CHAPTER 8 — Advance to Tunisia
Advance to Tunisia
The battalion remained in its Sidi Azeiz bivouac till 4 December, spending the interval in training, reorganisation, and recreation. No time was lost in levelling,an area for a parade and sports ground. A series of inter-unit rugby, soccer, and hockey matches was played throughout the Division; athletics, baseball, boxing, and wrestling competitions were also organised. As usual, various working parties were required and 25 Battalion sent troops to Bardia to work on the wharves and trucks to carry supplies from Bardia to Tobruk. To ease the difficult supply problem captured Italian rations were issued to the battalion, an unpopular innovation because of the surfeit of macaroni.
On 2 December reinforcements of one officer and 66 other ranks arrived and a rearrangement of officers took place. Major Hutchens, with Captain Weston as second-in-command, was appointed to command A Company, Captain D. A. Wilson to command B Company, Major W. R. K. Morrison1 to command D Company, while Captain Wroth retained command of C Company.
Two days later the Division moved westwards to join other British forces concentrating opposite the enemy's Mersa Brega- Agheila position 350 miles away. Except for its tracked vehicles (which were carried in transporters along the main road) 25 Battalion travelled in the rear of 6 Brigade along the Trigh Capuzzo, passing the battlefields of Point 175 and Sidi Rezegh on the way to the first night's halt at Ed Duda. Although there were now in the battalion few survivors of those battles, all ranks knew of the gallant conduct of their battalion in the fierce fighting which took place there almost exactly a year previously. Their pride in the battalion was tempered by recollections of the casualties, to which attention had been drawn six days before when a detachment visited the battlefield to repair the graves.
Another historic battlefield of a later campaign, Bir Hacheim, where French forces had conducted a very gallant defence, was page 249 passed the following day. On the fifth day of the journey the battalion reached the vicinity of El Haseiat, which lay about 50 miles east of the enemy position. The country traversed during the journey was for the greater part flat desert sparsely covered by a light scrub, which thickened a little after the first hundred miles. The going generally was good and, except for a few showers at Sidi Azeiz, the weather had been fine though the nights were cold.
Bluff and manoeuvre on the enemy's southern flank, which General Montgomery thought might possibly frighten the enemy into country where he could be more easily attacked, had had little effect. The Army Commander therefore decided to adopt a plan, previously discussed and studied, for destroying the enemy in his present positions. The New Zealand Division's part in this was a wide outflanking movement to the south and west, to cut the coastal road well to the west of Agheila, while 51 (Highland) Division attacked the Marsa Brega locality and 7 Armoured Division operated in the centre at Bir es Suera. The plan depended upon finding a suitable route for the New Zealand Division and on concealing the outflanking move.
After a reconnaissance by a patrol of 11 Hussars, a route was found and marked, though it required the use of bulldozers at Chrystal's Rift, a sandy depression about eight miles in length, some 80 miles south-west of El Haseiat.
On 11 December the Division, with 4 Light Armoured Brigade (3 RHA, KDG, Royals, Greys, KRRC2) under command, set off southwards on the first stage of its ‘left hook’, to give it its popular name. Twenty-fifth Battalion was the right forward unit in 6 Brigade's desert formation and finished the first day's run of 40 miles in four and a quarter hours. The following afternoon 6 Brigade Group and 4 Light Armoured Brigade moved to the south-west ahead of the rest of the Division in order to be ready to cross Chrystal's Rift early the next day and so reduce the delay there. Rain that night laid the dust and also improved the going, enabling the Rift to be crossed with less difficulty than had been anticipated, though the rougher country and the reduction to a three-column front did impose some delay. A few miles after crossing the Rift the route turned to the west and, after another 40 miles, to the north-west. The column was now deep in the desert, 70 miles south of El Agheila. There had been no sign of enemy aircraft, but a report received on the third day of the movement stated that the enemy had withdrawn from his forward positions and was being followed up by the British forces.page 251
On the fifth day, 15 December, while the Division continued its north-westerly advance, more or less parallel to the coast, the enemy rearguard held Marble Arch and other positions to the east, covering the withdrawal of his main forces. Instead of following the original plan to get on the high ground overlooking Marble Arch, the Division was diverted to Bir el Merduma with the intention of cutting the coastal road farther west. After many halts in the morning, 25 Battalion travelled steadily till 4 p.m., when 6 Brigade turned to the north to cut the road. Through an error in navigation there was some confusion throughout the Division regarding the actual position that had been reached, and it transpired that 6 Brigade was west of Wadi er Rigel instead of east of it at Bir el Merduma.
