New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
Word that Major Murray Reid had been found in an Italian hospital in Tripoli was received with pleasure by his old Company. He, a seriously wounded RAF sergeant and three critically ill Germans had been transferred to a civilian institution two days before the occupation of the city. When the sappers called on their late commander, who had lost an arm since they were last together, he was busy teaching himself to roll cigarettes with one hand.
The field companies were given little opportunity to contemplate the amenities of the port of Tripoli. Not that there was much to contemplate: empty, shuttered shops, frightened civilians, rubble-filled streets, ‘Out of Bounds’ notices beyond counting and closed cafés are not wildly exhilarating. When the sappers had any spare time, which was seldom, it was more comfortable in camp.
The companies were widely spread:
Fifth Field Park Company established a water point, first at Castel Benito and later in the New Zealand area along the Castel Benito–Suani Ben Adem road; the company bulldozers were engaged on a number of projects such as clearing away wreckage and filling craters on the waterfront, helping 7 Armoured Division remove road blocks and working on the Castel Benito airfield. The rest of the company repaired the Tarhuna-Tripoli highway by first making deviations around the craters for urgent traffic and then filling the cavities.
One large crater in an awkward position gave the Bridging Section its first opportunity of using its small box-girder equipment; the bridge was complete and ready for traffic in ninety minutes. The Company concentrated in the Divisional area on 19 February after testing all unit football grounds for mines, and until the end of the month the men played a little football and hockey and did some sightseeing in Tripoli.
It was during this period that all companies were brought partly up to strength from the 8th Reinforcements, which entailed some reorganisation of the platoons, as the sections were now to be called.page 420
Sixth Field Company camped on the Castel Benito airfield, already being used by the Desert Air Force, and searched the whole area for mines. None were found, but the sappers maintained that they were being victimised for their lack of success when the unit was warned that it was to represent the Divisional Engineers at a ceremonial parade.
Every spare man spent three very solid days in march discipline and in renewing acquaintanceship with small-arms drill, to both of which activities they had been strangers for many months. But they reckoned they would go well on the day.
The day was 4 February and the Company fielded half its strength, which was paraded for the occasion with the Divisional Signallers. The sappers did all the right things at the right times, listened to a short, inspiring address by Mr Winston Churchill and returned thankfully to Castel Benito.
After its brief appearance in the military limelight 6 Field Company resumed work. Company Headquarters moved into the Divisional area while No. 3 Section prepared for a job on the Tripoli waterfront. A length of the Spanish Mole had been blown up and a bridge had to be built to connect it with the mainland. Again it involved sheetpiling, excavating, waiting for heavy scas to subside and driving forty piles. The bridge and other subsidiary jobs were completed by 28 February, when the sappers returned to Company Headquarters. The rest of the Company, under the command of Captain Goodsir, left for Nalut, some 200 miles inland and practically on the Tunisian border, where the road into another of the canyon-like passes that had so bedevilled the Engineers at Sedada and Beni Ulid had been demolished.
Lieutenant Hermans gave full marks both to the builders of the road and to those who later blew it up. He says:
‘The original road was quite a feat of engineering so far as road location was concerned and Jerry (or the Ities) had made a pretty thorough job of mining it by putting down shafts and drives under the road itself and packing them full of explosives—it must have been quite a bang when it went up. He chose a spot on the pass where the road zig-zagged backwards and forwards above itself about three times and blew the lot out. This was several hundred feet above the valley floor which was almost sheer below. However we managed to get a one way track through by dint of hard work.’
The tracks were then widened to 19 feet, entailing a lot of blasting in country already shaken by the enemy demolitions, page 421 and so the job took longer than at first estimated. The Company returned to Tripoli on 28 February.
Eighth Field Company was instructed that the Azizia-Garian road craters and demolitions were to be repaired as soon as possible. The biggest job was on an escarpment to the north of Garian where two large craters, one 50 yards long, 17 feet deep and 30 feet wide, the other 30 yards long, 17 feet deep and 18 feet wide, completely blocked the road, while the rubble from the demolitions provided further blocks in the road below the damage. Some large unexploded charges of oozing gelignite in tunnels under the road gave those who removed them—even though working in short shifts—very nasty headaches.
Compressors were borrowed from 6 Field Company and a bulldozer from 5 Field Park. On 17 February the road was completely restored and the Company returned to the Divisional area.
While the sappers are restoring communications and the Division is providing a 3000-strong waterside force for the unloading of supply ships, this is a convenient time to survey the general situation in North Africa.
When the First Army landed in French North-West Africa in November 1942 it was in pursuance of a plan that envisaged the Eighth Army breaking out at Alamein and joining hands with the Anglo-American force at Tripoli; Allied shipping could then be protected by land-based aircraft from Gibraltar to Alexandria; and then, in the Churchillian phrase, the soft underbelly, the invasion of Italy.
The Eighth Army was in Tripoli according to plan but General Eisenhower's army had got stuck; the occupation of Algeria and Morocco had been countered by the landing of another German-Italian army under General von Arnim in French Tunisia. The French colonial administration did not actively oppose either group.
The gap between the two Allied forces was certainly narrow, but General Montgomery could not move far from his new base until supplies were built up and General Eisenhower could not move at all because the enemy would not let him.page 422
The chief obstacle confronting Eighth Army was the French Mareth line fortifications behind which Rommel had deployed the bulk of his strength. Re-equipped and reinforced, he had gone off to launch an offensive against the Americans with his armour. This he had done with some thoroughness, narrowly missing a decisive victory, whereupon he returned to Mareth.
The Mareth line had been built by the French for the purpose of keeping Italy out of Tunisia, but after the fall of France it had been demilitarised by an Axis Commission. Now it was rearmed and garrisoned by Italian formations. It was part concrete emplacements, part self-contained strongpoints and part tank-proof wadis, with its inland hinge fastened to a range of hills, the Monts des Ksour, that ran both south and west, so that to turn the line it was necessary to cross the Monts des Ksour twice. Military opinion had always assumed that the Mareth line would have to be attacked frontally, for the only reasonable roads across the Monts des Ksour were strongly defended.
This was, however, not quite the case, for Captain Wilder1 of the Long Range Desert Group had smelt out a road, difficult but possible for a mechanised force, through the southern wing of the Monts about 70 miles south of Medenine. Medenine was the site of our most advanced fighter airstrip and an important road junction covering the forward supply dump at Ben Gar-dane, where General Montgomery was assembling supplies preparatory to a project he had in mind for reducing the Mareth fortress area.
Word that the German panzers were returning to Mareth was received with satisfaction, for it was hoped that they would throw themselves on the gun lines at Medenine so that a proportion of their strength might be destroyed, and the rest disorganised, before the opening of the offensive that would join the Eighth Army with the First and so end the war in North Africa.
Divisional Engineer Headquarters, however, did not view the eventual resumption of the offensive with an excess of optimism. The success achieved at Alamein by following the infantry with mine detectors had induced a feeling of security in unit commanders, but the discovery in Tripoli of a factory for the rapid production of non-magnetic wooden-cased mines suggested that detectors might soon be of little value.page 423
The skilful use of anti-personnel mines, booby traps, dual purpose trip-wired mines and the like made it probable that where time was available these devices could be arranged in such density that infantry would not be able to pass them. And sappers, to do their work, must have infantry protection; they cannot be expected to fight and lift mines at the same time.
The answer seemed to be Scorpions with wider-set flails, plus a motor heavy enough to work them. These recommendations were sent forward but did not induce any noticeable action.
Seventh Field Company, after getting its roads back into shape, had been mixing range-firing practices with a little football, so it was rather a shock to be told on 1 March to pack up at the double.
Captain H. C. Page, who had just come up from Maadi with a mixed column of vehicles and reinforcements, was informed that he was to take over 7 Field Company from Major Skinner, who was returning to New Zealand to resume his Parliamentary duties. Captain (now Major) Page would have Lieutenant Morgan as his second-in-command as soon as he arrived (11 March).
Fifth Brigade Group started about midnight (1 - 2 March) and moved along the main coastal road from Tripoli towards Tunisia with dimmed headlights, probably the first night march so illuminated since Greece and a commentary on the superiority the Desert Air Force had attained over the Luftwaffe. The column halted for breakfast then passed through Sabratha and Zuara, crossed the border into Tunisia late in the afternoon, carried on through Ben Gardane and reached Medenine in the early hours, once again in semi-desert after a rough 200-mile drive.
Eighth Field Company's transition from peace to war was not quite so sudden, inasmuch as it had an extra day to move into 6 Brigade area preparatory to taking up a support position three miles to the east of Medenine by the afternoon of 3 March.
Dispositions for the defensive battle at Medenine were: 51 (Highland) Division, with an armoured brigade under command, held the coastal sector and was deployed in the rear of a wadi that had few crossing places. On its left were two infantry brigades working with 7 Armoured Division. The New Zealand page 424 Division, with 5 Brigade forward, was to form a solid line around Medenine village. Farther south again, a battalion of the RAF Regiment was holding the Medenine airfield while a light armoured brigade watched the flank.
As soon as it was light enough 7 Field Company was given an area a mile south-west of the village and a troop of sixpounder guns as defence against tanks. The sappers proceeded to make themselves useful; No. 2 Section cleared a packet of mines in a wadi, which enabled the OC of an artillery unit who was stranded in his jeep in the middle of them to go thankfully about his business; ample supplies of water were located and reported; Company compressors helped the artillery to dig in.
