CHAPTER 16 — Final Campaign in Africa
Final Campaign in Africa
A week after the occupation of Tripoli Eighth Army's patrols crossed the frontier into Tunisia, where Rommel had withdrawn his forces behind the Mareth Line. From this strongly defended position, which lay like an insurmountable barrier between Eighth Army and First Army,1 he moved quickly north and attacked an important communications centre and supply base at Tebessa. American formations there were severely mauled, but reinforcements from the north prevented the enemy from consolidating his gains, so that he was forced to move south again to meet the threat developing from Eighth Army against the Mareth defences, which he had left in the hands of an Italian garrison during his excursion in the north.
On his return to Mareth Rommel decided to attack Eighth Army and regain the initiative. No doubt he thought that his right flank was secure and that any attempt to outflank Mareth from the west would be defeated by the difficult country there. In January, however, a New Zealand patrol of the Long Range Desert Group had made a careful reconnaissance of this area and had found a passage through the Matmata Hills, which would enable a striking force to make a wide turning movement around the enemy's western flank and force a breach between the north-western end of the extension of the Mareth Line and the impassable barrier of Djebel Tebaga. This task, which fell to 2 NZ Division—to be constituted as a corps for the operation because of its increased strength—was to be matched simultaneously by a frontal attack on the Mareth Line by 30 Corps, which was to destroy the enemy holding troops and then advance and capture Gabes.
Although Rommel's withdrawal under pressure from Kasserine and his return in armoured force to Mareth meant that he almost certainly contemplated an attack against Eighth Army's forward positions to stave off for a time the threat from the page 350 east, these considerations were not allowed to interfere with the planning of pugilist, the operation by which General Montgomery hoped to carry the Mareth Line. Nevertheless, the enemy's intentions were interpreted as a sufficient threat to cause the Army Commander to form a firm base at Medenine against which Rommel might spend his strength in vain.
The New Zealand Division was warned at very short notice on 1 March to move to Medenine to strengthen the sector there. The order first said that the Division was to be ready to move at four hours' notice from 1 a.m. on 2 March, but only a few hours later this was amended drastically to four hours' notice from 4 p.m. on the 1st.
Needless to say, there was a certain amount of frantic activity to extricate the men of Signals from their comfortable bivouacs and make them ready for a night march to operational positions. Company commanders rushed about feverishly, pausing momentarily at the unit office or the quartermaster's store to pick up or leave pieces of paper, in much the same way that an express train picks up and casts off tablets at a wayside station. In odd corners of Signals' area officers and senior NCOs came together at intervals for a few brief moments, conversed in terse question and answer, and quickly dispersed again about their various occasions.
By 8 p.m. all vehicles were lined up in their appointed places in a leafy lane skirting the headquarters' area, where the Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division column stood ready to move. An hour and a half later the long column began the second most difficult night journey—the worst was yet to come—that the Division encountered in the whole African campaign. The route lay through Bianchi and Suani Ben Adem to the coastal road west of Tripoli, and then on through Zuara and Ben Gardane to Medenine, which was reached soon after midday next day, after a journey of 190 miles.
The presence of the New Zealand Division was to be completely concealed from the enemy, and accordingly a strict wireless silence within the Division was imposed. An extensive network of lines, however, was quickly laid out, and by 5 March, the day before the Medenine battle began, in addition to duplicated circuits to 5 and 6 Brigades and Main Headquarters page 351 30 Corps, there were direct lines from Main Divisional Headquarters to 4 Light Armoured Brigade and to Main and Rear Headquarters 7 Armoured Division. The CRA 2 NZ Division had separate circuits to 4, 5 and 6 Field Regiments and to the Commander Army Group Royal Artillery. The 201st Guards Brigade, whose rear line was terminated at Main Headquarters 7 Armoured Division, had a lateral circuit to 5 Brigade on its left. On 3 March, before 4 Light Armoured Brigade's line was laid, the only means of communication between Main Divisional Headquarters and the armour was by wireless. Arrangements were made to employ a Royal Signals operator from an air support tentacle set to operate the New Zealand set and so preserve the secret of the Division's presence in the area.
The Medenine battle began early on the morning of the 6th with heavy shelling of Eighth Army's forward positions. There was moderate shelling of the rear areas, and the Divisional Signals at Main Divisional Headquarters received a few heavy shells at first light. The battle—considered to be a model defensive battle—was short-lived, however, and by evening the enemy had withdrawn into the Mareth defences again. His losses amounted to fifty-two tanks, which fell to carefully sited anti-tank guns.
