21. Left Hook at Mareth
21. Left Hook at Mareth
Heavy reinforcements now arrived, including 1 Armoured, 4 Indian, and 50 Divisions, and the authentic Eighth Army was assembled. Preparations went ahead for the attack on the Mareth line, and at one of his conferences General Montgomery gave senior officers the outline of his plan.
The Mareth line itself, less than twenty miles long, and very strong, was held by 90th Light and the Italian Young Fascists, whose description was always slightly modified in conversation. In reserve were the two panzer divisions with their infantry and 164 German Division. Pistoia Division held the extension of the line into the Matmata hills beyond its southern end. The Matmata hills, impassable for any large force, ran back at right angles to the Mareth line and more or less parallel with the coast for more than a hundred miles to the narrow Tebaga gap. Beyond this gap another precipitous range was a barrier to all movement. The only way in which the Mareth line could be turned was through the Tebaga gap, which gave access to Gabes and the coastal road. A mixed Italian force, scraped up from Saharan garrisons and odds and ends—‘Mannerini's mannikins’, as Paddy Costello called them—was preparing defences in the gap.
We were told that 50 Division would make a breach in the Mareth line by a frontal attack. This would be expanded and extended in a dog-fight battle for which the other two infantry divisions and the two armoured divisions were available, until opportunity came for a decisive blow. Meantime, New Zealand Corps was to carry out a tremendous turning movement through the Tebaga gap. The Corps consisted of New Zealand Division, 8 Armoured Brigade, British medium and field artillery regiments, the King's Dragoon Guards, Leclerc's Fighting French, and the Greek Sacred Squadron, page 277 in all about 27,000 men, 120 tanks, and 120 guns. Leclerc's force consisted of some two or three thousand Senegalese with French officers, carried in light trucks each mounting a captured automatic and with a few light guns. The Greeks were all Royalist officers, about a hundred of them. They had about thirty jeeps, each mounting a Breda or Solothurn 20 mm. and were most war-like. Naturally, General Montgomery gave the impression that he expected the frontal attack to be decisive. 50 Division had to attack across a nasty steep-sided wadi and our open opinion was that it was attacking on too narrow a front, 2,000 yards, and that its bridgehead would be difficult to extend or to hold.
We had to make a march of 260 miles, of which 140 miles was over trackless and very rough desert. Daring reconnaissances had been made by light car and jeep patrols and it was clear that once more a great deal would depend on our bulldozers.
5 Brigade Group moved, late in the column, on 14 March. We went back towards Tripoli as far as Ben Gardane, into the hills to Foum Tatouine by road, and out on to the desert, where the whole Corps assembled and halted for a few days. The last stages of this move were made by night and we never did more difficult and tiring marches. I took advantage of the halt to go round with a big map and explain the situation and the plan to every unit. I was confident enough to predict that the war in Africa would be ended shortly.
On the late afternoon of the 21st the advanced guard reached the approaches to the Tebaga gap and struck solid opposition. There was a broad minefield right across the gap, here not more than three miles wide, with troops in position behind it and an anti-tank ditch. In the centre of the gap behind the minefield there was an isolated, flat-topped feature, Point 201, about 300 acres in extent and strongly held.
There was not much daylight left when the position became clear, but the General decided to attack that night. It could only have been done by very efficient and experienced troops. The survey necessary for the artillery to fire a barrage without prior registration was completed before dark, the guns were deployed, and at 11 p.m. 6 Brigade attacked behind an excellent barrage with complete success. Eleven hundred Italian prisoners were taken with only some sixty casualties and, although the opposition was not stubborn, it was a brilliantly executed operation.
It was also most timely, for during the night 164 Division, sent post haste from Mareth, arrived to find that Point 201 had been lost. The Germans took up another position still barring the gap some two miles to the north-east and were there in strength in the morning; but we were through the minefields.
