CHAPTER 9 — Pursuit to Tripoli
Pursuit to Tripoli
The 2nd New Zealand Division reorganised while the enemy was chased across Cyrenaica. Tobruk was occupied on 13 November, Derna on the lyth, and Benghazi on the 20th, and by the 23rd Eighth Army was in the Agedabia area and the enemy was safely behind his defences at El Agheila.
The New Zealanders found that Bardia, ten miles from where they were camped, did not warrant a visit. It was a deserted one-street village perched on the escarpment above the one-jetty anchorage below. The battered white stone houses had already been thoroughly inspected, and a view of the prisoner-of-war compound did not compensate for the difficulty in returning to the battalion area without getting lost. The absolutely featureless desert was covered by square miles of bivvies and vehicles, and it was easy to wander for hours looking for the unit area. The terrain, however, was ideal for the quick preparation of football grounds, and this important amenity was early provided. A terse note in the battalion routine orders, that ‘Trucks will NOT be driven across the battalion sports area’, illustrates the relative importance of transport and football to the resting Kiwi.
B Company rejoined the battalion on 14 November. It had had a more than interesting time at Sidi Barrani searching for mines and booby traps, and was relieved when the Air Force took over. A hit-and-run bombing attack had cost the company four casualties, three of them fatal.
While the Division was in reserve, one-third of the battalion went daily to Bardia for a swim; a school for NCOs and a course on enemy weapons were started, and there were lectures on mines and booby traps (how to recognise, use, and neutralise them). Fifty-one reinforcements came up, and soccer, Rugby, and hockey were played between salvaging and roadmending. There was an issue of canned beer. The water ration was increased to one gallon a man, with an extra gallon for washing.page 222
The Division began moving again on 5 December. The route was across Cyrenaica, and the mission was to outflank the enemy position at El Agheila, where the defences commanded the only road into Tripolitania. Twice before British forces had been turned back at Agheila because of its natural strength and remoteness.
Extensive salt marshes east, south, and west of the main defences alternated with areas of soft sand, which in turn were extensively mined. There were wadis that further restricted manoeuvre, and strongpoints designed to channel transport into the mined areas. The supplying of a force of any size was exceedingly difficult, for the railhead at Tobruk was 450 miles away and, until Benghazi harbour was working to full capacity, supplies had to be carried by truck across the desert.
The New Zealand Division moved independently by brigades; 21 Battalion travelled via Sidi Azeiz, where 5 Brigade Headquarters had been captured during the relief of Tobruk the previous year, along the Trigh Capuzzo past Sidi Rezegh of bitter memory, then past Bir Hacheim to Msus, and finally through Saunnu to El Haseiat, which was reached on 11 December. The names sound important, suggestive of oriental cities, mosques, minarets and palm-strewn oases—actually they are mostly geographical expressions, mere points on ancient desert tracks and of no importance whatever except to mark the route of the Division's 350-mile journey across eastern Libya.
This journey was done in easy stages with hourly halts. The Cyrenaican desert is no different from the Egyptian; it has stones, shingle, scattered scrub, patches of soft sand, and wadis. North of the route lay the high country of Gebel Akhdar, with its towns and seaports and whatever population inhabited them; to the south lay the sand sea of the inner desert; in front there was nothing except the flat horizon; behind it was the same. Overhead was the winter sky, and there were sudden rainstorms.
The intention was to send the Division on a wide ‘left hook’, going well to the south to avoid observation if possible, and directed to the main road west of El Agheila, while 51 (Highland) Division and 7 Armoured Division attacked the position from the east. The New Zealand Division started on its out- page 223 flanking move on 13 December completely self-contained in supplies, with 4 Light Armoured Brigade again leading and 5 Brigade in the rear of the divisional column. The course was generally south-west for about fifty miles, across a long steep-sided valley called Ghrystal's Rift after its discoverer (Captain P. D. Chrystal of the King's Dragoon Guards, whose patrol had reconnoitred the route), then westwards. The country soon became too broken for desert formation, and 21 Battalion formed into three columns. By 5 p.m. the battalion was at the rift, waiting its turn to cross by the tracks the bulldozers had made. The trucks crawled gingerly along the lighted tracks and laagered on the far side.
