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Bardia to Enfidaville

24 Battalion

24 Battalion

The 24th Battalion was delayed on the start line for almost ten minutes because 3 Royal Tanks mistook the enemy's artillery fire for the supporting barrage and waited for it to lift. This rectified, the initial advance proceeded smoothly, but the delay caused the battalion to fall well behind the barrage. Twelve of the tanks paused briefly to embark two men each as ‘tank-riding crews', one man with a sub-machine gun, and one with a bag of No. 36 grenades. This was the first time such action had been taken and, in fact, 24 Battalion was the only one to try the practice. The experiment was not a success.

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C Company (Captain Seal1) on the right and D (Captain Dew2) on the left advanced behind the armour, with A (Captain Aked3) in support. B Company (Major Andrews4) was 600 yards behind in the left rear with orders not to become involved, but each of the forward companies had a section from B Company to help collect prisoners, and all companies had 3-inch mortars under command.

The advance to the first objective was uneventful. Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly, travelling in a carrier, moved forward to contact the tanks and try to speed up the advance, but enemy opposition became so strong that there was no question of catching up with the barrage. A ridge sloped down into the battalion sector from the west about midway between the two objectives, with a minefield on its southern slopes leaving a gap near the Hamma road. The top of the ridge was heavily defended by anti-tank guns. The defenders were from 125 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 164 Light Division and some Italians supported by tanks from 21 Panzer Division.

Some tanks and carriers tried to burst through the minefield, but several were blown up, and others bunched towards the road to move over the ridge at the road end, where the enemy had placed his strongest anti-tank defences. Only on the extreme right of the sector did the advance proceed satisfactorily, and here the tanks reached the final objective shortly before 6 p.m. The delays at the minefield caused those tanks which cleared the area to speed up to catch the barrage, but thereby they left many enemy positions unattacked, and as their aim was to break through to the final objective they were of little assistance to the infantry. After the battle, Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly spoke strongly about the need for a better system of communication between battalion and regimental commanders, the only method open to him being to climb into a tank and use the regiment's internal link. The battalion was now confronted with an enemy which was probably numerically stronger and was firmly entrenched. C Company passed just to the east of the minefield and continued to advance, but with its left flank in the air, as D Company on its left was faced with stern opposition from the ridge in front of it. It was during this progress almost across the enemy's front that C Company suffered its heaviest casualties. Many posts were mopped up but others had to

1 Maj R. J. H. Seal; Auckland; born London, 20 Feb 1912; public accountant; GSO II, HQ Allied Military Liaison, Yugoslavia, 1944; wounded 26 Mar 1943.

2 Maj M. T. S. Dew; Wellington; born Nelson27 Apr 1916; Regular soldier; LO 210 British Military Mission, 1942; 2 i/c 24 Bn Dec 1943–Jan 1944.

3 Lt-Col E. W. Aked, MC, m.i.d., Aristion Andrias (Gk); Tauranga; born England, 12 Feb 1911; shop assistant; CO 24 Bn 4–8 Jun 1944; CO 210 British Liaison Unit with 3 Greek Bde in Italy and Greece, 1944–45.

4 Maj E. R. Andrews, ED, m.i.d.; Pukearuhe, Taranaki; born New Plymouth, 17 Jul 1913; farmer; 2 i/c 24 Bn Jun 1944–Jun 1945.

page 224 be left, and it was now that the men riding on the tanks were sorely missed. Prisoners were merely disarmed and sent back as there were no spare men for escorts despite the extra section from B Company. But Captain Seal kept the company going, and alone among the companies of 24 Battalion it reached the vicinity of the final objective by 6 p.m. Later some carriers, sent forward by Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly after he had visited the company, were used to fill the gap caused by the absence of D Company. Thus C Company's success, plus that of 23 Battalion and 8 Armoured Brigade, cleared a sufficient gap in the centre of the enemy line for 1 Armoured Division to progress astride the vital axis of advance.

In the rear of C Company the position was not good, and among other complications, unguarded prisoners picked up abandoned weapons and resumed hostilities. In this confused situation some of our wounded were killed. On the left, D Company reached the first objective without difficulty, and then arrived at the minefield from which the tanks had swerved away. By now the barrage was lost, but Captain Dew had been told that the infantry attack must continue, and all three platoons crossed the minefield and advanced under heavy fire against the ridge beyond, capturing some twenty prisoners who were sent to the rear without escort. The commander of 16 Platoon, Second-Lieutenant Cater,1 was killed and gradually every man in the platoon became a casualty; 17 Platoon was finally pinned to the ground in front of an enemy strongpoint and its commander, Lieutenant Friend,2 was wounded; and 18 Platoon reached the crest of the ridge and was closing with the enemy when, among other casualties, its commander, Second-Lieutenant Woodcock,3 was killed. The company had maintained its offensive till the last but was by now exhausted of manpower and incapable of further effort.

