Bardia to Enfidaville
The Enemy Attacks
The Enemy Attacks
All doubts about the enemy's intentions ceased at an early hour on 6 March, when fairly heavy shelling of all forward positions began at 6 a.m. Then for the next hour and a half tanks, guns, and page 147 transport debouched from the hills between Toujane and Kreddache, the approach having been concealed by fog in the early stages. The first tanks to be seen came down the Toujane–Medenine road and then swung north against 7 Armoured Division.
On the front of 2 NZ Division, contact with the enemy (from 164 Light Division) was first made by carriers from 21 Battalion, which engaged seven enemy vehicles carrying infantry and anti-tank guns. The carriers opened fire at close range in the fog and inflicted many casualties, but lost one carrier and had two casualties.
Small groups of infantry probed along the whole front, and farther back as the fog lifted, enemy guns could be seen taking up positions. For a long time our artillery was silent, obeying orders not to open fire prematurely, but to wait until targets came within the range of the maximum weight of guns. (This was the result of experience at Alamein.) It was definite policy, moreover, for the anti-tank guns to open at short range, and not to dispel a tank attack by using medium or field artillery at long range. The 5th Field Regiment, for instance, withheld fire until enemy tanks had run up against the forward six-pounders, and then fired on the infantry and the soft-skinned vehicles following the tanks, with the result that the tanks were isolated and received no support from the ground troops.
About 8.30 a.m. tanks were reported from two directions advancing on Point 270 (Tadjera Kbir), which seemed to be the main objective. At this time also 28 Battalion reported that ten tanks and thirty trucks were moving up the wadi on its right front. The tanks reached the boundary of the dummy minefield, and then, as had been hoped, swung towards the rising ground. Two six-pounders from 73 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, then opened fire and knocked out four Mark III Special tanks at 400 yards' range, and mortars of 28 Battalion finished off a fifth. When the crews bailed out, the mortars and machine guns with the battalion had first-class targets and the artillery was quickly in action. The tanks were taken by surprise and lost cohesion; but then they located the anti-tank guns and opened fire on them. Despite damage to one gun of 73 Regiment and the wounding of two of the crew, the gun kept firing; and when all the other weapons had opened fire, the remaining tanks disengaged and made off in confusion. Fifteen prisoners were taken, including the tank company commander, all from 10 Panzer Division. A member of 27 (MG) Battalion who was on the spot has described the action as ‘a truly grand victory for the Tommy gunners, made still more remarkable considering that it was their very first action. The way in which they held their fire was an example to us all.’1
1 R. Ffolliott-Powell.
Shortly after 9 a.m. 21 Battalion engaged and dispersed with mortar fire a party of infantry debussing on its front, and by about 10 a.m. the remaining infantry had withdrawn and were digging in some three or four miles back. Our artillery was now active all over the front, bringing down concentrations on previously arranged zones as soon as enemy troops or vehicles entered them.
There was no serious second attack against 2 NZ Division during the morning, although there was much movement of tanks and transport across the front in a confused way; and indeed, apparent confusion was visible all along the line. But obviously the main enemy thrust was directed against Tadjera Kbir and farther north.
On the left flank, however, the enemy force (3 and 33 Reconnaissance Units and Kasta, the last with nine tanks) worked round to the Foum Tatahouine–Medenine road; but the Free French, who were holding this area, successfully contained this threat without any assistance. The FFF Column had some fairly hard fighting and incurred twenty-seven casualties, but throughout the day resisted enemy pressure up the line of the road from a point 12 miles south of Medenine.
During the afternoon the enemy brought his infantry into the attacks in increasing degree, and at intervals from 3.30 onwards advancing troops were dispersed by artillery fire from 2 NZ Divisional Artillery, without coming to grips with our infantry. The climax came at 5.45 p.m. when about 1000 infantry with tanks reached an area just west of Point 270, and were there subjected to a devastating concentration from 2 NZ Divisional Artillery and Corps and 5 AGRA field and medium regiments, even the heavy anti-aircraft guns on the landing ground. When the area was inspected after the battle it was found that there was rarely more than six yards between the fall of shot. The time spent in linking up the artillery along the corps front had produced a good dividend.
In the heat of the battle there arrived an addition to the Divisional Artillery, in the shape of a troop of captured 88-millimetre guns, staffed by Royal Artillery personnel under Captain Downing, RA. These had been given to the Division by Brigadier McIntyre, RA, commander of a British anti-aircraft brigade. They were deployed near Divisional Artillery Headquarters and for a short while were employed in an anti-aircraft role; but later in the day they moved to 4 Field Regiment's area, and formed a part of that regiment until the end in North Africa. The troop was soon known as ‘Mac Troop’, officially and otherwise.1
1 In a report to War History Branch, Brigadier Weir says, ‘Their first engagement was Anti-aircraft; but in their haste the gunners forgot to set the fuzes to “time” with the result that some of the shells completed the trajectory, bursting on percussion in Col Crump's replenishment area’. It would, however, be unfair to assume that this is why they moved to 4 Field Regiment.
On the front of 51 Division and 7 Armoured Division the fighting was more intense, although no serious penetration of the defences was made and Tadjera Kbir was never in danger.
At 6 p.m. twenty-seven enemy tanks and some infantry passing across 21 Battalion's front out of range of anti-tank guns were engaged by field artillery. This was the last that the Division saw of the enemy in this action.
Throughout the day the enemy attacks had been supported by fighter-bombers and fighters; but the Desert Air Force was very active and the Luftwaffe had little success. Raids over 5 and 6 Brigades and the gun areas caused no damage or casualties, but two men were killed and two wounded in a raid over 4 Field Ambulance, and some slight damage was suffered in rear areas. One Me109 was shot down by 26 Battalion with a captured Breda gun.
By last light it was all over and the enemy everywhere was withdrawing, having achieved no success. There was at no time the faintest requirement to call upon reserves.
The detached force of KRRC and other units at Haddada saw no action, but were left very much in the air when the FFF Column on their right was forced back by the enemy attempt to outflank them. For a while the Haddada group thought they had been cut off altogether, but they remained in position and were still there next day.
During the night of 6–7 March 30 Corps patrolled actively, mainly to discover if the enemy would resume his attacks on 7 March, despite his visible losses in tanks. By last light on 6 March it was already known that these were of the order of forty or fifty, so that a renewal of the attack was not likely.
The New Zealand Division had the special task of watching for any movement round the south of the line. Sappers after dark demolished the five tanks knocked out on 28 Battalion front, and similar action was taken elsewhere along the corps front. Some tanks of Staffs Yeomanry were moved forward slightly in case of an attempt by the enemy to penetrate 5 Brigade's line, but it was a quiet night, except that the Divisional Artillery put down harassing fire at intervals up to 3.30 a.m.