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Infantry Brigadier

19. Tripoli

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19. Tripoli

Our first task for the New Year was to clear a landing-ground for light bombers near the Wadi Tamet, sixty miles to the west. We had to clear an area 1,200 yards square. It was first bulldozed level and then the men had to pick up several million stones, load them into trucks, and cart them away. A squadron of Spitfires, with the pilots in their seats, stood ready to drive off any air attacks and we planted every Bofors we had round the field. But the German airfields were not far away, it was impossible to obtain immunity from their fast fighter-bombers and they raided us frequently. The Spitfires and Bofors did their best and several times brought raiders down or forced them to jettison their bombs at random and bolt, but sometimes they got through. There was never more than a few seconds' warning. In the nature of things there could be no cover except slit trenches clear of the field, and only a few men could reach them in time. We were lucky not to have more than sixty casualties. The men understood the importance of the work and stuck to it pluckily, but it was a hard test of discipline. Company officers worked with the men and senior officers were expected to be on the field as much as possible, and were. Apart from the danger the work was monotonous and made more trying by a cold, dust-laden wind, and we were all heartily glad when it was finished, one of the most unpleasant jobs 5 Brigade ever had to do.

One day the C.O.s came in with me to Sirte where General Montgomery addressed all senior officers. He gave us the general plan for the advance on Tripoli and concluded by saying in a supremely confident manner: ‘We are going to Tripoli, going to Tripoli!’ He said we would be there on 23 January, which would be three months after the opening attack at Alamein.

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We set off on 14 January. The Division came up and crossed the Wadi Tamet and 5 Brigade Group joined on at the rear. 51 Division moved up the road and had one or two sharp advanced-guard actions. New Zealand Division and 7 Armoured Division and 4 Light Armoured Brigade moved twenty to forty miles south in the desert and the Army Commander had another armoured brigade as army reserve. We took with us petrol for 500 miles, water and rations for fourteen days, and 500 rounds per gun.

Several wide and deep wadis, unfavourably reported on by patrols, had to be crossed. A range of low but very broken hills, known as the Gebel Nefusa, covered Tripoli from the east, running in a wide are from near the sea to past Garian in the south-west. It was penetrated by three roads, the coastal road, one from Tarhuna, twenty miles to the south, and the third from Garian. Otherwise it was believed to be impassable for wheels. We expected stubborn resistance.

There was very little. The desert move was opposed by one of the Panzer Divisions but it fell back steadily, giving up one promising position after another. 4 Light Armoured Brigade, now under John Currie, and our Divisional Cavalry, had a few brushes; on the Wadi Zem Zem there was a brisk artillery duel, and for a while indications of a serious affair, but nothing came of it. Neither infantry brigade had to be deployed and we plodded monotonously along, sometimes over very rough country. We occasionally passed relics of a long dead civilization, belonging to times when Tripolitania must have enjoyed a very much heavier rainfall.

At Tarhuna, on the eastern slopes of the Gebel, we met the first Italian settlement and Italian civilians. Neither looked impressive or prosperous. Here too we saw the Fascist - slogans, painted on every building: Credere, Obeddire, Lavorare. Here 7 Armoured Division plunged into the hills to fight its way along the road. We moved through Beni Ulid, where the sappers had many casualties on mines, one moonlight night. This was an old-style fortress, perched high on a steep bluff, looking very romantic with its turrets and battlements gleaming in the moonlight. Someone found a track of sorts, the bulldozers made it just passable, and very slowly, in page 262 single file, the Division trickled through the Gebel and out on to the Garian-Tripoli road. We should have been easily stopped if there had been any opposition, but our appearance seemed to be a complete surprise. After two laborious days the Divisional Cavalry, Scots Greys, most of the guns, and 5 Brigade Group had emerged, with 6 Brigade Group close behind, and the only interference had been from a few fighterbombers. Ross, Joe, and I had an extremely lucky escape in one of their raids and there were a few casualties.

We were out on a tract of sand-hills through which all movement was slow and uncertain. We gradually worked out of it until we were on and astride the Garian road; then we turned north and advanced on Tripoli. A few miles to the north the road passed beneath the prominent isolated hill of Azizia, topped by a gleaming white church with a cross. Behind, stretching along the horizon, there were hundreds of palm-trees, and behind them we knew, with growing excitement, was Tripoli, for so long and hard a time as distant and unattainable as fairyland.

