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Bardia to Enfidaville

The End of the supercharge Phase

page 247

The End of the supercharge Phase

On 30 March KDG and Divisional Cavalry, each with a battery and an engineer detachment under command, moved forward through Oudref and their advanced patrols reached the south bank of Wadi Akarit. A few prisoners and abandoned vehicles were captured. The going through Metouia and Oudref was not easy, there were many steep-sided marshy wadis, patrols got across only with difficulty, and obviously much engineer work would be wanted before NZ Corps could cross on anything other than a narrow frontage.

Enemy movement could be seen to the north of Wadi Akarit, and there were clear signs that the enemy was not only holding the northern bank, but also that he was there in strength. The 25th and 26th Batteries and Mac Troop were in action north of Oudref in the early afternoon, and were shelled spasmodically in return, but otherwise there was no contact with the enemy.

The 8th Armoured Brigade operated north-west of Oudref, its most advanced regiment moving quite some distance towards and even across the upper part of Wadi Akarit. But it was stopped by enemy demolitions. It came back with a gun captured from 21 Panzer Division.

Still farther west, 1 Armoured Division cleared El Hamma and by the evening of 30 March had advanced as far as the foothills of Djebel Zemlet el Beida, ten miles to the north. There it ran into increasingly strong defences, and no more progress was possible.

For NZ Corps engineering work had first priority—crossings over wadis and demolitions, clearing minefields and road verges, etc. This meant working round the clock, and all three field companies and the field park company took their share. The biggest demolition of many, on the main road near Oudref, was not ready for traffic until 9 a.m. on 31 March.

In all ranks of the Corps morale was high. They were once more in sight of the sea, in a cultivated countryside now becoming steadily greener with the onset of spring. Fifth Brigade Group quickly discovered warm thermal waters in its area and the dust and grime of recent weeks soon disappeared. During 30 March the brigade moved round the west of Djebel ed Aissa to a position two miles south of Oudref. There was some talk of an attack to test the Akarit defences, but the brigade commander was not in favour of a serious attack, and succeeded in getting approval for patrols only, which 21 Battalion provided.

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The move forward of 6 Brigade Group was much hindered by stoppages cause by the density of traffic in and around Gabes. It was intended that the brigade should move through on the night 29–30 March, but after about one and a half hours' progress, Brigadier Gentry halted until first light as the going was so bad and the traffic so dense. Main Headquarters NZ Corps, also on the way forward, struggled on through the night, and finally reached a point west of Bou Chemma early on 30 March.

Sixth Infantry Brigade was not clear of Gabes until mid-afternoon, and even then only 24 and 26 Battalions reached their new area—south-west of Bou Chemma—by last light. The 25th Battalion did not arrive until the morning of 1 April, by which time the brigade had closed up on the rear of 5 Brigade. They were now near enough to the sea to be sent there for a swim, which for all New Zealanders was a special treat.1

Most of the Reserve Group gradually assembled west of Gabes, and the various administrative units opened replenishment points there, but the congestion of transport made it very difficult to find suitable locations.

The whole Corps was concentrated in the new area by 31 March. At 5 p.m. on that day NZ Corps lost its identity, and 2 NZ Division came under 30 Corps for operations and 10 Corps for administration. The 8th Armoured Brigade and certain other units remained with the Division, but the French Group passed to the direct command of 10 Corps. Activities in no way ceased, and 31 March was a day of patrolling and other preparations for the next stage. The Mareth operations, however, were over.

On 30 March General Montgomery sent the following message to Lieutenant-General Freyberg:

My very best congratulations to NZ Corps and 10 Corps on splendid results achieved by the left hook. These results have led to the complete disintegration of the enemy resistance and the whole Mareth position. Give my congratulations to all your officers and men, and tell them how pleased I am with all they have done.

It remains to record the cost. Of the offensive weapons, the most marked loss was in tanks. Over a period from 21 to 31 March 8 Armoured Brigade lost thirty-one Shermans and Grants, and twenty Crusaders, roughly one-third of the strength with which it had started.

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The total casualties of New Zealand troops were 646, made up as follows:

Killed Wounded Missing
Offrs ORs Offrs ORs Offrs ORs
10 115 29 444 48

The ‘attached troops’—8 Armoured Brigade, KDG, ‘L’ Force, etc.—suffered 299 casualties over the same period. The Desert Air Force had lost only seven or eight pilots, a clear vindication of Broadhurst's policy.

1 The Germans had strange ideas about the sea, and a hygiene precaution issued by 164 Light Division appears curious to sea-loving New Zealanders. It reads: ‘Units bivouacked by the sea are to prohibit daily bathing because of the danger of dysentery. Every man may have a short sea bathe not oftener than every second day.’
On a more serious level, and according to Lt-Gen Westphal, once Rommel's Chief of Staff, the Germans were not only homesick, but particularly disliked having the sea between them and their homeland. We must remember that while every part of the Commonwealth forces crossed the sea in both wars, the Germans fought with land communications except for this campaign in North Africa.