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Divisional Cavalry

CHAPTER 17 — Tunisia

page 269


The mareth line was originally built by the French to guard the southern border of Tunisia. Its necessity had been obvious in the days of Roman history, for there are still visible on the inland side of the Matmata Range the remains of the Roman defences built after the Third Punic War.

General Montgomery had collected sufficient supplies by the end of February to break this line and the New Zealand Division was ordered forward from Tripoli to take part. The Divisional Cavalry moved out from Castel Benito on 2 March, the AFVs being carried, as usual, by transporter. The regiment was not at full fighting strength, having only 24 tanks and 37 carriers; but more were coming.

The main appointments had undergone quite a few changes and were now as follows:

Commanding Officer Lt-Col I. L. Bonifant, DSO
Second-in-Command Maj L. B. Ballantyne
Adjutant Capt P. S. Crisp
OC A Squadron Maj H. A. Robinson, MC
Second-in-Command Capt H. H. North
OC B Squadron Maj G. H. Stace
Second-in-Command Capt F. H. Poolman, MC
OC C Squadron Maj A. Van Slyke
Second-in-Command Capt M. L. W. Adams
OC HQ Squadron Capt J. L. Rayner
Medical Officer Capt J. R. J. Moore, NZMC
Padre Rev. H. G. Taylor, CF

By the afternoon of 3 March, squadrons were over the border into Tunisia and camped near the main road just short of Medenine. The next morning the Divisional Cavalry came under command of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, pending an attack which was expected at any time, and moved forward to a suitable position just south of the road, behind 5 New Zealand Brigade's positions, as a mobile reserve.

There was a stand-to on the 5th at dawn but nothing happened, and the attack came the following day. Field Marshal Rommel sent the tanks and lorried infantry of his panzer divisions out against the centre and left of the Eighth Army, page 270 whose defences had been sited to shepherd this armour into enfiladed positions. As a defensive action this one went according to the book, for by the middle of the day Rommel, having suffered crippling losses to his most valuable weapon, the armour, began to retire behind the Mareth line.

On the 7th the enemy was seen still to be pulling back into the Matmata Hills, and while A Squadron was sent south towards Foum Tatahouine to reconnoitre the eastern end of the hills, B and C Squadrons formed up into mobile columns with the heavy tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry and troops of 25-pounders, to go forward along the base of the hills to harass the enemy and generally hurry his retirement. This harassing was done at the cost to Div Cav of two wounded, one of whom, Trooper Dix,1 died almost immediately, when the B Squadron Intelligence Corporal's truck hit a mine.

For the next five days the regiment maintained a line of observation patrols on the divisional front linking up on either flank similar patrols of 11 Hussars and the Free French Flying Column. Enemy movement could be seen all along the hills, but every height was picketed and the road running south-west into the hills was blown. The enemy had shut the door and was guarding it zealously, so that any attempts to penetrate into the hills promptly drew small-arms fire by way of warning.

By the 12th the Eighth Army was assembled and ready to attack the Mareth line. This attack was to consist of a frontal assault in the coastal area while the New Zealanders made another ‘left hook’—this one, in the words of General Montgomery, a ‘knock-out blow’—right round the back of the Matmata Hills to break through the weak inland flank into the town of Gabes.

For this action the Division was formed into a corps, General Freyberg taking command also of the King's Dragoon Guards, 8 Armoured Brigade, a regiment of British medium artillery, some British anti-tank and anti-aircraft guns, and General Leclerc's column from Lake Chad. The route ran once again through some really difficult country on the very edge of the Great Sand Sea itself towards the narrow gap between the Matmata Hills and the high, rugged Tebaga Range, barren, forbidding and completely impassable.

The southern entrance for this outflanking move was by a pass through the hills known as ‘Wilder's Gap’, after the regi- page 271 ment's own Nick Wilder, who had been in charge of the LRDG patrol which had reconnoitred the route many months before.

The regiment left its patrol line on 13 March and, all next day and the following night, moved back towards Tripoli to Ben Gardane and then south past Foum Tatahouine to a divisional assembly area; there it waited for the tracked vehicles which came most of the way by transporter. So far the move was completely veiled in secrecy as it was originally intended to gain tactical surprise by moving the Corps up by night and lying under camouflage by day. The drivers quickly realised that difficult and most tiring work lay ahead of them, an impression not dispelled on the first night move forward when the Divisional Cavalry came up to the head of the Division in the evening of 19 March and headed the way over the first 40 miles. The drive took until almost midnight, when the column stopped to bed down.