5 Brigade watched this action, which was most spectacular, from six miles away. About 4 o'clock in the morning I was awakened by a bleating noise and found it was caused by 500 prisoners whom their escort had halted near by and who were all complaining to one another. Highly indignant at our sleep being disturbed, I ordered them to continue moving till daylight. They gave a general moan and then trudged on, the bleating chorus gradually diminishing in the distance. In the morning another 600 prisoners appeared, led and escorted by a single private of 26 Battalion who walked at the head amid a crowd of be-ribboned Italian officers. I stopped him and asked if he wanted any help; his destination was the supply point, still twenty miles on. ‘Oh page 280 Lord, no!’ he said, ‘They trust me’; and he proceeded cheerfully, his charges chattering like parrots and apparently quite happy.
I went up to 6 Brigade Headquarters to find out the form and congratulate Gentry on his brilliantly handled action. He had settled down in a most unhealthy area and was being steadily shelled without appearing to notice anything. While I was there some fighter-bombers came over, machine-gunning and dropping some light bombs, but not so very light. Ike Parkinson and I took cover in the same slit trench, rather crowded, until the atmosphere became more peaceful—then thanked Bill for his hospitality and departed without undue delay.
It is not often that an officer who has failed in action succeeds in redeeming himself later. One of my officers in the Twentieth had done indifferently in Crete and afterwards I had told him that he was not tough enough and sent him to Base for administrative duties. He got himself a job at the Field Punishment Centre—Rock College, the men called it—in order to toughen himself! After a while he got back to a battalion and he commanded a company splendidly in this affair, showing fine dash and resolution at a critical moment in the assault. Unfortunately, he was mortally wounded; but he left a good memory.
We expected to follow up this action with another attack on the following night. Probably if we had attacked again at once we would have scrambled through the gap somehow. But the General was determined to have no half measures and to make a clear break-through when he did strike. The Mareth battle was in full swing and, as we expected, the bridgehead made by 50 Division was proving difficult to hold and impossible to extend. Heavy fighting was going on in the hills south of the line proper without much progress showing on the situation maps; and we heard that in a preliminary attack our friends of 201 Guards Brigade had suffered very heavy casualties without gaining much success. In fact the news from Mareth was not good, but we remembered that this was the ‘dog-fight’ phase.
New Zealand Corps spent the next four days in clearing page 281 the hills on its flanks and in breasting up to the new enemy position. There was a good deal of shelling by both sides, a certain amount of air activity, and numerous small brushes in the hills. Leclerc's French cleared the hills on our right and pushed on until they were on the last ridge, overlooking the plains and well ahead of 6 Brigade in the gap. I was sent up to report on the prospects of putting in an attack through the French. I spent a lively day with General Leclerc and reported unfavourably: we could get our infantry through that way but no transport or anti-tank guns. There was nothing for it but a frontal attack. The light armour bickered in the hills on the left and made slow progress. In front of 6 Brigade right the Germans held a bold feature, Point 184, in advance of their general line. To carry out the breasting-up programme 6 Brigade tried to seize this hill, but put only a company at it in a night attack without artillery support. This was taking it a little too lightly with Germans in possession, and the effort failed.
Nevertheless, planning and preparations for a serious attack went ahead and on the 23rd I was told that 5 Brigade would attack on the right of the road running through the gap, which gave us a two-battalion objective. Next morning I took the battalion commanders with me to look at our objective from Leclerc's position. We had a stiff scramble but got right to his forward posts and had a perfect view from level with the enemy line on the flat. We could see the infantry posts, the tanks waiting in reserve, the flashes of every battery that fired, and every feature on the map that we wanted to identify on the ground. It was the only reconnaissance I ever made in which I could see everything that I could want to see. The French, or rather the Senegalese, were being heavily shelled and mortared and did not appear to like it. Certainly the explosions sounded most alarming among the steep ravines. We spent some time with a New Zealand gunner, watching him direct fire on to some German transport in a wadi directly below and not more than 1,000 yards away. For a quarter of an hour he landed every shell fairly into the wadi without getting a hit. The trucks moved about uneasily but seemed untouchable. The second attack page 282 on Hill 184 had failed on the previous night and this reconnaissance gave us an idea how to tackle that feature if we had to.