Twenty-fifth Battalion followed the leading troops of the Brigade Group northwards from ridge to ridge across broken country until dusk, when it closed up for a night move. The brigade sent carriers off to the north-east to reconnoitre to the road, which was thought to be about four miles away. On contact being lost with these carriers, others were despatched, the brigade advancing in bounds, a mile at a time, and maintaining touch by wireless. Another error in navigation during this phase swung the force farther to the east; the country became very difficult, wadis with soft damp ground at the bottom were encountered, and with a half-moon obscured by cloud, visibility was poor. Moving ‘by fits and starts’, 25 Battalion at the rear followed in its place in the column as best it could, the drivers having an unenviable task and the men in the trucks a disagreeable ride. Inevitably in all units touch was lost temporarily with some of the vehicles and support weapons.
Eventually, after a further seven miles had been traversed, Colonel Bonifant and other commanding officers accompanied Brigadier Gentry on a forward reconnaissance in three carriers. On reaching a ridge about 1200 yards away the party was fired on at close range, losing the leading carrier and suffering several casualties. Twenty-fourth Battalion was ordered to attack the ridge and 25 Battalion to extend the frontage of attack to the east; after capturing the position the battalions were to dig in and get their anti-tank weapons sited before daylight. Each of the two battalions had under command a troop of anti-tank guns and a platoon of machine guns. Twenty-sixth Battalion was to be in reserve and 8 Field Company was to block the coastal road and its verges with mines.page 253
Some delay ensued while the confusion amongst the vehicles was straightened out. Twenty-fifth Battalion was off its trucks a little after midnight (15 – 16 December) and, with C and D Companies forward and B Company in reserve, moved 2000 yards almost due east and took up a position overlooking the road. At the same time 24 Battalion advanced against the ridge. There was some enemy shelling during the advance but 25 Battalion made no actual contact with the enemy. Before dawn the engineers had laid a minefield on the battalion's right flank, which was likely to be exposed to tank attack by enemy forces retiring from the east. Captain Matthews, with the battalion carriers, moved towards the coastal road and reported that the enemy in three columns was retiring westwards. Targets on the road were engaged by our artillery.
On 24 Battalion's front, to the left of 25 Battalion, it was seen, when daylight came, that a ridge 500 yards to the north obscured a view of the road which, instead of being close to the position as expected, was over 3000 yards away. An attempt by 24 Battalion to occupy this ridge was forestalled by enemy tanks. There was also a little enemy activity on a hill to the west of Brigade Headquarters, from which the enemy would gain observation over the transport vehicles of the brigade. This situation was dealt with by the reserve battalion and the artillery.
There was little information available regarding the strength and whereabouts of enemy forces to the east of the Division, though about the time 25 Battalion moved forward to occupy its position, a concentration of enemy vehicles with tanks south-east of Merduma was reported to be moving to the south-west. This caused a stir in the Divisional Administrative Group, which had already moved back ten miles, and caused it to retire a further ten miles to the south-east. Other reports indicated that enemy armoured forces were still to the east of the Division. To meet a possible attack from that quarter, General Freyberg concentrated his tanks in readiness to push in front or to the right of the Division and arranged for 5 Brigade to reduce the very wide gap that existed between it and 6 Brigade.
Enemy columns including tanks were reported on 5 Brigade's front on the morning of 16 December. From the evidence since available it seems certain that 15 Panzer Division, which was to the east of 2 NZ Division, probed at various points to ascertain the dispositions of the New Zealand forces and then, page 254 moving south of 6 Brigade, escaped in a north-westerly direction, between 5 and 6 Brigades. Other enemy columns, including 21 Panzer Division, escaped along the coastal road.
In the early afternoon C Company had the misfortune to lose a truck in the minefield on the battalion's right flank, Lieutenant May3 and three men (McPhillips,4 Thompson,5 and Woolford6) being injured. About the same time two Germans were brought to Battalion Headquarters. Otherwise all was quiet and only an occasional enemy vehicle was passing along the coastal road in front of 25 Battalion. A little later orders were received to move back to the vehicles and rejoin the brigade en route to the Division ten miles back. Just before the vehicles moved off, a German tank was destroyed by the anti-tank guns attached to the battalion and three Germans, who had abandoned their tank but offered fight, were captured by Major Morrison of D Company. Another German was taken by C Company.
