CHAPTER 14 — The End in North Africa
The End in North Africa
Exactly three months after the opening barrage had boomed out at El Alamein, troops of Eighth Army entered Tripoli, thus completing the write-off of Italy's African Empire. Tripoli was the goal which the Desert Army had set itself when it first crossed the Wire into Libya on the morning of 10 June 1940. Its attainment now, with the Russians pulverising encircled German armies at Stalingrad, Japanese ships routed at Rabaul, and Eisenhower's First Army moving up on Tunisia, bore immense propaganda value. No less important was its practical effect of spiking the enemy's short North African supply line (via Italy and the Sicilian narrows) and gaining for Eighth Army a large port with neighbouring air fields to help in hammering the retreating foe.
Rommel's position at Buerat (where he stood at the close of 1942) was not specially strong. It could be easily outflanked; and reinforcements which he badly needed were now being sent to Tunisia to meet First Army's threat from the north and west. So a stiff contest was not expected.
But before we could resume our move against Rommel our own reserves needed building up, particularly in POL. For Montgomery's aim looked beyond Buerat, and beyond the Homs-Tarhuna line farther back. His plan, when he halted Eighth Army at Nofilia in December, was to complete forward dumping by 14 January, then ‘leap on the enemy in strength’ early next morning. He would then ‘crash right through to Tripoli’ within ten days. Any delay in this programme, he realised, would involve Eighth Army in serious supply diffi culties and hold up the advance—perhaps force a retirement
The first fortnight of January, therefore, brought heavy slogging for Petrol Company, and, in fact, for every load carrier the Army could muster. For, on 5 and 6 January, the weather again took a hand in the game, lashing the Mediter ranean coast with gales and smashing the harbour installations page 255 at Benghazi, our nearest port. Cargo handled there immedi ately dropped from 3000 tons daily to 1000 tons, dwindling even further in the following week. Supplies had to be hauled overland another 300 miles from Tobruk—nearly a thousand miles from Tripoli. Here was a ‘Pretty how-de-do!’ Neverthe less the original programme was retained and the supply problem met by grounding the whole of 10 Corps and using its transport to bring up supplies.
Petrol Company's share in the stocking-up had actually commenced in the previous month, following an administrative instruction of 22 December which required the Division to build up a reserve for 250 miles in its first-line transport. From that date the Company drew from FMCs at El Agheila and Marble Arch the Division's daily ration of 25,000 gallons— enough for a 50-mile reserve. After 25 December, Petrol Company was required to draw 75,000 gallons, in addition to the daily ration; so, by the end of the month, most Divisional units were holding sufficient POL for 350 miles, while Petrol Company also had a goodly stock on wheels.
The battle plan was for 51 (Highland) Division to advance and if necessary attack in the coastal sector along the main road, while a simultaneous outflanking movement inland—as at El Agheila—would be made by 7 Armoured Division and the New Zealand Division advancing side by side. With the New Zealanders were the Royal Scots Greys (manning Sherman tanks) who came under command on 29 December. Clearly, such an ‘outfit’ would be mighty petrol users—and our Admini stration Group carted POL for both inland divisions.
So, on 2 January, Petrol Company's load-carriers moved out from their seaside home near Nofilia, where they had managed to make themselves pretty comfortable, and began building up a large dump near the Wadi Tamet. They drew supplies from 110 FMC, then humped them forward for about 75 miles to the edge of the wadi, where New Zealand Engineers, with bull dozers, were busy cutting tracks across. Our drivers camped near the dumping area, shuttling between it and the FMC on good going across hard flat desert. With them worked attachments from 4 and 6 NZ Reserve MT Companies and 527 Company, RASC.page 256
Cold winds which whipped up sandstorms, or brought low cloud, made conditions extremely disagreeable. Visibility was reduced to a mile or less; and sometimes it got so bad that convoys had to travel long distances by dead reckoning, using night formation. Following winds caused engines to overheat, and radiators boiled merrily. Nevertheless, by 10 January, Petrol Company and its attachments had laid down 120,000 gallons of POL, and also had on wheels a further 74,720 gallons of MT petrol, 17,480 gallons of high-octane petrol, 2140 gallons of diesel fuel, and large stocks of lubricating oils and greases. In the same period they delivered 80,000 gallons to 7 Armoured Division.
Besides this very substantial work programme, the first two weeks of January 1943 were eventful ones for the Company in various ways. First came news of a new establishment, to build up the Company to a Headquarters, Workshops, and five operating platoons, i.e., an increase of three new platoons. These were to be manned by reinforcements expected from New Zealand. Senior NCOs were chosen from the field com pany; and they, with Captain Washbourn and three other officers (Butt, Aickin,1 and Templeton2 went to Maadi to help train and equip the new arrivals. Our officer strength had been stepped up by the following additions: Captain J. K. Palmer,3 Lieutenants F. C. Aickin and G. W. Lyon (formerly a corporal with Petrol Company, First Echelon), Second-Lieutenants Baldwin,4 and J. H. Templeton. On 5 January, Aickin, Lyon and Maurie Browne were promoted captain.
Two days later Browne and his genial driver, Jack Carthy, with the Senior Supply Officer (Major Bracegirdle), ran over a land mine while crossing a disused airfield in Browne's pick-up. The mine exploded under the right-hand front wheel, effectively ‘wiping’ the front drive, sump, both wheels, and part of the engine. The occupants had a lucky escape, the only one injured page 257 being Carthy, who was blown clean out of the driver's seat and landed very heavily on his own. He fractured a bone at the base of the spine. Browne tells of his reactions to this incident in a letter home: ‘I had to laugh. Bill Bracegirdle, who is one of the best blokes in the world, and a real wit, was sitting in the middle. And when the blast, smoke and dust had cleared away he came to light in his inimitable drawl with “Hell, I've been blown up by a bloody mine”. Well, I got the giggles, I'm afraid, and I'm sure Jack thinks I'm quite mad as I was inquiring after his health and he was pretty badly shocked, and covered in black powder, wanted to be sick etc., and all I could do was giggle at him while fixing him up.’