We got orders for the attack at the divisional conference at 7.45 a.m. next morning, 25 March. From Mareth the news was that 50 Division had lost its bridgehead, 1 Armoured Division, which had not been engaged, was making a forced march to join us, and the decisive blow was to be delivered through the Tebaga gap. New Zealand Corps was to smash a breach in a daylight attack so timed that 1 Armoured Division, at the end of its tremendous march, would drive straight through to the Hamma gap without pause. ‘Supercharge II’ was the code name for this operation. General Horrocks was sent round to take command.
The attack was to be launched at 4 p.m. on 26 March. From 3.30 p.m. for a period of two hours the R.A.F. was to attack the enemy gun positions, headquarters, and tanks, employing sixteen squadrons of fighter-bombers, one of Hurricane ‘Tank Busters’, and one of Spitfires. The artillery bombardment, concentrations by the mediums on enemy batteries and a creeping barrage by the field guns, was to open at 4 p.m. We had about 200 guns in all. The assault would begin at the same time, led by the tanks of the three regiments of the 8 Armoured Brigade whom two battalions of 5 Brigade and one of 6 would follow. The advance was to proceed at the rapid rate of 100 yards per minute for 1,000 yards to the first objective, and then at half that rate for a further 3,000 yards which would carry it clear through the enemy positions. The infantry were to lie up on their start-line all day on the 26th, moving up and digging themselves in during the night. To make this possible 5 Brigade was at once to seize Hill 184 which enfiladed the whole of the lying-up area.
I gave my orders immediately on return to Brigade Headquarters. We were ten miles back and there was a great deal to do. I decided to give 21 Battalion the task of capturing Hill 184 and to make the attack with the Maoris on the right and 23 on the left. I left Ralf to do his own planning for the Twenty-first attack. We had to do a night march of ten miles page 283 and more, take over the Roman Wall line, and do an attack with one battalion; after it had succeeded we should have to move the others forward and dig them in, move Brigade Headquarters, select and light routes, establish signals, get the transport back and everybody hidden, and attend to innumerable other details. No troop movement could be made until after dark and of course no lights could be used except the shaded lamps marking routes and headquarters. All the preparations went well. Ralf did a reconnaissance with his company commanders and told me that he would attack Hill 184 from the flank, moving out into No Man's Land and advancing parallel with the enemy's main line as the Maoris had done in their raid at El Mreir. He calculated that he would be ready to attack at 1 a.m. I approved this and arranged with Steve Weir for concentrations from one medium battery and two field regiments. Everything possible was done during the day and we had time in hand in the afternoon.
At 7 p.m. the whole Brigade moved in its transport to a debussing area behind Hill 201. Brigade Headquarters was established in a wadi on the hill. 21 Battalion moved forward to do its attack, the other battalions and supporting arms rested, and the transport moved back. There was no hitch anywhere. After midnight I went out to the Twenty-first and saw it on the start-line. Two new company commanders were being tried out and Ralf was a bit uncertain of one of them. The companies commanded by experienced officers were in support and reserve.
The attack started punctually when the artillery opened. There was no reply from the enemy guns for twenty minutes and then it came down in the wrong place, the area from which the earlier attacks had been made. It was decidedly heavy, guns, mortars, and automatics, and on the way back I had to go through it. The Twenty-first reported at 2.50 a.m. that after some stiff fighting it had the whole objective, casualties about twenty, twenty-two German prisoners. This was satisfactory, leaving sufficient time for the other battalions. They had a hot meal at once, moved forward to their start-line, dug in, and camouflaged themselves page 284 as well as they could. The tape marking their start-line was taken up before daylight and they remained in their pits with an absolute prohibition against any movement by anyone until zero hour. Signals were all linked up and at daylight the whole area looked empty. The morning and early afternoon passed slowly, very little movement visible anywhere and, except that the Twenty-first on Hill 184 was steadily hammered by mortars, there was very little fire. The infantry forward lay very still and were apparently unobserved. I played chess with Blundell, read, and wrote letters.
