay out the Corps' assembly area on the other side. He set out in his car on 9 March, accompanied by the Intelligence Officer (Lieutenant Pleasants) with a Vickers gun in a jeep, the battalion provost in a 15-cwt, and a section of Divisional Provost. Next day they reached the turn-off point on the road south of Foum Tatahouine, but had great difficulty, because of the many steep-sided watercourses, in finding a suitable track through the pass. One of the provost trucks following the machine-gunners' three vehicles was blown up on a mine.
They met some of General Leclerc's Fighting French, who had had a brush with the enemy in this area the previous day. McGaffin and Pleasants, in the jeep (driven by Private Miles4), went out into the open country beyond the pass, where they saw what appeared to be a German reconnaissance car about half a mile away. Wisely they lay low.
The ‘left hook’ at Mareth
By 11 March some engineers had cleared the mines from the route, the provost had put out the diamond signs, and the assembly area had been marked out a short distance beyond page 326 the gap. Sixth Brigade arrived that night and was under camouflage by daybreak, and the other formations came in during the next few nights. Although a German reconnaissance plane flew over, the enemy was unaware that the Corps was assembling in this locality.
In country ablaze with a profusion of wild flowers, the troops rested and trained. One hot day, when 1 Company, every man loaded with equipment or ammunition, marched for three hours, occupied a position and did a practice shoot, many were so fatigued that they had to make their way back to camp independently. ‘But it did nobody any permanent harm,’ says Captain Joseph.
With the armoured cars of the King's Dragoon Guards and Divisional Cavalry leading 8 Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand brigades and the Fighting French, the Corps began its northward dash in the evening of 19 March. Despite the rough going over wadis and dunes, the pace was fast, and by nightfall on the 20th the leading troops were within sight of Tebaga Gap.
The tanks were held up next day by minefields and an anti-tank ditch stretching across the valley at its narrowest point. These defences ran more or less parallel to an old Roman wall, in front of which a hill (Point 201) covered the approaches. General Freyberg decided to breach the line with an infantry assault and to push the armour through.
Although he had been told that 2 Company's Vickers would not be required for 6 Brigade's attack that night, Captain Moore in his jeep (driven by Private Lynch5) followed ‘at a discreet distance’ when the brigade orders group was reconnoitring. After they had returned to Brigade Headquarters, Brigadier Gentry asked Moore if he knew where the start line was to be. Moore said he did, and was told that, as the Intelligence Officer (Captain Ball) was not about and it was getting dark, he had better guide the provost who were to mark the route to the start line with lights.
‘So my driver & I set off followed by a Provost truck with steel posts and lamps. Having gone about a mile we met our own tanks coming back for the night. Then after a couple more [miles] the Provost ran out of lamps and had to go back for more. We pushed on to the start line where we found Capt Ball and his party laying tape along where [25 and 26] Bns were to start.’page 327
The Brigadier, who came up in his dingo, decided that he wanted to use the machine guns after all, but not before 11 p.m. in case they should add to the vehicle congestion. Moore sent Lynch back to bring up the company, and while waiting, ‘decided to go up with the inf. for a certain distance to get the lay of the land. After the preliminary arty bombardment the inf. moved forward in silence as there was no answering fire from the enemy…. I heard one of the engineers who was responsible for cutting the wire yell out. Give me a B— Bangalore! Then the enemy opened up with about 1506 machine guns. These were firing to cover their front in a perfect pattern of interlacing fixed lines. However the silly fools were using so much tracer (one in five) that all they did was pin down our fellows for about 15 mins. Then they crawled under the lines wherever there was a hollow in the ground. Located the guns by tracer and rooted them out with bayonet and grenade. The two battalions captured Point 201 and the defences south of the Roman Wall, together with over 800 prisoners.