Next day (8 January) fire broke out in a No. 1 Platoon vehicle loaded with petrol. Good work with sand and the extinguishers saved the vehicle and its load, damage being confined to a burnt canopy and blistered paintwork. This fire was no sooner dealt with than another broke out in an attached vehicle of 4 RMT Company. Here again a good save was made, with the loss of only 240 gallons of petrol from a load of 640 gallons. Ken Drummond,5 (corporal fitter) played a prominent part in the salvage operations; and as he had also distinguished himself during the troublesome time of the November floods by continually using his great strength and skill to extricate bogged vehicles, he was later awarded the BEM and given a field commission, one of the very few in 2 NZEF.
Petrol Company's truck troubles were not yet over. On 9 January Staff-Sergeant Dennison6 reported a fire on his 15-cwt which destroyed the load, including new tyres, but the truck was saved. That same day a Company Headquarters 15-cwt, driven by Driver Coburn,7 tried conclusions with a tank transporter—complete with Sherman tank! Coburn's truck was bunted off the road, its tray pushed askew. But it was still ‘driveable’; so Coburn, his vehicle now moving crab-wise, carried on to 6 Field Ambulance where he had been page 258 taking Corporal Hobbs,8 whose face was badly burnt in the No. I Platoon truck-fire the previous evening.
By 10 January our Division had reached the Wadi Tamet, and was ‘rarin’ to go'. But the last ‘t’ still had to be crossed and the last ‘i’ dotted in a complex and—we hoped—foolproof supply plan which would carry us right on to Tripoli. Next day units drew from the Wadi Tamet dump 54,272 gallons of MT petrol, 5932 gallons of HOP and 378 gallons of AGO (diesel). All were now stocked up to full capacity, holding POL for at least 350 miles. Rations and water (with the daily water issue fixed at half a gallon per man) were also laid in. Plans were made for the ‘leap-frogging’ of petrol and supply dumps to allow for replenishment during the first stages of the move.
So, on 12 January, with a nagging wind raising clouds of dust, the Division crawled and jolted along the four tracks across the Wadi Tamet as a prelude to yet another out flanking programme. Supply, Petrol and Ammunition Com panies, in one of the two newly-formed Administration Groups, tagged along behind 5 Brigade, the rearmost fighting formation of the Division. ‘It was’, says Jim Henderson, in RMT, ‘just about a Cook's Tour, that eleven-day, 250-mile trip which began on 12 January and landed the Division in Tripoli on the 23rd. Drivers, expecting constant challenge from the Luftwaffe, disappeared beneath camouflage nets at bivouac areas, energetically dug slitties while anti-aircraft units kept constantly on the alert, remained well spaced, dodged dusty and well-worn tracks where possible, and at every halt turned vehicles north to reduce reflection from windscreens. But dun coloured fighters of the Desert Air Force gave enemy dive bombers few good opportunities.’
Maurie Browne, as Divisional Petrol Officer, tells rather a different story. ‘The going’, he says, ‘was terrible. The roughest desert I've ever seen. Over the first stage it was beautiful flat going for 70-odd miles then we struck the Wadi Tamet and had to plug through the soft stuff for 40-odd miles, then on through Wadi Zem-Zem. Again bloody awful country with page 259 huge rocks strewn through the soft stuff. All the time we were on our usual stunt of refilling by going back, not to an FMC this time, but to our own dumps which we had established well forward into enemy territory. I had a pretty hectic time as I had to keep tag on our own dumps and control our issues etc. The areas were strewn with mines and quite often I had to push on to catch up with the Div in the night.
‘All the country was new to us and travelling at night by oneself over a track made by the Division wheelmarks was a bit trying. One one occasion I missed the turn-off where our people had gone and ended up at the head of one of our Armoured Divs. I was not the only one who did this, though, as one complete formation of our show missed the way and got lost for a whole day. This particular night the going was the roughest I've ever struck and the old bus made heavy weather of it. At times she was standing on her nose. I eventually found the Show in the morning and by this time I had a gang of lost vehicles tailing me up. I can tell you I was properly worn out.’
By 14 January the Division had drawn close to Rommel's southern flank. Things were now beginning to warm up. Gunfire and the rumble of bombs could be heard, from the north-west. Flares appeared. Next day our forward columns ran into some shelling. But the enemy did not hold out at Buerat. With exasperating coolness he fell back step by step in a ‘textbook’ withdrawal, his rearguards challenging our probing armour right up to the last moment while his main force slipped away. At one stage, in the coastal sector, he showed some stubbornness which threatened to upset Eighth Army's schedule; but the Highland Division stepped up the heat, and Rommel got on his way again. At 5 a.m. on 23 January, patrols of the 11 th Hussars entered Tripoli, followed an hour later by troops of the Highland Division. First New Zealand unit to enter the city was the Maori Battalion, that afternoon. Thus in eighty days our Division had traversed 1400 miles of desert from El Alamein.
Petrol Company Headquarters and Workshops settled down for a few days near Azizia; operating platoons and attachments had been sent to 112 FMC, Misurata, where they camped page 260 while awaiting the arrival of petrol. The HQ area was sandy but cultivated, with grass and trees providing a most welcome change. Better still, there was now an abundant water-supply; so, on 26 January, a bright warm day, the Company area resembled something between a Chinese laundry and a Turkish bathhouse, as clothes were washed and hung out to dry, and bodies in various stages of nudity dashed about heating up tins of water for a good old clean-up. The following day dawned bleak and wet, with intermittent heavy rain which turned the sandy area to mud. The Company's detached platoons began to arrive in, loaded variously with rations, petrol and reinforcements. General carrying from railhead at Misurata to 113 FMC and various unit areas then followed.
By Saturday, 30 January, the weather had picked up again; and forty-seven men from Petrol Company set out in crisp, spring sunshine for their first day-leave to Tripoli. While this was for most an exhilarating experience, others found it dis appointing. One wrote:
I have been into Tripoli and was not very impressed. Actually, though, it was in better condition than I expected. Some of the boys expected it to be another Alex or Cairo, but I'm afraid they didn't realize that the Hun had been running the show for nearly three years. He had not left much food behind, and the locals all looked half starved. I hate to think what the occupied countries are like when he treats his allies like this. The RAF had certainly made a mess of the port, and I don't think it could have been much use to the Hun for the past few months. The civilians are starting to appear again now that they find we are not the ogres that the Hun had led them to believe we are. There is absolutely nothing to buy in the town and I don't think I'll trouble about going in again for some time.