The enemy was now reported to be holding Nofilia, 35 miles to the north-west, and the following morning (17 December) the Division advanced in that direction via the desert route with the intention of passing south of the village and cutting the road beyond. As the battalion passed to the south of Nofilia along the divisional axis, 4 Light Armoured Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry were in action nearby and the men were interested to see men and children from some bedouin tents in the vicinity standing around, apparently wondering what it was all about. After travelling 41 miles in six hours, the battalion halted at 4.30 p.m. about eight miles south-west of Nofilia.
In the meantime 5 Brigade a couple of hours earlier had passed through to the lead and had turned north to endeavour to cut the coastal road about 12 miles west of Nofilia. It encountered considerable opposition from an enemy covering force and took up a position 2500 yards from the road, but was unable to cross the road itself. Sixth Brigade Group occupied positions south-west of the village to assist 4 Light Armoured Brigade to contain the garrison there, and two batteries of page 255 6 Field Regiment provided a screen of guns to guard the brigade against attacks by tanks. Twenty-fifth Battalion established a perimeter defence near where it had halted on the outskirts of the Brigade Group, with D Company (Major Morrison) on the right flank, C Company (Captain Wroth) in rear, and B Company (Captain Wilson) in rear of 6 Field Regiment. A Company (Major Hutchens) was in reserve.
During the night (17 – 18 December) further attempts by 5 Brigade to cut the road failed, and a couple of hours after daylight it was found that the enemy had gone, apparently escaping along the main road and also by a track nearer the coast. According to a captured German officer, the strength of the German garrison at Nofilia had been about 2500 men with four 88-millimetre guns, 32 anti-tank guns, and 32 tanks. Once again the enemy had escaped the trap.
The rapid clearing of various airfields and landing grounds for use by Desert Air Force fighters was again a responsibility of the New Zealand Division, a vital task as the fighters, operating from forward positions, could protect Benghazi and ease the most difficult supply problem. The airfield at Merduma was being cleared by New Zealand engineers, and when it was found that the enemy had gone from Nofilia, two sections of carriers of 25 Battalion under Captain Matthews escorted 8 Field Company to Nofilia airfield for a similar task, returning to the battalion the following day.
A stage had now been reached when it was necessary for Eighth Army to pause for a time while the divisions were brought up to strength and sufficient reserves of ammunition, petrol, stores, and supplies of all kinds accumulated. For this reason a plan for the New Zealanders to seize a gap near the Tamet airfield, 100 miles to the west, was not proceeded with, and after a few days of uncertainty, which affected all units, 25 Battalion was able to settle down for a rest period until 3 January. To guard against any enemy enterprise, 5 Brigade occupied a covering position to the west of Nofilia and the Divisional Cavalry provided a screen on the divisional front.
Four days before Christmas 6 Brigade, with the exception of 24 Battalion which followed a day later, moved about 20 miles to an area astride the main road eight miles north-west of Nofilia, adopting the brigade twenty-four column desert formation before digging in. Twenty-fifth Battalion was north of the road, with 26 Battalion behind and Brigade Headquarters and (later) 24 Battalion to the south of the road. It was page 256 a beautifully fine day for this change, which brought the battalion within easy reach of the coast, and all ranks looked forward to a clean-up and then, Christmas. The camp and sports grounds were improved, football was played, and a compulsory bathing parade was held, compulsory, presumably, because the weather was bitterly cold. The men did not enjoy a march to the beach in the afternoon of the 22nd. One comment read:
‘Bitterly cold morning—route march to the beach at 1.30 and after two hours of plodding through mud and slush arrived at the sea wet through with perspiration and mud to our knees. A great dip in the Meddy though a bit on the chilly side. What a march home! Letters.’
The water supply situation at Nofilia was difficult as the enemy had polluted or destroyed the wells, and for a few days, until the engineers had remedied matters, the men were on a very meagre issue, the only available water coming nearly 500 miles by road from Tobruk, via a supply point at Marble Arch. On Christmas Eve the companies marched to the beach and had lunch there before returning to camp where, to the delight of all, a large parcel mail awaited them. Christmas Day was fine but appropriately cold for the fare to come. After a church service in the morning a sports meeting which followed was enlivened by an American pilot, who flew over the battalion with his aircraft upside down and had the men guessing what sort of plane he was flying. The American pilots indulged in a good deal of low-flying over the New Zealanders' bivouacs: ‘These Yanks will hit a man's bivvy one of these days,’ wrote one man, ‘as they fly so low and put the breeze up us when we don't see them coming.’
