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Bardia to Enfidaville

5 Infantry Brigade

5 Infantry Brigade

At Headquarters 5 Infantry Brigade the picture was put together as information came in. It will be easily understood that at first light the position with 23 and 28 Battalions was obscure, but one thing was certain, that assistance would be wanted. Just before 6 a.m. Brigadier Kippenberger sent part of Notts Yeomanry forward to clear up any pockets of resistance on the east side of Takrouna, and to give what help it could to either battalion. Notts Yeomanry succeeded in crossing the Zaghouan road, but had lost six tanks on mines and one by shellfire. However, their presence was both welcome and useful, and they took twenty prisoners.

Among other results, the tanks helped to capture Djebel Bir. First light found 28 Battalion much disorganised, with most of the officers wounded. Lieutenant Wikiriwhi went forward to look at the situation, especially on Djebel Bir, where A Company was dug page 330 in on the southern edge, with the enemy occupying most of the remainder. He suggested to Private Heka1 of A Company that he ‘should take a closer look’ at the rear of Djebel Bir, under protection of the tanks. As soon as the tanks opened fire as arranged by Wikiriwhi, Heka advanced alone, attacked and captured an antitank-gun post, and then put three machine-gun posts out of action, finally coming back with fourteen prisoners. Help also came from the troops on Cherachir, who fired into the backs of the enemy on Djebel Bir. The result was the collapse of all resistance on the feature.

Prisoners in this area were all German and came from either 47 or 361 Infantry Regiments. The 90th Light Division, in reporting the loss of Bir, gives some credit to the support given by ‘50 tanks', and it is possible that the operation being carried out by Staffs Yeomanry and 3 Royal Tanks in the gap between Bir and Ogla had some effect on this surrender. But nothing can detract from Heka's little victory.

Wikiriwhi then met Haig, who was searching for more C Company men and getting them securely dug in between Takrouna and Djebel Bir. This action was confirmed, and Wikiriwhi then went to Brigade Headquarters to report, arriving there about 7.45 a.m. By this time he was functioning as a combination of CO, adjutant and intelligence officer.

The GOC and the CRA had arrived at Headquarters 5 Brigade not long before, and at much the same time our own troops could be seen on the top of Takrouna, the first indication that they had arrived there.

Brigadier Kippenberger now heard the first authentic information about 28 Battalion, and after listening to Wikiriwhi's report gave him a definite line on which to reorganise, with the object of establishing a second line of defence in case 23 Battalion was overrun. Captain Pene,2 the senior surviving officer, was sent for to take command of 28 Battalion, and other officers to take over the companies. Pene did not arrive from the B Echelon area until late afternoon, and meanwhile Wikiriwhi had restored control within the battalion. A telephone line was run from battalion headquarters to the Maoris on Takrouna. The whole valley between Takrouna and Djebel Bir was under shell and mortar fire during the day, and tasks such as this, and the evacuation of the wounded, were performed under great difficulties.

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After the conference at Brigade Headquarters the CRA at once fired several ‘stonks’ with all available artillery on Djebel el Froukr and other features beyond Djebel ech Cherachir, in the belief that while the exact position of our troops was not known, supporting fire on any points held by the enemy would be good for morale. Enemy retaliation against the artillery continued to be negligible, and in the afternoon 6 Field Regiment moved forward again to positions not far south of Takrouna.

The 23rd Battalion expected a counter-attack at first light, but nothing happened. The troops were all dug in or in sheltered positions and the perimeter was so small that central control from battalion headquarters was possible by runner, and even on occasion by voice. Cherachir was held by the battalion, but the security of its tenure seemed doubtful. D Company was on the north-west end of the feature: B on the north-east and east: part of C Company together with D Company, 28 Battalion, at the south-eastern end: the rest of C Company on the south-western face: and A Company partly on the western end of Cherachir and partly on Point 73. They were overlooked on three sides, and were not sure ‘what side owned what ground’, as a survivor has put it, but they were determined to stay there. The offensive spirit was still alive, and probably had some effect in stopping a counter-attack, for Captain Thomas decided to take a gamble on further supplies of ammunition getting through, and ordered the battalion to keep on engaging the enemy. So the northern slopes of Takrouna were fired on, odd enemy positions cleared out, transport at the rear of Takrouna engaged, fire directed into the backs of the enemy on Djebel Bir, and a party of Germans trying to get to Takrouna from the north pinned to the ground. B Company even captured about twenty Germans who walked into its area.

As there was still no sign of supporting arms or tanks, and as there were indications of the enemy massing behind Point 136 to the north-west, at 9 a.m. Captain Thomas sent the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Bailey, back to Brigade Headquarters to report. Bailey had a hazardous journey down the valley, but reached Brigade Headquarters about 10 a.m. This was the first direct information from 23 Battalion, and within minutes Point 136 and other targets were ‘stonked’, much to the delight of Thomas and the battalion. It was some comfort also to know that the IO had got through.

The tanks of Notts Yeomanry were still involved in the very difficult ground near the Zaghouan road, and one tank which managed to cross the road was immobilised on a mine.

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Varying fortunes attended the attempts of the supporting arms of 23 Battalion to reach the forward positions, for the valley was no place for soft-skinned vehicles. The machine-gun platoon made three attempts but was forced back by artillery and mortar fire. In the afternoon two six-pounders of the anti-tank platoon reached the south-east slopes of Takrouna, but were withdrawn after dark. Neither could the carrier platoon join up, although one carrier did get far enough forward to be used for evacuating wounded.

Until the afternoon the adjutant, Captain Ross, stayed in his original post, and from there kept up a link with advanced headquarters and with rear echelons, but then he decided that something must be done to get at least the No. 11 wireless set forward. He was told by Brigade Headquarters to wait for an armoured vehicle, but the armoured car which did arrive was holed almost at once and made unserviceable. So Ross decided to run the gauntlet in his jeep, and managed to get as far as the Zaghouan road. There he organised a party of prisoners of war to carry the set to Headquarters, warning them in advance of what would happen were the set sabotaged. From then on, direct communication from battalion to brigade was established, and the unit was able to call for artillery fire at short notice. So by the end of 20 April, 23 Battalion was at least well in hand, and the first steps had been taken by Brigade Headquarters to relieve it after dark by 25 Battalion.

1 Pte T. Heka, DCM; Awanui, Nth Auckland; born NZ 15 Nov 1915; labourer.

2 Capt M. R. Pene; Rotorua; born Whakatane, 1 Feb 1912; foreman, Maori Affairs Dept.