CHAPTER 11 — Tunisia
As at Alamein after the Alam Halfa battle, Eighth Army was now free to turn its energies to its own offensive plan, code-named Pugilist. This was yet another ‘left hook’, but on a grander scale. While British units made a frontal attack, New Zealand Corps, consisting of 2 New Zealand Division, 8 Armoured Brigade, King's Dragoon Guards, British artillery regiments and a Free French force under General Leclerc, was to make the sweep to the west and drive through the Tebaga Gap to Gabes and Sfax.
Here again the New Zealand Division was to be involved in an extended march that would take it far from normal supply lines, but it was an operation of entirely different character from the previous ‘left hooks’. In earlier operations the Division had been sent hell-for-leather around a flank with the assignment of catching an unsuspecting enemy in the rear; in this operation no such surprise appearance was possible as the enemy had a line plugging the Tebaga Gap, through which the Division must pass. So before it could threaten the enemy's rear it had first to break through a defence line, a task that did not permit nicely computed schedules with administrative arrangements to match.
And so there was necessarily an administrative change, too. At El Agheila the line-of-communication problem had been solved by decapitation: the Division had been lopped off from the head and left to its own devices. At Mareth the solution was attenuation: the supply line was stretched along the axis of advance, and ASC units were able to restock. Thus, however long the New Zealand Division took to break the Tebaga line, it could depend on a steady flow of supplies from the rear.
But there was another significant feature of the arrangements that may not have been evident when it was first planned. During the assault on Mareth, General Montgomery found it expedient to switch his main thrust from page 265 a direct frontal attack to a flank attack via Tebaga. He was able to divert an entirely unprepared 10 Corps for this task; without administrative build-up, it was able to make the long desert journey and, on arrival, take over a well stocked and fully operating FMC, completed with an established line from the rear.
The supply organisation for the entire New Zealand Corps was handled by NZASC units augmented by British army troops companies. This had been decided as far back as 27 February, when a conference at Tripoli had agreed on how a New Zealand FMC for the Mareth ‘left hook’ should be set up. Headquarters 4 RMT Company was to supply the staff for the FMC headquarters; Ammunition, Petrol and Supply Companies were each to detach groups to attend to their own commodities; and Headquarters 6 RMT Company was to provide a detachment for liaison with the Army roadhead at Nalut, to be staffed by Army. Supply Company's task was to lay in 672 tons of supplies, including 336,000 rations and 72,000 lb. of flour for Field Bakery.
Left Hook at Mareth
The FMC was to be at Bir Amir, some 30 miles to the south of Foum Tatahouine, and on 12 March a reconnaissance party went down to look things over. Quirk, whose 5 Platoon had come as far as a staging area east of Foum Tatahouine, accompanied the party to look over the country in which he had to conceal from the enemy's prying eyes a substantial depot of supplies. He found Foum Tatahouine a ‘nice place, pleasant clean barracks’.
Peculiar rock formation of the country. Admirable for defence, and pill boxes and gun positions could be seen. This was an outpost of the Mareth defences. Turned off west into the hills and desert 20 miles south of Foum Tatahouine. A Fighting Free French column went past up in clouds of dust. Supposed to be no movement by day. A Hun recce was over and took due note. Decided on site for FMC and spent night near well at Bir Amir.
During the night 5 Platoon came in, and 5 Brigade, moving up under cover of darkness, roared by. Next morning Quirk went the rounds of his ‘farm’ and began laying out sites for dumps. That day the rest of Supply Company, less 4 Platoon, which was left to complete supply work in the old area, moved back through Ben Gardane to the staging area. Shoulder titles and hat badges had been removed, and fernleaf emblems on vehicles painted over. After replenishing with water and petrol at the staging area, the company pushed on through Foum Tatahouine and down through the rough desert tracks to Bir Amir, reached at 4 a.m. It dumped 31,000 rations and 32,000 gallons of water, and next evening 1, 2 and 3 Platoons and 3 Platoon 6 RMT attached set off for the roadhead, which had been moved forward from Nalut to El Dehibat, 80 miles to the west.
So began a vast movement forward of supplies right under the enemy's nose. The approach route to the FMC was under his observation, and in darkness and without lights, the entire second and third-line transport of the New Zealand Division and three general transport companies—about 600 vehicles—had to move up to Bir Amir, unload and get away before daylight. Daylight hours were employed moving back to the roadhead, loading and moving forward as far as was permissible. Then, in the dusty darkness, they surged page 267 forward again with no pretence at convoy discipline—none was possible—but with a skill that avoided serious accidents. A ten-chain-wide tire-churned track across the sand marked the route, and the enemy must have wondered a great deal. But he saw no movement, and drivers were instructed that if they were caught in enemy observed territory twenty minutes from dawn they were to disperse and camouflage their vehicles. Notices along the track warned, ‘You are under enemy observation at this point.’
There was little or no time for sleep. There were two drivers to each truck, and some men nodded while their companions drove; others managed to snatch an hour or so while their trucks were stationary.