The next morning, however, camouflage nets were stowed and the regiment was told that, since the enemy had learned of the Corps' movements, it was decided to push on with all haste by day. Armoured cars of the KDG formed the forward screen for the Corps, while Div Cav sent out two squadrons as
black and white photograph of cavalry movement

left hook at mareth

page 272 guard on the right flank. Though it was quite an uneventful day, it was a most heartening one as troop after troop played follow-my-leader over the spurs and gullies at the base of the hills. The crests of the spurs gave a panorama looking out over the whole Corps. Away out in front in a great half-moon were the tiny specks of the KDG cars, each with its attendant puff of dust. Rearward, the body of the Corps stretched back for miles in nine columns: no parade-ground precision here but each one following the nature of the going. Here two lines would almost meet; two over there; in some places all nine were forced in on a narrow frontage. The nearer machines looked like countless toys, each with its little plume of dust, all merging in the simmering haze into an indistinguishable smudge.

By nightfall on the 20th it was obvious that the greater part of the trek was done, for away in the north-west could be seen where the last shoulder of the Matmata Range dropped away to meet the foot of the frowning Tebaga Range.

The flank guard for the 21st was more static, RHQ taking up one position for the day near where it had laagered, and patrols from two squadrons standing guard at the foot of the hills as the Corps rolled on to do battle. It was another quiet day except when one of the A Squadron patrols met and exchanged shots with some Italians, who quickly and sensibly withdrew into the hills.

By the afternoon, contact had been made with the enemy in the Tebaga Gap and the GOC had decided to attack that night. The Divisional Cavalry was ordered to follow this attack up at first light and exploit the gap forced by the infantry. So at 4 p.m., leaving B Squadron to guard 8 Armoured Brigade's B Echelon which was still coming forward, the regiment moved up to laager just behind the gun positions which were being surveyed ready for the supporting barrage.

The attack, carried out by 6 New Zealand Brigade, was a complete success; by first light a gap had been cleared in the minefield and the anti-tank ditch at the end of the gap had been filled by a bulldozer. C Squadron was accordingly ordered forward.

The gap between the two ranges was actually about three miles wide. The country was not dead flat but rolling, with a hill, Point 201, near the point of the attack and behind the enemy forward line. This hill dominated the whole line, and the infantry seized it just in time before the German 164 Light Division arrived round from Mareth to do so.

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Getting across in daylight from the start line to the first bound, the back of Point 201, was not just a morning joyride, because the track leading there ran over a low crest and down a few hundred yards of gently sloping flat which was still under observed fire from the enemy's guns, so it was necessary to run the gauntlet over this, troop by troop, with uneven intervals between each vehicle. One carrier hit something hard and broke a track-pin just at the critical moment and, since the carrier was at full speed, it cast the track and pulled up all standing. The next carrier came roaring into view, then pulled up alongside. Without a word everybody but the two drivers baled out, and with the strength of desperation picked up the broken track weighing many hundredweight, and appeared almost to throw it back on its bogeys. In point of fact they laid it out in front of the carrier, whose driver, by locking the steering mechanism on the trackless side and driving slowly forward, forced the machine along on its other track as his helpers fed the track back over its bogeys and drove in a new track-pin. Not a shot was fired at them. Perhaps the enemy was too busy admiring the feats of strength and skill; anyhow, the track- mending competitions designed against such emergencies, which had featured in many regimental sports meetings, had once again proved their worth. Indeed, some days later Sergeant W. R. Brown2 was awarded the MM for doing such recovery work under fire.

Once across the minefield and under the lee of Point 201 the squadron found itself pinned to ground by shellfire from both sides of the hill and had to sit and take this for an hour or two. However, it was parked among some sand dunes which provided reasonable cover, and moreover the soft sand smothered the burst of the shells, so there were no casualties.

Fighter-bombers of the Luftwaffe were very active—one man actually collected down his neck some spent machine-gun cartridges, still hot, from one of these as he crouched in the sand—but they caused only one casualty, and rather an extraordinary one. A bomb, dropped at too low a level, failed to explode, skidded on the ground, and bounced up to break the arm of an attached LAD officer, Second-Lieutenant Murphy.3

As the morning advanced, the enemy fire gradually slackened, while heavy tanks of the Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire page 274 Yeomanry began to work forward and fan out beside Point 201. A Squadron also came up and then RHQ, so that by the middle of the day the regiment managed to form a line abreast and right of the hill. It was, however, pinned fast for the rest of the day by the enemy guns and tanks which had come up to reinforce their line.

By the end of the day the Divisional Cavalry had captured a troop of guns with their crews and some 140 prisoners, all Italian, who went to swell the total day's bag of 1500.

