CHAPTER 15 — From Bardia to Tripoli
AT Menastir the days passed pleasantly enough in the cool of the North African winter as the Division trained and refitted and found time to revive its football. In every corner of the area goal posts sprang up overnight, and soon the first matches of the divisional Rugby competition were in full swing. A visiting RAF officer who called at Divisional Headquarters during the month on some business or other gazed in wonder at the forest of goal posts and the levelled grounds and muttered to himself every few minutes: ‘Bloody good idea! Bloody good idea!’ When asked what was such a good idea, he replied that if the advanced RAF squadrons were to follow up the New Zealanders, they would merely have to join up the closely spaced football grounds and would have the best landing grounds in North Africa in next to no time.
On 26 November Lieutenant-Colonel Agar returned from his two months' absence in hospital and on convalescent leave and resumed command of Divisional Signals.
The Division came under the command of 30 Corps again on 2 December, and three days later left the Menastir area on the first stage of its long journey to Tripolitania. The route lay along the Trigh Capuzzo to El Adem, through Knightsbridge, where rusted remains of British armour still lay in its Cauldron graveyard, then on to Bir Hacheim, where more gaunt skeletons of tanks stood like ghosts on the skyline against the fading evening light. Here the Division bivouacked for the first night. It resumed the journey early next morning and travelled 162 miles across the desert wastes south of Gebel Akhdar. Onwards it continued during the next two days, through Msus and Saunnu, until early in the afternoon of the 8th it reached Haseiat, 30 miles south-east of Agedabia. Here there was a halt for a day or two, and line communications made their first appearance for tactical employment since the battle of Alamein.
The Division moved off again on the 11th and struck south page 339 through difficult going, where formations were compelled to converge from their normal desert formation into three columns, and in the afternoon of the 13th crossed Chrystal's Rift, a vast wadi of soft sand which, but for the work of the Engineers with their bulldozers, would have been impassable for transport. The enemy was now believed to be withdrawing from his forward positions at Marsa Brega in the Agheila line, and the New Zealand Division's task was to swing wide around his southern flank, cross the Marada track, and move quickly north-westwards to seize the high ground west of the salt marshes and so intercept his retirement. The Division covered close on a hundred miles in three marches on the 14th, bivouacked at 11 p.m., and continued the advance early next day, which brought it late in the afternoon to the west of Bir el Merduma. Sixth Brigade, in the van, was directed northwards to cut the main road, along which the enemy was retreating, but was held up just short of it. The Brigade staged a night attack and secured a few prisoners.
The night of the 15th passed quietly at Main Divisional Headquarters, but early next morning large groups of enemy transport escorted by tanks appeared from the east and approached the positions of 5 Brigade, deployed about half a mile to the east. There was a tense air of expectancy, as it was believed that the whole of the Afrika Korps, 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions and go Light Division,1 was in the rearguard now about to try the New Zealanders' Minqar Qaim trick. But suddenly the enemy swung to the north and scuttled to safety through a gap between 5 Brigade and 6 Brigade, about six miles to the north. By midday the fracas was over, and the only people left with any sense of satisfaction, however slight, were the gunners of 4 Field Regiment, who had managed to engage several groups of transport and tanks slipping swiftly past to the north at ranges varying between 1000 and 12,000 yards.
On the morning of the 17th the Division set off towards Nofilia, where the German rearguard was reported to be. General Freyberg's plan was another ‘left hook’: it was to pass to the south of the village and turn north to cut the road to page 340 the west. Fifth Brigade approached the road about 10 miles west of Nofilia late that afternoon. By this time, however, the enemy was already scurrying westwards along the road. His flank guards brought 5 Brigade's battalions under heavy fire as they crept forward in unexpectedly heavy going just short of their objective. The fight continued into the night, but before daylight the enemy had disengaged and fled westwards.
During this affray signal communications worked smoothly enough, except that K Section encountered the usual difficulties caused by transport fouling and breaking cable when lines were being taken forward to 23 and 21 Battalions. In an attempt to reduce the risk of damage caused by vehicles, K Section's linemen carefully moved the cables some distance away from tracks, but these precautions availed them little because transport sought out the lines to use as guides to Brigade Headquarters. Eventually, about 6 p.m., a line reached 23 Battalion and communication was established. On the left, however, the line party pressing forward behind 21 Battalion was hampered by the innumerable breaks in the cable caused by shellfire in their rear and by the depredations of carrier tracks and vehicles. Moreover, the jeep in which 21 Battalion's No. 11 terminal wireless set was installed was immobilised by shell splinters early in the fight; the set was removed from the damaged vehicle and carried forward by hand, wireless communications with Brigade Headquarters being interrupted until another vehicle was sent up from K Section.
