CHAPTER 11 — The Tunisian Campaign
The Tunisian Campaign
While the New Zealanders were at Tripoli, the war in North Africa was moving to the stage where decisive battles had to be fought in Tunisia. The Allied landings in the west had been followed by the landing of Von Arnim and Axis troops, up to a thousand a day, in northern Tunisia. This meant that the First Army and the Americans were unable to link up with the Eighth Army in Tripoli but were held up at various points in western Tunisia from Medjez-el-Bab, in the north, to near Gafsa, in the south. In mid-February, Rommel, anxious to prevent the junction of the First and Eighth Armies, successfully attacked 2 United States Corps around the Faid and Kasserine passes. Appeals to the Eighth Army for assistance led to the pushing forward of 7 Armoured Division and 51 Highland Division to the environs of Medenine in south Tunisia. Here they held a position about ten miles south of the strengthened Mareth line, but in insufficient strength to withstand a full-scale armoured attack by Rommel's panzer divisions, now largely re-equipped and with morale soaring again after their successes against the Americans. It was forecast that Rommel would attack early in March. Consequently, on 1 March, the New Zealand Division, with 5 Brigade leading, was ordered to move forward to consolidate the position at Medenine.
Before daybreak on 1 March, the 23rd was notified of the urgency of this move. Colonel Romans left that morning with the Brigadier's Orders Group to conduct a reconnaissance, while the rest of the battalion spent the day in preparing to move and in tidying up the bivouac area. By 6.30 p.m. Major Connolly had the battalion ready, but orders arrived postponing the starting time till 11.30 p.m. The night move in column of route along the main road was bitterly cold, but fair speed was maintained. The frontier between Tripolitania and Tunisia was crossed shortly before noon on 2 March. Heavy traffic on the roads, including tank transporters which took a long time to cross culverts, slowed down the convoy and it was after 5 p.m. before the Colonel was able to direct the companies to their page 233 positions about five miles from Medenine. The siting of the main defensive positions was left to the following day, when the officers could see where the main threats were likely to develop.
By the evening of 3 March, the Eighth Army was ready to meet Rommel's attack. The three brigades of the Highland Division held the sector between the coast and the Mareth road, 201 Guards Brigade covered Point 270, an isolated hill which dominated the centre of the defensive area, and next came 131 Brigade and 5 New Zealand Brigade. The 28th held the right, the 21st the centre, and the 23rd the left of the 5 Brigade sector. The 23rd's area was an extended one with a front of nearly three miles. The country was rough, being interspersed with dips and steep-sided wadis, in one of which Battalion Headquarters was snugly sited. D, A and B Companies, in that order from right to left, held the forward positions, while C was in reserve. On 3 and 4 March the companies prepared their positions, giving their six-pounder anti-tank guns the best possible tank-killing zones. A dummy minefield, marked by a single strand of barbed wire, from which black tin triangles dangled as a warning for mines, ran across about 1000 yards of the battalion's front. Depth was given to the anti-tank defences by the siting in C Company's area of ‘Pheasants’, the new 17-pounder anti-tank guns, which were still on the secret list and were to be used only in the event of the forward defences being penetrated. When the Vickers guns were added to the defences, the artillery sited within call and some 3.7-inch guns sited in the 23rd area, everyone was confident that the attack would be ‘seen off’ without much trouble.
As the ground was thinly held, extra precautions were taken at night: company listening posts were placed 600 yards forward of the FDLs and, in each platoon, a whole section ‘stood-to’ during the hours of darkness, while all ranks ‘stood-to’ from 5.30 till 6.30 a.m. On the left of the 23rd was a landing ground which was shelled by a big long-range gun and bombed. A and B Companies received a few of the shells and bombs intended for the airstrip. The battalion's carriers patrolled for about ten miles along one of the roads leading into the Matmata Hills in the west and maintained a standing patrol on this road at night. Nothing happened on 4 or 5 March, and the troops were beginning to bet on the chance of Rommel's calling off the attack. Their confidence in their own strength is seen in private diaries. Thus Stone wrote on 4 March: ‘It is hard to see how page 234 page 235 Hun can do much good by attacking us. To get to us here he has to come through high range of hills. There are very few tracks and if we could catch him between the hills and us he would get hell’.
On 6 March the attack came from the west and north-west. Shelling of Eighth Army positions was followed by attacks by German fighter-bombers. Then, out of the morning mist which had covered their debouching from the hills, came three columns of enemy transport led by tanks. The tanks of 10 Panzer Division, a formation which had seen service on the Russian front, advanced towards 21 Battalion's area and veered across towards the Maoris' front, where five were knocked out by the anti-tank guns. But the main attack was made farther north against the central feature, Point 270, which was also known as Edinburgh Castle and Elephant Hill. The enemy tanks did what the British had done in Libya and ran on to the carefully prepared anti-tank defences. When the supporting infantry tried to advance, the whole corps artillery opened up with devastating effect. The first main attack was beaten off by 10 a.m. and a combined tank-infantry attack in the late after-noon was no more successful. Altogether, the Axis forces lost 52 tanks, plus a large number of infantry killed or wounded and 83 as prisoners. The battle of Medenine resembled that of Alam Halfa, in that the Eighth Army was able to administer a defeat to the enemy before going itself on to the offensive. For the 23rd, however, the battle was only indirectly important. At no time during the day did the battalion appear likely to become seriously engaged. But the reports from those parts of the front directly involved were most cheering, as entries in private diaries show. Thus Stone: ‘Noise of battle was terrific. Many fires burning. Hun has taken a heavy pasting today’. And Johnston, after recording the enemy losses in tanks, added: ‘Our tanks didn't fire a shot. Things are going very well indeed. All the lads are in the highest of spirits and happy’.
On the following day both air forces were busy. The Desert Air Force Spitfires flew 100 sorties that day. The 23rd carrier patrol reported enemy transport moving towards the hills, but all enemy vehicles seen were in retreat. The fighting at Medenine was over, although the New Zealand Division remained in the area until 11–12 March.
General Montgomery now gave orders for Operation PUGILIST, in which he aimed to crack the Mareth line by a frontal assault combined with a left hook. Thirtieth Corps, which included page 236 50 and 51 Divisions, was to attack frontally, while the New Zealanders were to undertake the outflanking movement in which they were now specialists. This time they were to be stronger than at El Agheila and, with the title of New Zealand Corps, were reinforced by 8 Armoured Brigade, the King's Dragoon Guards (armoured cars), 64 Medium Regiment and 111 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, General Leclerc's Free French column and other sub-units. The obvious target for this left hook was the Tebaga Gap, the flat gap between Djebel Tebaga on the north and west and the Monts des Ksour (or Matmata Hills) to the south. Through this gap ran a road to El Hamma and Gabes and it appeared to offer the best means of outflanking the Mareth line. Early in January, a New Zealand patrol of the Long Range Desert Group, led by Captain Wilder,1 found a passage through the Matmata Hills about 30 miles to the south-west of Foum Tatahouine. The New Zealand Corps was now to move to an assembly area just to the west of Wilder's Gap and about 25 miles south-west of Foum Tatahouine.
On 11 March 6 Brigade moved back to Ben Gardane, turned inland towards Foum Tatahouine, and then, after dark, moved page 237 to an assembly area. In the 23rd, Major Connolly took an LOB2 party back to the Divisional LOB camp at Suani Ben Adem. On 12 March 5 Brigade moved to the assembly area. The normal measures for deception were taken—all vehicle fernleaf signs, shoulder titles and badges were removed. The move to the staging area was carried out in daylight, but the additional 70 miles to the assembly area, over the roughest possible desert going, was carried out during the night of 12–13 March.
The New Zealanders spent six days in this area. The 23rd did some route-marching in the evenings to keep everyone fit, and played some games of baseball on ground which was altogether too rough for rugby. On 16 March General Freyberg visited the unit and told the officers the general plan for the attack on the Mareth line. The Bren carriers, which had been left at Medenine, caught up with the battalion on 18 March. That day Brigadier Kippenberger gave the whole battalion a detailed account of the moves and of the anticipated fighting. As the unit war diary recorded: ‘All ranks were deeply impressed by the address’. Such an address was the recognised preliminary to action, and, at 7 p.m. on 19 March, the move forward began. Fifth Brigade was well back in the column and, apart from the alternating softness and roughness of the going, this was just another desert move. The original intention had been to continue the move by night on 20 March, but in accordance with instructions received from Eighth Army Headquarters, General Freyberg ordered the advance to be continued by daylight that day. That night a solitary enemy bomber hit an ammunition truck in 5 Field Regiment and caused the brigade to increase the interval between its vehicles and many men to dig slit trenches. On 21 March the advanced elements of the New Zealand Corps were in touch with the enemy. The 23rd was not involved, but C Company was detached with a section of carriers and a troop of anti-tank guns to cover the right rear of the column in case an enemy mobile column launched a surprise attack from the hills. That night 25 and 26 Battalions launched an attack, supported by artillery concentrations, against Point 201, the large hill which dominated the entry to Tebaga Gap. This was brilliantly successful: the minefields were breached and some 32 officers and 817 other ranks, all Italians, were captured. This vital ground was thus taken twelve hours before the arrival of the infantry of 21 Panzer Division who were under orders to relieve the Italians there.page 238
But the way forward to Gabes was not yet clear. The enemy, reinforced by fresh German troops, continued to hold defences inside the gap. The Divisional Cavalry and 8 Armoured Brigade probed forward and to both flanks, took some prisoners and enabled 6 Brigade to extend its FDLs beyond the remains of the old Roman Wall which had covered the Gap in the days of the Roman Empire. For the most part, the enemy, further reinforced by the arrival of the German 164 Division, showed his determination to contest every inch of the ground.
In the meantime, the main frontal attack on the Mareth line had not gone well. Difficulty in getting tanks and heavier supporting arms forward led to the giving-up of a hard-won bridgehead. By this time, 23 March, General Montgomery had decided to switch his main effort to the New Zealand sector and to send Headquarters 10 Corps and 1 Armoured Division to reinforce the outflanking movement. A blitzkrieg attack to burst through the enemy defences in the Tebaga Gap was now planned for 26 March, when 1 Armoured Division would be ready to pass through to El Hamma and possibly to the coast.
On 23 March, however, in view of the possibility of an attack by 10 Panzer Division, 5 Brigade units were ordered to take up a defensive position to the west and south of the Gap. The next two days were devoted to improving these defences for a battle which was never fought, as the enemy, too, was concentrating on defence. Enemy bombers were active but, although they annoyed the 23rd by dropping ‘butterfly bombs’, they did little serious damage.
On the morning of 25 March, Colonel Romans and Lieutenant Arthur Bailey, his IO, accompanied the Brigadier on a reconnaissance of the proposed battle area. They looked down on it from high ground on the right flank. One of the vital points, Point 184, on this flank was still held by the enemy, but the 21st, supported by the corps artillery, took this point before dawn on 26 March. This prevented the start line for the attack from being overlooked.
