2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Outflanking the Mareth Line
Outflanking the Mareth Line
The 64th Medium came under the CRA's command on the 11th and the day was also notable for the arrival of a huge armoured command vehicle (ACV) for Artillery Headquarters. This soon became a familiar landmark for visitors, the office equipment and records were moved into it, and it immediately became the scene of highly secret discussions of the Division's next move. With the enemy in or behind the powerful Mareth line, the Division was to stage another left hook and attack through the Tebaga Gap towards Gabes, thereby, if all went page 478 well, forcing the evacuation of the Mareth line. But this time, unlike the operations at Wadi Matratin and Nofilia, the enemy was to be pressed frontally so that he could not simply swing round and block the outflanking force. The forces involved on page 479 both sides, moreover, were to be far larger than in the earlier operations.
The first stage was to drive back along the coast road to Ben Gardane and then south-westwards through Foum Tatahouine to an assembly area 25 miles farther to the south-west, some 130 miles all told. The 6th Brigade moved first, on 11 March, then 5 Brigade next day and an artillery group and Divisional Reserve Group on the 14th. The force also included 8 Armoured Brigade, extra artillery, and some Free French detachments. All New Zealand insignia and vehicle markings were supposed to be removed. From Foum Tatahouine onwards the journey was to be by night.
Most gunners drove through Gardane by day and Tatahouine by night and they therefore preferred the latter, with its windmills, palms, its husky Arab voices in the night, and its hilly setting. Beyond it the road got steadily worse. Very bad patches were marked by lights, but the early moon gave a false sense of security. The 6th Field, which had already had a truck blown up by an anti-tank mine, injuring one man, in this later part of the journey had a gunner of 30 Battery killed when his quad overturned. Towards the end high conical hills were outlined against the setting moon in weird fashion. But by this time on most vehicles only the drivers were awake—and not all of those.
The 16th was a day of bewildering weather: rain, wind, lightning and spasmodic sunshine. Then, as the road had done, the weather got worse. The wind stayed up and the temperature dropped down and down. Rain lashed the vehicles in the assembly area and made a soggy mess of camouflage netting. In the night of the 19th, by the light of a nearly-full moon, with heavy clouds overhead and lightning towards Mareth, the Division moved on—or, rather, the New Zealand Corps, which included the Division. It moved in nine columns across the desert. The going was rough and many lorries stuck in the sand. Those that completed the journey—just over 30 miles—ended up facing almost due north, towards the Tebaga Gap, with Mareth to the north-east of them. A lance-bombardier of 47 Battery fell off a three-tonner on the way and suffered concussion. At the staging area, in the early hours of 20 March, F Troop of the 4th Field was sent to join the King's Dragoon Guards (KDGs), a reconnaissance unit.
The 20th seemed a more promising day. It started in bright sunshine and disclosed a magnificent assembly of vehicles con- page 480 spicuous against a background of dark scrub. There were low rises covered with tamarisk and low bushes and the distances seemed infinite. Locusts soon began swarming, just above the ground, then rising as if sucked upwards by the great clouds of locusts overhead, all swiftly flying in the general direction of Tunis. Here many gunners saw for the first time men of the Free French Forces under General Leclerc, from the Cameroons by way of Lake Chad. Immediately ahead was a deep wadi through which the vehicles would have to close up and 42 Light Ack-Ack Battery moved on to cover them as they did so.
After breakfast the New Zealand Corps moved again. The thumping of guns could be heard in the distance and it seemed at first a mad rush over bumpy ground to reach the source of the sound. Then rocky gullies, and later minefields, made the columns converge. More gullies and then the pace quickened once more until, in mid-afternoon, shells began to land behind Corps Headquarters. To the left there was a village looking like a fortress. It was near here that Kittyhawks of the United States Army Air Force bombed Artillery Headquarters, killing one man and wounding two others. The MT truck carrying all the first-line petrol reserve for Headquarters went up in flames. The total distance covered was not more than 40 miles, but it seemed much farther.