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Bardia to Enfidaville

First Contacts with the Enemy Line

page 281

First Contacts with the Enemy Line

THE hills now facing Eighth Army were the spurs of Djebel Zaghouan, a 4200-foot-high mountain some distance farther west. The most easterly peaks of these spurs were Djebel Garci and Takrouna,1 the last-named being on the western side of the entrance to the coastal strip. From Takrouna the hills trended away east of north, coming closer and closer to the coast, until at Hammamet, 20 miles away, they came right down to the water's edge.

The little town of Enfidaville was situated on the flat land at the entrance to the coastal strip, about halfway between Takrouna and the coast. Behind it, the country rose gradually, and Enfidaville nestled, half hidden, on the fringe of large olive groves which ran down to the sea, and amongst bluegums and other trees which surrounded its houses and lined its streets. On its outskirts some of these gum trees had been felled as road blocks, which later spelt doom to several soldiers who innocently but prematurely tried to enter the town.

The line of peaks, Garci and Takrouna in particular, commanded the coastal plain stretching south from Enfidaville, and overlooked the country across which the Division must travel to come to grips with the enemy. The advantage in terrain for ground fighting thus lay with the enemy, but the advantage in landing grounds now lay overwhelmingly with the Allies.

At first light on 13 April 2 NZ Division resumed the advance when Divisional Cavalry patrols moved up the main road from Sidi bou Ali, and KDG patrolled along the road running north from Sebkra Kelbia. There was a little shellfire on the main road, and KDG struck resistance some five miles north of the Sebkra. The supporting artillery came into action, and was in turn shelled, but armoured cars rounded up several vehicles and captured thirty prisoners, and the enemy withdrew. There seemed to be enemy positions about every three miles, typical rearguard tactics, and page 282 there were undoubted indications that the Division was approaching a stronger line of defence, for enemy shelling became progressively more intense as forward elements approached Enfidaville.

More pressure was wanted, and the tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade were pushed through Sidi bou Ali astride the road. By 1.20 p.m. the brigade was in touch with the enemy, but found difficulty in getting observation from the tank turrets because of the olive groves, so 21 Battalion was sent forward, the carriers leading. Finally, at 4.30 p.m. the battalion took up a position across the road about five miles short of the town.

Meanwhile 5 Infantry Brigade had been called into action. At about 9 a.m. the GOC, from the roof of a farmhouse near Sidi bou Ali, instructed Brigadier Kippenberger to move direct on Djebel Garci, capture it if possible, and then advance on Enfidaville from the flank and rear. The brigade therefore took the secondary road and track from Sidi bou Ali towards Djebel Garci, 17 miles distant.

The proposed operation seemed a fairly extensive one, a ‘tall order’, but one must always bear in mind the special relationship between the GOC and his infantry brigadiers. The latter could estimate correctly just how much or how little was really meant by the General's sometimes startling instructions, and the General knew that his brigadiers would interpret his orders more in the spirit than the letter. In this case there was another factor, to be mentioned again later, namely that it was believed that the enemy was not going to make a real stand on the Enfidaville line, and that it was quite likely that the hills—including Djebel Garci—would not be strongly held.

The brigade commander at once summoned his battalion commanders, and prescribed the order of advance as 23 Battalion, Tactical Headquarters, platoon 7 Field Company, 5 Field Regiment, 28 Battalion, 21 Battalion, 7 Field Company (less a platoon), Main Headquarters, and B Echelon transport, the advance to be if necessary in single column. Lieutenant-Colonel Romans was told that his battalion, with four Sherman tanks from 8 Armoured Brigade, was to capture Djebel Garci.

Some four miles beyond Sidi bou Ali, 23 Battalion was joined by the four tanks, and here 21 Battalion left the brigade to join 8 Armoured Brigade as already recorded. The movements of the four tanks are a mystery, for they did not accompany 23 Battalion on what became a dash at express speed over the countryside. Whether they fell behind owing to the rapid advance, or were told by Brigadier Kippenberger or Lieutenant-Colonel Romans to disengage, or were forgotten in the excitement is not known.

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The 23rd Battalion formed up in desert formation of nine columns, had a meal, and at 1.30 p.m. moved forward in the van of the brigade. At 3.10 p.m. it was some three miles in advance of the road from Enfidaville to Sebkra Kelbia, and was in full view of the enemy on the high ground north of Wadi el Boul. The enemy had commenced shelling the column, the head of which was still some six miles from the top of Djebel Garci.

