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Journey Towards Christmas

Chapter 16 — Journey With Halts

page 273

Chapter 16
Journey With Halts

WHERE we halted we stayed—one mile east of Sidi Azeiz. Morning and evening the shadows of the fighter-bombers rushed over our area, brightly while the weather was still fair and then vaguely under grey skies. A cold wind blew out of the west and it was winter. Like the ghosts of aircraft flashing over a grave the shadows went by in the desert, flicking the officers' mess, the shelters built by the cooks, the porcelain bath salvaged from Bardia by No. 2 Platoon. We had been told we should not be moving for some time and we had made ourselves comfortable.

The shadows brushed over the sand-filled trenches and the crumbling walls and the rusty wire at Sidi Azeiz, and over the blackening skeletons of the Chevrolets and the armoured cars. Survivors of the battle were in demand as guides and they would say, pointing to a heap of old iron with no paint on it: ‘That was Don's lorry and that one there would be old George's.’ One man went straight to where he had buried his diary a year before and a crowd gathered round while he turned the yellowing pages and tried to make out the brownish-grey writing, faint like veins.

The shadows shot past on their way to Benghazi and Agedabia and points west, and we looked up from the lecture, the route march, the parade—a training programme was in full swing—to see the avenging aircraft dance out of sight like liver spots, heading for a war only heard of now over the radio and through the newspapers. Those of us who had bad colds looked westwards through rheumy eyes, thinking: ‘We'll follow soon. I'll hit the old cot straight after lunch and maybe a man'll be all right tomorrow.’ But those who were sickening for jaundice shook their heavy, bursting heads and said to themselves: ‘If I'm the same tomorrow she's a sick parade job. What a bastard at this stage of the piece!’ There was no temporizing with yellow jaundice. Its victims experienced all the tortures of the bad sailor and the alcoholic, and if they reminded one of Mrs. Gummidge it was owing to her noisy optimism.

The weather mended towards the end of the month, but it was still very cold, especially at dawn and after sunset, and we were grateful for an issue of battle dress, winter underclothing, and extra page 274 blankets. It was perfect weather, though, for football. We managed to field a promising Rugby team, and in the first round of the Divisional knockout competition we defeated the 6th Field Regiment by 3-nil, but the Petrol Company beat us in the second round by an unconverted try after an extension of time. Inter-platoon matches were played as well.

In the evenings, except when the YMCA Mobile Cinema visited us, we played cards, cooked oyster fritters (150 bags of parcels arrived on the 26th), or listened to the platoon wireless sets. However wet or cold it was, few of us missed the news bulletins. Nowadays they were all good. The tide had turned at Stalingrad and in the Caucasus; French West Africa had come into the war on our side; French sailors had scuttled their fleet at Toulon, preventing the Germans from seizing it.

December came and Lieutenant Latimer1 (attached) and Lieutenant Hill left us to join the 2nd New Zealand Ammunition Company,2 which was being formed at Maadi. Suggestions from the Artillery that this was an offshoot of our unit and not an entirely different firm under an entirely different management were received coldly; nor were we pleased when we heard that we had a new name: 1st New Zealand Ammunition Company. With the war drawing to a close we regarded changes of this kind as unnecessary.

Grey day, bright blue day, day of burnished metal, whirling ginger day—they came in quick succession. Christmas, like a buoy we were for ever rounding, was in sight again, but we were destined to spend it a long way from Sidi Azeiz.

The El Agheila line, protected frontally by salt marshes and a system of strongpoints and minefields, and on one flank by the page 275 sea and on the other by soft sand, was a formidable barrier, and Hitler had ordered Rommel to defend it to the last man. A frontal attack on its own was unlikely to succeed, but it was felt that a left hook by the New Zealanders, coincident with a frontal attack, might turn the trick.