The men's Christmas dinner, the third away from home, was held at midday. Great efforts had been made to provide Christmas fare and make the day a memorable one. Excellent fresh white bread, a great luxury in the desert, was provided by the New Zealand Field Bakery, which had been brought up to Nofilia. Stores for the occasion, ordered some months previously, came forward over the hundreds of miles from the Nile Delta in time to be distributed for Christmas, 25 Battalion's order for beer, cigarettes, and foodstuffs being collected two days previously. New Zealand ASC transport brought up the Christmas mail which, for the whole Division, included 60,000 parcels. A general distribution of a bottle of beer, fifty cigarettes, a National Patriotic Fund parcel (of tinned fruit, cake, and other page 257 gifts), and a rum issue was made to every man of the battalion. The dinner itself was impressive and reflected great credit on all concerned in its provision, especially the cooks, who overcame all the difficulties of cooking in the desert and prepared a splendid meal. The menu included turkey, fowl, roast pork, baked and boiled potatoes, peas, apple sauce, plum pudding with sauce, and nuts. Colonel Bonifant visited the men at their meals to wish them the season's greetings, while the officers waited on their men and had their own meal in the evening.
The men's evening meal was a very good one, the rum issue which followed it providing just the finishing touch required. Purchases from Regimental Funds and private parcels supplemented the excellent Christmas fare, which was doubly appreciated by men who for months had lived on plain desert rations, often prepared under very difficult conditions. To illustrate what a real achievement it was to bring all these Christmas supplies forward over the great distances involved, General Freyberg, when speaking to one unit said: ‘It would take two tons of petrol to bring three tons of beer from the Delta to Nofilia’.
Rain fell during the evening and Boxing Day was very cold. Work and training were resumed immediately. A landing ground at Sidi Azzab, 40 miles to the west, had to be prepared for use and the three battalions of the brigade sent off that day eleven officers and 300 men under Major Morrison of 25 Battalion to do a week's construction work there. ‘Normal army rations for the working party were augmented by the gazelle (the N. African antelope) chased and shot by parties of soldiers in light vehicles,’ commented Major Morrison. Throughout Boxing Day the monotony of the usual desert scene was broken by the advance of 7 Armoured Division along the road near the battalion and the long columns of tanks, guns, and vehicles of all kinds made an impressive sight.
Training and recreation filled the last days of December. Parties of men attended the Corps school of mine-clearing and patrolling and a composite platoon represented the battalion in a film of the recent advance which was being produced at Nofilia by the New Zealand Film Unit.
Since the battalion had left Matruh on 20 November there had been few casualties: one man had died of wounds and one officer (Lieutenant May) and five other ranks had been wounded.
Sunday, the third day of the New Year, was most unpleasant. There was a gale on shore and a severe electrical storm a short page 258 distance out in the Mediterranean. The few very large drops of rain which fell were insufficient to lay the dust and a cold dust-storm raged. More rain which fell in the afternoon reduced the dust but the wind and low temperatures continued to make conditions very uncomfortable. The following day was even worse, a very cold sandstorm raging as the Division concentrated to the south of Nofilia and 25 Battalion marched (on foot) to the new area, a distance of 17 miles over rough country. During the march and just after midday, General Montgomery watched the troops go by and later addressed all the officers of 6 Brigade Group; he congratulated the brigade on its part in the recent operations, gave an indication of his plans for the future, and showed the greatest confidence in the successful conclusion of the campaign.
Twenty-fifth Battalion remained in the concentration area for four days. Its carriers with full crews then joined the other carriers of the brigade, all under Captain Matthews (25 Battalion), and went back to Nofilia for carriage on transporters to the next destination, the Tamet area about 25 miles west of Sirte. The same day the Divisional Cavalry, followed by 6 Brigade, led the Division off to the west by the desert route, about 30 miles from the coast, a divisional exercise ‘laying out a gun line’ being practised during the march. El Machina was reached at the end of the second day and there a halt was called for a day while 5 Brigade, which had been working on an airfield in the vicinity, rejoined. Special precautions were taken to avoid air observation: all vehicles were turned to the north and windscreens covered to prevent reflection of the sun, camouflage nets were used, and the usual slit trenches dug.