On 12 March Main Headquarters 2 New Zealand Division moved back towards Ben Gardane and then turned south-westwards along the Foum Tatahouine road on the first stage of the ‘left hook’ to turn the Mareth defences. The Division had passed from the command of 30 Corps the night before and was now New Zealand Corps, which had under its command 8 Armoured Brigade, King's Dragoon Guards, one field, one medium and one anti-tank regiment of Royal Artillery, General Leclerc's French from Chad, and a Free French column.
Main Divisional Headquarters approached Ben Gardane in the middle of the afternoon and continued along the Foum Tatahouine road. Early in the evening a halt was made while a meal was prepared to fortify the men for the long night march which lay ahead, and at 9 p.m. the column moved off again along the narrow, dusty road which was little better than a cart track.page 352
All that night they travelled on what was probably the most difficult night march encountered in the African campaign. Sometimes the vehicles crept along at a snail's pace, the drivers straining their eyes ahead to keep the rear of the vehicle in front in view lest they might wander from the track. The dull, drab colouring of their vehicles' bonnets and mudguards merged into the grey background of the track and surrounding desert, so that they drove blindly except for the dim shapes which rocked and swayed ahead. Once in a dry riverbed some of the trucks and lorries lost contact and bumped their way through shingle and between huge boulders before they found their way back to the column.
At first light they were out on the almost indistinguishable desert track south of Foum Tatahouine and approaching Wilder's Gap, where the route passed through the Matmata Hills to the assembly area, where the Corps was to wait until 19 March in the best concealment from enemy air reconnaissance it could contrive.
Since the commencement of the move on 12 March a strict wireless silence had been imposed throughout the Corps, but in the assembly area an Eighth Army Signals No. 18M set manned by Royal Signals operators was used at Main Headquarters New Zealand Corps for traffic to and from Main Headquarters Eighth Army. This set had previously been attached to Main Headquarters L Force—Leclerc's French force from Lake Chad—where it and another detachment located with Rear Headquarters L Force had formed the terminal sets on an Eighth Army wireless group. All wireless traffic between Main Headquarters New Zealand Corps and Main Headquarters Eighth Army was to be routed through this No. 18M set detachment, which was to retain its L Force call signs and frequencies and by this deception conceal the New Zealanders' presence on the enemy's western flank.
New Zealand Corps assumed temporary ownership of four other Eighth Army Signals wireless sets for the Tebaga operation; of these, two were SCR 245 sets employed by R Section at Rear Headquarters 2 NZ Division to provide communications between the Commander NZASC (Colonel Crump2) and page 353 his two terminal stations at the New Zealand ammunition point and the New Zealand Field Maintenance Centre; the others were SCR 299A sets—400 watt equipments—one of which at Main Headquarters NZ Corps provided the rear radio-telephony link to Tactical Headquarters Eighth Army. The fourth set, which was not brought into use until 17 March, was the Main Headquarters NZ Corps' terminal station on the 30 Corps- 2 United States Corps group. The SCR sets were United States Signal Corps' equipment.
The arrangement of this group requires some explanation. Thirtieth Corps, at that time breasting up to the Mareth defences, was in wireless communication with 2 United States Corps, which was advancing eastwards from the direction of Gafsa in central Tunisia towards the area Sfax-Sousse, on the Tunisian littoral north of Gabes. It was the plan of the Chief Signals Officer Eighth Army that as soon as New Zealand Corps' wireless silence was lifted—at 6 a.m. on 21 March, or on previous contact with the enemy—the Corps should establish wireless communication with the Americans, whereupon 30 Corps would drop out of the group and relinquish its control to New Zealand Corps.
All these fine details of wireless organisation—they included normal and alternative operating frequencies and call-sign book row numbers—were arranged by signal messages passed between the Chief Signals Officer Eighth Army and New Zealand Corps by the No. 18M set which ‘intercepted’ the pseudo-L Force traffic.
Early in the evening of 19 March New Zealand Corps commenced to move on a nine-vehicle front from the assembly area on the first stage of its march to the Tebaga Gap. The move was made in bright moonlight, but the going, which consisted of dunes and stretches of soft sand, made progress slow. The Corps halted at 2 a.m. after having covered about 40 miles, and lines were laid out immediately to brigades and local headquarters' offices.
During this night move General Freyberg had received a message from Main Headquarters Eighth Army which said, ‘benghazi minus’, code words meaning: ‘We have information that the enemy is aware of your outflanking movement but there is no reaction’. There were several other code words, each page 354 of which conveyed different information according to the circumstances. For example, one code word meant that the enemy was aware of the movement and that his reaction was violent. As a result of this message, benghazi minus, General Freyberg decided to push on at 8 a.m. and to break wireless silence an hour earlier. Accordingly, a few minutes before 7 a.m., all wireless sets opened up, and a few minutes later contact was established at good signal strengths on all circuits except that to 2 United States Corps, from whom no answer was received all that day, although they could be heard quite clearly continuing to work 30 Corps. For some reason 30 Corps had failed to relinquish control of the group to New Zealand Corps as previously arranged and was still using the group control call sign. This caused a good deal of confusion, and it was not until Lieutenant-Colonel Agar had sent off a number of signal messages to Chief Signal Officer Eighth Army that communication was finally established with the Americans next day.