The next two days passed quietly—a few unexploded bombs dropped by the not very frequent enemy planes to be demolished and minefield stores (pickets, long and short, and coils of wire) to be drawn from the Corps dump at Medenine for work at night. Mines by the thousands had been put out in front of the other formations but the New Zealand sector was to be fenced with the usual single strand of wire and the usual tin triangles indicating a minefield; but, except on roads and tracks leading into the FDLs, the fields were to be dummy. There was a possibility that counter-attacking tanks might have to be sent through the area and freedom to manoeuvre was essential. Adequate steps would be taken to ensure that the enemy would have little opportunity to dismount and test the fields.
When the Maoris saw the sappers put up a minefield wire, dig holes and fill them up again without putting any mines in the holes, more than one Maori expressed the view that the making of a dummy minefield was a—— Maori trick!
Such was the position before dawn on 6 March 1943.
When the morning mist lifted on the 6th the enemy were deployed on the ten-mile-wide plain in front of the Eighth Army. Beyond digging in their vehicles and detailing demolition parties, the sappers were not actively engaged. In any case the main effort was directed against the British divisions and was completely unsuccessful, with the loss of nearly half the tanks committed to the venture. No. 3 Platoon was very pleased to hear that the dummy field they had put down in front of the Maoris had led to the destruction of four enemy tanks that had taken the wire at its face value and had become sitting shots for anti-tank guns waiting for them. A sapper party went out forthwith to secure the nameplates and to demolish the tanks properly. This was done by putting a tin of explosive under page 425 the gun and close to the turret. The explosion always bent the gun barrel and usually blew the turret off.
Thirteen more tanks knocked out in front of the Scots Greys on the north flank of the Maoris were also investigated but the Royal Engineers had already been on the job. At daylight the next morning the enemy had vanished into the Matmata Hills again, hills that were in reality the forward defended localities of the Mareth line. Seventh Field Company salvaged its wire, pickets and minefield accessories like scene shifters preparing the set for the next act.
The only other event of importance to the sappers occurred at Ben Gardane, a village comprising the usual huddle of sunbaked mud huts. The inhabitants were credited with emerging at night and re-laying mines that had been lifted at odd places along the road. General Freyberg's mess-truck went up on what was probably a relaid mine, but 6 Field Company got the blame for not finding it and was definitely unpopular in high places. But to continue.
General Montgomery had pushed on with his plans for the assault on the Mareth line as if the outcome of the looming battle at Medenine was a foregone conclusion. Operation Pugilist envisaged 2 NZ Division, elevated to the status of a corps by the addition of 8 Armoured Brigade and ancillary units plus Leclerc's Free French fighting column, making a 180-mile-long turning movement around the enemy's western flank, then advancing northwards through the Tebaga Gap to cut the Matmata-Gabes road and on to capture the airfields at Sfax.
Colonel Hanson had already made a ‘recce’ of the route from Ben Gardane south-west for 50 miles to Foum Tatahouine, a road junction about 30 miles from the pass through the hills discovered by Captain Wilder. The road followed a telephone line, was of one-vehicle width and for the most part slightly sunken. There were soft sandy patches where the wheel ruts would provide firm going for ordinary vehicles, but bulldozers would be required to cut the sand to a firm foundation for heavily loaded transporters. A field company and two bulldozers would take six days to do the work required. In addition there were several short sections that had been mined by the enemy and later lifted but probably not properly cleaned up. The terrain passed from light sandy plain into undulations that became hills, until at Foum Tatahouine the hills closed in.page 426
The day before the Medenine battle Lieutenants Brady and Morris (6 Field Company) had been instructed by the CRE to ‘recce’ the road from Foum Tatahouine to the Remada-Nalut fork some 30 miles farther south. It was near this fork that a track led north-west across steep-sided watercourses past Bir Amir to Wilder's Gap.
They reported a good two-vehicle road, partly tarsealed and partly metalled, which after passing through a five-mile-long narrow valley ran into flat country again. Except for a minefield extending along both sides of the road for some distance through which a track had been cleared, and a cratered length in a wet wadi, the road was suitable for any traffic by day or night.
On 8 March, while 7 Field Company was tidying up the Medenine battlefield and collecting its stores from the dummy minefields and 8 Field Company was improving the landing ground, 6 Field Company with two 5 Field Park bulldozers spread from Ben Gardane to the Nalut fork and began putting the road into shapc for the passage of NZ Corps. Meanwhile Captain Goodsir and Lieutenant Hermans ‘recced’ the route through Wilder's Gap to the already selected assembly area west page 427 of the Matmata Hills and about 25 miles south-west from Foum Tatahouine. Before the Corps began moving to the new assembly area (on the 11th), a track had been marked and the road improved through the Gap into the open country where the Corps was to assemble, merged into the landscape by dispersal, camouflage and stillness. Meanwhile the BBC news bulletins made pointed reference to the fact that the New Zealanders still faced the Mareth line.
It was regarded as an open question whether or not the enemy would stand and fight on the Mareth line or whether he was aware of the threat to his flank. New Zealand Corps was passing through the Monts des Ksour, the range that ran south from the coast, but before it could be a real danger it must cross the other wing of the range that shielded the Tunisian plains some 70 miles to the north. There was, however, a narrow break—the Tebaga Gap—and it was towards this passage that NZ Corps was directed.
As the Corps moved to its assembly area, Operation Order No. 1, published on the 16th, outlined the general plan of the proposed attack on the Mareth line and the part to be played by NZ Corps. It was, inter alia, to complete its concentration by first light on the 19th and, commencing that night, arrive in front of Tebaga Gap in two night marches.
Preparatory to the advance towards the Gap, Captain Goodsir had already been as far forward as the first staging area near Ksar Rhilane, a distance of approximately 30 miles, but had not been able to make a thorough reconnaissance of a wadi lying across the axis of advance because of fire from enemy in command of the high country overlooking the area.
Major Anderson was advised by the CRE that detachments from 6 Field Company would be joining 8 Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry for the forthcoming operation. Their role would be to lift any mines, open and mark lanes, and destroy any captured weapons and so deny them to the enemy in the event of fluctuating fortunes.
The detachments moved out to their new commands while the rear of NZ Corps was moving into position on the 18th. Lieutenants Morris and Brady, Second-Lieutenants Farnell2 and Veart,3 with 49 sappers and transport, reported to 8 Armoured page 428 Brigade and Lieutenant Hermans with two sections of his platoon, plus a section from 5 Field Park Company, joined Divisional Cavalry.
Another engineer detachment under the command of Captain Goodsir and consisting of the remaining section of No. 1 Platoon, two bulldozers from 5 Field Park Company and No. 2 Platoon, 7 Field Company (Lieutenant Yorke), left with a Free French column for Ksar Rhilane, where the French proposed to chase the enemy patrols away and allow the sappers to work in peace while they improved the track across the Wadi Aredj. Incidentally, what began as the main job, the track across the Wadi Aredj, proved to be the lesser one, for a mile beyond was the Wadi bel Krecheb which had not been ‘recced’ and which proved to be the greater obstacle.
The column left at seven in the evening (18th), but mines found in the Wadi Aredj held it up until a track was cleared. Then the Free French column pushed on in the moonlight towards the enemy patrol's observation points at El Outid. The lanes were widened so that the two bulldozers could work, and as nine tracks were needed for the passage of the Corps, work went on until the moon set at 5.30 a.m., whereupon the sappers moved back a few miles and had some sleep. They returned at 9 a.m. and were pleased to notice that gunfire had ceased before they arrived back, from which it was inferred that the Free French had chased the hostile elements away.
Nine traffic lanes were ready at two o'clock that afternoon. No mines were found in the flat between the two wadis and sappers and bulldozers pushed a 150-yard lane through drift sand at Wadi bel Krecheb. The job was finished at seven that night, an hour after NZ Corps began to move from its assembly area.
Captain Goodsir's handling of this assignment is mentioned in the citation for the MC awarded him for his skill and determination from Alamein onwards. As for the sappers, they thankfully went to sleep in the wadi and rejoined their units as they passed through the next day (20th).
The original plan was to stay in the vicinity of the Wadi Aredj until the night 20 - 21 March, but during the move a code message had been received at NZ Corps Headquarters indicating that the enemy was presumed to know all about the outflanking movement but did not seem to be impressed. It was decided to have breakfast and then push on and change the enemy's mind about the urgency and reality of the threat page 429 to his rear. Lieutenant Clere4 with a section of 7 Field Company sappers was sent to operate with the King's Dragoon Guards, an armoured-car unit which performed the same functions for 8 Armoured Brigade as the Divisional Cavalry did for the Division.
The KDG moved off at the head of the Corps and the Divisional Cavalry provided a screen on the right flank. Eighth Armoured Brigade followed and the sapper parties with all these units had good experience keeping in touch with the various sub-units they were spread through. With the exception of the CRE the engineers still had no wireless, and were expected to keep within beckoning distance of the squadron commander's tank at all times. It was not a very good arrangement from the sapper point of view, for in the event of a tank battle the difference in thickness in the armour of a fighting vehicle and a White scout car was quite apparent.
