Bardia to Enfidaville
Advance from Akarit
Advance from Akarit
During the night 6–7 April there were indications that the enemy was withdrawing. By 6.30 a.m. it was clear that the attack by 2 NZ Division was unnecessary, and before 7 a.m. it was established that the enemy had evacuated the Akarit line completely. The battle had thus taken only twenty-four hours, and victory after seven or eight hours had been prevented by the combined efforts of 15 and 90 Divisions, and by the Italian artillery which fought extremely well. The 19th Flak Division, with nine batteries of 88-millimetre guns, from scattered but extremely effective positions, imposed delay quite disproportionate to its numbers.
At 7.20 a.m. the attack by 2 NZ Division was definitely cancelled, leaving the artillery staff to lament some hours of wasted work, and orders were given for the Division to move forward, the passage through the gap being covered by 53 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA, and one troop from 14 NZ Regiment. The armoured cars of King's Dragoon Guards and the light tanks of Divisional Cavalry led the Division, followed by the heavy tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade. They found a miscellaneous debris of prisoners and enemy material, the prisoners coming from 90 Light and 164 Light Divisions in small numbers and from Italian units more freely. All units in the Allied forces were instructed about this page 267 time that captured enemy artillery equipment was not to be destroyed unless recapture seemed certain. The days when the battlefield swayed violently backwards and forwards were apparently over. The forward elements found no firm rearguard in position, but only a ragged array of infantry, mostly Italian. For once even the Germans had gone back hurriedly, seeming to need a respite in which to recover.
An inspection of the Akarit line served to show how strong it was basically, and also how great was the power of Eighth Army in armour, artillery, and air power when it could overwhelm the defences in one day. During his inspection, the CRA reported that around him he could count twenty-four guns knocked out.
There was no good defensive position between Akarit and Enfidaville, 150 miles farther north, where a mountain range provided a wall for the enemy's back. The tasks of the opposing forces in these circumstances were, for the enemy, to impose the maximum delay within the power of rearguards without accepting battle; and for Eighth Army, to keep up the momentum of the advance, to do its best to brush rearguards aside without having to deploy, and to capture or occupy landing grounds in a state fit to be used at once. For while the speed of the advance was likely to be much affected by country more enclosed, the air forces were able to range far and wide with ever-increasing intensity, provided they had sufficient landing grounds from which to employ their great superiority in numbers.
For the next six or seven days 2 NZ Division again carried out a pursuit, and while there were compensations, the fact remains that a pursuit is fatiguing, especially as often there appears to be nothing happening at all. To the men in the lorries it meant day after day of start, stop, start, stop, move ahead in low gear, halt for hours, never seeing a glimpse of an enemy. No New Zealand infantry had any fighting during this period, for most units were never deployed. There were one or two scuffles and nothing more. The reconnaissance and armoured forces, however, had a more exciting time, the only serious fighting being carried out by 8 Armoured Brigade, KDG, and Divisional Cavalry, with the first-named the most involved. Soon the supremacy of the tank on the North African battlefield was to pass away—for Eighth Army very soon indeed, only a week ahead—but in this last period, this British formation played its part to the full, and did honour to the New Zealand Division.
Eighth Army had now broken through into an area of country known as the Sahel, a strip of coastal plain varying in width and fertility. It ranged from 20 to 40 miles wide, and became progres- page 268 sively more mountainous on its western side. Near the coast the ground was fertile, especially so in large areas around Sfax and Sousse. In various spots, mostly about 20 miles inland, there were salt marshes (called Sebkret or Sebkra) which as before were impassable for wheels. While the general trend of the land was flat, the terrain was sufficiently accidented, albeit in a minor way, to make the going often very bad. The fertile areas were much enclosed by cactus and other hedges and intersected by narrow lanes bordered by loose stone walls.
So much for the cold facts; but there was another aspect which had much appeal to the men. It was springtime, and the country was largely cultivated, with areas of olive plantations and occasional palm groves, and with green crops of wheat and barley. And even more attractive were the masses—a veritable carpet—of wild flowers, red, blue, white and yellow, poppies and daisies. Even dandelions and thistles were pleasant to see. To the men of Greece and Crete the olive groves brought back memories of those early days.
The troops were delighted with the change of scene: there was ample water, and everyone knew that the end could not be long delayed. No matter what was said about boring days of travel, it was a relief that the days passed without casualties.
On 7 April, at the outset of the advance, Divisional Cavalry exploited to the north-west behind Djebel Tebaga Fatnassa while King's Dragoon Guards advanced on both the east and west of Djebel er Roumana. The forward elements of these two regiments reached Wadi er Rmel at 8.45 a.m., meeting only light opposition, and at 11.15 a.m. captured the eastern feature of the low hill Kat Zbara.