General Montgomery decreed that this attack should be made in the afternoon in order to secure tactical surprise: all previous New Zealand infantry attacks of any importance had been made at night and the switch to daylight was expected to catch the enemy napping. In addition, it would enable both the air force and the armour to be used to maximum advantage in a blitzkrieg. Zero hour, 4 p.m., was selected as the attacking force would then be able to attack out of the sun. The attack, to be page 239 supported by the corps artillery, strengthened by that of 1 Armoured Division, was to be made on a three-battalion front. From right to left, the units were to be the 28th, the 23rd and the 24th. The Sherman tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade were to lead the attack and were to be followed by the infantry carriers, the light Valentine or Crusader tanks, and the infantry companies. The infantry were to lie up during the day in slit trenches dug and camouflaged before dawn in an area up to 1000 yards forward of the Roman Wall. The first objective was 3000 yards forward of the Roman Wall and the second another 3000 yards on, where the Tebaga Gap ended.
At 7 p.m. on 25 March, the 23rd moved by transport to a lying-up area south of the Roman Wall. Here the troops attempted to sleep in their greatcoats until 3 a.m., when a hot meal, their last for over twenty hours, was served. The com- page 240 panies then moved forward until they were practically on the infantry start line. Here they dug in and did everything possible to make themselves inconspicuous. The two forward companies were B, under Captain G. Robertson, on the right, in touch with B Company of the 28th, and D, under Captain Herbie Black, on the left, with its left flank on the road, the interbrigade boundary. The two rear companies were A, under Captain Sandy Thomas, on the right, and C, under Captain Sandy Slee, on the left. The infantry remained concealed in their slit trenches throughout the day. The dust which was blowing around made the day unpleasant and most men were glad when the order came to line up on the start line.
At 3.30 p.m. on 26 March, the softening-up of the enemy positions began. Fighter-escorted light bombers at three-squadron strength swept in low and bombed the enemy guns and other defences which were indicated by artillery smoke shells, while the New Zealand infantry burned orange smoke canisters right along the start line to show their positions on the ground. From then on, two and a half squadrons of Kittyhawk bombers were fed into the battle area every quarter of an hour and they bombed all visible targets. Hurricane ‘tank-busters’ also tried to locate and shoot up enemy tanks. While the aircraft were distracting the enemy's attention and creating enough smoke and dust to obscure the front, the Sherman tanks, carriers and light tanks emerged from their lying-up area in the wadis and dips behind the Roman Wall and behind Point 201 and moved forward to the start line, which they reached shortly before the artillery opened fire at 4 p.m. With six field and two medium regiments employed, some two hundred guns were engaged in supporting this attack.
At 4.15 p.m., with sun and wind favouring the attackers, the infantry rose from their concealed slits and shook themselves out into their long lines. Almost immediately, with six to twelve yards between men, they began to advance about 100 to 150 yards behind the light tanks. The attack was on! Although the dust reduced observation on both sides, it was still a thrilling spectacle to see the lines of advancing armour and infantry. First, the big Shermans rose and dipped like battleships as they cleared the low rises, then came the Bren carriers, firing burst after burst as quickly as they could locate a fresh target, then the light tanks, and then the infantry with bayonets fixed and automatics ready. Previously somewhat nervous about losing the cover which darkness normally gave them in such an attack, page 241 the infantry now caught the spirit of this great daylight assault. Even the new 8th Reinforcements, whose first major attack it was, sensed the irresistible power with which the attack was moving forward into the enemy positions.
One of these new soldiers, Private ‘Peter’ Newton,3 has described the action briefly and paid tribute to the quality of his section leader, Lance-Corporal ‘Johnnie’ Hoban4: ‘… the tanks went through us and we followed them in. All Hell was suddenly let loose and my one fear was that my courage might not prove equal to the task. Johnnie Hoban was on my right and as we slipped out of our holes I instinctively looked to him. To all appearances, he might have been simply strolling down Queen Street for the good of his health and his very indifference steadied me completely. Indeed, Johnnie's unconcern on this occasion was the one factor above all that made me—such as I was—a soldier’. Of course, Hoban was one of several junior but experienced NCOs whose influence went far beyond the credit given to them.
Although the 23rd suffered some casualties from enemy shelling as the troops left their start line, practically everything in this battle went according to plan for the battalion, a most unusual thing even in the best-planned attack. Although General Freyberg had originally doubted the wisdom of a frontal attack and had feared that pushing forward in the centre, where the 23rd was now advancing, would be playing into the enemy's hands, the Germans had apparently counted on some such British appreciation and had not strengthened their defences in that sector. Nor had they placed any strong minefields there. The going was good for tanks and they advanced in formation, with only a few pauses caused by tank or antitank-gun opposition. The infantry followed on. For once they were little more than ‘tank followers’. The first enemy infantry encountered by B and D Companies had their hands up in surrender. They were undoubtedly surprised by the weight and variety of the air and artillery bombardment and had not recovered when the tanks and infantry appeared out of the dust and smoke. Up to the first objective, little serious opposition was met. The prisoners were simply ordered to the rear or placed in charge of the battalion's walking wounded.page 242
Between the first and the second objectives, when the rate of the advance was expected to be slower—100 yards in two minutes was given in orders—more opposition was met. On the right flank, B Company, under Captain Robertson, came under increasingly heavy fire. This was due to the fact that the Maoris and their tanks on the right had been unable to reach their first objective on account of the difficult going and the stern resistance of strong enemy posts on the lower approaches to Point 209. Enemy fire from what now became the 23rd's open flank sent many of the B Company men to ground on a number of occasions. B Company lagged somewhat behind D and edged to the left. On the left flank, D Company under Captain Black made good progress and was scarcely held up at all. Sergeant Sam Herbison, in charge of 16 Platoon, led his men with great dash. At one point near the final objective, some stout-hearted Germans threw grenades from behind a knocked-out tank, but Sergeant De Vantier,5 Private Keith Barnett6 and others threw grenades in reply and followed them up with the bayonet. D Company was the first on the final objective, where Black and some of his men advanced into Wadi el Hernel a short distance ahead of the Sherman tanks.
B Company, despite its delays, fought its way through to the objective. No. 10 Platoon on the left had an easier time than 11 Platoon on the right, but all encountered enemy infantry, especially in trenches on reverse slopes. Bob Stone gives a brief account of his experience in 10 Platoon: ‘We followed 100 yards behind armour. A lot of hate flying around but we had no trouble getting first ridge & from then on we were in among Huns the whole time. They soon chucked the sponge in when we got among them. Many dead Huns about. Quite a few tanks both ours & Hun in flames. No. 3 section got onto final ridge and got pinned in a wadi by 2 Hun tanks, very uncomfortable position but one of our tanks kept Hun tanks off us until dark when were able to get behind ridge.’
As B Company veered somewhat to the left, A Company came up on the right and open flank. The men in 9 Platoon, under Lieutenant A. F. Cooper, on the extreme right, ran into heavy fire both from their exposed flank and from Germans who had surrendered to the tanks but had taken up their arms again once the tanks and Bren carriers had passed on. Coming page 243 over one low rise, these 9 Platoon men came under particularly vicious machine-gun fire from a strong position on the right. Sergeant L. S. Bain promptly took a section with an extra Bren, outflanked this position and by fire and movement removed this obstacle to the advance of A Company. Later this same platoon came under tank and infantry fire. Cooper was wounded but Bain took over. In his words: ‘We ran into three Mk. IIIs and about forty odd enemy who opened up on us with everything they had. In face of this intense fire, I ordered the men to take cover behind the ridge and engage the enemy from there. This they did with great effect and took such heavy toll of the Hun infantry with the Brens and rifle fire that quite a lot of them came forward with their hands up. The enemy tanks also slowly pulled back … but they still remained a threat…. By now it was becoming dark so I pushed ahead with my men and cleaned out some machine gun positions with hand grenades and the bayonets.’
C Company played a more prominent part in this attack than was to be expected of a reserve company. Somehow the word that their much respected company commander, Ted Thomson, had been badly wounded reached the men as they were leaving their slit trenches. As Bob Wilson said later: ‘Our respect and admiration for Ted were such that C Coy joined battle from start to finish in a spirit of vengeful purpose’. The first objective was taken in such copybook style in this practically model attack that C Company men did not get the opening they sought. But thereafter, when D Company swerved towards the road on the left boundary and a gap appeared between B and D, C surged forward. To quote Wilson again: ‘We had a legitimate axe to grind coupled with a human desire to miss no fun. C Coy, Sandy Slee in charge, with Ted on our minds, bee-lined up the centre gap and joined the front. Max Cross, our platoon commander, led a pack alongside and sometimes in front of the tanks, on to Jerries in slit trenches, despite their defiance.’
Colonel Romans had organised very satisfactory infantry-tank communications at the battalion level, and these he used to secure tank assistance in dealing with enemy positions which threatened to hold up his infantry. Whenever he wanted action from the tanks, he spoke to the RSM of the Staffordshire Yeomanry, who was in a Grant tank moving in the rear of the first wave of infantry. The RSM promptly passed the request over the regimental wireless net to his commanding officer, page 244 who invariably secured the desired assistance from a single tank or a troop of tanks. Throughout the attack, Colonel Romans travelled in his jeep and was as ubiquitous as his vehicle would allow. When B Company got behind D, he was there encouraging the men to push on, and when the source of trouble was located he was back at the Grant tank securing the help needed from the Shermans. To travel round the battlefield in a jeep when all other vehicles were armoured was a dangerous business: the Colonel had his water bottle shot from his side and two holes drilled in the back of the seat of the jeep, but he and his driver came through the day unscathed.
Throughout the attack, the co-operation between the tanks and the infantry was of a very high order. In this respect the 23rd was singularly fortunate, since the hilly ground in the Maoris' sector and minefields in that of 24 Battalion disrupted and delayed the advance of the tanks co-operating with those units. When the nature of the ground, with some awkward rises on the right, tended to push the tanks across to the left, the Colonel managed to get them back where they were most needed. At the beginning of the battle, the commanding officer of the Staffordshire Yeomanry could be heard calling over the regimental link to his men, ‘This is the moment you've been waiting for! Give them all you've got!’ His men responded magnificently to this call and went through to the final objective with an élan worthy of the best traditions inherited from their cavalry predecessors. Two Mark III, one Mark III Special and one Mark IV Special tanks were knocked out during the advance. The Staffordshire Yeomanry did not escape without casualties: Mark III tanks in hull-down positions gave the most trouble, but the German anti-tank gunners fought with great bravery, several of them being killed at their guns. Six Shermans were knocked out during the advance. Possibly this number would have been greater had not the 23rd carriers, under Lieutenant George Lawrence, used their great fire power to effect against anti-tank gunners and infantry. Thus, on one occasion, when a Sherman had difficulty in advancing without making itself a target to well-sited guns, Sergeant A. McLennan7 manoeuvred his section of carriers cleverly, knocked out the guns and secured the surrender of the German infantry. As Lawrence reported later: ‘Our fire power was murder, and we soon had the Germans coming towards us with hands raised’. page 245 Supporting tanks had never before given the 23rd such complete satisfaction as the Staffordshire Yeomanry gave on 26 March 1943. No praise was considered too high for them. A new bond, such as could never have been considered possible in the bad old days of Ruweisat Ridge, was forged between British armour and New Zealand infantry.
