Episodes & Studies Volume 2
PRECISELY at zero hour gun flashes sparked and flickered behind the infantry on the start line. The soft whish-whish of the first shells rose to an angry, jagged muttering, while the staccato cracks of the nearest guns were lost in the exhilarating pandemonium of the barrage. The battalions began to move forward.
On the right of 5 Brigade, 28 Battalion advanced with three companies forward, while one company followed to deal with any enemy pockets that might be missed. Moving over fairly level ground, broken only by small wadis and the cultivated patches of barley, the battalion soon ran into enemy opposition. Heavy artillery and mortar fire caused many casualties, and the ground became more difficult. Empty trenches, booby-trapped minefields, cactus hedges and ditches made the companies lose formation.
On the right of the battalion, A Company (Major W. Porter6) reached the south side of Djebel Bir with depleted ranks and all three platoon commanders wounded. Machine-gun fire swept down the hill and across the valley from Takrouna, fire so unexpectedly vicious that the men sought cover. The Company Commander was hit by a mortar bomb while reorganising the company, which, reduced in strength by one half and now without officers, remained on the lower slopes of Bir for the rest of the night.
In the centre, C Company (Captain W. M. Awarau7) was halted in the valley between Bir and Takrouna. Thick minefields and enemy fire of all types had taken a heavy toll, and Lieutenant page 7 W. Te A. Haig8 found that he was the only officer not a casualty. He left instructions for the other platoons to follow and tried to push on with his own platoon, but soon realised, when the men with him had dwindled to three, that further advance in the centre was impossible.
On the left, B Company (Captain C. Sorenson9) after hacking its way through the cactus hedges with machetes, got as far as the south-eastern end of Takrouna. Here the company was stopped by murderous fire pouring down from positions on the slopes of Takrouna. All three forward companies were now halted without having come to close grips with the enemy, halted by carefully prepared minefields covered by machine guns, mortars, and artillery.
Headquarters 28 Battalion had moved up behind these three forward companies and had reached a white farmhouse at the south end of the valley between Bir and Takrouna. Colonel Bennett had lost communication with the companies but could see that the attack had slowed down. He sent Lieutenant M. Wikiriwhi,10 his Intelligence Officer, across to B Company to find out the cause of the delay. When word of B Company's plight was brought back, Bennett at once sent orders to the Company Commander to push round to the east of the enemy positions holding him up, to join C Company, and to advance with that company to the road.
While Wikiriwhi was taking these instructions to B Company, Bennett went in search of C Company, elements of which, without officers, he found farther up the valley. He did not get as far north as Haig, but told the C Company men that they were to stay where they were, that Haig was to take command, and that the advance was to be carried on to the road when B Company joined them. Haig was probably the last man to hear of these orders, for he was trying to reach the road with his platoon and was expecting the rest of C Company to join him.
Colonel Bennett could judge by the amount of firing that B Company was still held up to the south of Takrouna; nothing was known of A Company. Determined to get at least two companies moving, he went back and across to B Company to accelerate its advance. He found it still pinned down by the heavy fire from Takrouna. Sending back instructions to the tanks attached to the battalion to use their guns on the southern slopes of Takrouna, Bennett ordered B Company to join C Company. A party was detailed to engage the enemy on Takrouna with Bren-gun fire while the forward movement was made.
Soon after this all control within 28 Battalion was lost. Colonel Bennett, still anxious to co-ordinate the movements of B and C Companies, had moved directly across towards C Company and had been severely wounded on a mine. Captain Sorensen and one of his platoon commanders were wounded and evacuated. Lieutenant Wikiriwhi had returned to the white farmhouse to find the CO had gone and that Battalion Headquarters was virtually non-existent. Haig was not able to collect the remnants of C Company. The action was carried on by isolated sections and platoons and by D Company, directed by the two or three remaining officers and spirited NCOs.