But by now Brigadier Kippenberger had examined the Garci feature from closer range, and had decided that it was too big for either a battalion or even a brigade attack, and was a divisional objective. Well to the right, however, was another striking feature identified as Takrouna, the capture of which would still enable a flank attack to be made against Enfidaville.

Speed was essential if the enemy was to be caught off balance. So while they were all still moving ahead in their vehicles, Kippenberger shouted out his instructions to Romans for the change of plan. The attack was to go straight in without even waiting for support from 5 Field Regiment, for the regiment was some way behind, and it would take time to bring it forward and to find positions. It was now about 3.30 p.m.

The carriers of 23 Battalion, now in the lead, reached Point 70 overlooking Wadi el Boul, and from there could see enemy transport moving along the road running south of Takrouna. Behind the carriers the companies began to arrive in their vehicles, ‘bumping and bouncing over the rough ground’, and enemy shelling intensified. There were repeated salvoes of four. A self-propelled gun could be seen on the road in front of Takrouna, there appeared to be about three troops of 105-millimetre guns in action, and our own artillery was not available. The enemy was obviously ready, and the brigade commander decided that without artillery or armoured support it was most unlikely that the battalion would ever get to Takrouna, which was still three miles away. So despite the readiness of the battalion commander and the battalion to go on, the brigade commander ordered the troops to debus and take shelter behind the ridge near the hamlet of Hamadet Salah.

The troops debussed and dug in with all speed, while the carriers went forward to shoot up transport. By 5.30 p.m. 5 Field Regiment was in action, but the wide-open nature of the plain made it necessary for the guns to deploy some distance back, a factor that was to affect all artillery activities in the days that followed.

Brigadier Kippenberger decided to hold the high ground round Point 70 and to extend the line to the west with two companies of 28 Battalion, using the other two companies to patrol forward to the road. While he was conferring with his commanding officers page 284 at Headquarters 23 Battalion there was heavy shelling in the area. After this conference, at about 6 p.m., Lieutenant-Colonel Romans arranged the dispositions to be taken up round Point 70, and these were occupied after dark. In the early hours of 14 April the battalion sent fighting patrols as far as the road, but these had nothing to report.

After dark 28 Battalion took up its position, with two companies dug in on the left of the 23rd. The other two sent out patrols up to the road along a stretch of two miles, but had nothing to report except that there was water in Wadi el Boul.

The casualties incurred by 5 Infantry Brigade during the day were surprisingly light, considering the advance across an open plain and the weight of the enemy shellfire. One officer and one other rank were killed, and fourteen other ranks wounded.

Sixth Infantry Brigade Group was assembled in the Bourdjine area by 11 a.m., 24 and 26 Battalions joining Headquarters and 25 Battalion which had moved there the night before. The brigade moved forward by stages during the day to just south of Sidi bou Ali, where it arrived at 10 p.m. A ‘flag-showing’ detachment of carrier patrol strength was sent round via Djemmal and Moknine and received enthusiastic welcomes from the local populace.

Night found 8 Armoured Brigade laagering behind a 21 Battalion gun line five miles south of Enfidaville, and 5 Infantry Brigade dug in four miles south-west of Enfidaville facing Takrouna. King's Dragoon Guards and Divisional Cavalry maintained patrols across the front, and ten miles from Enfidaville were in touch with ‘L’ Force. The gun group was some miles back, but the Division was gradually assembling, and only needed to have artillery in closer support before making an attempt to breach the enemy line—or so it appeared.

Farther to the west 4 Light Armoured Brigade and ‘L’ Force had at last light reached a line running east and west just south of Djebibina.

Very little was known of the enemy dispositions except that a line of posts existed west of Takrouna, and numerous infantry had been seen digging in at various points. Air and ground reconnaissance had reported much enemy transport moving west from Enfidaville. Army Intelligence suggested that the enemy main line of resistance might well not be based on the positions at Enfidaville, but that these might constitute an outpost line for a main position between Bou Ficha and Zaghouan. This appreciation became generally accepted.

page 285

Available records give little information about the enemy just at this time, save that 15 Panzer Division was in Army Reserve, and both 10 and 21 Panzer Divisions were west of the Enfidaville front. What was left of both 90 and 164 Light Divisions faced 2 NZ Division, together with portions of several Italian divisions, but it is not until a few days later that details are recorded.

1 The word ‘Takrouna’ applies both to the peak and to the village on its northern slopes. The word ‘Djebel’ does not, as is usual, figure as part of the name of the peak. Here, the word ‘Takrouna’ will be used for the peak only. The village will be described as Takrouna village.