A Company in support then became involved, and was held up behind the minefield, where it found several tanks knocked out as well as the mortars of D Company. No. 7 Platoon was sent round the western end of the minefield, and 8 and 9 still farther to the left, in an attempt to outflank the strongpoints at the top. They managed to move forward for a while, but it was slow progress. For the moment Captain Aked refrained from launching any stronger attack until he could discuss the situation with the battalion commander, and he withdrew 7 Platoon which was making no progress.

1 2 Lt W. P. Cater; born NZ 21 Jan 1919; dairy factory assistant; killed in action 26 Mar 1943.

2 Capt L. C. Friend, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Suva, 3 Nov 1913; bank officer; OC 1 NZ Interrogation Sec 1944; OC Allied Interrogation Det, Italy, 1944; wounded 26 Mar 1943.

3 2 Lt F. C. Woodcock; born England, 3 Apr 1909; orchardist and motor mechanic; wounded 27 Nov 1941; killed in action 26 Mar 1943.

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Now B Company, the reserve, came into the picture. The company commander, Major Andrews, could see the trouble ahead, and leaving his company under cover went to battalion headquarters, soon to be joined by Captain Aked. Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly was at the moment away in his carrier with C Company, and the adjutant, Captain Boord,1 had been wounded some time before; and so Major Andrews was left to make his own decision, which was to attack farther on the left, where there was a chance that he would outflank the enemy and even link up with 25 Battalion.

Unknown to him, however, Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly sent back a radio signal to B Company ordering it forward on C Company's axis, with the idea of taking the enemy strongpoints from the rear—in other words exploiting success. But B Company's signal arrangements had broken down and the message was never delivered.

So B Company moved off to the west and then advanced in extended order across the minefield, but as soon as it emerged from a patch of dead ground it was faced with heavy small-arms fire and was gradually forced to ground. After a while Andrews thought it was serving no useful purpose to stay there in daylight—it was about 6 p.m.—and so withdrew the company and re-formed, reporting back at once to the battalion commander.

At Headquarters it was found that the position had improved. There had been a conference between Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly, Captain Aked and Captain Dew, the last-named describing the losses of D Company and the obscure position on his front, where, however, the company had now made some progress. So Conolly ordered A Company to carry on with its attack, and Aked decided to go on in one line with the two platoons left to him. No. 7 Platoon had not yet reported back. With mortar support A Company charged forward, withheld their fire until at short range, and then closed with the bayonet. The verve of this attack at the double overwhelmed the enemy and all the enemy troops not killed surrendered at once. The company advanced down the northern slopes of the ridge for 300 yards and then reorganised, having taken ninety-two prisoners. A surprising reinforcement to this attack came from seven men of 3 Royal Tanks whose vehicles had been knocked out, but who had joined A Company in its last assault.

So with this foundation Conolly ordered B Company to renew the attack wide on the left, and the advance was resumed at 9 p.m.; but the enemy had retired. Later about eighteen survivors from D

1 Lt-Col R. Boord, m.i.d.; Hamilton; born NZ 4 Feb 1908; student; CO 24 Bn Jul–Dec 1945; wounded 26 Mar 1943.

page 226 Company were added to B, and the company advanced steadily and consolidated on the left of C, a little short of the final objective. This move concluded 24 Battalion's attack, and by 10 p.m. the sector was stable. Expected counter-attacks did not eventuate, and by 2 a.m. on 27 March the whole area had been combed for enemy troops, and all companies were reorganised and dug in. One company from 26 Battalion was standing ready to help with mopping up, but this assistance was not required.

Casualties in 24 Battalion were fairly heavy—49 killed and 58 wounded, a much higher proportion of killed to wounded than is normal. The medical records show that the proportion of killed to wounded all across the front was higher than usual, owing possibly to the fact that this attack was made in daylight.

The battalion had captured between 400 and 500 prisoners, and another 150 were rounded up in the morning; and enemy casualties in killed and wounded were high also. Inspection of the enemy position disclosed just how strongly it had been prepared and fortified, but a sustained offensive by 24 Battalion, combined with success elsewhere, had overcome all opposition.