Moore and the brigade transport officer (Captain Bethell7) were asked to deliver a message to the commander of 8 Armoured Brigade requesting that the tanks should go through the minefield as soon as possible to exploit 6 Brigade's success. ‘Dick Bethell,’ says Moore, ‘took me in his P.U. over to the Armour which were about 2 miles to the rear of Bde HQ. The tanks of HQ were drawn up in a tight circle. When we had penetrated this on foot we found a number of folding camp stretchers set up full of sleeping officers. I called out asking if the Brigadier was there and one of the figures sat up in bed and said he was the Brigadier. I passed the message making sure that I was understood. Then he replied that he had had his orders and he would move his tanks forward at first light. As the message was in the form of a request we could not press the point. We were both rather disappointed when we saw him lie down again and pull the clothes over his shoulder.’
By dawn the enemy had brought artillery into position facing the breach 6 Brigade had made in his line. The British armour passed beyond the Roman Wall, but was prevented from going farther by 88-millimetre guns firing at long range and other page 328 anti-tank guns closer to the breach. Groups of German tanks appeared, and it was confirmed in the afternoon that 21 Panzer Division had arrived on the New Zealand Corps' front.
Meanwhile, after delivering the message to the tank commander, Moore returned to Brigade Headquarters and called at the ADS nearby, which was being shelled. A padre was very concerned because there would not be enough blankets for the wounded who were being brought in. When 2 Company arrived, the men stripped some of their blankets from their bedrolls, and while they were doing this, Brigadier Gentry called, ‘Moore, have your MGs arrived yet?’ The Brigadier in his dingo immediately led 5 and 6 Platoons to 25 Battalion (on the left), and Moore took 4 Platoon over to the right flank of the 26th.
On the northern slope of Point 201, 6 Platoon heard voices while digging in with the 25th, and at dawn saw the enemy on a ridge 1500 yards away. The enemy opened up with 47-millimetre guns, but was forced to retire behind a fold in the ground by fire from all four Vickers, which also engaged vehicles up to two miles away. In mid-morning a Crusader tank occupied the ridge in front of the platoon and blew up one of the 47-millimetre guns, whereupon 200 Italians surrendered. On the eastern slope of Point 201, 5 Platoon, in support of A Company 26 Battalion, also found targets among enemy positions and vehicles. As soon as it was light, 4 Platoon, with B Company 26 Battalion on two hillocks on the right flank, opened fire on four 75-millimetre guns on a hill about a mile away; these enemy guns managed only one or two shells in retaliation during the day.
Moore found the infantry of B Company ‘very busy trying to make a number of captured Italian Machine Guns work. … We managed to get about thirty functioning. Also in our area were four 75 mm guns complete with unlimited supplies of both A.P. and H.E. ammo. As this flank was rather exposed and overlooked from the right I thought it would be a good idea to man these guns and let the boys have some practice firing at some sangers dotted about a ridge on the right at ranges from 1000x to 1500x. As far as we knew the sangers were empty.
‘After about fifteen minutes of what we thought was only target practice there was a sudden waving of white flags from our targets. So two infantry boys with tommy guns walked out and covered by the Ity guns and m.gs and Lt Titchener's pn [4 Platoon]. They had only gone about a couple of hundred page 329 yards when the whole hillside seemed to vomit men. About 200 Itie prisoners.’
In the evening 6 Brigade occupied the ground won by the armoured brigade during the day. While 4 Platoon gave covering fire for half an hour, B Company 26 Battalion advanced towards a high ridge on the eastern flank. Before reaching the objective the company heard what were believed to be tanks and infantry moving along a wadi, and took cover to await developments. After the agreed time had elapsed, 4 Platoon, thinking that the infantry was on the objective, went forward to help consolidate. The platoon's six trucks drove to the foot of the hill, and Lieutenant Titchener, Sergeants Pye and Evans, and Private Woodhall began the stiff climb to reconnoitre. Although surprised to find none of the infantry at the top, Titchener continued towards a field gun. He was challenged by an Italian sentry, whom he shot, and he and his party, with cries of ‘Infantry—where are you?’ and ‘Come out you bastards!’, rounded up thirty-five Italians and captured four 75-millimetre guns and two Bredas.