Tanks moving up on the night of 16–17 March added to the general stampede of traffic, and a heavy dust-storm during the 17th covered the area with swirling, choking clouds. And for good measure Arabs were pillaging lamps from the divisional axis and laying mines along the track. In the midst of it all the Division and 8 Armoured Brigade had to be replenished.
In these conditions two huge lifts carried forward 6000 tons of ammunition, POL and supplies to the New Zealand FMC; by 17 March the roadhead was clear, and deliveries were completed that night. By the 18th the FMC was fully stocked.
A visitor during the 17th was a supply officer from General Leclerc's L Force, but the Frenchmen were not seeking very much in the way of supplies, fortunately, as their requirements would have been very different from those of British units. L Force, accustomed to moving long distances as a self-contained unit, carried with it POL for 500 miles and supplies and rations for a month or more.
The New Zealand Corps, meanwhile, had been gathering in secret in an area to the west of the FMC beyond Wilder's Gap, and to prevent enemy ground observation L Force was maintaining patrols to the north and north-west of Ksar Rhilane. Beneath dust and rain, the Corps waited for the start signal. There were three distinct groups in the plan of battle: 30 Corps was to drive the enemy back onto the Mareth Line proper, punch a hole through the defences page 268 and pass through and capture Gabes; 10 Corps, in reserve, was to protect 30 Corps' left flank and rear and exploit success towards Gabes and Sfax; New Zealand Corps, of course, was to make a turning movement around the enemy's right flank. New Zealand Corps was to move off at 7 p.m. on the night of 19–20 March and drive without halting to a staging area east of Ksar Rhilane. Leaving Rear New Zealand Corps and the administration group here, the Corps was then to press on next night for 40 miles. French forces, meanwhile, were to capture and establish firm bases at Bir Soltane, past which the Corps would move during the night. From the second staging area the armour—Divisional Cavalry and 8 Armoured Brigade—would probe forward into the enemy's eastern defences in the Tebaga Gap.
First-line units were to start the movement carrying six days' rations and water and as much petrol as possible, with a minimum for 300 miles. Second-line vehicles were to carry four days' rations and water and petrol for 100 miles. As soon as the Corps reached the first night's laager, a replenishment area was to be opened, and one day's rations and water and petrol for topping up were to be issued.
In bright moonlight the vast array of vehicles began to move off at 6 p.m.; ahead went a screen of tanks and guns; behind came the two infantry brigades, headquarters group and B echelon groups; second to last was the administrative group, of which Supply Company was a part; and at the tail two French groups and an anti-tank battery. Supply Company, less 5 Platoon, moved off at 7.30 p.m. behind Petrol Company. With the moon to light their way—there were no lights—drivers had to keep station in desert formation at visibility distance of 50 yards. Nine abreast, the unending column rolled across the undulating, scrub-covered country, nosing into and out of wadis and struggling over sand dunes. Now and then a truck would bog down in sand; a neighbouring vehicle would hitch up, and away they would go.
It was 3.30 a.m. when Supply Company came to rest. Petrol Company made an issue, but none was made by Supply Company.page 269
During the move the Corps had received a signal ‘Benghasi Minus’, a pre-arranged code which meant that Army believed the enemy was aware of the outflanking movement but was not reacting. General Freyberg decided, therefore, not to wait until the following night to continue the move, but to push on in daylight, and throughout the 20th the Corps streamed across the desert, halting that night with the Tebaga range ahead, a silhouette in the moonlight. It was 4.30 p.m. before Supply Company moved off. It halted at 7.30 p.m. well to the south of the main Corps group, after covering 14 miles.
That day the battle for the gap began. On the coast 30 Corps began its frontal attack.
Supply Company, swinging away from the Corps axis, reached an area north of Bir Soltane at 1 p.m. on 21 March, and made the first issue of the move—two days' rations and water. Meanwhile, trundling up the Corps axis was the New Zealand FMC from Bir Amir. The Corps had scarcely started on its way before the FMC had begun to pack and follow; 5 Platoon was packing 23 vehicles at 7 a.m. on the 20th, and by 2 p.m. the convoy was snaking along the axis track. It overtook and passed third-line transport, and halted for the night when it bumped into Rear Division, 40 miles up the track. Enemy aircraft dropped flares and bombs nearby during the night. Next morning the convoy struggled through soft sand towards Bir Soltane, passing Free French columns of infantry, artillery and armoured cars, ‘native troops and Sacred Greeks in jeeps armed to the teeth’. Picking its way through confusing tracks and inaccurate maps, 5 Platoon reached Bir Soltane before noon, and on flat, scrub-covered country laid out a DID horse-shoe fashion, with accounts and indents at the mouth of the U, postal one side, and the dispersal area some distance away.
There was a ‘slight flap’ during the afternoon when word came that the enemy was approaching along the Medenine road—presumably from the position he still held at Ksar el Hallouf. The guard for the FMC area was a French force with field artillery—75s—and native troops.