The Division remained in the Nofilia area until 14 January. Everyone made himself thoroughly comfortable in readiness for the Christmas and New Year festivities, which were celebrated in the usual 2 NZEF style with turkey, roast pork, and plum pudding. There were even fresh vegetables, conjured up from somewhere by the supply services, and best of all, two bottles of beer for all ranks. The GOC made his usual Christmas Day round of unit messes and spoke briefly to the men in his friendly manner.
At the Divisional Signals' mess, where the men sat about at their ease and the officers served as waiters in a friendly spirit of camaraderie, the General arrived shortly after noon. He congratulated Signals on their work, commending especially page 341 the drivers for their untiring energies in the year's operations. Perhaps he was thinking of Signalman Cy Marshall,2 the driver of his ACV. Marshall was a quiet, even-tempered fellow and a first-class driver, with an almost passionate attachment for his huge vehicle. He drove with both hands on the wheel, his eyes fixed undeviatingly on the route ahead and his head cocked slightly to one side so that his ears might detect instantly any break or flutter in the rhythmic throbbing of the diesel engine.
On one occasion during the chase of the fleeing enemy the great vehicle was thundering along at the head of the divisional column. Inside, the General strode up and down, clasping and unclasping his hands in an agony of impatience and saying to the GSO I every few minutes or so: ‘We must get on. We must get on.’ Then he, or sometimes the GSO I, would go forward to the driver's compartment and say, ‘Faster, driver.’ Or perhaps ‘Can you get a bit more speed, driver.’ Marshall, who was not given to outbursts of exasperation even when there was considerable provocation, soon began to be a little irritated by these continual urgings and admonitions, and when the General approached his compartment again, turned his head and said: ‘Sir, I'm getting as much out of the old bitch as I can.’
Thus 1942 ended for 2 New Zealand Division, a year in which the fortunes of war had receded on the ebb tide of defeat after the desperate fighting of the preceding November in Cyrenaica, until the slack-water period in July and August, after the stirring events of Minqar Qaim. Now, with the Alamein victory, had come the turn of the tide. Eighth Army was at last sweeping forward towards the final defeat of the Panzerarmee Afrika and the dissolution of Italy's much-vaunted African Empire.
A momentous year of endeavour, and twelve months' march nearer home.
Divisional Signals commenced the New Year by winning a quarter-final game from 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion in the divisional Rugby competition, with five points to the machine- page 342 gunners' three. They drew a bye for the semi-final and thus reached the final which, according to rumour and the General's optimism, was to be played in Tripoli.
But the New Year also brought less pleasing things. One of them was the introduction of the new phonetic alphabet which, to Signals, had strange and outlandish sounds, quite unlike their old friends, Ack, Beer, Charlie, Freddie, and all the others that had served so faithfully down the years until the Americans intruded their Able Bakers, Dogs and Jigs—at an Allied conference at Casablanca, it was believed—as part of their contribution to overall Allied strategy. Some of the old hands, like Staff-Sergeant Murphy3 and other diehards of the pre-war Territorial Force, muttered sullenly at the change and wondered aloud and profanely why the Yanks couldn't accept Johnny London and Monkey Nuts, which had helped to win at least one world war and half of another.
The Division left Nofilia on 3 January and was assembled on the 15th near Wadi el Meeghlia, east of the Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track, almost 100 miles south of Misurata and near the western extremity of the Gulf of Sirte, where the coast turns sharply northwards from Buerat. This was D-day for the operation in which Eighth Army was to capture Tripoli. The attack went by the name of FIRE EATER, and the New Zealand Division's part in it was to advance by an inland route through Beni Ulid and Tarhuna, destroying any enemy forces that it might encounter.
The Division set off next day on the first stage of the advance, and passed through Beni Ulid in the bright moonlight of the late evening of the 19th. The long line of vehicles wound sinuously through the village in a silence broken only by the low growl of gears, and passed between picturesque buildings and tall, gently waving palms. By the afternoon of the next day the Division was about 15 miles south of Tarhuna. So far the only fighting had been several sharp brushes which the tanks of the Royal Scots Greys and Divisional Cavalry had had with enemy rearguards.
Late in the evening of 20 January 30 Corps ordered the Division to have a brigade group ready to go at short notice page 343 direct to Tripoli. By the evening of the 22nd the Division, with the armour and 5 Brigade Group leading, was on the Garian-Tripoli road and striking north towards Azizia. Here 5 Brigade encountered determined enemy resistance, but 15 Panzer Division withdrew during the night, and the New Zealanders pushed on next morning through Azizia and Suani Ben Adem to the Azizia Gate of the city. But patrols of 11 Hussars, followed by Highlanders who had advanced along the coast, had entered the city early that morning and forestalled 5 Brigade's hopes of being the first Eighth Army troops in Tripoli.