Thanks to the absence of serious obstacles to tank movement and the consequent speed of advance by the tanks and carriers, the 23rd was the only one of the three attacking battalions to take its final objective on time. By 5.45 to 6 p.m., right along the battalion's front, the leading infantry were forward of the tanks and looking from the objective to north and east where the ground sloped down to the Wadis el Hernel and el Fellag. There they saw a few burning vehicles, some infantry and gun positions and a few enemy tanks, but no sign of any counterattack. After the final objective had been taken, a ricochet off the side of a tank killed Captain Robertson, the commander of B Company. Later on Captain Stan Wilson came up to take command of the company.
The 23rd proceeded to consolidate with A Company on the right flank, B on the right centre, D on the left and C in the rear of Battalion Headquarters in the centre. While the infantry were digging in from 6 p.m. onwards, Colonel Romans told Lawrence to take a section of carriers forward about 1000 yards on a reconnaissance. This ‘recce’ did not get far as the carriers were driven back by enemy tank and shell fire. Since the tanks and vehicles of 1 Armoured Division were occupying the road during the early hours of darkness, Captain McPhail had difficulty in getting the 23rd's convoy of supporting arms forward and the men did not get their evening meal till after midnight. During the night some official and some unofficial patrolling was done. C Company, in reserve, provided a patrol under Lieutenant Marett which investigated the Wadi el Hernel in front of B Company; it failed to locate any enemy but found a battalion or higher-level headquarters where office equipment was scattered in glorious confusion. Unofficial patrols examined immobilised enemy vehicles for loot. During the night, too, contact which had been lost during the advance was re-established with the two flanking units. Between 7 and 8 p.m., D Company made contact with C Company of 24 Battalion on the left of the road. Once the 23rd rear link to Brigade, a No. 11 set, which had failed during the attack, made communication possible with Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett, in command of the page 246 Maori Battalion, it became clear that the two units must establish each other's location on the ground. With a section of A Company's reserve platoon, Lieutenant Cliff Hunt succeeded in finding the Maoris, but discovered that the gap was too large to be covered by the troops available.
Next morning the enemy showed that, although he had withdrawn from positions close to the 23rd FDLs, he was determined to make a stand on the far side of the wadis, presumably until his troops had been evacuated from the Mareth line. Although 1 Armoured Division had pushed through to the vicinity of El Hamma, the enemy escape route to the north had not been cut. To keep it open, the enemy tried to delay any New Zealand advance by holding out on the Maoris' immediate front and by heavy fire directed at 23 and 24 Battalions. At an early hour, heavy shells from 105- and 210-millimetre guns began to arrive in the battalion area. One landed in the middle of Battalion Headquarters. It killed Private Angus Wood,8 the Colonel's jeep driver, ‘my old cobber and one of the best chaps I ever knew’, as one of his friends recorded at the time, and wounded several, including Captain Black and Second-Lieutenant Mick Bowie, both of whom were forty yards away from where the shell burst. Brigadier Kippenberger came up to inspect the 23rd's sector and advised making some adjustments on the right flank, where already Captain Thomas and WO II L. Kidd, A Company's sergeant-major, were bringing the maximum amount of mortar and MMG fire to bear on the rear of Point 209 and the other features in front of the Maoris. Thomas's aggressive tactics, together with numerous very heavy ‘stonks’ fired by the Divisional Artillery, paid handsomely both in the number of enemy dead later counted in those areas in the succession of Germans who surrendered. Of course, the taking of prisoners was facilitated by the successful tank battle fought that morning by the Staffordshire Yeomanry, who moved forward of the 23rd and engaged the enemy tanks acting as a rearguard. They knocked out three Mark IIIs and two Mark IVs. Artillery OPs, again in association with the aggressively minded Thomas, also brought shellfire down on all signs of enemy occupation or movement. Apart from continuing this pressure by fire on the right flank, the battalion merely stood fast during the day. As there had been no opportunity of replenishing water bottles, most men spent a dry day under shellfire. Typical comments page 247 were: ‘Very hot today, would like a wash but we have not even got enough to drink let alone wash’ from Stone, and ‘Everyone is as dry as a lime kiln’ from Blampied.
Brigadier Kippenberger has recorded that Colonel Romans and his Adjutant ‘were in very good form and hoping there would be orders to press on’. This spirit was typical of the 23rd at that time. The Tebaga Gap battle had gone extraordinarily well for the battalion: the close support from the air force had been splendid, the artillery fire was up to its normal high standard, and, as recorded already, the co-operation of the tanks had left nothing to be desired. There was a general feeling of elation abroad and the high morale which comes from a sense of achievement was conspicuous. Over 400 prisoners, all Germans, had been sent back by the unit to the brigade prisoner-of-war cage. More were sent back on 27 March. The battalion's losses were by no means high for an infantry daylight attack—3 officers and 8 other ranks killed and 1 officer and 29 other ranks wounded. From the military point of view, the loss of such experienced company commanders as Captains Ted Thomson and Grant Robertson was serious.
Thomson died of the wounds he received when a low-flying fighter shot up his truck some distance behind the battle area. A fearless and natural leader of tremendous energy, he had frequently galvanised his men into action in the most trying circumstances. The sight of Ted with his floppy ‘cheese-cutter’ cap worn at a rakish angle over his inimitable happy grin invariably stirred the C Company men to follow his lead, while his slogan in battle or on the rugby field of ‘Get cracking’ always produced the desired response. Grant Robertson had been in command of B Company from Ruweisat Ridge onwards. Reliable and conscientious, he had proved himself a capable company commander. The third officer killed, Lieutenant Dudley Harrowell,9 a promising Duntroon graduate, died before he was able to fire a shot. The losses tinged with sadness the pride the battalion felt in having participated in such an exciting and successful battle.
Late on 27 March, 5 Brigade was ordered to take up an anti-tank gunline facing south-east. This line was to run parallel to the Kebili-El Hamma road and provide protection for 1 Armoured Division's lines of communication. The battalion moved in trucks in the moonlight to its new positions, but the page 248 enemy had gone. Before midday on 28 March, the Brigade Group was again on the move with the 21st in the lead. When the 23rd was crossing the Wadi el Melab about 4 p.m., an enemy bombing attack came in so quickly that there was no chance of dispersing and 3 men were killed and 9 wounded, all from a 13 Platoon truck. The noise of a tank battle could be heard to the north-east and, when the brigade was practically up with the fighting, the Brigadier ordered the units into a defensive position, with the 21st covering the road in the centre, the 28th on the right and the 23rd on the left. That night Lieutenants A. Parker and C. C. Hunt took out patrols to locate the enemy guns. They found only vacated positions: the enemy was retreating under cover of darkness.
On 29 March 5 Brigade was directed on Gabes. The news was good. Although the Armoured Division was held up near El Hamma by tanks and an 88-millimetre gunline, the Mareth line had been abandoned by the enemy. The advance was continued with the 23rd as the leading infantry unit. A battery of 6 Field Regiment, a troop of six-pounders and one of 17-pounders, and a section of the 23rd carriers made up the advanced guard, with which one squadron of armoured cars from the KDGs co-operated. At first the pace was slow on account of the broken nature of the road and the number of mines left behind by the enemy, but when a tarsealed road was reached the trucks were speeded up to 30 miles per hour. Fifteen miles were covered before any serious opposition was met. The enemy appeared likely to make a stand on a ridge lined with concrete pillboxes, but the six-pounders soon demoralised the occupants of these defences with armour-piercing rounds. Brigadier Kippenberger next ordered the armoured cars and the carriers to take the main road into Gabes. Such was the speed with which they moved that one of the carriers ran right on to a mine placed hurriedly in the middle of the road by the retreating enemy. The casualties suffered in this carrier were the only ones incurred by the battalion in the entry to Gabes. Within a few minutes, at about 12.40 p.m., the advanced guard and the leading troops of the 23rd were in Gabes itself. As the first Allied infantry to enter the first of the French towns to be liberated, B and C Company men received a royal welcome. The jubilation with which the troops had speeded up their advance on the good road and expelled the enemy from his last defences south of the town reached quite new heights with the enthusiastic welcome given by the French citizens of page 249 Gabes. One 23rd diary entry for the day reads: ‘The people of Gabes gave us a great welcome, threw flowers, kissed us and waved French flags and sang the Marseillaise’. It was a great day: the English-speaking wife of a schoolmaster acted as interpreter for the men who knew no French, but a surprising number appeared to make good progress with only a limited command of the language. The men would have liked to prolong their stay in Gabes, but orders came to move on.
As the New Zealanders entered the town the enemy left, blowing up the main bridge over the stream which flows through Gabes. Later, after some Messerschmitts had attacked the men trying to build a crossing with stones, a ford was found up-stream and the advance continued. The leading vehicles passed through the palm plantation on to the main road in time to see Lieutenant D. L. Holt's10 six-pounders knock out two Italian armoured cars which had come in from a lateral road. Half an hour later, the column halted just north of the pleasant palm oasis at Bou Chemma, where the battalion rested for the afternoon and where many of its members enjoyed a bath in its warm sulphur spring. At 6 p.m., however, B and D Companies went forward with the unit's anti-tank guns and Bren carriers, plus the carriers of the 28th, to form an outpost line about a mile and a half south of Rhennouch. That night the men in this outpost line had a miserable time with rain, but the enemy gave no trouble.
The Wadi Akarit position which the enemy now occupied was naturally strong, as it had the sea on the east flank and practically impassable salt chotts, or marshes, on the west. During the next few days, Eighth Army troops faced up to the prepared defences. On 31 March the New Zealand Corps was disbanded and 2 NZ Division passed again under command of 30 Corps. That night 21 and 23 Battalions dug in so far forward that they had to ‘lie doggo’ next day. But the plan for the attack on Wadi Akarit required the New Zealanders to be reserved for exploitation only. Consequently, on the night of 1–2 April, the New Zealand infantry was withdrawn from the front line, the 23rd being relieved by the 2 Seaforths, the Highland Division unit whose place the 23rd had taken when entering the Alamein line in the previous October. The battalion now moved back to an open plain about six miles from Gabes, where it remained till 6 April.page 250
This period was spent in maintenance of vehicles, cleaning and checking of weapons, reinforcing—6 officers and 67 other ranks arrived on 5 April—and in general reorganisation. On 2 April General Montgomery addressed officers and NCOs of 5 Brigade. He discussed the Mareth line actions, insisting that the Tebaga Gap daylight battle would go down to history as a classic battle illustrating to perfection how tanks and infantry could combine.