Behind the FMC transport came the third-line transport with fresh supplies, and 5 Platoon had hardly settled in at page 270 Bir Soltane when 17 General Transport Company came in with 105 trucks of supplies to unload. The task began at 4 p.m. and continued into the night; a cloud-streaked sky and sometimes rain obscured the moon. The work was nearing completion at 9.30 p.m. when a bomber came down and spat tracer and cannon shells in all directions. There were no casualties but plenty of frights: Headquarters FMC pulled down its tents, and most of 5 Platoon in the DID disappeared under a stack of cigarette cases.
Thus, by the evening of 21 March, New Zealand Corps was nudging against the enemy defences in Tebaga Gap, while not far in the rear the administrative services, in confident expectancy of success, were open for business and gathering in supplies as they were ferried from the old FMC site at Bir Amir.
From the morning of 22 March onwards, New Zealand Division—through Supply Company—and 8 Armoured Brigade were able to draw from an FMC right at their back door, while the long haul from the rear was left to the general transport companies. This, indeed, was something new for a force so far from its base.
Fighting units, too, were quickly rid of their prisoners. The first bunch of 800, all Italians, came back on 22 March to a cage at Bir Soltane next to the supply depot, and their number continued to grow. By the 23rd there were 2400 in the cage, an unpleasant prospect for anyone to the leeward of them. They contained many youths who apparently had never shaved. A bomb that dropped 400 yards from the DID on the 24th brought a wild wailing from the prisoner-of-war cage.
But while New Zealand Corps was driving a wedge into the Tebaga Gap, 30 Corps on the coast, after initial success, had a setback. General Montgomery promptly decided to switch his line of attack, and despatched 10 Corps, which included 1 Armoured Division, to join New Zealand Corps. The plan was first to capture a hill feature on the right to prevent enemy observation; then there was to be an all-out attack by New Zealand Division to blast a hole in the enemy line through which 1 Armoured Division would pass to capture El Hamma. This operation was Supercharge II.page 271
While 10 Corps tanks and trucks came rolling up the diamond track, preparations were made for the attack. On the night of 25–26 March, with a sandstorm choking the atmosphere, the final deployments were made, a disconcerting experience for Supply Company, which on that day had itself moved forward. There was a suggestion that it was camped in the line of a possible enemy thrust, and during the night tanks came clattering through the darkness and streamed by—but they were, of course, British.
Supply Company left its position near Bir Soltane late on the morning of 25 March; it moved west to the Bir Soltane road, followed this for about 20 miles, then turned north and took up a position in the desert due south of the Tebaga Gap. At Bir Soltane preparations were being made to hand over the FMC to 10 Corps. All this time the pack transport had been lifting from the old FMC site at Bir Amir and carrying forward to Bir Soltane, a task that was completed on 25 March in time for the unprepared 10 Corps to take over a fully stocked FMC as a going concern. Ten Corps, in fact, was churning along the dusty track as the last two platoons carrying 125,000 rations were being unloaded at 5 Platoon's DID. The New Zealand FMC was disbanded next day, as bombers and fighters roared overhead to fling their barbs at the enemy in the blitzkrieg attack.
While, in swirling dust and sticky heat, the disbanded NZ FMC group made its way forward to rejoin the Division, the Division itself, headed by tanks, was driving its wedge deeper into the Tebaga Gap. The new attack burst on the enemy on the afternoon of the 26th. Tanks and infantry broke through the enemy position and secured a passage for the exploitation force. Though fighting went on at some points during the night, by dusk enemy resistance had ceased in most places, and on the 27th the British forces poured through the Tebaga Gap and fanned out.
Behind them in the gap they left the litter of battle. When 4 Platoon of Supply Company moved up in the calm heat of the 29th to replenish the Division, it followed a track that led through a minefield and onto the narrow plain, flanked by broken hills, that was the gap; everywhere page 272 there were dugouts, wrecked vehicles, helmets, rifles, guns and German tanks with their mutilated crews still in ‘occupation’. The replenishment area was about 12 kilometres from El Hamma, off the Gabes-Kibili road.
Supply Company had moved forward to the mouth of the gap on 28 March in a dust-storm that generated enough static electricity in trucks to draw a quarter-inch spark. Beyond the gap the forward forces were advancing on Gabes as 30 Corps came up the coast from the south. Thus Gabes fell into Eighth Army's hands on 29 March, and the army pushed on north to the next obstacle, Wadi Akarit.
The sun now shone brilliantly. In its warmth Supply Company moved forward through the gap on the 30th and halted about 15 miles from Gabes. Next day it sent forward 1 and 5 Platoons—with rations—and 3 Platoon 6 RMT—with water—into the bustle of traffic around Gabes. ‘A beautiful clear spring day with hot sun,’ noted Quirk in his diary: ‘Green stunted shrubs, but little grass.’
Gabes itself he found a ‘pretty little place, but much damaged by bombing. Modern hotel, cinema and shops, toy railway station. Well dressed handsome French women and children. Small wharf and lovely beach. Modern schools, even a stadium. Gala as the French forces arrive; officers in serge and the general [Leclerc] in scarlet vest mingling with the civilians. Bearded priest surrounded by soldiers.’
