4th and 6th Reserve Mechanical Transport Companies
CHAPTER 13 — The End in Africa
The End in Africa
THROUGH the night and all next day they drove into the west, leaving behind Tripolitania and entering the enemy's final African stronghold, Tunisia, a French possession well and truly under Axis control. They drove for almost 200 miles, first through cultivated countryside, then back to the old familiar desert, along a main road packed with traffic travelling to and from the front. Regularly, reassuringly, overhead passed large fighter formations of 30 to 40 planes of the Desert Air Force. Steering along the banked road, drivers looked twice at vehicles sprawled upside-down or canted at crazy angles on the edge of the road. Many of these accidents probably had been caused by incautious drivers trying to pass slow-moving tank-transporters in the darkness, only to feel the soft edge of the road crumble and yield beneath their wheels. Drivers looked, and remembered.
West of Medenine, where the artillery was rumbling and rolling once more, the RMT companies delivered the riflemen of 5 and 6 Brigades, dug in and camouflaged vehicles, carried out maintenance, and took good care to observe strict orders that there were to be no fires, and no hanging out of laundry. Air activity was increasing. An occasional dogfight broke high above, and sneak-raiders came in to defy both fighters and powerful anti-aircraft barrages. Just after 35 of our fighters had passed by in the late afternoon of 4 March, six enemy planes bombed 23 Battalion's area. No. 4 Platoon drivers at first congratulated themselves on escaping scot-free. Then they discovered that Driver Sykes1 had been killed in the act of digging his slit trench, and Driver Sam Leggat2 was suffering from severe shrapnel wounds. A cross, made by Workshops, page 253 was placed over Sykes's grave. He had been a Second Echelon man. Friends remembered how only the night before he had discussed what he would do if he returned home. Two days later, with the RMT men still on the fringe of the front, a dozen Focke-Wulfs 137 broke through massed anti-aircraft fire and swung to strafe vehicles along the whole of the NZASC area. No 4 RMT drivers or vehicles were damaged, but in 6 RMT's lines Lance-Sergeant Wells and Drivers Macey and Roberts3 were wounded and evacuated. This brought RMT's casualties up to seven within a week, for Driver King,4 with 1 Platoon 4 RMT, had been killed when his truck accidentally capsized one night. Driver Townsend, suffering from shock and abrasions, was evacuated to 5 NZ Field Ambulance. This accident took place when the platoon, attached to the Ammunition Company, was establishing an ammunition point near Medenine.
The day the dozen Focke-Wulfs strafed the NZASC area, Rommel swept out on his last attack in Africa. His bold thrusts, headed by tanks to break or to turn the flank and then destroy the infantry, vulnerable as an unrolled hedgehog behind its prepared defences, had carried him victoriously through France in 1940. They had reduced many an Egyptian-border unit to a confused antheap on 24 November 1941 and had swept aside, almost contemptuously, opposition at Gazala on 27 May 1942. But at Alam Halfa on 30 August 1942 his tactics had ended in disaster.
This last attack came from ‘the African Maginot’, the Mareth Line, formidable defences built by French military engineers between the sea and the hills about 20 miles beyond Medenine. Enemy guns opened up in an early morning mist which rose to reveal advancing armoured columns and infantry. The most southerly of three main thrusts came towards the Maori Battalion on 5 Infantry Brigade's front, and most of the day passed for 3 Platoon drivers in a roar of artillery as shells from both directions sped over the platoon area. No. 2 Platoon, behind 21 Battalion, saw Stukas, considerably hampered by RAF fighters, in action over forward positions, and 4 Platoon page 254 (with 23 Battalion), experiencing some long-range shelling, watched a knocked-out Spitfire crash from a dogfight. The 6th RMT, with three men wounded in the Focke-Wulf raid, had the heaviest losses in 6 Brigade which, behind 5 Brigade and in second-line positions, suffered only two other casualties during the day.
As the hours passed heartening reports trickled back to 3 Platoon drivers. Their passengers, the Maoris, knocking out at least one tank, had succeeded in heading the attackers into British anti-tank guns concealed in an innocent-looking wadi. Enemy infantry following up were scattered by devastating shelling, which also broke a second attack on the New Zealand front in the late afternoon. Eighth Army's advanced anti-tank guns, backed by massed artillery, had mastered the panzers and, with a third of his armour (52 tanks) shot to a standstill or destroyed, Rommel withdrew his mauled forces to the sheltering Mareth Line. Rommel's reign in Africa ended. A sick and weary man,5 he left for Europe a week later, well and truly ‘hit for six out of Africa’, as General Montgomery had predicted. General Messe was left in command of the Axis forces in the south.