From B Company two platoons, commanded by Second-Lieutenant W. P. Anaru11 and Sergeant T. Trainor,12 skirted the eastern slopes of Takrouna and literally drove themselves forward through a hail of fire. Two sections of Anaru's platoon reached the road—in one of them a single survivor. Trainor had run into a cluster of machine-gun posts giving cover to two anti-tank guns. A rapid and vigorous attack soon decided the issue, and after rounding up page 8 27 prisoners the platoon battled on towards the road. Here the men were isolated, were faced by fire from positions across the road just as heavy as that through which they had come, and were not able to do very much for the time being.
The third platoon from B Company, now commanded by Sergeant J. Rogers,13 stayed in the wadi to the south-east of Takrouna ready to make a feint attack up its southern slopes, as originally planned.
Meanwhile D Company (Captain P. F. Te H. Ornberg14), which had had the original task of mopping up but which had concentrated on the CO's instructions to help B Company get past the south-east corner of Takrouna, was preparing to push forward to the road. Ornberg had made this decision because he could see that immediate action was necessary if the battalion was to reach its objective. While D Company formed up—casualties had already been suffered and, including stragglers from B and C Companies, its total strength was now only about forty all told—other events took place that have a bearing on the final capture of Takrouna.
Out to the right, 6 NZ Brigade had all but reached its final objective after a relatively easy advance opposed only by defensive fire. The brigade was being reorganised and by the morning would be in a sound position.
On the left of 28 Battalion, west of Takrouna, 21 Battalion had met very strong opposition, had suffered heavy casualties, and had been withdrawn.
This withdrawal had followed an extremely difficult and costly advance. 21 Battalion had left the start line with three companies forward and two platoons of the remaining company following in reserve. The third platoon of this company had been left on Point 121, ready to form the pivot of the gunline that was to cover the west flank of 5 Brigade during the second phase of the operation. Colonel Harding moved with his headquarters between the leading and reserve companies.
Advancing on the right of the battalion, C Company (Major B. M. Laird15) had soon run into the heavy fire that covered all approaches to Takrouna. Cactus hedges had prevented an orderly advance and the two forward platoons lost contact. Lieutenant R. A. Shaw,16 commanding 15 Platoon on the right, had been able to get his men through to the immediate platoon objective to the west of Takrouna without casualties, but, failing to make contact with the rest of his company, had withdrawn to Battalion Headquarters on Harding's instructions. On the left, 13 Platoon (Lieutenant D. J. Ashley17) had forced its way to an oval-shaped patch of prickly pear on the west slopes of Takrouna, but had then been pinned down by small-arms fire from the hill above. It seemed hopeless to continue without support on either flank, and the platoon withdrew to Company Headquarters. Here Ashley and Lieutenant I. H. Hirst,18 who commanded 14 Platoon in reserve, attempted to reform the men and find a way to overcome the machine-gun posts that were holding up the advance. The Company Commander had already made unsuccessful attempts to get forward and had returned to Headquarters 5 Brigade with sections from both 13 and 14 Platoons. The remainder of C Company joined Battalion Headquarters.
The other two forward companies had been more successful. A Company (Captain G. A. H. Bullock-Douglas19) in the centre and B Company (Captain W. J. G. Roach20) on the left had each left the start line with two platoons forward, followed by Company Headquarters and the page 9 third platoon. Enemy shelling at the start line caused some casualties. The shelling, which soon included nebelwerfer (a multiple mortar that hurled six large shells at a time with a mad, screaming sound), mortar and small-arms fire, increased during the advance and cut off the Company Headquarters and reserve platoon of each company from the forward platoons. Indeed, so sudden had the enemy reaction been to the forward movement of the barrage that when 8 Platoon of A Company paused a few moments to pass back a handful of prisoners to its reserve section, that section, while detailing a guard for the prisoners, was forced to take cover from heavy small- arms fire from Takrouna. The rest of A Company and the leading two platoons of B Company reached the Zaghouan road with little trouble, closely following the barrage.
