CHAPTER 16 — Onward to Tripoli
Onward to Tripoli
Tripoli occurred in every second sentence.
‘I expect that we shall be playing the finals in Tripoli….’
‘This BMA1 money is issued because they say the Germans have been printing the local stuff.’
‘It will see you to Tripoli all right and then after that you might get a new one.’
‘They say it's a lovely town….’ Even the New Year's inevitable dust-storm was of secondary conversational interest to the practices in desert formation to be employed on the next lap.
The ‘A’ vehicles were sent off to Nofilia on 8 January for loading on to transporters, each of which set off independently down the main road as it was loaded. The next day the main part of the Division was rolling westwards again, practising en route a desert manoeuvre with the wheeled vehicles of the Divisional Cavalry acting as the usual screen.
It was expected to meet the first enemy rearguard somewhere in the Wadi Tamet area, so the ‘A’ vehicles were unloaded east of there to wait for the Division near Wadi Bei el Chebir, about 25 miles west of Sirte. Here they married up with the wheeled vehicles on 14 January and the whole Division moved forward in proper tactical formation to laager a mile or so farther west of a landing ground on the edge of a wadi.
The advance of the Army was to be a three-pronged one, with 51 (Highland) Division on the coast, 7 Armoured Division in the centre, and the New Zealand Division swinging round to approach Tripoli through the broken hills of the Gebel Nefusa to the south. More or less daily the New Zealand Division's screen trod on the heels of the rearguards of 15 Panzer Division; the Divisional Cavalry had most of the fun, but for the Division as a whole it was just a long monotonous ride.
The advance proper really started on 15 January as A Squadron crossed the Gheddahia-Bu Ngem road and soon ran into a screen of fire from anti-tank and heavier guns. This held it up all morning. B Squadron meanwhile probed further south until it, too, ran into dug-in tanks and guns. Major Handley came forward to direct the outflanking of these, for they held high page 258 ground of good observation. There was one particular 75-mm. gun which was holding up this move, and one of the squadron's tank gunners, Trooper Priddle,2 did some superb shooting to knock it out with his little 37-mm. gun and to wipe out the crew. The way was then clear for Handley to push his whole squadron through the enemy line to dislodge other enemy anti-tank guns and destroy a half-tracked troop-carrier. Then, in the afternoon C Squadron, with the Greys in close support, made an effort to follow this up with a hard knock in the centre of the line. Here, however, the enemy stood more firmly than was expected; he hung on doggedly, and by the time the Greys had come trundling through the C Squadron positions to add weight to the attack, it was getting too dark to do much.
Actually General Freyberg got a nasty fright up amongst the C Squadron line. He had more or less made Div Cav his battle group for the advance on Tripoli, and during the afternoon had brought his own troop up here to try to get through to the left where B Squadron had made the greater progress. He was pulled up short by shellfire which landed almost exactly under his leading vehicle, forcing it to back off hastily into some cover and incidentally giving the Protective Troop officer, Lieutenant D'Arcy Cole, a very dangerous little wound in the throat. His carotid artery was actually nicked.
In the failing light the Greys did hurry the enemy's retirement which, however, was not made without some telling Parthian shots. The C Squadron forward patrols were gingerly extricating themselves from cover into which they had scuttled pending the arrival of the Greys, when the enemy put over behind them a parcel of heavy shells which landed amongst Divisional Cavalry Headquarters, killing Sergeant K. D. Jones3 and Corporal Sturm4 and wounding several others. Of these, Lieutenant H. A. McAulay and Corporal Wacher5 later died.
The MO, Captain Moore, was unable to attend the wounded, as he too had been hit, but the Padre came forward to help dress their wounds and supervise their evacuation. Even when that was done, and still under heavy and accurate shellfire, he insisted on conducting a burial service.page 259
The rearguard withdrew overnight, but without the company of several deserters of 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, who quite willingly showed the way through the minefields left by their comrades.
For the 16th the line of advance ran roughly north-west to Sedada, and from daylight the General himself set a cracking pace. At one stage, with his faster tanks, he had completely outstripped Div Cav and indeed was choosing his own axis of advance as he went, regardless naturally of the ‘going’ reports automatically continuing to come in from the forward screen, now behind him, when he came suddenly upon four M13 tanks of 31 Regiment, Centauro Division. The crews of these were blithely brewing tea, a ceremony which he rudely interrupted by taking them prisoner. One of his staff, naturally alarmed because he was far in the lead of the Division, remonstrated that this was no place for a General and that it should be Div Cav who should be doing this sort of thing. He got the bland reply: ‘Well, Div Cav are just not here. They get no loot.’ A catching disease, souveniring! No wonder it was notifiable.
