Episodes & Studies Volume 2
TAKROUNA was garrisoned by a company from 21 Battalion under Captain Roach and was firmly held during the ensuing operations at Enfidaville. Roach, who had been up to the west side of Takrouna during the day looking for wounded from 21 Battalion, and who had directed the artillery on to enemy positions still in that area, had been at Headquarters 5 Brigade to get instructions for the night attack now cancelled. This final task, the garrisoning of Takrouna, was fitting climax to forty-eight hours of unceasing effort.
The final objectives of the Takrouna battle were not captured until the end of the war in Africa, but Takrouna itself became the key to the firm line held by Eighth Army while the final blows were delivered by First Army in the north. The action of 5 Brigade provides a fruitful field for the study of soldiers on the battlefield. It is clear that the burden of fighting is not shared by all—some lack the necessary spirit, some the required skill. All, however, are necessary to give expression to the outstanding qualities of those who direct and wage the battle: qualities of firm leadership, of sound infantry craftsmanship, of determination, and of sustained courage.
During the critical stages of the first night of the battle the necessity for flexible command was demonstrated. The losses on the west side of Takrouna were cut and all effort was concentrated on the east side, exploiting the uncertain measure of success in that sector. From that moment the attack became the battle for Takrouna, the vital ground. From near-disaster Takrouna was wrested to the lasting glory of the troops engaged.
General Freyberg called the battle the hardest operation in the North African campaign. Brigadier Weir, the CRA, when commenting on the battle, said ‘… it is a wonderful story of infantry doggedness, skill, and bravery’. It was not, however, a cheap victory, as the following casualties suffered by 5 Brigade will show. The figures represent killed, wounded, and missing, and the assaulting strengths of the battalions are given in brackets.
|21 Bn||7 (19)||164 (341)|
|23 Bn||8 (20)||108 (363)|
|28 (Maori) Bn||12 (17)||104 (302)|
|32 A Tk Bty||1||2|
|2 MG Coy||3||5|
|4 MG Coy||-||2|
|7 Fd Coy, NZE||-||1|
During the action 5 Brigade had captured 732 prisoners, 164 of these being German. The enemy units identified had been from Trieste and Folgore Divisions, and from 104 and 47 Panzer Grenadier Regiments. On the Takrouna feature itself the enemy equipment captured included two British 25-pounders, one 50-millimetre anti-tank gun, nine 20-millimetre Bredas, 72 heavy and 50 light machine guns, six mortars, and four motor vehicles. This tally did not include the enemy equipment destroyed during the battle.page 29
The enemy, too, regarded the battle as an epic feat of arms, as the following translation will show:
…. When I had inspected our defensive system I had immediately seen the importance which Takrouna hill could have in the general defensive scheme, though far advanced and almost detached from the main positions. I planned to make it an independent strongpoint whose function would be to break the first impetus of the enemy attack and divert it towards the re-entrants in the coastal and central sectors. I therefore gave orders for the small amount of material available to be used to strengthen the natural defences of this rock, and for enough food and ammunition to be dumped there to enable the garrison to hold out for a long time even if completely surrounded. I was certain that the defenders of such an outpost needed great tenacity and will to resist, and so in an endeavour to rouse the spirit of emulation I included a platoon of Germans in the garrison, gave orders to hold out to the last, and issued a statement to the German-Italian battle group entrusting the outpost to their honour as soldiers.
I reproduce here a letter I received from General La Ferla (commander of Trieste Division) on 18 April:
To His Excellency General Messe, 1 Army Commander
This morning, in your name and the name of the Motherland, in the presence of representatives of the Takrouna garrison, I handed over the German and Italian troops of the garrison to the outpost commander, who gave his oath that Takrouna would be defended to the last man, according to your orders.
(Signed) La Ferla
The Takrouna garrison comprised 1/66 Infantry Regiment and the German platoon mentioned above, a troop of 65-millimetre guns, and one of captured 25-pounder guns of 16 Artillery Regiment.
The enemy's preliminary barrage was terrific. It lasted from 11 p.m. on 19 April until 6 a.m. next morning, when enemy infantry moved to the attack against Takrouna, Djebel Bir, Djebel Cherachir, and Djebel Froukr, supported by tanks.
The attack was so violent, and supported so strongly by continual waves of fresh troops, that the German strongpoint of Djebel Bir was overrun after a vigorous resistance. By its fall the enemy was assured of a jumping-off place from which to attack the height of Takrouna from the south-east. But our defenders, nobly supported by their own, the Corps and Army artillery, held firm against the tide which surged against the hill from the south-east and south-west. In the latter direction our accurate machine-gun fire mowed down the enemy ranks.
About 9 a.m., after a violent hand-to-hand struggle, our positions on the south-east of the height were overrun. The enemy then infiltrated on to the top of the mountain and into the tiny village which dominated it. Our battalion commander led a few men of his headquarters in counter-attacks to drive the attackers out.
This situation would have been untenable in face of the great numbers of the enemy still moving up (almost the entire 2 NZ Division) if fresh forces had not been on their way up to Takrouna. Folgore Battalion arrived to help us, having run the gauntlet of terrific shellfire on the way. Its grenadier company was the first to arrive, about 2 p.m., and then the other two companies of parachutists arrived about 4 p.m.
Moving with the vigour characteristic of our best shock troops, Folgore Battalion dislodged the enemy from house after house, pushed him back from rock to rock, hurled him down off the precipices on the eastern side of the mountain, and retook all the lost positions. The mopping- up took many hours, and not until nearly dawn on 21 April could the situation be regarded as completely restored.page 30
But the enemy did not cease his efforts to occupy Takrouna. Another violent barrage was fired, followed by new attacks by fresh troops.
From 5 p.m. that day the furious struggle on the mountain was carried on more at random than with any sort of direction, as all direct contact was lost, but there was no let-up in the fighting.
The same enemy who had at first advertised his capture of the outpost, and then contradicted his own words, was now puzzled to find such fierce resistance by every little group of our men, who preferred death to surrender.
The struggle went on from episode to episode all day on 22 April and all the night of 22-23 April. Not until the early hours of the 23rd did the enemy gain the mastery of the situation.
But at what a cost! The enemy himself admitted that his casualties were enormous, and that he actually did not have the troops available to launch any more attacks.
The battle in the Takrouna sector was over ….