The advance was continued in the morning, as soon as the ground mist had cleared, along a route first westwards, then north-west, until midnight. Late in the afternoon enemy aircraft discovered the Division, and from then on the enemy kept himself fully informed about its movements.page 224
The next bound was intended to put the Division across the rear of the Afrika Korps holding Agheila. At 7.15 a.m. on the third day (15 December) 21 Battalion moved off in desert formation as rear battalion in 5 Brigade Group. The original intention was for 6 Brigade to occupy the high ground overlooking the road in the Marble Arch area, but the enemy was already there in too great strength for the armoured screen to shift. The Division was in consequence diverted further west towards the Bir el Merduma area. The going was very bad and the estimated ten miles an hour was not maintained. It was dark before 5 Brigade was halted and, after a conference, moved out to battle positions. Sixth Brigade had already been despatched northwards to attempt to cut the road along which the enemy was retreating.
Fifth Brigade formed a line facing east, and 21 Battalion on the left flank was in position by midnight. The companies dug in, put out standing patrols, and listened to the enemy transport moving about in the darkness. At first light C Company, on the extreme left, was moved to a better position, about half a mile to the left rear, and the ‘I’ section established liaison with 6 Brigade and found there was a ten-mile gap between the two brigades.
Sixth Brigade had been prevented from cutting the road by 90 Light Division, with the result that most of 21 Panzer Division had escaped to the west almost without interference. The 15th Panzer Division had spent the night close to 5 Brigade, and it was the noise of its movement that had been heard by 21 Battalion patrols. The Germans made good use of the gap between the two New Zealand brigades. All that 21 Battalion saw of their escape was a party of 35 tanks coming from the east on a bearing that would take them across the unit's front. They were reported immediately, but the anti-tank guns did not get up in time. C Company thereupon withdrew 250 yards until the tanks passed, and then reoccupied its positions. The transport following the tanks was engaged at extreme range by machine-gun and mortar fire without any apparent success, although the trucks veered away to the north out of range.
The battalion carriers carrying machine-gunners and their weapons chased after the enemy for nine miles, but failed to page 225 get within range. The mortar carriers were also in the hunt and came back with 14 prisoners, six lugers, and some Jerry rations. In the afternoon the 5 Brigade transport was called forward. The 21st Battalion got into desert formation, moved into its position in the brigade group, and bedded down for the night.
The next place where the enemy decided to stand was at Nofilia, and on 17 December, while the Royal Scots Greys (Sherman tanks) and the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry were feeling out the defences and British armoured cars were reconnoitring further west, 5 Brigade moved forward with the intention of getting round the enemy's inland flank again. The order of march was 23 Battalion leading and responsible for speed and direction, the Maori Battalion on the right, and the 21st on the left. The brigade passed to the south of Nofilia and at 4.30 p.m., when about ten miles west of the village, was ordered to swing north towards the road, about three miles away. This was a change in the original plan, but the brigade was quickly deployed for the attack, with the Maoris on the right, the 23rd in the centre, and the 21st on the left flank, with the carriers out in front. The 23rd Battalion was to get across the road and face east, with the 28th covering its right flank, while 21 Battalion was ordered to cross the road and then swing round between the road and the sea immediately to the north.
The area between the edge of the upland plain, along which the brigade had been travelling, and the road was crossed longitudinally by a number of low ridges that looked solid under the sparse covering of desert grass. The 21st Battalion deployed in three columns abreast with the Anti-Tank Platoon ahead, and the instructions were to get the trucks as far forward as possible before debussing. The trucks slid, lurched, and slipped down the escarpment. Enemy vehicles were streaming along the road, which the artillery was pounding as hard as it could.
The hills that looked so solid were quite the contrary, for under the desert grass the sand was loose and the trucks sank deep into the yielding mass. The drivers crawled along with page 226 their engines screaming in low gear. Mortars, 75s, and anti-tank shells dropped between the trucks but, beyond sending spurts of sand into the air, did little damage. After a mile of crawling up hills and sliding into gullies, with glimpses of enemy trucks that seemed as far away as ever, the troops received the signal to debus and took cover while the CO and company commanders went forward to reconnoitre. They found that the southern side of the road was held by a flank guard well supplied with machine guns and artillery. The battalion went forward but was soon held up, and with darkness falling the companies dug in. The battalions on the right had struck even heavier opposition, and the 21st was ordered to have the road under small-arms fire by daylight.
The sandhills gave perfect cover for wandering about unobserved, and the truck-weary troops stretched their legs while waiting for the cooks' trucks and their blanket rolls. The hot meal came up, but not the blankets. A patrol reported the country in front clear of enemy as far as the road, and 21 Battalion advanced with the Bren carriers, mortars and anti-tank platoon in support. The companies were within a thousand yards of the objective when the noise of the carriers attracted a stream of tracer shells that betrayed the enemy positions. Colonel Harding decided that the enemy was too strong to dislodge with the bayonet and, after lying doggo under extremely accurate fire for some time, the battalion was withdrawn to its original position. Included among the 14 casualties was Major McElroy, wounded in the head for the second time. It was his third wound, and the troops reckoned that if he survived the ‘Blacktracker’ (McElroy was very dark complexioned) would be a thorn in the side of erring Kiwis for a long time.
