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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

The Struggle Continues on Takrouna

page 25

The Struggle Continues on Takrouna

Meanwhile the small party on Takrouna had been receiving the concentrated attention of the enemy mortars and artillery. Heavy shelling of the feature began soon after the men had got into their positions, and continued throughout the day with little intermission. The Maoris were not daunted and engaged such targets as presented themselves. Lance-Corporal H. Ruha49 so worried the crew of two captured 25-pounder guns with Bren fire from the dome of the mosque that they unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw from their positions on the northern slopes beyond the village. Private W. Takurua50 fired all the ammunition he could find for an enemy 2-inch mortar slap into the village, and followed this up with a box of Italian stick grenades. All were busy.

In such a restricted area the men on Takrouna were very vulnerable to the enemy fire. Nebel- werfers had added to the devastation. Rogers was killed and five of the original party were early casualties, and soon Manahi realised that the area was practically undefended. He sent down the hill for reinforcements, and later went himself to collect some. Happily the enemy made no counter-attack during this period.

Manahi managed to find C Company, 28 Battalion. Lieutenant Haig gave him a section of riflemen, stretcher-bearers, food and ammunition, and Manahi returned with them to Takrouna, which was wreathed in the dust and smoke of bursting shells. On the way he met the officer from the Medium Regiment coming down, and was told that the feature was no longer tenable and that he should go back to his unit. The officer said, not knowing that this policy had been discarded, that Takrouna would be heavily pounded with artillery that afternoon as a prelude to a renewed attack. This left Manahi in a quandary, as he felt that a renewed attack would give the enemy time to get firmly lodged on pinnacle and ledge, previously undefended. At the bottom of the hill he spoke to Captain Catchpole, who had been in communication with his CO, Lieutenant-Colonel K. W. R. Glasgow,51 and was told to take his men up and to hold on at all costs. Catchpole said, although he did not know it at the time, that reinforcements were on the way and that any artillery programme would be stopped. This was a critical moment.

Manahi went on. Again men were posted to cover all approaches to ledge and pinnacle. The relieving platoon from 21 Battalion arrived under Lieutenant Shaw at 3.30 p.m., and while the relief was taking place the long-expected counter-attack was launched. A pause in the shelling had been followed by the approach of a group of Italians coming directly from the village along the bottom of the face below the pinnacle. The ensuing struggle was bitter and ferocious. Manahi and Corporal J. P. Bell52 dealt with a few who had broken through to the steps, mowing them down with machine-gun fire. Other Italians made more progress, forced a way on to the ledge and thoroughly aroused the Maoris by tossing hand grenades into a building sheltering wounded. Italians were shot, bayoneted, and pushed over the cliff during one of those grim moments when all control is lost.

In the midst of this pandemonium, Muirhead, who had been indulging in the rare spectacle of observing at close quarters the operations of an Italian cookhouse in the village immediately below the northern side of the pinnacle, charged down to the ledge. He had been on the way back from the far side of the pinnacle, had seen what was going on, had collected two or three page 26 Maoris and put an end to the enemy attack in spectacular fashion, tommy guns blazing. The enemy withdrew, taking three Maori prisoners, and by nightfall both ledge and pinnacle were again in our hands. Most of the Maoris, now completely exhausted, returned to their battalion.

Shaw sent a note to Brigade, for no signals cables had withstood the heavy shellfire despite the gallant and constant endeavour of the Brigade signallers, explaining what had happened and asking for reinforcements. Another platoon from 21 Battalion was sent, taken from C Company under Lieutenant Hirst. This party arrived at nine in the evening.

Hardly had the reinforcements got into position before the enemy again attacked, taking the two platoons by surprise as they thought that all access routes were covered. The pinnacle was captured, and an attempt was made to clear the ledge. But the men were rallied and drove the enemy back to the pinnacle, where they occupied the mosque and adjacent buildings. A stalemate developed. Neither party could remove the other, each endeavour being frustrated by a shower of hand grenades and small-arms fire.

With daylight on the 21st the enemy took advantage of the extra height of the buildings on the pinnacle, and it was soon clear that it would be no easy task to dislodge them. Shaw was wounded while sniping from a gap in a wall, and Hirst took command. At the bottom of the hill the Brigade Commander ordered 28 Battalion to send reinforcements—Manahi, if possible, and any others familiar with the layout of the buildings on Takrouna. Manahi responded magnifycently and led about twelve men up to the ledge to join Hirst.