Before daylight on 6 April, the battle to secure a break-through at the Wadi Akarit began with 4 Indian, 50 and 51 Divisions attacking under a particularly heavy barrage. In the late afternoon, 5 Brigade moved forward about five miles and waited for the break-through. This was made that night, and next morning the New Zealand Division passed through the gap carved in the formidable defences by its Eighth Army comrades. Enemy armoured rearguards imposed some delays, but some 25 miles were covered before, at last light, the 23rd was sent forward to cut the Mahares-Gafsa road, on which the remnants of the Axis forces which had been operating in the west were moving back to the coast, and then to the north. With its own anti-tank guns and a troop of tanks well forward, the battalion set off at a smart pace. Around midnight the leading vehicles, following the IO, ran into marshy ground along the eastern edge of Sebkret en Noual. The IO, whose navigation had led these vehicles into the salt marsh, came in for more than a little abuse. For more than two hours, men heaved and pushed, put down sand trays and sacks to help the spinning wheels get a grip, and yoked Bren carriers and anti-tank portées to the bogged trucks, but all to no avail. After these fruitless efforts, accompanied by much swearing and cursing, the Colonel decided to push on and leave the trucks to be pulled out in daylight. But neither the IO nor anyone else could find a way through or round the marsh and, about 3 a.m., the Colonel ordered the men to bed down till first light. As flares had been seen going up not very far ahead, it appeared possible that the bogged trucks would be sitting targets for enemy tanks when daylight came. Consequently, as soon as two 8 Armoured Brigade tanks arrived, they were persuaded to pull the 23rd vehicles out of the bog. This was completed by 5.45 a.m., by which time the harassed IO was confident he had found a passable route forward for the battalion.
About 7 a.m. on 8 April the unit was moving forward on hard going near the road junction at Rir er Rabaia when some page 251 enemy trucks were seen preparing to move off from a laager area. With only the briefest shouted orders from Colonel Romans and Captain Thomas, the 23rd gave chase and launched a fire and movement attack. The carriers and the forward infantry in their trucks opened up with their machine guns and rifles. Colonel Romans picked up Thomas in his jeep and they ran two German officers in a captured American jeep into a wadi from which there was no escape. Within a few minutes the battalion had knocked out or captured the enemy trucks, all of which belonged to the B echelon of IO Panzer Division. The speed of the attack enabled the battalion to take ninety prisoners, without any casualties, and to capture eight trucks, including the American jeep which was to serve Sandy Thomas as a personal vehicle for the rest of the Tunisian campaign. According to a captured officer, had the battalion arrived half an hour or more earlier it would have struck a dozen German tanks which were being supplied with petrol and the boot would have been on the other foot. As the unit had left its supporting tanks well behind in the anxiety to make up for the time spent in the marsh, the chances of dealing successfully with German tanks would have been somewhat remote. Being bogged had probably saved the battalion from an encounter with tanks instead of B echelon vehicles. As all the trucks contained goods taken from the Americans at Kasserine Pass—cigarettes and tobacco, candy of various kinds, toilet goods, and clothing—as well as the standard equipment of a German B echelon, the infantry hailed their acquisitions as the most perfect loot taken in a long time.
Later that morning, the 23rd rejoined 5 Brigade. The advance, with the 28th taking a turn in the lead, was continued that evening. The going was rough, but improved when cultivated fields were struck. The Mahares-Maknassy railway was crossed before the unit halted for the night about 11 p.m. During the advance on 9 April, the 23rd came under attack from the air: strafing and bombing caused some casualties. For the next few days the advance continued without notable incident. The war appeared to be going well: on 7 April contact was made between Eighth Army armoured cars and American troops; the First Army was exerting pressure in the north; the enemy was withdrawing slowly on all North African fronts. As they moved northward, the troops were delighted with the change in the scenery. After the scrub-covered, salt-marsh country and the more or less barren desert came barley and other green crops, page 252 groves of olive trees, and fields streaked and sometimes covered with the red, white and yellow of poppies, daisies and other flowers. The Colosseum at El Djem evoked the admiration of those who inspected this imposing ruin. The town of Sousse was the scene of an enthusiastic welcome from both French and Arabs. But the move into close country meant a change in the character of the fighting: the hills, which north of Sousse came closer to the coast, and the cactus hedges and natural cover meant that the days when tanks deployed as in the open desert were ended. Henceforth most operations were to be primarily infantry affairs, and the foot-soldiers were to discover how difficult it is to dislodge a determined enemy from strong positions in hills and close country.
On 13 April 5 Brigade advanced from the squalid village of Sidi Bou Ali towards the dominating Djebel Garci. After passing through some olive groves and along dusty tracks marked off by high cactus, the 23rd, in the lead, emerged on open ground with only demolished railway and telegraph lines to indicate that the enemy had passed that way. The general plan was to take the high ground of Garci and swing towards Enfidaville from the west, but about 2.30 p.m. Brigadier Kippenberger decided that Garci was too big, and that the same purpose would be served if the brigade took Takrouna. Directly ahead of the advancing brigade and a mile or so to the east of Garci lay this rocky, steep-sided hill about 600 feet high. The squat stone buildings on the top of the Takrouna pinnacle gave it a sinister appearance, as if they belonged to a Berber bandit's headquarters. There was something particularly challenging about this superlatively good observation point, which the troops called ‘Castle Hill’ until they learned its correct name. Within a few days, Takrouna became a name full of meaning and memories for all New Zealanders in that part of North Africa.
Brigadier Kippenberger decided that the quick attack—gatecrashing the position—was the tactic to try, especially if, as appeared likely, the enemy had not occupied prepared defences. Without even halting the 23rd, now moving forward in its nine-column desert formation, he gave his orders to Colonel Romans. As he says in Infantry Brigadier: ‘It was no use waiting for the guns, strung out behind over miles of narrow tracks, and we moved on at once. Reg ran his car alongside mine, I pointed and shouted and he sent an orderly on a motor-cycle with orders to his companies. It struck me that it was not a very scientific way of starting a battle but the alternative was hours page 253 of delay waiting for the guns and completely under observation. It might come off if the enemy were completely unready, or if they were Italians only’.
As the 23rd moved towards Takrouna, a convoy of enemy trucks could be seen speeding along the lateral road which ran from Enfidaville across the front of Takrouna. This looked promising. If only the guns could have been farther forward, they would have had plenty of good targets. But before even the 23rd carriers' heavy machine guns could get on to these tempting targets, salvo after salvo of heavy shells began to arrive. The vehicles speeded up and bumped and bounced over the rough ground. More and more shells burst among them but, although one man was killed and six were wounded, no vehicle was knocked out. But the enemy was quite obviously well prepared to make a stand and, as the stream, the Wadi el Boul, about a mile short of Takrouna, appeared likely to halt wheeled vehicles, the Brigadier decided to call off the impromptu attack. By this time, the leading infantry had debussed and their trucks had hastened back out of range. The companies were extending into line and advancing on foot when Colonel Romans, acting on the Brigadier's instructions, gave the order to dig in.
Short of the Wadi el Boul ran a low ridge, surmounted by the Arab village of Hamadet el Salah, a mere collection of stone hovels surrounded by cactus hedges. The companies dug in on the reverse slope of this ridge, with B on the right, A in the centre, D on the left and C in rear in reserve. Some of the A Company men prepared positions in the village itself and were able to observe Takrouna and the surrounding country through gaps in the cactus. Only incidentally were they able to seize the stray fowl or nest of eggs. At 6 p.m., to the accompaniment of more shelling, the Brigadier held a conference of his commanding officers at the 23rd headquarters and stated his intention to hold the ground occupied that day. The 28th was required to bring up two companies on the left flank of the 23rd, patrol forward with its other two companies and later complete the line with them. Later on, the 21st came up to occupy a position farther to the left.
Private diaries give the picture of events as 23rd men saw them that day. Thus Stone wrote: ‘As we approached mountains Hun began plastering us with 15 guns. Castle Hill is very high and impossible to take in day time. Till 6 p.m. we were plastered unmercifully. Cyril Owen,11 my No. 2 on Bren gun, page 254 killed and several wounded. Bad Luck! Thank God we were able to get down with our holes. Attack cancelled. Heads did not expect such opposition.’ Johnston agreed: ‘We received rather a severe shelling en route. Needless to say, it didn't take us too long to dig slitties for ourselves. Moved further forward after dark and dug in our mortar positions. Seemingly the Hun intends to make a bit of a stand here in the hills.’
After dark, too, the unit anti-tank guns were moved well forward and two platoons from 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion—No. 12 on the right and No. 5 on the left—came up on the flanks. Apart from this activity in the area, the troops did not have a very comfortable night with only greatcoats and one blanket per man, and with mosquitoes voraciously hunting for human blood the whole night long. Shortly after midnight, Lieutenant Hugh Montgomery12 took a patrol from 13 Platoon across the stream to the nearest road without encountering any enemy. This patrol, the first in the Takrouna sector, did not penetrate far enough to discover any information of consequence.
During the next three or four days, enemy activity was restricted to shelling. The unit mortars, the attached MMGs and the artillery engaged enemy transport and other targets. The war became static. The mosquitoes, however, were extremely active and many soldiers had swollen faces to show how effective were the raids of these insects. To secure more information on enemy positions, more patrols went out. Thus, on the night of 16–17 April, Lieutenant Fred Marett, A. D. Alexander13 and Eric Batchelor approached the foot of Takrouna. They got quite close to an enemy working party and examined several empty trenches. In daylight on 17 April, the IO, Lieutenant Arthur Bailey, and Private Dawson14 carried out a daring reconnaissance which showed that the enemy was using mortars and guns to defend Takrouna. As some reports indicated that the enemy might be falling back, stronger probing of the position was ordered. That night, therefore, the 23rd sent out two fighting patrols, one from B Company under Lieutenant Alex Robins and the other from D Company under Second-Lieutenant Ken Clark.15 Robins was instructed to act on his own page 255 initiative and discretion but, if possible, to get to the top of Takrouna and hold there till reinforced. Robins and his patrol returned at 3.15 a.m., reporting that the enemy appeared to be using dogs to give the alarm when patrols approached, that 40 to 50 enemy were seen digging weapon pits with a compressor on the lower slopes of Takrouna, and that machine guns covering the working party had forced the patrol to withdraw. Clark's patrol had similar if less exciting experiences farther east. On the night of 18–19 April Lieutenant Arthur Parker took a ‘recce’ patrol forward. It served to confirm earlier reports of the alertness and defensive preparations of the enemy. None of these patrols had been markedly successful, but they indicated clearly enough that the enemy was consolidating his defensive positions and that a full-scale attack would be required to dislodge him.
By this time, the Maoris had been withdrawn to the rear to prepare for the forthcoming attack and the 21st had come up on the left of the 23rd. Sixth Brigade had come forward on the right of the 5th. Fourth Indian and 7 Armoured Divisions moved page 256 into position on the left of the New Zealand Division, while 50 Division was shaping up to the Enfidaville coastal sector. In fact, however, the Eighth Army's primary role at this time was to draw enemy forces from the north where, three or four days later, the First Army and 2 United States Corps were to launch an all-out attack on Bizerta and Tunis. The enemy line, protecting the reinforced ‘fortress of Tunis’, ran westward from Enfidaville and then in a north-westerly direction across the peninsula to the other coast west of Bizerta. In keeping with the plan for the Eighth Army to occupy the maximum enemy force in the south while the First Army delivered the knockout blow in the north were the preparations for attack made on the Enfidaville front. Thus, on the 5 Brigade front, the crossings over the Wadi el Boul made by the sappers at night and the bringing up of more guns were clearly visible to the enemy from his positions on the hills. Naturally enough, the enemy took counter measures and precautions which were to make any advance in the Takrouna area a hazardous and difficult undertaking.
