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Bardia to Enfidaville

5 Infantry Brigade Group on 28 March

5 Infantry Brigade Group on 28 March

When NZ Corps moved forward on 28 March, 5 Brigade Group remained in the flanking position taken up the previous evening. The prisoners from the Point 209 battle had been rounded up the evening before, but did not reach Brigade Headquarters until the morning of the 28th. As a recognition of a worthy foe, Brigadier Kippenberger asked the commanding officer and the adjutant of the enemy battalion to breakfast, and had an interesting talk with the CO on the fighting of the previous few days, the adjutant interpreting. The CO was then given permission to address his men before they were marched off to the prisoner-of-war cage, and did so in a straight-forward and soldierly fashion. He and the adjutant were then sent off in a 15-cwt truck, and took with them, in the Brigade Major's words, ‘the sympathy of those who watched, for they showed good qualities to the very end.’

During the previous night (27th–28th) there was no sign of any enemy activity, and it was clear that the usefulness of the flank position had ceased. At 9.55 a.m. NZ Corps ordered the brigade to move to an area to the south of Djebel Halouga, moving by the direct track from Point 209 to Oglat Merteba and thence towards Gabes.

At midday the group moved off with 21 Battalion and Tactical Headquarters leading. Owing to a mistake in navigation the column set off to the south-east instead of going at once to the north-east. The brigade commander quickly noted the mistake, but as there was a mass of transport ahead on the correct route, he said nothing and let the march go on, for he knew that another track more or less parallel to the first also led to Gabes. He thought, moreover, that there was nothing to be gained in piling up behind the rest of the Corps, and, on the lower level, was acting towards the main body of NZ Corps much as NZ Corps had acted towards 10 Corps. In other words he wanted to get ahead on his own. It is recounted that his intelligence officer was much relieved not to be ‘ticked off’ when he confessed the error.

So the column headed south-east for about five miles, and passed across the front of ‘L’ Force, which mistook them for the enemy and opened fire. There were no casualties, but two trucks in 21 Battalion were damaged.

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The brigade had been warned of the presence of enemy tanks in the area ahead of it, so the 17-pounders of 32 Anti-Tank Battery moved with Tactical Headquarters. But about 1.30 p.m., when it was definite that the group would be moving on a route farther to the east than that originally intended, the column was reorganised to cope the better with the risk. A special advanced guard was formed consisting of 29 Field Battery, one company from 21 Battalion, one section of 23 Battalion carriers, 21 Battalion antitank guns, and the 17-pounders of 32 Battery, all under the command of Major D. J. Robertson1 of 32 Battery. The 6th Field Regiment was also moved up to the front of the column ahead of 21 Battalion. About this time a squadron of armoured cars from King's Dragoon Guards, under Major P. D. Chrystal (who, it will be remembered, had reconnoitred Chrystal's Rift), which was patrolling east of the El Hamma road, joined the column unofficially and remained with it for the next twenty-four hours.

The crossing over Wadi el Melab was found to be mined, and had to be passed on a one-vehicle front while the engineers made additional crossings. Three bombs were dropped amongst the transport of 23 Battalion at this crossing, and three men were killed and nine wounded.

Towards dusk the advanced guard took up a position almost due south of that occupied by 26 Battalion of 6 Brigade, but five miles distant, for the course taken by 5 Brigade was at this point about five miles south of the one originally intended. At last light one battery went into action against a group of enemy tanks directly ahead, but the light was against successful shooting. The battalions were then disposed astride the track behind the advanced guard, 28 on the right, 21 in the centre, and 23 on the left. Normal precautions were taken, but patrols sent forward found only vacated enemy positions. At 8.30 p.m. the brigade was instructed to rejoin the main body on 29 March.

The result of the day's advance for NZ Corps as a whole was reasonably good, for the going was bad. Much enemy equipment was captured, including thirty-four guns, among them three of the detested 88-millimetre.

1 Maj D. J. Robertson; Timaru; born NZ 17 Dec 1906; manufacturing representative.