Our unit moved on 5 December, heading for the Divisional concentration area at El Haseiat, thirty miles south-east of Agedabia and about a hundred from the El Agheila line. For three days we travelled in desert formation while the black diamonds that marked the route—they were cut out of tin and mounted on iron rods—flicked past the vehicles in the centre, and we saw, on the first day, only grey rain weeping on grey flats, then Bir Hacheim, where there had been bitter fighting in June. Here the sand had already half-buried the smashed and burnt-out tanks, guns, and lorries, as it had already buried once on the way to Siwa, too deeply for any to find, 50,000 Persians with all their arms and equipment. On the second day we followed the black diamonds across broken rocks, and on the third we passed at a good pace over flats dotted with scrub. Late in the afternoon of the fourth day we reached the concentration area. We had travelled 360 miles and none of the vehicles had given serious trouble.

On 13 December, thoroughly rested, we moved again, the black diamonds leading us south. For mile after mile there was nothing but rolling sand dunes, repeating themselves in a nightmare pattern of desolation with not even a sprig of camel-thorn to break the monotony. Just enough rain had fallen the day before to enable the leading vehicles to roll out a firm track and the going was good on the whole. We bivouacked for the night after covering sixty miles.

During the next day we touched the most southerly point of the advance, passing quite easily through Chrystal's Rift, sixty-five miles south-east of El Agheila, although, as we heard later, it had been expected to give endless trouble. For a while we were hindered by thick mists and afterwards by units ahead of us. The speed of the march was being conditioned by the ability of the petrol convoys to supply the leading vehicles and by the progress of the tanks of the Royal Scots Greys, which were under the command of the Division.

Soon after lunch we left the soft sand behind and came into page 276 rocky country, and from then on we bumped through narrow defiles and laboured up and down steep wadis until we reached what was known as the Red Desert, where the going was fairly good. By four in the afternoon we had covered seventy-five miles, and after a halt for tea we went on through the darkness, travelling slowly on a narrow front. A burning petrol lorry spread a glow that could be seen for miles, making us wonder if all the elaborate precautions—the wireless silence, the driving away of enemy reconnaissance planes—had gone for nothing.

When we stopped for the night, after covering twenty miles since tea, we were due south of Marble Arch, which marked the Tripolitanian frontier, and well beyond the enemy's southernmost outposts. During the day the radio bulletins had said that Rommel was withdrawing from the El Agheila line.

The next day was the 15th. Following behind the 5th Brigade, we travelled slowly through the morning mist, heading in a north-westerly direction, which confirmed our opinion that the Division was making straight for the coast to try to cut off the enemy's retreat.

We were unaware of it then, but armoured cars, poked ahead of the main force like crabs' eyes, had enemy positions and troop movements under observation, and secrecy was no longer of the first importance. Wireless silence had ended at eight in the morning and although there is no record of our sending any messages we were now in a position to do so. A wireless transmission set, answer to a prayer first uttered a year ago, had been issued to us the day before.

During the afternoon and evening we travelled beside the 4th Field Regiment, halting at seven and then moving a mile and a half to clear the gun positions. We had covered ninety-five miles and were now near Merduma, more than fifty miles west of El Agheila. The sea was only eight or nine miles away.

Elements of the German 90th Light Division had been seen on the northern flank in the afternoon; the enemy was expected to try to break through from the east during the night, so we dug slittrenches and the guard was doubled. At half past six the cooks gave us a hot meal and then we turned in, dead-tired. In the distance we could hear the rumble of bulldozers and we thought: ‘They're digging the guns in.’

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At eleven we came under the command of the 5th Brigade. Some reports said that the 6th Brigade had managed to cut the coast road but these were untrue. The road was under fire but still open.

After breakfast the next morning, as no move seemed imminent, some of us decided to go to sleep again, but this proved impossible. Guns started to bark in the distance and soon they were joined by the 25-pounders of the 5th Field Regiment, which was still in the same position. Now we knew what was happening: Rommel's rearguard was trying to escape west.

The guns went on firing, and presently we saw a column of transport and armour on the horizon. Individual tanks and lorries (which was which it was difficult to tell though some of our drivers said they could) showed as dark, podgy shapes moving steadily among puffs of smoke.