General Montgomery, thin-faced and slight, wearing his traditional black beret with two badges, and affecting a greying moustache, sat with General Freyberg on a small hillock. Officers and NCOs of the New Zealand Division sat informally around. Gunfire grumbled along the Akarit line to the north, now and then surging a little louder. In his thin voice General Montgomery reviewed the past and took a confident look at the future; he told his listeners that English divisions were to make a breach in the Akarit defences through which the New Zealanders would pass. The situation called for patience, and enemy air activity page 273 was likely to be severe. But he characteristically had no doubt about the final result: this was to be an enemy Dunkirk.
Supply Point at Forli
Bombed supply area at the silk factory, Forli
On this day, 2 April, General Montgomery had good reasons for optimism. The enemy was enclosed within a long, slender rectangle, with the British First Army and 2 United States Corps to his west and Eighth Army to his south. The first major move was up to Eighth Army, which was to push north and link up with First Army. The two would then confine the enemy to his last stronghold around Tunis.
Though few probably realised it then, this was to be Eighth Army's last advance in the long series since the Alamein breakthrough. Eighth Army was to bump against the formidable Enfidaville positions, and the final kill was to be made by First Army, whose front offered easier movement.
This last advance was something entirely new for the New Zealanders. ‘Left hooks’ were not always possible, and where they were, the enemy did not wait long enough for the now well known plan to be put into operation. This meant that the New Zealanders were to form part of the main attacking force that was to move north like a broom, sweeping rearguard groups ahead of it as the enemy fell back to his final position. This in turn meant that the ASC companies were to operate along the main stream of supplies, and though the New Zealanders were constantly mobile, Supply Company was able to operate a day by day replenishment routine that had never before been possible except when the Division had been static.
And finally, Eighth Army was now entering friendly territory; ahead lay green, cultivated lands, and people who would welcome the army as a liberator, not a conqueror.
For Supply Company there was no administrative buildup for this operation; in the first days of April it worked to a steady routine under a pleasant Tunisian sun. There were air raids round about and a few uncomfortably close bombs, and one evening—3 April—Bofors chased a plane over Supply Company lines with Shellbursts snapping at its page 274 heels. Further away, over the port, an aircraft erupted into flame and ‘seared along the horizon like a blazing firebrand’.
On 5 April Supply Company found the replenishment area smothered by all the heterogeneous transport of 4 Indian Division and part of 50 Division, and the convoy had to thread its way to the rear and set up in clear ground. When the men returned home, they found they were on one hour's notice to move as from the following day.
At 4.15 a.m. on the 6th gunfire came rumbling back through the darkness to where Supply Company was camped; the barrage for operation Scipio, the attack on the Akarit line, had begun, and the divisions that had claimed Supply Company's replenishment area the previous day were smashing their way through the defences. New Zealand Division was waiting in the rear. By the morning of 7 April the enemy had withdrawn from the Akarit line, and the pursuit was on.
‘8 April: Lovely clear day, so we sunbathed while waiting to move. Triggs issued one day up the Div axis track.’ This was the mood of the morning on which Supply Company picked up its chattels and trailed after the Division: no hustle or bustle; just pleasant weather and orderly routine. When had an operation begun so sedately? The war diary reads:
No 4 platoon issues one day's rations ex No 1 platoon. No 3 platoon issues one day's water to all Div units. Rep area in rear of 1 NZ Amn Coy. No 1 refills with rations at 224 FMC; No 3 refills with water at FMC. Coy, less platoons which are replenishing, moves at 1130 hours and travels 31 miles in a northerly direction along the Div axis track and then stages for the night, after passing through Wadi Akarit, a strong position recently held by the enemy.
Along the roads that day poured a great deal of transport of all descriptions, all squeezing down the few tracks permitted by a confusion of wadis and the narrow gap between the sea and the impassable Chott basin to the west. And jostling back in the opposite direction came truck loads of Germans and Italians, the latter without escort. Around the Akarit positions were abandoned guns, gaping craters and an occasional body.page 275
Next morning 5 Platoon opened the supply point—9 a.m. was the official time, but unit vehicles were early—and issues were made to trucks that had come back almost 30 miles. They brought back good news: the Division was near Sfax; the crew of a Mark VI Special tank—the Tiger—had surrendered with the tank intact, and another had been knocked out. Meanwhile 3 Platoon was issuing water, and 2 Platoon was reaching back to 225 FMC to replenish. The main part of Supply Company was moving up along the axis track. And so, as the Division advanced, Supply Company marched forward like a striding man, with one foot always forward near the front and one behind at the supply depot at Gabes; and between them the body moved steadily forward—31 miles on the 8th, 31 on the 10th, 12 on the 11th, 21 on the 12th, 72 on the 13th. The whole thing operated with an efficient simplicity. The axis track, clearly marked with the black diamond, was a sure guide to the most indolent of navigators. The supply point, scheduled to open at 9 a.m. each day, did so automatically wherever Ammunition Company—which was well up in the advance—halted for the morning, and supply convoys adopted the practice of going forward in the afternoon until they found Ammunition Company and then trailing along behind until it halted—and there was the replenishment area for the next day. Unit vehicles had simply to come back down the axis track until they found the area.