‘The cream of the story to my mind,’ says Sergeant Gould, who arrived on the scene soon afterwards, ‘is the picture of Shorty Woodhall with 20/30 Ities lined up in front of him while the rest look for more, mouthing terrible threats and threatening them the while with nothing other than the Verey pistol which contained the green flare to bring the boys up the hill with their guns.’
By the time the infantry arrived the situation was completely in hand. For this action and his subsequent handling of his guns at Tebaga Gap, Titchener was awarded the MC.
Meanwhile 5 Platoon went a short distance forward of Point 201 with A Company 26 Battalion, and later moved to C Company, which occupied a position between A and B Companies, about half a mile beyond the Roman Wall. The 25th Battalion pushed out the brigade flank farther to the west, and 7 Platoon (as well as 6) was placed in its support.
The enemy approached on the eastern (right) flank in the early hours of the 23rd. Two infantry sections posted on the southern side of the Roman Wall, assisted by 4 Platoon firing on fixed lines, pinned him down until dawn, when it was discovered that he had dug in on the other side of the wall. He began sniping, and with well-directed mortar fire, compelled 4 Platoon to move its guns, and most of B Company to take cover on the southern slopes of the ridge. The machine-gunners, page 330 before they left, blew up with sticky bombs the four field guns they had captured the previous evening. Although the mortar and small-arms fire made 4 Platoon change its position again in the afternoon, its guns continued to engage the enemy and strengthen the flank.
That evening 24 Battalion moved into the line on the left of the 25th, and was joined there by 9 Platoon. As 8 Platoon had gone to 26 Battalion earlier in the day, all six platoons of 2 and 3 Companies were now supporting 6 Brigade. Next day they engaged any targets they could find, including observation posts and the crews of anti-tank guns.
Late in the afternoon of the 24th Sergeant Fraser and Private Mulcahy,8 of 5 Platoon, set out to reconnoitre a steep hill (Point 184). ‘Bob and I,’ says Mulcahy, ‘got the shock of our life when after climbing up … we spotted the top half of 2 Hun heads in a slit trench about 25 yards away and on the backward slope. We just walked firing with our Tommy Guns from the hip, towards the trench. Bob stopped about 10 yards short of the trench went down on one knee to re-load and I went on and persuaded one of the occupants to step out of the trench—about 4' 6' deep—a bit of a contract so I helped him and his cobber came too. Apparently the firing woke all the other residents up and an officer showed himself about 40 yards away and he had a few pot shots at us. For shelter if nothing else we walked backwards and had our “new finds” walking towards us until we were all below the crest of the hill. The main thing worrying me was the empty magazine on my Tommy Gun. I took the Huns9 down to the base of the hill and Bob after coming part way down decided to go back and get the officer chap. Bob almost reached the crest when a shot rang out and he dropped like a stone.’
In the evening, when two platoons of D Company 26 Battalion attempted to capture Point 184, Captain Moore and Mulcahy went to see what they could find out about Fraser. ‘From a short distance away,’ says Moore, ‘we saw D Coy 26 Bn walk in single file up a clearly defined track. They were met near the top by a sustained burst from one MG.’ The attack did not succeed. It was another twenty-four hours before Moore and Mulcahy were able to get up on to the narrow ledge where Fraser's body lay.page 331
Thirtieth Corps’ frontal assault on the Mareth Line had not gone well, and by 23 March General Montgomery had decided to switch his main thrust to Tebaga Gap. Headquarters 10 Corps and 1 Armoured Division, therefore, were ordered to that front. New Zealand Corps was to blast a passage through the Gap for 1 Armoured Division, which was to capture El Hamma. For this operation, supercharge II, 1 and 3 Companies were allotted to 6 Brigade, and 2 and 4 Companies to the 5th.
