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Bardia to Enfidaville

21 Battalion

21 Battalion

The 21st Battalion advanced behind the barrage on time, with C Company on the right, A in the centre, B on the left, and D less one platoon in reserve. The remaining platoon of D Company was on Point 121 (Djebel el Ktatiss) as a ‘firm base’ for the final position the battalion was to secure, the gun line facing north-west.

C Company (Major B. M. Laird) soon ran into rough country, and became rather scattered among the olives and cactus hedges. At first enemy opposition consisted of artillery and mortar fire, but this was intensified by fire from nebelwerfers, six-barrelled electric- page 319 ally fired 15- or 21-cm rocket launchers. This was the first time that nebelwerfers had been encountered by 2 NZ Division.1 Fire against the company was then increased by intense machine-gun fire from Takrouna on the right flank, which to the company was an open flank. The left platoon—15 under Lieutenant Shaw2—fared better, and for a while carried on with A Company; but the right platoon was forced into shelter and was pinned down by fire while in the middle of a minefield. Sections from the reserve platoon failed in an attempt to get forward. The company commander reviewed the situation, and from a reconnaissance came to the conclusion that the companies on his left had not been successful either, so decided to report back for instructions, taking with him the portions of the right and reserve platoons that were immediately accessible. But in the darkness he missed battalion headquarters and eventually found Brigade Headquarters, which was in the original battalion area. It was then 2 a.m.

But, as it happened, A and B Companies had achieved some success, mainly because they were not obstructed by cactus hedges and could keep up with the barrage, and so had passed the danger area round Takrouna before the enemy opened up. Moreover, these companies were not as close to the lower slopes of Takrouna as C Company. The two forward platoons of both companies had in fact almost reached the road before the enemy opened fire with anything other than artillery.

A Company (Captain Bullock-Douglas) had a few casualties on the start line owing to an artillery concentration which came down on headquarters and 9 Platoon, the support platoon. This delayed their start, but 8 Platoon (Lieutenant Chalmers3) on the right and 7 Platoon (Sergeant Howell4) on the left got away in good time and had an uninterrupted advance to the Zaghouan road, capturing a few prisoners on the way. But by now enemy fire had become more intense and it was realised that their right and rear were much exposed. In fact, one of the sections of 8 Platoon, after handling the prisoners that had been passed back to it, was cut off from the others by small-arms fire from Takrouna.

No. 9 Platoon under Lieutenant Upton5 lost contact with the others, and in a haze of smoke and dust went on alone, having

1 Nebelwerfers were used for the first time in North Africa during Rommel's attack in February against Kasserine. They were seen and heard by 2 NZ Division at Medenine, but were firing against other parts of the front.

2 Capt R. A. Shaw; Taumarunui; born New Plymouth, 8 Jun 1912; commercial traveller; twice wounded.

3 Capt J. C. Chalmers; Auckland; born Greymouth, 8 Feb 1914; school teacher.

4 S-Sgt C. C. Howell; born Gisborne, 17 Feb 1913; Regular soldier; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.

5 2 Lt J. T. Upton; born NZ 11 Aug 1917; clerk accountant; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.

page 320 casualties from nebelwerfers. Upton decided to make contact with C Company on the right and moved in that direction, passing many booby traps, and in fact getting close to the foot of Takrouna hill. Here the platoon became mixed up with cactus hedges, tripwires and minefields, and finally went to ground, by which time Lieutenant Upton was missing.1 The platoon sergeant, Sergeant Dotchin,2 searched for a lane through the minefield, but when he came back to the platoon he found that they were nearly all casualties on mines. Captain Bullock-Douglas, who after the delay in starting was searching for the company, now arrived, and while Dotchin and he were endeavouring to get forward both were wounded. The two advanced platoons of A Company were thus left on the road with no chance of further support.

B Company's advance (under Captain Roach3) had followed a similar pattern. The two leading platoons reached the road in front of the enemy's defensive fire—and it is believed outside the area covered by the barrage—while headquarters and the third platoon encountered severe fire and were cut off from the forward elements. Captain Roach went with the reserve platoon to within a few hundred yards of the road, but as he could find no trace of the rest of his company he went back to battalion headquarters to report.

Meanwhile runners from the platoons of A and B Companies on the road were also on their way back with situation reports.

D Company (Captain I. A. Murray) at first advanced without interference, and then passed through a belt of enemy defensive fire but was screened by the dust and smoke. However, shortly afterwards the murk cleared and the company possibly became visible in the moonlight, for it was subjected to a heavy mortar and artillery concentration. The company commander was killed, and there were many casualties. Lieutenant P. Robertson4 assumed command and moved the company a little to the west where there was some cover.

Headquarters 21 Battalion, advancing behind D Company, also had several casualties, including Lieutenant-Colonel Harding, who was wounded but remained on duty. Headquarters was for a while lost in the haze, but the RSM reconnoitred ahead, made contact with D Company and then led the headquarters forward to a site from where there was good observation. D Company was told to dig in where it was, but so far the CO had no contact with any of

1 Later found killed.

2 Sgt B. Dotchin; Auckland; born Wellington, 3 Mar 1915; oil storeman; twice wounded.

3 Maj W. J. G. Roach, MC; Wellington; born Levin, 12 Oct 1909; bank officer; 2 i/c 21 Bn Oct 1943-Mar 1944; wounded 22 Nov 1941.