That was the end of the action. The enemy flank guard had done its job well and the rearguard was clear by daylight. As far as 5 Brigade was concerned the next two days passed without incident, and on 20 December 21 Battalion moved north of the road and dug in close to the sea. The following week passed in routine duties and in swimming. Then the war was declared off for Christmas Day.
For the Second Echelon men in the battalion it was their third Christmas overseas and for many more the second in the page 227 Desert. At Baggush twelve months earlier the battalion, or rather the few who came back from Sidi Rezegh, had eaten their dinner thinking of defeats, withdrawals, and evacuations in Greece, Crete and Libya. It was different this Christmas. Although in Tunisia the Germans were savaging the English, French and Americans in the west, they were winning only Pyrrhic victories, while in Libya Rommel's Afrika Korps was still reeling backwards.
Considering the long supply line and the strain on transport to get the supply of petrol, water and ammunition up to the fighting troops, nothing much in the way of Christmas cheer was expected. The Q staff of the Division and Eighth Army, however, performed a series of miracles, and the makings for a real Christmas dinner came by road, sea and air. The cooks did the rest, and the troops sat down to roast pork, roast turkey, peas and potatoes, followed by plum pudding, a bottle of beer, a double issue of rum and 60 cigarettes. A nice long sleep in the sun ended a memorable day. ‘Training as per syllabus’, a convenient aphorism for taking life easily, was continued until New Year's Day, when the battalion, in common with the rest of 5 Brigade, was given an exceedingly nasty job. The RAF needed airfields in the forward areas south of Sirte, and labourers were required.
The 21st Battalion moved by transport on the first day of the new year and by evening was a hundred miles farther west in the Hamraiet area, some thirty miles south-west of Sirte. The task was to clear an airstrip of stones and load them onto trucks. Following a night of thunder, lightning and rain, a sandstorm blew for two days, making working conditions very unpleasant. The enemy soon realised what was going on. There was no possibility of taking cover, and the first dive-bombing raid cost the battalion eleven casualties and 5 Brigade a total of 35. Brigadier Kippenberger arranged for air cover, and all ack-ack crews stood by their guns instead of picking up stones. The enemy did not have such an easy target after that, but the troops became almost cross-eyed looking down at the stones and up into the sky at the same time. As many as seventeen planes swooped down at a time, but the battalion escaped further losses though other units were not so fortunate.page 228
While 5 Brigade carried stones, the enemy was standing on a line running inland from Buerat, a few miles along the coast, but planning was under way for the capture of Tripoli as soon as the supply position permitted.
There were still 300 miles of wadis, gorges, escarpments, hills, canyons and desert between us and Mussolini's ‘Jewel of Africa’, and the occasion was important enough to require the presence of the New Zealand Division. The overall plan was for 51 (Highland) Division to move along the coast, and 7 Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division on the inland flank. The schedule called for the capture of Tripoli within ten days from the kick-off.
Preparations were made for the move. A troop of six-pounders, a platoon of medium machine guns, and an anti-aircraft section reported to 21 Battalion and were so disposed that all companies were tactically self-contained. Meanwhile the Division less 5 Brigade had moved west and was concentrated on the eastern side of Wadi Tamet, between Hamraiet and El Machina.
Concealment was essential to the success of the operation. Camouflage nets were used freely, vehicles faced north at all halts so that there would be no reflection from the windscreens, and dusty formed tracks were avoided whenever possible. Strict wireless silence was imposed and no fires were permitted after dark.