Punctually at 3.30 p.m. the fighter-bombers appeared, squadron after squadron: all along the line of the forward infantry little columns of orange smoke appeared indicating their positions, and this smoke steadily grew and spread. The bombers made no mistake and nothing was dropped on us, but for half an hour they turned the enemy position into a pandemonium. Very soon there were several columns of black smoke from burning trucks or tanks. The whole narrow area between the hills looked like a cauldron. I noted with concern that Hill 209, the Maori objective on our right flank, was scarcely being attacked. Otherwise the ‘blitz’ seemed likely to be an effective preparation.
Under cover of the noise and smoke of this bombardment, in clouds of dust, the Sherman tanks of the Notts. Yeomanry and Staffordshire Yeomanry rumbled up, passed on either side of Hill 201 and deployed along the infantry start-line. They were moving into position when the guns opened, firing for twenty-three minutes on the enemy positions, and at 4.15 p.m. the tanks moved majestically forward, followed closely by our little carriers. The infantry climbed out of their pits—where there had been nothing visible there were now hundreds of men, who shook out into long lines and followed on 500 yards behind the tanks. At 4.23 p.m. the barrage lifted a hundred yards—an extraordinarily level line of bursting shells—tanks and infantry closed to it and the assault was on.
From my battle headquarters in a hole on the northern slopes of Hill 201 we had a perfect view. The German page 285 gunners had not been silenced and, from the time our tanks appeared and began to form up, had been raining shells among them. Several tanks were hit and burst into flames, some of the infantry companies were almost hidden by bursts, smoke, and dust, but the advance went steadily and remorselessly on. There was no check in the rapid advance at 100 yards per minute over the 1,000 yards to the first objective. We could quite clearly see the tanks, close against the bursting shells of the barrage, and they were all firing. From then on opposition became more and more severe. The barrage advanced at half the rate; underneath it we could hear the hammering of Spandaus and the eager crackling of our Brens and rifles and through it see the flashes of anti-tank guns. A few little parties of prisoners gathered in close groups and set out towards us—there were not many.
The German defence was determined and soldierly, but we had the weight. Both tanks and infantry meant business and knew their trade. On 5 Brigade left the advance went right through to the final objective, a total depth of 4,000 yards, and despite some sharp fighting casualties were light.
On the Maori front there was trouble. The tanks were unable to climb Hill 209 and sheered off to go round it. An 88 mm., cleverly placed behind the hill, knocked out five in succession and the others drew back. The right of the battalion was pinned down by heavy fire from 209 but C. Company on the left, under Peta Awatere, swung right and attacked in the most spirited fashion. A lower feature of 209, later called Hikurangi, was strongly held and a bitter fight ensued on its steep slopes. The barrage had gone over, the tanks in the vicinity had lost interest or were out of touch, and the Maoris had to fight it out themselves.
I went up in a Bren carrier just before dusk and found that C. Company had at last forced the Germans off the top of Hikurangi on to the reverse slope, but they were unable to stay on the top themselves under the intense fire from 209. Awatere had been wounded and the remnants of the company under one of the platoon commanders, Ngarimu, were clinging to a position just under the lip of the hill. The Germans had closed up to within twenty yards and a furious page 286 grenade and stone-throwing fight was in progress. Some small parties were working their way up to reinforce, a difficult and dangerous trip, for the slope was under heavy mortar fire. I could not find Charlie Bennett but was able to find out and see just about where the Maoris had got to, so went on to the Twenty-third. They were far ahead on their final objective; I failed to find Romans in the growing darkness and so returned to Hill 201 and the end of my telephone lines.
Just before going forward we had seen the awe-inspiring sight of the hundreds of tanks of 1 Armoured Division rolling in masses past the left of 201 and on through the gap made by the attack. 6 Brigade, after some very heavy fighting, was on its objective, and the news from Division indicated that there was a real break-through. Consequently the Germans on 209 would be isolated and stranded if they did not go during the night. I decided that there was nothing to be gained by making a night attack on them and contented myself with arranging with the artillery for constant harassing fire on their position. During the night C. Company was several times viciously attacked, but thanks to Ngarimu's resolution and leadership it held on. The Germans holding 209, 2 Battalion of 433 Regiment, showed no disposition to go—probably they were unaware of the real situation. The supporting arms reached both battalions and the tanks withdrew. All wounded were got away and a hot meal was sent up to the forward troops. About midnight we heard that 1 Armoured Division was through and heading for Hamma. We tidied up our line by getting the three battalions in contact.