Thus, on 23 January, exactly three months after General Montgomery had launched his offensive at Alamein, he brought his Eighth Army to the gates of Italy's last African prize and seized it almost without firing a shot. Fifth Brigade took over the southern portion of the city and established its headquarters in the government agricultural research station.
Early that afternoon General Freyberg, accompanied by Brigadier Gentry and a small party from Headquarters 6 Brigade, including a wireless detachment from L Section, ran into a small enemy ambush at Bianchi, some miles south-west of Suani Ben Adem, and came under rifle and machine-gun fire at very close range. There were a few casualties, including one of the operators on the wireless set, but the General was persuaded to withdraw while his ADC, Captain Griffiths,4 engaged the enemy with a tommy gun. The remainder of the party, which mustered only three rifles all told, was forced to fall back on a farmhouse under machine-gun and mortar fire. By this time the brigade staff captain's car had received a hit and was burning fiercely. The enemy reached the other vehicles and began to loot them, but help arrived in the shape of two Stuart tanks and some guns from 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion, whereupon the enemy withdrew. During this affray Second-Lieutenant Whitehead,5 second-in-command of L Section, led the small party of riflemen in a stalking practice, but they could not get close enough to get a shot in before the enemy withdrew.page 344
By early evening Divisional Headquarters had reached the Bianchi area and settled into bivouac in a large wheat field. A week later, on the 30th, the headquarters moved to a new location near Castel Benito aerodrome, where the men settled themselves in in the greatest comfort they could contrive among the almond and olive groves. Here they were told that a review of the Division by the Army Commander would take place in a few days' time and that Lieutenant-Colonel Agar was to command the Divisional Troops—Royal Scots Greys, Divisional Cavalry, Divisional Engineers, Divisional Signals, and 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion—for the occasion.
By this time many of the men had been into Tripoli on daily leave rosters, but most of them were keenly disappointed in the pride of Mussolini's empire. The city was squalid and impoverished and wore a dejected look, and there was little for the men to do except wander about its streets and peer through the windows of the tiny little shops which, except for one or two that sold trashy bric-a-brac, were closed and deserted. A wide palm-lined drive swept along the sea front, with lines of impressive buildings in the European style on its shoreward side. At the western end of this marine drive, or Corniche, was the Piazza Italia, from which the city's principal thoroughfares radiated. The piazza bore witness to the Italian zest for ornateness with its fountains, statuary, and the usual crop of Fascist ceremonial flagstaffs. In the piazza, too, was the mediaeval citadel, a relic of the city's Turkish rule, lending a bizarre oriental air to the cheap and transient splendours of Italian imperialism.
The long 1400-mile march from Alamein's wastes to this great German-Italian supply base had presented no special problems in signal communications for 2 New Zealand Division. Line communications, which were laid out at most of the overnight halts during the advance, had had little or no tactical employment, so that the burden of communications fell mainly on wireless which, except for extended ranges on some links and some night atmospheric conditions, worked satisfactorily at good signal strengths. In the semi-permanent bivouac areas around Tripoli and at Suani Ben Adem and Castel Benito, page 345 however, lines assumed a new importance for inter-formation communications, and before long a fairly extensive network of circuits radiated outwards from Divisional Headquarters by field cable, poled-line routes, and salvaged German rubber-sheathed quad cable built back into hedges and ditches.
Besides the responsibilities of providing signal communications and the enjoyment of its comfortable bivouac in the pleasant shade of the almonds and olives, Divisional Signals had another engrossing interest. This was its football team's preparations under its captain, Second-Lieutenant Vaughan, for the final of the divisional Rugby competition. Vaughan drove his men hard. There were spells of physical training at least twice daily, and in the evenings he bullied them into long training runs. In between times he co-opted the assistance of Corporal Harry Jones,6 a D Section NCO who possessed a respectable ability at hockey and football. Between the two of them they hammered the team, carefully chosen by Corporal Barney Armstrong,7 the unit's sole selector, into a compact bunch of players who were, Vaughan declared with pardonable pride, as ‘fit as fighting cocks and able to fight their own weight in wild- cats’. At Castel Benito aerodrome an Australian fighter squadron of the RAF had prepared a playing field for its own use, and here Vaughan exercised his team in practice matches against the Australians. By the beginning of February the players had reached a stage of superb physical fitness, but the consensus of opinion in the divisional lines favoured their opponents, the Maoris.