‘From Workshops' area,’ said Sergeant-Major Noel Campbell,3 ‘we had a good view. We could see his transport and stuff cutting away west and our 25-pounders getting on to it. Some high explosive shells were coming back, and once we saw what looked like a German tank sneak in and have a go at a New Zealand battery. Several shells landed near our area and the closest one was only a few hundred yards away. We saw one lorry—an LAD job belonging to the Artillery—get a direct hit, and later the driver of it came over and asked us to fix him up with a new radiator. We also saw what we thought was a direct hit on one of our gun emplacements. By lunch-time everything was quiet.’

Everything was quiet, but elements of two panzer divisions and of the German 90th Light Division had escaped almost unscathed. Part had got away along the coast, and the rest—a column of thirty or forty tanks and two or three hundred vehicles—had driven swiftly and with good dispersal through a seven-mile gap between the 5th and 6th Brigades.

Next the Division tried to prevent Rommel's rearguard from escaping from Nofilia, some thirty miles along the coast. The village was strongly held, doubtless to give the German armour and transport more time to get away.

We moved late on the morning of the 17th, following the 6th page 278 Brigade and passing through winding wadis. In the afternoon No. 2 Platoon came under fire, probably from German 88-millimetre guns, but no damage was done, and at half past ten, after travelling forty-one miles, we laagered eleven miles east of Nofilia.

That night the Division had another disappointment. The 5th Brigade managed to block the coast road but not before the enemy rearguard had escaped.

At dawn we moved one and a half miles south-west to give the 6th Brigade more room, dispersing in a shallow wadi pleasantly speckled with green. We were there for three days, and on the 21st we moved to an area overlooking the sea. As soon as camp was pitched we were given permission to bathe.

The water was bright and chill and it glinted like steel. The feel of it and the news we had just heard (we were likely to stay in the area for some days) reminded us of Christmas at Fuka a year ago. Here was the same sand, the same bright and chilly water, the same coastline, and, a little farther along it, the same enemy. One Christmas of this kind was enough: two suggested the beginning of a nightmare pattern that might go on through a grey lifetime interminably repeating itself. But no—that was nonsense. What stretched in front of us was the bright thread of victory, leading to Tripoli, to Tunis, to Rome—not, of course, that we should see Rome.

In one of its objects, to cut off Rommel's panzer army, the left hook had failed; in another it had succeeded brilliantly. Without a fight and at little expense to British arms the Germans had been forced to abandon positions loudly advertised as impregnable. The next natural line of defence was at Buerat, about 150 miles away. Rommel reached this on 26 December leaving behind delaying forces, and three days later the leading elements of the Eighth Army were in front of it.

Notwithstanding the speed of the advance—between 15 and 26 December 248 miles were covered—it is possible to think of the Eighth Army as an enormous caterpillar. When it was at full stretch, as it was when its horns (or whatever they call those things that caterpillars have) were resting on the Buerat line, it was incapable of making another lollop forward until it had drawn page 279 up its middle and hind parts, which were labelled Petrol, Ammunition, Rations, Workshops.

While this gathering together was in progress, the Division rested on the coast near Nofilia and it was here that we spent Christmas. A Corps dumping programme was started almost at once and Christmas Eve found us bringing forward supplies from the neighbourhood of El Agheila. However, thanks to the cooks, who travelled with their platoons and spent half the night building ovens, everyone had a wonderful Christmas dinner: roast pork, plum pudding, a bottle of beer, and a double issue of rum. Those who were in the unit area at Nofilia were visited by the Colonel, who congratulated us on our ‘splendid work in recent campaigns and particularly on the dumping programme carried out before the offensive at El Alamein’. He said also: ‘I hope that by next Christmas you will all be back in New Zealand.’