First of all the enemy had to be cleared from Point 184, which gave observation over the whole front and enfiladed the proposed start line. The 21st Battalion, with very strong artillery support, attacked at 1 a.m. on the 26th and within two hours secured the whole objective.
The mortars and machine guns (10 Platoon) then went up to help consolidate. Lieutenant Wells says the platoon ‘moved forward over rough country as close to the feature [Point 184] as our trucks could get. We debussed with the minimum of gun gear and personal equipment, but with every round of ammo we had, as an infantry counter attack was considered a certainty.’ The trucks were dispersed in a wadi, a picket was left with them, and the rest of the platoon carried all the ammunition and equipment up the steep slope. ‘This was a hard job well done.’ The sections were sited about 50 yards apart, on a forward slope in very broken ground, with the infantry on both flanks and also between them. The digging was in almost solid rock, but after getting down a few inches and building up with rocks, and with some natural camouflage, the gunners were quite confident of their ability to deal with a counter-attack on their front.
‘With daylight came a real do-over by the enemy, shelling, machine-gunning and mortaring. This went on almost without a break all day and there was little chance of doing much shooting as it was a case of “heads down”.’ Corporal Rawson10 was wounded in the head, but was able to make his own way out. Aircraft strafed the platoon's transport and set fire to a gun truck, which became a total loss. The shelling continued until dark, and then ‘an uneasy and uncomfortable night was spent and false alarms of enemy attacks were frequent.’
Tebaga Gap, 26–27 March 1943
The 25th Battalion, which made a diversionary attack on the left flank to draw hostile fire from the 24th, was supported by overhead fire from 1 Company, whose guns had joined the battalion the previous night. ‘We did not arrive in 25 Bn area until after dark and it was about midnight by the time that the C.O. (Tom Morten11) was located,’ writes Captain Joseph. ‘He page 333 showed me 2 pl. posns. on the ground and I left Aislabie [2 Platoon] and Rollinson [1 Platoon] to dig in & camouflage while I went back with Gibson [3 Platoon] to his posn. Morten wanted a pl. to support an inf. pl. occupying a small elevated feature further to the right. At first light I found … that Aislabie & Rollinson were on the forward slopes of the ridge in full view of the enemy. Fortunately, their camouflage was good & I had them both on telephone. I told them to “lie doggo” until the attack started. As soon as things started, Gibson, who now had no task, was brought forward and went into action on the crest of the ridge….’
Gibson's platoon did not have time to dig in and came under fire. ‘The noise is terrific, shells are dropping all around also small arms fire,’ wrote Sergeant Taylor. ‘One dropped a yard from one of my guns, badly wounding Pete Henry12 & Ffolliott- Powell….’
‘The arty barrage stirred up so much dust that observed fire was not on,’ adds Joseph, ‘but we peppered the ridge behind the enemy FDL's to some effect. We couldn't see what was going on to our right, if we had been able to, I have no doubt that we would have had some good shooting.’
About half an hour after the attack began 3 Platoon, whose vehicles were handy, was sent to the battalion's right flank, where the advance was reported to be held up by tanks and infantry. ‘The two tanks withdrew just as we arrived,’ says Gibson, who placed one Vickers section on the ground and went forward himself with a machine-gunner and a section of infantry, under covering fire from the two guns, to what appeared to be an abandoned infantry position, where forty or fifty Italians, who had been deserted by their officers, were only too pleased to surrender.
The Germans put up a determined fight in the centre of the Corps front, but 23 and 24 Battalions reached their objectives and by 6 p.m. the blitzkrieg had succeeded. The 1st Armoured Division passed through the breach, and when the moon rose, began its advance to El Hamma. New Zealand Corps was to rejoin the armour in the Hamma area, but first had to destroy the enemy who still held out in the hills.
The Maoris had been checked by a strongly defended hill (Point 209) on the right flank, and a fierce struggle for the page 334 possession of a lower feature (which the Maoris called ‘Hikurangi’), on the western side of 209, lasted through the night; it was there that Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu13 won the VC.