By the morning of 19 April, plans for the Eighth Army attack were ready. Fiftieth Northumbrian Division was to probe towards Enfidaville in the coastal sector, the New Zealanders were to attack in the centre, and 4 Indian Division was to attack Djebel Garci. In the New Zealand sector, 6 Brigade was to attack on the right and 5 Brigade on the left. At 9 a.m. Brigadier Kippenberger gave his detailed orders for 5 Brigade. The 28th on the right and the 21st on the left were to take the first objective, and the 23rd was to take the second. The Maoris were given the formidable task of taking Takrouna itself, Djebel Bir (the hill feature about half a mile east of Takrouna), and part of Djebel Cherachir, the rocky hill north of Bir. The 21st was to take the slopes close to but west of Takrouna and join up with the Maoris on the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road, which ran across the front north of Bir and Takrouna. The 23rd was to follow the Maoris' advance through the valley between Takrouna and Bir, form up on the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road, attack from a start line laid by its own ‘I’ section about 200 yards forward of the road and a short distance behind the first objective, and take Djebel Froukr, the brigade's final objective. The Brigadier indicated verbally that, if the 28th and 21st were unable to reach their objective up to time, the 23rd was to fight to reach its start line and aim at capturing Cherachir as a first step to taking Froukr. Zero hour for the page 257 first phase was fixed at 11 p.m., when the artillery—six field and two medium regiments were employed on the New Zealand front—would open on the first line of the barrage table. The rate of advance was laid down as 100 yards in two minutes.
Soon after midday, Colonel Romans issued his orders to his company commanders. The 23rd was to attack with two companies forward, B on the right under Captain Stan Wilson, and D on the left under Captain Black, and the other two companies 150 yards back, C on the right under Captain Slee and A on the left under Captain Thomas. All necessary plans for bringing up supporting arms and for exploiting from the objective were made but, in the event, circumstances were to dictate otherwise.
During the remainder of 19 April, information and orders were passed down to the fighting soldiers and final preparations made. Everyone was confident that, as in all the more recent battles, everything had been done that could be done to make the attack a success. Some of the officers were a little apprehensive about the possible need to fight for a start line, but most men were genuinely pleased with the prospect of leaving the low-lying country where mosquitoes abounded. Indeed, some were heard to remark or to agree that ‘an attack on Takrouna can't be any worse than staying here to be eaten alive’—such was the irritation caused by mosquito bites and loss of sleep from various causes.
After a hot cup of tea at 9.30 p.m., the companies moved to their forming-up place. Promptly at 11 p.m. the artillery opened fire. At first, all shells were flying towards the enemy and, as one officer remarked to his men as the sound of the supporting guns broke the silence of the night, ‘It's music to my ears! It's music to my ears!’ But very soon there were discords and jarring notes in the music as enemy shells and mortar bombs began to arrive on or around the route the 23rd was following. As Corporal W. Smellie described this early stage: ‘We marched past our M. guns in full operation cunningly concealed in the crop. The clatter from them gave one that thrill of assurance which spurs a soldier on when marching into battle, and the remarks of optimism were “I wouldn't like to be in Jerry's boots now”, or “The Maoris will be giving him Hell”. However it wasn't long before we were chewing our own words.’
As the unit advanced, in the order Battalion HQ, D, B, C, A, engineers and provost, the IO had difficulty in locating the tree and other landmarks by which he had proposed to lead the way up the valley between Takrouna and Bir, and Colonel Romans page 258 took over the guiding himself, leading his men across country and over the road towards the entrance to the valley. The enemy fire intensified as the battalion advanced. The southern entry to the gap between Takrouna and Bir had apparently been marked out as ‘killing ground’ by the planners of the enemy defences and it was the target for heavy artillery and nebelwerfer concentrations. The valley itself was also covered by criss-crossing machine-gun fire from both sides and on its floor were S-mines and other anti-personnel mines. The Maori companies ran into shell, mortar and machine-gun fire, suffered many casualties and lost contact with each other. As the 23rd advanced from the road and began to move up a wadi and track into the valley, its men came under increasingly heavy fire. In addition to the criss-crossing machine-gun fire on fixed lines, trip-wires at ankle to knee height, attached to tins or other warning devices in weapon pits at the foot of Djebel Bir, brought down bursts of Spandau fire on the men unfortunate enough to stumble over them. In the growing barley and among some olive trees were more trip-wires attached to S-mines and box-mines. Casualties among the forward companies quickly mounted.
Two of those wounded, Blampied and Stone, had previously been through several battles. Their impressions confirm the general view that the fire in this sector was viciously intense. Stone wrote next day: ‘Mines and boobytraps everywhere…. I collected couple of bullets through legs when I touched a trip wire. The fighting around Takrouna was some of the worst I have been in. In fact it was Hell’. Blampied says: ‘We headed along a wadi. Jerry's fire got heavier … we lay down while a recce forward was made … Hell seemed to break loose in the wadi then, mortar bombs and bullets were flying all around —dozens of our chaps were hit here.’
The valley appeared to be filled with smoke. Apart from the red tracer, the bursting flashes of light as mortar bombs exploded, and the spurts of fire from machine guns, all was dark and men groped their way forward or dived for cover. Colonel Romans called a Bren carrier, which was travelling with his headquarters group, to deal with some Spandau fire. Corporal Smellie, with 16 Platoon of D Company, and therefore one of those farthest forward at the time, writes: ‘Dave Smith16 from Dunedin was the Sgt. and he said “I can't see” and “The ground is too broken for a Carrier but I'll give it a go.” They page 259 started off in a nose dive and didn't get very far before an axle broke or some such.’ Colonel Romans was himself badly wounded in the leg at this stage and, according to plan, Captain Thomas was summoned from the rear to take command and carry on with the attack.
By this time, all the platoon commanders in D Company, Lieutenants McPherson17 and K. W. Clark and Sergeant S. Herbison, had been wounded, as had been Lieutenant Lex Reeves, the signals officer, Captain Stan Wilson, commander of B Company, and Second-Lieutenant Dan Davis, a B Company platoon commander. Several of the unit's most experienced NCOs and men were also wounded or killed about this same time. Smellie's memory of the occasion gives a good picture of the confusion and difficulties: ‘Between getting wounded out and trying to organize an attack while we were being attacked, there was a good old Kiwi mix-up going on. Sgts. were promoting themselves to Platoon commanders, Corporals to Sgts. and so on and in many cases they no sooner promoted themselves than they were wounded, but everyone stood their ground and there was no panic.’
Some of the leaders who realised that the Maoris had been unable to take their objective were considering the wisdom of continuing the advance when Captain Thomas arrived and took a firm grip of the situation. He quickly gave orders for the advance to continue, despite the need to fight to reach the battalion start line. Captain Black got D Company into formation for attack with 16 Platoon, under Lance-Sergeant W. D. H. Lory (and, when he became a casualty, under Corporal Smellie), on the right, and 17 Platoon, under Sergeant Noel McLean,18 on the left, and 18 Platoon, under Sergeant Frank Muir,19 in the rear. Lieutenant Alex Robins brought part of B Company up on the right of D. Thomas says: ‘The companies were close enough to be handled personally from the centre so I called on the men after a brief talk with the officers and we prepared to move forward “A la Galatos” with every man firing to the front and yelling to give confidence as well as, I hoped, to terrify the odd Hun.’page 260
Actually, the battalion was so strung out over a hundred yards or more that, in the noise of bursting shells and the clatter of machine guns and other weapons, Thomas's call ‘Follow me!’ was not heard very far back and the rear companies were quite some time in learning what was being done in front. The casualties in officers, NCOs and connecting files also made communication difficult. Indeed, some of those at the rear of C Company understood that they had been ordered to hold fast where they were. Some such word probably did go back at the time of the hold-up and the reorganisation prior to Thomas's taking over but, if so, it was meant to apply to the limited period until a definite plan was decided upon. Getting everyone informed of the plan or the decision of the moment in that fire-drenched area around midnight was impracticable. As Bob Wilson, a C Company NCO, wrote later: ‘It was nigh impossible to hear oneself think above the din, dust and fire, let alone fully understand an order to proceed or stay put. I remember our platoon officer, Max Cross, yelling in my ear to stay where we were while he reconnoitred forward to contact our advancing troops. He would send back a runner for us. No fault of his that I didn't see him again till the following night!’
Meanwhile, the barrage could be heard falling about 1000 yards ahead, and Thomas decided that, if any advantage was to be secured from following it, he must advance at once without waiting to be sure that the rear companies were following. Consequently, with only D Company, part of B and the ‘I’ men from Battalion Headquarters, he went forward and the remaining elements of B, A and C followed separately at different times.
With Thomas, Black, Robins, Bailey, and senior NCOs such as Jim Richardson, the CSM of D Company, giving a hearty and determined lead, every man shouted loudly and those in front fired their rifles, Brens or tommy guns in short bursts as they advanced. Most men caught the thrill of participating in this noisy, energetic advance. As Thomas himself says: ‘We went forward with terrific enthusiasm in advances of about 200 yards, going to ground together and firing concerted bursts on the spandaus on the two features. These were easy to pick up as the red tracer pinpointed them to us’. Robins confirms: ‘We were using much of our ammo firing as we advanced, but the morale was very high’. The intimidating effect of this ‘Galatas’ method of advance may be judged from the report page 261 of Lieutenant Haig,20 a Maori officer, who encountered Thomas and his men as he was trying to locate other members of his company. ‘Their advance was a particularly vociferous one and I assure you it was a fearsome thing to encounter, especially when on one's own’.
The advance in line was continued in this manner to the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road. A few more casualties were sustained en route, some from anti-personnel mines and some from machine-gun fire. Twice when they halted momentarily, once at a cactus hedge and once at a shallow ditch, both of which ran at right angles to Djebel Bir, the men came under heavy machine-gun fire from that feature. The road, too, was under fire, but it was crossed in a rush. Here Thomas made a check on his numbers. As 16 Platoon had become temporarily detached through keeping touch with some of B Company, Captain Black could report only 17 in D Company. Lieutenant Robins had only 20 of B Company with him. Shortly afterwards Smellie arrived with 16 Platoon and he was followed by Lieutenant McArthur, Corporal J. Murdoch and the rest of B Company. In the meantime, Thomas had sent the IO, Lieutenant Bailey, back for A and C Companies, and had decided to take the nearest hill feature, Cherachir.
Thomas established his headquarters in a bend of the deep but dry wadi about 200 yards north of the road and told Robins to take the eastern end of Cherachir while Black and his men took the western. If the 23rd was to hold its ground forward of the road and take part of the brigade objective in that locality, it was necessary to dislodge the enemy from the high ground immediately above the new headquarters. The two small bands of infantry now set about this task.