We rather expected that except for our own particular opposition on 209, the enemy would have gone by morning. But there seemed to be some hold-up: for there was little sign of movement in the masses of our armour and transport visible in the north, while 5 Brigade area was quite heavily shelled. Soon after daylight I went up to the Twenty-third, arriving a few minutes after two men had been killed by a shell very near Reg's headquarters. He and Angus were in very good form and hoping there would be orders to press page 287 on. They had the bad news that two of the battalion's grand company commanders, Thompson and Robertson, had been killed, but otherwise casualties were moderate. I told Reg to get a company forward on the right so as to bring the reverse slopes of 209 under fire and otherwise to stand fast.
Charlie Bennett was very well forward and I joined him in a slit trench, 200 yards from the foot of Hikurangi. We appeared to be under aimed rifle fire and some bullets passed very close indeed when we put our heads over the edge of the trench. C. Company of the Maoris was where I had seen it the previous night, hanging on just under the lip of Hikurangi. Charlie said that Ngarimu had been killed about daylight and he thought he had earned a V.C.1 We worked out on the map with great care just where the Germans and Maoris were. I rang Monty and told him to lay on the heaviest possible bombardment of 209 and Hikurangi and left it to Charlie to attack with one or other of his less damaged companies when he felt that resistance was sufficiently shattered.
My Dingo was waiting ten yards away with the driver's head well out of sight. I was just about to make a dash for it when a Maori sergeant arrived in a Bren carrier, got out, and, in the most casual manner, walked across to us and opened a conversation, quite oblivious of the whistling bullets. I told him to take my place but was left with no option but to walk equally casually to my Dingo and clamber deliberately in. It was a relief to get my head inside.
Back at Brigade we worked out more tasks for the artillery and, at intervals during the next few hours, several field regiments fired merciless concentrations. There were signs that opposition was weakening elsewhere and prisoners were being taken. Soon after midday Bennett reported that he was going to attack with Matehaere's D. Company when he had worked it into position. He also reported that a German doctor had come over under a white flag and said that he had more wounded than he could handle and asked the Maoris to take them over. I gave him permission to do so and he said he would try to persuade the Germans to surrender. page 288 For a while there was an unofficial truce and many wounded were taken over by the Maoris.
Firing was resumed. We had a company of heavy machine-guns firing incessantly on 209, carriers from both the Twenty-third and the Twenty-eighth working round the flanks; all our mortars were in action and we continued the artillery ‘stonks’. Some British armoured cars, moreover, were working round behind the hill. Nevertheless, the Germans kept up a steady fire and when Matehaere's company attacked about 5 p.m. it came at first under severe automatic and mortar fire. All of a sudden resistance collapsed and the remaining Germans surrendered, 231 in all and fifty of them wounded, including the battalion commander.
Meantime our armour had made some progress. I was ordered to form a line parallel to the road astride which the advance was proceeding. I left the Maoris where they were, ordered the Twenty-third to swing up its left flank and brought the Twenty-first round from the right to prolong the left. No movement was permitted until after dark and this was a difficult and complicated little movement, extremely well carried out. By 11 p.m. all battalions were in position and the brigade front was quiet.
Early next morning, the 28th, we were having breakfast round the tail of the cook's truck, when I noticed a group of German officers a few yards away. They had put up a very stout fight, so I sent one of the L.O.s over with my compliments and an invitation to join us. They did so gratefully enough and with heel clickings and stiff bows introduced themselves as Major Meissner, the battalion commander, his Adjutant, and the M.O. No other officers were left unhurt. While they tackled our porridge and hash very heartily we talked restrainedly. Our own feeling was that as it was a social occasion we should not make the conversation an interrogation; but since Meissner and the Adjutant both spoke English we had a certain amount of chat.