As it happened, the light enemy force fell back before the armoured screen and by last light NZ Corps, after a 35-mile advance, was within sight of the Tebaga Gap. Air reports indicated that the New Zealand threat was now being appreciated, for there was digging going on and much movement of troops. Guns and tanks were in action most of the following day (21st) as the enemy retired behind a minefield across the mouth of the Gap. During this affray General Freyberg was informed that the frontal attack on the coast had gone in the previous night but a foothold only had been obtained in the Mareth defences. The enemy clearly intended to defend the line and it might take days to shift him. Would NZ Corps push ahead and threaten his rear?
General Freyberg replied that he intended to attack that night. The reader should visualise an undulating semi-desert where the spring rain had nurtured patches of rough grass coloured with wild flowers. The V in the hills widened as the Corps approached the Tebaga Gap. To those who could translate the wavy contour lines on the maps, the Gap at its narrowest was approximately two miles across at the southern or nearest end, and bounded by foothills not so steep that armoured cars could not move fairly freely for some distance on each side. Two miles to the north the Gap, like the spout of a funnel, rapidly widened into the coastal plain.
There was a road through this defile leading to El Hamma page 430 and thence to Gabes, while across the Gap—perhaps more a matter of historical rather than of military interest—was the remains of a wall built by earlier and tougher Romans to keep out the unconquered southern tribes. Near the road the wall had been removed in the course of the centuries, elsewhere it was a rubble heap, and in few places was it an obstacle to the movement of man or machine.
The enemy forward defended localities followed the line of the Roman Wall and consisted chiefly of an anti-tank ditch, some barbed wire covering an isolated hill feature (Point 201) in the centre of the Gap and an extensive minefield. The plan was to push infantry through the minefield and capture Point 201, whereupon at dawn the tanks would exploit towards Gabes.
Sixth Brigade, ordered to take the Point, planned to do so with two battalions, 26 right and 25 left, with zero hour at 9.30 p.m. No. 2 Section (Lieutenant White) and No. 3 Section (Lieutenant Pickmere) of 8 Field Company (Major Pemberton) were to clear lanes through minefields. The three sapper officers, after looking over the ground to the objective from a convenient rise, attended the brigade orders conference. Lieutenant Pickmere has put on record the manner in which veteran commanders plan a brigade attack:
‘The General told his Brigs what was wanted and then Brig Gentry came over to us and it all seemed too easy the way the battle was planned. Discussing with the Battalion C.Os what time to start—these men rapidly calculating how long it would take to get O Groups, make a recce, bring forward troops etc. Then to the Gunner Brig. “We would like you to lay down a barrage from—— to——; engage any known enemy defended localities; lift at zero to 300 yds ahead of our objective—one round of smoke from each gun … just to keep us on direction—one round of smoke per minute on top of feature 201 (the feature which was our objective)—better make sure it lands on this side so that we can see it; may be in your way a bit Fountain5 but you will know it is coming and can dodge it.” Then on to the sappers, provosts etc., until everybody knew his job and the part he had to play.’6page 431
One of the undulations referred to rose to a sharp peak (Point 180) and the traffic flowed around each side where the going was not too steep. Point 180 was the infantry start line, and the engineers parked their trucks in the lee of the peak and waited for the barrage, which opened with a roaring crash.
There was a good moon as the sappers put the gap-clearing drill into operation, one party on each side of the inter-battalion axis and about a quarter of a mile apart. The field, about 400 yards in depth, was exceedingly dangerous because the mines were laid in knee-high barley, tall grass and shrubs, and visual searching had to give place to bayonet prodding. Detectors, owing to the distance they had to be held from the ground, were of little use. Sergeant Ross7 and Corporal Cottrell8 were awarded MMs for their courageous leadership and example that night. Lieutenant Pickmere, also decorated with the MC for, among other things, moving ahead of his sappers in search of S-mines, rather writes down a very tradesmanlike job of minelifting:
‘Much shouting from our boys in unmistakable NZ invective as well as the cries of the Ities: tracer bullets down both our flanks and then right through us, so we went to ground and it certainly rained lead for 15 to 20 minutes. It was ricochetting all around us and tearing into the grass alongside us—cutting pieces off bushes. It seemed inevitable that many men must be hit but nobody called out until about five minutes, when Stan9 over on my right called out “Man hit”. I went over to him and asked who was hit and he said quite simply, “Me”. I looked where a bullet had gone into his shoulder and then called for the RAP man—a new man who was having his first taste of war and he was very dickey of moving around; but once he got up and had a job to do he seemed as right as rain. Bandaged Stan up and then he eventually walked himself out—not badly hurt; and that was our only casualty.’
There was also one sapper wounded in Lieutenant White's section. He had been hit in the leg and was gamely trying to carry on working until ordered out by the Company Commander.page 432
Major Pemberton had his scout car and wireless parked near the edge of the minefield and was able to give the Brigadier running comment on the progress of the battle as well as of the sappers' progress.
The minefield ended at the anti-tank ditch. It was newly dug and a very effective obstacle, ten feet wide at the top, eight feet deep, with a vertical face on the enemy side and sloping at 45 degrees on our side.
It must have given the infantry some trouble to cross because one man who was carrying a Bangalore torpedo used it as a bridge.
Some small charges of explosive near the foot of the vertical wall, and then solid pick and shovel work by the sappers and an infantry party detailed from the reserve company, had two ‘Irish bridges’ on each battalion front ready and the first traffic passing through by 2 a.m.
The lanes were widened from sixteen to twenty-four yards before first light, whereupon the platoons returned to their trucks behind Point 180, had an early breakfast, and tried with varying success to get some sleep. One man wounded in each platoon was the cost of the night's work.
Sappers not employed in gapping had no lack of work the next day for many low-flying enemy planes were over the Divisional area dropping bombs and ‘butterflies’ all over the place. Infantry dislike butterflies intensely and always call for engineers to take the pests away. The enemy pilots had a free hand that night, for our ack-ack had instructions not to shoot because of the number of our own planes that were over the Tebaga Gap.
It has been mentioned that there were sapper parties with the Divisional Cavalry, KDG, and 8 Armoured Brigade squadrons, but the scattered parties had little contact with each other. The following incident related by Lieutenant Hermans will give some indication of the nature of their work. ‘Next morning [after the 6 Brigade attack] Div Cav went through the infantry in their light tanks with me in my 8 cwt truck tucked in behind Col. Bonifant's tank. When we were a few hundred yards ahead of the infantry Ian Bonifant stopped behind a ridge, got out of his tank and walked over the brow on foot. He returned after a few minutes with a host of Italians in tow who turned out to be a battery of Artillery of some description. He told me there were a lot of guns for me to demolish so I went over and found page 433 about a dozen 1914/18 model 50 m.m. jobs well dug in and which had been well and truly done over by our 25 pounders the night before.’
The cavalry did not, however, make a great deal of progress, for the enemy reaction had been immediate and by first light he had sufficient long-range and other guns covering the breach to prevent any break-through.
During the afternoon No. 3 Platoon, 7 Field Company (Lieutenant Standish), arrived to help No. 1 Platoon of 8 Field Company (Lieutenant Hanger) to gap two more tracks through the minefield. Six 7 Field Company sappers were wounded by heavy and accurate shellfire before the job was finished. Bulldozers filled sections of the anti-tank ditch after dark.
While the sapper work was going on enemy tanks appeared in the gap and the Divisional Cavalry gave way to 8 Armoured Brigade, which fought a no-decision round with the newcomers. The upshot of the day's operations was that between the guns and the armour the bridgehead was advanced by about a mile up the valley and the front widened sufficiently to bring 24 Battalion in on the left of 25 Battalion.
There were other moves pending that were to involve the Engineers in long hours of work and casualties.
The frontal attack at Mareth was not going according to plan, for during the night 22 - 23 March enemy counter-attacks regained most of their initial losses. The military dictum not to reinforce failure but rather to exploit success was exemplified by the decision to stop the frontal attack and reinforce the outflanking movement. First Armoured Division was ordered to move at once to the New Zealand front.
An immediate result of the change of plan was the instruction to make five more tracks through the minefield covering the entrance to the Gap, then carry all nine lanes up as far as the Roman Wall. From the south edge of the mine belt nine tracks were to be found and marked back for about six miles to where a track crossed the Corps axis, making a convenient marshalling area for the armour.
Every available sapper from the three Field Companies was employed on this assignment, the cost of which on the first day, when four lanes were completed forward, was three killed and two wounded, either on S-mines or by persistent long-range shelling. Other jobs included in the day's work were the lifting of a patch of 400 mines to the east of the Corps boundary and the construction of a landing strip for an air evacuation centre page 434 ten miles to the south. In addition, Lieutenant Clere's party with the KDG cleared two gaps on the eastern boundary of the mined area for the removal of enemy guns, vehicles and prisoners.
The main lane-clearing was carried on throughout the night and fillings made in the anti-tank ditch at a further cost of one killed and two wounded. The construction of the nine tracks back to the east-west track began the next day (24th) while the tanks made a little more ground on the left where the terrain was more suitable for armoured fighting. Corporal Duncan,10 who commanded the 5 Field Park section with 8 Armoured Brigade, supervised the destruction of thirty-one Italian antitank guns before the tanks withdrew for the night.
