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Bardia to Enfidaville

NZ Corps—23 March

NZ Corps—23 March

Activities on 23 March bear close similarity to those of 22 March—a cautious edging along the flanks combined with attempts to ascertain if a wider outflanking was possible, and probing here and there at the enemy line. The GOC became increasingly concerned about the line of communication, not only to the south-east, but also to the west. Altogether the day was an unsatisfactory one.

The 8th Armoured Brigade had no particular success to record during the day after attempting to work along both flanks. The CO of 3 Royal Tanks, Lieutenant-Colonel D. A. H. Silvertop, was wounded and evacuated and the second-in-command died of wounds. Divisional Cavalry patrolled the foothills of Djebel Tebaga, took many prisoners and destroyed a number of abandoned guns.

page 189

During the night 22–23 March the enemy filtered back on to the northern slopes of ‘Titchener Hill’, and in the end the enemy fire was heavy enough to force the greater part of our troops to retire, leaving only observation parties on the top of the hill.

Both 25 and 26 Battalions were spasmodically shelled. Three enemy air raids caused no damage, but at 9.20 a.m. the RAF bombed and strafed our troops, mainly in 26 Battalion area. This was too much, and by arrangement indication marks were erected in the area—the letter ‘A’ in 26 Battalion, ‘E’ on Point 201, and ‘H’ in 25 Battalion area.

In the morning the CO 24 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly) with his company commanders reconnoitred 26 Battalion area with a view to relieving that battalion the following night, but at midday the GOC decided that 24 Battalion would probably have to go into the line on the left of 25 Battalion to extend the front, and a reconnaissance was then made of the new area.

The uncertain movements of 10 Panzer Division now became a complicating factor. After its Medenine rebuff this division had gone to an area north of Gabes, but on the renewed activity of 2 US Corps1 it had moved towards Gafsa. It was reasonable to assume that 10 Panzer was to oppose the Americans, who on 22 March entered Maknassy, which was only some 40 miles from the coast between Gabes and Sfax. The threat to the enemy's ‘neck’ was now becoming really dangerous.

But late on 22 March Eighth Army informed NZ Corps that 10 Panzer Division was believed to be round Gabes, and that there was a chance that it would be used to support 21 Panzer Division against NZ Corps. This may have seemed a possibility to Intelligence Eighth Army, but in a personal telegram to General Freyberg, sent in the early hours of 23 March and yet to be discussed, Montgomery said inter alia, ‘10 Panzer Division engaged in Gafsa area’. This conflict of views explains why NZ Corps early on 23 March wirelessed Eighth Army, ‘Require Tactical Reconnaissance locate 10 Panzer Division and attempt follow movements'. A reply came from Eighth Army almost immediately: ‘Indications 10 Pz Div more concerned American threat but will watch with Strategical Reconnaissance today.’

However, Freyberg was still not reassured about the movements of 10 Panzer Division, and in mid-morning ordered 5 Infantry Brigade to take up defensive positions facing south and south-west on a line whose centre was some seven miles south-west from Point 201. By 6 p.m. the brigade had moved from its halting place of 20 March and was in position with 23 Battalion on the right, 28 (Maori) Battalion in the centre, and 21 Battalion on the left page 190 on a frontage of about 17,000 yards. The 5th Field Regiment reverted to the command of the CRA and was deployed on the right flank under the Zemlet el Madjel foothills, near other artillery units, where it could support 5 Brigade if necessary.

The brigade was now facing south-west and was therefore in position to resist an enemy coming from that direction. To attack in this way would entail for 10 Panzer Division a march round the north and west of Djebel Tebaga, which does not seem at all likely in view of the distance it must travel and the shortage of petrol. To deploy 5 Brigade in this way was thus to take an extreme measure of defence.

The Corps artillery was very active during 23 March, the accuracy of the fire being attested by prisoners. Between 5 p.m. and 6.30 p.m. ten series of concentrations were put down on known enemy batteries and defended localities, tasks in which the Bofors guns of 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment took part. The enemy artillery was also active, helped by the good observation from the flanks, in particular against the main axis and the minefield gaps.

Several enemy fighter-bomber attacks took place during the day but caused no damage. Between 3 and 3.30 p.m. our own tankbusters and fighters put in their first attack, making use of the new indication letter marks. From ground observation and flash-spotting intersections the attacks were made in the areas desired, and many fires were seen.

At last light 24 Battalion moved to occupy the positions reconnoitred on the left flank to the north-west of the KebiliEl Hamma road. The troops were in their positions without interference by 10 p.m.

Eight lanes through the minefields were cleared by 8 Field Company, with assistance from sections of 6 and 7 Field Companies, and marked with cairns and lights. Losses in this task were four killed and four wounded. The 6th Field Company lifted from four to five hundred mines, and another party of engineers began work on a landing strip for the air evacuation centre, sited about ten miles south of Point 201. This was completed on 24 March, and from it about 40 per cent of total evacuations were made by air, thanks to some steady work under difficult conditions by the RAF pilots.

The activities on 23 March ended in some slight gains on both flanks. A further 506 prisoners were captured, making a total of over 2100, nearly all Italians.

1 See p. 172.