When the march was resumed some care was taken to prepare for the crossing of the large Wadi Tamet which lay immediately ahead. To prevent congestion the Division moved in blocks at hourly intervals, anti-aircraft guns were sited to cover the route, and fighter cover was asked for. However, no difficulty was experienced, though the sound of bombing and anti-aircraft fire to the north just before the battalion started served as a warning that precautions were necessary even in these desert wastes. The battalion's vehicles did a good deal of climbing up and down small, steep slopes, but completed the journey of 30 miles in a little less than three and a half hours.
Another heavy air raid was heard the following evening and-again the next morning, 14 January. The column was now in the vicinity of Pilastrino, 30 miles south of Buerat, and ap- page 259 proaching the El Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track, beyond which was the enemy defensive line to the south-west of Buerat. The carriers rejoined the battalion in the morning, and when the march was resumed in the afternoon, a flank guard of six carriers and two two-pounder anti-tank guns was placed a thousand yards out on the right flank. The men had a rough and dusty ride, which continued for three and a half hours after dark.
Eighth Army planned to drive quickly to Tripoli to secure the port as a base instead of Benghazi. While 51 (Highland) Division was to advance along the coastal road, 7 Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division (on the left) were to take an inland desert route and capture airfields on the way.
The inland column was now concentrated, ready to cross the Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track in the morning (15 January), and at an early hour the Divisional Cavalry crossed the road while 6 Brigade Group in rear approached it slowly. It was a fairly quiet day for 25 Battalion, which moved at dawn when the artillery in front was in action against enemy positions, and only nine miles were covered, the men then watching the artillery duel. A move was made early in the afternoon but was halted by a tank battle some distance ahead, a few of the very unpopular 88-millimetre high-velocity shells landing amongst the battalion's vehicles without effect. The Divisional Cavalry screen ahead of 6 Brigade had encountered an enemy infantry and anti-tank-gun screen about five miles west of the road, supported by artillery on high ground farther west. Attempts were made to turn the position from the south but the country was too rough for much progress to be made.
Late in the afternoon 25 Battalion crossed the Bu Ngem track and shortly afterwards halted for the night. C Company (Wroth) was sent forward to join the front of 26 Battalion, which was providing a defensive screen for the laager area of the Greys, Divisional Cavalry, and forward guns of the artillery; B Company (Wilson) took up a position to the rear of the Greys' B Echelon transport; and D Company was on the right flank of both battalions, forming a perimeter defence.
Enemy artillery was active against the forward troops of the Division at dusk but eased off as darkness fell. A few hours later heavy artillery fire to the north aroused the interest of the troops. This was a barrage fired by 51 (Highland) Division preparatory to a night attack in the coastal sector, 20 miles to the north of the New Zealanders.page 260
As expected, the enemy continued his withdrawal under cover of rearguards and the advance continued steadily to the north-west, impeded to some extent by mines and rough going in various places. The next brush with the enemy occurred 30 miles farther on, near Wadi Nfed, where on the 16th the leading troops were heavily shelled. During the early afternoon 25 Battalion closed to single file to cross an enemy minefield and halted for the night just as Stukas in the late afternoon attacked the forward transport, the first air attack since the column had left Nofilia. At dusk the companies of the battalion advanced four and a half miles and provided a perimeter defence around the Greys' night harbour. A few bombs were heard during the night but none fell near the battalion.
By morning the enemy had again retired and was followed up as before. Rough country, mines, and demolitions on the tracks through the wadis slowed down the advance, and 7 Armoured Division, which had the right-of-way, cut across the line of advance of 6 Brigade Group. In consequence, 25 Battalion did not move till the afternoon. The destruction of three abandoned enemy tanks by the engineers near the battalion was the only incident of interest until, when the troops were crossing Wadi Nfed in single file, the first green grass seen for some considerable time came into view. The village of Sedada, situated in the wadi, was nothing more than a fort and a few scattered houses, though in this desert country it had assumed some importance as a recognisable spot frequently referred to in discussions and orders. After a very dusty journey of eight hours and 36 miles, the battalion halted for the night on a patch of ploughed land, two more abandoned enemy tanks and piles of mines with holes dug ready for them being passed on the way.