Bulldozing of the approach tracks was necessary in places and the laying out of the various routes imposed some problems for the area was not an empty one. There was, in fact, a running comment of abuse from gun crews, hidden behind odd folds in the ground, who did not appreciate the sappers crossing the local skylines in their trucks while enemy bombers flew overhead. It was made perfectly clear that gunners who would serve their pieces to the last man when the occasion demands like to remain in undisturbed seclusion when not at work.
All access lanes were ready by last light on the 25th, but during the night more guns were deployed in the area and four tracks had to be realigned. Ninth Field Squadron, RE, assisted in the work, which was finished just in time to be used by 1 Armoured Division, racing up to be in the battle.
General Montgomery had not taken the sappers into his confidence but they had a fair idea of the situation. Lieutenant Pickmere has put it on record:
‘The sappers now had the news of what was going to happen next—whether by bush telegraph or latineogram I don't know, but they always know several days before it comes through official channels—probably in this case it came back through the supply route that the 1st Armoured Div. was on its way to join us and sure enough on the afternoon of the 26th their tanks and transport just swarmed down through our lines across the flat and on forward—a grand sight.’
‘At this stage we were camped on the forward slope of some hills and hoped to have a grandstand view of the scrap in the distance and the planes overhead. But the day was dusty and windy—ideal for the attack but no good to us—we hardly saw a plane and there were supposed to be 5 wings every 15 minutes on the scene of activities—some concentration! The battle apparently went according to Hoyle—our Armoured Brigade advanced and took their objective, followed by our infantry—a surprise attack launched at 1600 hours—an hour at which we had never attacked before—and this formed the spout through which the 1st Armoured Div. poured out and went right through with very few casualties too.’page 436
No. 2 Platoon, 6 Field Company, spread among the various units of 8 Armoured Brigade which led the attack, had changed places with the infantry whom they normally followed. Lieutenant Veart's diary entry for Friday, 26 March, is:
‘Terrific barrage going down all morning on Jerrie's positions and a constant stream of planes going over. Whole valley smothered in dust and smoke. Attack went in with combined inf and tanks and what a day. Tanks running over gun emplacements and firing sideways at others. Jerrie's line broke about midnight and they started to scamper out.’
Eighth Armoured Brigade, with its Shermans and Crusaders spread over the front in two waves, was followed by Bren carriers. Three battalions of infantry—28 (Maori) Battalion right (3 Platoon, 7 Field Company, Lieutenant Standish), 23 Battalion centre (1 Platoon, 7 Field Company, Lieutenant Foster) and 24 Battalion left (2 Platoon, 8 Field Company, Lieutenant White)—followed the mechanised assault while 21 Battalion protected the right flank from a hill position (Point 184) and 25 Battalion made a diversionary attack on the left.
Although the armour had crashed through the defences of the Tebaga Gap there was some hard fighting before the infantry consolidated at the end of its two and a half mile advance. On the right flank the Maoris did not get to their objective for they were held up by a hill, Point 209, to the north of 21 Battalion. A German battalion that had been rushed across, but which was too late to occupy Point 201, had dug in on the western edge of the Gap as the next best position to halt a break-through. The Maoris, quite apart from the general conflict, fought an epic battle with the German garrison for the possession of the feature. What was left alive of the German unit surrendered on the 27th. In the centre 23 Battalion maintained its momentum and reached its objective according to plan. The sapper column followed the infantry at the head of the battalion transport and dug in on the reverse side of the slight slope that was the unit objective. When the Maoris stopped to wage their private war, there being no mines in the locality, No. 3 Platoon returned to Company Headquarters.
On the left 24 Battalion had some very hard fighting. The armour ran on to an unsuspected minefield and veered to the right, and so bypassed both the minefield and the dug-in defences it protected. It was a hastily laid field of Tellers which were quite easily seen, and when the fighting ended Lieutenant White began to lift them. It was quite an extensive field and page 437 assistance was asked for to complete the job, which was not nearly finished at dark. In the morning (27th) Lieutenant Hanger went forward with his platoon and about 3000 mines were lifted, while the rest of 8 Field Company moved with Headquarters 6 Brigade to a position near the Roman Wall where the two mine-lifting platoons joined it in the early afternoon.
The positions of the other engineer companies were:
Major Page moved 7 Field Company four miles forward through a heavy pall of dust into the Wadi Aisoub, while 5 Brigade deployed east of the Hamma road to protect the line of advance until the Free French secured the right flank.
Sixth Field Company bivvied with the Reserve Group near the Roman Wall.
Fifth Field Park sappers not otherwise employed stayed in position with Rear Divisional Headquarters and continued operating the Divisional water point.
The position at last light on 27 March was that the bridgehead had been gained for 1 Armoured Division and the enemy was getting his troops out of the Mareth line as quickly as possible and past the Gabes Gap, a narrow corridor of ground between the sea and one of the many salt marshes in that area. The enemy was holding so strongly at El Hamma, vital for his withdrawal, that 1 Armoured Division was held up and it seemed as if another set-piece attack would be needed to get the armour through. An alternative that promised quicker results was for NZ Corps to strike north-east around the side of the Halouga Range for Gabes.
At dawn (28th) 6 Infantry Brigade moved off with two sections of No. 3 Platoon close up behind the armoured brigade and artillery groups in case there was mine trouble; 5 Brigade remained east of the road.
It was not long before firing ahead halted the convoy and the sappers found themselves much too close to an advanced-guard skirmish for comfort, and at the same time were roundly abused by the ‘tankies’ for cluttering up the battleground with their trucks. The advance was resumed as soon as the opposition had been disposed of, but again it was not long before the call was ‘Bulldozers forward’. The armoured cars had crossed three watercourses that trucks could not negotiate, and as the Corps was travelling on a nine-vehicle front, nine tracks had to be cleared over each obstacle. Fifth Field Park dozers, still with 6 Field Company, were taken forward by Captain Goodsir, made page 438 quick work of the watercourses and bivvied nearby while the column pushed on.
By dusk the leading infantry battalion took up a defensive position on the eastern shoulder of the range, the armoured screen withdrew to laager for the night and the sappers returned to Company Headquarters, halting only long enough to gather some green broad beans from a deserted garden.
The enemy completed his evacuation of the Mareth position during the night and so once again escaped. About midday 5 Brigade, in order to take the lead, moved off in three columns along a track leading north-east to Gabes, where it was hoped to bag at least the enemy rearguard. It was an afternoon of incidents, beginning when the Free French mistook 5 Brigade for enemy and shot up a couple of 21 Battalion trucks; then the track going through the Wadi el Merteba was found to be mined on each side so the column was halted while No. 3 Platoon came up and lifted a number of Tellers and S-mines. In the meantime Major Page, with his driver and batman, had cleared a narrow track, permitting the resumption of the march; then three Messerschmitts arrived at a critical time and strafed the wadi, wounding Sapper Pratt,11 the Major's batman, and a number of 23 Battalion men who were passing. No. 1 Section was put to clearing a track around the danger area and the column carried on through blinding dust until the early hours of the following morning (29th).
Patrols confirmed that the enemy had departed from Gabes, leaving as a parting gesture a heavily mined crossroads over which 5 Brigade must pass. The mines were lifted at a cost of one sapper killed and one wounded by an S-mine. The following entries from Major Page's diary describe 5 Brigade's activities:
‘5 Bde moved on helter skelter to Gabes. Reached the outskirts of the town at 1330 hrs. One party forward to clear cross roads of wooden mines. Found both bridges over Wadi Gabes blown a few minutes before we arrived. Heavy congestion of traffic in streets. Stream some 50 yds wide with gravel bottom and very soft low banks.
‘Put in a rubble causeway on line of main road, using infantry labour. Started traffic over this and in meantime collected 44 gal petrol drums for use as pipes. Commandeered a 51 Div. Bulldozer and a lot of civilians and put in a culvert downstream from causeway beside the second demolished bridge. page 439 Put in 5 rows of drums and covered with 3 ft of shingle and spoil. Traffic across at 1930 hrs. Carried on with maintenance all night.’12
Major Page does not mention that the sappers found it difficult to give their whole-hearted attention to the work in hand for the females of Gabes had dressed themselves in their finest raiment to watch the work. To the desert-dwelling engineers the mesdemoiselles and their mamas would still have looked as glamorous as film stars had they been garbed in sack cloth and ashes. The Company handed over to a party from 8 Field Company in the morning and rejoined 5 Brigade.
Tactical Headquarters NZ Corps had been established a couple of miles west of Gabes, which was the eastern terminal of the Tunisian railway system. The intention was to deploy the fighting formations in the area in readiness to continue the pursuit.
Eighth Field Company was ordered to send a working platoon to report to Major Thornton13 at the head of the column and deal with ‘some little round things they thought were mines’. The quest for the head of the column eventually landed the platoon at Tactical Headquarters, which was the head of the Corps column, and had entailed 25 miles of dodging through dense traffic and very unkind remarks. Lieutenant Pickmere, to whose platoon the job had fallen, wrote:
‘The Major was at Tac Hq with the General and we were to clear the verge of the road of mines for about 2½ miles ahead—“don't go any further or you might get shot at”. We got right on with the mine detection and by dark had cleared the verges of the road for 2½ miles up to where a bridge had been blown and the deviation cratered—no sign of any mines. I reported the demolished bridge to the General and he urged me to do all I could to get traffic lanes open by morning, most important to “push on”; also whistled up a bulldozer for my use over the radio.page 440
‘I pointed out that a dozer operator could not work unless he could see his blade and the half moon did not come up till 2 a.m. At first he suggested turning on the headlight but thank God Major Thornton said, “I think it's a little too far forward for that Sir” and I was instructed to get cracking at 0200 hrs. Before I left I was offered my choice of a drink with the Gen. which rather shook me, after such a long drought, but I accepted a whiskey gratefully and soon felt it would be no trouble to turn on a dozen headlamps—as events turn out I don't think it would have mattered either.’