And General Montgomery, in a personal message to Eighth Army men, declared:
On 5 March Rommel addressed his troops in the mountains overlooking our positions and said that if they did not take Medenine, and force the Eighth Army to withdraw, then the days of the Axis forces in North Africa were numbered.
The next day, 6 March, he attacked the Eighth Army. He should have known that the Eighth Army never withdraws; therefore his attack could only end in failure—which it did.
We will now show Rommel that he was right in the statement he made to his troops.
Montgomery added that Eighth Army would next destroy the Mareth Line, burst through the Gabes Gap and then drive page 255 north on Sfax, Sousse and, finally, Tunis. He ended his message: ‘Forward to Tunis! Drive the enemy into the sea.’
A little later a 6 RMT driver unscrewed his fountain pen, wiped flecks of sand from the nib, and wrote: ‘Dear Mum, This letter may be quite a long time before it is posted. We are travelling along a queer pathway where the postman never calls….’
For the RMT were off again on another ‘left hook’. This hook would sweep inland below the jagged Matmata Hills guarding the southern end of the Mareth Line and completely bypass the intricate defences.6 The force, known as the New page 256 Zealand Corps,7 would appear disconcertingly in the desert plains of Gabes Gap, near El Hamma, well behind the Mareth Line. Once again, the security of solid fortifications would be challenged by a powerful, mobile striking force.
The 6th RMT's infantry-carrying platoons led off bright and early on 11 March with 6 Brigade. Each vehicle had enough petrol for 300 miles; rations and water to last six days were carried. To help the secrecy of the move, all hat badges and shoulder titles were out of sight, every fernleaf sign had been concealed or painted out, and the press announced that the New Zealanders were in the Mareth Line. The 6 RMT lorries first moved back to Ben Gardane (passed on the advance to Medenine), then swung away from the coast and headed south, after a time leaving the road and following the old familiar signs and the old familiar dust trails leading to the assembly area. The 144-mile journey ended at daybreak after the brigade had passed through a defile, known as Wilder's Gap, in the Matmata Hills. Without headlights, the platoons had travelled through a completely dark night made more trying for drivers by frequent concertina movements in the columns. Once the assembly area was reached camouflage nets went up. Men dug in and rested, awaiting the arrival of 5 Brigade and the rest of the Corps. About eighteen hours later—around midnight—4 RMT came in with 5 Brigade and settled down. Engines on the way gave no hint of trouble, a tribute to workshops men who had fitted no fewer than sixteen new motors in ten hours on the day before the move.
Until nightfall on 19 March the New Zealanders remained as still and as inconspicuous as possible. About the only RMT movement came from a couple of platoons: 3 Platoon 6 RMT on the ‘moya’ (water) service with the Supply Company, and 1 Platoon 4 RMT which, with the Ammunition Company, gathered supplies back at the roadhead at El Dehibat and took page 257 them on to the New Zealand Field Maintenance Centre,8 about six miles east of the assembly area.
This Field Maintenance Centre, the first ever run by New Zealanders, was the heaviest responsibility yet tackled by the NZASC. Through it would pass all the supplies, ammunition, petrol, food, equipment, spare parts, and so on needed by the advancing host. It was, so to speak, the heart of the left-hook punch. Lorries, working like packhorses, had crossed the desert bit by bit building up the stocks: 1500 tons of ammunition, 3170 tons of petrol, and 672 tons of supplies which included 336,000 rations and 72,000 lb. of flour for the field bakeries.
Some Eighth Army officers doubted if the New Zealand organisation, which until then had only looked after a Division, could tackle the responsibility of supervising supplies for an entire corps. ‘This will prove the exception,’ said Colonel Crump, head of the NZASC.
The New Zealanders did it, and did it well. On 12 March Major Stock, Captain Coleman, Second-Lieutenant Cotton-Stapleton and 24 men left 4 RMT to begin duties at the Field Maintenance Centre. Major Stock took charge. Working in close co-operation, Major Good, Lieutenant Gray, Second-Lieutenant Markby,9 and twelve men from 6 RMT went to special duties at the roadhead back at El Dehibat.