B Squadron arrived up from its flank-guard duties late in the afternoon and the whole regiment formed its night's laager out in this open ground. The night was not peaceful enough for sleeping as the enemy gunners were active and, though no damage was caused, shells were landing uncomfortably close.

Next morning (the 23rd) B and C Squadrons started to work out to the left front of Point 201 towards the old Roman wall, which was still quite easily discernible in the form of a low mound cutting across the valley. Some of B Squadron managed to work well forward on some rising ground on the left flank in positions of good observation where the patrols could report on gun-flashes and the movement of enemy tanks and transport. The squadron managed to destroy some fifteen 77/28 guns and also capture quite a number of prisoners and documents which were sent back through 6 Brigade Headquarters.

Padre Harry Taylor has been hovering in the background of this story for some time now. He is a man of extraordinary charm and many gifts. A good padre is an invaluable asset to any unit for he carries the enormous responsibility of the unit's morale. As has already been pointed out, the morale in Div Cav was as high as anywhere in the Division and the greater part of the credit for this must go to Padre Taylor. At ‘acquiring’ anything he had few equals, and at one time he used to get about in a carrier, strictly not on the vehicle strength of the unit and, if the truth were known, most likely not in a fit state to be darting round a battlefield. However, he made it his duty to be up with the patrol line of the forward squadrons some part of every day and, as his little truck would arouse suspicion and draw fire on his hosts, he had found a carrier; where and how he got it is nobody's business. In it he always seemed to be carrying just what somebody was short of; at one time, for example, he carried round a great 200-pound bag of precious sugar. Where he got it nobody was ever tactless enough to inquire.

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Early in the war Div Cav gave him the nickname ‘Harry Kaitaia’, by which he was so universally known that some people thought the regiment had a Maori padre. He was given this title in a squadron canteen one night when it was decided that he was ‘too good a joker to have been just a Vicar—they should have made him a Bishop.’ This was no sooner said than his pre-war parish was voted an honorary see, and from that moment onwards he was Harry Kaitaia.

Give him all the credit for maintaining the high morale of Div Cav, for when the great test came when he was wounded on 23 March, he was as game as any trooper. His wound was a deep, painful gash and he should have been sent straight back to hospital on a stretcher, but he defied the MO in order to bury his friend, Private Moss,4 who had been killed by the same shell. The Colonel ordered him back so, when RHQ withdrew to the shelter of Point 201, Harry Kaitaia forgot to stop and arrived at one of the forward squadrons with half his pants torn off, and entreated them to keep his whereabouts a secret. A lesser character would have been court-martialled for insubordination, but Harry got more appropriate treatment. Every man in the regiment rejoiced in his immediate award of the DSO.

The New Zealand Corps had broken and consolidated its gains in the Mareth defences but the main assault was not so successful. On the coastal sector the break-in was accomplished, but by 25 March our troops had been more or less thrown back to the start line with heavy losses. The Army Commander decided to exploit the New Zealanders' gains and sent 10 Corps to reinforce them. His plan was now to launch a full-scale daylight attack, so timed that 1 Armoured Division, without even stopping at the end of its march, would leap-frog through as the New Zealanders arrived on their final objective and go crashing on. The infantry attack was to be supported by everything that would ‘move, fly, or go bang’, and in the words of one troop officer, ‘Jerry is going to be at the receiving end of everything but the kitchen sink.’

In the meantime, from the 24th to the 26th, there was a general jockeying for start-line positions and Div Cav needed only to employ one squadron at a time; so the others were able to do maintenance jobs on their vehicles. Each day the squadron detailed for patrol was sent out to the higher country to the page 276 left end of the line, where there were good sheltered positions for observation which, on the afternoon of the 24th, provided a grandstand view of a tank battle immediately in front. On the 25th the patrols were employed to mark their position with coloured smoke as an orienting point for some Hurricane ‘tank- busters’ which attacked the same enemy tanks. One of these planes crashed in no-man's land and the pilot, himself a New Zealander, was rescued by a C Squadron carrier crew. He was the second pilot to be rescued in a few days.

Among the captured documents brought in on the 25th were the plans for an exercise for the repelling of a British attack on the Italian coast. Coming events were indeed casting their shadows!

