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Bardia to Enfidaville

New Zealand Corps advances

New Zealand Corps advances

Late on 27 March, beginning about 8.30 p.m., NZ Corps moved forward a short distance but soon halted to await first light on 28 March. Information about the enemy showed that all German forces had gone from the Mareth Line except for rearguards, but the final words in Montgomery's telegram to Horrocks showed some doubts. Other reports stated that 21 Panzer Division had moved to the El Hamma front, while 15 Panzer Division with an estimated fifteen tanks was east of Oglat Merteba trying to form a line along Wadi Merteba to keep open the corridor from Mareth to Gabes. The 10th Panzer Division was still facing the American thrust near Maknassy.

In point of fact, during the afternoon of 27 March 15 Panzer Division, disconcerted after its abortive counter-attack in the morning, gave up the idea of making a stand on Wadi Merteba and withdrew another ten miles north-east to Hir Zouitinat, where it was ordered to remain on 28 March and keep the passage open. During the night 27–28 March the last troops were withdrawn from the Mareth Line, and all non-motorised formations were sent direct to the Akarit position.

At dawn on 28 March NZ Corps, less 5 Brigade Group and ‘L’ Force, resumed its advance in desert formation. The KDGs led, followed by Tactical Headquarters, comprising the GOC, GSO II, CRA, CRE, and a navigating party from 36 Survey Battery. Then followed 8 Armoured Brigade Group, Gun Group, 6 Infantry Brigade Group, Main Corps Headquarters, Reserve Group and Rear Corps Headquarters. Divisional Cavalry had remained well forward behind 1 Armoured Division, waiting to lead NZ Corps off on its new axis to the east and north.

Contact with the enemy was first made on the line of Wadi Merteba, where there was an enemy position. F Troop, 4 Field Regiment, attached to KDG, deployed, and after some shooting the armoured cars of KDG rounded up what was left of two complete Italian battalions, a total of 32 officers and 700 other ranks. The position was found to be quite well equipped with anti-tank guns, mortars, etc., but the defensive spirit of the Italians was very low, and in addition they were surprised by the arrival of NZ Corps in force. They came from 125 Regiment of Spezia Division, and had been sent by Messe to extend the El Hamma line to the page 239 south. The main part of their division was still on the coastal end of the enemy line, at this time just in front of Gabes.

By 11 a.m. the forward patrols had turned east and crossed Wadi Merteba south-west of Djebel Halouga. While reconnaissance was being made for suitable crossing places for the Corps, patrols were pushed out for some miles to the east and south. Five tanks had been reported to be moving up from the south, but they moved off to the east without making contact. Meanwhile bulldozers from 6 Field Company were improving the crossings over various small wadis, and other engineers were marking tracks for the advance, nine in all.

The 8th Armoured Brigade crossed the wadi and moved east for some four or five miles. All three regiments saw sporadic action and both sides had small tank losses, but the result of the advance was to press 15 Panzer Division back, and then threaten to outflank it on the side nearer Djebel Halouga. The going was bad, and one regiment comments particularly on the lack of time for maintenance, which meant that it had only fifteen runners left at the end of the day. A pursuit is always strenuous, alike to man and machine.

The gun group moved steadily, the only delay being shortly after 9 a.m., when 4 Field Regiment was deployed and stood by while the prisoners were being rounded up. The group then moved on, turned east, and by 2 p.m. was across Wadi Merteba, engaging odd targets of enemy infantry and transport until last light. Some support was also given to 8 Armoured Brigade.

Sixth Infantry Brigade Group advanced in nine columns, with 26 Battalion in the lead and the guns of 43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery deployed among the brigade. It was a tedious and tiring advance, with only spasmodic movement and in hot and dusty conditions. The leading battalion turned to the east at 12.15 p.m., and then the brigade halted for two hours, after which it was instructed to take up a position on the southern edge of Djebel Halouga in order to cover the armour, which would retire behind the infantry for the night.

The group began to move forward again at 2.30 p.m., but very slowly over difficult going. Shortly thereafter it was bombed by enemy Ju88s. Seven men were killed and twenty-two wounded, and two trucks were destroyed. Later two planes bombed and strafed the columns and fatally wounded the brigade intelligence officer.

Finally, Headquarters 6 Infantry Brigade was established a few miles east of Oglat Merteba, and 26 Battalion, 31 Anti-Tank Battery and 3 Machine-Gun Company formed a gun line, the battalion being on Point 222, a pronounced feature on the southern end of Djebel Halouga. The tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade then page 240 withdrew behind the battalion. The remainder of 6 Infantry Brigade Group had to reduce frontage and close up after dark, and it was 7 p.m. before the tail was across Wadi Merteba. The group made no contact with the enemy all day, nor during the night.