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Bardia to Enfidaville

oration in Retrospect

oration in Retrospect

The ambitious nature of the Eighth Army plan, and the manner in which the divisional plan fitted in, has already been discussed. Now that it has been described how few of even the first objectives were captured, it would be excusable to state that little else could have been expected, and leave it at that. Yet such a course would result in too much emphasis being placed on what was, at the time of preparation, a plan accepted without demur by some of the Allies' most seasoned soldiers, and which only much later, with all the hazards clearly exposed, appears unrealistic. A brief examination of the causes of the failure might discover a course of action which would have allowed Eighth Army to pin down enemy forces without committing itself to an operation which had no chance of success.

page 340

But first it is necessary to be clear about the intention—was it to pin down enemy forces, or to gain ground? Was the real intention to turn the whole Axis position with the reduced forces available? Or was the aim more in sympathy with Alexander's original concept, that Eighth Army was to pin down all the enemy forces on its front and, if possible, attract additional enemy troops from the front of First Army? All that Montgomery said at the time, and his further effort, still to be related, to force Eighth Army along the narrow coastal corridor to Cape Bon, makes his intention clear.

Had the goal for Eighth Army been a genuine ‘holding attack’, to use Alexander's expression, it is probable that its attention would have been focussed on a target more readily available with the means at its disposal, and perhaps of more value to the operations of Eighteenth Army Group. Almost invariably, vital ground is high ground. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that had Eighth Army limited its ultimate objective, and combined all of its resources for the possession of but one of the dominating peaks between Zaghouan and the coast, more distress would have been caused to the enemy at a lower cost.

The divisional battle complemented the army battle, and although the ultimate possession of Takrouna will always remain an outstanding military feat, Takrouna, in the plan, was a company objective. Froukr remained in enemy hands virtually until the final capitulation. There would be little profit in a close analysis of the cause of this debacle, for the Division shared in the general failure imposed by attempting to do too much with too little. But it is difficult to understand why it was thought that the southern slopes of Takrouna could be neglected, that an assault through the valley between Bir and Takrouna could succeed without gaining control of these peaks, and why Cherachir, a large and well defended feature, was overlooked in the planning. As Messe had hoped,1 the attack was directed to the re-entrants, where it spent itself.

As in the Army and the Corps, there was a strain of optimism running through the Division—a participant has called it ‘Axis HQ fever’—combined with a failure to realise the changed tactics necessary for the change in terrain. Kippenberger has since said, ‘When we lined up at Enfidaville I don't think we adjusted our thinking to the closer country there.’2

Whatever the reason—natural optimism, failure to perceive the changes necessary, or more practically a poor assessment of information—there was a sad miscalculation of the resistance to be

1 See p. 310.

2 Letter to the author.

page 341 expected, too great a miscalculation to be overcome by any efforts made by units. This was the basic error.

Only a month before, at Tebaga on 26 March, there had been an example of first-class planning, careful timing, co-ordination between ground and air and between arms, and excellent preparation of every kind, all carried out in a matter of forty-eight hours or so. Allowing for the normal frictions to be expected in any action, and granting that the units were highly trained, all that the units had to do was carry out the plan given them. But here at Takrouna the plan collapsed almost at once, and units were forced to do the best they could with their own unaided efforts.

Their ‘best’ was of course magnificent—leadership by commanding officers carried on down through the echelons of command as far as the most junior NCOs, and often enough as far as the rank and file: readiness to step forward and take responsibility when those above were put out of action: tackling each fresh problem as it arose with the resources at hand: trying to get information back so that those behind could play their part: and in every way determination to get forward somehow.

Not for the first nor the last time in the long history of war, such victories as were achieved came from the efforts of subordinate commanders and from the initiative and determination of platoons, sections, and individual men. It was that highest glory, a ‘Soldiers' Battle’.

Takrouna itself remains a supreme example of courage and determination. The way in which a few men in daylight found their way to the top of an ‘unstormable’ hill through a tangle of enemy posts, capturing prisoners many times their own number, reads like an imaginative incident in a romantic novel. And this initial action was followed by a period of bravery and of skill in minor tactics shown by parties from two battalions, although the main honour rests with the Maoris. General Horrocks has since said that it was the most gallant feat of arms he witnessed in the course of the war.1 ‘In the Division as a whole the men who had survived the struggle were regarded with something akin to awe. For two whole days and nights Takrouna had been hidden by the smoke and dust of the bloody battle, and strange stories of passages and secret entrances had circulated amongst the troops. Already, Takrouna and the battle there had become legend.’2

1 Article in the Sunday Times, London, 3 Nov 1957.

2 I. McL. Wards, Takrouna, War History Branch Episodes and Studies series.