Once at the road it was soon clear that the enemy held a dominating ridge immediately to the north. From A Company Lieutenant J. C. Chalmers,21 commanding 8 Platoon, went off to the right to find out if the Maoris had got through to the road on the other side of Takrouna, while Lance-Sergeant L. A. Steiner22 organised 7 Platoon for an attack on the ridge, leaving the two sections of 8 Platoon on the south side of the road. Steiner found that the enemy was firmly entrenched in deep weapon pits on the ridge, but a determined attack with tommy guns and hand grenades soon gave some degree of success. Five machine-gun posts were destroyed and opposition had slackened when Steiner realised that only two other men besides himself were left standing. There was only one thing to do—the men went back to the road. Chalmers had returned to the roadside also, without having seen or heard 28 Battalion. All that remained of the forward platoons of A Company, about 25 men, were left at the south side of the road under a sergeant, and Chalmers and Steiner went back to look for Battalion Headquarters.
During this period 12 and 11 Platoons of B Company had, together, been attacking the western end of the same ridge across the road that Steiner had attacked. The platoon commanders, Lieutenants R. Donaldson23 and G. M. Taylor,24 led the men through mortar and small-arms fire to the bottom of the ridge. Here hand grenades, tossed by the enemy from pits and trenches, killed and wounded many but did not break up the attack. Shooting and stabbing, the platoons fought on up the ridge. A typical exploit was that of Private A. T. Luxford,25 who took command of a section when its NCOs had been wounded. Led by this determined soldier the section captured a 50-millimetre anti-tank gun, two machine-gun posts, and a mortar pit. When the whole section except himself had been struck down, Luxford battled on until his own ammunition, and any he could pick up, was exhausted and he himself wounded. Farther up the ridge Sergeant L. N. Parris,26 who had led another group, found that the area had been cleared but that he had only four men left capable of moving. Parris set up a machine-gun post in a captured pit, but when it seemed that the enemy was going to counter-attack and that no support was available, he returned to the road with the few survivors. Weeks later the graves of Donaldson and Taylor, with those of many of their men, were found on the ridge where they had died fighting.
Meanwhile the rest of 21 Battalion had been stopped farther back. Both rear platoons of A and B Companies, cut off from the forward platoons, had unsuccessfully tried to get to the road through the now very severe fire from Takrouna, and after suffering many casualties had been taken back to Battalion Headquarters. From 9 Platoon A Company, Second-Lieutenant J. T. Upton27 disappeared on what must have been a determined effort to reach the east side page 10 of Takrouna, for his body was later found at the foot of the northern slopes. Colonel Harding, who had been wounded in the hand, had established his Headquarters some hundreds of yards to the west of Takrouna. D Company (Captain I. A. Murray28), in reserve, had suffered casualties from mortar and artillery fire, and had been put between Headquarters and Takrouna as a protecttive screen across the axis of advance. The Company Commander had been killed. Harding had had runners from A and B Companies when they reached the road, but no further news as all communications had broken down. Shaw had brought what men he could collect from C Company.
The Battalion Commander could see that the south-west and west slopes of Takrouna were still occupied by the enemy, and in the absence of success signals from 28 Battalion he believed that the summit was still held. He accordingly sent word to A and B Companies to withdraw to the area of his headquarters if they did not make contact with 28 Battalion, presuming that they would be without support on either flank. A runner was sent to Brigade Headquarters with this information.
However, before this runner arrived (about 2 a.m.) Brigadier Kippenberger had made an important decision. Very little information had come back to Brigade Headquarters, close to the start line, where the Commander and staff were anxiously waiting for news of the battle. Some walking wounded had told of desperate fighting, the medical officers had reported that there were many officer casualties from 28 Battalion, the Commander C Company, 21 Battalion, had come back with the disquieting information that his company was scattered and stopped. Then a runner had arrived from B Company, 21 Battalion, with word that both A and B Company Commanders were missing but that Taylor and Donaldson, with 50 men, were fighting on to link up with 23 Battalion. Better news had come from the east side of Takrouna. The 23 Battalion Adjutant had ‘come up’ on the wireless to say that 28 Battalion had had partial success and that, judging by the sounds of fighting well forward, 23 Battalion was near the final objective.