Being faced by New Zealanders, the enemy was naturally expecting another night attack, so complete tactical surprise
black and white photograph of cavalry movement

the breakthrough at tebaga gap, 26 march 1943

page 277 was gained when the RAF began its ‘softening-up’ at 3.30 p.m. on the 26th, with the heaviest close air support the Eighth Army had been given. A bombing line had to be marked on the ground and this was done by means of orange-coloured smoke. The little canisters which emitted this smoke burned only for a few minutes, so the timing had to be exact. The Divisional Cavalry had the job of marking one end of the line and this was done with a double signal, in blue and red.

Until the appointed time there were just the usual, almost casual, shells going over; then high up on a spur of the Matmata Hills five miles away, twin puffs of blue and red stretched out in the wind and pointed themselves like accusing fingers at the enemy. As if waiting for such a signal, right across the valley a row of brilliant orange followed suit and simultaneously the aircraft came into sight, just clearing the hills at the far end of the line, flight after flight; and as each reached its appointed position it swung to the right in a low flat dive straight at the enemy. The execution of this was as perfect as the timing, and in next to no time columns of black smoke from burning trucks and tanks were merging with the dust and bomb-smoke until some ten square miles of country was in seething confusion, with the aircraft ducking and diving overhead, no doubt directed by a single man soaring five miles above.

At four o'clock the guns, two hundred of them, opened up and the tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade began to roll forward, comfortably hidden by the dust of the bursting shells; a few hundred yards behind, the infantry rose up out of the earth to start walking steadily forward. Back in the south, rolling across the downs, were the leading tanks of 1 Armoured Division coming rapidly forward to make the second battle-wave.

The Divisional Cavalry moved on with the attack, through the hills on the flank, finding little to do but keep an eye on a few tanks which had worked themselves out of the way to that side. B Squadron found a handful of enemy infantry to deal with but otherwise there was no actual engagement. The regiment's only losses were one man killed, Lance-Corporal Chapman,5 and one wounded when a Kittyhawk fighter-bomber pilot made a mistake amongst the swirling dust clouds and shot up a Bren carrier.

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Laager was formed beside the KebiliEl Hamma road near the New Zealand Corps' objective, and the next morning, the 27th, the regiment set off up the road again with B and C Squadrons ahead trying to get in touch with 1 Armoured Division to get what news they could of its movements and those of the enemy. But regardless of recognition signals, they were held off by gunfire and it was not until late in the afternoon that liaison was effected. It was here that the regiment happened on a new kind of mine made of wood—to prevent its being located by the British mine detectors—which unfortunately killed Trooper McCartney6 and wrecked a carrier.

The village of El Hamma was due to fall to 1 Armoured Division; the enemy was evacuating the coastal defences at Mareth; so the axis of the New Zealand Corps' advance now swung east towards Gabes. On the 28th Div Cav put out its usual two-squadron screen which, together with the KDG, made contact with the retreating enemy, and by midday on the 29th 8 Armoured Brigade had dealt with what turned out to be a rearguard of 15 Panzer Division, thus allowing the light armour to arrive at the northern outskirts of the town. The enemy in retiring had blown the road in several places and mined the verges, and yet another carrier went up on a mine. All three of the crew became casualties, of whom Lance-Corporal Littin7 was killed.

The regiment did not stop at Gabes but was ordered north along the main coast road which led to Sfax and Sousse. A few miles up this road a culvert over a wadi had been destroyed, and though there were signs that a small enemy rearguard was still amongst the palm trees round the village of Oudref, this did not particularly interest Div Cav at the moment. Light AFVs could cross the wadi more or less where they liked, but they were seeking a place where the Division could cross on a nine-vehicle front. A suitable place was found on the morning of the 30th, and C Squadron pushed on beyond the village while some B Echelon men travelling with RHQ were set to work improving the crossing. The two leading squadrons worked further forward until they were able to see movement beyond the Wadi Akarit.

It was obvious that the enemy would defend this position in force and that a full-scale attack would be needed, for it was page 279
black and white photograph of cavalry movement

gabes to enfidaville

his last chance of preventing a union of the Eighth and First Armies. Divisional Cavalry patrols contented themselves with getting as far forward as possible unobserved and sending back all the information possible about enemy dispositions. This patrolling went on for some days until 5 April, while preparations were being put in hand for the attack. Each day two squadrons went forward accompanied by guns of 46 NZ Battery, which was attached, and twice the gunners got some shooting: page 280 once on a truck whose owners appeared to be laying mines, and once on another truck which could not be identified because it suffered a direct hit and burst into flames.