Some very stony country was passed the next day, and after crossing the Bir Dufan-Beni Ulid road, 25 Battalion was on the roughest piece of desert it had met for some time; it consisted mostly of large rocks and the column was soon held up 11 miles north of Beni Ulid, no further move being made that day. Small green valleys with a few trees dotted about were to be seen occasionally and were a welcome relief from the drab desert. Exploring the country on the right flank of the battalion, a party of volunteers under Major Morrison found two hastily abandoned German armoured cars and returned with some enemy wireless equipment and weapons, including two 20- millimetre tank guns.page 261
It had been hoped to avoid the town of Beni Ulid, which was a natural bottleneck that the enemy was expected to make much more difficult by mines and demolitions. Owing to the rough nature of the surrounding country it was decided that the Division must go through the town and the engineers were concentrated on clearing the route. Sixth Brigade Group closed to within three miles of the place in the morning of 19 January in readiness to pass through, and by late afternoon one-third of the brigade was beyond the town. In the morning 25 Battalion had moved close up and, starting off again at 7 p.m. in the moonlight, went through in single file and halted for the night in desert formation 20 miles beyond. The men found Beni Ulid an impressive village, built on the eastern edge of a deep wadi and commanding a broad view over the wooded valley.
During the night 5 Brigade Group displaced 6 Brigade Group as the leading formation of the Division, which was now 30 miles south-east of Tarhuna. In the following afternoon 25 Battalion moved slowly forward while the leading troops of the Division were trying to find a route down the very formidable escarpment, which was about 1600 feet above sea level and about 1200 feet above the level of the coastal plain. Seventh Armoured Division was forcing its way down the road to the west of Tarhuna, and if the escarpment elsewhere proved impassable, the New Zealand Division would have to follow, involving delay and the danger of an enemy concentration against the head of the Armoured Division as it emerged on to the plain. General Montgomery had made it very clear that the very difficult supply situation made it impossible to accept any delay in the capture of Tripoli (40 miles north-west of Tarhuna), and that if any hitch did occur it might be necessary for Eighth Army to withdraw.
There was something of the atmosphere of a race for Tripoli between 51 Division on the coast, 7 Armoured Division in the centre, and the New Zealand Division on the left, while 22 Armoured Brigade, also near the coast, was well placed. A route down the escarpment, 12 miles south-west of Tarhuna, was discovered, and the leading troops of 2 NZ Division entered the plain on 21 January. In a series of short moves and long halts 25 Battalion, near the rear of the Division, covered 16 miles in thirteen hours, to be within ten miles of Tarhuna. There was a slight frost that night which caused ice to form on the men's groundsheets, but the morning sun soon asserted itself to the great comfort of the troops.page 262
The battalion had another long, slow move the following day, changing early to three-column formation because of the rough ground, and then to single file to pass through Tazzoli. After travelling 36 miles in fifteen hours, 25 Battalion halted for the night on the coastal plain an hour before midnight. The country traversed during the day was a little more attractive, with a dahlia-like weed and patches of grass giving some resemblance to a green landscape. A few Arabs with their donkeys added interest to the scene; small white houses were dotted among the valleys and an occasional large building, also white, could be seen on the hills. As the battalion passed through an Italian village, the men found the people quite friendly but otherwise unimpressive as they stood on the roadside and asked for cigarettes.
Next morning (23 January) 25 Battalion formed into three columns, but no move took place. On the previous day 5 Brigade had been held up by the enemy at Azizia, 14 miles to the north-west, but found that the village had been vacated during the night. During the morning British troops had entered Tripoli, and 5 Brigade reached the city in the afternoon, thus completing in eighty days the desert journey of 1400 miles from Alamein. While British and New Zealand troops occupied the town, 7 Armoured Division continued the pursuit.
In the afternoon General Freyberg and a party of senior officers of the Division (which included Brigadier Gentry and 6 Brigade's Staff Captain) had a very narrow escape when their cars ran into a close ambush while on reconnaissance near Bianchi, 25 miles south-west of Tripoli. Gentry's driver was wounded while trying to turn the car, and later died, and three other men were wounded. The incident emphasised the necessity for an adequate escort for reconnaissance and other parties entering territory recently occupied by the enemy, a necessity that does not appear to have been sufficiently realised from time to time throughout the war.
The occupation of Tripoli proceeded smoothly, 5 Brigade occupying the southern of the three sectors into which the town had been divided. The civilians gave no trouble, the few who were on the streets appearing to be friendly, but most stayed indoors.