All day on the 20th New Zealand Corps made good progress over very difficult going, and halted at 7 p.m. within sight of the country around the approaches to the Tebaga Gap. That afternoon, at 4 p.m., there had been an unfortunate incident when several American fighter-bombers swept over the column and dropped a number of bombs on the Divisional Artillery Headquarters' column.3 This ‘raid’ was quite unexpected, especially as the planes' markings were plainly seen. One of the bombs exploded just at the rear of an H Section truck and killed Signalman Benfell,4 who was riding on the back of the vehicle.
The Corps was away again at first light on the 21st. General Freyberg intended to achieve tactical surprise, and to do this he planned to move his corps swiftly on a narrow front across the difficult country ahead and strike quickly and hard. The Corps halted at 4.30 p.m. near the approaches to the Gap. Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division was sited on an open, flat piece of country surrounded by high hills, from which the sounds of a brisk artillery duel reverberated back and forth in page 355 the calm evening air. Preparations were going forward quickly for an attack by 6 Brigade to capture a strongly held prominent feature, which lay in the centre of the Gap and immediately behind the broad minefield belt lying across the three-mile-wide portal.
Already Signals had encountered the usual difficulties in maintaining field cable where it lay at the mercy of roving vehicle wheels and armour tracks, so that L Section, which was endeavouring to carry lines forward from Headquarters 6 Brigade to the battalions' battle positions, soon had to call for B (cable) Section's assistance to enable it to maintain the lines in more or less satisfactory communication. Later in the evening, about an hour before 6 Brigade's attack was planned to commence—at 10 p.m.—the line maintenance problem became much more troublesome, probably because the moving armour and carriers could not see the field cable in the darkness and therefore made no attempt to avoid running their tracks along it. In several places great gaps were torn in the lines where the rapacious jaws of tracks had picked up whole lengths of cable.
Complaints began to come in to the Signal Office at 10.15 p.m. from G office that General Freyberg was unable to speak to the commander of 6 Brigade (Brigadier Gentry) because the line was either not through or was interrupted. Captain Foubister, who at that time was doing his shift as Signalmaster, stood these complaints off as long as possible with admirable tact and patience; but they became more and more clamorous until finally Lieutenant-Colonel Agar, who feared that he had already committed his Main Headquarters' cable-laying resources beyond a safe limit, decided to send an officer forward to ascertain the position and rectify it if possible. He instructed OC No. 3 Company, Captain Rose, to go forward quickly, find 6 Brigade and get the line into as good a state of repair as possible.
Rose set off in his jeep and in due course reached 6 Brigade's start line, where Brigadier Gentry was watching the progress of the battle. But the Brigadier was not interested in telephone communication with Main Headquarters, and said as much in so many words. At the moment, his manner said as plainly as any words, he was engrossed with the launching of the assault page 356 and wanted to get on with it; he would talk to Division later. So Rose, obeying Agar's instructions, took one of the B (cable) Section detachments that had been assisting L Section and began to lay another circuit back towards Main Divisional Headquarters. After halting several times to retrace its route and repair faults that had appeared already on the new line, the detachment eventually reached Headquarters Divisional Artillery, which lay some distance forward of Main Divisional Headquarters. Here the line was taken onto H Section's switchboard to restore communication between Main Divisional Headquarters and Tactical Headquarters 6 Brigade at the earliest possible moment.
Meanwhile 6 Brigade was pressing its attack and in due course captured Point 201, which gave New Zealand Corps an important vantage point in the Gap. During the difficult period when such strenuous efforts were being made to restore line communications, wireless had been working well within the restricted limits of use to which it could be put in the preparatory stages of the battle. Communication by wireless telegraphy on such an occasion was quite impracticable because of the delays in transmissions imposed by the enciphering and deciphering of operational messages. Obviously, too, radio telephony could not be used freely because of the risk of a premature disclosure to the enemy intercept services of New Zealand Corps' intentions.
So far in the first encounter with the enemy at Tebaga, Signals had sustained only one casualty. This had occurred about 4.30 p.m., when Signalman Feeney,5 of H Section, was wounded at Headquarters Divisional Artillery by an enemy shell and died from his injuries half an hour later without regaining consciousness. Feeney was buried on the spot by the chaplain of 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery. The fact that his death was Signals' only casualty was poor comfort to Second-Lieutenant Toms, OC H Section, who had lost two men almost within twenty-four hours.
