Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

209 — General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

page 176

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

27 May 1943

I have the honour to report as follows on the operations in Tunisia. In my last cabled report sent from near Gabes on 5 April (No. 204) I described our ‘left hook’ which turned the Mareth Line. This short account, which I began in Tunis just five weeks later, tells the story of the part played by your Division in the last phase of Eighth Army's long advance and in the final great battle fought by British, American, and French forces to smash the Axis bridgehead and end the North African campaign.

On being turned out of the Mareth Line the enemy withdrew to a position on Wadi Akarit, closely followed by the New Zealand Division and the 1st British Armoured Division. It soon became clear that the enemy would endeavour to hold this line since any further withdrawal would open the way for Eighth Army to join hands with American forces advancing from Gafsa.

The position was naturally strong, with the sea on one side and impassable salt marshes on the other. A full-scale frontal attack was therefore necessary, and three infantry divisions, the British 50th, 51st (Highland), and 4th Indian, were deployed for the assault. At this stage the New Zealand Division was withdrawn into reserve and, with the British 1st Armoured Division, was given the role of breaking through once a breach was made.

From a nearby hill I watched Eighth Army concentrate for the attack. Continuous lines of transport were coming up the roads and over the entire landscape as far as the eye could see, tanks, guns, and trucks of a motorised army were assembled.

On 6 April the attack was launched. After heavy infantry fighting a bridgehead across the Wadi was won and the New Zealand Division, led by armoured cars of the King's Dragoon Guards, light tanks of the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, and heavy tanks of the British 8th Armoured Brigade, followed through. As soon as there was room to manóuvre we opened out into desert formation and advanced north, harassing the retreating enemy and cutting off considerable numbers. What remained of the Italian Saharan Corps, with General Mannerini and his complete staff, were amongst the prisoners.

On 7 April British armoured cars on our left met American troops advancing on Maknassy and the junction of Allied forces from the east and west, which the enemy had fought so long to prevent, was effected. With every hour our grip on the Tunis bridgehead was tightening.

page 177

Near Sfax, with more room to manóuvre, we planned another left hook. The enemy, however, anticipated this danger and retreated fast, leaving valuable installations and stores in the Sfax area intact. Sfax was occupied on 9 April and Sousse on the 12th. Our advancing forces met with little opposition, apart from the usual enemy rearguard artillery and sporadic attacks from the Luftwaffe, temporarily able to operate more freely because we had advanced beyond range of our own fighter cover. The advance continued as fast as ways could be found through very different country from the desert to which we were accustomed. We drove through beautiful olive groves and fields bright with scarlet poppies, yellow chrysanthemums, and marguerite daisies, and made fragrant by purple sweet night-scented stocks. This part of our move was memorable. The French people greeted our troops with great enthusiasm, throwing flowers to our men as they passed through towns decked with the flags of the Allies.

Advancing north of Sousse we were faced by the formidable mountain chain which forms a natural rampart protecting Tunis from the south and west. Here the forces of Arnim and Messe (who had succeeded Rommel) were preparing to meet the Allied assault. Heavily reinforced, the enemy held all the important passes and dominated every way of approach to Tunis.

In front of this natural stronghold Eighth Army deployed, linking up with other armies under the command of General Alexander, the entire force including most powerful air forces and the Navy operating as a single war machine under the direction of General Eisenhower.1 The encircling Allied forces were in four main groups: the American Corps switched from the Gafsa front was in the north, then the British First Army, then General Giraud's French Army, and lastly in the south the Eighth Army. The plan was to make the main attack on the First Army front where the ground favoured the use of tanks. Eighth Army's operations were planned to pin as many enemy troops as possible on the southern sector and thus help the main thrust in the north.