We hoped so, too, for we were neither comfortable nor over-happy at this time. Often it was bitterly cold and sometimes there were blinding sandstorms that made driving a nightmare. We used the coast road, collecting our loads at the 107th FMC,4 near El Agheila, or the 108th FMC, near Marble Arch, where the platoons had their headquarters, and unloading either at the 109th FMC, on the coast beyond Nofilia, or at the 110th FMC, twenty-odd miles inland from Headquarters' area. The drivers with the platoons averaged 140 miles a day, and they spent their nights sometimes with Company headquarters and sometimes at Marble Arch—Arae Philaenorum to the Italians. (It was not made of marble, but it was imposing enough and even beautiful, as a design in the middle of nothing—any design—can hardly avoid being. Bas-reliefs glorifying Fascism and Mussolini covered the inside of the arch, but its long shadow fell on Douglases and Baltimores, which were using the great Axis airfield.)

The coast road was bad and the desert was worse, and round Nofilia there were mines. An NZASC driver was killed only a mile from Headquarters' area and the next afternoon a No. 4 Platoon vehicle, which was returning from the replenishment point with rations, was extensively damaged.

The New Year came and brought with it a raging sandstorm. Sand collected in deep drifts on the floors of the cabs and round page 280 the engine blocks. It stopped our noses and our ears and we could feel our lungs filling up like hour-glasses, but there was no slackening of effort, for the next move was now very near.

By the evening of 5 January 1943 our second-line holding was again on wheels. We had rations and water for eleven days and in our tanks and jerricans there was enough petrol to take us more than 400 miles. Before noon the next day we were in the Divisional concentration area south of Nofilia.

‘How many miles to Tripoli?’ we asked. It was three hundred as the crow flies.

‘We shall be sent home,’ we said, ‘when we've seen Tripoli.’

The task of capturing Tripoli had been given to three divisions: the 51st (Highland) Division, the 7th Armoured Division, and the New Zealand Division (with the Royal Scots Greys under command). These composed the 30th Corps. Rommel was still occupying the Buerat line, and the plan was for the Highlanders to attack on the coast sector while the New Zealanders and the British armour, travelling inland, advanced along the enemy's right flank. If the Highlanders had no success and the armour was held up by artillery, the New Zealand Division would make another left hook.

That was the position on 10 January when we moved again, travelling west-south-west for eighty-one miles. We rested on the 11th and on the 12th travelled forty miles due west. We made hardly any progress on the 13th but by the next night we had covered a further sixty miles. We were now twenty miles east of Wadi Zemzem, which ran south-west behind the Buerat line. That night we heard the rumble of gunfire and at dawn we dispersed our vehicles.

It was now the 15th—a fine, warm day. We were on a moment's notice to move and we knew that something important was afoot. Sounds of firing came from the north-west and aircraft dropped bombs in a neighbouring area. We had an early lunch, but still there was no order to move, and the day, which had started with an air of bustle and a suggestion of great events, degenerated into a vast yawn.

The order came at last and we set off at half past three in the afternoon but travelled only two and a half miles before halting until six. Then we moved a few more miles, laagering at eight page 281 under the protection of the 28th Battalion. Carefully we collected and collated scraps of information. The Highlanders had attacked on the coast and the 7th Armoured Division on our right, but the latter had been held up by cunningly-sited guns and tanks, so the New Zealanders had been given the word Go. In the late afternoon the Royal Scots Greys and the 4th Field Regiment had moved round the south flank of the German line (which ran south-west from Buerat for about fifty miles, parallel with, and a little in front of, Wadi Zemzem), and shortly before dark the Shermans had gone in. Now the enemy was fleeing west again.

The next nine days remain for most of us a memory of grey dawns, and green and grey dawns, too, and dawns flecked with red like inverted sunsets, when we got up, still muddled with sleep, from our sandy blankets, and hurried to start cold engines so that we could disperse the lorries before daylight; of hasty and often unfinished meals eaten in the cab or in company with the rest of the sub-section in the back of somebody's three-tonner, with half-empty tins of bully and margarine covering every flat surface, and the billy boiling on the primus between two boxes of charges, and the water waiting to froth up in a brown cream and dribble all down the sides when the tea-leaves were thrown in; of early morning drives when the steering wheel was a circle of ice, and the gear lever a stick of ice, and your breath clouded the windscreen; of long night drives under the white ball of the moon through moon-country; and of long halts in the sunshine while the war went on ahead or seemed to have stopped altogether.