On 4 February, however, interest in the forthcoming match was submerged for the time being in a fresh tide of excitement when it was learned that the review by the Army Commander for which the Division had been training was to be before none other than Mr Churchill. The parade took place that afternoon. The men lunched under the trees at the rear of the parade ground, after which the markers were called out and the Division assembled in review order. Fifteen minutes before the expected arrival of the Prime Minister every man was in page 346 position, eyes glancing along the road from every point of the parade to catch the first glimpse of the official party. At 2 p.m. General Freyberg called his Division to attention as the cars of the party approached. Next came the General Salute, which the men executed in perfect timing, and then Mr Churchill, accompanied by General Freyberg, inspected the parade from the Prime Minister's car. After the Prime Minister had addressed the Division in impressive Churchillian accents, the parade marched past the saluting base, unit by unit.
Within a week enthusiasm for the forthcoming Rugby match between Signals and the Maoris was again in full spate; the Maoris appeared to be still leading in favour, although a few people who had been keeping their eyes open began to introduce a note of caution into the prevailing opinion.
The day dawned under an overcast sky and light showers fell early in the afternoon. There was a brisk westerly wind blowing down the field, but the ground had settled down firmly after some recent heavy rain and was in excellent condition for the game. It was on the same ground where the Division had been reviewed by Mr Churchill ten days before. Honoured soil, indeed, even though it had once been Italian! The Division arrived in force to see the game and huddled in greatcoats along the side-lines, some spectators climbing on top of the scores of 3-ton lorries drawn up at vantage points. Around the field Bofors guns poked their long snouts into the air to meet any threat from enemy maurauders.
Divisional Signals won the toss and elected to play down wind. From the outset the match was played at a killing pace, and as each man gained possession of the ball he was brought down by relentless tackling. The first half was a grim struggle for the Maoris, who were forced back into their own territory by Signals' closely knit combination. In the first twenty minutes four penalties were awarded against the Maoris for infringements in the scrum, but Signals missed the first two kicks, which were taken from almost directly in front of the posts and inside the Maoris' half. A third kick, taken by Dawson,8 went over, giving first blood to Signals. At half-time the score stood at Signals 3, Maoris nil. During the interval the latter changed page 347 their jerseys to the yellow and blue of 6 Field Regiment in place of their own black and white, which were difficult to distinguish from Signals' blue and white.
In the second spell, with the wind behind them, the Maoris opened their attack vigorously, but Signals showed themselves as capable in defence as in attack. A brilliant breakthrough by Wordley,9 however, brought a try by Aratema,10 which was converted, making the score 5—3 in the Maoris' favour. Signals reacted strongly and swept down into the Maoris' twenty-five, where they were awarded another penalty. Dawson took a prodigious kick into the wind; the ball hit the cross-bar, balanced uncertainly for a brief moment and then tumbled over, to bring the score to 6—5 in Signals' favour. From this stage play became extremely vigorous, both sides fighting hard for victory. With only a few minutes left, the Maoris' hopes of winning seemed negligible, until suddenly, during some loose play inside Signals' twenty-five, Taite,11 the Maoris' centre-threequarter and a former Hawke's Bay representative and Te Aute College player, secured possession of the ball and broke through and scored near the corner flag. The Maoris failed to convert this try, but a few minutes later the game ended, leaving them victorious by eight points to Signals' six.
On 10 February Divisional Signals received a new British war establishment for a divisional signals, and Lieutenant-Colonel Agar set to work by the light of midnight oil to fit it into the requirements of 2 NZ Division. Two days later he had a draft establishment ready for examination and discussion by company commanders, who were expected to be ready to bring it into use on 1 March. The new establishment contained five major changes, which were, in order of importance: the formation of a new sub-unit, 4 Signal Squadron, to provide communications for the 4 Armoured Brigade, then being formed at Maadi from the original 4 Infantry Brigade; the page 348 formation of a new section, R Section, in No. 1 Company to provide wireless communications for the administration group at Rear Headquarters 2 NZ Division; the formation (or rather, official blessing) of the CRA's signal section, which was to be known as H Section, the second of that name; the reorganisation of E Section in No. 2 Company to provide the increased scale of regimental headquarters' and battery headquarters' communications for 4 Field Regiment, which in due course would support the new 4 Armoured Brigade; and the transfer of C Section—attached to Headquarters Divisional Cavalry— from No. 1 to No. 3 Company.
From the company commanders' examination of the new establishment it was but a short step to dismembering No. 1 Company and reassembling it in its new order. In due course R Section went off to Rear Divisional Headquarters under the command of Lieutenant Healy, who had for his second-in-command Second-Lieutenant Missen. Second-Lieutenant Toms assumed command of the new H Section, and OC No. 2 Company came to live at Headquarters Divisional Signals, an ‘indignity’ that no previous artillery signals officer had ever had to endure.
1 While go Lt Div prevented 6 NZ Bde from reaching the road, along which 21 Pz Div was retreating, 15 Pz Div escaped through the gap between 6 Bde and the rest of 2 NZ Div.