Our old acquaintances of 21 Panzer Division were waiting in position south of Azizia, with some twenty tanks, the usual ubiquitous 88's, and two or three battalions of infantry. No turning movement was possible in among the sand-hills without lengthy preparations. The armour made contact and began a game of long bowls with the German tanks and 88's, and our artillery came into action.

Next day, 22 January, the bickering continued. The Scots Greys gradually worked forward and knocked out one or two tanks. The whole divisional artillery got into action till, at times, there was quite an uproar. 6 Brigade oozed out behind us and it appeared that 21 Panzer meant to stay until turned out. I spent much of the day looking for an approach to Azizia through the sand-hills on the east. By late afternoon I had found one and was thinking out a plan.

Then an order came for me to go up to the General, who, of course, was with the forward tanks. I took the C.O.s with me, left them in the cars in a wadi, and walked as calmly as I could across an open stretch to the ridge where, under fire from 88's, he was with his four Stuarts. We sheltered behind page 263 one while he told me the position. There were signs that 21 Panzer intended to retire that evening. The General thought that if I got my Brigade on the road at about eight I might find the way clear to Tripoli. He warned me to be careful.

Shells clearing the ridge were pitching in the open stretch and I had an uneasy walk back to the cars. With only broad accuracy the General had just remarked: ‘Shelling doesn't hurt anybody.’ There was a squadron of cavalry sitting behind the ridge and my own C.O.s were waiting as spectators. So I had to take it with a casualness that was entirely affected. I remember this little incident with uncommon clarity. I badly wanted to take cover behind my far too conspicuous map board and did in fact carry it on the weather side.

The Brigade got on to the road after dark, packed head to tail with its head fourteen kilometres from Azizia. The Maoris were leading and I went up to travel with Charlie Bennett. We set off at 8 p.m. with an advanced guard of carriers and moved at crawling speed. One kilo peg after another was passed without incident. At the five-kilo peg I halted and sent Pene's company forward on foot, resuming the move when I thought he would be half a mile ahead. We crawled on until level with the two-kilo peg. I was beginning to think the way might be clear when a flare went up from the top of the hill and hung for a moment, lighting up the church vividly. It was instantly followed by a dozen flares on a front of half a mile on each side of the road, and then by a beautiful display of defensive fire. Clearly enough 21 Panzer was still there and very wide awake. All the fire criss-crossed on fixed lines across the front, most fortunately for us. If only a few weapons had fired directly down the road we should have suffered heavily. Enough came our way to be unpleasant and two or three men were hit.

I walked clear of the road and studied the situation for a minute. Thanks to the tracer, it was easy to see the whole pattern of fire, beautifully scientific defensive fire, laid on a zone a few hundred yards ahead of the enemy forward posts. page 264 I counted twelve heavy weapons probably fired from tanks and decided that there was no case for putting on an impromptu night attack. Charlie sent a runner to recall Pene, who we were afraid might be trying to clear the way on his own. With some difficulty we turned the Brigade on the road and trundled slowly back, the pyrotechnic display continuing brightly behind us. Not far back the General was standing beside the road. I told him that I thought there was a bit too much opposition and he agreed. He also agreed when I said it reminded me of the grand old Duke of York who had ten thousand men, marched them up to the top of the hill, and marched them down again; though by then he was thinking of something else and was for a moment puzzled to connect that distinguished officer with the advance on Tripoli. We continued on to our old area and got to bed at 3 a.m.; and I was able at last to read some letters that had been burning my pocket all day. Pene's company had been pinned down by very heavy fire but he managed to withdraw it with very few casualties. A few days later I went over the well-dug and organized position which we had tried to gatecrash and felt very thankful that we had got off so lightly.

Next morning early the road was clear and we drove on into Tripoli in great elation. At Suani Ben Adem the General told me to go ahead and be the first New Zealander into Tripoli. We knew by then that the 11th Hussars had already entered the town and it was not thought likely that 51 Division would be far behind. Ross, Joe, and I drove on fast, hoping that 21 Panzer had left no stragglers, went in at the Garian gate, where there was already a red-capped policeman on traffic duty, and on to the square under the Citadel. There I found General Wimberley, the commander of the Highland Division. It had been expected that we would reach Tripoli first and areas and buildings had been allotted in advance. Now the Highlanders were in possession and there had to be a rearrangement, but everyone acted sensibly and it was made without difficulty. From the publicity and propaganda point of view it was desirable that we should have some part in the actual occupation of the city.