164 Division, to which they belonged, had been in the Crete garrison after the invasion. When Blundell and I said we had been in Crete, the Adjutant sighed. ‘Those were the page 289 good days for us,’ he said sadly. Meissner said he was a regular soldier and of course had never been a Nazi. He said it was a great pity that they had arrived too late to occupy Hill 201. I replied that it all depended on the point of view. When I asked why he had surrendered, he looked very hurt. ‘We did our best,’ he said. This was unquestionably true, so I apologized. Then he asked if he might say good-bye to his men, who were being lined up a hundred yards away, and I agreed.
The Adjutant saluted and hurried off. In a few minutes he had the remnants of the battalion in two rigid lines. Meissner exchanged salutes with me and walked towards them. We thought it was a private affair and felt some sympathy; so we stayed where we were except for a corporal of the Field Security section who understood German and who followed Meissner closely, rather to our annoyance. The Adjutant barked and the battalion came to attention with a resounding crack of heels. He barked again and in unison the men shouted ‘Heil!’ and extended their arms in the Hitler salute. Meissner said ‘Heil!’, gave the Hitler salute and then spoke. Our corporal later told us that he thanked them for their brave service, told them to remember their comrades who had died for Germany, and as they had been good soldiers told them to be good and patient prisoners. There were ‘Heils!’ and salutes again and then Meissner came back, saluted me, with his face working, and took his leave. We were all very impressed.
I went up to Hill 209 with Charlie Bennett and saw a most horrible scene of slaughter. There were dead and mangled Germans everywhere, more than I had seen in a small area since the Somme in 1916. Apparently everyone at the R.A.P. had been killed, there were thirty or forty bodies there. Our ‘stonks’ on that stony hill had been murderously effective.
Our casualties in this battle had not been unduly high—21 Battalion, twenty; 23 Battalion, thirty-eight; the Maoris, ninety-two. This was satisfactory, but practically all had been in the rifle companies on whom had fallen the heaviest strain in the long campaign since our return from Syria. The page 290 battalion commanders said that the new Eighth Reinforcement officers and men had gone splendidly. I was glad to hear from Ralf Harding that Taylor, Donaldson, and Upton, the three new young officers I had noticed at Tripoli, had all done well.
Orders came that New Zealand Corps was moving on Hamma, and that 5 Brigade was to move as a separate column as a right-flank guard. The armour was still battling somewhere in the Hamma direction, held up by bad going and 88's. A squadron of the King's Dragoon Guards (armoured cars) under Jerry Chrystal was placed under my command. I organized an advanced guard of a battery from 5 Field Regiment, a troop of seventeen-pounders and another of six-pounders, and a section of carriers, and we moved off at noon.
I travelled with Jerry Chrystal at the head of the advanced guard, with a wireless link back to Monty at Brigade Headquarters, which was leading the main column. Working out the order of march on a road for a brigade group was a favourite problem in pre-war exercises and examinations and I enjoyed doing it for the first time in the field. Snow Walter, commanding 5 Field Regiment, travelled with me, and his guns, less the battery with the advanced guard, were well forward in the column and of course also on a wireless link.
The track was bad and winding and we made slow progress. We by-passed some Germans in the foot-hills on our right and they fired a few shells at us; but they would in due course be picked up by the Free French and we took no notice. At the crossing of one wadi there was some congestion and Monty reported that a ‘hit-and-run attack’ by fighter-bombers had inflicted twenty-two casualties on the Twenty-third. All afternoon we could hear a brisk tank battle ahead and to the left, and could see occasional shell-bursts and the smoke of burning tanks. By 5 p.m. we had drawn level with the fighting but had not yet struck any opposition. I decided to halt and get into a defensive position astride the road before dark. With the whole 1,200 vehicles on a single track this took hours, and long after dark when we finally settled down the tank battle was still briskly in progress a few miles beyond our left.page 291
Early next morning, 29 March, we were on the move again. We knew by now that the enemy had abandoned the Mareth Line and were falling back along the coastal road. Our main column appeared to be making slow progress against opposition and 5 Brigade was ordered to go straight ahead to Gabes. There was a bare chance that we might intercept the enemy's line of retreat and it seemed certain that we would strike a flank-guard.