Routine orders duly warned against the hazards of the city, the diseased condition of the ‘ladies’, and so forth. And while the New Zealand soldier was no more virtuous (or less adventur ous) than the next man, most found the fascination of Tripoli lay in the colourful sights and sounds of its people, with their speech, dress, customs and so on, all so very different from our own. The mere sight of streets and buildings, of homes, trees, gardens, children, was a joy after months in the bare and monotonous desert. Then there was our interest in ‘plonk’, also page 261 the subject of dire official warnings which did not deter our lads from seeking out and destroying (to wit, by swallowing) large quantities of the local wine. Some took pleasure in acquiring knick-knacks—by more or less honest trade or barter—for making army life more tolerable. So mirrors, radios, pictures, even armchairs, began to appear in tents and dugouts. For some the flashing of thick wads of lire, now the official currency, but worth little enough, was a satisfaction in itself. By assiduous hunting, especially in the Jewish quarter, the odd souvenir could be found for sending home.
At 1 p.m. on the last day of January, Petrol Company received orders to move, at 2.30 p.m., to a new area near Castel Benito. Major Forbes was away at the time with the operating platoons; and since a number of men were also absent on leave and on duty, this move promised to be difficult. However, there were willing volunteers for the packing of absentees' gear and as deputy drivers for trucks, so the job got under way. Captain Trewby and CSM Gay9 went on ahead to ‘recce’ the new area, and sharp at half past two Sergeant Hainsworth,10 of Headquarters Platoon, led off the convoy, consisting of Company Headquarters, Workshops, RMT vehicles and attached RASC. No. 2 Platoon arrived shortly before the Company moved out, but Lieutenant Burkitt elected to retain his platoon in the old area until next day.
The movement ended in a mile drive up a narrow, tree-lined track, to the left of which Company Headquarters set up shop in the pleasantest spot it had yet found in North Africa—a flat, grassy patch lined with bluegums, and providing vistas of groves and wild flowers. Adjoining it was a broad field to be used on the following Thursday (4 February) for the highlight and climax of the Division's ceremonial career—a review by Britain's illustrious Prime Minister; with him were the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, Generals Alexander and Mont gomery, and other foremost architects of our victories in North Africa. It was thought when Petrol Company settled in, that part of their new area might be needed as a gun and tank park page 262 for that occasion, so Workshops and the platoons were warned not to dig in or make a settled camp in the meantime. And so January ended with the Company installed amid very con genial surroundings. Petrol issues for the month reached the phenomenal total of 291,436 gallons, plus 5227 gallons of oils, 3715 of AGO, 1528 of MBO and 1190 lb of grease.
Petrol Company settled down at Castel Benito to routine carrying duties and practice for the ‘big show’ on 4 February. That day dawned clear and sunny, with light fleecy clouds. Troops and transport began arriving early in our area for a morning rehearsal at 10.30. The Company was represented by 8 officers and 180 other ranks in an Army Service group on the left flank, with 6 Brigade as centre group, and 5 Brigade, the Royal Scots Greys and our Divisional Cavalry on the right flank. A dais overlooked the centre of the parade ground.
Rehearsal concluded at noon, when the men dismissed for lunch. The parade began to march on at 1.30 p.m. and all were in position by two o'clock. Then came the ‘general salute’ for the arrival of Mr Churchill, who rode in an open car and wore Royal Air Force uniform. With him rode the now familiar figure of General Montgomery, complete with double badged black beret. Behind, in a German staff car, came the Chief of the Imperial General Staff (General Sir Alan Brooke) and the C-in-C Middle East Forces (General Sir Harold Alexander). Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese (GOC 30 Corps) and other high-ranking officers followed.
Mr Churchill inspected the parade, driving down the lines of troops. He then mounted the dais and addressed them, speaking of the valour of the New Zealand Division, the gratitude and pride of the people of Great Britain and New Zealand. He told them they would ‘march into fairer lands’, but quickly dispelled any hope that this meant ‘home’ by announcing that the New Zealand Government, in secret session, had agreed to the Division's seeing the job through in North Africa. This speech—a brilliant and inspiring one—was followed by three cheers for the Prime Minister, the last cheer being preceded, rather disconcertingly, by the sudden firing of anti-aircraft guns, whose crews, protecting such distinguished company, kept a wary eye for ‘gate-crashers’. To martial music from a page 263 large pipe-band of the Highland Division, the troops then marched past, twelve abreast, while Churchill took the salute.
Throughout February, Petrol Company worked hard on various ‘cartage contracts’ shifting mail, salvage, POL, cargo from the docks, rations, jerricans, 44-gallon drums, and so forth. Attached platoons from 4 and 6 Reserve MT Companies, and those from the RASC, returned to their own units. They were replaced, on 8 February, by sixty three-tonners from Divisional Artillery's first-line transport, and one platoon from Supply Company. These and our own load-carriers toiled in cessantly at stocking up dumps and FMCs, ready for the next big show—the assault on the Mareth line. Elements of Eighth Army were already rounding up Rommel's forces west of Tripoli and pushing them back behind the main Mareth positions, so that we could ‘recce’ them and gain control of important road centres such as Ben Gardane, Foum Tatahouine and Medenine, also the vital airfields around Medenine.
A tough battle was expected at Mareth. This was a kind of African ‘Maginot Line’ which the French had built to protect their Tunisian frontier against Italian encroachments from Tripolitania. The line was very short—only about 22 miles—with the sea on one flank and the steep Matmata Mountains on its inland or western end. Thus an outflanking movement would be very difficult. Eighth Army, nevertheless, intended to carry one out, with the New Zealanders again detailed to make the ‘left hook’, while other formations attacked along the coast. But first we needed to get the port of Tripoli ‘uncorked’ and ships unloading there to build up the necessary supplies. This would do away with the Benghazi-Tobruk road lift and make 10 Corps mobile again.
