CHAPTER 10 — Enfidaville
The 24th Battalion had finished mopping up before dawn on 27 March and the day was spent burying dead in a cemetery half-way between the start line and first objective. Fifth Brigade cleared up resistance on the right flank, while I Armoured Division was brought to a check before El Hamma by the enemy's gunline. Sixth Brigade remained under notice to move, with the head of its column by the Wadi Hernel, but no orders came. Meanwhile Rommel contrived a withdrawal from the Mareth Line and disposed his forces along the Wadi Akarit, between the coast and the wide salt marsh of Chott el Fedjadj.
It was nearly midday on the 28th before 6 Brigade moved off, with the tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry fanned out in front. The great mass of vehicles stirred up clouds of dust through which it was impossible to see for a distance of more than fifty yards. Sorry-looking Italian prisoners trudged back to the rear as the column passed an abandoned enemy gunline and then, diverging from the El Hamma road, turned east towards Gabes. While halting for the midday meal, 24 Battalion suffered a minor disaster which Major Andrews describes in his diary:
We swung east and halted in a shallow wadi in which the centre of the Battalion bunched badly. I spread my chaps out a bit. A few slitties about—also some fresh bomb craters. All of a sudden the AA open up and 6 or 8 twin-engined Hun planes, about 10,000 feet up flying south, appear. They spot us, swing east, and dive Hell, we scattered, five of us squeezed in a bomb crater, luckily I was in the middle. I looked up and saw the bombs leave the planes, realising they would land fair in us. Fascinated I watched the bombs coming down, then buried my face in the earth, arms round my head. ‘Whoom! Whoom! Whoom!’ Fair among us. Clouds of dust, black smoke, stink of HE, and whine of fragments of shrapnel About five or six bombs. We got up, the planes past—a truck page 180 blazing over by the CO's car, the boys shovelling sand on it to get it out. The men running with stretchers and bandages. Bn HQ got most of it, also A Coy. I ran over—Bn HQ, busy dispersing and men everywhere digging like hell. Five killed and eight or nine wounded.
Another air attack later in the afternoon wounded three more men, and nerves long strained began to grow frayed, but a column of nearly a thousand Italian prisoners passing by under the escort of two Tommies, one marching in front, the other in rear, reminded the New Zealanders that from a general point of view the fortune of war was going very much in their favour. That night news came through that Gabes had fallen; that night also the men enjoyed their first unbroken sleep for nearly a week.
The next three days were passed in a series of slow advances alternating between long periods of waiting for traffic jams to clear. Fifth Brigade moved on ahead through Gabes on its way to the Wadi Akarit, while 6 Brigade camped a few miles north-west of the town. A few reinforcements for 24 Battalion arrived and were posted to D Company to build up its depleted strength. General Montgomery addressed officers and sergeants of 6 Brigade and spoke in high praise of the men whom he called his'left hookers’.
The 1st Armoured Division and 5 New Zealand Brigade were now in contact with the enemy along the line of the Wadi Akarit, and as the enemy had obviously decided to make a stand in this position 30 Corps prepared to attack. The New Zealand Corps had been disbanded now that its task of forcing the Tebaga Gap had been carried out. On the night of 6 April 30 Corps assaulted and pierced the Wadi Akarit line, allowing 10 Corps, which now included 2 NZ Division, to pass through the bridgehead and throw the Axis forces back towards the north. The following day (7 April) contact was made with 2 United States Corps moving in from Gafsa, and that same night 6 Brigade, moving in rear of the Division, passed through the enemy minefields beyond Wadi Akarit.