The platoon worked throughout the night (29 - 30 March) with the help of the dozer and Lieutenant Hermans' group of sappers with the Divisional Cavalry and had seven lanes through by midday, only to find out that the Division had swung inland again and the platoon was to make for Oudref.
The two platoons from 7 Field Company had also worked right through the night maintaining the river crossings, which needed constant attention, and were relieved in the morning by 1 and 2 Platoons of 8 Field Company, who stayed there all day.
Fifth Field Park Company, still with Rear Divisional Headquarters south of El Hamma, was told to get to Gabes as fast as possible because the box-girder bridge might be needed. On arrival, after a fast drive through the various Corps formations, they were told at Gabes that the bridge was not needed and to carry on and join Main NZ Corps Headquarters about six miles west of the town.
In the meantime the armoured screen had been stopped by mines and demolitions in the Wadi el Melab at Oudref, about 15 miles west of Gabes. Lieutenant Morris, still under command 8 Armoured Brigade, immediately went forward with his platoon. He found one armoured car blown up on a mine, a second knocked out by shellfire and the remainder, owing to mines and craters, unable to advance. To quote from the citation for his MC:
‘Despite continuous heavy shelling and two dive bombing attacks Lieut Morris left his own armoured vehicle and without hesitation and with no assistance proceeded to search out and lift the mines so that the demolished road could be by-passed. It was owing to his initiative and gallantry that the armd cars were able to push ahead so quickly.’
Sixth Field Company was instructed to get men and machines page 441 up to Oudref at the double. Captain Goodsir left immediately with a section of sappers and lifted mines until the rest of the platoon arrived with the bulldozers.
When Lieutenant Pickmere came up early in the afternoon the dozers were on the job of filling a crater into which sixteen truckloads of spoil were emptied. He stood by in reserve until the next day (31st), but the 6 Field Company platoon carried on picking up mines and maintaining the surface of the filling.
Some eight miles to the north of Oudref was a complicated network of wadis and salt marches through which the Wadi Akarit stretched across the narrow coastal plain from the sea to the hills. Wadi Akarit is wide, flat bottomed, with steep banks, not unlike the dry course of a Canterbury river. The enemy had strengthened the position with an anti-tank ditch and had dug himself in along the line of the wadi and in the hilly country at its western extremity. It appeared that he was getting tired of being left-hooked out of his defensive positions and was taking extensive precautions against a recurrence. Another nightmare that was haunting the enemy's sleep, in addition to the now unstoppable Eighth Army, was the fact that the Americans, although not advancing at the same rate, were now not very far away to the north-west. It was soon clear that he meant to stop and fight on the line of the Wadi Akarit.
While General Montgomery planned for the removal of the enemy from this area, 2 NZ Division was given a few days for rest and maintenance.
The sappers did not participate noticeably in this. Sixth Field Company, camped 14 miles west of Gabes, was told that nine tracks were to be formed from Oudref towards Wadi Akarit, which meant laying culverts in wet wadis and building causeways where necessary. Fifth Field Park Company, also camped in the vicinity and, as usual, operating water points for the Division and any other formation near enough to draw from them, was given the job of marking out the nine lanes forward from 5 Brigade to where 6 Field Company started, a matter of some four to five miles.
Seventh and 8th Field Company detachments were recalled to their companies with the infantry brigades and managed a little sea bathing between checking stores and keeping as far as possible out of sight of Authority. A short lecture by General Montgomery to officers and sergeants on the strategy of the page 442 Mareth battle and a forecast of future operations, the first of which would be the Wadi Akarit, was given on the second of the month.
Eighth Field Company took a polite but academic interest in the talk, for 6 Brigade had led most of the way from Medenine to Gabes and 5 Brigade was due to take over in any proceedings affecting 2 NZ Division; which meant that any dirty work that was going would fall to 7 Field Company.
Their complacency was justified up to a point. Tenth Corps' operation orders outlined a three-divisional attack on the Wadi Akarit position, with 51 (Highland) Division right, 50 (Northumbrian) Division centre, and 4 (Indian) Division left, while 2 NZ Division stood by in an exploitation role in which 5 Brigade would lead when the Division was passed through the bridgehead.
It was an unpleasantly surprised 8 Field Company which was told that, in order to keep 7 Field Company intact to move with 5 Brigade, it would do any gapping that might be necessary. The final instructions were that a special task force commanded by the CRE, and consisting of 8 Field Company, D Company of 26 Battalion, a squadron of Crusader tanks and a detachment from the Divisional Provost Company, would move in the rear of 50 Division to construct and mark two gaps in any minefields and fill the anti-tank ditch for the passage of vehicles.
During the late afternoon of Monday, 5 April, 8 Field Company left 6 Brigade and assembled near Oudref. As the sappers understood it, if the attack was a success they would move up at 5.30 in the morning (6th), do the job and be back in time for breakfast. Work before breakfast did not appeal greatly and in the event did not occur, for 50 Division was held up near the minefield.
It had been the practice for infantry to advance across minefields on a broad front, but it will be remembered that the CRE had advised that a really heavy concentration of anti-personnel mines would require different tactics, for infantry would not be able to pass through them. If the engineers must go ahead of the infantry it was essential to provide them with protection, because they could not be expected to fight and lift mines at the same time. Since Alamein the Division had been the ‘left hook’ specialists and consequently had largely avoided the deliberately laid minefields that had caused very heavy casualties in the formations attacking prepared positions. Fiftieth Division had tried to cross this minefield with infantry following page 443 in single file behind small engineer lifting parties, had lost the barrage, suffered severely from the counter-barrage, and stopped near the edge of the field.
The success of the whole operation was in the balance, with the flanking divisions fighting hard for their objectives. Captain Wildey, second-in-command of 8 Field Company, went forward in the early morning to Point 85, just short of the minefield on 50 Division's axis, to send back advice of that division's success. Meanwhile the rest of the CRE's force had breakfast.page 444
At 9 a.m. on receipt of Wildey's cryptic message, ‘50 golfers won't play’, meaning that the infantry were still not through the minefield, and on further advice that tanks and infantry were moving through a gap in 51 Division's front on the right flank, Colonel Hanson decided that it was no good waiting any longer and took over the conduct of the local operations himself.
He instructed his tank and infantry commanders to move forward and take up appropriate positions about Hill 85, and instructed Major Pemberton to go ahead and start gapping. The gapping force drove forward, tidily dispersed in desert formation, and took cover near Hill 85 while Pemberton and Wildey looked over the job. They decided to make two gaps, one platoon working straight ahead, another about 200 yards farther west and the third in reserve.
‘We advanced as a Coy in desert formation and though the shells and mortars were coming in thick and fast no one got hit. We halted out there and took what cover we could behind small slopes and hillocks while the OC and 2 I/C made a quick reconnaissance. Then Nos. 2 and 3 platoons got busy on the job—mines were easily seen and detectors hardly necessary except for checking suspicious looking places — not a sure guarantee anyway as there were a good many wooden box mines about. My lane ran right up the main track and I had just given the lads a starting point when he began to plaster it with mortars so we waited a few minutes until he switched a bit and then got cracking. Shells and mortars were still whistling in all round the place so believe me we lost no time…. It was a long lane and had quite a variety of mines—tellers, wooden box, A/P, N5, and B2. At one point where it crossed over a slight rise a sniper with a machine gun let go a burst or two every time he saw anyone but either he was a good distance back or not a very good shot as none of his bullets found a home. The zip zip overhead was rather disconcerting though.’14
A walking track was put through to the far side and the infantry went forward to line the wadi bank and protect the sappers from enemy interference. It was not long before groups of prisoners were being shepherded back, and although the sappers had no casualties a number of the prisoners were wounded by their own gunners. The 26 Battalion men also helped to fill the anti-tank ditch and the first lane was opened by 2 p.m., permitting the tanks to begin moving through. The page 445 whole job was completed at 4 p.m., when the sappers returned unscathed to a late lunch while 50 Division was again able to advance. Major Pemberton was awarded a bar to his Military Cross and Colonel Hanson an immediate DSO in recognition of their leadership and disregard of personal safety during this operation.
Colonel Hanson later reported that in his opinion—
‘The whole enemy position was a strong one and why they allowed us to gap the minefield after the barrage had passed over them I do not understand. Our D Coy Inf and our Crusader Squadron were certainly alert and were determined to shoot up any signs of the enemy so that the sappers could get on with the job, but at the same time a really aggressive enemy would never have allowed us to gap the minefield as we did. Luck was certainly with us this day. 50 Div Inf and Sappers had fairly heavy casualties when they were first halted on the minefield and they were unlucky again when they eventually pushed ahead…. We were fortunate that from the late morning onwards much of the fire which was still heavy was directed on the track a little to the east of our right.’