For New Zealand Corps the balloon went up at 6 p.m. on 19 March. Drivers climbed into their seats, the infantry settled down beneath the canopies, and the move began. On a nine-vehicle front, with 50 yards between vehicles, and travelling at a speed of eight miles in the hour, New Zealand Corps went forward 30 to 40 miles over sand dunes and wadis clear and sharp and lonely under a bright moon. When the sun returned and the march was resumed, drivers looked out in awe to a desert horizon crawling with vehicles—6000 of them, if one could only see them all. In the vehicles were 27,000 men; the New Zealanders numbered 14,500. ‘It seemed an endless page 258 procession of vehicles spread over gullies and wadis from one horizon to the other, in jolting swaying lines of guns, carriers, tanks, trucks, jeeps, transporters, bulldozers—all the varied clanking array of modern war,’ wrote one observer. Drivers found the route ‘fairly good’ for the first few miles, then it became rough with hills, soft sand, and rock. Later in the day gunfire sounded ahead, and drivers heard that patrols had pushed back enemy reconnaissance units. Several burnt-out vehicles were passed on the way to a small minefield, where a tank and a few trucks had foundered.
At one stage the advance took on a madhouse complexion: three-tonners screaming in four-wheel drive over sand dunes; trucks getting stuck and excited parties darting about flourishing sandtrays; bunches of men sweating and pushing and cursing while others, more lucky, swept past, coating the heavers in dust and shouting infuriating advice such as ‘Get a bicycle, Dig!’; odd blighted groups standing hopelessly, helplessly, almost tearfully, beside thoroughly bogged down transport until someone came to curse and shout and rouse them out of it; British staff officers, erect, unsmiling, beside stranded vehicles, attempting with many an imperious gesture to commandeer Kiwis to push them free, and the Kiwis telling them what to do about it; and then a woebegone Arab encampment, slap bang in the way—good relations with natives or not, it was just too bad. But it all worked out, somehow, in the end.
At last light New Zealand Corps halted within sight of Tebaga Gap. The following afternoon, 21 March, armour, artillery, and infantry moved up towards enemy positions covering the six-mile gap. Long ago this weakness had been recognised, for the Axis defences faithfully followed the lines of an ancient Roman wall. The success of the hook now depended on 6 Brigade, which was to make the attack, with the armour pushing through the breach next morning. In full moonlight two 6 RMT platoons brought up 25 and 26 Battalions. On the way a solitary enemy bomber swooped to strafe harmlessly. Before midnight drivers saw the artillery open up, and the infantry moved forward to a brilliant success, capturing all objectives (including the dominating hill, Point 201, which commanded the defences) and taking about a thousand Italian page 259 prisoners. A dent had now been driven in the enemy's positions, but for the next four days the enemy, stiffened by the arrival of two German divisions, held the New Zealand Corps. RMT's platoons remained handy to the battalions, while the two detached platoons distributed ammunition and water. A few trucks assisted in moving back the prisoners. Drivers saw a great deal of air activity as the RAF struck again and again, ‘tank busters’ taking part in some of the raids. ‘Owing to the closeness of the opposing forces it is not always possible to tell which is on the receiving end,’ noted 3 Platoon 4 RMT.
Who was who became unmistakably clear on 26 March. The 1st Armoured Division (released from the bulk of Eighth Army, which was assaulting the Mareth Line in full-scale frontal attack) had arrived by the New Zealand trail and joined the New Zealand Corps. In the afternoon RMT drivers, experiencing some shelling and mortaring without casualty, watched the furious assault on Tebaga Gap. Another deeply interested spectator was General Freyberg, who wrote:
At three o'clock as I drove up the valley in my tank all was quiet except for an occasional shell. There was no unusual movement or sign of a coming attack. Exactly half an hour later the first squadrons of the RAF roared overhead, and relays of Spitfires, Kittv Bombers, and Hurricane ‘tank busters’ swept over the enemy positions, giving the greatest close air support ever seen in the desert. At four o'clock 200 field and medium guns opened up in a bombardment on a front of 5,000 yards. In an instant the attack developed, and 150 tanks of the 8 Armoured Brigade and three battalions of infantry appeared as from nowhere advancing in the natural ‘smoke’ screen provided by the dust storms. The roar of bombers and fighters ahead of our advance merged with the intense barrage of bursting shells. Following close behind the advancing barrage came waves of Sherman tanks, carriers, infantry and sappers on foot, preceded by three squadrons of Crusader tanks. Behind the assault of the 2 New Zealand Division, coming down the forward slopes just in the rear of our front line, were another 150 tanks of the 1 Armoured Division followed by their motorised infantry in nine columns of lorries. It was a most awe-inspiring spectacle of modern warfare.
