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Bardia to Enfidaville

12 April—the End of Desert Fighting

12 April—the End of Desert Fighting

After a quiet night 2 NZ Division advanced on Sousse at first light on 12 April, and at 7.45 a.m. the first KDG patrol entered the town. Engineers at once disarmed prepared charges on the traffic bridge over the railway on the northern outskirts of the town. The inhabitants gave the troops an enthusiastic welcome, producing flowers, wine and brandy amidst much hand-clapping and cries of ‘Vive! Victoire!’ They reported that the enemy had left only five minutes before, and at 8.45 a.m. Tactical Air Reconnaissance reported the tail of the rearguard as only four miles north of the town. In fact, not long afterwards Divisional Cavalry patrols ran into the rearguard in position on high ground near Akouda, where it was using a number of guns, together with mines and wire. Prisoners confirmed that it was part of 90 Light Division.

Cavalry patrols were then directed to the west via Kalaa Srira in an effort to turn the enemy position, and during the day, helped by steady artillery support, gradually worked round to the north, although it was slow going. In the late afternoon 8 Armoured Brigade caught up, having pushed on throughout the day although slowed down by various ‘blows’. The brigade bypassed Sousse and also came up against the enemy rearguard. However, pressure was page 279 maintained and towards last light the enemy was obviously thinning out. At 7.30 p.m. the whole position had been turned, and 8 Armoured Brigade went on, Notts Yeomanry finishing up only 3000 yards short of Sidi bou Ali, with Staffs Yeomanry close behind. Divisional Cavalry and King's Dragoon Guards disengaged and laagered west of Sousse.

The enemy rearguard had achieved its purpose and had delayed the advance for many hours.

For the rest of the Division the day had been one of hard going with no action. Progress across country was difficult, and in most places the ‘going’ was impassable to wheels, so that traffic was confined to the roads, which the enemy had mined in many places. At one critical point north of Msaken, for instance, the road was both mined and cratered heavily, the crater being 64 feet wide. It was 3 p.m. before the engineers had filled it in.

Fifth Infantry Brigade Group moved at 8.15 a.m. in nine columns off the road, but at Wadi Kerker the broken nature of the ground forced it into single column along the road, and at one stage it became badly strung out. By 4.50 p.m. Headquarters and 28 Battalion neared Akouda, having bypassed Sousse, but were then held up while the last of the enemy rearguard was cleared away. This group then passed through Akouda and was at last joined by its two strayed battalions, which had moved through Sousse. The countryside was a mass of narrow lanes among thick cactus hedges and olive groves, and it was very easy to take the wrong turning. The 21st Battalion official history says: ‘On the afternoon of 12 April 21 Battalion passed through Sousse. Again it was at the rear of the column, but it came in for its share of “Vives” from the populace—“Vive les Anglais” and “Vive les Enzed”—which accompanied odd bottles of wine given to the troops and bundles of flowers pressed on the grinning drivers. This was running a war on the right lines, and the battalion hoped to be at the head of the column at the next town.’

By last light the Division was stretched out for 60 miles, from north of Akouda to La Hencha. Maintenance had been normal as usual, but the platoons of Petrol Company were working hard to keep supplies going. Petrol was all that mattered, for rations offered no difficulty, casualties had been slight, and ammunition expenditure negligible.

Despite the check at Akouda it was a useful day on the whole, for landing grounds had been overrun before damage could be done to them, and the little port of Sousse was undamaged and workable. There was no enemy interference all day.

page 280

On the west flank 4 Light Armoured Brigade moved round the west of Sebkra de Sidi el Hani and kept touch with 2 NZ Division's patrols.

Late on 12 April 10 Corps issued a directive about the first approach to the Enfidaville line, saying that it was expected the enemy would hold an outpost position east and west through Enfidaville, with the main position running west from Bou Ficha on the coast. Tenth Corps was to close up to this line, with 2 NZ Division on a front from the coast to west of Takrouna, 4 Indian Division in the centre opposite Djebel Garci, and 7 Armoured Division on the left.1 For the first time for Eighth Army an inter-army boundary was defined—a dividing line between 7 Armoured Division and 19 French Corps, the right-hand formation of First Army.

General Freyberg then decided that the Division must progress a little farther before 13 April, and the outcome of various conferences and orders was that 28 (Maori) Battalion was to occupy Sidi bou Ali, but was to be well clear of the road by first light so as not to block 8 Armoured Brigade, which would be passing through, with 21 Battalion in support.

At midnight 12–13 April 28 Battalion set off, but A Company (Major Porter) debussed short of the town ready to go forward on foot. However, the battalion intelligence officer (Lieutenant Wikiriwhi2) volunteered to reconnoitre by carrier, and in due course reported the village clear. A Company carried on for another four miles, and when almost at the end of its task ran into the 90 Light Division rearguard. In the ensuing skirmish the company destroyed a gun portée, killed two of its crew, wounded two more and took two prisoners. The company had one man killed and two wounded. By 5 a.m. all companies were in areas off the road, where they remained until they rejoined the 5 Brigade column later in the day. There was some slight enemy shelling at first light, but no casualties.

On 13 April 2 NZ Division came up against the outposts of the ‘Enfidaville line’, which lay along the northern limit of the Sahel, for at this point the mountains on the west ran down to the sea, leaving only a very narrow strip of flat land along the water's edge. The Enfidaville line marked the end of desert fighting for Eighth Army.

1 See map on p. 294.

2 Capt M. Wikiriwhi, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Pukekohe; born Rotorua, 4 Apr 1918; shepherd; twice wounded.