2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Pursuit Continues
The Pursuit Continues
Artillery Headquarters prepared a programme for an attack next morning by 8 Armoured Brigade and 6 Brigade to clear the centre, where the enemy had fought stubbornly along an anti-tank ditch. The morning soon disclosed, however, that the enemy had gone, and the Division at once began to push through the Akarit line to the open country beyond and begin the pursuit.
Edging slowly through the shattered Akarit defences, often hemmed in by minefields, the gunners were impressed by the strength of the position and by the closeness of the shell craters. They were not reassured, however, by the negligible effect of their 25-pounder fire on dugouts and other deeply-dug and covered defences. Thousands of Italians had already surrendered and many more gave themselves up in bedraggled clusters as Eighth Army passed through. Brigadier Weir as he drove through counted 24 guns knocked out.
Once through the wadi and its heavy fringes of hills, the country flattened into a huge plain across which columns of page 493 vehicles hastened, each column raising a great streamer of dust. F Troop of the 4th Field was again with the KDGs and fired from three different positions in the course of the day.23 The Divisional Cavalry and 8 Armoured Brigade, the latter with 34 Anti-Tank Battery under command, also advanced through scattered areas of barley mingled with low bushes and flower-strewn wastes, past many derelict vehicles. The watercourses were dry, though the soil was moist and the dull skies were topheavy with cloud. The 4th Field came under light shelling and then, about 2.30 p.m., a tank alert caused the regiment to go into action at high speed. E Troop fired for some time at an 88, the crew of which finally succeeded in hooking it on to its tractor and driving away—a gallant performance. Later Major Gilbert from the top of his office truck directed the fire of Mac Troop against infantry and guns until it was too dark to see them.
Meanwhile 8 Armoured Brigade had taken up hull-down positions to engage some 18 enemy tanks at fairly long range. The Nottingham Yeomanry had two 17-pounders of Q Troop with them and the anti-tankers welcomed the chance of trying out their new guns. Sergeant Logan24 boldly drove over a crest, unhooked his gun, and then sent his quad back out of sight. The enemy at once opened fire and the gun crew lay low. Although in full view of the enemy, the gun was on a slight ledge which was not easy to hit and most of the shells exploded either on the slopes below or beyond the crest. After some time Logan ordered his men to take post and they did so in lively fashion. They could see tanks at very long range, something like 3000 yards, and engaged them. A storm of fire came back at the Q Troop gun, but it continued until 25 rounds were fired, by which time the tanks had withdrawn well out of range. The gun suffered one hit but the crew were unharmed. For his determination Logan won an MM. In the course of the action the 17-pounder belched out great clouds of yellow-brown smoke which made it a prominent target. But the enemy evidently mistook it for a tank and for some time fired only AP ammunition. When he switched to HE the position was clearly untenable and Logan was ordered to cease fire and withdraw. page 494 Concurrently the enemy fired a number of heavy shells in the general direction of 8 Armoured Brigade, but most of them went over a crest and thundered harmlessly among the rocks.
When night fell it was black indeed and Sherman tanks, seeking their HQ, plunged into a region of scrub and rather high mounds interspersed with bog, in which some of them half buried their great hulls in soft sand mingled with black slime. Many hours of toil in the clinging darkness were needed to free them, with troopers and anti-tank gunners hauling desperately like huge tug-o'-war teams on long ropes and chains. Then came the blessed order to bed down and the men did so where they stood, utterly heedless of prickly bushes and rocks. Indeed they felt no discomfort until they were wakened before dawn. The tanks were on the move again and the portées and other vehicles hastened to follow.
F Troop of the 4th Field enjoyed this day, 8 April. Advancing with the KDGs, the guns were soon in action against tanks which shelled the armoured cars. One tank went up in flames and the rest withdrew. Then F Troop took up a good position in a wadi and from it had plenty of shooting. A half-tracked vehicle towing an 88 also went up in flames. Then, at 3600 yards, the guns engaged a tank and caused it to drive away. In the evening the Division caught up and F Troop joined it in a night march which ended at 11 p.m. The position was about 35 miles due west of Sfax. The rest of the 4th Field, with the 64th Medium, fired at tanks in the morning and early afternoon which were holding up 8 Armoured Brigade. The main body of the Division, farther back, was dive-bombed at 2 p.m. by four FW1905, but the Bofors were at the alert and shot down one of them. A Q Troop 17-pounder engaged three tanks, at the instigation of 8 Armoured Brigade, but the range was too great.
The KDGs again led the advance on the 9th and F Troop fired at transport soon after first light. Moving on again at 8.30 a.m., the reconnaissance group was bombed by Allied aircraft ‘despite acres of recognition smoke’, as the F Troop diary remarks. The only damage was a punctured tyre. By 11 a.m. F Troop was close to the road from Sfax to Sbeitla, but enemy tanks were in the offing and the KDG squadron withdrew a little.