On the right, Robins decided to make a silent attack in line, with two Brens posted on the right flank to cover the advance and to hit back at any enemy machine guns. Two parties of Germans with three machine guns moved back before B Company and stopped once or twice to fire down at the Southlanders. But the Brens put a stop to this firing from above. The gully up which Robins and his men advanced was very steep, rough and stony, but although the enemy on or over the crest above fired mortars and flares right over the heads of the advancing infantry, the advance was apparently unobserved and the B Company men reached the crest without casualty. Before they page 262 could consolidate, however, they came under fire from enemy positions farther along the ridge to the left, and also from the two parties which had retreated before them and which were now only a short distance away to the right. With Corporals Kelly21 and Greenhalgh22 showing plenty of fight and directing all the fire they could at these Germans on the right, B Company was soon rid of this problem. As Robins says: ‘They like ourselves had no prepared positions. We engaged them and had the advantage of their being silhouetted. We inflicted casualties and the rest made off down to the right.’
Farther along to the left of B Company on Cherachir, the D Company men met with more formidable opposition, but their efforts relieved the pressure on B Company and prevented Thomas's Battalion Headquarters from being seriously overlooked at dawn. Captain Black led his men forward in extended formation up the almost sheer face of the bluff at the western flank of Cherachir. He and his Company Sergeant-Major, Richardson, made determined efforts to storm the crest and to force the enemy to retreat to the north. During this operation Black was killed—although this was not known till some days later—and Richardson, Corporal Common23 and others were badly wounded. On the right, Sergeant Noel McLean led his men with conspicuous courage and dealt effectively with some of the opposition. After some delays and casualties, McLean with 17 Platoon joined 18 Platoon under Sergeant Frank Muir, who organised a series of short bayonet charges. As all officers had been killed or wounded, Muir took command of the company and completed the capture of the nearer slopes, a task in which he was assisted by the fire of Smellie and his men who had ascended the hill farther east with B Company. Corporal Challis24 of B also brought fire to bear on enemy positions at a critical juncture. Muir, McLean and Smellie now consolidated with their respective platoons in positions on the southern slopes below the crest, which was rendered untenable by sporadic enemy shelling. The enemy artillery responsible apparently did page 263 not know that their own troops still occupied the northern slopes, but their presence was shown by the odd grenade which continued to come over the crest till after daybreak.
Once the barrage had ceased at 1.44 a.m. and the noise of shelling had died down sufficiently, Germans could be heard shouting from one high feature to another all round Thomas's headquarters. As they were thought to be checking on the damage done by the attackers and to be organising some concerted action, Thomas gave orders for confusing shouts to be raised whenever the Germans called out. From the distant rear, the noise of transport and tanks could be heard. Possibly this worried the Germans as the word ‘Panzer’ could be distinguished in their shouting. Several members of the 23rd took up the call of ‘Panzer!’ ‘Panzer!’ and no doubt added to the fears of some Germans. Quite unaware of the presence of Thomas and his handful of men, a party of about twenty armed Germans, making for the north-west, dashed along the wadi past Battalion Headquarters, without either group engaging the other. Corporals Challis and Smellie brought in or shouted down reports from B and D Companies, along with requests for reinforcement. Three German prisoners—the first of a steady trickle—were also brought in. According to W. D. Dawson, an ‘I’ section man who spoke fluent German, ‘a Jerry prisoner said that his mates up on the hills were willing to surrender’. Thomas therefore got the prisoners to call to their mates to come in and give themselves up. The only result was a further series of calls from the Germans trying to make sense out of the confused situation.
Other groups of the 23rd were now arriving and were promptly given tasks by Thomas. Thus, when Captain Slee arrived with 13 Platoon under Lieutenant Hugh Montgomery soon after 1.30 a.m., this platoon was immediately sent to take the southern end of Cherachir, to the south of where B Company was already in position. The enemy on this part of Cherachir were the two parties which had retreated before B's advance and had continued to give trouble from the right flank. Although slightly under strength, through the loss of Lance-Sergeant Roberts25 and others on the approach march, 13 Platoon attacked energetically up the rugged hillside. Ably led by Lieutenant Montgomery and Sergeant Jeffries,26 the men fanned page 264 out in face of Spandau, machine-pistol and other fire. Corporal Eric Stoddart27 worked round to a flank before coming in on a Spandau post with his tommy gun blazing. He and Montgomery wiped out the opposition on the crest, but not before Stoddart was badly wounded with a grenade. Lance-Corporal Clearwater28 and Private Atkinson29 were killed in this assault and, in addition to Stoddart, Privates Mora30 and Jose31 were wounded. Assisted by his remaining section leaders, Corporal Hoare,32 Lance-Corporals Allan33 and Tulley,34 Montgomery completed the occupation of the end of Cherachir, knocking out all the enemy posts which might have given B Company further trouble and made Thomas's headquarters untenable. As evacuation of the wounded was impossible, they were placed in a cave found half-way down the hill.
Some time later, Lieutenant Montgomery discovered that a knoll at the end of Cherachir was occupied by Maoris of D Company 28 Battalion. These Maoris, under Captain Ornberg,35 had been surprised to hear shouts in both German and English coming from the north of the road, but a reconnaissance by Lieutenant Lambert36 revealed that members of the 23rd were there. Contact was made with Captain Slee and the Maoris took over the southern end of Cherachir just north of the road.
Other elements of the 23rd arrived during the early hours of the morning. Thus Lieutenant A. Parker, with his platoon reduced in number to ten, covered the wadi in which Battalion Headquarters was located and the flat area between the wadi and Cherachir. The remainder of A Company, now under Lieutenant Cliff Hunt, took over an area west of headquarters and on the flat between the road and Cherachir. The perimeter page 265 was completed by 14 and 15 Platoons of C Company, which Lieutenant Marett brought forward about 4 a.m., after he and Eric Batchelor had been sent forward by the Adjutant to investigate the situation. These platoons held the road line in rear of headquarters and provided a somewhat elastic link between A Company and 13 Platoon.
Enemy parties were still moving around and shouting to one another and fire was directed at the battalion posts which had been located. But, by dawn, Thomas had completed his consolidation and held practically the whole of Cherachir and the area between it and the Zaghouan road. The companies were sited for all-round defence, and those that had ammunition left directed fire into the rear of Takrouna and Bir at enemy posts there. The 23rd's isolation was greater than was realised at the time: 6 Brigade's attack had succeeded, but the nearest unit was out of touch to the east; the 21st had fought desperately to reach the road but had suffered such heavy casualties in reaching positions dominated by Takrouna that it had been withdrawn to its original area; the Maoris had also suffered losses but, in addition to the D Company men now associated with C Company of the 23rd, they had parties of about a platoon strength still active on the southern slopes of Takrouna and Bir. Since he was confident that the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry tanks and the unit's supporting arms would get through to him and bring ammunition, Thomas decided to take a chance on the ammunition question. He thought that an aggressive show of strength might deter the enemy from counter-attacking and also clear him from some of his more menacing posts. Therefore, shortly after daylight, he ordered his men to engage the nearest enemy with all weapons and authorised the firing of all ammunition down to five rounds per man.
As he himself writes: “I think it worked. First, we tackled the Huns on our front. We were more or less in the centre of a saucer and from there commanded all the slopes upwards and we soon had the Hun abandoning the few posts he had held on to during the night… Then we tackled the rear of Takrouna. Now all the Hun and Iti positions were beautiful targets from the rear and we were firing right into the open doorways of shelters and dugouts. A large party of Itis came down the feature quite early and wound round towards 21 with their white flags…. We could also fire onto Huns on the rear of Dj Bir at the same time as they were engaging the now advancing Maoris. Some forty of these surrendered, some coming back to us and others going forward to meet the Maoris.’page 266
B Company, in roughly dug positions below the crest of Cherachir, probably had the most trouble and the greatest success. As Robins reports: ‘With the coming of daylight, we were well pinned down from Takrouna and posts on Cherachir. We returned the fire and were successful in chasing out one post that was bothering us and capturing about twenty Huns who were wandering about and who were probably sent to counter us. But not knowing exactly where we were they walked right into us. Things quietened a little as the day wore on.’ After describing 14 Platoon's loss of ten men in the advance to the north of the road, Bob Wilson mentions that only seven of the platoon got to the wadi, where Lieutenant J. L. Johnston37 directed them into a re-entrant. Writing of the efforts of Ian Thomson, J. Whipp,38 E. Thomson,39 D. Gillanders40 and himself, Wilson says: ‘In the first confusing hour, we had our fun. Everybody quietly opened up on choosy targets…. 'Twas a shame that Jimmy Whipp bowled an Itie having his morning constitutional “squat” on the rise about 500 yards away! Five Jerries, creeping through the wadi 200 yards away, received all we had at 100 yards. Three went down but two got away! A green flare a few minutes later from further back brought finale to our movements through mortar, spandau and sniper fire from our immediate right above the B Company lads.’
Meanwhile, with no sign of supporting arms or tanks and with enemy activity around Point 136 suggesting a counterattack, Captain Thomas sent Lieutenant Bailey back to Brigade Headquarters about 9 a.m. After a hazardous journey down the valley, Bailey gave the Brigadier a detailed report on the position, stressing the danger of enemy moves from Point 136. As a result, within a few minutes the artillery landed a ‘stonk’ on this feature, to the great delight of Thomas and his men. Later in the day, further artillery fire was brought down on Point 136.
The scale and intensity of enemy fire rendered the movement of vehicles up the valley virtually impossible. The tanks of the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry, expected to reach the Zaghouan road about 4 a.m., were held up by minefields and gunfire. The page 267 troop commander supporting the 23rd reported to Brigadier Kippenberger that he had lost contact with the infantry. Ordered to get his tanks forward, he reported again about 6 a.m. that minefields south of Djebel Bir were holding up his tanks. Later the tanks assisted the Maoris to secure the surrender of Germans on Bir and about 7 a.m. two tanks reached the Zaghouan road. One crossed the road to the south-east of Cherachir but promptly ran on to a mine and was immobilised. No other tanks reached the 23rd, although one made some progress up the valley and shot up targets on the east face of Takrouna.
The HQ Company officers knew how important it was to get the various supporting arms forward but, despite several determined attempts, they were unable to get them up to the area occupied by Thomas and his men. During the night, the Bren carriers did good work in evacuating wounded to the 23rd and 28th RAPs. At dawn, acting on instructions from the Brigadier, Lieutenant Lawrence placed his carriers in fire positions on the brigade's right flank, a little to the east of Bir. There some of the carriers were able to combine with the tanks in firing on enemy posts still occupied on the nearer slopes of Bir. Heavy artillery and mortar fire prevented the carriers from getting up to the unit area. The officers in charge of No. 12 MMG Platoon and the anti-tank guns made several fruitless attempts to reconnoitre a route forward. Captain Robin Deans, commanding the 23rd anti-tank platoon, was wounded while engaged in this task and had to be evacuated. Lieutenant Don Grant, his second-in-command, made strenuous efforts to get at least two six-pounder guns up to the required area but eventually had to be content with placing them in position covering the southern entrance to the valley between Takrouna and Bir. Neither the sappers nor the artillery FOO41 attached to the 23rd were any more successful in getting forward to Battalion Headquarters. The FOO, Captain Muirhead,42 had his armoured car stuck in a watercourse and decided that he could secure the best possible observation from the top of Takrouna itself. He therefore threw in his lot with those engaged in scaling the southern face of that feature and distinguished himself by climbing to the top more than once.page 268
The conquest of Takrouna proper was the work of Maoris of B Company of 28 Battalion led by Sergeant Rogers43 and Lance-Sergeant Manahi.44 The epic story of their achievements is told elsewhere, but mention must be made here of the work of Sergeant W. J. Smith45 of A Company of the 23rd. Separated from his company in the advance, Smith joined the Maoris in their ascent of Takrouna. He and Private Aranui46 gained a crag from which they poured fire into Italian trenches below them. Later they used a cluster of telephone cables to reach the main ledge, where they secured the surrender of a German artillery officer and his signaller. Other 23rd men, separated from their companies, joined in tackling Takrouna. Thus, Private Stan Smith47 of C Company climbed to the top and, with an unidentified A Company man and two Maoris, helped to silence the opposition in one sector there.