On 9 April this process was carried on along dusty tracks and amid hood-high barley crops. Next day the company drove on through fields of barley. Locusts drew a yellow cloud across the sky, then settled and began to strip away the green, and the trucks rolled across the undulating country, crushing crops and locusts beneath their wheels. At Triaga, west of Sfax, the Division's axis of advance emerged onto a road and led towards La Hencha between orderly groves. Nos. 2 and 5 Platoons and 3 Platoon 6 RMT, pushing ahead to overtake Ammunition Company for the next day's issue, parked off this road for tea. The front was not far ahead, friendly fighter aircraft were now out of range, and unwelcome visitors were expected. Sure enough they came—stray raiders spraying tracer and scintillating page 276 butterfly bombs, and lighting up the night with flares. The Supply Company group nosed in under olive trees for the night, and watched a brilliant flare and bombing display about four miles to the rear.
There was brilliance in the morning, too—grass, marigolds and row upon row of neat olive trees. Ammunition Company was overtaken about a mile ahead, and the supply page 277 point set up in the beautiful surroundings of an olive grove just off the track. It was a sunny day, and from a well the men obtained soft water for a luxurious wash.
Later Quirk took a group 35 miles through beautiful country into Sfax,
…an interesting and pleasant town, absolutely wrecked by bombing. Many large SYSTEM buildings, banks, hotels just a shambles, and rest absolutely smashed by the Hun. Town appeared completely evacuated. 51st Div in control, and usual 8th Army efficiency evident. Harbour and warehouses a real job with fishing smacks sunk. Civilians aplenty in the outskirts, neat modern villas, Tricolor everywhere, and FFL in great demand.
Thus, as the advance moved on past Sousse and on to Enfidaville, Supply Company followed along, at El Djem striking out to the coast at Mahdia and halting on 13 April—the day the Division breasted up to the Enfidaville positions—at Moknine, south of Sousse.
It was in country of intoxicating beauty; the supply point on the 13th was among flowers of scarlet, purple, gold, white and lavender. Everywhere there were poppies, marigolds, daisies. As petals are strewn before the conqueror, the flowers seemed to symbolise Eighth Army's victory. Seven months ago, at the nadir of its fortunes, it had attacked across a dry, stony desert; now, 2000 miles from its starting point, the enemy was preparing to make his last stand. There were still bitter fighting and hard-won gains ahead, but by and large Eighth Army had come to the end of the line.
In mid-April 1943 there was some excuse for excessive optimism. There was a general feeling of well-being fostered by victory, a mellow climate, pleasant surroundings and a cordial populace. And at the supply point, four miles south-west of Sousse on the El Djem road, there were encouraging rumours that the Division would be ‘out in eight days and back to New Zealand’.
It was a long time since the Division had known an atmosphere as friendly as this—not since the first days of Greece when the New Zealanders had been acclaimed as page 278 defenders of freedom. In villages, as Supply Company convoys moved up with supplies from 227 FMC at Djem, French and Arab men, women and children waved flags, clapped and cheered, took our men into their homes and wined and dined them. Like Greece, and in contrast to Egypt and the dusty wastes beyond, this was indeed civilisation—a civilisation of trim homes, attractive women and cordiality.
It was not entirely unspotted. There were odd plague corners like Kairouan, where a cesspit of dead donkeys and olive leaves festered in a general air of flies and decomposition, and even the Arab's friendliness, the French warned, was not as sincere as it appeared. But in the circumstances these odd blemishes could be circumnavigated or overlooked in the enjoyment of a congenial present and the anticipation of a promising future.
There were, however, one or two things that could not be overlooked, such as the radio report that the enemy still had 170,000 men in Tunisia and that there was no sign of evacuation. And if the Division was to be withdrawn, there would have been little point in forming 1 NZ Mule Pack Company, which came into being on 17 April. The purpose of this company was to provide transport for rations, water and ammunition when the Division advanced into the rugged country ahead of it; here Supply Company's wheeled mobility, so valuable hitherto, would have been useless. As it happened, the Division did no more than penetrate the fringes of the hills, and the Mule Pack Company was never called on to operate. Its one contribution to the welfare of the Division was a race meeting.
Nevertheless, a lot of work went into organising and training this unit. Supply Company's contribution was one officer, Lieutenant Irvine, and thirteen men, and Supply Company provided some of the trucks that carried the motley assortment of mules from the Marche d'Olives at Sfax to the Mule Pack Company's headquarters at Sidi Bou Ali.
Mules, incidentally, were not the only livestock purchased by the Division at this time. Two hundred live sheep came page 279 forward to Supply Company on 15 April and were issued to units at the supply point—‘Like Addington sale day.’