For the next two days the brigade moved north towards the Sfax-Sbeitla road and then swung east towards La Hencha. Sfax fell on the 10th; 24 Battalion travelled on through carpets page 181 of wild flowers, passed Triaga into a country of olive groves, and then, turning north towards Sousse, moved parallel with and inland of the main Sfax road. Tenth Corps' armour entered Sousse on 12 April, while 6 Brigade passed to the west of El Djem and, pushing on next day, arrived in the evening at Sidi Bou Ali, half-way between Sousse and Enfidaville. In front of the last-named place the armour had run up against an anti-tank ditch.page 182
Nearly 2000 miles from El Alamein, the Axis forces were now hedged in around Bizerta and Tunis, where Africa's northern coastline juts out in a broad promontory towards Sicily and the Italian mainland. The and US Corps threatened Bizerta and the British First Army was closing in on Tunis, but to the south the coastal plain was narrowed to a mere strip by a difficult mountain range lying athwart the Eighth Army's line of advance. At the foot of this range lay Enfidaville, still occupied by the enemy, though it was doubtful whether he would make any very determined attempt to hold it. The plain west of Tunis, being suitable for the deployment of armoured forces, was chosen by General Alexander as the sector on which to deliver his main thrust; at the same time he directed the Eighth Army to exert pressure on the southern front and pin down as many of the enemy forces as possible. For the execution of this plan 30 Corps remained in reserve, and 10 Corps, consisting of 7 Armoured, 4 Indian, 50 British, and 2 New Zealand Divisions, squared up to the Enfidaville positions.
By 14 April 25 and 26 Battalions, right and left respectively, faced Enfidaville at a distance of between 2000 and 3000 yards Patrols from 25 Battalion attempted to enter the town but found it occupied, while an outflanking movement by 8 Armoured Brigade was also brought to a check. As 50 Division came up on the coastal sector, 201 Guards Brigade relieved 25 Battalion and the right company of 26 Battalion, which then sidestepped and took over ground from 5 Brigade on the left, in process of aligning itself for an assault on the forbidding massif dominated by Takrouna. On being relieved, 25 Battalion returned to a position some ten miles south of Enfidaville.
The road into Mersa Matruh, November 1942
In desert formation across Wadi Zemzem
At Tripoli—General Freyberg, Brig H. K. Kippenberger, Mr Churchill, Brig W. G. Gentry, and the three commanding officers of 6 Brigade: Lt-Col D. J. Fountaine (26 Bn), Lt-Col J. Conolly (24 Bn), and Lt-Col T. B. Morten (25 Bn)
A bivouac area near Medenine
8 Armoured Brigade Sherman tank moving through B Company on 26 March 1943 at Tebaga Gap
HQ B Company after the battle of Tebaga Gap —the gun is a German 75 mm
Advance through the desert to Gabes
The task allotted 2 NZ Division was that of capturing the mountain positions of Djebel el Froukr and Djebel el Ogla, lying north-west of Enfidaville, preparatory to exploiting up the valleys beyond. Faced with the natural hill fortress of Takrouna, 5 Brigade had by far the most difficult country to negotiate. On its right 24 Battalion's line of advance towards its final objective, between Djebel el Froukr on the left and Djebel er Hamaid on the right, lay up an open valley, so that should 5 Brigade experience any check, the battalion's left flank would be exposed and overlooked. The same disadvantage might be expected should 26 Battalion be held up on the right, although this unit had less formidable hills to traverse.
Colonel Conolly issued his orders for the attack verbally at 2 2 p.m., and at eight o'clock the battalion left camp for the assembly area by motor transport. Captain Aked had gone down the line with a fractured foot; otherwise the company commanders were as at El Hamma. Major Andrews had guides waiting when the battalion arrived and companies were shown to their start lines just beyond the aqueduct. A and B were forward on the left and right, with C in support and D in reserve. The carriers were to follow later, moving forward on the left on the battalion axis. Throughout these operations mosquitoes were in constant attendance.
As the barrage opened at 11 p.m., the men at once moved forward through standing crops and long grass, waist-high and soaking wet, but the going soon improved when they emerged on to an open space cleared by the enemy for use as a temporary landing ground. Catching up with the barrage, they crossed the Enfidaville-Takrouna road, beyond which an anti-tank ditch extended more than half-way across the battalion front. To the left loomed the mountains north-east of Takrouna. On the right some Arab huts, set alight by shells, blazed away merrily. The enemy opened up with shell and mortar fire as our men crossed the landing ground; gradually this fire increased in intensity.