In their off-duty hours at Castel Benito, Petrol Company, helped and inspired by that cheerful mass of energy, Padre Holland, who had joined the Company there, built huge dugouts as recreation-room/canteens, the platoons vieing with each other to produce the ‘best and biggest’. As each was completed it was given an official opening attended by Major Forbes, Colonel Crump and other NZASC officers, and duly celebrated with wine and song. The latter was provided partly by members of the Kiwi Concert Party which had arrived at page 264 Tripoli on 8 February, and partly by the Company's own ‘home-grown’ talent, all receiving vociferous applause. These recreation rooms soon became a feature of Petrol Company's ‘night life’ at Castel Benito and were used for lectures, debates, and card tournaments. Many drivers also made themselves roomy dens, dugouts five or six feet deep, over which they stretched tarpaulins or bivvy tents. Most were light-proofed (for the Luftwaffe gave us no respite at Tripoli), enabling the owner to ‘stay at home’ in the evenings and read or write, with the aid of leads from nearby truck batteries, or other forms of illumination.
Workshops Platoon, not to be outdone, had ‘found’ a large wooden building which they dismantled and carted in sections to their area. ‘It is as big as the Scout Hall in Karori and it makes all the difference for the boys at night’, wrote Captain Browne. ‘We had an “opening” a few nights ago, when the lads put on their own items, songs, mouth-organ solos, etc. The Colonel was invited and enjoyed himself immensely. The show started with a Church Service and then the concert side. There was to be a small amount of plonk (Itie wine) but somehow the lads jacked up their own supplies and by 10.30 the show was a real “whoop”. Nobody was objectionably tight but all were very happy including Col Crump. He didn't seem to want to go home and it was well on towards midnight when the show broke up.’
There was time, too, for games. A Divisional sports meeting was scheduled for 13 February, and after try-outs and practices the following were selected to represent Petrol Company: Drivers E. R. Sisson, D. C. W. Meurk, E. Barabithe and Johnson. Owing to the urgent work then engaging the Division, however, this fixture was cancelled. On 14 February the Maori Battalion won the Divisional rugby championship, defeating Divisional Signals 8-6 in the final. Petrol Company had ‘ringside seats’ at this exciting match, as it was played on the same broad grassy field adjoining their area where the parade for Mr Churchill had been held. The narrowness of the victory was rather galling for the Company in view of the bare one-point edge the Maoris had had on us in the semi finals; but all agreed that they played a great game and well deserved their win.page 265
By 16 February our trucks were working 180 miles west of Tripoli, across the Tunisian border, carting petrol and am munition to 115 FMC at Ben Gardane. Drivers reported that beyond the frontier the country gradually reverted to desert. On the 18th a No. 2 Platoon convoy, returning empty from Ben Gardane, had stopped to brew up at 6 p.m. while a sand storm was blowing. A Kittyhawk pilot, with his visibility reduced to zero by the storm, spotted the campfires and essayed a forced landing alongside. He touched down well, then struck a rough patch which tore off a landing wheel, causing some damage to the fuselage. But the pilot, a Canadian, stepped out unharmed and joined our drivers for tea.
A few days later all ASC trucks on detail or detachment were recalled to their units; Supply Company and Divisional Artillery vehicles ‘went home’. Our spell at Tripoli was drawing to a close. The New Zealand Division was called on, hastily, to strengthen the Eighth Army line at Medenine, where an enemy attack was expected. For Rommel, now becoming ‘caged’ by Allied armies closing in from both sides, was striving desperately to make a kill.
Bombs were falling on Tripoli as Petrol Company passed through it on the night of 2-3 March, on the first stage of their journey into ‘fairer lands’. Searchlights raked the sky; and criss-crossing streams of red and green tracer, splashed with ‘flaming onions’ and exploding shells from the heavy AA barrage around the city, treated our drivers to a vivid pyro technic display. Major Forbes as convoy commander led the column, comprising Petrol Company, Divisional Ammunition, Divisional Supply, Water Section, and 4 and 6 Reserve MT Companies in that order. Bren carriers were seen, as we left our area, being loaded on to Scammels. The road was tarsealed and in good order. No lights were allowed until after Tripoli, when dimmed ones were permitted; but these were of little use in the pitch-black night, except for avoiding the vehicle immediately ahead. Missing the freedom—as well as the bumps—of the open desert, drivers strained to keep sight of the guiding road-verges. Beyond these were mines, banks, ditches and other traps for the unwary.
At Zuara, with 70 miles covered, a halt was made at 11.45 p.m. Most trucks had kept position, the few exceptions being page 266 vehicles in poor mechanical condition recently taken on loan from NZ Ordnance Field Park. They were coaxed along by our Workshops Recovery Section. Farther back, a truck from I Platoon had run off the road and attempted to get down a well, fortunately without success. It, also, was recalled to duty by Workshops Recovery Section. At midnight we got going again. The roads were now rough, sometimes steeply banked, or flanked by marshy ground. There were more vehicle casualties as tired drivers failed to take bends in the dark and ran over the edge. It was a busy night for the Recovery Section. At 2.45 a.m. the convoy halted again, at Pisida, with 100 miles covered; then on again at 3 a.m.
At this stage we were held up by a convoy of tank trans porters halted along the roadway for more than a mile, some on the left-hand side, others on the right, the majority square in the middle. The drivers were asleep. Forbes sent a jeep to the head of the concourse (larger vehicles could not get through) to find out the reason for the hold-up. He was informed that the transporters had parked for the night. Since it was imperative for our convoy to get through, the OC himself travelled down the column, waking all drivers and making them move their transporters off the road. At daybreak we entered Ben Gardane, a desultory clutter of white stucco buildings, then carried on, over very bad roads, for another eight miles before halting for breakfast. We were now back again in desert country, flat and uninteresting, with no trees. So much, we thought glumly, for Churchill's ‘fairer lands’. To make matters worse, Company Headquarters' cookhouses were missing. Primuses promptly went into action.
