Bardia to Enfidaville
The Campaign Ends
The Campaign Ends
While 2 NZ Division was still at Djebibina or being relieved there, other formations in 10 Corps were carrying out the operations decided upon by General Freyberg to advance towards Hammamet. On the night 8–9 May 56 (L) Division attacked and reached a line five miles north of Enfidaville. It was intended that on the next night it should advance to Djebel bou Rhabrouba, two miles farther on, and that on the same night 6 Brigade of 2 NZ Division should relieve 169 Brigade, its left-hand brigade. Then on the night 10–11 May 56 (L) Division would capture Djebel Chabet, yet another mile north, and 2 NZ Division was to be prepared for exploitation to Hammamet.
The 25th Battalion therefore relieved 169 Brigade, and shortly after midnight on 9–10 May was in position on a line from Djebel Hamadet es Sourrah to Djebel Ogla, with three companies forward and one in reserve.
The attack by 56 (L) Division on this night was supported by 5 AGRA, 111 Field Regiment, RA, and 4 and 6 Field Regiments, NZA. It did not succeed, mainly owing to enemy fire from Djebel et Tebaga and Kef Ateya, and the troops returned to their starting positions. This was the last attempt by 10 Corps to advance. Active patrolling was prescribed for the future, combined with a free use of the large artillery resources.
Meanwhile, farther north, 6 Armoured Division, after being held up for forty-eight hours at Hammam Lif, on that very morning of 10 May at last broke through and careered down the road towards Hammamet. The noose had already closed between Tunis and Bizerta, and what was left of three enemy divisions—including 15 Panzer Division and the armour of 21 Panzer—had been captured, together with von Vaerst, the commander of 5 Panzer Army. The task remained of gathering in what was left, now fast being compressed between First and Eighth Armies. The Navy was ready with a plan to deal with any attempted evacuation by sea, the ‘Intention’ paragraph reading: ‘All Axis forces crossing the Sicilian Narrows will be drowned’.1page 365
By nightfall on 10 May, 6 Armoured Division reached Hammamet, and advancing south on its right (i.e., west) were three other British and Indian divisions, directed along the roads from Tunis to Zaghouan and Ste Marie du Zit. The ring round the remaining Axis forces was complete.
On 10 May activity on 10 Corps' front was almost entirely confined to artillery fire from both sides. It was a quiet day, with a quietness that was strange when contrasted with the violent activity not many miles away. In the afternoon Lieutenant-General Freyberg sent a message to Major-General Graf von Sponeck of 90 Light Division, by a German prisoner under a white flag, inviting him to surrender, but at the end of the day there was no response.
At 6 a.m. on 11 May, 1 Free French Division attacked northwards from Takrouna, capturing Djebel el Froukr and exploiting north-west. By evening a platoon from the reserve company of 25 Battalion made junction with the French between Djebel el Hamaid and Djebel Froukr. This move was the last alteration of 2 NZ Division's operational dispositions in North Africa.
The Free French division captured some 300 prisoners, mostly German from 164 Light Division. On the rest of the front there were vigorous exchanges between the opposing artillery. Enemy fire was very fierce, and guns and mortars sprayed the countryside in a way suggesting that the enemy was getting rid of his stocks of ammunition. Kippenberger says that ‘shells pitched at random in a most disconcerting fashion’. Tenth Corps' artillery replied with the biggest counter-battery programme yet fired in the campaign, thirtyone hostile batteries being engaged in a four-hour period.
There were still occasional casualties in 25 Battalion and among the gunners, all very distressing at this stage of the campaign.
During the day further attempts were made to induce the enemy to surrender. At 9.30 a.m. all guns on Eighth Army front stopped firing while two officers, one from 56 (L) Division and one from 1 Free French Division, were sent out with messages asking for unconditional surrender. Again there was no clear reply, but there were fires and demolitions along the whole front, and indiscriminate artillery fire remained heavy.
On this day, 11 May, 4 British Division swept right round the Cape Bon peninsula, capturing many prisoners. At last light 6 Armoured Division was just to the north of Bou Ficha, close enough to 10 Corps for the artillery of 2 NZ Division to fire in page 366 support of 6 Armoured Division at targets in the Ain Hallouf — Bou Ficha area. The 4th Indian Division reached Ste Marie du Zit, and was in the hills north of Zaghouan. The French Corps had some fighting during the day, but at the end all enemy troops opposing them, including parts of 21 Panzer Division, agreed to surrender next morning.
But there were still some last pockets of resistance, and of these the greatest was in the area west of Hammamet, north of Enfidaville and east of Zaghouan, the most difficult to penetrate. On this day it became known that the Young Fascist Division had been rechristened ‘Bersaglieri d'Africa’, the reason given by some unkind commentator being that they were now neither young nor Fascist.