Elsewhere the enemy appeared to be retreating in the morning of the 27th. From daybreak 10 Platoon (with 21 Battalion near Point 184) found many good targets from 1500 yards to extreme range, and its three Vickers (the fourth had been knocked out by shellfire) and one Bren gun were busy shooting at infantry, observation posts, mortar and machine-gun nests, motor cycles, trucks, troop-transporters, self-propelled guns, staff cars, anti-tank weapons in tow, and armoured cars. ‘At one stage,’ says Wells, ‘we kept the crew of a big assault gun pinned to the ground for about an hour, thus preventing them from coming into action against our transport. Opposition was not very heavy and we certainly kept the enemy quiet…. Total ammunition expended was 26,000….’
After repeatedly counter-attacking the Maoris on Hikurangi, the Germans eventually fell back to Point 209. From its dug-in position south-west of Hikurangi 11 Platoon could see the enemy on 209 and had some good shooting at ranges of about half a mile until the margin of safety was reached. Unfortunately the barrels of one or two guns were worn, and the bullets began to fall among the Maoris, who of course asked the platoon to stop the shoot. To give the Maoris additional machine-gun support 4 and 5 Platoons were put in line with 11 Platoon ‘along a low ridge so that they could cover Pt 209 and yet be slightly decrested from it.’ They went into action at daybreak.
The artillery fired several devastating concentrations on 209. Soon after this the Maoris were ordered to cease fire while a German doctor and three stretcher-bearers, all wearing Red Cross armbands and carrying a large Red Cross flag, were led into Headquarters 28 Battalion, where the doctor explained that he had ninety badly wounded men on the other side of the hill and had run out of bandages and medical supplies. Arrangements were made to bring the German wounded into the Maori Battalion lines, and about midday a long procession of men, some walking and some on stretchers, arrived safely. The wounded were followed by about twenty Germans who were not wounded but wanted to surrender; they said that others wanted to surrender but were afraid of being shot if they came over, and that the garrison of Point 209 was short of ammunition and supplies. Colonel Bennett decided to attack immediately.page 335
The assaulting company of Maoris was forced to ground by sweeping machine-gun fire, but with the assistance of a Bren carrier mounting a machine gun on each flank, and supporting fire from the Vickers below, charged the hill. The Germans soon began to surrender; any who attempted to continue resisting were dissuaded by the machine-gun fire.
This included fire from 12 Platoon, which had deployed on 23 Battalion's right flank at the final objective (north of Point 209) but had been forced to retire before it could go into action in that position. It then went back behind a small hillock, where it was able to bring fire to bear on Point 209 for about twenty minutes, but before the guns could be dug in there they were outflanked and came under fire from three tanks. The platoon then took up a third position, which proved satisfactory, despite shell and mortar fire, and with indirect fire covered Point 209 from end to end shortly before the Germans surrendered.
The machine-gunners had few casualties. Private Gordon14 was killed and four men wounded, Private Chisnall15 fatally, in 9 Platoon, which had gone into position with the infantry on 24 Battalion's objective. The enemy guns, says Corporal Nunnerley,16 ‘were trying to get a squadron of tanks that were passing the entrance to the wadi that we were in. The shells were going over the tanks, who were moving up towards the German lines, & were falling in our positions…. we were just pulling out in the morning after breakfast, we had left our dug in positions to take our gear back to the trucks … when the shelling started.’
A strong gunline checked 1 Armoured Division two or three miles short of El Hamma, and the enemy kept open the Hamma- Gabes bottleneck long enough to extricate the greater part of his forces from the Mareth Line.page 336
New Zealand Corps began to advance from Tebaga Gap on 28 March; 5 Brigade Group moved separately as a flank guard on a more easterly route. After the Corps had gone a few miles along the El Hamma road, however, plans were changed and it was directed towards Gabes, on the coast, which meant going around the south of Djebel Halouga. Progress was slow along very dusty tracks through very broken country. Aircraft bombed and strafed the column more than once. The brigade halted south of Djebel Halouga in the late afternoon while the tanks were in action against the retreating panzers. Next morning the enemy had gone and the advance was resumed.