‘500’. A game under the olive trees in Tunisia
Marble Arch. Petrol Company convoy on the way back to Egypt
‘Railway lines were the only good standing we could get, but having to share them with trains made life a bit awkward at times.’ 17 Section at Archi, November 1943
Montefalcone. A typical route through a small country village
A bridge near Gissi, demolished by the retreating enemy, and alongside it the deviation made by the New Zealand Engineers
Trucks wait to cross the low-level Bailey bridge over the Sangro, December 1943
Bert Davis and Dick Davies, I Platoon, in the Atessa area
After a heavy snowfall in the Sangro area, January 1944
Trouble enough—but that wasn't all! The Company's ration truck had not reported in. During the night it ran into the back of a 15-cwt and crashed its radiator. It was taken on tow by another Petrol Company vehicle. Six of I Platoon's trucks (mostly those on loan from Ordnance) were also missing. During the afternoon the vehicle which had been towing the ration truck reported in, minus its protégé. The ill-starred ‘tucker buggy’ had been hit, while on tow, by a passing tank transporter, and was now a complete write-off. Fortunately, no one was injured. Workshops sent a breakdown wagon to rescue the damaged vehicle and evacuate it to ACP; a three-tonner also went along to uplift personnel and load. Workshops, too, had its share of casualties that night: one 30-cwt with a chassis cracked through going over the bank, and a water- tanker slightly damaged when the truck in front did some careless backing. By nightfall (3 March) all the missing vehicles had reported in, and a harassed OC—who won't easily forget our entry into Tunisia—was able to relax. The Company's war diary notes a ‘quiet night, except for the constant rumble of transport heading west along the road’.
By 3 p.m. on 3 March, after a swift and stealthy move from Tripoli, all units of 5 and 6 NZ Infantry Brigades were in positions near Medenine and ready for action. The enemy, by now considerably reinforced, had been delivering some hard blows against Eisenhower's First Army, to the north. Rommel still had in hand a substantial reserve—equal to about two armoured divisions—and it seemed likely that he would use this force in a spoiling action against Eighth Army to foil Montgomery's preparations (which were not yet complete) for an ‘all-out’ assault on the Mareth positions. These were only 20-odd miles from Medenine, the logical springboard for any such assault; so our forces mustering there could expect a hot reception.page 268
By 3 March Eighth Army had three divisions forward: 51 Division, with 23 Armoured Brigade under command, north of the road through Medenine; 2 NZ Division with 201 Guards Brigade and 4 Light Armoured Brigade under command in the area around the town; south of it was 7 Armoured Division, reinforced by 8 Armoured Brigade and I Free French Flying Column. Thus, with anti-tank guns dug in and cunningly sited, we awaited the enemy's assault on Medenine, which Rommel hoped would cut our communications with Tripoli and encircle the greater part of our forces to the north.
In the few days preceding the battle, Petrol Company, from their camp near Ben Gardane, ‘topped up’ the Division's reserves of POL at a replenishment area about 12 miles east of Medenine. Empty trucks refilled at 115 FMC, close to our camp. On 6 March, the day Jerry attacked, a 2 Platoon convoy of thirty 3-ton lorries, under Captain Lyon, took ammunition forward from Ben Gardane to Medenine. On the previous night the German commander, watching his panzers moving down towards the Medenine plain, had remarked that unless they won this battle their last hope in Africa was gone. For the ‘Desert Fox’, now a sick and weary man, realised that at last we had him cornered.
What he did not realise, apparently, was the strength of our positions at Medenine. Four times he attacked during that day, and each time he was driven off by our artillery, anti tank guns, and infantry. We scarcely used our tanks at all. Rommel lost fifty-two of his—nearly half the number he committed. We lost none. This was the greatest tank loss, for one day, that the enemy had ever sustained in North Africa. It was also (had he known it) Rommel's last battle there. Within the next fortnight he was recalled to Germany, and the Italian General Messe took over his command.
On the day of the battle (6 March) enemy planes ‘did over’ the NZASC lines. At 5.30 p.m. fifteen Focke-Wulfs suddenly appeared in the Divisional Petrol area and romped around at low level with guns blazing furiously. No. I Platoon, queuing up at their cookhouse, promptly scattered. Others took cover in dugouts or under trucks—not the best of places, since page 269 vehicles seemed to be the main targets. A loaded I Platoon truck burst into flames, and a dumped load in 2 Platoon's area was also hit and set on fire. While sand was being thrown on these, the burning truckload, of MT petrol in 44-gallon drums, suddenly exploded.
By a miracle no one was injured in the Petrol Company area, but there were many narrow escapes. One Tommy attached had his cheek grazed by a bullet. A No. I Platoon driver, crouched under the back of his loaded truck, saw the tail-light shot away, while bullets riddled his tyres, canopy and radiator. One shell pierced a drum of oil on the tray, but none of the petrol there was hit. Our vehicle casualties totalled one truck completely U/S,11 two others damaged but repairable. Petrol losses were fifteen 44-gallon drums of MT and one dump of 680 gallons. Both fires were put out before dark— just as well, since enemy bombers ‘boomped around’ through out most of the night.
This was Jerry's final attempt to rout Eighth Army and it had failed. He withdrew into the fastness of the Mareth positions, leaving us free to continue preparations for forcing him out. Just as Rommel's assault and defeat at Alam Halfa had played into our hands before the Battle of El Alamein, so did the Medenine battle serve our ends before Mareth, and for similar reasons. The two engagements (of Alam Halfa and Medenine) bore some striking similarities. And they demonstrated clearly Montgomery's ability to outwit and out-general the much-vaunted ‘Desert Fox’.
The big job now was to smoke him from his lair. To help achieve this, a new formation—the New Zealand Corps—was created, with our GOC as Corps Commander. This Corps had a strength of 27,000 men (14,500 of them New Zealanders) and 200 tanks. It comprised 2 NZ Division, which Freyberg still commanded, 8 (British) Armoured Brigade, I Battalion Buffs, King's Dragoon Guards, British medium, field and anti-tank artillery regiments, and the Free French (from Chad) under General Leclerc. Its task was to move swiftly and stealthily round the western flank of the Mareth positions and break in through the narrow Tebaga Gap in the Matmata Mountains.page 270
This would place the New Zealand Corps in the rear of the enemy at Mareth, and so block his escape-route. At the same time, 30 Corps, with three divisions, would attack on the eastern flank, maintaining a relentless pressure designed to bring the enemy reserves into this part of the defence line. Tenth Corps, with two armoured divisions (Ist and 7th), was to be held in reserve, ready to exploit success.