Under machine-gun fire from the high ground on their left, A and B Companies passed to the right of the anti-tank ditch and, running into an enemy mortar barrage which they mis- page 185 took for our own, swung sharply away to their right. Both companies were somewhat disorganised as they crossed the Wadi el Brek—a dry watercourse with high, steep banks. Moving north-east up the bed of another wadi, B Company ran into the left platoon of 26 Battalion and halted to reorganise south of Djebel el Ogla. By now it was well into 26 Battalion's sector and out of touch with A Company, but Major Andrews believed he had reached the intermediate objective and fired his first success signal, which brought down more mortar fire. It had, however, the effect of disclosing his whereabouts to A Company, and contact was soon established. A radio message from Battalion Headquarters asked for another signal, and this time Andrews took the precaution of going back some distance to the rear before firing. Twice B Company moved north to occupy the Djebel el Ogla, but on each occasion was obliged to fall back on account of shellfire.
Followed by Battalion Headquarters, C Company advanced up the battalion axis, maintaining its direction, and having passed the anti-tank ditch, arrived on the line of a wadi 500 yards beyond it. Colonel Conolly sent out runners to ascertain the position of his two forward companies, but the runners returned without having been able to find them. He then sent an order to A by radio to send up a flare, expecting it to appear somewhere on his left front. To his surprise it went up on his right and some way in rear. Realising the extent to which his leading companies had lost direction, he at once ordered them to resume their advance towards the final objective.
A and B Companies then pushed on round the eastern side of Djebel el Ogla, making contact on the way with B Company 26 Battalion, whose commander believed he had reached his objective. Andrews and Walters, however, knew that their journey should end in an olive grove and pushed steadily on till they reached a belt of trees.
While waiting for this move to be carried out, C Company and Battalion Headquarters were heavily shelled. Conolly received a slight head wound; the No. 11 set was destroyed and both operators wounded, with the result that radio communication with Brigade was temporarily lost. As soon as A and B Companies reported their final objective taken, Conolly page 186 led his men forward to the olive grove, advancing along the beds of wadis, with which the valley floor was indented, as a protective measure against the shellfire that still persisted.
Resistance by enemy infantry had been almost negligible and the operation resembled a night advance under shellfire rather than an infantry encounter. Except for machine-gun fire from the left flank, there had been no opposition between start lines and the first objective. Beyond the latter point a few isolated posts had been encountered and a few prisoners taken, but most of these were men wounded by our barrage. The 24th Battalion's sector was the obvious line of advance for infantry attack, and in appreciation of this fact the enemy had decided to withdraw to high ground from which he could dominate our position while at the same time conserving his own strength.
By 3 a.m. A and B Companies were astride the dividing line between 24 and 26 Battalion sectors, still a little short of their final objective. C was in rear of A, while D remained in reserve at the aqueduct. So far losses amounted to five killed and 40 wounded. Stragglers lost during the advance kept coming in throughout the day. By dawn the battalion's anti-tank guns were up in position and sited; a forward RAP was also established. The carriers and mortars did not arrive until nightfall. Contact had been made with 26 Battalion on the right; further right again, Enfidaville had fallen to 201 Guards Brigade. Troops of 5 Brigade were seen around Takrouna during the day, but a fierce battle raged there, and as yet there was a wide gap between 24 Battalion and the 23rd on its left. So long as the saw-toothed Djebel Froukr remained in enemy hands, the Aucklanders could make no forward movement by day. Indeed their existing position was far from comfortable, and although the olive trees provided a measure of cover, their branches often detonated shells in the air and thereby caused several serious casualties. That evening (20 April) 25 Battalion came under command of 5 Brigade and moved up on its right flank to relieve 23 Battalion, while D Company of the 24th moved forward to fill the gap between 5 and 6 Brigades.