All resistance ended at Tebaga Gap next day, 27 March. Over a battlefield strewn with wreckage and many dead drove page 260 the RMT, passing swarms of prisoners, 5000 to 6000 in all, including many a tough veteran of the Afrika Korps. Beneath the canopies rested the exulting infantry, and in the lorries of 3 Platoon 4 RMT Maoris refought their assault on Point 209, where a battalion of Panzer Grenadiers, engaged man-to-man and mown down in counter-attacks, had finally been wiped out. Here Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu10 had lost his life and won the VC. It had seemed the RMT's luck had held at Tebaga Gap. However, with the worst over, 3 Platoon 6 RMT, moving up the road to El Hamma, struck one of the last bursts of shelling, which killed Driver McLean,11 fatally wounded Driver Jepsen,12 and wounded Driver Hyde.13 Next day a bombing raid wounded Drivers Fraser14 and Parnwell15 in 4 Platoon 4 RMT.
With Tebaga Gap won, the Mareth Line became untenable. Overnight the enemy withdrew his front 40 miles back to Wadi Akarit. Through El Hamma, then to Gabes (where men swarmed into a hot spring and bathed delightedly), then to Wadi Akarit drove the Division. The end seemed near.
Bill McGhie16 and Ted Benfell, of 6 RMT, had acquired a little pet bantam rooster. The Division had stopped for three hours. ‘We were all lolling in the sun and enjoying the countryside, so pleasant after the eternal sand,’ writes Ted. ‘Second-Lieutenant Henry Brandon17 started the ball rolling by discussing just how palatable the little bird might be, along with some tinned potatoes acquired in Tripoli. The wee joker must have read his doom in Bill's eyes, but he was no match for about fourteen hungry Kiwis. Fair dinkum it was a shame, mate, to see that fowl surrounded by spuds frying away merrily page 261 in our pan and hemmed in by the boys. He was about as big stripped as a decent sized blackbird. Henry, with the ceremony befitting such an occasion, shared the wee fellow evenly and neatly with the grace offered fervently all round: “God bless our little Bantie”.’page 262
From Gabes onwards (one driver wrote) Tunisia at this time of the year is almost a paradise. At one stage we travelled for 25 miles through an orchard (or a series of orchards): 400 square miles of matured olive trees, lane after lane, so many metres apart. Hundreds of miles of wheat and oats and barley: the vivid greenness of it, tinged crimson by millions and millions of poppies. The wild flowers—marigolds, daisies and dandelions predominating—make every untilled acre a dream of colour. It is one huge garden.
The number and variety of wildflowers are beyond belief. I wish I knew half their names. They stir vague memories of other flowers raised long ago from gaily coloured packets of seeds. Here and there are other orchards where the almond tree predominates. The Army seems to make certain we avoid the towns, and so the trucks plough on over the smiling countryside, up hill and down dale, through the crops and the olive trees, and over the wild flowers. There are no fences of course. The fine dividing lines between properties are raised lines of sods, or an occasional hedge of prickly cactus. Occasionally one sees a big mob of ewes being milked at night or in the early morning, the women as usual in the East doing most of the work, the men doing the talking. Here and there you see an occasional herd of excellent jersey cows, a rarity in the East.
Sometimes in the encampments the women are sent away to a safe refuge in the hills, but there's little need for this because the average Bedouin woman has very little beauty or charm. The French welcome us with open arms, but we see very little of them. Some of them are very pretty but our social contacts consist of a wave in passing, a kiss blown with the fingers, a gleam of teeth … the convoy clumps on.