The day's run stopped about that area, a mile or so short of the landing ground at Sedada, on the high ground above it and, as had happened the night before, the day closed with a little piece of enemy hate. This time it came from enemy fighter-bombers, which caused one casualty only in the regiment, a man wounded. But during the day the regiment had suffered losses in vehicles. One tank had been lost through a 37-mm. shell exploding in the breech of a gun, and a carrier was destroyed by anti-tank fire from the Wadi Nfed. The day's total casualties were six men wounded.
All the way to Tripoli the pressure was on and the General's inevitable order during that long week, ‘Push on!’ became a catchword in the regiment lasting till the end of its days. Time and again the leading squadron was sent out of laager while it was still too early to show a light, and was often kept hard at it till well into the afternoon, with everyone craving for a chance—just a couple of minutes—to make a brew.
C Squadron actually started off from the Sedada laager in pitch darkness. The regular track down from the plateau on to the landing ground in the Wadi Nfed had been mined, and before it was light enough to see and suspect, one carrier had blown up on a mine, killing the driver, Trooper Evans.6 This page 260 naturally caused a hold-up because the whole Division had to pass down this mined defile. The Divisional Cavalry found its own way down elsewhere. It was a very tricky route even for the tracked vehicles and took an hour or so, a delay which still had to be made up. Apart from the fact that the General was hustling the screen along, there was always plenty of indication that the enemy rearguard was not far ahead, which also kept up the pace; actually, on this particular day a straggler of 125 Panzer Grenadier Regiment was picked up.
By midday the leaders, travelling up the Wadi Nfed, had reached the Wadi el Merdum and swung westwards towards Beni Ulid, and still there was no let up. The General made a point of travelling near Colonel Sutherland's tank which carried the forward wireless link to squadrons, and at every halt he would come over and listen in on the operator's spare earphones. Thus from the various reports on the going he could decide instantly which was the best route for the divisional column. The operator soon learnt to drop a hint to his squadron operators when he saw ‘The Face at the Window’ approaching, and they, on hearing this, would drop their operators' jargon and, whilst still keeping within the bounds of wireless security, adopt for his sake more acceptable language. Thus able to size up the situation instantly, the General invariably said: ‘Tell them to push on.’ Time after time that was all they got at the squadrons, where all were longing for just five minutes' respite. It got round towards mid-afternoon on this particular day before the leading squadron found itself reporting back without a hint of ‘The Face’. The tea water was just coming to the boil—seconds to go and Squadron Headquarters would have got its first drink for the day—when the General arrived at RHQ and down came the order to push on. Push on indeed: his disappointment and exasperation drove the operator to risk a serious charge of insubordination. Tired, hungry, lips and tongue cracking, in feigned ignorance of the exalted ears taking it in, he came back on the air: ‘Push on! What the hell have we been doing all day? You get a brew every time the Old Man wants to stop and enthuse about the scenery. Wait till I've finished drinking my breakfast. I-say-again: BREAKFAST! OFF!’
Inside his stern appearance and despite his relentless driving, the General was very human. He must have accepted the rebuke in silence, and remembered it too, because the rest of the day, though he pushed the screen just as hard, he did so more kindly.page 261
Laager was formed in the bed of the Wadi Merdum, and though for once there was no evening brush with the enemy ground troops, there did occur what might have been an unhappy incident. Just as the column halted it was dive-bombed by some Stukas. Only minutes later, a second squadron swung in from out of the setting sun, almost at ground level, and began to draw fire from the leading Div Cav vehicles, until by their frantic weaving the pilots managed to show on the under- sides of their wings the big white star of the United States Air Force.
The advance towards Beni Ulid on the 18th was across the roughest going that the Div Cav found anywhere in North Africa. The whole face of the desert was covered with great slabs of rock over which the AFVs crept, in constant danger of breaking track-pins, at a pace which held up the whole divisional screen. The lorries lurched over these rocks with the drivers expecting broken springs, or even the chassis to give up under the constant twisting. The poor DRs weaved their motor-cycles between the rocks where they could and in places simply had to bounce them over the tops.
Considering the country, it was not surprising to find abandoned enemy equipment, since for days his hard-pressed rearguards had kept only just out of sight. That day, for instance, the 18th, the Divisional Cavalry found some eleven M13 Italian tanks, two 10-ton trucks, an armoured car, and one of the latest type German 75-mm. anti-tank guns.