During the few days' wait at Wadi Akarit all the available officers and NCOs in the regiment attended an address by General Montgomery at Headquarters 5 Brigade. The General is by no means a polished orator but his personality instils tremendous confidence. He seemed to aim at being unconventional yet strict, for when he arrived, one would have thought he almost deliberately avoided the salute of the officer commanding the parade, Brigadier Kippenberger, by ducking round the wrong side of his car and straight into the middle of a perfect hollow square, where, without even standing the men at ease, he ordered them to ‘… come up closer—closer still. Sit down! You may smoke but you may not cough. Now, we are going to fight this battle….’ Needless to say, nobody dared to smoke.

The Wadi Akarit defences ran east and west between the sea and some salt marshes, the wadi itself providing the tank barrier. The troops holding this consisted mainly of Italians of doubtful reliability, with a stiffening of the German 90 Light Division, whose reserve of armour was very weak. The Africa Corps was really feeling its disaster at Medenine, but nevertheless the position was such that a full-scale attack was required to break through it. The plan was to use the three infantry divisions of 30 Corps, 50 Northumbrian, 51 Highland and 4 Indian, for this. The two mobile divisions, 2 New Zealand and 1 Armoured, were to be held until a break had been made, and then they were to pass through and deploy out over the open country beyond, overrunning everything they could.

The infantry assault opened up with a tremendous barrage about four o'clock in the morning of 6 April, so that if the defences had crumpled completely then and there, the exploiting Corps would have had all the same day to work. However, this was not to be, for the defence was far more determined than expected and it took all day to force a breach.

It was while the reserve division was waiting that some Div Cav men opened the eyes of some Tommy tank crews nearby. A single sheep came wandering back through the columns looking for a place to hide from the noise and confusion. It ran down into a shallow wadi and under a culvert where it stuck, and was immediately pounced upon by the ex-farmer troopers, hungry for fresh meat, who saw their opportunity. page 281 In five seconds its throat was slit and in five minutes it was skinned, disembowelled and quartered (the muzzle of a Bren gun serving as one hook of the gallows) and turned into mutton. Some chops and the liver were promptly offered to the Tommies, who were so taken aback that they almost forgot to express their thanks.

The reserve divisions were able to work forward a little during the day and A and B Squadrons went forward to find routes across the anti-tank ditch. They made slow progress across numerous small wadis and ran into some shellfire, but in any case there was little room to move until the defence collapsed and by last light there had still been no orders for a general advance. But the enemy had had enough.

In the morning the breach was complete and the reserves went pouring through. The New Zealand Division swung left through a pass in the Djebel er Roumana and out into the plains beyond. Here the troops of two squadrons shook out on a wide arc to enjoy the day of their lives, for the enemy, in pulling out, had left behind a large and varied assortment of prisoners and material to be captured. By the end of the day the regiment had covered 30 miles and claimed a bag of 27 officers and 1315 other ranks, amongst whom had been identified 361 and 433 Panzer Grenadiers, the Spezia and Pistoia Divisions, and 5 Regiment of the Superga Divisional Artillery. Four British six-pounder anti-tank guns had also been recovered and three American 75s mounted on White half-tracked cars, a jeep, and a quantity of American rations. All these had presumably come from the First Army front. Of enemy equipment the regiment claimed eight 149/35 guns, ten 75-mm. and two 50-mm. guns, two 10-ton trucks with trailers, a Volkswagen, and twenty-five assorted motor vehicles. The majority of the prisoners were quite surprised to find themselves captured and a great number of them, imagining themselves safe and secure behind the front line, were unarmed. Altogether it was a most satisfying day for Div Cav, crowned as it was by the news that during the afternoon the Signals Officer had made direct wireless contact with an American formation working eastwards near Maknassy, sufficiently clearly to exchange situation reports with it.

This rapid rate of advance was continued next morning, the 8th, when the regiment took its position in a battle group containing the KDG, 8 Armoured and 5 NZ Infantry Brigades, and some artillery. The Divisional Cavalry advanced on a one- page 282 squadron front for another 20 miles until that squadron was held up by tanks and guns. This, however, did not hinder the Shermans of 8 Armoured Brigade, which then took over the job of screening the Division. The Divisional Cavalry was halted for a welcome afternoon's spell, and at five o'clock it concentrated into one column, followed along the axis of advance, and arrived at the head of the Division late at night.