The various commodities were laid down in dumps, covering a vast area, the whole being divided into separate sections for the different ‘lines’. On 12 March Lieutenant Burkitt, with eleven Petrol Company other ranks,12 left the Company with the first Administration Group convoy to ‘recce’ and take charge of the POL section. Secrecy was a keynote for the whole operation. Badges and shoulder tabs were removed, truck emblems painted out. Travelling was done at night, without lights. Notices along the approach track warned: ‘You are under enemy observation at this point’. At 9 p.m. on 15 March the first incoming convoy arrived, others following at intervals until 2 a.m. By that time Burkitt's POL section had handled 349 truckloads, totalling 200,000 gallons of petrol, plus a proportion of oils.
Burkitt reports: ‘With two exceptions convoys were RASC Coys which for the most part arrived in haphazard condition making checking of loads, distribution to correct areas etc. very difficult. A noticeable feature was the bad mechanical condition of a good number of the vehicles, some of them even breaking down on the ingress track, adding to the traffic difficulties. Leakage appeared to be bad and it was decided to write off 10% in the Stock Book.’ Next day an Indian labour platoon turned up and the men were put to work straightening out dumps, camouflaging, and moving the 44-gallon drums so that the bungs were uppermost, to prevent undue leakage. At 8 p.m. NZASC convoys began to arrive (‘a treat to handle’, Burkitt notes) and by 10.30 p.m. 262 vehicles had been checked in, unloaded, and cleared from the area. ‘The next six hours were taken up in the handling of 208 RASC vehicles and getting them clear before dawn. Altogether a fairly big night—470 inward loads with a harvest of 290,000 gallons plus substantial oil packs.’page 272
While Sam Burkitt and his detachment were thus coping with a man-sized job at the FMC, the Company, at its Ben Gardane camp, was busy assimilating three new platoons, totalling 211 reinforcement drivers and NCOs, who had marched in, on 11 March, after a long trek from Maadi. This influx involved a reshuffle of officers, who were then dealt out as follows: Company Headquarters: Major Forbes, OC, Capt Browne, Petrol Supply Officer, 2 Lt Baldwin, HQ subaltern; No. 1 Platoon: Capt Palmer i/c, 2 Lt Roberts 2 i/c; No. 2 Pl: Capt Lyon i/c, Lt Burkitt 2 i/c; No. 3 Pl: Capt Washbourn i/c, 2 Lt Bailey 2 i/c; No. 4 Pl: Capt Butt i/c, 2 Lt Slyfield 2 i/c; No. 5 Pl: Capt Aickin i/c, 2 Lt Knyvett 2 i/c; Workshops: Capt Trewby i/c, Lt Kennerley 2 i/c. The Company strength now stood at 15 officers, 539 other ranks.
By 18 March New Zealand Corps had assembled, without detection, on Eighth Army's southern flank in an area west of the FMC. To reach it they had filtered through Wilder's Gap, named after a New Zealand officer13 of the LRDG who discovered it. The need for secrecy now over, badges and emblems could be shown again. That day, and the previous one, NZ Corps had built up its supplies of POL. Petrol Company's empty trucks were then refilled from the FMC at Bir Amir. This relieved Burkitt of 150,000 gallons from his total intake, to date, of 600,000. The Corps now carried petrol to its maximum capacity—enough for at least 300 miles in its first-line transport, with a further 100 miles on wheels in the second-line vehicles. Petrol Company carried 100,000 gallons and would draw while en route from the NZFMC, which was to be ‘leap-frogged’ forward during the advance. In his last few days at the FMC, Burkitt saw to the filling of a large number of empty jerricans, using a mobile pumping plant (or ‘mechanical cow’) designed and constructed by Divisional Petrol Workshops. His Indian labour, ‘enthusiastic, but not particularly efficient’, operated the filler, drawing mainly from leaking flimsies. On 21 March Burkitt closed the books at Bir Amir, his detachment joining up with the main NZASC Group.
With Major Forbes as OC, this Group had moved forward when NZ Corps advanced on the evening of 19 March. In page 273 bright moonlight (the only kind of light allowed) the vast concourse of 6000 vehicles—trucks, guns, tanks, carriers, jeeps, staff cars, bulldozers, tank transporters—rolled onward over hummocks and wadis, the nine-wide column reaching across the desert to the farthest horizon. Ahead went a screen of armoured cars followed by tanks and guns: then came the infantry, headquarters group, B Echelon, and so on. Farther back was the ASC Group and, protecting the rear, two French groups and anti-tank guns. Eighth Army's big push against Mareth had begun. Next day the GOC-in-C issued the following message:
On 5th 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, 6th March, he attacked the Eighth Army. He should have known that the Eighth Army NEVER WITHDRAWS; therefore his attack could end only in failure—which it did.
We will now show Rommel that he was right in the statement he made to his troops.
The days of the Axis forces in North Africa are indeed numbered. The Eighth Army and the Western Desert Air Force, together constituting one fighting machine, are ready to advance. We all know what that means; and so does the enemy.
In the battle that is now to start, the Eighth Army:
We will not stop, or let up, till Tunis has been captured, and the enemy has either given up the struggle or has been pushed into the sea.
The operations now about to begin will mark the close of the campaign in North Africa. Once the battle starts the eyes of the whole world will be on the Eighth Army, and millions of people will listen to the wireless every day—hoping anxiously for good news, and plenty of it, every day.
If each one of us does his duty, and pulls his full weight, then nothing can stop the Eighth Army. And nothing will stop it.
With faith in God, and in the justice of our cause, let us go forward to victory.
FORWARD TO TUNIS! DRIVE THE ENEMY INTO THE SEA!