While the Highlanders advanced along the coast, clearing mines and skirting obstructions, the Armoured Division and the New Zealanders headed west through the desert, widening the distance between themselves and the northward-bending coast and hurrying along the enemy's flank. Every day the scenery was different. The afternoon of the 16th found us moving through tall scrub: a young forest you could almost call it, for the trees—bushes—were between twenty and thirty feet high. They were not much to look at and some heavy shelling had not improved them, but they were welcome after the stony wilderness and they sheltered us while we ate our tea. Glancing through their meagre branches, we saw two Messerschmitts overhead with puffs of ack-ack on their tails. When we laagered that night, again with the 28th Battalion, the moon was very page 282 brilliant and bombs could be heard rumbling in the distance. Most of us dug slit-trenches.

For the greater part of the next day—we travelled four miles before lunch and two in the afternoon—we were near a large airfield. The story was that it had been captured only that morning, but by midday convoys of lorries were passing through our lines and turning into it, and early in the afternoon great transport planes started to arrive. They landed, unloaded, and took off again.

After tea we travelled north-west until three the next morning. For most of the way the moon positively blazed, doing fantastic things to the rough, wild country. Boulders became silver nuggets and the dry river-beds looked as though they had been ploughed out of glittering metal. The flats were milky and faintly gleaming, so that they seemed like still lakes studded with misty islands and bounded by cliffs of silver. Only ourselves and the transport suffered no silver change. Dirty, unshaven faces took on a leprous tinge, and the lorries, as they lurched and staggered up steep tracks or scuttled across the open, were for all the world like beetles in a treasure-house.

The next day we came to inhabited country. Stunted, mud-coloured children and their sinister-looking parents, the women black bundles and the men a flash of ravenous teeth and a length of gesticulating black arm, pestered us for food. The children, with their cropped heads and bony knees and elbows, were hard to refuse; nor was there any need to refuse them, for most of us were carrying more army biscuits than we should ever eat. ‘Biscotti! Biscotti!’ they cried, and ‘Bull-biff, Johnny! Bull-biff!’—pursuing us with despairing wails long after we had passed. They fought frenziedly among themselves for handfuls of biscuits thrown from the cabs, and even when their tattered and filthy nightshirts were stuffed with treasure they continued to cry, automatically and despairingly: ‘Biscotti! Johnny! Johnny! Johnny!’ (One had ceased to be George, apparently, on entering Tripolitania.) Sometimes we caught glimpses of their homes: miserable, tumbledown leantos and crazy boxes, half tent and half hutch, made of petrol tins, scraps of old matting, and other rubbish. We halted early in the afternoon about five miles east of Beni Ulid, which was eighty miles south-south-east of Tripoli.

We did not move again until late the next day and then only as page 283 far as the Beni Ulid road. Again we saw transport planes, Bombays, landing on a nearby airfield. That night we heard that the Germans had left Tarhuna, between fifty and sixty miles north-north-west of Beni Ulid, and were burning supplies in Tripoli.

Travelling by a road that was dusty and deeply-rutted and flanked on either side by burnt-out guns and transport, we reached Beni Ulid, an oasis and Italian outpost, the next morning. It was a pretty town of high, white-walled houses, of cave-like shops (dealing, so far as we could see, only in vegetables of the onion family and quoit-shaped loaves), and of teeming, crumbling, stinking buildings that were like nothing so much as gigantic portions of gorgonzola cheese. Bluegums grew among palm and olive trees, the grey dust, or the whitish, endlessly-trampled sand, lapping their roots. Leaving the village, we went down the steep side of a wadi, bumped for another fifteen miles over dust-filled ruts, still passing burnt-out transport, and dispersed off the road, by which time everyone, clown-like, wore a pallid mask. We were now some thirty miles south of Tarhuna.