5 Brigade was allotted a very good sector with headquarters page 265 in the beautiful state experimental gardens. The Artillery and A.S.C. stayed at Suani Ben Adem. 6 Brigade was to go to Bianchi and the General and Gentry and Mac Weir went out that afternoon to look at the area. It had been reported clear but they ran into an ambush at short range. Gentry's driver was killed and the party was lucky to get away. This was always afterwards referred to as the Battle of Bianchi. Later 6 Brigade came into the city and Bill Gentry had palatial headquarters in the Governor's palace.

We stayed in the Tripoli area for six very enjoyable and interesting weeks. After a few days I got tired of living in a house and we moved to near Castel Benito and camped in the sand-hills amid plantations of some sort of gum. In no time everyone was very comfortable.

I thought it was time we had a little real soldiering and laid emphasis on ‘spit and polish’ in the training programme, as well as on route marching. Every soldier was by now a master of his weapons and further weapon training was superfluous, but we did some musketry. Guards were established by Brigade Headquarters and the battalions, and I enjoyed inspecting them every morning. At first they were very ragged but before long had become very smart indeed. The men were all veterans, as we had had no reinforcement from New Zealand since October 1941. In one 23 Battalion guard I found that the sergeant was an original who had served in Greece, Crete, and Libya and had been wounded; one man had been wounded three times, two twice, and three once. The junior soldier had joined two hours before the attack at Ruweisat six months before and had been in every action since.

Football was resumed and the semi-finals and final played. The Maoris beat Divisional Signals in a great game watched by the whole Division. For the first and only time in my life I bet on a football match and won £2. 10s. There were numerous other less important games and we again had a brigade sports meeting. The poker school quickly opened business again and Monty said that the A.C.V. should be called the Armoured Chess Vehicle. General Wimberley and his senior officers gave a party to General Freyberg and the page 266 senior officers of New Zealand Division at an attractive café on the sea front in Tripoli. It was a very gay affair, with everyone dancing in the reels and much good cheer of every sort. Afterwards Ross and I drove home through the town, quite oblivious of the fact that a severe air raid was in progress.

In 5 Brigade the great social event was the party given by 23 Battalion officers to celebrate the one-hundredth birthday of Reg Romans's father. They had shown great self-denial for months saving up for this and it was a memorable affair. All the battalions gave concerts and invited the others; the Maori concert was delightful. We were able to organize leave parties into Tripoli and all the men got in, though there was nothing to buy and little to do beyond going to the army cinema or wandering round the waterfront. I made one visit to Leptis Magna, on the coast near Homs, a considerable city in Roman times. It had been excavated by the Italians, and it was pleasing to find that the British occupation authorities were continuing to pay and employ the enthusiastic Italian in charge of the work. He told me that the Emperor Severus was not nearly well enough known and that the reign of Pertinax had been only too short. I doubt if he was fully aware that the war was sweeping through Tripolitania. The ancient white city looked very lovely through the palms against the blue sea. It was in every way more attractive and interesting than I later found Pompeii.

The great event of our stay in Tripoli was the Churchill parade on 4 February. We trained and rehearsed for it and the troops tidied themselves up amazingly. The Division with its guns and trucks, with the Scots Greys in their Shermans on the right of the line, looked the magnificent instrument of war that it was, seasoned, hardened, and victorious. We were all thrilled to see Mr. Churchill and to hear the short, moved, eloquent speech that he made. We marched past to the music of the massed pipe bands of the Highland Division. The battalions marched in masses, nine abreast, a formation unknown to the drill book but ideal for such a parade, and they looked glorious. There were many well-loved ghosts with those proud, gallant battalions. I think we were all very proud and I know that when I page 267 marched past at the head of 5 Brigade I was fairly bursting with pride. At the tea afterwards I asked General Jacob, the Prime Minister's Secretary, if Mr. Churchill was not weary of military parades. He replied that on the contrary this was the happiest day of the war for him and that the sight of such splendid troops would do him the world of good.

The previous afternoon the Highlanders had marched past General Alexander in Tripoli. They had brought their kilts with them—where they found room in their transport I cannot imagine. The battalions moved along the Corniche and passed the saluting base in the little square under the Citadel. As they turned into the square they caught the skirl of the pipes, every man braced himself up, put on a swagger, and they went past superbly. I had climbed on to a tank to watch and for an hour was almost intoxicated by the spectacle.

