Bardia to Enfidaville
In the early morning of 29 March 1 Armoured Division found that El Hamma had been evacuated, and NZ Corps also found the enemy gone, leaving only a small hastily-constructed minefield. The Corps' main column moved forward shortly after first light, with KDG patrols on the right and Divisional Cavalry patrols on the left, followed by 8 Armoured Brigade. There were no signs of the enemy during the whole day except for two small groups of tanks away to the north. The axis of advance was just south of Zemlet el Gueloua, and then towards Gabes. Some five miles south on a parallel axis was 5 Infantry Brigade Group, so that the Corps in effect was advancing on a two-brigade front. But in Brigadier Kippenberger's words, 5 Brigade had ‘stolen the lead’ and it is their adventures that lend colour to the day.
The brigade began its advance at 6.30 a.m., preceded by B Squadron, KDG. Then followed the advanced guard, tactical headquarters and 6 Field Regiment, and 23, 21, and 28 Battalions. They page 244 moved 15 miles before meeting any opposition, and were then held up by concrete strongpoints (‘pillboxes’) covering the road from Matmata to Gabes a few miles south of Gabes. Quick action by anti-tank and field guns flushed the enemy and the advance continued, but with 23 Battalion now immediately behind the advanced guard, as it seemed possible that the battalion might have to clear the town. A detachment of 7 Field Company was also brought forward to search for mines and booby traps.
It will be remembered that NZ Corps had been told to bypass Gabes and turn north, but Freyberg preferred to keep his wheeled traffic on the better going that led through Gabes and diverted only Divisional Cavalry, KDG and 8 Armoured Brigade. These were directed to the west of Gabes while still some six or seven miles away from the town. To prevent congestion at the south of Gabes, Freyberg, during the morning, sent Kippenberger a message instructing him to bypass Gabes also. But the message was not received until the concrete strongpoints had been overcome, and, partly because he could see the way into Gabes open and hoped to cut off some enemy troops, and partly because at the point the brigade had now reached the country to the west of the town was seen to be closely planted and well-nigh impassable for wheeled transport, Kippenberger carried on. These few hours on 29 March show an atmosphere of excitement, exhilaration and desire to get to the front, not only within NZ Corps but throughout Eighth Army, that enlivened the grim business of beating the enemy.
Armoured cars of the KDG and 23 Battalion carriers entered Gabes just as the rearguard from 15 Panzer Division was blowing up the bridge at the northern exit, and in fact a few dilatory Germans were captured at the crossing. The brigade commander arrived shortly after the armoured cars. The town was seething with excitement, and indeed the troops were also excited, for this was the first time that Eighth Army had liberated an Allied town.
The head of 30 Corps now also neared Gabes, and the corps commander, Lieutenant-General Leese, joined Kippenberger at the blown bridge. And soon afterwards Lieutenant-General Freyberg and his Tactical Headquarters also entered Gabes, having already seen the Brigade Major of 5 Brigade, who had had the delicate task of explaining to the GOC why 5 Brigade had blocked the NZ Corps' axis by moving directly on Gabes.
There were thus signs of impending congestion at the entrance to Gabes, for 51 (H) Division was only a few miles away, and 4 Indian Division had reached El M'dou on the Matmata road. However, it was arranged that 10 Corps should take the lead, and page 245 that NZ Corps should pass through Gabes. The 1st Armoured Division was to bypass the town well to the west and would then advance on the left of NZ Corps.
The armour of NZ Corps was meanwhile advancing to the west of Gabes, where 8 Armoured Brigade, after desultory exchanges of fire with enemy tanks, finished the day just west of Metouia while Divisional Cavalry turned towards Gabes to complete the encirclement.
The first task was to get 5 Infantry Brigade Group through Gabes. A temporary crossing was being made over the stream of the Wadi Gabes at the northern exit, the first steps being made by civilians throwing stones into the bed after Brigadier Kippenberger had given a lead. Now engineers from 7 Field Company and working parties from infantry units joined in. The advanced guard managed to get across upstream, although the banks got progressively higher and steeper, and carried on the pursuit up the main road. Here the six-pounder anti-tank guns in the advanced guard, firing from the northern edge of the Bou Chemma oasis, found good targets among enemy vehicles and later armoured cars, destroying two of the latter. The KDG and Divisional Cavalry ran into minor trouble north of Bou Chemma, being held up by mines on the road, and it appeared that the enemy was holding a position in front of Metouia and Oudref—the ‘intermediate line’1—prior to going back into the Akarit position.
Fifth Brigade advanced guard halted north of Bou Chemma while traffic congestion in Gabes was sorted out. By 1.30 p.m. 23 Battalion was across the temporary causeway and had reached Bou Chemma, where it dispersed to the right of the road. The 6th Field Regiment arrived shortly after and by 2 p.m. was in action, although there were few targets. Back in Gabes 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery was in action against enemy aircraft attacking traffic at the crossing, but considering the targets offered enemy air activity was negligible.
Fifth Brigade Headquarters got through Gabes by late afternoon, 21 Battalion shortly after dark, and 28 Battalion finally by 4 a.m. on 30 March after struggling through the town most of the night, with the added discomfort of heavy rain. The brigade was then concentrated between Bou Chemma and the coast, with 23 Battalion forming an outpost line just south-west of Rhennouch, which was reported clear. Tactical Headquarters NZ Corps arrived just north of Bou Chemma in the afternoon, but all the rest of the Corps was still south of Gabes at last light. The 4th Field Regiment crossed the stream during the night over a new causeway made by page 246 7 Field Company, and arrived north of Bou Chemma early on 30 March, having been given special priority of movement.
The immediate intention of Eighth Army was to get NZ Corps forward as a first step in what was hoped would be a speedy move to Sfax. Army Intelligence thought that the enemy would not delay at Wadi Akarit if hard pressed, an example of the over-optimism that marked it about this time. In any case a limiting factor to the Corps' activities was the Army Commander's wish, now repeated in a message from 10 Corps, that neither NZ Corps nor 1 Armoured Division should incur heavy losses, especially in tanks. This wish expressed only a short-term view, however, and was in preparation for the future role of both formations in operations against the Akarit line. In other words, they were to conserve their efforts for the next few days, in readiness for an unrestricted effort in the near future.