Bardia to Enfidaville
The 24th Battalion was delayed on the start line for almost ten minutes because 3 Royal Tanks mistook the enemy's artillery fire for the supporting barrage and waited for it to lift. This rectified, the initial advance proceeded smoothly, but the delay caused the battalion to fall well behind the barrage. Twelve of the tanks paused briefly to embark two men each as ‘tank-riding crews', one man with a sub-machine gun, and one with a bag of No. 36 grenades. This was the first time such action had been taken and, in fact, 24 Battalion was the only one to try the practice. The experiment was not a success.page 223
C Company (Captain Seal1) on the right and D (Captain Dew2) on the left advanced behind the armour, with A (Captain Aked3) in support. B Company (Major Andrews4) was 600 yards behind in the left rear with orders not to become involved, but each of the forward companies had a section from B Company to help collect prisoners, and all companies had 3-inch mortars under command.
The advance to the first objective was uneventful. Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly, travelling in a carrier, moved forward to contact the tanks and try to speed up the advance, but enemy opposition became so strong that there was no question of catching up with the barrage. A ridge sloped down into the battalion sector from the west about midway between the two objectives, with a minefield on its southern slopes leaving a gap near the Hamma road. The top of the ridge was heavily defended by anti-tank guns. The defenders were from 125 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 164 Light Division and some Italians supported by tanks from 21 Panzer Division.
3 Lt-Col E. W. Aked, MC, m.i.d., Aristion Andrias (Gk); Tauranga; born England, 12 Feb 1911; shop assistant; CO 24 Bn 4–8 Jun 1944; CO 210 British Liaison Unit with 3 Greek Bde in Italy and Greece, 1944–45.
In the rear of C Company the position was not good, and among other complications, unguarded prisoners picked up abandoned weapons and resumed hostilities. In this confused situation some of our wounded were killed. On the left, D Company reached the first objective without difficulty, and then arrived at the minefield from which the tanks had swerved away. By now the barrage was lost, but Captain Dew had been told that the infantry attack must continue, and all three platoons crossed the minefield and advanced under heavy fire against the ridge beyond, capturing some twenty prisoners who were sent to the rear without escort. The commander of 16 Platoon, Second-Lieutenant Cater,1 was killed and gradually every man in the platoon became a casualty; 17 Platoon was finally pinned to the ground in front of an enemy strongpoint and its commander, Lieutenant Friend,2 was wounded; and 18 Platoon reached the crest of the ridge and was closing with the enemy when, among other casualties, its commander, Second-Lieutenant Woodcock,3 was killed. The company had maintained its offensive till the last but was by now exhausted of manpower and incapable of further effort.
A Company in support then became involved, and was held up behind the minefield, where it found several tanks knocked out as well as the mortars of D Company. No. 7 Platoon was sent round the western end of the minefield, and 8 and 9 still farther to the left, in an attempt to outflank the strongpoints at the top. They managed to move forward for a while, but it was slow progress. For the moment Captain Aked refrained from launching any stronger attack until he could discuss the situation with the battalion commander, and he withdrew 7 Platoon which was making no progress.
1 2 Lt W. P. Cater; born NZ 21 Jan 1919; dairy factory assistant; killed in action 26 Mar 1943.
3 2 Lt F. C. Woodcock; born England, 3 Apr 1909; orchardist and motor mechanic; wounded 27 Nov 1941; killed in action 26 Mar 1943.
Now B Company, the reserve, came into the picture. The company commander, Major Andrews, could see the trouble ahead, and leaving his company under cover went to battalion headquarters, soon to be joined by Captain Aked. Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly was at the moment away in his carrier with C Company, and the adjutant, Captain Boord,1 had been wounded some time before; and so Major Andrews was left to make his own decision, which was to attack farther on the left, where there was a chance that he would outflank the enemy and even link up with 25 Battalion.
Unknown to him, however, Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly sent back a radio signal to B Company ordering it forward on C Company's axis, with the idea of taking the enemy strongpoints from the rear—in other words exploiting success. But B Company's signal arrangements had broken down and the message was never delivered.
So B Company moved off to the west and then advanced in extended order across the minefield, but as soon as it emerged from a patch of dead ground it was faced with heavy small-arms fire and was gradually forced to ground. After a while Andrews thought it was serving no useful purpose to stay there in daylight—it was about 6 p.m.—and so withdrew the company and re-formed, reporting back at once to the battalion commander.
At Headquarters it was found that the position had improved. There had been a conference between Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly, Captain Aked and Captain Dew, the last-named describing the losses of D Company and the obscure position on his front, where, however, the company had now made some progress. So Conolly ordered A Company to carry on with its attack, and Aked decided to go on in one line with the two platoons left to him. No. 7 Platoon had not yet reported back. With mortar support A Company charged forward, withheld their fire until at short range, and then closed with the bayonet. The verve of this attack at the double overwhelmed the enemy and all the enemy troops not killed surrendered at once. The company advanced down the northern slopes of the ridge for 300 yards and then reorganised, having taken ninety-two prisoners. A surprising reinforcement to this attack came from seven men of 3 Royal Tanks whose vehicles had been knocked out, but who had joined A Company in its last assault.
Casualties in 24 Battalion were fairly heavy—49 killed and 58 wounded, a much higher proportion of killed to wounded than is normal. The medical records show that the proportion of killed to wounded all across the front was higher than usual, owing possibly to the fact that this attack was made in daylight.
The battalion had captured between 400 and 500 prisoners, and another 150 were rounded up in the morning; and enemy casualties in killed and wounded were high also. Inspection of the enemy position disclosed just how strongly it had been prepared and fortified, but a sustained offensive by 24 Battalion, combined with success elsewhere, had overcome all opposition.