Whatever the prospects, Supply Company took no chances with the future and went to great pains to ensure its comfort. Comforts were, understandably, not readily available in the Eighth Army area, but the Naafi had had plenty of time to establish itself in the First Army sector, and a small party was sent away with a truck and between £300 and £400 to see what it could get. The party had first to weave its way through ‘shot-up’ roads and destroyed bridges before it emerged onto good roads and green, mountainous country that bore a resemblance to New Zealand. For five days they toured the area, not only purchasing from Naafi with forged requisitions, but adopting a cunning procedure of sending one man in at a time, each apparently from a different unit. They returned to the unit—to the surprise of many—with a laden truck and no money. There had been some sceptics who were betting they wouldn't return.
Eighth Army attacked again on the night of 19–20 April. The New Zealand Division assaulted the forbidding Takrouna feature—a village perched atop a rocky pinnacle that towered above the plain from which the New Zealanders had to attack—and a long spur to the east. During the 20th Supply Company moved up through Sousse into the groves and wadis of the hilly country eight miles northwest of the town, not far from where the Mule Pack Company was established.
The initial New Zealand attack succeeded against stiff opposition, and in accordance with Eighth Army's allotted task of keeping the enemy engaged, pressure was maintained. Fifth Brigade was withdrawn from the line on the night of 23–24 April, and 6 Brigade pushed on with the advance until it also was withdrawn on the night of 26–27 April. Further west, meanwhile, First Army had begun the thrust that was to bring about the end of the campaign in Africa.
On 28 April, after issuing in the oppressive heat of the supply point, now among cactus hedges to the north, Supply Company was visited by the Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones. As at every other unit he visited, he was met with page 280 a barrage of questions, most of which were about the Division's return to New Zealand; but he parried without a definite answer.
Early in May the Division moved west to a new sector at Djebibina. The main and final attack against the enemy forces in Tunisia was begun by First Army on 6 May, and opposition crumpled before it. But the tenacious Germans still did not give up entirely. Although Allied forces were cutting ice-skating figures about the Tunisian peninsula and collapse was inevitable, forces in the south-eastern sector defied Eighth Army almost until the last moment. Peace feelers at last came from General Messe, who had succeeded Rommel, on 12 May. Curiously enough, even this was of only secondary importance, for on this day a great number of New Zealanders were engaged elsewhere and not really caring whether the enemy surrendered today or tomorrow.
The situation was mildly fantastic, but it was quite in character that when the enemy was giving up the fight on their front the New Zealanders should be more interested in running a race meeting. Two days earlier this curious notice had appeared at the bottom of Supply Company routine orders:
NZ MULE & DONKEY TURF CLUB (Inc.)
An invitation is extended to all officers and ORs to attend the spring meeting of the NZ MULE AND DONKEY TURF CLUB (Inc.) to be held at SIDI BOU ALI, commencing at 1230 hours Wednesday 12 May 43.
Entrance to the course ¼ mile NORTH of 1 NZ MULE PACK COY'S area along axis track.
Transport leaves this HQ at 1130 hours.
|RACE||1. 1300 hrs. SFAX MAIDEN RACE|
|2. 1345 hrs. SOUSSE STAKES|
|3. 1430 hrs. MAADI DERBY|
|4. 1530 hrs. TUNISIAN CUP|
|5. 1635 hrs. SIDI BOU ALI STAKES|
|6. 1700 hrs. ENFIDAVILLE NURSERY|
The turf club, of course, was the Mule Pack Company, which had conceived the idea of a modest race meeting as a diversion from war—and possibly as an outlet from the frustration of inactivity. But if it was planned on a modest page 281 scale, it was executed with lavish detail. Not the smallest part of the work was handed to Driver Gerard,1 of Supply Company, who had been ‘prevailed upon’—the term used in the Mule Pack Company's unofficial history—to select and train a totalisator staff and prepare tickets. With Corporal Hendrey,2 Gerard built not only a tote, but also a tote barometer.page break
While preparations were under way, word of the projected meeting was spreading, and on the day of the event crowds were pouring in long before the first race. Among the 5000 who were there when the GOC, Major-General Kippenberger, arrived were representatives of the nursing services, the RAF, the USAAF, the Union Defence Force (South African), and Australian, Indian and British units. They packed each side of the track six to ten deep. From a SYSTEM address system boomed the genial voice of Captain Selwyn Toogood.3
This was one meeting at which the student of form was at a loss. There had been no previous performances, no animal was allowed to run more than once, and in any case the stubborn trait of both mules and donkeys had an embarrassing tendency to take possession of the leading animal when the post was in sight, and it would sit down and refuse to budge. When the shouting died down, gunfire could be heard rumbling about 10 miles to the north, and if anyone cared to look he could see the smoke and dust of battle.
During the day Gerard's staff handled £3000.