4 Capt P. Robertson, MC; Auckland; born England, 1 May 1918; commercial traveller.

page 321 the other companies, for all wireless sets had ceased to function, either sets or operators being casualties.

The carrier platoon advanced on a line to the west of the companies, and soon ran into heavy enemy fire. Sergeant Mellsop's1 carrier charged and silenced two machine-gun posts and then silenced an anti-tank gun, but despite an offensive spirit throughout the platoon, there were too many anti-tank guns about for comfort, and the platoon withdrew a few hundred yards. It seems probable that only darkness saved it from destruction.

The CO was already beginning to suspect that the operation had not gone according to plan. The runners came in from A and B Companies, and Lieutenant Shaw with 15 Platoon and parts of 13 and 14 from C Company also reported about the same time; but there was no later news. No success signal had been seen from 28 Battalion, which meant presumably that Takrouna was still in enemy hands, and observation on the spot made it only too clear that the enemy still occupied the south-west and west slopes. About 2.30 a.m., therefore, Lieutenant-Colonel Harding sent the runners back to the forward platoons of A and B Companies with instructions that they were to withdraw to the area of his headquarters should they not have made contact with 28 Battalion on their right. At the same time he sent a runner to Brigade Headquarters to report his decision.

Meanwhile both companies had severe fighting to the north of the Zaghouan road, where they were in fact in contact with the enemy's main line, held here mostly by Trieste Division. When 8 Platoon reached the road it took cover in a ditch, while Lieutenant Chalmers tried first to find company headquarters, and then to make contact with any friendly troops on the right. He went some distance, as far in fact as the foot of the track leading up to Takrouna village, but found no trace of either 28 or 23 Battalions. (The latter at this time was still fighting for its start line.) No. 7 Platoon was under heavy fire, and Sergeant Howell, the commander, was killed. Lance-Sergeant Steiner2 took charge, organised an attack across the road, with 8 Platoon giving covering fire, and led his party forward, attacking with Tommy guns and grenades. Five machine-gun posts were destroyed, but Steiner then found that only two other men were left, and one of these was soon afterwards mortally wounded, so the little party withdrew back to the road.

1 Sgt C. R. Mellsop, MM; Waimauku, Auckland; born Waiuku, 17 Aug 1912; farmer; wounded 22 Apr 1943.

2 Lt L. A. Steiner, DCM; born NZ 4 Mar 1918; farmhand; killed in action 23 Sep 1944.

page 322

Lieutenant Chalmers had now returned, and in company with Sergeant Steiner went back to battalion headquarters to report, leaving the company under Sergeant Klaus.1

To the left of A Company, 12 and 11 Platoons of B Company crossed the road and attacked the enemy, and soon were engaged in bitter fighting. Both platoon commanders, Lieutenants Donaldson2 and Taylor,3 were killed, and Sergeant Parris4 of 12 Platoon was shortly the only senior NCO available. He found that when the enemy position had been taken there was only a handful of men left, and in fact he could find only four who were still fully active. Neither platoon was capable of further effort; and as an enemy counter-attack seemed imminent, Sergeant Parris decided to go back to the road, where he found the remnants of A Company. He then went back to try to find either company or battalion headquarters.

At Brigade Headquarters all the information tended to show that 21 Battalion could not hold its objective. The early information from the OC C Company seemed to indicate that the position of the battalion would be untenable at first light if Takrouna were not taken. Then a runner from B Company arrived, having failed to find battalion headquarters, and reported the position on the Zaghouan road as it had been when he left, before Lieutenant Taylor had been killed. Moreover, the news from the remainder of the brigade front was not reassuring. Accordingly, shortly after 2.45 a.m. Brigadier Kippenberger sent messages to Lieutenant-Colonel Harding, by two liaison officers moving separately, to the effect that the battalion should withdraw to its original area if its position would be untenable at first light. The messages from Brigade Headquarters crossed with the one from Harding saying that he intended to take just that action.

It is doubtful if the runners from battalion headquarters to A and B Companies ever got through, but Lieutenant Chalmers and Captain Roach had located Headquarters by this time and conferred with Lieutenant-Colonel Harding. The final decision, taken at 4.30 a.m., was that the forward companies would withdraw if by 5.30 a.m. contact had not been made with either 28 or 23 Battalions. Each company was to act independently, and armed with these instructions Roach and Chalmers went forward again.

1 2 Lt C. D. M. Klaus, MM; born Waihi, 20 Oct 1916; freezing worker; wounded 20 Apr 1943; killed in action 18 Mar 1944.

2 Lt R. Donaldson; born NZ 14 Apr 1921; Regular soldier; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.

3 Lt G. M. Taylor; born Walton, 23 Aug 1910; carrier; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.

4 Sgt L. N. Parris, MM; born Auckland, 15 Dec 1915; grocer; three times wounded.

page 323

About 5.30 a.m. battalion headquarters and D Company, together with part of C Company, began to withdraw. The remnants of A and B Companies were also assembled and taken back, many not arriving until after daylight. They were fired on during their journey, but had no more casualties and even collected a few Italian prisoners. It was obvious from personal reconnaissance by Roach, Chalmers, Dotchin and Steiner that the withdrawal was timely, as there was still much enemy activity on the slopes of Takrouna.

So on the west side of Takrouna, although the scene of much courageous fighting, the brigade attack had failed, and it is time to return to the east side, where 23 Battalion was deeply involved.