Fifth Brigade Group cut across the front of the main Corps column, and led by Brigadier Kippenberger with an advanced guard—Robertson Force, consisting of one 17-pounder anti-tank gun, some six-pounders, 5 Platoon (accompanied by Captain Moore) and two armoured cars of the King's Dragoon Guards— made a fast pace along the road to Gabes. A screen of carriers could not keep up.
‘We carried on until we could see the palm-groves round Gabes and in the distance the sea and the road from Mareth,’ says the Brigadier. ‘To my disappointment the road was empty. Directly ahead was a long ridge topped by a line of prominent pill-boxes, the defences of Gabes. It was a day for taking risks so I lined up my six-pounders and machine-guns on a parallel ridge 1,000 yards away, just as if it was the battle of Waterloo. … we opened fire on the pill-boxes with great gusto…. the six-pounders scoring hits with every shot….’18 The Vickers also fired a few bursts, but the enemy had gone. Moore says ‘we were very relieved to find that these concrete emplacements were not manned.’ The armoured cars moved off at high speed through the pill-boxes and on into Gabes, followed by the rest of the advanced guard; they were the first Eighth Army troops to enter the town, the first to liberate an Allied town. They were just too late to stop the fleeing enemy from demolishing the bridge over a stream. Soon, however, the townspeople, many of whom were French, were happily at work building a stone causeway.
‘Just after passing through Gabes,’ says Moore, ‘we came to a crossroad. The road ahead was built up on an embankment for a couple of miles, through what seemed to be a salt pan or mud flat. At a distance of 2 to three miles away we could see the road disappear into a grove of date palms. That stretch page 337 of road was without any form of cover. So we decided to make a gun line of the Vickers & 6 prs while the armoured cars had a look at the grove across the swamp. As they pushed on Mjr Robertson19 and I saw approx 30 vehicles moving from our left across our front on a low ridge about 2000 yds off. On going to engage them we found that we had one Vickers and one anti-tank gun available as the remainder of our vehicles had been held up at the blown crossing some distance back.
‘We fired at the trucks but all the result as far as we could see was their sudden acceleration.
‘After waiting for some time after the remainder of our guns had arrived and had been put in position we decided to pack up and push on.’ The vehicles were all drawn up on the crossroads when two armoured cars were seen approaching along the road on the right. They were about 100 yards away. ‘For a moment we thought that they were our own cars returning by a different route. However they were Italians who fortunately thought we were Germans. We did not at the moment realise this and the long barrels of their 20 mm Bredas looked anything but friendly.’
Lynch leapt out of the jeep to assist unhitch a six-pounder and Moore drove out to the right in an attempt to divert the enemy's attention. The first six-pounder shot, at seventy paces from the gun muzzle, set fire to the second armoured car. Although also hit, the other armoured car went flat out to the corner, turned right and opened fire with twin tail guns as it drove past the column of vehicles. By this time Moore had gone into action with the Vickers on his jeep. ‘Then another 6 pdr came up by me and fired a few shots. Another “brewup”. However both crews got out though one poor devil ran across the road without his feet.’
The next vehicle to come from the rear was a staff car containing Lieutenant-Colonel Romans.20 ‘We told him the score and warned him of the mines. He set off at a good pace across to the grove of date palms, he got about two thirds across and then came back at an even better pace. As we had suspected, enemy elements had let our armoured cars go through and were waiting with MGs for soft skinned vehicles. Later the artillery put over a few rounds and we were able to cross.’
6 Over 100 machine guns were listed among the weapons captured in this attack.
9 They were reported to be the first two Germans captured in this sector.