But the main body of the 23rd was so far forward that it was virtually isolated and without supporting arms or tanks. Fortunately, the enemy launched no counter-attack upon Thomas and his men; they were too preoccupied with the ebb and flow of the struggle on top of Takrouna to bother much about Cherachir. Nevertheless, troop movements around Point 136 gave concern from time to time, and to be able to call directly over the air for artillery fire was felt to be an urgent necessity. Eventually, after mid-afternoon, the Adjutant, Captain Ross,48 got through to the Zaghouan road in the only soft-skinned vehicle to pass up the valley. When the advance began the previous evening, the 23rd had two links with Brigade Headquarters, a light No. 18 set which could be conveniently manhandled and the heavier, somewhat cumbersome No. 11 set carried in the Adjutant's jeep. When the Colonel was wounded, the 18 set was knocked out by a direct hit, as was the wireless link with the companies. The Adjutant ran his jeep into the shelter of a watercourse, from where he reported to the Brigade page 269 Major, Major Fairbrother,49 on the situation of 28 and 23 Battalions. Told to remain on the air as his was the only forward link still operating, and therefore the only means Brigade possessed of discovering anything about the battle, the Adjutant remained in the wadi, reporting as he secured fresh information from Marett's solo reconnaissance and from such walking wounded as passed. In the morning, Brigade Headquarters advised that the tanks would provide all the communication the 23rd needed, but when this means did not prove satisfactory, the Adjutant was told to wait for an armoured vehicle to take his precious No. 11 set up to the battalion.
A White armoured car duly arrived but, before the wireless could be transferred, it was holed in several places and had a wheel rendered unserviceable. About 2.30 p.m. a more urgent call for artillery fire came and, after this had been passed on, the Adjutant decided to run the gauntlet of shell and machinegun fire in his jeep. Although the vehicle was hit in several places by Spandau fire, Ross and his signaller, Private Cheeseman,50 reached the shelter of a gravel pit at the northern end of Bir just off the Zaghouan road. Here Cheeseman dismantled the radio and broke it up, with its two heavy batteries, into five one-man loads. German prisoners, warned’ in advance of the consequences of sabotage, meekly carried the wireless set into Thomas's headquarters, where Cheeseman quickly reassembled it. Thereafter, in Thomas's words, ‘we were able to keep in touch with brigade, particularly to call for fire on any enemy movement. And we gave some good targets.’ Many of the enemy on Point 136 and Froukr were out of range of small arms and had begun to move in full view, with the result that the first artillery concentrations were very effective.
In the 23rd companies the day had passed slowly but not without incident. After their early morning burst of aggressive shooting at enemy posts, the men made themselves as inconspicuous as possible. Although some shell and mortar fire came into the area and snipers and machine-gunners gave trouble from time to time, few casualties were sustained. Fred Marett reports: ‘A German sniper must have been close because for page 270 two hours his odd shots played havoc. A C Coy man on the Bren was definitely a marked man. He spent an hour getting into position, looked up once, and was shot clean through the head.’ Robins indicates that B Company continued to be aggressive: ‘We fired on transport moving towards the back of Takrouna and pinned down all afternoon a party of about fifteen Huns moving across the flat towards Takrouna in front of A Company. We were firing over the heads of A Company.’ Montgomery says: ‘No counter attack developed, though shelling and mortaring continued unabated all day with sporadic MG fire.’ D Company men found the range too great for effective shooting at the Germans seen to the north-west. Bailey, the IO, records, however, that ‘the men had fun sniping at enemy in pockets of resistance.’ Actually, the ammunition supply did not permit of very much shooting. Marett sums up: ‘From daylight to dark on that eventful day was spent in sorting ourselves out, trying to locate the snipers, endeavouring to decide what side owned what ground, using sparingly what ammunition we had, digging a slit trench in hard ground, and devouring cold bully and biscuit’. As the day wore on, most men became more conscious of the exhaustion resulting from the efforts of the previous night. Smellie says: ‘it was just impossible to keep awake and fighting exhaustion was very hard on the nervous system.’ Consequently, few members of the 23rd were sorry to hear that they were to be relieved in their forward positions that night by 25 Battalion.
On hearing that 5 Brigade had suffered over 400 casualties, General Freyberg placed the 25th under command of Brigadier Kippenberger, who wanted to relieve the 23rd. The commander of the 25th was Lieutenant-Colonel Tom Morten, a former company commander of the 23rd, and mutually satisfactory arrangements for the relief were quickly made in the late afternoon of 20 April. About 9 p.m. the 25th companies were to follow the 6 Brigade axis of advance, some distance to the east of Bir, and then move along the Zaghouan road to the 23rd area. This avoided the valley route, which continued to receive much attention from the enemy. Indeed, Brigadier Kippenberger later described the gap at its southern entrance as being as badly pock-marked with shell and mortar fire as Flanders fields had been in the First World War.
In order to evacuate some of the non-walking wounded on the track through the valley and round a minefield, the Adjutant left just before dark with his jeep loaded with eight 23rd page 271 wounded and one badly wounded German. Damaged by fire on the way in, the jeep would not move under its own power, and therefore some German prisoners pulled on ropes from the front while others pushed behind. The Germans in front signalled with handkerchiefs to their friends still occupying weapon pits on Takrouna, and the latter allowed the jeep to pass without firing a single shot at it.
The relief by the 25th passed off satisfactorily and appeared to be completed by 11.15 p.m. The company relieving B Company, however, went astray and B was not relieved till nearer 1 a.m. With the exception of that company, the infantry companies marched out to the Enfidaville-Djebibina road, where trucks met them and took them back to B Echelon; here a welcome hot meal was served and the men settled down for even more welcome sleep. B Company missed the transport and the meal, camped down in the open south of the Enfidaville road, and only reached B Echelon and a meal after daylight on 21 April.
That day, while the 21st and 28th continued the assault on Takrouna, the 23rd reorganised, checked on casualties and rested. Its losses, incurred mainly in the valley entrance, were heavy. Thirteen were killed and 107 were wounded. Depressing though these casualties were, everyone had much satisfaction in knowing that a grand effort had been made to live up to a unit tradition, ‘The 23rd always takes its objective’. In addition to taking about fifty prisoners from 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, the battalion had contributed to the capture of Bir and had hindered the enemy reinforcement of Takrouna. Most 23rd soldiers engaged in that battle would agree with Private J. R. Johnston's diary entry: ‘this battle is the toughest and bitterest we've ever experienced yet’, and also with Alex Robins in his comment: ‘Thomas's aggressive spirit and the fine example he set were the biggest factors in the Bn's success’. The dent made in the enemy line by the fighting at and around Takrouna was comparatively small and the ground captured did not serve as a springboard for further advances. Nevertheless, in the larger scheme of things, the New Zealand attack concentrated the attention of a very large enemy force in the south while the First Army mounted its successful attack in the north.
On 24 April Major Connolly, the battalion second-in-command, arrived from the LOB camp to take command of the 23rd. Next day, Anzac Day and Easter Sunday, Padre Spence51 page 272 conducted a service. Lieutenant McArthur paid a tribute to the Brigadier in reporting on this service in a letter written to his wife: ‘The Brig attended our church service this morning. After the service he went out in front and said, “I have very little to say. I am proud and humble to be your commander.” He then walked off as I don't think he could trust himself to say any more. But it was all that was necessary. Kip is a great soldier with utter disregard of his own personal safety but ever solicitous of that of the men under him and he is loved and respected by all’. The original Anzac Day was not forgotten, but the Brigadier and the men of the 23rd were thinking of the events and losses of the preceding few days.
On 26 April Lieutenants Kirk and Johnston arrived back with 44 men of the LOB party and 103 reinforcements. Strength was being built up again, both in numbers and in the individuals who had felt exhausted after the night attack. The distribution of National Patriotic Fund free issues of cigarettes, tobacco and chocolate, swimming in the Mediterranean off Sidi Bou Ali, and freedom from strain all helped to fit the unit for its final period in the line in Tunisia. On 29 April the Hon. F. Jones, Minister of Defence, addressed the troops and tried to answer some awkward questions.
On 4 May the New Zealand Division, now under the temporary command of General Kippenberger, moved to Djebibina, on the Pont du Fahs sector, some distance west of Takrouna. The main task of the New Zealanders at this time when the First Army was about to deliver its final victory punch was to prevent the enemy from withdrawing troops from the south. But to distract the enemy's attention from the north meant occupying ground close to his and making a show of force from time to time. On the night of 4–5 May, therefore, 5 Brigade relieved 2 King's Royal Rifles.
On the following night, the brigade moved forward again and took up a line across the road Saouaf-Pont du Fahs, with the 23rd on the right, the 21st on the left and the Maoris in reserve. Heavy shelling was experienced in this area, although no contact was made with the enemy until 6 May. On that day, patrols under Lieutenants McArthur, Kirk and Edgar52 proved the feasibility of moving forward another two or three thousand yards and C and B Companies advanced to take Points 200 and 221 respectively. Lieutenant Max Cross's platoon, No. 14, over page 273 ran an enemy outpost, taking one prisoner from 433 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, and killing two of his comrades. No. 15 Platoon also hit the enemy: Private J. Slaven shot the first German to challenge and the platoon killed or wounded the other members of a section post. Captain Slee found that Point 200 was overlooked by a higher feature and that it was impossible to dig in. He therefore withdrew his men across a deep and rocky gully to a more satisfactory position. Kirk and his men were unable to get through a dense minefield of box and anti-personnel mines to take Point 221. They reported hearing German voices and successfully established the location of more than one enemy post.
The end of the first week of May brought good news from the north while the 23rd continued to exert pressure on its own front without becoming too heavily engaged. At 4 a.m. on 7 May, Colonel Connolly took a section of mortars forward to the C Company area and checked on the revised positions now occupied by the company. Accompanying the CO was the indefatigable IO, Bailey. Together they spotted some Germans lying low in their slit trenches on the other side of the gully forward of Point 200. In the CO's words, ‘Bailey looked at them like a retriever dog and off. He stirred up hell and brought back a couple’. Later, Bailey increased his ‘bag’ to nine, but there was no sign of a general surrender on the 23rd front.