The enemy position opposite us was in great depth. The forward line lay at the base of steep hills with positions on spurs and peaks rising behind it. These highlands, rising out of a plain as flat as a billiard table, gave the enemy a commanding position with perfect observation over the country across which we had to attack. Surprise

1 General of the Army D. D. Eisenhower, Commander-in-Chief, Allied Forces in North Africa, 1942–44; Supreme Commander Allied Expeditionary Force in Western Europe, 1944–45; commanded United States occupation zone, Germany, 1945; Chief of Staff, United States Army, 1945–48; Supreme Commander, Allied Powers in Europe (North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) 1950—.

page 178 could only be obtained by assembling our attacking troops at night, which entailed bringing our artillery forward on to the plain on the night of the attack. The guns had to remain silent until zero hour, and we knew that if we did not gain our objectives they would be overlooked and would not be able to remain forward in daylight to support the infantry. Further difficulties for the attackers were two deep wadis, an old Roman viaduct, a minefield laid in barley fields, and giant cactus hedges, all of which had to be dealt with by our sappers and infantry before the vehicles with supporting arms could be got forward.

At midnight on 19 April Eighth Army began the Allied general offensive which for the next three weeks raged along the whole front. This attack was carried out by the New Zealand Division and the 4th Indian Division. We were on the coastal sector with the Indian Division on our left. We attacked with the 6th Brigade on the right (under the command of Brigadier Gentry) and the 5th Brigade on the left (under Brigadier Kippenberger). Our objectives were Takrouna feature and a long spur to the east of it. Following behind our infantry were tanks of the British 8th Armoured Brigade (under Brigadier Harvey) ready to go through at first light.

At the appointed hour the infantry went forward behind a heavy artillery barrage from our field and medium artillery and guns of other formations (under our CRA, Brigadier Weir). On the right the 6th Brigade made good progress, meeting only slight opposition, and German troops from the 90th Light Division left Enfidaville village without fighting. On the left, however, the 5th Brigade met fierce resistance. Takrouna was a rocky crag surmounted by a village, which from the plain below looked like some medieval castle. It had been turned into a fortress bastion of the enemy's Enfidaville line and, as we learnt later from prisoners, it was considered by the enemy to be impregnable. The fighting here was as hard as any experienced in the whole campaign. Most intense fire was met, many officers became casualties, every commanding officer in the 5th Brigade was wounded, communications broke down, and it was impossible to get clear reports of the situation. It was a night of anxiety for everybody. Could the guns be left out on the plain? Were the infantry supporting weapons getting forward? Reports came in that the infantry were advancing yard by yard and eventually we learnt that a small party from the Maori Battalion had scaled the cliff and gained a foothold in Takrouna village, while the 21st and 23rd Battalions were holding firm on either side of the feature. The 21st Battalion on the left had almost reached its objective but was withdrawn before daylight because its position was untenable with Takrouna untaken.

page 179

Throughout the next day, despite heavy fire, the flanks held, while in the village on the pinnacle of rock house-to-house and hand-to-hand fighting went on. Our foothold there vastly improved our artillery position by giving valuable observation over enemy positions, and despite the heavy artillery fire which blasted the top of the rock our OP1 officers remained there all day to direct the fire of our guns.

During the night of 20 April our line was consolidated and the 6th Brigade linked up with the sorely pressed 5th Brigade. All night grim fighting went on in Takrouna village, and next morning an enemy pocket was still holding out obstinately in the top houses of the village. It was finally sniped by a 25-pounder gun. Lower down on the west of the hill, Takrouna village remained firmly held. This position was battered by artillery all day on the 21st, and towards evening parties from the 21st and 28th (Maori) Battalions stormed the village, taking remnants of the garrison prisoner. Two field guns, ten small pieces, 72 machine guns, and many light machine guns and 732 prisoners were captured—a clear indication of the strength of the position.

The capture of Takrouna feature left us firmly established on a line which constituted an immediate threat to the rest of the enemy's Enfidaville line. Eighth Army's role at this stage was to maintain pressure all along the front and keep a large enemy force fully engaged on our sector. On 24 and 25 April the 6th Brigade (under Brigadier Parkinson), with tanks of the 8th Armoured Brigade in support, carried out two night advances and captured several more features which increased still further the dent in the enemy line. The enemy reacted violently but, despite counter-attacks and very intense artillery and mortar fire, our salient was firmly held.