Little to go on, but enough for a decision that would put the Brigade at least in a position to hold on to what it had won. Brigadier Kippenberger sent two liaison officers, moving separately, with instructions that 21 Battalion was to withdraw to its assembly area should its existing position be untenable at first light. Should the battalion withdraw, the Brigade Commander intended to use it as a reserve on the east side of Takrouna, where he believed some measure of success had been achieved. In taking this step, almost unique in the history of the Division, the Brigade Commander believed that he was abandoning those gallant men from A and B Companies of 21 Battalion who had fought on well beyond the road.
On the battlefield Colonel Harding, after conferring with such officers as had returned to his headquarters, ordered the forward companies to pull back to their original assembly positions if contact was not made with 28 or 23 Battalions before dawn. Such withdrawal was eventually made.
There remained the east side of Takrouna and the summit itself. Here, indeed, some measure of success had been achieved.
23 Battalion captures Cherchir
23 Battalion had moved up behind 28 Battalion, and was soon aware that all was not going well with the attack. The small-arms and mortar fire did not diminish in intensity and, with artillery fire, caused some casualties. Colonel Romans was wounded and Captain W. B. Thomas29 took command, assuring his CO that he would carry out the Brigade Commander's instruction that the battalion would fight for its start line.
Calling on B and D Companies, which were leading, and giving orders that the remainder were to follow, Thomas got the men moving, firing to the front and shouting loudly. Lieutenant Haig of C Company, 28 Battalion, returning to find the rest of his men, met this advance head on and later said of it, ‘It was a particularly vociferous one, and I can assure you that it was a fearsome thing to encounter, specially when on one's own.’
But the method worked. Advancing in bounds of about 200 yards, going to ground together to fire concentrated bursts on machine-gun positions on Bir and Takrouna—picked out by the red tracer used by the enemy—stumbling against wires that were connected to weapon pits as a signal for the enemy to fire along them, dodging mines and booby-traps, the two companies broke through the valley and reached the road. Here a further effort was demanded, as Djebel Cherachir, immediately across the road, was obviously held by the enemy and the barrage had been lost.
By this time both B and D Companies were much reduced in strength, and despite repeated shouts to C and A Companies to come up, probably not heard in the commotion, the two rear companies had not followed. Thomas, after a quick check, found himself with 17 men in D Company and 20 in B Company. He decided not to wait but sent back the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant A. F. Bailey,30 to bring the other companies forward.
Lieutenant A. S. Robins,31 himself slightly wounded, who had taken command of B Company when Captain S. Wilson32 was wounded, was ordered to take the eastern slopes of Cherachir, while Captain H. C. Black33 was to take the western end of the same feature with D Company.
The shouting and yelling that Thomas had encouraged during the advance through the valley, partly to discourage the enemy, partly to keep up the spirits of the men, had died down. The crash of exploding shells, the sharper crunch of mortar bombs, the quick chatter of machine guns, and the sudden burst of light from a flare showing clearly the outline of the ridge ahead, were sufficient evidence that grim work remained.
Robins posted two Brens to cover his advance, and in complete silence led his company towards an abrupt gully running up the east end of Cherachir. Two parties of Germans fell back before the company, pausing at intervals to fire at the advancing men. The Brens, firing at the flashes, gave the enemy little chance for damaging fire, and there was no delay. The gully was very steep, rough and stony, but although it was clear that the enemy held entrenched positions on the crest the advance was not observed, despite flares and mortars fired right over the heads of the attackers. Once on the crest the main points of resistance were located farther along the ridge to the west, and to the east from the two parties of retreating Germans. Fortunately D Company claimed the attention of the position to the west, and the ‘mobile’ Germans were page 12 encouraged by rifle fire to continue their retreat. Robins sited his men just below the crest in an effort to avoid the shelling which soon started; some of the men were able to dig in, others prepared rough shelters behind boulders.