Wherever we stop hordes of Bedouins spring from nowhere. In their ragged pockets are seemingly endless dirty notes on the Banque D'Algiers, Banque D'France, or surcharged ‘Tunisia’. They want to buy anything and everything. Looking back one sees little groups gathered at each truck. The boys are hocking everything hockable. The demand seems endless; sukra (sugar), chai (tea), sabots (shoes), cigairo (cigarettes), tabac (tobacco). One of the boys had a German pushbike, lugged over hundreds of miles of desert from Mersa Matruh. I think it went for 1440 francs (£7/4/-). A pair of old shoes, polished until they looked like new, brought 250 francs. A pleasant-faced lad paid 25 francs for a worn pair of underpants in a mistaken idea it was a newfangled kind of Anglaise shirt. The more he tried to struggle into it, the more we laughed. At last we pitied him and gave him back his money. They're mainly quite page 263 honest, though Shylocks when it comes to bargaining.18 Their speech is a queer mixture of French, Arabic, German, and English.
The weather is beautiful, the days still and warm, the nights pleasantly cool … a shade too cool when you suddenly dive out of the trucks into a slit trench and forget to grab your trousers…
The stand at Wadi Akarit, with the sea on one side and salt marshes on the other, had been brief. Nos. 1, 2, and 4 Platoons of 6 RMT, briefly leaving their battalions, picked up riflemen of the veteran 4 Indian Division and drove them into forward positions. Simultaneously 1 Platoon 4 RMT hurried off with the Ammunition Company to a new Field Maintenance Centre at El Hamma, gathering ammunition to build up dumps of 300 rounds beside each 25-pounder gun. The turn-round distance from the company area to the FMC was over 90 miles.
On one such ammunition convoy Driver Ronald Cook19 had his lorry laden with mines and detonators. One set of detonators exploded, setting fire to the canopy and the wooden mine crates. Driver Cook received the BEM for coolly unloading the remaining detonators and putting out the fire with his extinguisher and sand.
Dumps complete, the Indians on the left flank of two British divisions attacked beneath a tremendous barrage, and passages across the wadi were cleared. During the assault a detachment from 2 Platoon 4 RMT had a hot time taking forward a company from 26 Battalion. These riflemen were to protect and assist engineers clearing a minefield and an anti-tank ditch. Under brisk shelling and small-arms fire the job was done and crossings completed. Once the breach had been made the New Zealand Division cut through, to mop up and harass the enemy retreat.
Fanning out into desert formation and nobly supported by aircraft the attackers pressed north, cutting off stragglers and page 264 isolated units and keeping a constant stream of prisoners moving back to cages. Some Italians still had their own transport. Thankful and docile, they drove from the battlefield, suitcases packed. Decidedly more uncomfortable driving lay ahead of RMT men before undefended Sfax was left behind. Ordered ahead with 23 Battalion, 4 Platoon 4 RMT bogged down overnight in most difficult country. Out of this trouble, the platoon ran into more in the shape of two bombing and strafing raids. Corporal Stewart20 and Driver Benge,21 both wounded, were evacuated. In the general advance drivers found the going very heavy over cultivated soil. Knots of confusion spread among the strung-out columns when clumps of vehicles stuck repeatedly in the soft earth. Travelling improved along hard roads by the coast, but south of Sousse the main road, heavily mined, again slowed things up. In the lead 5 Brigade group, forced at one stage to advance in single column, was stretched out over 40 miles of the road. Demolitions forced the leading RMT platoon (3 Platoon carrying 28 Battalion) to bypass Sousse on 12 April, but 2 and 4 Platoons (with 21 and 23 Battalions), passing through in the evening, ran into wildly rejoicing citizens handing out flags, flowers, V for victory signs, and much more welcome gifts of wine.
Close behind this outward happiness lay resentment, bitterness, hate. Soon pathetic stories of enemy oppression circulated freely. Jews exhibited yellow stars which had to be worn in public, and told how enemy soldiers kicked them at every opportunity and delighted in giving them menial and also highly dangerous tasks. One Jew, in peacetime employing over a hundred Arabs, had his savings confiscated. Forced by the enemy to work on the wharves under Arab overseers equipped with whips, he told a New Zealand NCO: ‘When the RAF and Americans came over and bombed the town, I laughed even though five of my family were killed and lying dead about me. I laughed and laughed for sheer joy for I knew that Germans and Arabs too were being killed.’ The New Zealander recorded these impressions: ‘I have never listened page 265 to so much concentrated bitterness from human lips. Listening to this man it sank into the core of one's being that here was a hatred which would never die. With such hatreds throughout the world what possibility ever is there of a real sound peace? With people like this—and they are not isolated instances, but millions—the death or downfall of Hitler and his regime will not suffice. Nothing short of total extermination of the German race would satisfy them. Even were this achieved it would breed fresh feuds and hates in its very achievement.’