The Gun Group, the 4th Field and 64th Medium, with 31 Anti-Tank Battery, came forward after a long drive and was joined by the 111th Field from 8 Armoured Brigade. The field page 495 and medium guns had got into action and the anti-tank guns had just taken up position at 2 p.m. when 13 tanks appeared from a wadi to the west and came straight for the left flank, guarded by the 6-pounders of A Troop. The portées were driving away from the dismounted anti-tank guns as the tanks approached and the gun crews hesitated, not quite sure the tanks were enemy. When the tanks opened fire on the portées, Lance-Sergeant Cutforth25 fired three or four rounds and knocked out a Pzkw IV Special. A direct hit on the gun axle then put the gun out of action and wounded Cutforth and two of his crew. The retreating portée of another gun was set on fire and the gun came under heavy machine-gun fire which wounded a gunner. Bombardier Keating26 nevertheless got this gun into action and hit another Pzkw IV Special. His layer was then so badly wounded by an AP shot that Keating ordered the remaining two members of the crew to carry him back for immediate medical attention. Keating carried on alone, loading and firing the gun, knocked out a tank, and scored a hit on a formidable Pzkw VI—a Tiger with massive armour and a huge 88-millimetre gun. The third gun of the troop had the loader and layer both wounded by machine-gun fire at the outset and did not fire, and the fourth was out of sight of the tanks. For a few moments it looked as though the rest of the tanks would come on and overrun this flank; but tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade appeared and the enemy made off hastily. The Tiger was later discovered to have been disabled and did not get away. Gunner Voss27 of A Troop died in this encounter. Later Cutforth was awarded an MM and Keating a DCM. Also this afternoon, a few miles to the east, a stray shell or mortar bomb killed Bombardier Dalgety28 of 34 Battery. Guns of the 64th Medium had moved forward surprisingly close to the head of the Gun Group and their fire was later reported to have destroyed two more tanks. The 4th Field had been standing ready with AP ammunition, but no targets came within range. Major Harrowell29 of 46 Battery was wounded, however, and had to page 496 be evacuated. D Troop of the 4th Field had moved out at noon to join the KDGs, but it did not fire this day.
The Division now moved north-eastwards and made fast progress over a land of low, prickly bushes thick with birds' nests, a melodious land. One column, after pushing through olive groves, across a few dusty tracks, then along a country lane, burst unexpectedly into a village where a girl, breathless with excitement, rushed forward to clasp every hand within reach, to the evident embarrassment of some of the gunners. Halting for lunch in fields of broad beans, the columns swept along even faster in the afternoon. The only contacts with the enemy on the ground were fleeting. Artillery Headquarters drove in the afternoon ‘through continuous olive groves which extended as far as the eye could see—all interspersed with carpets of red poppies and yellow daisies’. It is not often that war diarists write thus, and it was indeed an enchanting countryside. The air was so full of skylarks that their singing could be heard plainly above the gigantic roaring of the machines. The leading troops passed through the poor little village of La Hencha—a few buildings clustered on a crossroads, a schoolroom, a chemist, post office and suchlike. The rest halted for the night within a few miles of it. The 4th Field went into action and fired a few rounds, and D and F Troops with the KDGs engaged tanks and transport; but the enemy was obviously anxious to get away. The main obstructions now were numerous large demolitions, one of them near La Hencha, which blocked all routes towards Sousse, 50 miles to the north.
The KDGs pressed on next day, with D and F Troops of 4th Field, passed through El Djem, with its ruins of a magnificent Roman amphitheatre, and ended up a few miles south and south-east of Sousse. The 26 Battery gunners were welcomed as liberating heroes by many a French and Jewish community on the way, and the drive took on a carnival aspect which was rudely shattered when a C Squadron armoured car was destroyed in an ambush and another was lost on a roadside mine.
Artillery Headquarters and the main part of the Gun Group did not get properly under way until the late afternoon of 11 April, and they carried on slowly after dark, driving through villages dimly visible in the moonlight. Headquarters halted near Kerker, halfway to Sousse, in an olive grove. Other units came to rest at various points between there and La Hencha.
North of Kerker there were fewer olive trees and many high cactus hedges. In the sizable town of Msaken on the 12th page 497 gunners had a lively welcome from the French inhabitants and many of them got kissed. On they went through a lush countryside to Sousse itself, and there the welcome and the hospitality were too much altogether for many of the gunners. Some of them took several days to recover. The KDGs, with 26 Battery, were there only minutes after the enemy had departed. B Squadron with F Troop had breakfast on the waterfront and then moved to the northern outskirts, where they came up against enemy rearguards. In the afternoon the rest of the 4th Field was called forward and the dusty quads with guns and limbers swung past long lines of frenzied people who flung flowers at them. When the quads slowed down their occupants were clapped, cheered, kissed and offered drinks. Lieutenant Richmond30 of E Troop had his cap knocked off by a bunch of flowers, and people fought for the honour of restoring it to him. The regiment went into action among the houses of Hammam–Sousse just north of Sousse proper and fired 27 rounds by nightfall. The night was riotously happy.
Next day, 13 April, F Troop of the 4th Field, moving inland with C Squadron of the KDGs, had a brief action in which it came under accurate fire from one or two guns and two gunners were wounded. One of them, Gunner Thompson,31 hit in the arm, insisted on driving his quad and gun back to safety before allowing his wound to be attended to.
23 Captain Carson had left 69 Brigade in the afternoon of 6 April and was back with F Troop. He later recommended his OPA, L-Sgt D. S. Clark, for an MM. There was at least a prima facie case for decorating any OPA game enough to serve with Carson.
For his calm and efficient control of his troop in this hectic engagement Lieutenant L. de V. Gilbert won an MC.