We had one curious affair. Senior officers, some very senior indeed, came from England and from the First Army and from the Americans, then struggling towards Tunis, and Eighth Army put on three demonstrations of the technique of modern war. General Alexander, Generals Montgomery, Paget, and Dempsey, together with the American Generals Patton and Bedell Smith, were present, and the lowest form of life evident was the Brigadier class.

7 Armoured Division in a ‘telephone battle’ showed how an armoured division should attack, or rather how it did. Highland Division demonstrated how to make a night attack through minefields, and New Zealand Division, with a relief map on the floor, how to move and deploy in the desert. Before the visitors arrived we rehearsed our demonstrations before one another and free criticism was invited and obtained.

7 Armoured Division representatives met such violent criticism that they were told to think again. The second attempt showed some awareness that a divisional artillery could be used to support a tank attack and so met more favour, but it bore no resemblance to any operation that anyone had seen the armour put on. Highland Division's effort was received more respectfully though we disagreed page 268 on many points. I had been detailed to make the comments on behalf of New Zealand Division and was itching to deliver a furious attack. Fortunately, at the last minute General Freyberg made the comments himself and did so much more tactfully than I should have done. No one made any remarks on our demonstration, in which Ray Queree handled not only the Division, but our old friends 15 and 21 Panzer and 90th Light, with a delightful freedom and confidence in their habits. This may have been because the General was a very formidable character, or because we were demonstrating one phase of a highly specialized type of warfare, in which no one else had so much experience and which also was soon to become obsolete.

The rehearsals took two days and the demonstrations the same time. We sat round the dance floor of the Hotel Uadden in Tripoli. There was a notable difference between the two groups, the visitors correctly dressed in serge and Sam Brownes, with gleaming buttons and even some field boots and spurs; Eighth Army like a gang of pirates. The Americans were particularly smart. I was opposite General Patton and watched him with delight. He sat looking at the ceiling and chewing gum. When a piece was finished his Chief of Staff handed him another. At the conclusion a story went round about his views. General Dempsey was said to have asked him what he thought of the exercise and he was alleged to have replied: he had been in the U.S. Army, man and boy, for forty years, he had watched and listened for two days, and it meant nothing to him, nothing at all!

General Freyberg went back to Cairo for a few days and I went to Division with very little to do. The port was open again and we were supplying big parties to unload ammunition and supplies. There were strict orders against smoking. One morning 5 Brigade reported that there had been an explosion on an ammunition barge being unloaded by the Maoris and that three men had been killed. The port authorities were convening a court of inquiry at once.

An hour or two later I was ordered to report at Army Headquarters. I went up at once and was shown into General Montgomery's caravan. He looked at me. ‘Your men have page 269 been smoking,’ he said. Being in loco Freyberg I felt unable to admit anything, so replied: ‘No, Sir.’ ‘Yes they were. Three men were killed and what is worse five hundred tons of ammunition was lost,’ the General said. I said that a court of inquiry was sitting and that I understood that there was no evidence as to the cause of the accident. He said that he knew all about courts of inquiry and, whatever the court found, ‘When I say your men were smoking they were smoking!’ This was clear enough, but I did not feel that it was conclusive and said so, feeling rather thankful that I was not in the British service. ‘Well, see that it doesn't happen again,’ the General then said. I could see no objection against agreeing to this. The court brought in a ‘don't know’ finding.

The survivors of the working party denied stoutly that there had been any smoking; but this also was not conclusive.

During the Tripoli period all Brigadiers and above received from General Montgomery a signed copy of his little book Notes on High Command. It consisted of a most interesting and instructive account of the principles and methods on which Alamein had been fought.

All officers within reach of Tripoli were addressed by the Army Commander in the theatre. He started off by saying: ‘You may cough for one minute; then there will be no more coughing.’ Each quarter of an hour he paused to give time off for coughing. We were given an account of the campaigns, a scornful summary of Rommel's qualities as a commander, and an indication of future events. This meeting had a very good effect in more widely impressing the General's very decided personality.

The first reinforcements from New Zealand for over a year joined us at Tripoli. The Eighth Reinforcement was particularly good and well trained, nearly all young and keen, and their arrival was like an infusion of fresh blood. They had a number of very good young officers, several of them Duntroon graduates. At the Twenty-first one evening I met three, Donaldson, Taylor, and Upton, who impressed me very favourably.