The situation at the end of the day was that both flanking divisions had achieved most of their objectives but 50 Division was still making slow progress. The 2 NZ Division breakout was accordingly postponed until the next morning (7 April).
During the night the enemy, by withdrawing, saved 5 Brigade the trouble of making a fighting breakout from the Wadi Akarit line. He was possibly assisted in this decision by the fact that the Americans were now making some progress towards closing the gap between themselves and Eighth Army.
Sixth Field Company joined 6 Brigade as the Division felt its way forward behind the cavalry screen and 8 Armoured Brigade, where the attached sappers were generally one demolition behind the retreating enemy. Lieutenant Veart wrote:
‘Just as we had finished clearing mines and made a passage round the demolition with Infantry labour (lorried infantry attached to 8 Armd Bde) we would hear the next one go up. I remember General Freyberg came up just as we had finished one demolition, and he was on a hill when a big one went up about½ mile in front. We copped a packet just in front of Enfidaville and that was the end of our association with 8 Arm. Bde—a great bunch.’
Fifth Brigade, using the nine tracks marked by the engineers, progressed about 15 miles after several halts while the enemy page 446 rearguard was pushed from position to position by the advanced formation. Fourth Indian Division and 50 Division stayed behind and formed a firm base at Wadi Akarit, and now the Highland Division was near the coast, the Kiwis on their left and an armoured division on the inland flank.
The next day (8th) was a busy one for 7 Field Company. The pace was lively for the first 12 miles, then came a series of bad wadis that the brigade crossed in single file. There was fighting only three miles ahead on the line of the Gafsa–Mahares road which held 5 Brigade up until the late afternoon. The sappers, after a route had been ‘recced’ as far as the shelling would permit, brought a bulldozer forward and formed crossings over three nasty wadis. During the day No. 3 Section was detached to 6 Field Company for mine clearing on an airstrip nearby. The brigade moved again at 5 p.m. through waist-high wheat-fields. The enemy rearguard was now holding on a line south of Sfax and 2 NZ Division was to swing north-east and then east to the north of Sfax to cut it off. Fifth Brigade Group moved off after breakfast and broke tracks through high grass and poppies to the road skirting Sfax. From there the route lay over lightly ploughed country between endless rows of olive trees. Once again the quarry slipped away in time and Sfax was occupied by 7 Armoured Division.
Eighth Army had now debouched on to the Tunisian plain and it moved on a wide front against a skilful retreat until the 14th, when the harassed enemy again had the benefit of mountainous, broken country where the light tanks and armoured cars of the cavalry screen would have to give place to the infantry if the enemy was to be forced into a Tunisian Dunkirk.
The plain was a delight to the eye. It was a succession of olive groves, fields of bright-green spring wheat and barley, and wild flowers in even greater profusion than at Medenine. ‘The olive trees were set out in orderly spaced rows which made it difficult to keep direction, for due to the even spacing avenues opened up in every direction. Everywhere we went the fields were very colourful with wild flowers—some brilliant red with poppies, some yellow with daisies and buttercups, some white and some just a glorious kaleidoscopic mixture of all the colours. The Major made a collection to press between the leaves of a book and found forty different kinds I believe—not all separate species but at least different in colour. At times we literally drove over a carpet of flowers, while their sweet fragrance filled page 447 the air. What a change after so many months of desert and more desert, sand and more sand, duststorms, drab monotony of colour and unpleasant smells.’
The impression must not be gained that once 7 Field Company got the leading 5 Brigade over the bad patches all the rest of the Division just motored along looking at the scenery. It was not like that. Eighth Field Company took over from 7 Field Company, maintaining tracks and making new ones for the passage of 6 Brigade; 6 Field Company did the same service for the Divisional Reserve Group, and in addition cleared enemy airstrips of mines. A section of 7 Field Company attached for this job lost six wounded and two killed from bombing as they were leaving La Fauconnarie airstrip. Fifth Field Park Company with the Administrative Group worked on roads, erected its box-girder set where required, ‘recced’ for and operated the Divisional water points and did any other odd tasks that came along. In general it was a busy time for the sappers; bulldozers bellied down in salt marshes, and one particular crater in a causeway over a salt marsh at La Hencha was an all-night job. Rocks were gathered from far and near, and incidentally were loaded and unloaded by hand into the same trucks in which the sappers travelled and carried all their worldly belongings. Tip-trucks were still to be added to engineer equipment. The railway provided the sleepers for a corduroy road when the rock fill was high enough, and in the morning, so that 7 Field Company might carry on with 5 Brigade, 6 Field Company took over to finish and maintain the road.
In general, when the sappers were not working they were travelling and sleeping (as well as the lurching trucks would permit) while moving across the scenery described above. The only time they were really alert was when the columns were passing through the outskirts of the seaport town of Sousse (12 April). Crowds of civilians waved to the passing trucks, the French flag flew from every vantage point and even the Arabs gave the Churchillian victory sign. Smartly dressed girls smiled to, and threw flowers at, him personally, each sapper averred, and there were fervent prayers that an axle might break or some other decent catastrophe occur so that they would camp for the night. But sapper prayers were not being answered that day and Sousse was soon only a wistful memory.
At this time the forward elements of Eighth Army, some 30-odd miles farther west, had decided that the 1800-mile advance page 448 was, for the time being, over and that the enemy, again in country that favoured the defence, was going to fight a back-to-the-wall battle as we had at Alamein.
In essence the situation was that the Axis forces, based on the ports of Tunis and Bizerta, held, with interior lines, the promontory of northern Tunisia. Pressing against the 110 miles of mostly mountainous front were Eighth Army in the south and First Army, plus the United States Corps, in the west. The Mediterranean was still closed to Allied shipping, and the overall plan was to end the war in Africa by an armoured assault from the more suitable west and thereby open the sea-lanes to the Suez Canal.
The Eighth Army that had marched so far and fought so often was to have the secondary role of pinning as many enemy as possible in the south before the grand assault was mounted in the west.
First, the sappers with the Divisional Cavalry and, a little later, those with 8 Armoured Brigade returned to their units.
At daylight on the 13th forward elements were probing for the enemy rearguard, and the engineers were repairing cunningly placed demolitions, a detailed description of which would be without interest. The next day was much the same except that the infantry had reached the foothills; and 7 Field Company, coming across a herd of cattle, contrived to find one ‘killed by shellfire’, with consequent improvement to the unit menu. Fifth Brigade had by this time halted in front of Takrouna hill, a 600-feet-high outpost of the broken country behind it, and 6 Brigade was feeling its way to Enfidaville, a three-road-junction village at the base of the foothills and about five miles from the coast.
The two New Zealand brigades were separated by three miles of wheat and barley patches, olive trees, clumps of cactus and high grass. On the left of the Division but some distance away, 4 Indian Division faced the Garci mountain massif.
The Engineer dispositions were: 7 Field Company with 5 Brigade, 8 Field Company with 6 Brigade; 6 Field Company and 5 Field Park Company were both with the Divisional Reserve Group about ten miles north of Sousse and 15 miles south of Enfidaville. Both rear companies were busy on road maintenance, demolitions, mine clearing and operating water points.page 449
Eighth Armoured Brigade tried to outflank Enfidaville but was held up by a minefield. The next morning Sergeant Fraser15 went forward with two sappers in an armoured car to fix the limits of the field, but found that he was under enemy observation, that a Sherman tank was stranded in the minefield and that an armoured car had been blown up and its occupants wounded. He sent his own car and men back out of trouble, which was now coming in thick and fast, and cleared a route through the mines for the tank to withdraw and another track for an ambulance to get the wounded men out. He then got on with his own job of defining the limits of the field and marked a safe route for other tanks should they come that way. In due course Sergeant Fraser was awarded a DCM.
To revert to 5 Brigade in front of Takrouna. Between the forward troops and Takrouna was the Wadi el Boul, across which 23 Battalion was to form a bridgehead. Major Page was instructed to build a crossing for the unit vehicles.
‘I was amused,’ Page wrote, ‘when I went up in the morning to recce the job we were to do that night and made the usual enquiries from the troops in their slitties in the FDLs to be told by ‘Sandy’ Thomas,16 “Yes, quite OK out there. Some Free French blokes went out an hour or so ago and reached that little rise over there before they were fired on”. The “little rise” was about half way to where I had to go. However a cautious prowl down into the wadi brought me to the creek, remarkable for the number of little swimming tortoises it contained.’
The actual creek was some five to six feet wide with four-foot-high banks, and the versatile railway sleepers were used to construct a short-span bridge that night (14 - 15 April). All vehicles were across by daylight.
Preparations had meanwhile been finalised for an attack on the Enfidaville–Takrouna position at 11 p.m. on 19 April, two days before the main thrust from the west. Sixth Brigade was to advance across the flat country on the left of and past Enfidaville and seize the nearest spurs running down from the higher features, while 5 Brigade was to capture Takrouna and page 450 a ragged ridge beyond the Zaghouan–Enfidaville road. On the Division's right flank 201 Guards Brigade would demonstrate with fire against Enfidaville, while on the left the Indians were to assault the Garci massif. If all went well, there was to be exploitation into the ranges and a left hook to the coast.