The Tunisian plain west of Sfax allowed some 50 or 60 miles of room for manoeuvre, and the general plan was for the Division to hurry northwards as hard as it could and outflank Sfax to trap enemy forces there. The countryside, however, was becoming more closed-in, with large olive groves in which anything could hide. So the heavy armour continued to cover the advance while Div Cav was given the job of guarding the eastern, or inside, flank which lay against some of this tree-covered country. B and C Squadrons were accordingly sent out to this side of the divisional axis, where they spent the day watching for any signs of aggression in the enemy flank guard there. This consisted of tanks, guns and infantry and was considered much too strong to be attacked. But there were some troops attached to the regiment at the time who were not in agreement. Just before the attack at Wadi Akarit a squadron of the fiery Greek Sacred Brigade had been attached to the Divisional Cavalry. These men travelled in jeeps, mostly mounting captured enemy automatics, and it was understood in Div Cav that they had all taken a fatalistic oath to die at the hands of the enemy. That day the B and C Squadron men were quite willingly obeying their instructions not to attack anything unnecessarily formidable, when a troop of these enthusiasts suddenly decided to become aggressive. They saw a large German tank halted amongst the trees across a flat valley and made at it full-speed with their guns blazing. The tank must have been carrying tins of spare petrol on top of the hull, which caught fire, and in next to no time the tank was ablaze and the Greeks were returning triumphantly with not a man hurt. They were far too gentlemanly to suggest it, but must have thought, if they were capable of making that wild dash, that they were attached to a very chicken-hearted unit.

The Arabs in Tunisia were, in the main, very much pro- German. But they are an inexplicable race, for some of them, well aware of the presence of some Div Cav men with a broken-down carrier nearby, were careful not to reveal the fact to the crew of a German armoured car who stopped to speak to them.

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The enemy flank guard covering the retirement from Sfax was evidently under the same instructions as the Divisional Cavalry had been, namely to avoid committing itself if possible; and accordingly on the 10th, when the drive was on again towards Sousse, it was ignored by our troops. There was a march right across the olive groves to the village of Triaga and thence up the road to La Hencha on the main road. A and B Squadrons probed forward on a line parallel to 4 Light Armoured Brigade on their left, right to El Djem, and camped there the night. Though the day had passed with no brush with the enemy, it had been very unnerving because the earlier part of it had been spent in a trek across country covered in one immense olive grove. This was so perfectly laid out that, for hours, passing down between the lines of trees, the patrols found themselves opening out a series of revolving lanes, down any one of which an anti-tank shell might have come from nowhere. But the enemy was retreating fast with the whole Eighth Army hot on his heels, hoping perhaps to catch him while he took breath in Sousse. There was no time to stop and admire the well preserved remains of the huge Roman amphi- theatre at El Djem which the road actually encircled.

Sousse was the immediate target and haste was so essential that, the night before arriving there, the regiment bedded down in normal daytime formation, for patrols had already been up to the outskirts of the town on the 11th. Without waiting for breakfast the next morning the advance was resumed, and by 8.30 the leading squadrons were well past the western outskirts of the town, while RHQ had turned in to join in the welcome given to the New Zealanders by the inhabitants. Amidst cries of ‘Vive’ and ‘Victoire’, amidst much hand-clapping and back-slapping and waving of flags—mostly the ‘Stars and Stripes’ presumably dropped for the occasion by the United States Air Force—flowers, wine and brandy, cake and apples were pressed on the troops. The inhabitants thought that these, the first Allied troops they had seen, were Americans, but when they discovered they were Nouvelles Zélandaises they were, for a few seconds, far from being reassured; for they had not lost the fear with which the enemy troops, particularly the Italians, had infected them that the New Zealanders were black, man-eating savages who would slit their throats just for the fun and joy of it.

It was amusing to realise that such a reputation had gone before, and it was pleasant to see again comely French lasses, page 284 who were well worth looking at, sights which had not been seen since leaving the beaches of Alexandria. But by way of an offset to these manifestations of Gallic ebullience is the story of a Maltese of the Secret Service, one Sergeant Reahardy, whom Div Cav picked up. He said that the French had been just as friendly to the Germans when they were knocking at the gates of Alexandria. But perhaps he was prejudiced, for it was surprising to learn that there were any Germans in Tunisia at that time.

It may not be out of place here to mention that on entering some of the villages the men were horrified to find the trail of wanton destruction the enemy had left behind. In one instance a troop of Divisional Cavalry had entered the house of a well-to-do French family, so close on the enemy's heels that the remnants of his looted breakfast were still warm. Remnants, yes: for he had had time to wreck the room and smash everything in it, and on the floor was a pathetic litter of fragments of dainty china and delicate crystal, broken furniture, and fine linen slashed and torn to ribbons. In the cellar he had broken the bottles of all the wine he could not carry away, slit the bags of barley and poured kerosene over the contents strewn over the floor.