Bombastic, if you like! But once again words were matched with deeds. And once more the enemy danced to our tune. He threw in his reserves as we wished, against 30 Corps on our right. Not quite so obligingly, he counter-attacked and drove us off. By 2 a.m. on 23 March, 30 Corps had lost all its gains in that sector, and we were back to where we had started. But the New Zealand Corps, in a swift advance, had already reached Tebaga, had breached the enemy line there, and was extending its bridgehead; so I Armoured Division was taken from reserve and sent forward to join us. The ‘left hook’ now became the main thrust. Another was launched, with 4 Indian Division, against the Matmata hill positions in the centre. These moves put the enemy off balance. He realised, too late, what was happening at Tebaga, and began to switch reserves. But changing horses in mid-stream is proverbially risky, and here it led to the Germans' undoing.
Soon after midnight on 19-20 March NZ Corps had reached its scheduled lying-up area, immediately south of the Wadi Aredj. Petrol Company halted at 2 a.m. It then issued petrol for Corps vehicles to top up, and the empty load-carriers immediately turned round and went back to the FMC to refill. Further issues were made later in the morning, and at 10 a.m. more empty vehicles were sent back to reload. by this time gunfire could be heard to the north, and word spread around that our forward troops, which by then were across the wadi, had bumped up against 21 Panzer Division. In point of fact, enemy interference had been limited to running engagements at the head of the column, where the King's Dragoon Guards had been fired on by troops from 3 Reconnaissance Unit using six 105-millimetre guns and two 25-pounders. Few in number, these hostile elements made no determined effort to oppose the advance of NZ Corps.
At 4 p.m. (20 March) Rear Corps pulled out, followed by Petrol Company leading the NZASC Group. Again the column travelled nine abreast, but was forced to converge when passing through a minefield at 5.50 p.m. Damaged and burnt-out trucks were seen; also Corps vehicles stuck in soft sand, the drivers sweating and cursing, as usual, in their efforts to extricate them. Also as usual, the passing soldiery shouted page 275 gratuitous comments and advice (not always strictly to the point) and received their reward in profanity and abuse. A hitch with a friendly tow-rope usually ended these performances. That night the column halted at a place called APPLE in our code-signals, and within sight of plum, our first enemy-held objective—the Tebaga range.
Next evening Freyberg attacked, with initial success, 6 Brigade capturing the vital plum. For several days NZ Corps then battled to widen its bridgehead and get the armour through to PEACH and GRAPE, up towards El Hamma and Gabes in the rear of the German Mareth positions. With the combatant troops thus occupied, Service units toiled no less strenuously to move the NZFMC forward from Bir Amir to a handier location, near Bir Soltane. On 22 March, Lieutenant Burkitt and his detachment, together with the other NZFMC groups, opened for business in the new area. When the last convoy checked in, at eight o'clock that night, 117 vehicles had arrived, bringing 65,000 gallons, plus oils. Rear areas were bombed and strafed that night, giving our reinforcements their baptism of fire. By 25 March 10 Corps Headquarters and I Armoured Division had caught up with NZ Corps. Next day Burkitt handed over to Captain Morgan, of 36 DID, and the NZFMC was disbanded. It then held 269,000 gallons MT, 51,000 gallons HOP and 2700 gallons AGO, plus oils.
Tenth Corps lost no time in getting down to business. Its commander, Lieutenant-General Horrocks, arrived during the afternoon of 24 March and assumed operational command at 6 p.m. the following day. He attended a conference with Freyberg and discussed plans for a combined effort to force the Tebaga bottleneck and get the armour out into open country beyond, where it could operate towards El Hamma and Gabes. It was decided to make a surprise attack in the afternoon of 26 March, with the sun behind us and in the enemy's eyes. A feature of the operation would be a blitz attack by Western Desert Air Force during and immediately before the assault by land forces.
The whole ‘show’ was a brilliant success. The enemy, expecting our usual night attack, was caught by surprise. To add to his troubles, a sandstorm was blowing, with the wind page 276 from behind us, so he had dust as well as the sun in his eyes. Then came the devastating air blitz from twenty-two squadrons of Spitfires, Kitty-bombers and Hurricane ‘tank-busters’, which shot up everything that moved or appeared in the area beyond the artillery barrage. This has been described as the most complete example to date of the close integration of land and air power. The other arms, too, attacked with great ferocity, smashing down the enemy's resistance. Besides killing and wounding large numbers, we took 2500 prisoners, all Germans, for a loss on our part of about 600, including only eight pilots.
From their area just south of the battle zone, Petrol Company made POL issues that day and watched the large formations of aircraft pass over. At 5 p.m. a Canadian pilot was brought in by 3 Platoon, after crashing in a wadi near the platoon area. He had struck a radio aerial while strafing the enemy at low level, and had hedge-hopped his damaged plane back over our lines. His only injury was a grazed left shoulder. After dining at the officers' mess he was taken over to Rear Corps HQ. Petrol Company's diary notes ‘a noisy night’. Next, day, with conditions made unpleasant by the hot dusty wind, petrol issues continued in the Company area, and our empty vehicles took prisoners back to the FMC. That day (27 March), besides evacuating the Tebaga Gap, the enemy cleared out from his Mareth positions, which had now become untenable, and 30 Corps in the coastal sector began to advance upon Gabes. All that remained for Eighth Army now was to burst through the Gabes gap and link up with the Americans. We would then have all Axis forces in North Africa hemmed into an ever-decreasing area. Clearly, the game was up for Jerry.
Next morning, with General Freyberg seated beside him, Montgomery addressed officers and NCOs of the New Zealand Division as they squatted round in the sunshine on sandhills page 278 south of Akarit. Informally dressed, and wearing his now familiar black beret, the Army Commander thanked the Division for its great effort and splendid results achieved in the latest ‘left hook’. This, he said, had broken enemy resistance and placed the Mareth positions in British hands. He also outlined our role for the future. Other troops, he said, would breach the Akarit defences, and the New Zealand Division (which had relinquished Corps status on 31 March and was now in 30 Corps) would follow through. Eighth Army would then push north and link up with First Army, which was pressing in from the west. They would then squeeze the enemy in onto his last stronghold around Tunis.