Fifth Brigade rejoined the Division on 12 January 1943, and Wadi Tamet was crossed under fighter cover the same day. The Division rested on the 13th and moved during the night and again in the afternoon and evening of the 14th. Sixth Brigade was leading behind the forward armour of the Divisional Cavalry. As far as 21 Battalion was concerned, it was a case of moving from desert formation into columns, sometimes six, sometimes three, sometimes one column, according to the going. Sometimes the trucks lurched along at a steady four miles an hour in the darkness; sometimes the march was in daylight, winding through a lost world. Dead hills scarred by the winds of centuries alternated with stretches where rocks protruded from the sand like icebergs in the southern seas. Escarpments of solid stone had to be circumnavigated; crevasses more desolate than the valleys on the moon had to be crossed.page 229
Eighth Army attacked on 15 January and the enemy withdrew during the night. Wadi Zemzem was crossed on the 16th, Wadi Sofeggin on the 17th, and during most of the following day the New Zealand Division passed through perfectly hellish country towards the Beni Ulid oasis. The canyon in which the oasis lies was traversed on the night of 19-20 January, and in the moonlight the troops saw with incredulous eyes olive trees, palms, and fig trees. They saw also a town with a fort, stone buildings, and native villages; and after leaving the oasis and moving into the desert again, they refused to believe they had seen anything. Direction was then altered to the north-west towards Gebel Nefusa, the rampart of the coastal plains around Tripoli. Civilisation lay beyond the gebel—green grass, cultivated fields, roads, villages and people. The 21st Battalion spat the dust out of its mouth and spoke of running water and what could be done with something cool in a long glass.
An unimpeded passage through the gebel was not expected, and 5 Brigade, now in the lead, was prepared for trouble. The 21st Battalion, in the rear of the brigade group, moved in single column along the road towards Tarhuna, and by the evening of the 20th was near the Italian settlement of Tazzoli, about ten miles south-west of Tarhuna. The enemy rearguard had evacuated its position around Tarhuna and upset General Freyberg's plan for a divisional attack, but it still held the defiles through which the road passed. The engineers were told to find or make a road down the escarpment further west. They found a suitable defile and worked like beavers to make it passable for the forward screen of the Divisional Cavalry, the Royal Scots Greys, and a gun group to debouch onto the plain. Fifth Brigade followed and by 10 p.m. was in position among the tussocks north of the last barrier to Tripoli, only 40 miles away.
While 2 NZ Division and 7 Armoured Division were concentrating for the final spring, 51 Division, in the coastal sector, was battling along through demolition after demolition towards Tripoli.
Elements of 15 Panzer Division were found in position at Azizia, 26 miles south of Tripoli, and reacted violently to the approach of our cavalry screen. Artillery and tanks went forward and 21 Battalion awaited the issue. At midday Colonel page 230 Harding was warned that the enemy would probably withdraw after dark, and to be prepared to press on to Tripoli that night.
After last light 5 Brigade was formed up on the road to Azizia, with 28 Battalion leading and the 21st behind 23 Battalion. C Company was detached as infantry protection for the artillery sited on the left flank. The enemy tanks had departed, but the Maoris met infantry and artillery opposition near Azizia. The enemy, spread on a front of half a mile on each side of the road, turned on a fireworks display of tracer that was pretty to watch but too much to tackle when a few hours were of no importance. The column turned about, returned to its original position, and bedded down for what was left of the night.
In the morning the enemy had departed, and 21 Battalion climbed into the trucks for the last lap. After passing through Azizia, whence a broad tarsealed road led to their goal, the troops filled their eyes with green trees, cultivated fields, and the square white houses of the Italian settlers. At precisely 2 p.m. on 23 January 21 Battalion halted outside the city gate, where Brigadier Kippenberger was waiting to welcome them.
On the day of Eighth Army's arrival at Tripoli General Montgomery issued a personal message to all troops under his command, in which he said:
Today, 23 January, exactly three months after we began the Battle of Egypt, the Eighth Army has captured Tripoli and has driven the enemy away to the West towards Tunisia. By skilful withdrawal tactics the enemy has eluded us, though we have taken heavy toll of his army and air force.
The defeat of the enemy in battle at Alamein, the pursuit of his beaten army, and the final capture of Tripoli—a distance of some fourteen hundred miles from Alamein—has been accomplished in three months. This achievement is probably without parallel in history. It could not have been done unless every soldier in the army had pulled his full weight all the time. I congratulate the whole army and send my personal thanks to each of you for the wonderful support you have given me.
On your behalf I have sent a special message to the Allied Air Forces that have co-operated with us. I don't suppose that any army has ever been supported by such a magnificent Air Striking Force. I have always maintained that the Eighth Army and the R.A.F., Western Desert, together constitute one fighting machine, and therein lies our great strength.page 231
In the hour of success we must not forget the splendid work that has been done by those soldiers working day and night in back areas and on lines of communication. There are many soldiers quietly doing their duty in rear areas who are unable to take part in the triumphal entry into captured cities; but they are a vital part of our fighting machine and we could gain no success if they failed to pull their full weight. I refer specially to stevedores at our bases, to fitters in the workshops, to clerks in our rear offices, and so on. I would like to make a special mention of our R.A.S.C. drivers; these men drive long distances day and night for long periods; they always deliver the goods. The R.A.S.C. has risen to great heights during the operations we have undertaken, and as a Corps it deserves the grateful thanks of every soldier in the Army.