We set off gaily, in the same order as on the previous day, and as fast as we could travel. Before long we struck a good road and bowled along at a great pace. I travelled in my staff car with Jerry Chrystal's armoured cars. Several times the leading car stopped when some disturbance of the road surface indicated mines. Each time Jerry was first out and did the most dangerous part of the lifting and disarming himself. Once we were fired on sharply by a couple of tanks limping along the road ahead. We all turned and scuttled back under cover and then stopped to laugh at ourselves. The tanks moved on and we followed, a little more cautiously. They left the road, one broke down and was abandoned by its mate, crew and all. Two of our cars stalked the remaining one and as soon as they opened fire the crew surrendered.
We carried on until we could see the palm-groves round Gabes and in the distance the sea and the road from Mareth. To my disappointment the road was empty. Directly ahead was a long ridge topped by a line of prominent pill-boxes, the defences of Gabes. It was a day for taking risks so I lined up my six-pounders and machine-guns on a parallel ridge 1,000 yards away, just as if it was the battle of Waterloo. Snow Walter got his batteries into action and we opened fire on the pill-boxes with great gusto. I felt very old-fashioned watching proceedings from the gun line. At first we got quite a smart, though ill-directed, return fire. Chrystal's cars waited on the road behind the ridge and I sent my carriers under George Lawrence, who long before had been with me in the Servia pass, to look for a way round to the north. The pill-boxes were easy targets, the six-pounders scoring hits with every shot. The seventeen-pounder gunners wanted to take part but we had not used page 292 the Pheasants yet and had instructions that they were only to be used against tanks and then only if nothing else would do, so I left them to grumble behind the ridge. The crews of two pill-boxes tried to bolt and were at once shot down by the machine-guns. A shell burst a few yards from me and I began to wonder if I was conducting the action too rashly.
We waited five minutes after that, and then I nodded to Jerry and he moved off at high speed, straight through the pill-box line and on into Gabes. I followed, leaving the advanced guard to come on as quickly as possible. We were too late to stop the road bridge from being demolished but caught three German pioneers and then were stopped by the river. Gabes is only a small place, but part of its population is French, and we had perhaps the first experience of any British troops of being liberators. The populace crowded round us in high excitement, French policemen, elderly men, and some astonishingly nicely dressed girls whom we looked on with relish. The stream was quickly flowing, shingly and shallow. I threw a stone in, the crowd caught the idea, and in no time they were carrying stones to form a causeway, chattering like magpies.
General Leese appeared at the head of the pursuit from Mareth, and shortly afterwards a group of war correspondents. Later we were much put out by one of them reporting that Highland Division was first into Gabes. Masses of tanks and vehicles piled up while civilians and soldiers laboured at the causeway and we searched for a better crossing. Before the causeway was finished, we found a crossing a few chains upstream. Once across we wound by very bad winding tracks through a big palm plantation out on to the main road again. As soon as a few six-pounders had collected on the main road I sent them on under Robertson and went back to the river where the sappers had got the causeway into working order. Somewhere I met the General and got orders to halt when clear of Gabes. The leading vehicles of the Brigade appeared and I led them north and clear of the town till we caught up with Robertson. One of his six-pounders had had a duel at ten yards' range with an Italian armoured car that had delayed its retirement a little too long, and had knocked it out, page 293 killing the crew. We stopped on the line he had reached about noon. As the Twenty-third came up, I put it on an outpost line, the remainder of the Brigade bivouacked among the trees, and the last vehicles got in an hour after midnight.
The squadron of King's Dragoon Guards was recalled to its regiment. Jerry Chrystal came over to say good-bye after our exhilarating day. It was sad to hear of his death in Normandy eighteen months later.
1 The V.C. was awarded.