Preparatory to 5 Brigade's deployment across the Wadi el Boul, 7 Field Company was to prepare two more crossings and make all three suitable for the passage of tanks. All trucks were out that morning (15th) collecting railway sleepers, while nails and wire were drawn from 5 Field Park stores section. The first track was strengthened up to tank standard and the other two partially completed before daylight. The next two days and nights were devoted to collecting railway sleepers and forming page 451 marked approach tracks up to and crossings over the Wadi el Boul. During this period No. 3 Platoon, 7 Field Company, was given the job of lifting a minefield across the Kairouan–Enfidaville road and quite close to the latter village. Lieutenant Standish wrote of this assignment:
‘We were helped while we were working in daylight by the standing barley etc., growing on the low ground slightly overlooked by Enfidaville. The mines were laid among the crops, wooden box by the way, so [it was] a visual and prodding job done on hands and knees. Fortunately no A/P mines. I suppose we were about 1,000 yards from Enfidaville—too close! and astride the main road with mines on both sides. They filled our truck full of shell splinter holes, fortunately not hitting the engine or petrol tank, and we crawled back at night after the job was finished in what looked like a mobile colander on three flat tyres. The night was quiet and we expected to be fired on at any moment as we ground slowly away on bottom gear. However we were lucky—no casualties either. We were all pretty good by this time at taking cover in holes—fast.’
Standish had been a platoon commander during the whole advance from Alamein and, vide the citation for his MC, ‘during the many actions in which his Unit has taken part … displayed outstanding gallantry and devotion to duty’.
Eighth Field Company's tasks on 6 Brigade sector were of a similar nature. The infantry positions lay a mile or more south of the Wadi el Boul but patrols had reported no enemy in the vicinity. During the night 17 - 18 April the sappers completed three crossings over the wadi and a similar number over the Wadi Moussa, a few hundred yards farther north. Between the two wadis lay the remains of a Roman aqueduct, the proposed start line for the attack.
A last-minute alteration in the 6 Brigade plan, whereby two battalions were to make the initial attack instead of one as at first contemplated, meant the construction of an extra double-width crossing over the Wadi Moussa. This was attended to on the night 18 - 19 April. As with the other company, a dump of sleepers was gathered and put in a handy position.
For the operation 8 Field Company was to detail minelifting and gapping parties to move behind each battalion headquarters.
Major Pemberton's dispositions were:
No. 3 Platoon (Lieutenant Pickmere) was to accompany 26 Battalion on the right of the attack and No. 1 Platoon (Lieu- page 452 tenant Hanger) was with 24 Battalion on the left. The job of No. 2 Platoon (Lieutenant White) was to light the tracks up to the two crossings over the Wadi el Boul and then stand by to maintain them.
The two platoons assembled on a flat near Enfidaville and followed the track already lighted by 2 Platoon to a position behind the infantry start line. There was a half-moon when the barrage opened and the attack went in at half an hour before midnight. Twenty-sixth Battalion on the right had a good passage, as did 3 Platoon spread out behind searching for mines. There were plenty of good landmarks in the hills ahead but the smoke and dust of the barrage was so thick that direction had to be kept by compass. There was some trouble trying to get the attached Scorpions across the Wadi Moussa for the track was too steep, and Major Pemberton who, it will be remembered, did not like them much, told the ‘Scorp’ commander to remain there while the sappers pushed on. Their path was only a few hundred yards from Enfidaville, but they were not fired on from that quarter.
‘Our MMG's were now playing a tune on Enfidaville and some of those boys must have had tired thumbs for days afterwards from the length of time they were holding down the button and we had no trouble from our right flank all night.’
In the light of after-knowledge, it seems that the enemy was too busy getting away from Enfidaville to spare any lead for the sappers.
The trucks came under fire crossing the lateral Zaghouan road and four men were hit, one fatally. Twenty-sixth Battalion lay about half a mile ahead of the road, and after some delay in locating a track across the sandy Wadi el Brek, where the vehicles stopped for shelter, Lieutenant Pickmere went forward and found the battalion commander, who said there were no mines ahead of his men and that unless they were wanted on the other track the engineers could return. They returned without mishap and reported in before daybreak.
Major Pemberton had seen both platoons over the Wadi Moussa and had then followed Pickmere's column as far as the Zaghouan road, which was the first objective for 5 Brigade and which, owing to the angle of approach to Enfidaville, was a much shorter distance than that to be traversed by Hanger's platoon.
While returning to the left-hand column he met 24 Battalion page 453 transport that had lost direction and guided it towards the crossroads, where heavy defensive fire from Takrouna hill had already wounded a dozen sappers.
Lieutenant Hanger later wrote:
‘We had a fairly quiet approach march and hit bang on the cross roads then all Hell was let loose. Spandaus, Moaning Minnies, 88's, in fact the whole treatment. We found mines but it was so damned hot that no one could stand up for any length of time to do anything about them. The Scorpions refused to have a go. My Sergt Newton Ayson17 (later Lieut) was wounded right at the start. I asked the tanks to shoot up the MGs but they said it would draw fire down on them!! I asked their leader what the “BH” he thought they were shooting at then, but got no reply as he had his lid down by then. It was the hottest spot I struck in all my experience.’
Lieutenant Veart, late of the 8 Armoured Brigade detachment and now second-in-command No. 1 Platoon, carries on the story of that costly night:
‘In the meantime the chaps were doing a marvellous job under heavy fire and the gap was slowly moving forward, but it was obvious that we would run out of men or daylight would arrive, at the rate we were going. Runners were sent off to Dick Pemberton and in the meantime Tom Hanger had gone forward to try and locate a better route, and I think, to notify the Infantry of our difficulties. At this stage I went forward with two others to try and get a better picture. We located an anti-tank trench, and had to jump into it to get out of heavy fire from the other side. We followed the A.T. trench to a wadi and located the approx. extent of the minefield which was very deep and was the main obstacle to a major wadi between the hills.’
Major Pemberton had arrived by this time. Because of Veart's report of at least five Spandaus enfilading the ditch, the continued absence of Lieutenant Hanger, and the report of Lance-Corporal Quinn,18 who had accompanied Hanger and returned through heavy fire, that there was another minefield ahead, Pemberton decided to try another route more to the east and towards 26 Battalion. The platoon therefore crossed the road towards the wadi and located the minefield. The sappers recon- page 454 noitred forward for an entrance to and an exit from the wide sandy wadi, taped a line and started visual searching while the Scorpions prepared to work.
Having heard Pickmere's column crossing the wadi, and as No. 1 Platoon was making very poor progress, Major Pemberton crossed over to Pickmere's route on foot about 3 a.m. and contacted the 26 Battalion commander, to find that all was well and that Pickmere and his men had gone.
Meanwhile, time was passing fast. CSM Matthews,19 who was waiting in the OC's jeep, heard the noise of transport on the 26 Battalion route while 1 Platoon was still under fire, called up Brigade, and suggested that 24 Battalion's support weapons should be routed up 26 Battalion's track.
When Pemberton returned to 1 Platoon about 4 a.m. he found one Scorpion still working. The other had lost a track, both commanders were wounded, and those remaining in No. 1 Platoon were under heavy fire. A party was sent on foot to 24 Battalion headquarters to advise the battalion commander to send guides to 26 Battalion to meet his support weapons, and the battered platoon was withdrawn.
Before moving over to 5 Brigade it remains to be recorded that Sapper Willis,20 who drove the OC's jeep, turned it into an ambulance and carried the wounded who could not walk out to the RAP. The jeep was damaged by mortar fire and a tyre punctured, but Willis effected repairs, changed the tyre and carried on. Both he and Corporal Quinn, who had done sterling work that night and in earlier engagements, were awarded Military Medals.
Lieutenant Hanger had passed through the second minefield and was, as he says, ‘having a shufti beyond the field to see if I could find a crossing for the transport when I suddenly found there were unfriendly bodies between me and home. After that I spent a lot of time trying to look like a hole in the ground until eventually I worked my way along to 26 Battalion and came out that way.’
Incidentally, Hanger should not have been there, and had he not disobeyed orders would have been in a Casualty Clearing Station having his feet attended to. Major Pemberton commented:page 455
‘Lieut Hanger was one of the solidest and gamest of the Div. Engineer platoon commanders who had not been awarded a decoration. By rights he should have been evacuated two days earlier with shockingly sore feet, but he stayed on to lead his Platoon in this attack and was evacuated the next day. It was very bad luck that his last night was such a gallant failure.’
Eighth Field Company casualties for the night were two killed and sixteen wounded, and as the total brigade casualties were about sixty-five, the Company had suffered more than its share.
Fifth Brigade's infantry forward line was a little beyond the Wadi el Boul, with Takrouna some three miles away dominating the area and the first objective, the Zaghouan–Enfidaville road, immediately behind it. The infantry start line was half a mile ahead of its FDLs, and the barrage was to open a mile farther forward and roll to the road. Twenty-eighth Battalion, right, and 21 Battalion, left, making the initial assault, would halt there and 23 Battalion would pass through to the final objective.