There is much work in front of us. But I know that you all are ready for any task that you may be called on to carry out.
Once again I thank you all from the bottom of my heart.
B. L. Montgomery
General, G.O.C., Eighth Army
The battalion, on three hours' notice for operational employment, camped in a bluegum plantation near the Azizia Gate and spent two days cleaning the desert out of its clothes, equipment, vehicles and throats, promising itself a taste of the flesh-pots at the earliest possible moment. A battalion, it was maintained, did not move 1400 miles across North Africa, living on hard tack and brackish water for three months, without needing a little stimulant at the end of the trek. Its casualties in the advance from Bardia to Tripoli had been nine killed, 26 wounded, and one prisoner of war, a total of 36.
On 25 January word was received that there would probably be no move for another five days and, no doubt for good and sufficient reasons, there was no leave either. There was a lot of planning done, however, for when the leave roster opened. Beverages figured largely in the anticipated menus. A party of South African engineers moved into the area and brought a wireless set with them. The troops were paid the same day and, with the wireless and some local ‘plonk’, had a good party.
The following day 51 (Highland) Division took over the area and 21 Battalion moved to a bivouac 15 miles south of the captured city. As soon as the camp was organised, 10 per cent leave to Tripoli began. As a military objective Tripoli might page 232 have been of the highest importance to the generals, but as a leave centre for the troops it was an abject failure. Leave trucks left the area at 1 p.m. and were required to be clear of the city by 6 p.m. Rules were stringent, and when you deducted what might not be done on leave there was not much left to do. There were fine buildings to see, but no eggs and bacon to be bought anywhere; there were cafes but no beer; there were civilians, but they were mostly natives. The city was very short of food and, according to orders, no meals might be purchased and no liquor was on sale. The harbour was full of dead ships, and some of the buildings on the marine parade were battered, roofless and windowless, with large gaps where direct hits had crushed their neighbours. Fresh air and scenery were felt to be an inadequate diet for sand-blasted stomachs, and there was more scope for refreshment in camp. The local inhabitants, who soon lost their fear of the invaders, supplied the cooks with fresh vegetables and the troops with wine. At servicemen's reunions some of the parties held at this time are still recalled with longing.
The enemy was still being chased westward, but at this stage the Division was not called on to assist. The pursuit was halted in southern Tunisia, where the French had built their African Maginot Line to keep out the Italians. Rommel was now occupying this, the Mareth Line as it was called, with the same intentions towards ourselves. Arrangements were being made, however, to induce him, as soon as our administrative difficulties were overcome, to continue moving backwards. The first essential was to get the Tripoli harbour working again. British and American bombers had partially destroyed its usefulness while it was in enemy hands, and before departing the Germans had attempted to complete its destruction.
The 21st Battalion was soon to know the environs of the waterfront very well indeed, but its first job was to smarten up for a big ceremonial parade. Security did not permit names being mentioned, but the pseudonym ‘Mr. Bullfinch’ was soon narrowed down to Mr. Churchill. The review was held on 4 February, and the setting was worthy of the occasion. It was early spring, the almond trees were blossoming, and there were wild flowers in the grass around the olive trees. The whole page 233 Division paraded in review order and, to the music of the massed pipes of 51 (Highland) Division, marched past Britain's war leader. The Prime Minister gave a stirring address in which he surveyed the change in fortune that had driven the enemy out of Egypt, Cyrenaica and Tripolitania. There were some there who could remember when he last addressed them, exactly 29 months earlier in England, before they left to take their place on the Dover coast to repel the invasion that never came.
The remainder of February was one long wharf fatigue, for with the improved harbour facilities more and more labour was needed to unload ships and load trucks. Sports and training, of course, were sandwiched in between the all-round-the-clock shifts of waterside work, but mostly it was work. Everybody appreciated the vital necessity of getting the stores ashore, and the ships were turned round in record time. There was also some spectacular souveniring of canteen delicacies. The cooks had only to mention what would be nice to go with the morrow's dinner and there it was.
New reinforcements began to arrive, the first from New Zealand for over a year. The 8th Reinforcements were welcomed with open arms, for they behaved with due humility in the presence of their military seniors and brought the latest news from the folk at home. And in the meantime the Division had been briefed for another desert campaign and another ‘left hook’.