This race meeting later served a very useful purpose that was certainly not contemplated at the time. Gambling and trading were rife in Tunisia; the easy money derived from trading, in fact, fostered the gambling. When at the end of the campaign the Division went back to Egypt, all French money was naturally converted into Egyptian, and Supply Company orderly room acquired a pile of French currency that filled a kerosene tin. A count showed that Supply page 282 Company men had put in for exchange more money than they had drawn for their pay. One platoon, at least, No. 2, was lined up and asked to account for this remarkable phenomenon. Each man replied with gravity that he had backed a winner at the races.
The day after the race meeting General Messe surrendered to General Freyberg. And that was that. The work that General Wavell had taken up three years before was at last completed, and like a pricked balloon the North African war had gone flat. Down the roads came streaming prisoners, some marching, some driving their own trucks.
But the flatness did not last long for the New Zealand Division. Without delay it was to move back to Egypt, and on the night of 13–14 May word came that three days' rations were to be issued. The 14th was a frantic day, and on the 15th the first of the two flights into which the Division had been split for the move set off with the ASC leading.
There was a little mild fantasy, too, about this last grand movement of the Division in North Africa. Its vehicles were veterans of many miles and campaigns; the last general issue of transport to the Division had been before the second Libyan campaign, late in 1941, and a good deal of the transport now in use was from this issue. Despite new engines and the motherly care of workshops, no vehicle that has seen almost eighteen months of army work, eighteen months that have brought every type of condition from blazing heat and dust to rain and clinging mud, can be quite the same. It became a point of honour, therefore, that every vehicle should be driven into Maadi under its own steam, and there were many bets between units—couched in such terms as, ‘I'll give you five breakdowns in…’—on who would get home with the most mobile vehicles.
But all the ardour in the world could not will a broken truck into mobility, and in the last analysis it was the workshops who really got the Division home in the best order possible. Supply Company workshops, faced with the appalling job of nursing several hundred old vehicles across 2000 miles without adequate spare parts for the task, had page 283 to scrounge about as best it could. It picked from derelicts and ‘borrowed’ from whatever depots it could gain access to. A group went ahead to Tobruk, and after picking through a vast stack of tires came out with 162 of suitable sizes. The depot later caught fire, and Supply Company got the blame.
Against this background, Supply Company set off for Maadi early on the morning of 15 May. For soldiers there is always a nostalgia for old scenes—or rather, perhaps not so much a nostalgia as a curiosity to take one more look at familiar places, and along the length of the north-east African coast there were many familiar places for New Zealanders. They did not all have pleasant memories, they were not all the scenes of victory, but in these circumstances there is a certain satisfaction to be gained even from looking across the field of earlier defeat and knowing that all that was lost then has been accounted for many times.
Supply Company, of course, had no fighting victories—or defeats—to recall, but as a part of the Division that had borne its share of the burden it could share, too, the memories; and even an ASC unit has its times of trial and elation that come not from being in direct contact with the enemy but from serving those who are. Supply Company's was a task of devotion, a task that had little glamour but which could give immense satisfaction. At the end of the North African campaign, and as their vehicles rolled east towards Egypt, this was something on which the Supply Company men could rest in modest pride, and it was something that entitled them to watch the country go by with the belief that they had helped to win it.
It was a memorable journey. Quirk's diary captures the atmosphere of those days with vivid realism.
15 May: Reveille 0430 and on the road at six. Some of the leave personnel AWL in Tunis will get a shock to find us gone. Through Sfax and down the coast, but apparently we were on the wrong track, and below Mahares had to turn in along the Gafsa line. Shocking track and everyone bitchy, many with hang-overs. Through old battlefield at Akarit and hot Y track again moving through 5 IB after tea and parked for night.
16 May: Away at 0700 down Y track … joined Gabes road and later through town. A pleasant place. On to Mareth and page 284 the remains of the defences and signs of battle. Mines by the heaps. Careful now! Medenine and what a great view Jerry had of us on the plain below. To Ben Gardane, and halted for tea, and later I took 4 and 5 and 1 [platoons] on to spend the night on a salt flat at Zuara. Road across frontier was better than I expected, but plenty of transport. SAF engineers all the way along working on it.
17 May: Away 0700. Triggs and I on ahead. Very pretty drive through orchards and crops. Sabratha, some lovely buildings and also Roman ruins. Wish I had more time, but it always seems to be a race for the Kiwis. We take a trip of 2000 miles just like an everyday task. A hectic time making all arrangements for the sup. point. Rations 98,000 are loaded and delivered on RASC transport. Triggs issues tomorrow. ASC gp, Div and 5 IB arrived late afternoon. Terrific vehicle and tyre trouble. Tommies say 1st Ech are going home when we arrive at Cairo.
18 May: The Div is just alive with rumours about going home.
19 May: Away at 0700. I took three vehicles on ahead to collect bread at Misurata. Pleasant driving today as the air was cool and towards lunch time it rained heavily. The land fringing the road is just barely fertile. Some olive trees, vines and crops of wheat and barley, and within visibility it reverts to desert. Homes all have the sayings of Musso all well scrubbed off. Misurata seems a shell of a town in spite of very handsome buildings. The Itais build a magnificent pile, but never have they an air of comfort.