There was hard fighting almost from the first and by midnight, an hour after the barrage opened, the sapper columns had not moved very far nor were any mines reported, although both battalions had been disorganised by trip-wired S-mines and booby traps. The engineer part in the operation is best described in extracts from Major Page's private diary:
‘Comds Orders Conference held at 5 Bde HQ at 0900 hrs. Attack for tonight. Had a busy day organising working parties and liaising with other arms. One detachment with each battalion as usual. With 23 and 28 Bn parties (Nos. 1 and 3 Pls) two scorpions and 3 Crusader tanks as protection. No report of mines but quite probable. All Platoon Officers reported to their respective Bn Comdrs in afternoon and moved off with their detachments. Collected No. 2 troop of Crusaders from Notts Yeomanry. On 4 Ind Div sector on our left barrage opened at 2130 hrs our own commencing at 2300 hrs. Inspected the maintenance parties of the 3 Crossings over the Wadi Boul and reported to 5 Bde Tac HQ. Our barrage terrific—some return from enemy. No minefields reported up to midnight. Infantry having a very stiff fight. Casualties heavy—all three Bn Comdrs wounded. My detachments with the three battalions pushed on behind the infantry. Progress very slow owing to intense enemy fire. Up till daylight no minefields encountered so my detachments were all withdrawn to 5 Bde.’page 456
In actual fact 21 Battalion had been withdrawn before daylight, and 28 Battalion, with most of its officers casualties, was spread in small parties almost from the start line to the objective.
‘We found no A/T mines but some A/P in a small orchard. These were not holding up the Maoris who were very disorganised so I recced forward with my Sergeant (Dudeck) till we found things a bit lonely and no mines so we returned to 5 Bde.’21
The situation at first light on the 20th was, in short, that 6 Brigade's support arms were dug in and a regiment of tanks was in position. On the 5 Brigade sector only isolated parties of Maoris had reached the Zaghouan road; the position on Takrouna was uncertain but a small party of Maoris was established on the summit. How they got there is a story that may be followed in detail in the official history of 28 (Maori) Battalion. Twenty-first Battalion was back at the start line. Twenty-third Battalion had not gained possession of its objective and was without support arms and virtually surrounded. Seventh Field Company was near Main Headquarters 5 Brigade.
Major Page later put on record:
‘I did not contact Yorke at all that night and his party came back with 21 Bn. He had no scorpions or tanks with him. Foster and Standish were under very heavy fire all night, the tanks under our command came under fire from 88mm guns firing from somewhere near 23 Bn objective and were somewhat reluctant to push ahead, and the supporting arms and vehicles were unable to follow the infantry—not because of mines, but because of the terrific fire which came down between Takrouna and the feature on its right. Foster reached the main minefield across the valley but could do no lifting. It was not until the following night that this field was gapped and taped…. Most of the time I was with Foster and Standish we spent on our tummies, in between exhorting the tanks to have a go at settling some of the opposition between us and the 23rd Bn. In the light of after knowledge, this came from the enemy on the shoulder of Takrouna and just beyond the mine field, who had been bypassed.’
The sappers were not involved in the fighting during the day, when the attached tanks helped the infantry to clean out enemy pockets, leaving, in the process, some of their number sitting in the minefields with damaged tracks. As soon as darkness fell page 457 7 Field Company became very active; with the help of three Scorpions a track 16 feet wide was made through the minefield that stretched from the sides of Takrouna across 5 Brigade's and part of 6 Brigade's front, mines were cleared from the Zaghouan road and a crossing was made for carriers and jeeps over the anti-tank ditch. The whole area was still under enemy fire and two Scorpions were damaged, but there were no casualties. Included in the Company tasks had been the job of clearing Takrouna of mines, but as bitter fighting was still going on for its possession the instruction was cancelled by 5 Brigade.
The next night was equally full, with working parties out filling road demolitions and making tracks for the recovery of tanks. And then, from Major Page's diary:
‘At 2100 hrs message from 5 Bde H.Q. Whole of Takrouna now captured. Sappers reqd to recce route up for supporting arms. Went out with Lt Standish in armoured car. Lt Yorke following with det of No. 2 Sec. Collected convoy of 3? mortars, LMG's etc., at Bde HQ and a patrol of 4 men from Maori Bn. Recced a good track up to top—very steep but negotiable. Pockets of enemy still about—fired on several times from close range. No mines encountered. Guided the convoy up to top. All up by midnight.’
All damaged tanks were recovered by daybreak on 23 April, which was Good Friday although few remembered it. Fifth Brigade was to be relieved that night by 152 Brigade of 51 Highland Division, and the day was passed in showing 275 Field Company, RE, over the ground that could be covered in daylight. The company returned to the area it had occupied prior to the attack, about eight miles behind the Wadi el Boul.
Sixth Brigade was not relieved. On the contrary, two silent night attacks went in to improve the position, but engineer assistance was not required and the brigade was relieved on the night 26 - 27 April by elements of 51 and 56 Divisions. Another major attack was under consideration, but although it was later cancelled the work of putting down the approach vehicle tracks went on.
It was a sizeable job and all three Field Companies were involved. During the nights from 26 to 29 April seven tracks incorporating those already mentioned were carried as far as the Zaghouan road, where 10 Corps RE took over. According to the 10 Corps Engineering Instruction, the tracks were 14 feet wide and graded and smoothed to the extent of being clearly defined on a dark, moonless night. Major Anderson borrowed page 458 an auto-patrol from 10 Corps and four other graders from an aerodrome construction unit to work in conjunction with the 5 Field Park bulldozers still attached to 6 Field Company.
It was the last serious engineering job the field units' sappers did in North Africa, for Eighth Army was virtually out of the ring where the final round was being fought. The companies bathed at Hergla beach and overhauled their vehicles until 4 May, when the Division moved some 16 miles inland to Djebibina, on the right flank of the Free French, to help by some active patrolling an enterprise the French had in mind to pin down as many enemy as possible.
Fifth Brigade led the Division to the new Djebibina area, and 6 Brigade remained in Divisional Reserve during the operations there. Seventh Field Company lifted scattered mines, groups of mines, and fields of mines all over the area. They were the most thickly sown the Division had ever experienced, and there must have been some hard fighting to get the enemy out of his defended localities. In addition to making the place safe to walk in, sections of sappers went by night with infantry patrols ‘peacefully penetrating’, in the infantry parlance, from hill to hill, during which time five sappers were wounded.
Colonel Hanson later commented on this period and locality:
‘This was a particularly nasty job for Inf patrols and attached sappers. S mines and booby traps were laid in a very cunning and ingenious manner all over the place. Any spot which was likely to provide shelter was well and truly mined. I crawled round and inspected as much of the area as I could by day and then just at dusk. I was really amazed at the mining the enemy had done and I have nothing but admiration for the Inf and Sappers who went into this duty. When a man became a casualty the difficulty of attending him and moving around can be imagined. Men can stand up to heavy fire but to operate in minefields of this nature is soul destroying and takes real guts.’
Sixth Brigade went back to the Enfidaville area on the 8th, 5 Brigade followed on the 10th, and the attached sappers returned to the command of the CRE in Divisional Reserve Group.
At this period the only person, apparently, who did not realise that the enemy position was impossible was the enemy himself.
Major Anderson had received instructions to be ready to do a mine-clearing job first thing on 10 May, when 56 Division page 459 was to attack along the coastal sector. His force consisted of No. 2 Platoon of 6 Field Company, 5 Field Park bulldozers and a section of No. 1 Platoon (Captain Goodsir), a platoon from 8 Field Company (Lieutenant Pickmere) and a party from 5 Field Park Company (Major Rix-Trott).
The 56th Division attack was not a success and the sapper force remained standing by until the afternoon of 12 May, when the war diary announces casually: ‘Many prisoners coming in. Looks as if the show might be over.’ It was. First Italian Army surrendered at 11.45 a.m. on 13 May.
One of the most welcome movement orders the New Zealand sappers had read up to that date was issued by HQ 2 NZ Divisional Engineers on 14 May. It ran:
5 Col D. J. Fountaine, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Westport; born Westport, 4 Jul 1914; company secretary; CO 20 Bn 21 Jul-16 Aug 1942; 26 Bn Sep 1942-Dec 1943, Jun-Oct 1944; comd NZ Adv Base Oct 1944-Sep 1945; wounded 19 Nov 1941.
6 R. A. Pickmere, manuscript, With the NZ Division in North Africa.
12 The Wadi Gabes at that point was approximately 50 yards from bank to bank, carrying about fifty feet of water up to three feet deep in the middle. The banks on each side were very soft and the causeway over the 44-gallon drums was therefore built farther downstream where the water was not so wide.
13 Maj-Gen L. W. Thornton, CBE, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Christchurch, 15 Oct 1916; Regular soldier; BM 6 Bde Feb-Sep 1942; GSO II 2 NZ Div Oct 1942-Jun 1943; CO 5 Fd Regt Jun-Dec 1943, Apr-Jun 1944; GSO I 2 NZ Div 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div 1945; DCGS Apr 1948-Jan 1949; QMG 1955-56; Adjutant-General 1956-58; Chief of SEATO Military Planning Office, 1958-60; Chief of General Staff Sep 1960–.
14 Pickmere, op. cit.
16 Lt-Col W. B. Thomas, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d., Silver Star (US); London; born Nelson, 29 Jun 1918; bank officer; CO 23 Bn Jun-Aug 1944, Oct 1944-May 1945; 22 Bn (Japan) Oct 1945-Nov 1946; wounded and p.w. 25 May 1941; escaped Nov 1941; returned to unit May 1942; twice wounded; Hampshire Regt, 1947–.
21 Letter, Lt Standish.