2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Advance to Gabes
The Advance to Gabes
The main body of the New Zealand Corps had meanwhile advanced slowly, first towards El Hamma and then, turning right, towards Gabes. Opposition on the ground was negligible, but air attacks on the bunched-up vehicles caused casualties, mainly to the infantry. Beyond the pass through the hills—the Djebel Halouga—the country opened out into a pleasant landscape of cultivated patches and well-covered hillocks smothered with flowers.
Following a southerly route into Gabes, the artillery with 5 Brigade had a brush with the retreating enemy before reaching the town. Lieutenant Holt's troop of 32 Battery opened fire at long range, after manhandling the guns up a steep crest, but the enemy quickly moved off. The 29th Battery of the 6th Field also dropped trails and fired a few rounds at enemy retreating through Gabes. The leading elements halted at a demolished bridge and, with the willing help of civilians, began to build a causeway across the shallow watercourse. When the brigade group reached the town, 42 Battery engaged FW190s which attacked vehicles crossing the causeway: D Troop with the 6th Field and E Troop with 21 and 23 Battalions both fired, but the Focke-Wulfs were elusive targets. The 6th Field records that, as it passed through the town ‘within the hour of its falling, the civilian population gave them a very warm reception with flowers and cheering. The tri-coleur [sic] was hoisted at various points’. Beyond the town Lieutenant Robertson14 led two page 487 6-pounders in pursuit of various tardy enemy detachments. This group came upon two Italian armoured cars, one of them at very close range indeed, and the 6-pounders disabled both of them.15 A section of H Troop with 17-pounders and F Troop with 6-pounders formed a gun line covering 5 Brigade for the night 29–30 March. Next day the 5th Field arrived and came under the command of 5 Brigade, the 6th Field reverting to the command of 6 Brigade, which was back towards Gabes.
Gabes, for those who had a chance to explore it, was the first really friendly town the gunners had seen since they left Greece. Most of them entered by driving past a line of modern, attractive homes whose inhabitants were much in evidence. They included many charming French girls who obviously enjoyed being the centres of attention. A well-known humorist of O Troop, 34 Battery, Sergeant Stark,16 had proclaimed to his gun team on many a tense occasion since the summer at Alamein that he would far rather see a girl on a bicycle than a German tank. When a pretty French girl on a bicycle appeared, therefore, she was at once surrounded by anti-tankers all in hearty agreement with Stark's preference. The western part of the town, beyond a thick belt of trees flanking a riverbed, was typically Arab. Beyond it roads led in several directions and traffic was dense on all of them. For a short distance the route passed through a semi-desert of white sand sprinkled with flowers. Then the vegetation thickened, and at the destination in the Bou Chemma area a few miles to the north, the humpy ground was covered with shrubs and a few trees and a sheer carpet of small sunflowers. As gunners strolled about this golden countryside their boots became covered with pollen and their trouser-legs turned yellow. There was much evidence of a hasty German evacuation. In several places cooking equipment had been abandoned intact with food in it ready to eat.
Hills ringed the skyline ahead and shellfire could be heard from time to time. The enemy was holding temporary positions covering the occupation of a highly defensible line along the Wadi Akarit, 15–20 miles past Gabes.
The 4th Field, at the head of the gun group, stopped for lunch at 11.45 a.m. on the 29th and Lieutenant-Colonel Philp and his battery commanders continued along the road to Gabes with the CRA, reaching the town about 1 p.m. At the village of page 488 Bou Chemma, the CRA ordered Philp to bring his regiment forward and the IO—now Rex Bartley, former RSM, who had been commissioned in the field—drove back with the message. The batteries had more trouble with the water crossing than the CRA's party, the day had turned wet and cold, and it was midnight before 26 and 46 Batteries settled in at Bou Chemma, having seen little of Gabes. RHQ, 25 Battery and the valiant Mac Troop were far back in the columns of vehicles and they travelled slowly, stopping and starting all night long.