With men of 28 Battalion in Forli
UNIT COMMANDING OFFICERS
Now north of Sousse, a chain of rocky mountains rose clear and gaunt in the April skies. Rough and forbidding, this last barrier stood between Eighth Army and its final African prize, Tunis, a mere 55 miles away. Pass and road, gully and pinnacle, all were manned and guarded along the 110-mile front twisting down from Cape Serrat to Enfidaville. The enemy, encircled completely now that British, American and French forces from the west had linked with Eighth Army, knew he would not be evacuated. He knew that his dusty defences among the African heights were the last between the Allies and the European continent. He sighted his guns with resolution and waited.
The RMT brought riflemen of 5 and 6 Brigades to the approaches of Enfidaville. On the way one 4 RMT man, Driver Lunjevich,22 had been wounded by shrapnel. Near Enfidaville both brigades would bite into the hills, advancing three miles on a three-mile front. One objective was a cone-shaped hill, on which a white building perched 600 feet up on the rocky summit. The hill, dominating all important positions on the plain below, was called Takrouna. This last big attack by New Zealand riflemen in Africa would clear the ground behind Enfidaville, force the enemy to quit the town, and allow Eighth Army to move on up the coast.
Before battle began two 4 RMT platoons had an odd little job all to themselves. Taken from troop-carrying they went to Sfax, 100 miles away, to collect—of all things—mules.
‘How many tons did you say?’ asked an RMT officer, receiving the order over the phone.
‘They don't go in tons, man! Mules, I said, mules, not fuel.’page 266
Tremendous confusion waited at Sfax. The selection committee, scarcely knowing the difference between mules and donkeys, wove unhappily and apprehensively among shouting Arabs offering dejected or dead-beat beasts at fabulous prices. Finally the mules and/or donkeys had to be loaded on to the three-tonners. There was much tying and retying of bootlaces, meticulous rolling of cigarettes, and other evasions before loading got going properly. During the tally-ho Lieutenant Rich, running foul of a couple of angry hooves which bundled him off prostrate to hospital, became the last 4 RMT casualty in the North African campaign.
The beasts were taken to Sidi Bou Ali, where 40-odd men from both RMT companies, plus men from other units, were forming a mule pack company, no less. But the story of this new RMT role must wait for another page.
On the Takrouna-Enfidaville front three battalions still had to be moved into position. As darkness fell on 19 April three troop-carrying platoons wove past dusty olive trees and strange, six-foot-high clumps of fleshy, twisted cactus. The platoons took the Maori Battalion and 24 Battalion close to the start line and moved up 25 Battalion, which was in reserve. Already a lively medium artillery barrage was flecking the heights ahead with sudden bursts of light. Driving back and laagering in the B Echelon area at Sidi Bou Ali, men heard the roar of the main barrage crash down after zero hour, an hour before midnight. The attack was under way.
Several days passed before the RMT, all together again at Sidi Bou Ali, returned to pick up the infantry and bring them out to a rest area. During this time the troop-carriers lay low, a few trucks moving short distances either with walking wounded or with prisoners. Overhead fleets of bombers and fighters joined in the attack. Sixth Brigade soon took and held its Enfidaville sector, but 5 Brigade struck savage resistance in and around Takrouna. Many a familiar face was missing23 when the RMT collected the tired victors again. Drivers heard page 267 of desperate hand-to-hand fighting on rocky platforms and pinnacles. Bodies had hurtled over cliffs. A 17-pounder had taken part in close-range sniping. Even a secret tunnel came into some of the stories.
For the New Zealanders from now on—following the dogged achievement at Takrouna—the war in North Africa dribbled away, seeping from one anti-climax to another. The infantry rested. They needed it. Drivers took swimming parties to the beach, went back to Sousse for LOB men and for reinforcements, and collected anti-malarial gear from Sfax. The Hon Fred Jones, Minister of Defence, turned up to talk on New Zealand's war effort and her rehabilitation plans.
Then in the first week in May 4 RMT gathered up 5 Brigade's riflemen. Over in the west where the going was better the Allies massed for an all-out attack. The Division, far from being in this attack, was booked to hold a piece of the Enfidaville front. And quite rightly so, some felt, still distressed at ‘ugly things in the hills not far away’ [Takrouna] and thinking: ‘Poor battered Kiwis; it seems grotesquely unfair that a few should have been asked to do so much.’ Others thought this a drab final role for ‘a ball of fire’.
