Bardia to Enfidaville
The Attack at Akarit
The Attack at Akarit
In the 30 Corps' plan of attack 4 Indian Division, probably the body of Allied troops best trained in mountain warfare, planned its own attack within certain specified limits of time and place. To obtain the advantage of surprise the division began by attacking, without artillery support, the southern peak of the Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa massif immediately after dark on 5 April. This peak, the commanding ground, was soon taken, and the division went on to capture both Djebel Mesreb el Alig and Djebel el Meida, a magnificent night's work that earned both the admiration and the awe of the rest of Eighth Army. By 9.30 a.m. on 6 April the left flank had triumphed and some 3000 prisoners had been taken, nearly all from Spezia and Pistoia Divisions. Two counter-attacks had been beaten off, and the mixed German and Italian troops were never allowed to recover from the audacious and successful assault.
At 4 a.m. on 6 April the artillery throughout 30 Corps began their tasks. All told, there were eighteen field regiments and four medium regiments, a total of 496 guns. From a forward observation post the effect of this weight of artillery was most impressive—overhead a constant sighing as the shells went over, to the rear bright and continuous flashes, to the front a constant crashing of shells, and pervading all the numbing detonation of the guns. The effect on the enemy's side must have been great.
On the right flank 51 (H) Division reached Djebel er Roumana by 6 a.m., and by 11 a.m. reached the north-west end of the anti-tank ditch beyond, which was a point on the final objective. This page 262 was held after a struggle. One battalion from Trieste Division was eliminated, and prisoners were taken from 90 Light Division, one regiment of which counter-attacked at 9 a.m. and for a while held 51 Division, but was in turn driven back.
In the central sector—50 (N) Division—the minefield and anti-tank ditch formed a genuine obstacle, and the enemy resisted strongly any attempts to cross. By 5.30 a.m. a footing was made towards the seaward end, but further penetration was stopped.
During the rest of the day both 51 and 4 Indian Divisions reached their final objectives. The enemy counter-attacked again at 4 p.m., this time with 15 Panzer Division from reserve, and forced 51 Division back slightly, although not enough to affect the satisfactory position on the right flank. The 4th Indian Division had some hard fighting with yet another regiment from 90 Light, but held all its gains. In his despatch on the campaign General Alexander says of this day that ‘15 Panzer and 90 Light Divisions, fighting perhaps the best battle of their distinguished careers, counter-attacked with great vigour and by their self-sacrifice enabled Messe to stabilise the situation.’ The desperate efforts of these two divisions to stop up page 263 the holes in the front irrespective of where the holes occurred can only excite our admiration. Certainly Montgomery described the fighting as having been ‘heavier and more savage than any we have had since Alamein.’
During the day the Desert Air Force maintained unceasing attacks against transport, gun positions and troop concentrations, but could find few tanks and claimed only one destroyed.
Owing largely to the success of 4 Indian Division in clearing the heights on the left flank and discovering a passable track through the hills so as to avoid the anti-tank ditch which was still delaying 50 (N) Division, Horrocks persuaded the Army Commander to order the advance of 10 Corps. Tanks did in fact move up to the 4 Indian Division area, but guns from the rear of Roumana, firing obliquely, prevented any move forward. But 10 Corps was now taking part in the battle, and 2 NZ Division passed to its command at 11.10 a.m. Until the situation on Roumana, scene of many counter-attacks, was clarified, and the offending guns, probably 88-millimetres, silenced, a further advance depended upon the success of 50 (N) Division.
This division had advanced shortly after 4 a.m. At 5.30 a.m. the gap-making force from 2 NZ Division moved forward some miles and there waited while the CRE and the second-in-command 8 Field Company (Captain Wildey1) went to reconnoitre. When they reached the centre of the position they found that 50 Division was baffled by the minefield and anti-tank ditch and was not taking any special action to overcome the difficulty, but had transferred activity to the ends of the ditch.
The CRE decided to proceed at once with the task of lifting the mines and filling in the ditch, over which two crossings for tanks were to be made. He called forward the supporting tanks and infantry by wireless and ordered the tanks to keep close watch on enemy activities, especially on the mortar and machine-gun posts that covered the ditch. Major Pemberton started his company clearing gaps in the minefield, removing booby traps and trip-wires. D Company, 26 Battalion (Captain Hobbs2), then moved through the minefield, some men taking up positions on the far side of the ditch, while the remainder set to work to fill in the crossings for tanks. It was now about 9.30 a.m. and reports on the state of the work were wirelessed back to Divisional Headquarters. Infantry of 50 Division was now mopping up enemy posts across the ditch and so helping to reduce the volume of fire.page 264
This comparatively slow rate of progress led the GOC to consider taking the Division round the east side of Djebel er Roumana, and up to 11 a.m. he was still undecided. Divisional Cavalry was sent forward on a reconnaissance over the country leading to the east of Roumana, but as the going was not favourable and obvious complications would arise from such a change of axis, it was decided to adhere to the original plan.
One crossing over the ditch was open by 2 p.m. and the second not long after; but there was still considerable opposition from the enemy. It was the generally aggressive attitude of the little gap-making force, the watchfulness of the tanks and infantry and the determination of the engineers that enabled the work to be done at all.
Meanwhile 50 (N) Division, finding enemy resistance strong in the centre, had concentrated on the flanks, and the climax came when infantry supported by tanks from 7 Armoured Division forced their way across near Point 85, the right-hand end of the obstacle, and followed this with an attack westwards along the far side of the ditch.
So one way and another a gap had been made and covered by 50 Division, even though the depth of penetration was shallow and enemy resistance still strong. In the early afternoon 8 Armoured Brigade was ordered forward, and Notts Yeomanry and Staffs Yeomanry moved into the gap, the former using the right-hand crossing just completed, the latter moving at the west end of 50 Division's sector. Staffs Yeomanry reported at 3 p.m. that they were through. Progress was impeded by fire from defiladed anti-tank guns, but the regiment was jubilant in knocking out a Tiger tank just at the close of day. Notts Yeomanry towards last light moved up on Djebel er Roumana to help 51 (H) Division, which was in difficulty with a combination of 15 Panzer and 90 Light, for until Roumana was fully cleared the gap could not be freely used. The third regiment, 3 Royal Tanks, followed the other two, and KDG closed up to the line of the ditch. But despite the presence of 8 Armoured Brigade within the gap, enemy guns behind the disputed Roumana feature, as well as the commanding positions there, made it impracticable to pass 2 NZ Division through for exploitation.
During the afternoon 4 and 6 Field Regiments moved forward to an area immediately south of the minefield, and were in action there during the evening and night. Fifth Infantry Brigade Group had formed up in mid-morning and finally at 4 p.m. began a move of eight miles, which brought it some five miles short of the anti- page 265 tank ditch. The intention that 21 Battalion should go forward to protect the armour was later cancelled.
Sixth Infantry Brigade Group did not move, but remained at thirty minutes' notice in its area west of Gabes. There were several air raids on the divisional area, causing small casualties, and at least two aircraft were shot down by Bofors fire.
A new method of ground-to-air control was further improved on at Akarit, having previously been tried out with 2 NZ Division for SUPERCHARGE II. The RAF supplied a small number of armoured cars which controlled aircraft from within visual range of targets. These vehicles remained with 2 NZ Division for the next month. They were the predecessors of what was later called the ‘cabrank’ system, an arrangement by which several fighter-bombers remained overhead at call and were directed individually at a moment's notice to attack a target, which they could be ‘talked-on’ to.