Episodes & Studies Volume 2
23 Battalion captures Cherchir
23 Battalion captures Cherchir
23 Battalion had moved up behind 28 Battalion, and was soon aware that all was not going well with the attack. The small-arms and mortar fire did not diminish in intensity and, with artillery fire, caused some casualties. Colonel Romans was wounded and Captain W. B. Thomas29 took command, assuring his CO that he would carry out the Brigade Commander's instruction that the battalion would fight for its start line.
Calling on B and D Companies, which were leading, and giving orders that the remainder were to follow, Thomas got the men moving, firing to the front and shouting loudly. Lieutenant Haig of C Company, 28 Battalion, returning to find the rest of his men, met this advance head on and later said of it, ‘It was a particularly vociferous one, and I can assure you that it was a fearsome thing to encounter, specially when on one's own.’
But the method worked. Advancing in bounds of about 200 yards, going to ground together to fire concentrated bursts on machine-gun positions on Bir and Takrouna—picked out by the red tracer used by the enemy—stumbling against wires that were connected to weapon pits as a signal for the enemy to fire along them, dodging mines and booby-traps, the two companies broke through the valley and reached the road. Here a further effort was demanded, as Djebel Cherachir, immediately across the road, was obviously held by the enemy and the barrage had been lost.
By this time both B and D Companies were much reduced in strength, and despite repeated shouts to C and A Companies to come up, probably not heard in the commotion, the two rear companies had not followed. Thomas, after a quick check, found himself with 17 men in D Company and 20 in B Company. He decided not to wait but sent back the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant A. F. Bailey,30 to bring the other companies forward.
Lieutenant A. S. Robins,31 himself slightly wounded, who had taken command of B Company when Captain S. Wilson32 was wounded, was ordered to take the eastern slopes of Cherachir, while Captain H. C. Black33 was to take the western end of the same feature with D Company.
The shouting and yelling that Thomas had encouraged during the advance through the valley, partly to discourage the enemy, partly to keep up the spirits of the men, had died down. The crash of exploding shells, the sharper crunch of mortar bombs, the quick chatter of machine guns, and the sudden burst of light from a flare showing clearly the outline of the ridge ahead, were sufficient evidence that grim work remained.
Robins posted two Brens to cover his advance, and in complete silence led his company towards an abrupt gully running up the east end of Cherachir. Two parties of Germans fell back before the company, pausing at intervals to fire at the advancing men. The Brens, firing at the flashes, gave the enemy little chance for damaging fire, and there was no delay. The gully was very steep, rough and stony, but although it was clear that the enemy held entrenched positions on the crest the advance was not observed, despite flares and mortars fired right over the heads of the attackers. Once on the crest the main points of resistance were located farther along the ridge to the west, and to the east from the two parties of retreating Germans. Fortunately D Company claimed the attention of the position to the west, and the ‘mobile’ Germans were page 12 encouraged by rifle fire to continue their retreat. Robins sited his men just below the crest in an effort to avoid the shelling which soon started; some of the men were able to dig in, others prepared rough shelters behind boulders.
D Company had met greater opposition and had lost several men, including Captain Black —last seen rushing forward revolver in hand and found killed many days later—but had finally stormed the crest of Cherachir. All officers in the company had become casualties: Sergeant F. J. Muir34 commanded a platoon, then assumed the duties of CSM, and finally added a second platoon to his command, organising several short bayonet charges. Corporal W. S. Smellie35 commanded the third platoon for the last stage of the battle.
As had been the case with B Company on the eastern end of Cherachir, the men of D Company were forced to take cover from enemy shelling just below the crest of the ridge. They stayed there in one organised party for the rest of the night, with enemy troops occupying the northern slopes. Occasional enemy grenades were still being thrown over the crest at daybreak.
Meanwhile Thomas was organising the rest of the battalion as it arrived. For a while the situation possessed all the elements of a comic opera. The Germans were calling out to each other from Bir, Takrouna, and Cherachir, giving the impression that they were concerting some action against the battalion, but in all probability expressing anxious doubts as to their own safety. One armed party of about twenty went dashing past Thomas's headquarters and completely ignored the small group: it in turn was left alone. Three prisoners, the first of a steady trickle, were brought in, and Private W. D. Dawson36 was instructed to tell them in German to call out to their companions to surrender. This was done without result.
The situation gradually sorted itself out. Captain C. A. Slee37 came up with one platoon (Lieutenant H. Montgomery38) from C Company and went back to find the rest of his men, while the platoon cleaned out some remaining enemy positions on the south-east end of Cherachir. D Company, 28 Battalion, arrived. It had detoured the enemy opposition on the south and east of Takrouna and had come through the valley in complete silence, lying low whenever the enemy opened fire. Captain Ornberg, with many others, had been wounded. This company was sent to assist Montgomery, and after each party had mistaken the other for enemy troops, settled down facing Bir and Takrouna.
Other elements of 23 Battalion, collected by Lieutenant A. C. Marett39 from the confusion still present in the valley, together with small parties from 28 Battalion which readily agreed to fit in with Thomas's plans, gradually came up to the foot of Cherachir and were incorporated into the scheme for all-round defence. By morning Thomas had his men well sited for an expected counter-attack, but none was delivered and the troops were able to fire at remaining pockets of infantry within range, paying particular attention to enemy weapon pits behind them on the northern slopes of Takrouna. Fortunately, as the battalion had no supporting arms, the enemy made no move with his tanks.
Takrouna itself remained in enemy hands. This feature now became the focus of the Division's effort, for without its capture it would have been very difficult to keep the ground captured by 6 NZ Brigade and on the east side of the feature itself, and the guns would have been hopelessly exposed.page 13
5 BRIGADE SECTOR
Takrouna is in the left top corner, Djebel Bir (marked Bin) on the right. Djebel Cherachir is top right. The markings were made by the Brigadier after the attack and show the axes of advance of the 21, 23, and 28 Battalions
LOOKING NORTH FROM TAKROUNA
Djebel Cherachir is beyond the road. In the left foreground is a corner of the lower village
TAKROUNA from the start line
SHELL HOLE AT TAKROUNA made by 17-pounder anti-tank gun
AFTER THE BATTLE
Group of 5 BRIGADE STAFF
left to right) Lt R. D. Hoggans, Lt I. H. Hirst, Capt W. J. G. Roach, Maj M C. Fairbrother, Brig H. K. Kippenberger, Lt-Col R. W. Harding, Lt H. S. Wells behind Harding), Capt J. H. Ensor, Col R. C. Queree, Rev. Fr. J. F. Henley (at rear), Capt E. D. Blundell