Bardia to Enfidaville
Operations Around Djebibina
Operations Around Djebibina
Between 4 and 9 May the total casualties in 2 NZ Division were some fifteen killed and thirty-six wounded. All the operations in this period were of a minor nature as the policy was that no major operation would be carried out, but that some degree of penetration would be effected whenever possible during darkness. Successes obtained in such a way were to be exploited on subsequent nights by vigorous patrolling. General Freyberg did not expect any notable results, and believed that the more the enemy was stretched in this area, the more firmly he would hold the coastal sector.
Not a great deal was known of the enemy troops nor of their exact position on the ground, but the main line appeared to be immediately to the north of the road running through Saouaf, with advanced posts farther south. The whole area was heavily mined. page 360 While there seem to have been elements of regiments from other divisions, it is sufficiently accurate to say that opposite 2 NZ Division there was now the unarmoured portion of 21 Panzer Division, and a mixture of 164 Light Division and Pistoia (or Superga) Divisions.
On 4 May the French attack against Djebel Zaghouan went no farther, and 19 French Corps merely consolidated its gains.page 361
That night 23 Battalion, on the right, and 21 on the left advanced silently and settled down by 10 p.m. without incident about four miles north-east of Djebibina on a front of five to six thousand yards. Thick minefields were discovered, indicating that the enemy's main positions lay farther ahead. The 28th Battalion remained in reserve.
Divisional Cavalry reconnoitred forward for about another 2000 yards on 5 May, drew fire, but was held up by mines. Patrols sent out by the battalions brought back the same tale, but it appeared that the line could still go forward without difficulty, and Major-General Kippenberger gave instructions accordingly for a further advance of from 1500 to 3000 yards.
At 3.30 p.m. eight enemy aircraft dropped a few bombs in a hit-and-run raid over the artillery area, but caused no damage. As far as is known, this was the last raid by the Luftwaffe against 2 NZ Division in North Africa.
The two battalions duly went forward after dark, again without artillery support. The forward platoon on the left came in touch with enemy troops and exchanged fire, but as instructions were to avoid close action, the platoon withdrew. The line of 21 Battalion was advanced under cover of fog on 6 May, by which time the FDLs faced nearly due east.
During the night 5–6 May our artillery fired concentrations at targets on the front of 19 French Corps and later received thanks from the divisional commander, although the French had not been able to achieve decisive results.
Sappers of 7 Field Company were kept hard at work clearing mines, which were considered to be more thickly sown than ever before in the experience of the Division. But while the minefields caused much delay, they caused little damage, for the enemy no longer covered them by observation or fire, and they could be cleared at leisure.
The activities of the next few days were much the same as previously, to push forward as far as possible without becoming involved in a major operation. The Division had ample artillery support, and engendered great excitement in senior officers of 19 Corps by offering the support of up to 200 guns, but despite some French exuberance there was no sign that the support would be wanted. On 6 May General Freyberg directed that the operations should aim at pinching out Djebel Garci, which still loomed unconquered on the right front. But it was soon discovered that limited operations were insufficient to capture the feature.page 362
On the night 6–7 May 23 and 21 Battalions advanced another 1000 yards or so. There were a few minor clashes, and a handful of prisoners were taken. The limit of ‘peaceful penetration’ had almost been reached.
Meanwhile, away to the north the last battle had started. Fifth Corps captured Djebel bou Aoukaz by nightfall on 5 May, enabling 9 Corps to form up. At 3.30 a.m. on 6 May, 4 British and 4 Indian Divisions moved forward, and aided by massed artillery and by the greatest air effort in the war up to that time—over 2000 sorties—made a gap by midday. The armour and armoured cars of 6 and 7 Armoured Divisions then passed through and by nightfall were halfway to Tunis. On the American front resistance showed signs of crumbling also, and the advance was fast.
On 7 May, 6 and 7 Armoured Divisions moved forward at first light, stormed down the road to Tunis, and at 2.45 p.m. entered the town. At 4.15 p.m. American troops entered Bizerta. The first stage had been a brilliant success, and it now remained to round up the enemy troops and prevent any last-ditch stand.
The same day the French also occupied Pont du Fahs, which had long been an objective.page 363
It is small wonder that when these stirring events came to the ears of 2 NZ Division there was a feeling of disappointment that it had not shared them. But in the meantime, like good soldiers, they had to carry on with more mundane tasks. By the evening of 8 May the divisional FDLs ran parallel to the Saouaf road and some 2500 yards short of it, a total advance since 4 May of some 6000 yards. The 21st Battalion was on the left throughout, but latterly 28 Battalion had in effect passed through 23 Battalion, and was now in a rather exposed position and having some casualties from shell and mortar fire. The various posts were scattered and were not linked up on the ground, showing the effects of the policy of penetration where possible, as opposed to a set-piece advance.
In the north on 8 May, 6 and 7 Armoured Divisions fanned out as intended. The 7th Armoured Division was fast closing its half of the net towards Bizerta, and had almost met 1 US Armoured Division coming south from that port. The 6th Armoured Division came up against the defile between the hills and the sea at Hammam Lif, ten miles east of Tunis. It was closely supported by 1 Armoured Division and 4 British Division, but had run into strong defences, well supplied with 88-millimetre guns, and was there temporarily held up.
General Freyberg now decided so to dispose 10 Corps that, in accordance with the plan for Eighth Army, it could advance quickly up the coast towards Hammamet. It was arranged therefore that 56 (L) Division would attack during the night 8–9 May, and 5 AGRA was to leave 2 NZ Division during 8 May and move across to provide additional support. Moreover, 2 NZ Division less 5 Infantry Brigade Group was also to move to Enfidaville in the early hours of darkness on 8 May, leaving 5 Brigade to continue exerting pressure to turn Djebel Garci. But later in the day instructions were received that present positions were to be consolidated, and that on the night 9–10 May the area was to be handed back to 4 Light Armoured Brigade. Fifth Infantry Brigade Group would then rejoin the Division. When this relief was complete the 10 Corps line from east to west would be held by 56 (L) Division, 1 Free French Division (which had relieved 51 (H) Division), ‘L’ Force, and 4 Light Armoured Brigade.
Instructions in 5 Brigade for the night 8–9 May were that there would be no patrolling, and that a passive attitude was to be maintained. But the enemy suddenly became aggressive, worked round one company of 28 Battalion and showed every sign of surrounding it. So dangerous did the position become that the company commander—wisely in the circumstances—withdrew. It page 364 seemed that the point had been reached when the enemy had decided that something must be done to stop the infiltration of his line. It may have also been a last attempt to keep up morale.
However, activity died down and a patrol from 28 Battalion made things even by rounding up twenty-five prisoners and some machine guns during daylight on 9 May. The relief of 5 Brigade took place without incident that night, and on the morning of 10 May the group moved back to the Enfidaville area.