This penetration alarmed the enemy, and at noon some Tiger tanks from Army Reserve were placed under 15 Panzer Division with orders to attack the British armour (8 Armoured Brigade) which was close behind the reconnaissance forces. Thus it is not surprising that the advance soon ran up against real opposition and the artillery had to be deployed. The tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade in hull-down positions engaged the enemy, helped not only by 4 Field Regiment but by two guns of Q Troop, 34 Anti-Tank Battery, equipped with the new 17-pounders, which now opened fire for the first time.
This combined effort halted the enemy. By 6 p.m. the enemy tanks, of which some twenty-two had been seen (including the Tigers), were withdrawing, having offered the only serious resistance encountered this day, and having checked progress for some hours. One Tiger at least was knocked out, but other enemy losses are not known.page 269
But while two of the three regiments of 8 Armoured Brigade were held up in the area north of Kat es Satour, 3 Royal Tanks and part of KDG succeeded in pushing forward along the eastern side of Sebkret en Noual, and at 5.30 p.m. cut the road from Mahares to Maknassy and El Guettar at a point east of Rir er Rebaia, and took many prisoners and destroyed much MT. The Division's advance had in fact cut across the line of retreat of the German forces that had been facing the Americans at El Guettar and Maknassy, and had been too quick for some of the enemy. This advance of 3 Royal Tanks, and the earlier withdrawal of the enemy tanks, had been helped on the left of 2 NZ Division by the arrival of 2 Armoured Brigade from 1 Armoured Division, which, once through the gap at Akarit, had made good going. Its cavalry regiment (12 Lancers) took over part of the front being covered by KDG.
The arrival of this force at Rir er Rebaia alarmed the enemy, and it then transpired that the Italian troops who were intended to fill the gap in the line east of Sebkret en Noual had either never gone there, or were so disorganised as to be useless. So once again a force from 90 Light Division was rushed to that flank, together with elements (probably unarmoured) from 21 Panzer Division, now retiring from El Guettar.
Each day of the campaign in North Africa made history of some kind, but on this day it was something to appeal to the popular imagination, for at 3.30 p.m. while moving forward 12 Lancers made contact with desert patrols of American troops—the first contact between the two armies of Eighteenth Army Group.
On the right of 2 NZ Division 30 Corps pushed north along the coast road with 51 (H) Division and 23 Armoured Brigade, and by last light were just short of Skhirra. Between these forces and 2 NZ Division, 22 Armoured Brigade from 7 Armoured Division advanced on the same level. The whole advance of Eighth Army was closely supported from the air, increasingly so as the day went on and targets became more plentiful. The best targets were found along the road and tracks from El Guettar, where the enemy was in full retreat.
It had been quite a good day for all, but the time had come for 2 NZ Division to establish a firm base for the night, and for this purpose 5 Infantry Brigade came forward and formed a gun line in an arc some four miles to the north-east of Kat Zbara.
The 23rd Battalion was to have been on the left of this arc, but at 6 p.m. the GOC from Tactical Headquarters ordered it to push out well to the north and get astride the Maknassy road at Rir er Rebaia, with a view to blocking the enemy retreat from the west. It page 270 appears that for some reason Headquarters was not aware that 3 Royal Tanks had already cut the road.
Lieutenant-Colonel Romans, in the words of the Brigade Major, ‘took 23 Battalion off like a rocket’, and in the faded light the two rear companies were left behind and had to wait until daylight. As it happened, the country over which the battalion advanced was quite unsuitable for night travel, for the route lay along the shore of Sebkret en Noual, where the marshy ground quickly brought the move to a halt, despite frantic efforts by all ranks to keep vehicles moving. After some hours' struggle the CO finally decided at 3 a.m. on 8 April to go no farther, and ordered the troops to bed down and wait for daylight.
The other two battalions of 5 Brigade supported by 5 Field Regiment duly took up their positions for the night. At last light (about 7.30 p.m.) 8 Armoured Brigade was concentrating forward on 3 Royal Tanks—the brigade's tactical headquarters did not reach the laager until after midnight—Divisional Cavalry was north-west of 5 Infantry Brigade, and Tactical Headquarters of the Division was on Kat Zbara. Sixth Infantry Brigade Group kept moving until about midnight it reached Wadi er Rmel.
The Division made a good haul of prisoners during the day, although exact figures are not known, but Divisional Cavalry recorded 15 Italian officers and 1204 other ranks, and 12 German officers and 111 other ranks. Twenty-seven guns of various calibres had been sent back and many vehicles. It was noticeable that while the Italians were weary-looking and ill-clad and only too glad to be quit of the war, the Germans were better-clad, bore themselves well, and were unshaken in morale.
The enemy had done his best during the day, but even his best could delay Eighth Army only temporarily. By the end of the day he was in general retreat to the line Chebket en Nouiges - Sebkret Ouadrene. The conduct of the withdrawal had been rationalised by this time, for all Italian troops were sent straight back to Enfidaville, leaving the German formations to impose delay.