Next day Takrouna fell, but 24 Battalion's sector was relatively quiet. There was some shelling; the mosquitoes were page 187 omnipresent; a patch of broad beans provided its discoverers with a change of diet; but the principal news item was provided by Major Andrews, who took a night patrol of eight men to some Arab huts 800 yards in front of his company's lines. An Italian box mine was placed in one of the huts which was then set alight. There was a great blaze and soon afterwards the mine went off, blowing the hut to pieces and bringing urgent calls to Battalion Headquarters from adjacent units who wanted to know what was happening. The operation had been undertaken with the idea of inducing the enemy to fire his guns and disclose his positions. The enemy, however, made no response. No member of the patrol was actually hurt, but all those who had been inside the huts soon found themselves infested with fleas.
Brigadier Gentry, who was being succeeded by Brigadier Parkinson,2 came up to the front line to say goodbye to 24 Battalion on 22 April. The same day it was announced that 6 Brigade would take over the whole divisional front, and much labour by way of preparation turned out to have been unnecessary when the move was cancelled. The question was how the greatest number of enemy forces could be pinned down on the southern front without incurring undue casualties ourselves. The best means of doing this was to jab spasmodically at weak spots in the enemy's line in order to increase the area of hill country held and enable 10 Corps to advance along the coast. It was now 6 Brigade's turn to make a thrust. Before dawn on the 23rd an officers' patrol from A Company 24 Battalion, without coming across any enemy troops on its way, found a track accessible for motor transport along the eastern side of Djebel er Hamaid. That afternoon orders were issued for a silent night attack at ten o'clock, to be carried out by A Company with one platoon of B on its left. The objective was Djebel er Hamaid, but should this feature be found page 188 unoccupied A Company would exploit 500 yards farther north and arrange protection for its own left flank. The 26th Battalion was to advance on the right while, to the right again, 201 Guards Brigade operated north of Enfidaville.
Having formed up at the northern end of an olive grove some few hundred yards beyond the line held by B Company, the attacking force advanced over the slopes of Djebel er Hamaid, a wide, undulating ridge. By I a.m. the B Company platoon had reached its objective on Point 114 at the northern end of the ridge, while A Company had gone farther on towards Djebel dar Djaje. So far there had been no opposition. The 26th Battalion had also reached its objective without incident. Major Andrews had gone forward with the platoon of his company and, having placed it in position, went out to reconnoitre.‘All was quiet’, he writes, ‘so Cpl Tappin,3 the commander of 12 Platoon, and I went for a look down the far side of 114 to see how the ground lay.
‘It was very dark and we kept stumbling on the rocky surface. Suddenly there was a flash and a stunning explosion right in our faces. Thinking Tappin had accidentally fired his Tommy Gun in my face, I yelled at him to quit it. He yelled back something, when there was another flash and blast, and just after it we heard someone clank on the rocks out in front. Then things happened fast. We both let go at the noise with our Tommy Guns and Tappin hurled a bakelite grenade. I got going with my pocket full of little red I tie grenades and the Huns were hurling their potato mashers and both parties were firing at sounds and flashes. We got separated and in a lull I yelled for Steve [Tappin]. He replied, whereupon a Teutonic voice out in front called, “Come out here Steve”. “Righto you b— “was the reply, and bang went another grenade. Cursing the CO's order to leave all Very pistols behind I let go into the dark again with a grenade. We could now hear them running off and chased them along the spur running west until we lost them.
‘We ran back to 114 and I got Cpl Ching4 and his section, page 189 and we ran back but could not find them. To overawe any other enemy stragglers who might be about I took the section right around our front, halting them every fifty yards or so, and all shouting and firing a volley while I chucked the rest of my grenades out in front.
‘We got back to 114 to find my GSM and the rest of 12 Platoon in a state of great excitement at the row we made. Added to which they had a man shot through the leg by some tracer coming from out in front.
‘The CO came up shortly after and we got 12 Platoon dug in. Tappin5 came in for a lot of chaff at letting the Huns get so familiar with him as to use his Christian name.’
The incident described above was the only one of any importance. All objectives had been taken without check or delay, and with the loss of only one casualty.
