Bardia to Enfidaville
NZ Corps winds up pugilist
NZ Corps winds up pugilist
While 10 Corps was on its way to Tebaga, the nature of the fighting on the front of NZ Corps remained unchanged. On 23 March 164 Light Division came into the line on the right of 21 Panzer, with a sector including Point 209 to Djebel Tebaga, and 3 and 33 Reconnaissance Units, acting as a group, patrolled the area north of the Djebel between the mountains and the Chotts. Apparently the enemy was as apprehensive of an advance on our part round the north of the Djebel as Freyberg had been of an enemy attack by the same route.
The two German divisions were to some degree mixed up, a common occurrence, and those Italians still fit for fighting were sandwiched in between German units. The 220th Reconnaissance Unit of 164 Light Division was away watching the passes over the hills east of Djebel Melab. In the words of 164 Light this was to ‘stiffen XXI Corps’ (the Italians on the right of the Mareth defences), but 21 Panzer Division, not so polite, said it was to ‘bolster up the Italians'. The advance of ‘L’ Force had borne some fruit, for 164 Division reported certain successes by them in Zemlet el Madjel.
At 3 p.m. on 23 March command of the whole enemy front passed to Major-General von Liebenstein, GOC 164 Division. It is recorded that Mannerini was given ‘new orders’, but what they were is not known. He disappeared from the Tebaga front.
The enemy line was now about three miles north-east of Point 201, but on the east flank curved to the south to take in Point 184, and from there ran into the peaks of Zemlet el Madjel. Between the opposing FDLs was a ‘no-man's land’ of some width. The enemy took full advantage of the slopes of Djebel Tebaga, and in the afternoon the headquarters of both 164 Light and 21 Panzer Divisions moved there so that they could overlook the front.page 194
Events on the Corps front on 24 and 25 March do not justify recounting in detail, except for certain special activities. The 8th Armoured Brigade continued to advance slowly on the left flank along the slopes of Djebel Tebaga. Divisional Cavalry also operated there, and spent some time trying to find a good track through the Djebel, but had no better fortune than had KDG. The object of these reconnaissances is not clear, for it would have been wild optimism to think of launching an attack by that route. The most that could be achieved was an assurance that the enemy could not come that way either.
The Desert Air Force gradually stepped up its support and on 24 March delivered two strong attacks. The first, by forty-seven Kittyhawks and twelve Hurricane tank-busters, destroyed about twenty vehicles of various sorts, and left many others in flames, including at least four tanks. The second attack was specifically directed against the enemy tanks which were opposing 8 Armoured Brigade. Six tanks were destroyed and one damaged, and the attack led the GOC to send a message of congratulation to the Air Officer Commanding. Our aircraft ran into heavy flak, but the six aircraft which were hit were all landed within our lines. For both attacks the forward troops burned yellow smoke to indicate the front line. During the second attack the enemy burned yellow smoke as well, but the pilots were not deceived.
‘L’ Force and KDG continued to operate together in Zemlet el Madjel, the latter reporting frankly that the ground was not suitable for armoured cars. By nightfall ‘L’ Force was in touch with the enemy on Point 354, the highest point. During the day, on the instructions of the GOC, Brigadier Kippenberger went with General Leclerc to this point in order to give an opinion whether or not an attack could be made by 5 Brigade round the enemy's left flank. His opinion was that it was possible but difficult, and the difficulty applied specially to transport and supporting weapons, which meant that consolidation might be costly.
It is difficult to believe that there was ever a real intention to attack by this route, which at best was over ground quite unsuitable for any rapid action, but by this time it was abundantly clear that the GOC was not in favour of a strong central thrust with his present forces, and was looking for some way round. However, by the time Kippenberger got back to Corps Headquarters, Lieutenant-General Horrocks had arrived, and events were fast moving to something altogether bigger.
The three battalions of 6 Brigade had on the whole an uneventful time. There were a number of enemy air raids of varying intensity, but damage was negligible and casualties were slight. The only page 195 real excitement was a triviality— the appearance in the late afternoon of 24 March of a lorry and motor-cycle on the El Hamma-Kebili road. Men on Point 201 stood up in their trenches to watch the approach, but machine-gunners spoilt the fun by opening up at 2000 yards' range, whereupon the motor-cyclist disappeared, apparently wounded, and the truck turned round and went off in a cloud of dust. Driving into the enemy's lines was an occasional occurrence to both sides.
On the night 24–25 March an attempt was made to capture Point 184, which gave good observation over our positions. At 7.30 p.m., just before the moon rose, D Company of 26 Battalion attacked silently, but the two leading platoons ran into heavy machine-gun and mortar fire, and found the feature steeper than had been expected. Fire called from our own guns silenced the enemy mortars, but the attack was not persisted in, and the company withdrew. It was clear that Point 184 could not be stormed by two platoons.
Throughout this period supplies were coming forward regularly from the New Zealand Field Maintenance Centre, which until 22 March was still at Bir Amir on the eastern side of Wilder's Gap. On that day the FMC was moved forward to Bir Soltane, which shortened the haul for the Corps transport and transferred the burden to the Army authorities. Lack of supplies at no stage hindered operations, not even the ever-increasing demands for gun ammunition—which speaks volumes for the combined efforts of the NZASC and the RASC units supporting NZ Corps.