The next day—21 January—the Division began to cross the Gebel Garian range, which separates the desert hinterland from the plain of Tripoli. Following Rear Headquarters of the Division, we moved three miles along the Beni Ulid road in the direction of Tarhuna before turning off into the desert and forming up on a fifteen-vehicle front. A long halt followed, and then we travelled parallel to the road for a short distance and stopped for the night. Darkness came down, and ahead of us, about twenty miles away, guns were in action. During the night dozens of bombers passed overhead, keeping us awake.

On the 22nd, while the leading elements of the Division debouched on to the plain of Tripoli, we moved slowly in the direction of the Gebel Garian range, passing first through deep wadis and then through extremely soft sand. We covered three or four miles in the morning and rather less in the afternoon, but after tea we moved off in column of route along a track that took us quickly to a good road, which was reached as darkness fell. We followed it for a few miles and then turned off on a rough track, which plunged us at once into the hills. These must have been the foothills of the Gebel Garian range. The going was terrible, but we were helped by brilliant moonlight, and we staggered on, twisting and turning page 284 but heading more or less in a north-westerly direction. After we had cleared the hills we were held up by units ahead of us, so we bedded down where we were. It was now midnight.

Early next morning, following elements of the 7th Armoured Division, New Zealanders entered Tripoli from the south while, almost simultaneously, troops of the 51st Division entered it from the east. Since leaving Alamein on 4 November the Eighth Army had advanced 1450 miles—roughly the distance between London and Istanbul.

For others—and we grudged them nothing, for theirs had been the greater danger—the supreme moment of marching into the fallen city to the skirl of pipes. Our own unit began to wriggle towards it with the extreme diffidence of a very young puppy approaching a dead rat.

When we moved the next morning we needed to cover only about nine miles to reach the Tripoli-Garian road, which ran due north to the city. We managed four of them. On the 25th, some time before noon, we struck the road at Kilo 65 and headed towards Tripoli in column of route. We passed Azizia, noticing what a pretty place it was, and carried on as far as Kilo 27. Here we turned left off the road into an Italian farm. Company headquarters chose an area close to the house and the platoons dispersed nearby. Compared with the interminable wadis, the oceans of stone and sand, the scene was charming. There was a little well, full of clear water. A froth of blossom clouded the peach and almond trees, so we supposed that it was spring. For many, many months all we had known of the seasons, except that they were either too hot or too cold, was about as much as prisoners in the Bastille knew of time. No wheatfields had ripened in Fortress A, no leaves had fallen at Alamein, no peach trees had budded at Marble Arch.

But now it was spring and we had reached Tripoli.

1 Capt G. P. Latimer, m.i.d.; company manager; Dunedin; born Kaitangata, 20 Mar 1910.

2 The chief appointments on 17 December were: Company HQ, Maj P. E. Coutts, Capt S. A. Sampson, WO II I. McBeth (appointed 15 Oct 42); No. 1 Platoon, Capt R. C. Gibson, Lt A. R. Delley (posted 18 Jul 42); No. 2 Platoon, Lt J. R. Arnold, 2 Lt J. D. Todd (posted 3 Dec 42); No. 3 Platoon, Capt W. K. Jones, 2 Lt R. G. Sloan (posted 19 Jul 42); No. 4 Platoon, Capt K. E. May, 2 Lt J. M. Fitzgerald; Workshops, Lt (T/Capt) A. G. Morris; Ammunition Platoons, Lt R. K. Davis. The following had left us: Lts O. W. Hill and G. P. Latimer (posted to 2 NZ Ammunition Company, 4 Dec 42), 2 Lt R. A. Borgfeldt (admitted to hospital, 14 Jul 42), WO II Bracegirdle (posted to OCTU, 22 Sep 42).

3 Capt R. N. Campbell, m.i.d.; motor mechanic; Eureka, Waikato; born Kaitaia, 27 Jul 1915; wounded 23 Dec 1940.

4 Field Maintenance Centre.