In the morning following the capture of Tripoli, 25 Battalion in single column moved along the tarsealed road through Azizia to its allotted area near Giordani. For seven miles to the north page 263 of Azizia the road was lined with gum trees, presenting a very pleasant picture, and from the Italian colonies all round families were out watching the troops and, inevitably, asking for cigarettes. The cultivated belt on the Tripoli plain was a striking and very attractive contrast to the desert. By New Zealand standards the country could not be described as very fertile, but given water it would grow almost anything. Starved by months in the barren desert of the sight of green grass, trees, and the like, the men revelled in the change, and the ample supply of very fine water was the champagne of the occasion.
A tremendous afforestation scheme, covering hundreds of thousands of acres over the last decade or two, was the most outstanding feature. Everywhere, eucalyptus and pine trees had been planted annually along the roads, on vacant desert between settlements, and along boundaries. The value of trees in a treeless, sandy country was manifest. In the battalion's bivouac area the young children playing nearby and gathering round at meal times greatly interested the men after their long isolation from any form of home life, and the cooks gave the children a little fruit salad, cottage pie, and other titbits, to their great delight.
Armed Arab bands reported to be in the vicinity were likely to be a danger to the civilian population, and on the day after its arrival the battalion as a precaution placed guards in Bianchi village and at the power station, and a mobile patrol of one section of carriers and two anti-tank guns, under Captain Matthews, moved round the area for the first two mornings.
Training was commenced at once though interrupted by three days of rain, and the various company route marches through the new countryside had more interest than usual. On 30 January a parade was held to farewell the Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant, who had been appointed to command the Divisional Cavalry Regiment. Excepting for a month's absence due to a wound received in the Miteiriya Ridge attack, Colonel Bonifant had commanded the battalion since 12 September last, and for his services in the Alamein operations and the pursuit had been awarded the DSO. His successor was Major Morten,7 second-in-command of 26 Battalion, who assumed command the following day.page 264
At the end of the month two officers and thirty-five other ranks represented 25 Battalion at the Eighth Army church parade held in Tripoli on the successful conclusion of the campaign in Tripolitania. Church service was also held in the battalion lines. Casualties for January were fortunately only two wounded.
Another change of scene occurred on 2 February when 25 Battalion moved to the brigade's new area near Suani Ben Adem, 14 miles south of Tripoli. It was a most pleasant camp site, situated amongst acacia, gum, and fruit trees. Here the battalion carried out smartening-up drill and then took part in a brigade parade, in preparation for a divisional review and address on 4 February by Mr Winston Churchill. At the review Mr Churchill, in the uniform of an air commodore and accompanied by high-ranking generals, addressed the troops in his own inimitable style and made a deep impression.
A few days later Lieutenant-Colonel Morten heard an address at Corps Headquarters by General Montgomery, who the following day, in the Miramare theatre in Tripoli, gave another address which was attended by twenty-five of the battalion's officers. These addresses did much to instil confidence in the units of Eighth Army and to give all ranks some understanding of the purpose underlying the operations that were about to take place.
On the 11th 6 Brigade relieved 152 Brigade in Tripoli. Twenty-fifth Battalion took over the duties of 5 Camerons and was accommodated in the Law Courts building and in and around the Governor's Palace. Five guards of a total strength of 1 officer, 17 NCOs, and 51 men were mounted, two of the more interesting posts being those on the wine factory and the brewery. Referring to the local wine one man wrote: ‘In Tripoli the men first made contact with the species of high explosive known coloquially as “plonk”, a vicious type of red wine. Casualties were many but none fatal.’
Late the first night wharf duties were taken over in heavy rain and a high wind which caused the sea to break over the mole and made the work hazardous. Throughout the month the battalion provided guards and working parties on shore, lighters, and ships, both by day and night, the total number of men varying from 100 to 300 daily. Sudanese troops took over most of the guard duties on the second day, and 25 Battalion guards were reduced to one officer and eight men, the page 265 battalion war diary containing the entry: ‘… and the petrol dump guard discontinued. An officer was maintained on the wine factory.’
The working parties had a march of two miles to the docks, where they unloaded a wide variety of items including 44- gallon drums of petrol, rations, ammunition, 500-pound bombs, and medical supplies. A satirical comment on this work by ‘some person or persons unknown’ went the rounds of the battalion: ‘The Kiwis could unload more in three months than the Regulars in twelve, but as they “acquired” more in three months than they unloaded in twelve, the score was about even.’
