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Bardia to Enfidaville

23 Battalion

23 Battalion

At 10 p.m. 23 Battalion moved off northwards from near Point 70 in column of route, joined the Enfidaville-Djebibina road near Tactical Brigade Headquarters, and from there turned off the road practically at once, deployed, and headed north-east towards the valley between Djebel Bir and Takrouna. B Company was on the right and D on the left, with Headquarters in the centre. C and A were on the right and left in support. There was considerable haze from dust and smoke, and some casualties, for the valley was well covered by criss-crossed lines of fire of all types. Before going far Lieutenant-Colonel Romans was wounded, and Captain W. B. Thomas, commanding A Company, was called forward to take over. About the same time the OC B Company (Captain Wilson1) and one of his platoon commanders were wounded, together with all the platoon commanders in D Company.

It was already apparent that 28 Battalion had not captured either Takrouna or Djebel Bir, and was well short of the Zaghouan road, but when handing over to Captain Thomas, Romans emphasised that his instructions from Brigade Headquarters covered such a situation, and that the battalion was to go on with the attack.

When Captain Thomas arrived there was some disorganisation in the battalion owing to the number of casualties to officers and the intensity of the enemy fire. One NCO says, ‘Sgts were promoting themselves to Platoon commanders, Corporals to Sgts. and so on and in many cases they no sooner promoted themselves than they were wounded, but everyone stood their ground and there was no panic.’2 Simple words, but a great tribute to the individual men and their discipline in battle.

1 Capt S. Wilson, ED, m.i.d.; born Dunedin, 23 Dec 1903; french polisher; wounded 20 Apr 1943; died 1 May 1949.

2 A. Ross, 23 Battalion, p. 259, quoting Cpl W. S. Smellie.

page 324

After a rapid survey of the situation and a brief consultation with such officers as were near at hand, Thomas decided to go on, one of his reasons being that it seemed to him that the battalion was now beyond the zone of the enemy's defensive fire. The two forward companies (B where Lieutenant Robins1 had just taken command, and D under Captain H. C. Black) were still in reasonable order, so Captain Thomas called on them to advance, and on they went firing to the front and shouting loudly, partly to give confidence and partly, it was hoped, to frighten the enemy. They passed rapidly through the area in which C Company, 28 Battalion, had suffered so many casualties, causing some alarm to their friends from the noise they were making. Lieutenant Haig of C Company was at the moment on his way back to find out what had happened to the rest of his company, and says, ‘Their advance was a particularly vociferous one and I can assure you that it was a fearsome thing to encounter especially when on one's own.’2

The companies advanced in bounds of about 200 yards, fired concentrated bursts of small-arms fire on Djebel Bir and Takrouna, and finally reached and crossed the Zaghouan road. As with preceding units there were many casualties from enemy fire and mines, and trip-wires were found connected as warnings to the enemy in their pits. They reached a deep wadi to the south of Cherachir, from which frontal fire was now coming—they were in contact with the main enemy line—but were still some 200 yards short of their intended start line. It was 1.30 a.m. and the barrage had already moved on from the long pause, and they were without their two support companies, who had not heard Thomas's shouts to them to come on. A quick check showed that B Company could muster only twenty men, and D seventeen. Captain Thomas sent the IO, Lieutenant Bailey,3 back for the other two companies, and instructed B Company to capture the eastern slopes of Cherachir forthwith, and D Company to capture the western side and then move on Djebel el Froukr. This was maintenance of the objective with a vengeance!

B Company started the climb with some shouting, but finally went on silently up a wadi, which was steep and stony. Despite much enemy mortar fire which went over their heads, and flares which lit the way for them, they were not observed and reached the crest,

1 Maj A. S. Robins, MC; Queenstown; born Queenstown, 8 Aug 1917; shepherd; wounded 20 Apr 1943.

2 Lt Haig, in a report to War History Branch.

3 Lt A. F. Bailey, MC; Christchurch; born NZ 22 Jun 1913; window dresser; wounded 23 Oct 1942.

page 325 but were then fired on from both left and right. D Company's advance helped them on the left, and they concentrated on the enemy on their right, but were finally forced to take cover just below the top, still on the southern side.

D Company had greater trouble and gradually lost all its officers.1 The three platoons were now commanded by Sergeant McLean,2 Sergeant Muir3 and Corporal Smellie,4 and then Muir took command of the company, which charged up the slopes and reached the crest. Again, however, the company had to go to ground just below the top, as the crest of Djebel ech Cherachir was untenable.

Captain Thomas with part of battalion headquarters established himself in a wadi north of the road, but for a while had no exact knowledge of the progress made, and was not in touch with Brigade Headquarters or any of the other battalions. The only wireless set was with the adjutant, Captain Ross,5 and the rest of battalion headquarters back in the wadi near where Lieutenant-Colonel Romans had been wounded. Here Captain Ross had set up what amounted to a firm base and an administrative post for the battalion, and was keeping in touch with supporting arms and passing what information he had back to Brigade Headquarters.

On one occasion Thomas gave orders for red tracer to be fired vertically as a recognition signal, but this brought such violent fire from the enemy that no further attempt was made to ‘prove’ the front. Djebel Bir and Takrouna were still clearly held by the enemy and 23 Battalion was isolated, and once a party of about twenty Germans dashed right past battalion headquarters without either side firing on the other. Each side was calling to its own troops, and members of 23 Battalion did their best to confuse the enemy by also shouting, and even started a cry of ‘Panzer!’ to make the enemy believe that tanks were coming.

B and D Companies reported that they had been able to clear as far as the rim of Cherachir, and part of C Company arrived under its commander, Captain Slee, and was sent off to capture the southern end of Cherachir south of B Company. This it duly did after a series of brisk engagements, but as with the other companies, it was thin on the ground.

1 Capt Black was later found to have been killed.

2 Sgt N. C. McLean, MM, m.i.d.; born Palmerston, 3 Jan 1918; labourer; twice wounded.

3 2 Lt F. J. Muir, MM; born NZ 8 Feb 1915; clerk; killed in action 15 Mar 1944.

4 WO II W. S. Smellie; Dunedin; born Dunedin, 24 Dec 1907; stock buyer; wounded 9 May 1943.

5 Maj A. Ross, MC and bar, ED, m.i.d., Aristion Andrias (Gk); Dunedin; born Herbert, Nth Otago, 19 Jul 1911; university lecturer; four times wounded.

page 326

Then part of A Company, now under Lieutenant Hunt,1 arrived and was sent to occupy Point 73 west of Cherachir and to link up with D Company on the western end of the feature. A platoon of this company was later sent to a position on the battalion right flank behind the part held by C Company.

While these efforts were being made there was a burst of fire from an area which had already been combed out. A cautious investigation by Lieutenant Montgomery2 of C Company disclosed that it was occupied by Maoris from D Company, 28 Battalion.

1 Capt C. C. Hunt; born NZ 31 Dec 1910; clerk.

2 Maj H. Montgomery, ED and clasp; Ashburton; born Scotland, 25 May 1907; school teacher.