While Sousse was ‘en fête’, A Squadron pressed on up the main road. It was slow going, for the road ran through rolling country with trees and scrub which provided plenty of opportunities for a determined rearguard; and the squadron had managed to cover only some five miles when an armour-piercing shell struck the driver's visor of Lieutenant Murchison's tank, killing Troopers Williams8 and Woodhead.9 Murchison was wounded and knocked unconscious. The fourth member of the crew, Trooper Bear,10 was wounded also, in the knee and face, but he removed the driver's body and drove the tank into dead ground, where he could first attend to Murchison before getting back on to his wireless set and calling up his squadron commander. He remained there under mortar and shell-fire, acting as a radio relay station to his troop until this minor action was successfully concluded.

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The two other squadrons swung west, B Squadron bagging a half-tracked troop-carrier, killing or capturing its complement of eleven Germans, while C Squadron also took a few prisoners, and at Kalaa-Srira found thousands of jerricans and petrol drums abandoned, and a number of trucks loaded with a huge and varied quantity of ammunition. Particular satisfaction lay in finding no fewer than thirteen trucks of 88-mm. shells, Div Cav's pet fear. Truly the enemy was retreating in disorder and it was not hard to believe the Intelligence reports coming forward from Sfax telling of valuable stores and installations being found intact there.

Under these circumstances it was justifiable to drop the caution of a regimental laager and the squadrons spent the night where they were. Thus they were able to press on again in the morning on a two-squadron front. By nightfall on the 13th they were within ten miles of Enfidaville, and the following morning they were coming up to the defences of Berlin Radio's ‘Fortress of Tunis’.

The town of Enfidaville rests in the curve of the Gulf of Hammamet where the coastline swings out along the Cape Bon peninsula. Behind the town the country rises steeply into high, broken mountains; in front of it, cut only by a wadi half a mile away, is a flat plain reaching from the marshy ground at the coast to a mountain chain, roughly parallel with the coast and the foothills ten to fifteen miles inland. This plain boasts a few olive groves and some cultivated ground among high cactus hedges, but the greater part of it is completely open. Round this area the New Zealand Division was destined to stay, applying all pressure possible, until the assault on the First Army front broke into Bizerta and Tunis and spread out round Cape Bon to end the campaign in Africa.

It was apparent that the Divisional Cavalry would not be needed for any screening roles until an attack had been launched and a break-through accomplished, so RHQ was established in some cover just ahead of the guns of 4 Field Regiment and squadrons operated from there, probing about for any information that could be gleaned. Through some mistake, the BBC had reported Enfidaville in our hands. This was not true because, on the 15th, C Squadron advanced on it along the coast side of the road and was shelled very energetically. The going was very soft, but this was a blessing since the shells sank well into the mud and their explosions did little harm. The squadron reported that the town was still occupied, but it had not done page 286 this before several unfortunates had driven innocently in there and into captivity, these including one of the regiment's own quartermasters.

A full-scale attack went in at 11 p.m. on the 19th. B Squadron was attached to 5 Brigade for this action, while the rest of the regiment had its usual role of waiting for a gap to push through and exploit. The attack made ground but the enemy line still held, and the regiment, less of course B Squadron, sat out in the open in desert formation all day on the 20th with nothing to do but watch the terrific bombardment which the village of Takrouna, perched up on top of its hill, was taking from attackers and defenders alike, and wait for a chance to advance. But no chance came. An A Squadron patrol went into Enfidaville and beyond, looking for a place to break through, but found none, and by nightfall Div Cav was back amongst the guns.

And so for another three days, from the 21st until the 24th, the regiment resumed its probing tasks. Now and again one troop would insinuate itself through the enemy front line only to be held up. On one of these sallies Lieutenant McFarlane11 was wounded by a mortar bomb and succumbed to his wounds. RHQ came in for its share of shellfire, too, since the enemy was particularly active against our guns; Major Robinson was also wounded by shrapnel, and Lance-Corporal Eddie,12 who died a few days later. Then, on the 24th the whole regiment was disengaged, as the Division was being relieved, and two days later was sent back ten miles to a rest area. All vehicles and guns were immediately given a thorough clean-up, all the blankets were put through a disinfestor, and as many people as could were given a chance to slip down to the coast for a bathe. Squadrons went out on route marches—cavalry-length marches of course—to keep the men fit; but otherwise there was just a week of glorious lazing, playing Bridge, or just lying amongst the wild flowers marvelling at the number of our fighters and bombers—hundreds of them—which passed overhead all day, purposefully heading for the only little piece of Africa left to attack.