And so it came to pass. Akarit fell on 6 April with 7000 more prisoners in the bag. Two days later we joined hands with the Americans; in another two days we had taken Sfax. The surrender rate grew to a thousand men daily. Petrol Company followed the Division through, replenishing as they went, with daily moves until 13 April, when we ‘holed up’ in an olive grove near Menzel-Harb, a few miles south of Sousse. Our progress on that sunny spring day resembled a triumphal march. At every village—Bagdadi, Bekalta, Teboulba, Moknine—delighted French citizens lined the streets, clapping, cheering, and throwing flowers. Drivers of vehicles temporarily halted were surrounded and kissed by the local belles. But Petrol Company could take it—they had suffered worse fates!
We were riding, now, on the crest of the wave—with victory, victory all the way, and even greater victories ahead. Here, indeed, were the ‘fairer lands’ that Churchill had promised us; and one Petrol Company warrior wrote home: ‘I've never, anywhere, even in New Zealand, seen anything more beautiful than the wild flowers here. I don't know a lot of their names but there were miles and miles, stretching as far as the eye could see, of yellow, red, mauve, violet, and it seemed like another world after having been in the desert for so long. Iceland poppies predominated, but there were bags of marigolds, daisies, pincushions, primula, gladioli, forget-me-nots, clover. There were also miles of olive trees, set out in their neat rows, and I just drove through in a semi-daze at the beauty all round me.’page 279
But the war was still with us. Stern fighting lay ahead at Enfidaville and Takrouna. The German Luftwaffe, now concentrated, hit out savagely by day and by night. There was treachery, too, in the form of smiling Arabs, who meandered through our lines (until discouraged by rifle shots) intent on sabotage or pillage. One trick of theirs was to souvenir telephone wires laid out by Divisional Signals. Another was the re- planting, after dark, of mines which our sappers had dug up during the day. Even the grubbiest native there seemed to be ‘lousy with falouse’ and only too ready to purchase army stores. So, many an enterprising Kiwi traded his spare singlet, his underpants, his blankets, his mate's smelly socks, the sweater knitted by Sally back home, for wads of French francs. Even old tea-leaves, thrown out from the cookhouse, were carefully salvaged and dried—to be sold to the ‘Wogs’ at astronomical profit.
On 13 April, Driver Crawford15 of No. 4 Platoon was injured by an S-mine. Sergeant F. Davey was also slightly damaged. On the 15th, seven live sheep were found among our rations. And as they could scarcely be eaten ‘on the hoof’ they were handed over to ex-butchers in the Company, who were only too willing to show their skill. On 16 April the village of Menzel-Harb, near our lines, was found by the MO to be infected with scabies, smallpox, and other nasty things; so it was put out of bounds. The town of Sousse (or what was left of it) had already come under a similar ban. On the 17th the Unit Audit Board, comprising Second-Lieutenant Knyvett16 Sergeant Quilter and Sergeant Broadbelt,17 was convened to audit the accounts of the Company's Regimental Funds.
Petrol Company (less Workshops) moved on 19 April, noting during the day many RAF formations overhead, and, at night, a heavy barrage to the north where 5 and 6 NZ Infantry Brigades were storming their last main objective in North Africa—the heights above Enfidaville, with the steep Takrouna pinnacle a dominating feature. Some ground was gained, page 280 but the going was tough. Fifth Brigade was withdrawn on the night of 23-24 April, and 6 Brigade, after making a further advance, was pulled out three nights later. Alexander did not like this plugging through the hills; it was, he considered, First Army's job to strike the main blow, since the ground on its front was more open and better suited to the use of armour. First Army tried, on 23 April, but failed to break through to Tunis. On 6 May it tried again, augmented by Eighth Army's 7 Armoured Division, 4 Indian Division, 201 Guards Brigade and some extra artillery. With them went General Horrocks to stage the corps attack. This time they made it. Next day both Tunis and Bizerta fell, and the enemy was squeezed up into the Cape Bon peninsula.
On 22 April, ten load-carriers from I Platoon set out at daybreak for Advanced Base, 2 NZEF, at Tripoli, to pick up New Zealand Forces Club stores for distribution to the Division. When the convoy returned, on 26 April, the subaltern in charge (Second-Lieutenant Roberts18 brought sad news. On the 24th the detachment had camped for the night about a mile north of Medenine. Two men had entered a disused hole, intending to erect their bivvies there, when an S-mine exploded, killing one and badly wounding the other. A third man then entered the hole to extricate his wounded comrade, but exploded two more S-mines in the process and caused further casualties. These were: killed, Drivers T. H. Christison,19 D. C. W. Meurk,20 R. J. Davis21 (all Petrol Company), Lieutenant R. D. Jenkins22 (NZ Forces Club), Driver F. A. Kelly23 (reinforcement for Ammunition Company); wounded, Driver D. J. Craig24 (Petrol Company) and five other rank reinforce- page 281 ments for infantry battalions; slightly wounded and returned to unit, Corporal S. J. Hobbs and Driver K. Feist25 (both of Petrol Company). A padre was not available, so Second-Lieutenant Roberts read extracts from the soldier's burial service over each body the following morning, and a burial party remained behind when the convoy continued its journey.
New Zealand's Minister of Defence (the Hon. F. Jones) visited the Company on 28 April, addressing a parade and inviting questions. A number of ‘tired soldiers’ (who, we had heard from New Zealand sources, might soon be going home for a rest) had their inquiries tactfully countered. That day NAAFI stores were issued, but only on a very small scale considering the length of time we had been without canteen supplies. Hopes were then pinned on the issue of NZ Forces Club stores, to be made on 30 April. But these, also, proved disappointing. The war diary for that day is unusually plaintive: ‘We should really be grateful for small mercies, but the allocation was small, and was sold before canteen managers had time to put the goods on their shelves. Cigarettes averaged 10 per man; chocolate at less than one small stick per man, and other goods similarly short.’
But better times lay close ahead. On 12 May (while New Zealanders at Enfidaville were staging their Donkey Derby) the enemy caved in. His position at Cape Bon was hopeless in the extreme; not even a ‘Dunkirk’ could save him now—and Hitler had no mind to try one. There was nothing left but wholesale surrender—of some 248,000 men, with all their stores, dumps, equipment, weapons. For the Axis this was a major disaster; for us, a reverberating triumph. The war in Africa, at last, was over.
12 Joined later by two from Supply Company.
13 Capt (later Lt-Col) N. P. Wilder.