The General left B and C Squadrons to carry on straight towards Beni Ulid on the original axis through this country, while he led the Division on another line further south. This left the two squadrons well out on their own, but the General still ordered them on and, before the evening's rendezvous for laager, B Squadron had actually gone right in to Beni Ulid, down the side of the great wadi on which this romantic looking old fortress perches, and out on to the Tarhuna road on the northern side of the wadi.
There was a formed road through Beni Ulid but this had been partly demolished, and though the tracked vehicles of B Squadron had got down and back again, reporting the area clear of enemy, the demolitions were sufficient to make this, the only route, impassable for the wheeled vehicles. So, if no other unit was pleased, Div Cav, after suffering for some days, was delighted for the half-day's delay while the sappers were clearing the track. The 6th Brigade was able to start trickling through page 262 about midday on the 19th and A Squadron was sent ahead of it as its protective screen. By the late afternoon the brigade was well clear, and the remainder of the regiment was ordered to pass through and set off northwards along the road towards Tarhuna. A Squadron had halted half-way there and the rest of the regiment had to make a very fast move along the tarmac road to come up with it before dark.
The three lines of the Army's advance were now converging and on the 20th, B Squadron, patrolling out to the right of the road, gained touch with a unit of 7 Armoured Division which was now advancing into the eastern face of the Gebel Nefusa. B Squadron got a report that this Division was going to be held up by more demolitions at Tarhuna. There was another road running to Tripoli from Garian in the south, so the New Zealand Division swung westwards again through the broken country towards this road.
Patrols of Div Cav reached the village of Tazzoli during the afternoon and there swung left to push along a secondary road towards Garian, and late in the evening B Squadron found and marked a possible route out of the hills to the north side of the road. Immediately the CRE, Colonel Hanson,7 came forward and set his sappers to work making this route passable for the Division. They must have worked furiously hard and certainly all night, for by the morning Div Cav was able to lead off again through what was now a winding sandy track. By midday the regiment had broken finally out of the hills with the whole Division pressing hard behind.
Tripoli at last felt within reach. But the intervening ground, the direct route, looked pretty difficult since it presented, for the first mile or two, big dunes of very soft sand. Nevertheless C Squadron set out to reconnoitre them as the map showed a road-end not so very far away. The squadron was accompanied by a battery commander of 4 NZ Field Regiment, who however got his truck badly stuck. This was most unfortunate for it happened in a position of rather poor observation and less than a mile from where the C Squadron forward patrols were held up by fire from enemy rearguard guns. This bit of bad luck was offset, however, in that by chance a battery headquarters halted within a hundred yards of Div Cav RHQ, and it was page 263 not long before urgent and appealing calls from C Squadron for shellfire on an appetising target were coming back. These found their way by word of mouth to the Battery Command Post and in no time the cavalrymen found themselves acting in lieu of a Forward Observation Post, using their own unconventional phraseology, which resulted in a wireless conversation something like this:
Forward Observation Post: ‘Miles out to the right; they never batted an eyelid.’
RHQ: ‘All right, try this for size.’ (Pause followed by a shell passing over.)
FOP: ‘That rocked 'em, try another 50 yards left.’
RHQ: ‘How's that?’ (Another shell.)
FOP: ‘Right in the breadbasket. Give 'em both barrels!’
…and so on. It is to be hoped that ‘The Face at the Window’ was not hovering round RHQ at the time, or more still, his fairly constant companion in those days, the CRA, Brigadier C. E. Weir. Nevertheless, even if somewhat inefficiently, C Squadron did manage to get the shellfire right down on the rearguard and sent it bustling off. Full marks must go to the Battery Sergeant-Major whose resource and interpretation made this possible.
Those were the days when, within the Division, the various arms were only just beginning to learn the rudiments of each other's techniques, and this incident was not forgotten in Div Cav later when chances came to study how other people did their work. It is very important, when it comes to specialised work, that there should always be someone on hand who can fill such a gap for a while.
It was obviously out of the question to try to get the Division through the dunes even if there was a formed road fairly close ahead. So early next morning A and B Squadrons pushed out west until they crossed the Garian road and then swung north. They soon met resistance from guns, tanks and armoured cars forward of the village of Azizia. There were infantry round the village itself as small-arms fire could be heard when our aircraft went over. The Greys came up to try and push deeper, while C Squadron was sent further out to the left, on the western flank. This squadron was also held up at some high ground overlooking a road which ran north-west into Azizia. The whole afternoon was taken up poking here and there south and south- page 264 west of the village, but enemy resistance was dogged and no appreciable advance was made. After dark all three squadrons collected near the road and C Squadron was detailed to join in a night advance through the village by 5 Brigade. This proved impossible, however, and, well into the night, C Squadron was back with the regiment.