D Company had met greater opposition and had lost several men, including Captain Black —last seen rushing forward revolver in hand and found killed many days later—but had finally stormed the crest of Cherachir. All officers in the company had become casualties: Sergeant F. J. Muir34 commanded a platoon, then assumed the duties of CSM, and finally added a second platoon to his command, organising several short bayonet charges. Corporal W. S. Smellie35 commanded the third platoon for the last stage of the battle.
As had been the case with B Company on the eastern end of Cherachir, the men of D Company were forced to take cover from enemy shelling just below the crest of the ridge. They stayed there in one organised party for the rest of the night, with enemy troops occupying the northern slopes. Occasional enemy grenades were still being thrown over the crest at daybreak.
Meanwhile Thomas was organising the rest of the battalion as it arrived. For a while the situation possessed all the elements of a comic opera. The Germans were calling out to each other from Bir, Takrouna, and Cherachir, giving the impression that they were concerting some action against the battalion, but in all probability expressing anxious doubts as to their own safety. One armed party of about twenty went dashing past Thomas's headquarters and completely ignored the small group: it in turn was left alone. Three prisoners, the first of a steady trickle, were brought in, and Private W. D. Dawson36 was instructed to tell them in German to call out to their companions to surrender. This was done without result.
The situation gradually sorted itself out. Captain C. A. Slee37 came up with one platoon (Lieutenant H. Montgomery38) from C Company and went back to find the rest of his men, while the platoon cleaned out some remaining enemy positions on the south-east end of Cherachir. D Company, 28 Battalion, arrived. It had detoured the enemy opposition on the south and east of Takrouna and had come through the valley in complete silence, lying low whenever the enemy opened fire. Captain Ornberg, with many others, had been wounded. This company was sent to assist Montgomery, and after each party had mistaken the other for enemy troops, settled down facing Bir and Takrouna.
Other elements of 23 Battalion, collected by Lieutenant A. C. Marett39 from the confusion still present in the valley, together with small parties from 28 Battalion which readily agreed to fit in with Thomas's plans, gradually came up to the foot of Cherachir and were incorporated into the scheme for all-round defence. By morning Thomas had his men well sited for an expected counter-attack, but none was delivered and the troops were able to fire at remaining pockets of infantry within range, paying particular attention to enemy weapon pits behind them on the northern slopes of Takrouna. Fortunately, as the battalion had no supporting arms, the enemy made no move with his tanks.
Takrouna itself remained in enemy hands. This feature now became the focus of the Division's effort, for without its capture it would have been very difficult to keep the ground captured by 6 NZ Brigade and on the east side of the feature itself, and the guns would have been hopelessly exposed.page 13
5 BRIGADE SECTOR
Takrouna is in the left top corner, Djebel Bir (marked Bin) on the right. Djebel Cherachir is top right. The markings were made by the Brigadier after the attack and show the axes of advance of the 21, 23, and 28 Battalions
LOOKING NORTH FROM TAKROUNA
Djebel Cherachir is beyond the road. In the left foreground is a corner of the lower village
TAKROUNA from the start line
SHELL HOLE AT TAKROUNA made by 17-pounder anti-tank gun
AFTER THE BATTLE
Group of 5 BRIGADE STAFF
left to right) Lt R. D. Hoggans, Lt I. H. Hirst, Capt W. J. G. Roach, Maj M C. Fairbrother, Brig H. K. Kippenberger, Lt-Col R. W. Harding, Lt H. S. Wells behind Harding), Capt J. H. Ensor, Col R. C. Queree, Rev. Fr. J. F. Henley (at rear), Capt E. D. Blundell