The night 11–12 May was quiet. Two patrols went out from 25 Battalion to Point 141 and Djebel et Tebaga and found the enemy still there. During the night General Messe made contact with Headquarters 56 (L) Division, but was told that he must get in touch with 10 Corps, and that in any case only unconditional surrender would be considered.
On 12 May the quiet continued until about 9 a.m., when enemy fire from artillery and mortars reached the same intensity as on the previous day, again with no set targets and no co-ordination. Our own artillery was vigorous in reply, and 4 Field Regiment records that over 7000 rounds were fired. Nebelwerfers were active, and a concentration on the headquarters of 111 Field Regiment, RA, killed the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel W. P. Hobbs, who had been associated with 2 NZ Division on many occasions.
Our own air forces had, needless to say, played a large part in the disorganisation of the enemy, and now helped to decide the issue locally, for at 3.30 p.m. three formations each of eighteen medium bombers attacked the coastal area and for some miles inland, as a prelude to the further advance of 6 Armoured Division to link up with 56 (L) Division. When 6 Armoured Division moved on after the bombing, white flags appeared on many positions, and advancing tanks were not fired on. After an attempt at getting terms, 90 Light Division finally surrendered unconditionally. By 8 p.m. the surrender of all troops between 6 Armoured and 56 (L) Divisions was complete. Graf von Sponeck of 90 Light Division surrendered initially to Major-General Keightley of 6 Armoured Division. Later Lieutenant-General Freyberg went forward through 56 (L) Division and met von Sponeck, who is believed to have repeated his words of surrender, for many members of 90 Light said that they were glad to surrender to their old foe, 2 NZ Division. Von Sponeck was interrogated by General Freyberg, but there were no other courtesies. When a little later this surrender became known page 367 throughout the Division, only dimly, amidst the drama of the enemy's collapse, did men realise that the chase of 90 Light ‘to the end of time’ was over.
Farther west 4 Indian Division captured General von Arnim, the Supreme Commander in Tunisia. He was taken to General Alexander's headquarters, where, says Alexander, ‘he still seemed surprised by the suddenness of the disaster’.
There remained, however, the rest of 1 Italian Army under Messe, comprising the troops in pockets in the hills and including what was left of 164 Light, and Trieste and Young Fascist Divisions. This still held from north of Saouaf to north and north-west of 25 Battalion, and even showed signs of fight, but its activities were foiled by 10 Corps' artillery fire. Up to darkness on 12 May there was no sign of surrender, and patrols found Point 141 still occupied.
But during the afternoon Messe had apparently been trying to get in touch with some British headquarters. The message was picked up by 2 NZ Divisional Signals, which soon established good communication with the enemy headquarters. At 8.30 p.m. Divisional Signals was instructed to transmit the following message:
Commander First Italian Army from Commander 10 Corps. Hostilities will not cease until all troops lay down their arms and surrender to the nearest Allied unit.
At 10.33 p.m. a reply was received:
From Italian First Army to 10 Corps Eighth Army. Reference your message our representatives have left to meet yours at 10 p.m. your time. We have nothing further to add.
In the early hours of 13 May there was still some confusion over representatives, and it appeared that Messe was hoping for terms. Finally, at 8.30 a.m. the Italian envoys arrived at Headquarters 10 Corps. General Freyberg refused to discuss any terms and sent them back with the message:
You will now issue orders to your troops as follows:
To lay down their arms and surrender to the nearest Allied troops immediately.
To destroy no equipment.
To furnish plans of all known minefields in your areas to the nearest Allied unit.
Hostilities will continue until you have complied with these orders. Compliance must be immediate and you will inform me by wireless and by messenger at what time your troops will surrender.
At the same time a wireless message was sent to Headquarters 1 Italian Army saying:
Your representatives with a British officer carrying instructions have left for your headquarters. I have ordered my troops to cease fire pending your acceptance of these terms by 1230 hours today.page 368
At 11.45 a.m. 1 Italian Army surrendered. A wireless message from Messe said:
As my proposals for a truce to give time to my representatives to carry out their orders has not been accepted and your troops are still carrying out their attack in the Saouaf area and considering the fact that my representatives sent out at 9 p.m. yesterday to First British Army have not yet returned I have ordered my troops to lay down their arms.
It was signed ‘Field-Marshal Messe’, his promotion having just been announced over the Italian Radio.
Later Marshal Messe, accompanied by Major-General von Liebenstein of 164 Light Division, surrendered in person to General Freyberg at Headquarters 10 Corps. Messe's last messages to the Comando Supremo in Rome read somewhat grandiloquently, but are not without dignity. He was in fact the last to surrender.
At 2.45 p.m. on 13 May General Alexander signalled to Mr Churchill:
Sir, it is my duty to report that the Tunisian campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores.
The last word about the surrender may be left to a British narrator, who says, speaking of the 210,000 prisoners captured between 6 and 13 May, that they were ‘as pretty a baby as any G has passed to the A/Q staff in the campaign’.
1 Only some 600 got away, nearly all sailors or dock-workers.