At the same hour as on the previous night, 26 Battalion moved forward on 24 April in a silent attack on Djebel es Srafi and Djebel Terhouna—two commanding hills 1000 yards apart and about the same distance from the unit's forward defended lines, which joined those of 24 Battalion in the vicinity of Point 107. The axis of advance was now in a north-westerly direction. At r a.m. 6 Brigade received a report, evidently incorrect, that a platoon of the left company was on Srafi, but that the other two platoons had lost direction. The right company was held up at Terhouna. All the mortars of 24 and 26 Battalions were now placed under command of Major Andrews for a bombardment of Srafi, preparatory to an attack on that feature by 26 Battalion's reserve company supported by A Company of the 24th. Andrews was ready with his mortars in position behind Point 114 at 3.30, and Srafi was plastered with telling effect. The 26th Battalion captured the position but was forced to evacuate it a few hours later. The enemy retaliated against the mortar bombardment by shelling Hill 114 heavily, and 24 Battalion suffered a few casualties. Srafi was finally captured later on in the morning and held with the assistance of 3 Royal Tank Regiment.
In the afternoon (25th) the Officer Commanding 2/6 Queens of 56 Division, accompanied by his Intelligence Officer, came page 190 up to 24 Battalion's position with a view to taking over. Early on the following morning his company commanders appeared, but a few hours later Colonel Conolly was told that 5 Seaforth Highlanders, and not the Queens, would relieve his battalion. The relief duly took place before midnight on 26 April, and next morning 24 Battalion arrived back at Sidi Bou Ali, close to the spot it had left ten days previously.
There was swimming in the sea, cleaning of equipment, route marching and resting, but even a visit from the Minister of Defence, the Hon. F. Jones, failed to promote enthusiasm for another attack in the near future, for which warning orders had just been received. The men were exhausted after a week of arduous fighting. They believed themselves due for a spell, but the Minister's announcement that his Government was in a position to provide reinforcements sufficient for twelve more months did not seem to promise respite in the future.
Captain Boord rejoined at the beginning of May and took over the duties of Adjutant from Captain Turnbull, who had been acting temporarily in his place.
On 5 May the battalion moved out 15 miles west of Enfidaville and camped with a French Algerian division on one side of them and General Leclerc's force on the other. It was while here that news came of the fall of Tunis—news also of Colonel Conolly's DSO and the other awards for Tebaga Gap. The occasion was celebrated by a formal dinner in the officers' mess. Conolly and Walters were toasted. There were several speeches. Battles were fought over again and old memories recalled. At length one of the new reinforcements, Second- Lieutenant Stewart,6 was called upon to compare his expectations before joining with his actual subsequent experiences. His speech was voted the best of the whole evening.
On 8 May 6 Brigade moved to the Enfidaville area and lay waiting to support and exploit an attack by 167 Brigade of 56 Division on the ridge of Hammadet es Soura, beyond Terhouna, where 26 Battalion had been held up on 26 April. The 24th Battalion was eight miles south of the town on the Enfidaville-Kairouan road. The attack, however, was not page 191 successful. The assaulting force returned to its original position, covered by 23 Armoured Brigade, and 24 Battalion remained where it was.
Meanwhile events had been moving rapidly farther north. The assault on the southern mountain barrier having proved expensive without adequate results, 7 Armoured and 4 Indian Divisions, together with 201 Guards Brigade, had been sent north to join the First Army on 30 April. The beginning of the end came on 6 May with a combined attack by British and American forces. When Tunis fell and Allied armour swept across the Cape Bon peninsula, the situation of the Axis forces in North Africa became impossible. On 13 May Marshal Messe surrendered unconditionally.
Soon after news of the surrender arrived, 24 Battalion was informed that it would shortly be returning to Egypt. The occasion was one that called for special celebration. After some discussion as to what form this should take, it was decided to hold a donkey Derby, and Captain Borrie was asked to organise the affair. His first attempt to procure mounts from I New Zealand Mule Transport Company was unsuccessful, as the company was being broken up and the mules sent away. A transport sergeant told him that donkeys might be bought locally at a high price, but that an arrangement to hire them cheaply might be made with the Sheikh of Sidi Bou Ali—a despot with power to call upon his people's donkeys in the hour of need. ‘He was a delightful old man’, writes Captain Borrie,’ with a very pleasant smile on his face, and warmth and good nature in his manner. We spoke in French but I found it easier to get the Sgt. Major to do the interpreting, and the Sheikh said that he would be only too pleased to let me have 12 and some wogs to look after them. Did I want all donkeys, or some mules? Did I want males or females? What time would I call for them? I said we would send along two three-tonners at 9 a.m. The next day when Harold Stead went for them the Sheikh was waiting in Sidi Bou Ali with the donkeys and 9 wogs.’