20 May: Unable to proceed this morning because of a washout 64 miles from Misurata. Will be thankful to be on the move again. We moved off at 1900 hours to try to catch up some of the leeway. Tank transporter convoy ahead of us was still parked up. Evidence of cloud burst washed away demolition. Parked for night about midnight. A brilliant moon, but everyone very tired, especially when the pace is slow.
21 May: Head of convoy moved 0600 but we were not under way until 0700. Very slow beginning. Very clear and rather chilly first thing. Long, monotonous journey this. Just scrubby desert on either hand past Buerat where Africa Corps trained in 1940. The defence lines were just tons of mines. 44 DID isolated and forlorn. What a job. Solitary RAF listening post and sigs test point. Sirte a small town complete with Albergo. We by-pass it and read the notices of booby traps and mines. A gem, ‘No loot, no view. Mines bus.’4 All the aerodromes page 285 deserted except Buerat. Through familiar country of Nofilia, much browner and not so pretty. Went ahead of coy and parked for the night on old rep area.
22 May: Got under way 0600 and on our own past Agheila. Monotonous drive with a rotten cross wind and dust flying. The defence line at Mersa Brega looked tremendously strong—huge minefields. This was a long punishing journey of 260 miles and I was pleased to see Benghazi with its green. Berka aerodrome immense and just bristling with Liberators and Yanks. Benghazi not excessively damaged and rubble all cleaned up. Parked for the night close to the town and everyone feeling happy. We are near civilisation again. Used wireless truck to contact Div.
23 May: Was busy jacking up tomorrow's draw. Six days for all. 86,000 rations from BSD, fresh veges from 18 DID and bread from bakery. Staging area seven kilos out on Barce road.
24 May: Big day today. Commenced drawing at 0700 hours. 55 trucks in all. Went without a hitch. Issues went well though shortage of transport by 6IB was a difficulty.
This issue was the best performance of Supply Company to date. After drawing 86,000 rations in the morning, it issued them in the afternoon and had completed by 6 p.m.
25 May: Walked around the waterfront and surveyed the damage of nearly three years' bombing. Set out for Barce at 1030. Up Tocra pass a steep climb into fertile country of the Barce Valley. Usual Itai tenant houses all ransacked and deserted. Barce a pleasant town, undamaged with lots of trees, thence by coast road to Cirene. Good country with crops of oats and barley being worked by Senussi and they appear to be doing it well under British guidance. Tractors etc. Lovely drive through gorge country similar to parts of New Zealand bush and green grey hills. Cirene on escarpment overlooking the sea Peaceful, sunny and quiet with shady trees.
And so on 26 May through Derna, a splash of emerald where a gully through an escarpment gives out to the blue Mediterranean. Supply Company was getting into more familiar country now: its trucks had been this way since the days of Wavell's campaign. Quirk found it a ‘grand drive in the bright morning sun.’
I opened the top and enjoyed the view from the escarpment across the town to the sea. Pleasant spot. Zig zag out is very steep and slowed convoy. Grand view and country still green. Country around Tmimi ablaze with grass fires sweeping down to the road edge. Just as we approached a wall of dense smoke, a minefield went up with regular explosions on our left and page 286 shrapnel was flying everywhere. Hard down and blind flying for a minute. Tobruk at last, the blue of the sea makes a perfect setting. The salvage dump was on fire and the ammo started to explode as we passed.5
At Tobruk there was news, exciting news. ‘It seems pretty certain that 1st contingent married men are going home,’ Quirk wrote in his diary.
Eastwards from Tobruk the road is flanked to the south by a scrub-covered plain that reaches back to the first of the escarpments. This was indeed familiar country, familiar and, with the desert's timeless countenance, unchanged. But everything was not unchanged, for moving westward along the road were American Air Force convoys with magnificent equipment that ‘astounded us’. ‘Huge tankers and articulated trailers,’ noted Quirk.
They go for trailers in a big way. Every vehicle has one to carry the men's gear while they ride comfortably in seats. Made Buq Buq for the night, and was not pleased by our first view of the Gyppos again. ‘Backsheesh’ was the very first greeting as we crossed the frontier. They have cleaned up much of this country and today were busy blowing mines around Bardia.
28 May: Awful convoy today. Stops and starts all day. Strong keen wind. Matruh is cleaned up greatly and has quite a peaceful garrison air.
29 May: A short hop again today. Familiar scenes of Kassaba and Baggush with plenty of Hun wreckage, particularly aircraft. Staged night at Daba. Still as windy and dusty as ever. Major departed for Alex tonight.
The next morning Supply Company cleared Wadi Natrun at 7.15 a.m., passed through Mena and, dusty and dirty, entered Maadi Camp at 10.30 a.m., with the speedometer reading 1951 miles from the starting point in Tunisia. And only one NZASC vehicle was towed in; it had seized a bearing at Mena.
4 Bus: only.
5 Presumably this was Sup Coy's fire.