Hirst and Manahi then discussed the problem of driving the enemy from the pinnacle. Manahi tried to get the 28 Battalion mortars from the flat below to bombard the building in which it was suspected that the enemy was concentrated, but the range was too great. Then an attempt was made to hit this building—within 10 yards of the ledge—with a 2-inch mortar that had been brought up the hill. This, too, was unsuccessful as the range was too short. Captain A. F. Harding,53 who then arrived to observe for 5 Field Regiment, persuaded Hirst to allow him to try a 25-pounder gun, accepting the obvious risk of hitting the ledge instead of the building on the pinnacle. After an unsuccessful attempt to range directly on the building, Harding brought the fall of shot, lift by lift, up the southern slopes of the hill. Some fifty rounds were fired before the target was hit, and then three direct, penetrating hits were scored from the final ten rounds.

Immediately two parties from the ledge, one led by Manahi, the other by Sergeant I. Weepu,54 went up to the pinnacle. The enemy had gone! A thorough investigation showed that he had left by the same mysterious means by which he had surprised the two platoons from 21 Battalion the night before—the tunnel giving on to the path to the village. Manahi remembered that he had forgotten to point out the tunnel during the relief.

The end was not yet, however, for the enemy was still firmly entrenched in the village and on the north-west slopes. It was approximately midday, and it seemed that the position was little better than on the previous day. There had been an improvement, for line communication had been re-established during the night and both Headquarters 5 Brigade and the supporting 5 Field Regiment were in direct communication with the summit of Takrouna, an advantage that was soon apparent.

As soon as the enemy realised that the pinnacle had changed hands once more, both ledge and pinnacle were again subjected to heavy and continuous mortar fire. More casualties were page 27 suffered and movement became very dangerous. Harding immediately got his guns on to the mortars, some of which he could see firing from pits on the north-west slopes, while others were concealed behind the village. Altogether, more than three hundred rounds were fired before the mortars were finally silenced.

The village itself was a different proposition, not so easily dealt with. Perched on a narrow ridge, huddled close to the abrupt face of the pinnacle, it was a very difficult target. Yet Hirst believed that some softening was necessary, as all access routes were covered from solidly built stone houses that would afford complete protection against the small-arms fire of any attacking party. He rang Headquarters 5 Brigade in the middle of the afternoon to discuss the situation.

The Brigadier was up with 28 Battalion, but the Brigade Major, Major M. C. Fairbrother,55 after considering the possibility of getting a two-pounder anti-tank gun up the hill, decided to get one of the new 17-pounders to range on the village from its emplacement near Brigade Headquarters. The 17-pounder was still on the secret list, to be used in emergencies only. However, permission was obtained to use it, and the gun crew was soon briefed. The first shot landed on the roof of a building occupied by Hirst's men, drawing immediate and anxious objections, but soon the gun was sending its solid shells ricochetting through the village. The excited observers from the summit saw that the stone buildings gave little protection against this bombardment, and that the enemy had been reduced to panic.

The opportunity was promptly seized. The first move was made by Manahi and a group of Maoris. While the 17-pounder had been in action, Manahi and his men had been stalking enemy posts on the north-east slopes, dodging and creeping among the boulders, swift to use bayonet or grenade. Several weapon pits had been taken in turn and many prisoners captured, when Manahi noticed the effect of the 17-pounder on the enemy in the village. He believed that the plum was at last ripe for the plucking, and with several others made for the village.

The other movement was made by Hirst. Brigadier Kippenberger, with reserves now at his disposal since the relief of 23 Battalion and the reorganisation of 21 Battalion, had directed that a route should be reconnoitred to the village for an attack to be made by a company from 21 Battalion that night. Hirst had made this reconnaissance and had returned to the pinnacle, where he came to the same conclusion as Manahi concerning the state of the enemy in the village. Taking a small party, he went right round to the north side of the village and began a house- to-house search, rounding up the enemy and driving them towards Manahi's party operating from the other side. The collapse of the enemy was complete. Takrouna, the scene of so much dogged fighting, so much individual gallantry and sacrifice, had fallen.

Below on the flat Brigadier Kippenberger heard the news with grim satisfaction. He had nursed the operation with all the means at his disposal and had given a war correspondent the chance of referring to him as ‘red eyed and unshaven’. Later, messages of congratulation were received from General Horrocks, the Corps Commander, and General Freyberg. In the Division as a whole the men who had survived the struggle were regarded with something akin to awe. For two whole days and nights Takrouna had been hidden by the smoke and dust of the bloody battle, and strange stories of passages and secret entrances had circulated amongst the troops. Already, Takrouna and the battle there had become legend.