From ‘information received’ from members of the battalion it appears there was some justification for the comment. Various shifts were worked, though usually the hours were 3 p.m. to 11 or 11.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m. to 8.30 a.m. A tragic accident occurred on 18 February when Private Kerr8 of C Company, whilst helping to gain control of a fire which had broken out on the wharf, was killed by a splinter from an exploding shell. There were other hazards. The Desert Air Force prevented enemy aircraft interfering with the work during daylight but at least seven air raids occurred at night during the battalion's tour of duty. During one raid, on 24 February, the ground-floor windows of the Law Courts, where B Company and 3, 4, and 5 Platoons of HQ Company were quartered, were broken by bomb blast. Describing the air raids, Private Hawkins, who was in an annexe to the Governor's Palace, wrote:
‘Some nights we would wake with the ground practically jumping under us and a noise as if all hell were let loose. It would be one of the frequent air raids and we were inside the concentric rings of guns of increasing calibre which sent up a devastating cone of fire…. With the rest of the Bn we worked on the unloading of ships—sometimes by day, more often it seemed by night and on several occasions long stretches of both. We weren't so — keen on it at night … for raids were always in the offing and it wasn't particularly funny lying between a couple of tram lines while bombs screamed down and the guns barked thunderously and spewed shrapnel which had to come down. Nor were such raids altogether very frightening; the spectacle of it all was so big and awesome, like some super drama in relation to which one was a mere spectator. It was like that the night our lads were unloading the three page 266 bottomless holds of a Liberty ship on to lighters, in the middle of the harbour. At the forward hold, bombs and shells came up in the slings and were gingerly lowered into their lighter. Amidships, away down below, the lads packed cases and tins and bags of provisions on to the slings…. At the stern hold toiled the Aks-Aks, half the team down in the hold and half in the lighter, handling tins and 40-gal drums of petrol, with Tommies working the winches. Then it came upon us—guns and bombs, roaring planes and shrapnel plopping everywhere. Smartly out of the hold scrambled the boys and we strained our gutses out to get a heavy tarpaulin over the hatches to keep away from the petrol any stray hot bit of shrapnel. Down on the lighter the lads just sat down on the drums of benzine until it was all over, which was half-an-hour later. Night was well ended when we were told to heave to.’
The city was disappointing. The buildings were badly battered and the harbour seemed full of sunken ships. Most of the city had been destroyed and the greater part of the civil population had been evacuated. Food was unprocurable by the troops, and indeed its purchase was forbidden because there was insufficient food for civilians. There was evidence, however, of the former beauty of the city:
‘The esplanade along the waterfront, lined on the landward side with ultra-modern buildings and on the seaward side by a beautiful concrete balustrade, the road itself a double avenue of splendid palms all set in flower gardens, is easily the finest I've ever seen.’
That was the impression it made on WO II W. K. Marshall, DCM, as described in one of his letters.
Early in February a class of instruction for prospective officers and junior NCOs was formed in the battalion, under the command of Captain Wroth, Captain Norman taking over C Company in his place. On the 22nd, to prepare for the arrival of two six-pounder anti-tank guns, due about the end of the month, Captain Stevens, Lieutenant R. S. Webb, one WO, nine NCOs, and nine men were attached for a ten-days' course to 33 Anti-Tank Battery, and while there were very interested to see the famed 17-pounder anti-tank gun, the ‘Pheasant’, a very powerful weapon at least the equal as an anti-tank weapon of the obnoxious German 88-millimetre gun. On the 25th A Company was re-formed, six months after it had lost its identity in amalgamation with B and C Companies at the time of the El Mreir disaster. All men (with the exception page 267 of specialists) who had been in the company on the previous 21 July were automatically transferred back to it: Captain Matthews from the command of the carrier platoon was appointed to command A Company, his platoon commanders being Lieutenants Mahar9 and O'Connor.10 Captain Sealy11 of the Divisional Cavalry Regiment (who had been appointed second-in-command of B Company on 19 December) took command of the carriers.
Early in the month Major Morten had been granted the temporary rank of lieutenant-colonel while commanding the battalion; on the 12th the Adjutant, Captain Wylie,12 left to attend a junior staff course of about nine weeks' duration, his place being taken by the IO, Second-Lieutenant Slade, who was relieved by Lieutenant Buchanan. There was also a change in medical officers, Captain McCarthy, who had been with the battalion since the middle of August 1941, being relieved on 22 February by Captain Pearse.13 The unit's casualties during the month were two men who had died of wounds, Private Kerr on the 18th and Private Salisbury14 two days later.