We now know that the troops at Azizia had been instructed to hold on only until that night, for pressure from the east was forcing the enemy completely out of Tripoli. At first light on the 23rd, A Squadron, on being sent to reconnoitre towards Azizia, found it unoccupied. Moreover, by eleven in the morning it had pressed on to find that the village at the next crossroads, Suani Ben Adem, was also empty.
Now the way really was clear to Tripoli. Perhaps the Division was not to be the first there but it was racing down the tarmac nevertheless. The air of urgency in what was in fact a scramble for the middle of the town was most infectious as the whole column sped down the road, past vineyards and rows of gum- trees and the Italian colonial houses. Looking up or down the column, everyone really felt the speed; passing a crossroads, for instance, where the leading troop would normally have stopped and reported a bound clear.
Actually, at the end of the day the Divisional Cavalry was pulled up near the Garian gate and went to a laager position about four miles from the city itself. The next day the regiment was allotted another area at Bianchi where, as it turned out, it remained for about a week before being sent to a permanent camping area amongst the scrub-covered sandhills round Castel Benito.
The Divisional Cavalry arrived at Tripoli with only 11 tanks and 22 carriers in a fit fighting state and a further 5 tanks and 11 carriers still running. The balance which had left Nofilia, other than those which had been lost by enemy action, had been left behind for recovery simply when it was humanly impossible to keep them going. The regiment, both men and vehicles, had been driven almost to breaking point, as witness for example that petulance of the operator, a humble corporal, who in his desperate weariness had snapped back at the GOC. At the time it was the way the General mercilessly drove himself that made him so respected; it was that trait of his that made him so lovable when, perhaps in the urgency of a battle, he would administer the salve of a kindly message. In the same operator's log not two days later appear successive entries for page 265 two squadrons: ‘Big Shot realises he is working you to a standstill but wishes you to push on to “Neptune”8’—and—‘Big Shot realises he is working you to a standstill and appreciates your work.’
On 28 January the regiment was really startled. Right at the top of the morning's routine orders appeared a message addressed to all ranks from Lieutenant-Colonel J. H. Sutherland, MC. He had gone: been taken away: our Jimmy: the ‘Trooper's colonel’. The shock was matched by the grief to be read between the lines of his farewell message:
‘To the Div Cav Regiment.
‘Officers, NCO's and men who have served me well.
‘The time has come for me to say “goodbye”—I have left for CAIRO on the first leg of the journey back to NZ on a tour of duty. I don't want to leave you. I love the Regiment and you all. I could not stand in front of you and say goodbye, so I must write it.
‘Thank you for your wonderful loyalty to me, both as a Squadron leader and your Colonel. I trust you will serve my successor, Colonel Bonifant, as well as you have served me.
‘You probably will have hard fighting again soon—get ready for it. I shall be with you in all your troubles, please always remember that. The very best to you all, and good hunting.’
Men read it in silence and with an occasional dry swallow when they realised what his distress would have been had he had to stand before them and say these things.
During the next week Captains McQueen and Macdonald and several NCOs were sent back to Maadi to do tours of duty there, whilst at the same time reinforcements were absorbed, including some five extra officers who were attached for instruction.
A tour of duty at Base should by all rights have been something to look forward to at any time. Comfortable beds, regular meals, plenty of leave amid the fleshpots of Egypt should have tempted any soldier. Yet very rarely did anybody in the regiment greet news of this sort with anything but bitter resentment. Always—under any circumstances—one's aim was to stay with the regiment: under any circumstances indeed. A comment of the RMO, Captain J. R. J. Moore, written under the heading ‘Morale’, bears this out:page 266
‘A lengthy story could be told of those who have carried on in the field with wounds, injuries, and diseases ordinarily justifying evacuation; shrapnel wounds penetrating the bone, minor fractures, pneumonia, and infective hepatitis,9 to quote a few instances….’
This was the state of affairs even during the drive to Tripoli, the hardest drive of all, and yet those sent back to Base when it was all over felt as if they had been sentenced to Field Punishment. Fear of an 88-mm. shell right through the tank and right through your innards; fear of being blasted into unrecognisable pulp if your carrier hit a mine; these were small compared with the more abstract fear of having to go back to Base.
When the civilians around Tripoli got over their fear of the British they became quite friendly and were prepared to barter eggs, fresh vegetables and quantities of the local wine to the troops. Water was plentiful. Clothes were being washed under Army contracts. Squadrons began to cook their meals in bulk again and the officers' and sergeants' messes began to operate for the first time since the regiment left Syria.