Meanwhile, in the north the First Army attack had been launched on 23 April, and after extremely heavy fighting on the following days important heights were captured and the enemy's line bent back. At the end of the first week of our offensive no weakness had been revealed in the enemy defences on either the First or Eighth Army fronts, and we had nowhere captured the enemy main line of resistance. Our losses had been severe and it was obvious that more heavy blows would have to be struck before we could break through. On the Enfidaville front the nature of the country made it impossible to gain a penetration of more than a few miles in any single successful attack, but on the First Army front the topography was more favourable. It was at this stage that the Allied forces were regrouped for an all-out attack on the First Army sector by

1 Observation post.

page 180 two infantry divisions and two armoured divisions, assisted by simultaneous advances in the north and south by American and French forces. The New Zealand Division was relieved from the Takrouna front to support French operations in the direction of Pont du Fahs.

The new attack in the north could not have been unexpected, but under the weight of the combined blow of infantry and armoured divisions of the First and Eighth Armies, supported by very powerful artillery and air support, the enemy defences crumpled. From north to south the Allies advanced. The collapse was so sudden that Commanders suspected a trap, but it soon became clear that the enemy had become completely disorganised. Tunis and Bizerta were occupied and our armoured divisions swept across the base of the Cape Bon Peninsula before the enemy could regroup to face them.

On the southern flank of this attack, the New Zealand artillery had been very active supporting the French, and the 5th Brigade had made three night advances, capturing prisoners and equipment. In an enemy counter-attack on this front a company of the 28th (Maori) Battalion were surrounded and had to fight their way out. Next morning they counter-attacked, retook the position, and captured 75 prisoners—a characteristic operation to end the New Zealand Division's part in the battle.

The Allied success in the north had made the position of the large force of positional infantry on our front most precarious. On 11 May we sent a letter back with a German prisoner to General Graf von Sponeck, Commander of the 90th Light Division, pointing out that further resistance was useless. He refused to surrender unconditionally but did so next day when his headquarters was attacked from the rear by the British Armoured Division. On 12 May we picked up a wireless message to us from Marshal Messe, commanding the enemy First Army, which included the 90th Light Division, 164th Division, and 20th Italian Corps. Emissaries from both the German and Italian commanders came into our lines, and Marshal Messe, complete with his staff, surrendered unconditionally to me on 13 May. With him came General Liebenstein, commanding the German 164th Division. Resistance now ceased and white flags appeared everywhere. Many of the prisoners from the enemy First Army were collected by British forces striking south from Cape Bon Peninsula, but another 31,558 were taken on our Corps front. For many days prisoners, both German and Italian, were marching back to prisoner-of-war cages in the rear.

So ended the battle for North Africa, with a disaster for the enemy comparable to Stalingrad. The Tunis bridgehead, which the Germans had boasted would be held, was in our hands, and over 200,000 page 181 prisoners and great numbers of guns, tanks, and other weapons and equipment of all kinds were captured. The presence of ships of the Royal Navy actually in the Gulf of Tunis and continuous sweeps of Allied bombers successfully discouraged any attempt at evacuation by the Italian Navy, which did not put to sea. The whole Axis force in the Tunis bridgehead will be reported in Germany and Italy killed, wounded, or prisoner of war.

At the conclusion of this North African campaign I want to place on record the deep admiration I feel for the magnificent qualities and great work done by all ranks under my command. We have been fighting continuously for almost a year, battle after battle, with little respite, on hard rations and short supplies of indifferent water. The endurance and courage of all ranks under conditions of great discomfort and peril have been beyond praise and their resource, good humour, and wisdom have made them ideal material for a fast-moving, hard-hitting force such as ours. The Division has never faltered or failed in any of the difficult and hazardous missions it has been set, and no one realises as I do how much they have achieved. No commander has ever been better served.1

1 New Zealand casualties in North Africa from 22 Nov 1942–17 Sep 1943 were:

Died of wounds93
Died on active service(includes deaths through sickness, accident, &c.)74
Prisoners of war(includes 11 wounded and prisoners of war and 2 died of wounds while prisoners of war)47