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Episodes & Studies Volume 2


page 3

‘L'homme est l'instrument premier du combat.’

(Ardant du Picq)

ON 14 April 1943 Eighth Army had been halted on the narrow coastal plain to the south of Enfidaville after an unbroken advance from Wadi Akarit. Following an unsuccessful attempt to ‘bump’ the enemy from positions in broken, mountainous country beyond the town, the Army had paused to take stock of the situation, to re-deploy, and to prepare for attack. General Montgomery was informed that the British First Army and 2 United States Corps (which with Eighth Army constituted 18 Army Group under General Alexander) would undertake a major offensive farther north with the intention of capturing Tunis and compelling the final surrender of the enemy in Africa. Eighth Army was to exert the maximum pressure on the sector in the south to pin enemy forces there, and on 20 April, two days before the offensive in the north, was to deliver an attack with the double object of drawing enemy troops away from the First Army front and of deceiving the enemy as to the direction of the main attack.

For the attack on 20 April, General Montgomery decided to strike directly into a series of precipitous ridges and spurs that overlooked Enfidaville and the strip of flat land skirting the coast to Cape Bon. The attack would be made by 4 Indian Division and 2 New Zealand Division, while 50 (Northumberland) Division covered the coastal flank and 7 Armoured Division the inland flank. These latter divisions were to be used for exploitation should a firm lodgment be made in the hills.

The New Zealand Division, which had 8 British Armoured Brigade under command, was already in action to the south and west of Enfidaville, and was to attack into the hills from that area. 4 Indian Division was, in the first place, to attack Djebel Garci, a very rugged feature, farther to the west. The New Zealand sector included Djebel Ogla, a roundish feature of no great height, and, beyond it, a long, regular ridge called Hamaid en Nakrla. These two features were on the right and were the objectives of 6 NZ Brigade (commanded by Brigadier W. G. Gentry1), which in addition had to contend with Wadi el Brek, a deep, twisting wadi winding down from the hills. Farther left were Djebel Bir, a horseshoe-shaped feature with well-graded sides to the south and a steep cliff-side to the north, and, immediately to the left separated only by a narrow valley, Takrouna. Beyond Bir and Takrouna, and almost parallel to the divisional front, the road to Zaghouan ran between shallow ditches, with the southern slopes of Djebel Cherachir rising almost from the roadside. To the north of Cherachir was the dominating feature Djebel Froukr, a jagged ridge popularly known as the ‘Saw Tooth’. These features were the objectives of 5 NZ Brigade, commanded by Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger.2

Takrouna, a bald outcrop of limestone rock, rose abruptly some 600 feet from the plain occupied by Eighth Army. From various vantage points in the divisional area it was observed that buildings crowned the hill on three different levels: on the summit was a domed mosque at the south- east corner, with a square-towered building close by and a huddle of smaller buildings disappearing from sight over the crest—local inhabitants said that this was an old Berber fortress, page 4 page 5 and to the infantry fighting there it became known as the pinnacle; on the lower level, buildings were clustered on a ridge jutting out to the west from the mosque—this area was later called the ledge; directly behind the pinnacle, and seen only from the south-west, more buildings sprawled untidily down the top of a shoulder that appeared to end at the road—this was known as the village. To the south of Takrouna were olive orchards, planted in orderly rows and enclosed by ditches and cactus hedges, a thick, fleshy variety of cactus that grew about six feet high and sprouted hard, sharp spines from serrations in ten-inch stems. On the east side was the valley separating Djebel Bir and Takrouna, and on the west side Takrouna dropped sharply to very broken country which was scoured by a deep wadi, dry at this time of the year. Patches of cactus grew in uneven clumps at the bottom of Takrouna, but the higher levels were precipitous, rocky, and bare of all vegetation.

Along the whole divisional front, in the forward positions held by the infantry before the attack, was a wet-bottomed wadi with many tributaries. Crossings were made over this wadi by the engineers during the nights before the infantry advanced. Between the wadi and the olives green barley grew knee high in unfenced fields.

Every effort was made to keep the plan as simple as possible, although complications could not be avoided on the left sector. The start line was to be taped just to the north of the wadi in the forward positions, and on this line the battalions would form up with coloured lights, shaded and on pickets, marking the boundaries between them. The axis of advance was at right- angles to the start line, and as the direction of the attack was almost from south to north it was hoped that the infantry would keep direction by the Pole Star, which would be straight ahead. The objectives were to be reached in two stages: in the first stage 6 Brigade would capture Ogla and surrounding country with two battalions, and 5 Brigade would advance to the road with a battalion on either side of Takrouna; while in the second stage 6 Brigade would carry on to Hamaid en Nakrla with the same two battalions, and the third battalion of 5 Brigade would move up the valley between Bir and Takrouna, through country won in the first stage, form up just beyond the road and carry the attack on to Djebel Froukr. The third battalion from 6 Brigade would be in reserve. Seven field and two medium regiments were to support the Division, firing a barrage that would lift 100 yards each two minutes, the optimistically planned rate of advance for the infantry. In addition the artillery would fire concentrations on selected targets right up to the time when the infantry was expected to reach them. Guns were to fire smoke on the outside edges of the barrage to mark the flanks of the divisional sector.

A regiment of tanks was attached to each brigade, and from these, troops (three tanks in each) were detached to support the engineering parties that were to clear tracks for the supporting arms through the minefields known to cover the enemy positions, and one troop was attached to 28 (Maori) Battalion to crush passages through the cactus in its area.

Such was the plan in outline. Little was known of the enemy dispositions, other than the general appreciation that the main defences lay to the north of Takrouna. It was generally accepted that 5 Brigade, with Bir, Takrouna, and Froukr, three awkward, easily defended features in its sector, would meet greater opposition than 6 Brigade. Takrouna lay well forward in the 5 Brigade sector, completely dominating the whole area, and its capture was essential—without Takrouna the guns would not be able to move up to cover any other ground won during the page 6 attack, ground that would itself be overlooked from the summit. They would, in fact, be under direct observation and exposed to observed counter-battery fire in the positions from which they fired the barrage, and into which they were only able to move during the three nights preceding the attack, and where they had to be camouflaged during daylight.

Of the two 5 Brigade battalions that would take part in the first phase, 28 (Maori) Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel C. M. Bennett,3 was to advance on the east side of Takrouna, and 21 Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R. W. Harding,4 on the west side. Takrouna itself was the responsibility of the Maori Battalion, although the Brigade Commander told Harding that 21 Battalion was to help the Maoris if opportunity occurred. Both battalion commanders were told that attack by the apparently most difficult routes might be the easiest, though it was planned that the Maoris should attack the summit of Takrouna from the rear after the battalion had reached the road, striking back along the easier grades of the northern slopes. They were also to take any chance of forcing a way up the steep southern or eastern slopes.

23 Battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R. E. Romans,5 was to capture Djebel Froukr. The Brigade Commander made it quite clear that this battalion was to fight for its start line beyond the Zaghouan road, should the 28 Battalion attack not go according to plan, and that it was to carry on the attack to Froukr whether or not 28 and 21 Battalions reached their objectives.

Zero hour was an hour before midnight on 19 April.