The 4th RMT took 5 Brigade riflemen about 20 miles west of Enfidaville to the heavily mined and booby-trapped area of Djebibina. The Luftwaffe had been peeled from the sky: the only vexation during this move came from United States Mitchell bombers which fortunately missed what seemed to be their objective—2 Platoon with 21 Battalion. Following on with 6 Brigade came 6 RMT, its battalions in reserve. At Djebibina the Division's task was to occupy ground without heavy fighting and to lend artillery support to a small French advance nearby. Actually, with a few exceptions, everyone round about was stalling, awaiting the inevitable. The real show—the kill, the death, the flag-waving and final liberation—was away to the north. Within a day or two 6 and 7 (British) Armoured Divisions, bursting through in the main drive in the west, raced north to occupy Tunis on 7 May.
In their backwater—a forgotten, unimportant front—tired and bored New Zealanders and their opponents waited for the end. This was not of the stuff war films are made. page 268 Neither side was keen to get hurt now. Nobody seemed to know what was going on. Nobody seemed to care. On a crazy day, 12 May, the enemy fired off shells in all directions. He meant little harm. He was easing his conscience for tomorrow's surrender—the less ammunition left, the better it looked.
Next day a silence set in, and this time the silence stayed.
The British, the curious British who had clung to old homeland uniforms and bully beef when rocks cracked in the heat, who had been incapable of designing an intelligent petrol can or tank gun until the newcomers’ hands reached for their throats, who at all times had shouldered the greatest tasks and had spoken the least, these curious people, the British, had won. Dead beneath the almost apologetic paws of the Desert Rat lay the Desert Fox.
The Kiwis, of course, were still talking about yesterday's race meeting.
5 Erwin Rommel, born Heidenheim, 15 Nov 1891; son of a schoolmaster and one of a family of five; reached Africa in February 1941; left March 1943. His war service ended with severe head wounds on 17 July 1944 when an aircraft attacked his staff car, which overturned, near Livarot, Normandy. Suspected of defeatism after the failure of the attempt to kill Hitler, he took poison and died, 14 Oct 1944.
6 Plans for this hook, first discussed back in November 1942, just after the Alamein breakthrough, had been developed during the occupation of Tripoli, and Maj Stock and Capt Coleman, in the first week in March, had travelled inland to about 20 miles from Wilder's Gap to pick a suitable spot for the NZ Field Maintenance Centre. No left hook from Tripoli eventuated, however. Instead 2 NZ Division was sent by the coastal road to Medenine to help hold the expected counter-attack from the Mareth Line, and the hook developed from there.
7 The Corps, under General Freyberg (still commanding 2 NZ Div) consisted of: 2 NZ Div, 8 (British) Armd Bde, 1 Bn Buffs, King's Dragoon Guards, British medium, field and anti-tank artillery regiments, and the Free French (from Chad) under Gen Leclerc.
8 While 4 RMT Workshops moved on with NZ Corps, 6 RMT Workshops worked at the NZ FMC. The parties rejoined their companies at the end of March, Maj Stock resuming command of 4 RMT Coy, which in mid-February and March had been commanded temporarily by Maj J. J. Hunter and Capt S. W. Ellingham.
12 Dvr J. A. Jepsen; born NZ 19 Dec 1911; tractor driver; died of wounds 27 Mar 1943.
18 Back near Tripoli Arabs, springing from nowhere whenever a convoy halted, hawked matches (origin unknown), eggs (though hens were seldom seen), battered and highly-polished primuses (probably ex-Axis). They sought, unscrupulously, army occupation money, and strove for three things: tea (fresh, or used and freshly dyed with Condy's crystals, from 16s. to £1 a pound), sugar (a little less), biscuits (one egg for one packet). Two packets of army cigarettes were worth three eggs. Along the roads and tracks, especially at mine craters and deviations where drivers had to slow down, the shrill monotonous cry arose: ‘Eggis, eggis … chai … sukra?’
23 The killed, wounded, and missing in the three battalions of 5 Bde were: 21 Bn (19 offrs, 341 ORs strong), 7 offrs, 164 ORs; 23 Bn (20 offrs, 363 ORs strong), 8 offrs, 108 ORs; 28 (Maori) Bn (17 offrs, 302 ORs strong), 12 offrs, 104 ORs.