The news from the north that day was that the enemy defences were crumbling fast and that both Bizerta and Tunis had fallen. Possibly the news reached the enemy opposite. At any rate, the gunners in this force appeared more determined than ever to blaze away their reserves of ammunition in a hurry; they plastered indiscriminately the battalion's forward area, wounding Lieutenant J. L. Johnston and killing Lieutenant Max Cross. Enemy shell and mortar fire also cut the signals cables to the forward companies so often that the signallers were under pressure to maintain communications. In this connection, a comparatively new reinforcement, Private Whiteley,53 distinguished himself by the cheerful and efficient manner in which he repaired lines under fire. When Whiteley was wounded on the following day, other signallers such as Privates King54 page 274 and ‘Bluey’ Smail,55 and Corporals Ron56 and Ernie Ritchie57 carried on with their difficult work with equal cheerfulness and devotion to duty.
On 9 May, after more heavy fire from enemy guns and nebelwerfers, word came that the 23rd was to be relieved by the Free French under General Leclerc. The General himself visited the unit headquarters to arrange details. Unfortunately, transport movement before dusk brought on very heavy shelling during the withdrawal of the companies and three men were killed and five wounded. By 10.30 p.m., however, the battalion was out of the line for the last time in Africa. The war around Djebibina had seen no major attacks, but the amount of shelling had taken its toll on the nerves of some men who had already been feeling the effect of a long campaign. Thus one private diary entry reads: ‘Hot day, heavy shelling, I crack up’, while the last entry in the unit diary for 9 May says: ‘All ranks were very tired and strained and required a complete night's rest’. The unit's casualties for this part of the campaign were 1 officer and 4 other ranks killed, 2 officers and 12 other ranks wounded.
On 10 May 5 Brigade moved back to the area south of Takrouna. From now on the men were able to enjoy organised and unorganised entertainments—swimming at the beach, the race meeting run by 1 NZ Mule Pack Company, in which the 23rd had its own representatives, the film shows provided by the YMCA, and later, the limited official, and the not so limited unofficial, leave to Tunis. On 13 May General Alexander notified Mr Churchill that all enemy resistance had ceased and the war in North Africa was over. General Alexander's Special Order of the Day told his troops: ‘Today you stand as the conquerors and heroes of the North African shores. The world acknowledges your victory; history will acclaim your deeds…. this great victory … will go down to history as one of the decisive battles of all time.’ The men of the 23rd felt there was something unreal about this news since they had not been in at the death. Nevertheless, they derived much solid satisfaction from seeing the columns and columns of prisoners that passed back to the camps in the next two or three days. General Alexander's despatch says: ‘A quarter of a million men laid down their arms page 275 in unconditional surrender; six hundred and sixty-three escaped.’ It was a great victory and the battalion was proud to have participated in it. Although many of the men were very tired, they rejoiced in the ending of the war in North Africa, as Private Johnston's diary shows: ‘Everyone is in the highest of spirits and happy…. The whole of North Africa is cleaned up now. It's really wonderful!’
On 15 May, with the return of General Freyberg to the command of the New Zealand Division, there was a general post in commands. Brigadier Kippenberger returned to 5 Brigade and Colonel Harding,58 who had been commanding the brigade, to the 21st. Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother, who had been Brigade Major of 5 Brigade for the period from Syria to Takrouna and who had more recently commanded the 21st, was appointed to command the 23rd. His seniority, his regimental experience in 20 Battalion, and his staff training as well as his qualities as a man fully justified the appointment, but the change in command was unwelcome in the 23rd, as it involved the supercession of Dick Connolly, popular second-in-command for so long and CO for the last part of the Tunisian campaign. Other units readily accepted similar changes of command on several occasions, but the 23rd retained a clannish spirit which was not easily reconciled to appointments from outside its ranks. But, in the army, men learn to do what they are told and, in any case, with the departure of 5 Brigade on its long journey back to Egypt that same day, they had other things to think about.
1 Lt-Col N. P. Wilder, DSO; Waipukurau; born NZ 29 Mar 1914; farmer; patrol commander LRDG; CO 2 NZ Div Cav 1944; wounded 14 Sep 1942.
2 Left out of battle.
3 L-Cpl A. N. W. Newton; Cass; born Wellington, 15 May 1906; head shepherd; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
4 L-Cpl O. M. Hoban; born NZ 16 Aug 1914; labourer; killed in action 9 May 1943.
5 Sgt A. A. De Vantier; born Dunedin, 21 Jan 1910; organiser; wounded 20 Apr 1943; killed in action 15 Dec 1943.
6 Cpl K. E. Barnett; born NZ 4 Aug 1918; boilermaker.
7 Sgt A. McLennan, MM; Seddon; born Blenheim, 14 Feb 1917; cordial maker; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
8 Pte A. F. Wood; born Scotland, 28 Dec 1906; labourer; killed in action 27 Mar 1943.
9 Lt D. S. Harrowell; born NZ 14 Oct 1919; Regular soldier; died of wounds 27 Mar 1943.
10 Lt D. L. Holt, MC; Napier; born NZ 14 Apr 1918; farmer; wounded 22 Jul 1942.
11 Pte F. C. Owen; born NZ 8 Feb 1918; farm labourer; killed in action 13 Apr 1943.
12 Maj H. Montgomery, ED and clasp; Ashburton; born Carmunnock, Scotland, 25 May 1907; school-teacher.
13 Sgt A. D. Alexander; Timaru; born Scotland, 11 Apr 1917; fisherman; wounded Dec 1941.
14 Sgt W. D. Dawson; Wellington; born Dunedin, 1 Nov 1920; student.
15 Capt K. W. Clark; Dunedin; born Wellington, 29 Mar 1919; grocer's assistant; twice wounded.
16 Sgt D. E. Smith; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 16 Jul 1918; carpenter.
17 Lt J. A. McPherson; Wellington; born Dunedin, 18 Sep 1920; Regular soldier; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
18 Sgt N. C. McLean, MM, m.i.d.; born Palmerston, 3 Jan 1918; labourer; twice wounded.
19 2 Lt F. J. Muir, MM; born NZ 8 Feb 1915; clerk; killed in action 15 Mar 1944.
20 Capt W. Te A. Haig, m.i.d.; Ruatoria; born Waipiro Bay, Ruatoria, 14 Nov 1904; clerk.
21 Cpl I. H. Kelly; Kapuka, Southland; born Invercargill, 15 Feb 1914; labourer; wounded 6 Jul 1942.
22 2 Lt H. G. Greenhalgh; Invercargill; born England, 4 Apr 1917; farmhand; wounded 15 Dec 1943.
23 Cpl S. G. C. Common; Christchurch; born NZ 16 Oct 1914; fireman; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
24 Cpl L. P. Challis, MM; Invercargill; born Invercargill, 14 Jul 1918; clerk; wounded May 1944.
25 L-Sgt R. J. Roberts; Hokitika; born NZ 15 Dec 1913; sawmill hand; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
26 Sgt U. J. Jeffries; Blenheim; born Spring Creek, 14 Mar 1907; farmer; wounded 25 May 1941.
27 Cpl E. M. Stoddart, MM; Dunedin; born Aust., 5 Apr 1914; tiler; twice wounded.
28 L-Cpl G. J. Clearwater; born Portobello, 22 Jun 1911; farmer; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.
29 Pte L. W. Atkinson; born 17 Aug 1919; labourer; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.
30 Pte R. V. Mora; Christchurch; born NZ 10 Jun 1916; clerk; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
31 Pte R. Jose; Westport; born Westport, 20 Jan 1921; sawmill hand; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
32 Sgt N. E. Hoare; Timaru; born Timaru, 2 Jun 1918; butcher.
33 WO II A. T. Allan; Mosgiel; born NZ 7 Feb 1913; farmer; wounded 15 Dec 1944.
34 L-Cpl R. Tulley; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 4 Jan 1917; fireman; twice wounded.
35 Capt P. F. Te H. Ornberg, MC, m.i.d.; born NZ 2 Apr 1919; clerk; wounded 20 Apr 1943; died of wounds 30 May 1944.
36 Maj H. C. A. Lambert, MC; born NZ 14 Jun 1914; clerk; wounded 28 May 1944.
37 Maj J. L. Johnston, MBE, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Auckland, 19 May 1906; solicitor; wounded 7 May 1943.
38 Cpl J. L. Whipp; Invercargill; born NZ 30 Apr 1922; fish cleaner; wounded 12 Dec 1944.
39 Sgt E. S. Thomson; Christchurch; born Christchurch, 20 Sep 1913; clerk.
40 Cpl D. H. Gillanders; Takaka; born NZ 11 Nov 1918; mill hand; wounded 25 May 1941.
41 Forward observation officer.
42 Maj J. C. Muirhead, MC; Palmerston North; born Palmerston North, 5 Oct 1911; clerk; wounded 23 Nov 1941.
43 Sgt J. Rogers; born NZ 29 Dec 1916; school-teacher; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.
44 Sgt H. Manahi, DCM; Rotorua; born Ohinemutu, 28 Sep 1913; labourer; wounded 23 May 1941.
45 2 Lt W. J. Smith, DCM; Lower Hutt; born Timaru, 24 Sep 1917; labourer; wounded 26 May 1941.
46 Pte K. Aranui; Rotorua; born Rotorua, 6 Oct 1914; labourer.
47 Pte S. Smith; born NZ 30 Dec 1911; deceased.
48 Maj A. Ross, MC and bar, ED, m.i.d., Aristion Andrias (Gk); Dunedin; born Herbert, North Otago, 19 Jul 1911; university lecturer; four times wounded.
49 Brig M. C. Fairbrother, CBE, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Carterton, 21 Sep 1907; accountant; BM 5 Bde Jun 1942-Apr 1943; comd in turn 21, 23 and 28 (Maori) Bns, Apr-Dec 1943; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun-Oct 1944; CO 26 Bn Oct 1944-Sep 1945; comd Adv Base 2 NZEF Sep 1945-Feb 1946; Editor-in-Chief NZ War Histories.
50 L-Sgt L. H. W. Cheeseman; Kawakawa; born Kawakawa, 25 Jan 1920; exchange clerk.
51 Rev. R. B. Spence; Auckland; born Toa Valley, 13 Mar 1903; Presbyterian minister.
52 Capt S. J. Edgar, m.i.d.; Tapanui; born Tapanui, 8 May 1913; farm worker; twice wounded.
53 Pte H. B. Whiteley, MM; Rotorua; born Manuka Creek, Otago, 10 Nov 1905; forest ranger; wounded 8 May 1943.
54 Cpl H. G. King; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 16 Oct 1917; businessman; twice wounded.
55 L-Cpl W. A. Smail; Gore; born Gore, 2 Sep 1918; dairy factory assistant; wounded 15 Jul 1942.
56 WO II R. V. Ritchie; Wellington; born Aust., 17 Jul 1918; salesman; wounded 28 Jun 1942.
57 Cpl E. J. Ritchie; Gore; born NZ 7 Jun 1909; exchange clerk; three times wounded.
58 Brig R. W. Harding, DSO, MM, ED; Kirikopuni, Dargaville; born Dargaville, 29 Feb 1896; farmer; Auck Regt 1916–19; CO 21 Bn 1942–43; comd 5 Bde 30 Apr-14 May 1943, 4 Jun-23 Aug 1943; twice wounded.