The rest period came to an end all too quickly with a warning order for a move forward coming at midday on 3 May. The page 287 very next morning the regiment was waiting at an assembly area while Colonel Bonifant and Major Stace13 went to see the new area to be taken over. This was further west than the Enfidaville positions and was occupied by 4 Light Armoured Brigade, linking the Enfidaville front with the one held, and held rather thinly, by the Free French Algerian Division.

The Divisional Cavalry was able to man its part of the line with one squadron at a time, and once again there was little to do but get as far forward as possible and then sit and glare at the enemy. His forward line was very heavily mined and practically every mine fitted with some sort of a booby trap, so that even if the enemy gunners, who were so touchy that they fired at anybody who showed more than an eyebrow, would have allowed it, getting forward would still have been a slow process. Despite the fall of Bizerta and Tunis, the enemy on the southern sector was proving as obstinate as ever.

On 8 May the regiment, less C Squadron which stayed under command of 5 Brigade, moved back opposite Enfidaville to follow a break-through by tanks the next day, but this never eventuated since the First Army was launching a drive right across the base of the peninsula to Enfidaville. All that day and the next, indeed until the 12th, there was little to do but wait, expecting almost hourly the final surrender. But the enemy facing the Eighth Army, containing as it did, at least one valiant division, the 90th Light—old adversaries of the New Zealanders, well known since the days in Greece—was determined to fight until nothing remained. Our artillery concentrations which were fired during those days were continuously keeping some part of the hills completely obscured with dust and smoke, and in return the enemy gunners kept our forward positions under heavy bombardment.

All that remains as a recollection of those few days is a nightmare of guns that, both in the distance and close at hand, rumbled and barked and roared to the accompaniment of a continuous howling and wailing of shells overhead.

Some of the Div Cav wireless operators heard, on the 12th, the calls by the Eighth and First Armies for unconditional surrender, and the enemy's curt refusal. And still the guns belched out their defiance at each other, stubborn as ever. But next morning word came through that the cease-fire was ordered page 288 for 10 a.m.14 Until that hour the guns on neither side indicated in any slackening of their fire that any such orders had been given, except perhaps that the enemy guns seemed to be firing more indiscriminately, as if the gunners were trying to use up all the ammunition they could in the allotted time. At the appointed hour, but for one or two shells that went over a few seconds late—obviously from the odd gunner who wanted to say that he had fired the last shell in Africa—the whole world became silent. You could feel that a weight had suddenly been lifted from your body so strange was the silence.

But what was it that had so vividly turned a day of brutal war into a smiling spring morning? What was it? It was something so completely peaceful, so long forgotten, as not to be immediately recognised. And when recognition did come, the wind was whispering it in the grass and the little wild poppies nodded their approval; for up above … a lark was singing.

1 Tpr R. A. Dix; born NZ 7 Dec 1913; transport driver; killed in action 7 Mar 1943.

2 Sgt W. R. Brown, MM; born NZ 24 Apr 1917; fireman, NZR; died of wounds 21 Dec 1943.

3 Capt F. J. Murphy; Levin; born Lismore, NSW, 24 Mar 1914; motor mechanic; wounded 22 Mar 1943.

4 Pte J. R. Moss (4 Fd Amb, attached); born 22 Jul 1912; musician; killed in action 23 Mar 1943.

5 L-Cpl L. H. Chapman; born NZ 13 Aug 1919; farmhand; killed in action 26 Mar 1943.

6 Tpr J. E. McCartney; born NZ 12 Jun 1914; labourer; killed in action 27 Mar 1943.

7 L-Cpl I. A. Littin; born NZ 1 May 1916; grocer's assistant; killed in action 30 Mar 1943.

8 Tpr C. St.E. Williams; born Rio de Janeiro, 23 Nov 1912; dairy factory hand; killed in action 12 Apr 1943.

9 Tpr G. E. Woodhead; born NZ 27 Feb 1919; cheese factory hand; killed in action 12 Apr 1943.

10 2 Lt F. H. Bear, MM; Tirau; born Tirau, 30 Mar 1917; butcher; wounded 12 Apr 1943.

11 Lt R. O. McFarlane; born NZ 16 Aug 1913; service station manager; died of wounds 21 Apr 1943.

12 L-Cpl G. T. Eddie; born Hastings, 22 Jul 1916; shepherd; died of wounds 24 Apr 1943.

13 Lt-Col G. H. Stace, Order of Phoenix Silver Cross (Gk); Omaka, Blenheim; born Blenheim, 26 Apr 1912; farmer; CO Div Cav 4–27 Mar 1944.

14 First Italian Army, commanded by Field Marshal Messe, surrendered at 11.45 a.m. on 13 May.