Bardia to Enfidaville
5 Infantry Brigade—28 (Maori) Battalion
5 Infantry Brigade—28 (Maori) Battalion
The start line for 21 and 28 Battalions was laid by the brigade and battalion intelligence officers after dark on 19 April. All helped first to lay the 21 Battalion line, but were a little late owing to delay in collecting enough white tape for both battalions. They were fired on while at work, but were held up only a little on this account. Then the 28 Battalion Intelligence Section began to lay its own tape alone, but was not ready as soon as was desirable.
The battalion moved up from its rear area in transport at 8.15 p.m., assembling just south of Wadi el Boul, where a brief church service was held. It then formed up in column of companies—three forward and one back—ready to move off, but the Intelligence Officer who was to be the guide was late in arriving back from laying the tapes, and the battalion moved off without him. It was thus barely in battle formation on the start line by zero hour.
A Company on the right flank had an additional complication, for Major Porter was doubtful about the position of 24 Battalion on his right, as he was not aware that 6 Brigade was using a start line 200 metres behind 5 Brigade. For a while he thought that he had got behind 24 Battalion, so advanced in double time, but later suspected that he was too far ahead and halted a while. When page 316 C Company (Captain Awarau1) next on the left caught up, A Company moved off again, with Djebel Bir as its objective, but it seems likely that about this time it lost the full support of the barrage, and in any case was running into the enemy's defensive fire.
By the time the company had reached the east-west track that ran to the south of Djebel Bir it had had many casualties from mortar and artillery fire, and from booby-trapped minefields where wooden box-mines were connected with trip-wires to ‘S’ mines. Opposition was not so great from Djebel Bir itself as from the west. Two platoon commanders were casualties and the company lost any precise formation. On and around the track it came to a standstill, and then the remaining platoon commander was hit. Porter became most concerned at his losses, which had reduced his strength by half, and with such low numbers feared that he might find himself unsupported on both flanks if he were to go on. He tried to get in touch with battalion headquarters by wireless, and at that point was himself wounded by a mortar bomb.
Though without officers the company tried to carry on, but heavy artillery, anti-tank, mortar and machine-gun fire was now sweeping the area and what was left of the company finally went to ground on the nearer slopes of Djebel Bir.
C Company's experience was much the same as A Company's. Enemy mortar and artillery fire was soon encountered and became progressively more intense, and the advance became disjointed. The company commander and one platoon commander were soon wounded, but the company pushed on, having in one or two places to hack its way through cactus. Mines were found similar to those on the front of A Company, and soon the company strength was much depleted. Lieutenant Haig of 15 Platoon found that he was the only officer still with the company and took command, but by that time numbers were so low—Haig's own platoon had dwindled to three men—that further advance was impossible, and the company remained under what cover could be found in a wadi running down from Takrouna. The company had made no contact with the enemy, but had become disorganised by the loss of officers and men, by enemy defensive fire, and by the booby-trapped minefields.
All across the front by this time there was much dust and smoke, and visibility was practically nil, particularly about the enemy's defensive fire zone.
By this time battalion headquarters had moved up close to the white house, and the battalion commander sent his Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant M. Wikiriwhi, to find out what had caused B Company to stop and so leave C Company with an exposed left flank. When the IO reported back, he was sent forward again with orders to B Company to push on, link up with C Company and go on to the Zaghouan road. Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett himself then went to visit C Company, and found that it was just about to move on and follow Lieutenant Haig, who had gone on ahead. He told the company to wait for a while until B Company caught up, his idea being to form some semblance of a battalion line.
All touch had been lost with A Company, but Bennett then moved back to B Company, which he found still opposed by very heavy fire from Takrouna. He gave some instructions for countering the enemy's fire, including sending a message back to the three supporting tanks to use their guns against the hill, and then instructed Captain Sorensen to push on. On his way back to C Company to co-ordinate further this new advance, Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett was severely wounded on a box mine.
It seems doubtful if the tanks were able to help at this time, as it was impossible for them to get beyond the white house; but at first light they were on the northern edge of the olive groves and helped with fire in cleaning out enemy pockets on Takrouna and Djebel Bir.
The wounding of the battalion commander completed the disorganisation of the headquarters, for in the meantime the adjutant and the RSM had been wounded also. Lieutenant Wikiriwhi tried to find Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett after he had been to B Company, but failed. He then took steps to establish a fresh headquarters.
D Company (Captain Ornberg2) in reserve now became involved, for it soon caught up with B Company and had casualties from the same sources. It had been told by the CO to help B Company, but for the moment all it could do was engage enemy weapon pits on Takrouna with machine guns. When it was learned that Captain Sorensen had been wounded, and that it was believed that the CO was wounded also, Ornberg decided to push on round the lower slopes of Takrouna and make for the battalion objective. The company was by now only forty strong, including a few stragglers from B and C Companies. The time was about 2.30 a.m., and by this time 23 Battalion had moved through the Maoris.
Thus A Company had gone to ground on the near slopes of Djebel Bir, C Company likewise was in a wadi running down from Takrouna, two platoons of B Company were on the Zaghouan road with one platoon preparing to make the feint attack on Takrouna, and D Company was about to move on towards the road. The CO, three company commanders, and several platoon commanders were all casualties.