There was plenty of the local wine, a most appalling compound, staining, as it did, the lips, teeth and tongue a brilliant blue and being quite capable of removing the galvanising off a bucket overnight. Small wonder it soon earned the name ‘Purple Death’. ‘Sudden Death’ would have been more appropriate when the troops first tried it, for, in their ignorance, they drank it in pannikins like beer, with direful consequences.
Leave parties went on a daily roster into Tripoli, but though it was a very beautiful town there was nothing much to do there. The shops were empty of any goods of souvenir worth and the shopkeepers did not understand the new BMA currency. No food could be bought and, after wandering round and examining the architecture, there was nothing for one to do except perhaps watch or join in a clandestine Crown and Anchor game down a back street or just wait for the lorry home.
The port was absolutely demolished and all stores had to be unloaded by hand from tank landing craft. The New Zealand Division took its turn at this work and the regiment used to send in for night shifts parties of 320 strong. There is not a New Zealander who has no eye for food supplies, so the Div Cav men, like the rest, soon saw that the ration boxes on their vehicles were comfortably stocked up for the next phase in the page 267 campaign. They even managed to smell out the issue rum which was cunningly hidden, one bottle at a time, in tins of uninteresting looking boiled sweets; this was not wolfed then and there but was carefully tucked away too, back at Castel Benito, until it could be put to its proper use when next in action.
A training programme had been made out, but this was completely disorganised and virtually abandoned when the dock labouring took up so much of the men's sleeping hours. More interest was taken in the divisional sports meeting and the rugby, soccer, and hockey competitions. It cannot be said that the regiment distinguished itself particularly in any of these since it was unfailingly knocked out in the first rounds. But the sports committee did arrange some most enjoyable games with units who had suffered the same fate.
During February the Padre collected a number of men and started rehearsals for a concert. This concert party he placed under the stage-management of Lieutenant R. L. Ball, the Signals Officer, who infused such keenness into it that when the concert was given for the regiment in the Castel Benito theatre, it took the shape of a thoroughly professional revue and was received with such boisterous enthusiasm that it was decided to take it ‘on tour’. Thus the regiment was able to return the compliments of several other units who had sent over invitations to their concerts.
Quite the most eventful occasion during the spell at Castel Benito was the parade for Mr Churchill. Now, a private soldier never actually admits enjoying being on a parade, but inside he remembers the tremendous satisfaction in his first week in the Army when, to their surprise, the whole squad sprang to attention simultaneously, and the very next day when his platoon marched a whole fifty yards, every man in step. Always after that there was the daily moment of pride as the Company Commander took over and the company stood at ease with a snap. Battalion parade was a nuisance but—well, you marched off feeling it had been worth while because once again you had shown the CO that he owned the best battalion in the Division. When it came to a brigade parade—and they did not happen very often—you just had to show everybody else it was true; besides, a brigade parade was usually held for some visitor and you had to show him too. So, if you convinced nobody else, you at least convinced yourself that New Zealanders could drill with the best of them: and you, and the whole world, knew they could fight. Yes, you looked back on a brigade parade with page 268 pleasure. They had all been there; company after company; firm, strong, resolute; every man had looked the inspecting officer squarely and proudly in the eye.
This was a divisional parade, something which happens perhaps only once in a soldier's career. When the parade was assembled and waiting there were a few moments to look about you and see something rare, literally acres solid with proven fighting men. There was no best company, no best battalion. They were all good—good to the core.
And then he arrived. It would have taken him hours to walk round the Division, but he drove slowly round each brigade block standing up in a jeep, and when he went back to the saluting base there was not a man, not a single man, who had not felt those piercing blue eyes look right into his and instil in him the strength to win any battle, any campaign—if necessary single-handed—that the man should command.
Small wonder the New Zealand Division never felt better, or looked better, or was better than when it marched past Mr Churchill at Tripoli; and it marched off the ground with the thrill of his words still in its ears:
‘Far away in your homes at the other side of the world all hearts are swelling with pride in the deeds of the New Zealand Division…. far away in New Zealand, throughout the Motherland, all men are filled with admiration for the Desert Army….’
1 British Military Authority.
7 Brig F. M. H. Hanson, DSO and bar, OBE, MM, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Levin, 1896; resident engineer, Main Highways Board; Wellington Regt in 1914–18 War; OC 7 Fd Coy Jan 1940-Aug 1941; CRE 2 NZ Div 1941–46; Chief Engineer, 2 NZEF, 1943–46; three times wounded; Commissioner of Works, 1955–61.