There were several more brushes with enemy rearguards on 30 March. F Troop of the 4th Field was still with the KDGs17 and D Troop also joined them at first light. Both troops fired this day. D Troop fired at tanks and infantry in the open. They withdrew and the KDG squadron advanced. D Troop then went into positions in a plantation near Oudref and again fired on transport and guns. Advancing through a wadi, the group reached an anti-tank trench and D Troop fired on a mining party and a few vehicles. By the end of the day D Troop was in position on the left of the road in the Wadi Rekrama, firing on transport and guns in the Wadi Akarit. Its gun position was then on what became the main gun line for the attack on Akarit. F Troop records ‘slight shooting’ this day; but in the late afternoon the troop was recalled and rejoined the 4th Field in the evening.
Concurrently on 30 March, 46 Battery of the 4th Field was attached to the Divisional Cavalry. The 25-pounders fired briefly in the morning only. RHQ, 25 Battery and Mac Troop all moved forward in the morning and, though they were to the rear of 46 Battery, they found targets and fired throughout the afternoon, attracting some return fire. Then in the late afternoon and evening there was a flurry of enemy air activity. Five Ju88s page 489 came over first and Bofors and 3.7s engaged them, and possibly Mac Troop did too. Then, towards dusk, the sky suddenly became crowded with fighters and fighter-bombers, many at tree-top height, and Bofors and small-arms filled the air with tracers. In one or other of these raids 43 Battery scored a hit on a Ju88.
The 31st was generally quiet and very little shooting was done. In the course of the day the field guns moved forward to occupy the positions from which they would engage the enemy when the attack on the Wadi Akarit took place about a week hence.18 The area was congested with transport and other guns and the ground was difficult, a succession of little wadis, soft sandy patches, and marshes. All three troops of 36 Survey Battery were for the first time fully committed. The 69th Medium, RA, came under the CRA's command and on 1 April, when the New Zealand infantry withdrew into reserve, the 5th and 6th Field also reverted to his command. The anti-tank batteries moved back with the infantry and the light ack-ack troops were divided between the field artillery areas and the rest of the Division.
For the first five days of April the field gunners fired an average of 10 rounds per gun per day, mainly against infantry and small clusters of vehicles. It was vital to obtain accurate hostile battery locations for the forthcoming battle, but the flash-spotting troop of 36 Survey Battery soon realised that the enemy guns had excellent positions which betrayed no flashes. The sound-ranging troop had slightly better luck and air photographs also provided useful information. General Montgomery addressed selected officers and NCOs on the 2nd about the Mareth and Tebaga Gap fighting and the impending battle. Next day 34 Battery passed to the command of 8 Armoured Brigade and 31 Battery to the NZA Gun Group, while the 124th Field, RA, came under the CRA's command. Three guns, one each from the 4th, 5th and 6th Field, went forward in the night 4–5 April to snipe known enemy positions and traffic bottlenecks; but their flashes were soon picked up by an alert enemy and they were heavily shelled, a 4th Field man being wounded. By day the RAF and USAAF were far more active than the enemy air forces; but by night the latter dropped many containers of butterfly anti-personnel bombs, which scattered widely page 490 and caused considerable apprehension and loss of sleep. In a raid at dusk on the 5th 30 Battery lost Staff-Sergeant Hughes19 killed and three others wounded.
Major D. J. Robertson of 32 Battery commanded with vigour and skill an advanced guard which included 29 Battery, H Troop of 32 Battery (17-pounders), infantry 6-pounders and carriers, and an infantry company.
17 F Troop had joined the KDGs on 19 March. On the 22nd it engaged Italians dug in near the Roman Wall and encouraged 43 of them to surrender next day. Moving with C Squadron on the 23rd, the troop supported Free French troops attacking enemy in the hills to the right of NZ Corps. With A Squadron on the 24th the troop engaged many targets at ranges of 3400-5000 yards, but had much trouble clearing crests in very broken country. F Troop did not take part in the barrage on the 26th, but was well forward in the pursuit on 27 March. Then, next day, came the action at Wadi Werteba (p. 486), mentioned in the citation for Captain Carson's MC, in which 700-odd Italians were captured. F Troop did not pass through Gabes on the 29th. The KDGs by-passed the town and, after two or three more fleeting engagements, camped quite near the 4th Field.
By the time F Troop rejoined the regiment on the 30th, it had fired, in the course of its detached role, 1574 rounds of HE and 14 of smoke, using 1454 normal charges and 134 supercharges.
18 In the 5th Field Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow became ill and was evacuated to a Casualty Clearing Station.