The donkey Derby was held on 15 May. Judges and stewards from the battalion had already been appointed. Orderly-room clerks took over the task of running the totalisator, which was page 192 set up in the RAP tent. Local inhabitants showed great interest in the proceedings and gave tips as to their donkey's form. Captain Borrie describes the meeting as follows:
The first eight horses then entered the ring and the Totalizator opened…. A five minute closing warning was rung on a tin for the first race but for all other races a ship's bell indicated the five minute warning and the closing. Excitement was tense, when a burst of laughter came forth as Major Andrews arrived in grey German riding pants with a I finch broad red seam down the side, and a running singlet with a German air force insignia on it. The horses went down the field and lined up. As may be expected, balancing the first tote took a long time and the screamer was just about to be fired to show all was ready when cheers indicated that the first race had started. Violent gesticulations at the finishing line had worried the starter and he fired his gun and set the donkeys off too soon. However all went well and the winner paid 330 francs for 50.
Of course once someone has won money they spend more; losers try and retrieve money and everyone has some idea of the horses, so the tote ran its normal course and the clerks had a very busy afternoon. I hear that over £600 went through the tote.
The second race went off well—no hitches, and it also saw the arrival of Brigadier Parkinson—also the 6 Infantry Brigade Band which supplied instrumental items throughout the afternoon, greatly adding to the success of the meeting.
I arranged with Bob Seal that we would dress up for the officers' race, so he got into pyjamas and a crash helmet, and I changed into bright pyjamas, a cape white outside with red lining, and a red Arab head dress with a white bandage round. I caused quite a stir when I walked down (legs well bowed) and greeted Herman Andrews. Cameras clicked, and then we saw the third race. My horse ADR ran first.
I then became confident and put 50 francs on myself on the tote; then we led the horses round the enclosure and away off to the start. The gun went and I got a great start and crouched low, jabbing the donkey on the right side of his neck. I increased my lead and when about 40 yards from home I slowed up. I saw others catching up, so started jabbing again, and almost fell off, but luckily regained my balance to the relief of many betters and crossed the finishing line over a length ahead. It was a great race and I was led up and received a bakelite dish from the Colonel….
I had put a film in my stocking as I had no pockets, and had page 193 shown this to Major Andrews, so after the race (as a joke) I was accused of having a battery down my leg and spurring my donkey on by electrical impulses.
The fifth race ADR ran first but ran off the course and was disqualified. In the final invitation race three Arabs ran, but did not like being given any horses so they rode their own donkeys. No. 3 was the favourite but Mahomet fell off just after the start and chased his donkey past the finishing post before catching it, so Performing Seal came in first.
It was a wonderful afternoon, and 24 hours after the boys are still talking about it and laughing. It will go down in the history of the Bn I feel sure.
The battalion's casualties in the fighting of 20-26 April were:
|Died of wounds||5|
2 Maj-Gen G. B. Parkinson, CBE, DSO and bar, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); Christchurch; born Wellington, 5 Nov 1896; Regular soldier; NZ Fd Arty, I NZEF, 1917-19; CO 4 Fd Regt Jan 1940-Aug 1941; commanded I Army Tank Bde 1941-42 and 7 Inf Bde Gp (in NZ) 1942; 6 Inf Bde Apr 1943-Jun 1944; commanded a NZ Div 3-27 Mar 1944; CRA s NZ Div, Jun-Aug 1944; commanded 6 Bde Aug 1944-Jun 1945; Quartermaster-General, Army HQ., Jan-Sep 1946; NZ Military Liaison Officer, London, 1946-49; Commandant, Southern Military District 1949-51.
5 He was awarded the MM for this exploit.