Throughout the day on the 22nd lines continued to sustain extensive damage from tracks and wheels, but by the evening much of the transport and armoured movement had subsided, and line communications became more stable. By the early hours of the morning on the 23rd, however, movement in the forward areas began to increase again, so that lines were again ‘out’ more often than they were ‘in’. Fresh efforts by B (cable) Section to select alternative routes for the lines were unsuccessful because of the depredations of transport, which seemed to roam at will in the congested area in the approaches to the Gap.
The 24th passed quietly enough at Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division in the rear area, except for occasional enemy air activity, but nearer the front there was considerable movement as units took up their positions in front of the enemy's defences, which were now growing in strength with the arrival of fresh reinforcements.
Meanwhile the Army Commander and General Freyberg had drawn up a plan for reinforcing New Zealand Corps with 1 Armoured Division to breach the enemy's defences in the Gap and pass the armour through to exploit towards Gabes and El Hamma. Thirtieth Corps had lost its bridgehead at Mareth and suffered considerable casualties, so General Montgomery decided to send his armour, which had not yet been committed, on a forced march round to the west in time to sweep through the Tebaga Gap on the heels of New Zealand Corps' assault. This operation was to be called supercharge ii in perpetuation of its memorable predecessor, supercharge, the second attack at Alamein which had broken Rommel's defences in November.
As soon as preparations and redeployment of brigades commenced in readiness for the battle, which was timed to open at 4 p.m. on the 26th, signal communications problems grew apace. Those responsible for wireless circuits had no troubles; indeed, they had fewer than formerly because by this time 10 Corps had assembled south of New Zealand Corps and had taken over all circuits working to Eighth Army and 2 United States Corps. Since New Zealand Corps had left its assembly area on the 19th, wireless communications had been agreeably page 358 satisfactory; all traffic to and from the rear had been passed smoothly at good signal strengths, and forward of Main Corps Headquarters wireless had been used sparingly, principally because of its vulnerability to enemy intercept services or, as the old 1935 signal training manuals put it, because of its ‘lack of security between its terminals’.
Lines, however, began to suffer almost immediately from the effects of tracks and wheels as transport began to roam restlessly again in the brigade areas. In the early hours of the 26th, before first light, B (cable) Section men began to show unmistakable signs of weariness from their labours of the last three or four days, which were eased only slightly by a Royal Signals line detachment coming forward from 10 Corps Signals to maintain and extend the Corps' line.
At 5 Brigade a tactical headquarters was already established on Point 201, the feature captured by 6 Brigade on the evening of 21st. From here K Section laid lines forward to 21, 23 and 28 Battalions' positions in their lying-up areas, where they would remain concealed throughout the day of the 26th in readiness to follow behind the opening artillery barrage. In 6 Brigade, on the left of the New Zealand sector, L Section had a simpler problem as only one battalion, the 24th, was to be employed in the attack. In both brigades the No. 11 wireless terminal sets were to be taken forward with the battalions' headquarters as the advance proceeded.
At 3.30 p.m. the fighter-bombers of sixteen squadrons, accompanied by one squadron of Hurricane tank-busters and one squadron of Spitfires, appeared over the Gap and set about their task of creating havoc in the enemy's defences and rear areas in preparation for the main assault, which was to begin half an hour later. This timing of the attack in daylight was part of the plan to disconcert the enemy, who would expect the New Zealanders to follow their time-honoured precedent of attacking at night. Too many times in Egypt's Western Desert Rommel had won the toss and put the sun at his back. Now it was General Freyberg's turn to seize the advantage and, moreover, he had the weather gauge, for there was a stiff breeze at his back which would pick up the dust from the advancing armour and throw it in German faces.page 359
At 4 p.m. the tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade rumbled over the start line and followed the artillery barrage, with the infantry close behind. During the attack communications with 5 and 6 Brigades' headquarters depended solely on the battalions' terminal wireless sets.
The attack pressed forward and reached the first objective without meeting serious opposition, but the advance towards the second objective lost some of its former precision and smoothness in the face of determined enemy resistance, especially on the left, where 24 Battalion ran into German machine-gun posts and had heavy casualties. By 6 p.m., however, the armour, followed closely by the carriers and leading infantry companies, had reached to within a short distance of the second objective. At this stage 1 Armoured Division, after its long and rapid march from Medenine, passed through the forward positions won by New Zealand Corps and laagered in a forward staging area to await moonrise, when the advance would be continued towards El Hamma.
Although the Gap was won, strong enemy resistance continued to hold up 28 (Maori) Battalion on the right of the sector, where a prominent feature, Hill 209, and a subsidiary feature about a thousand yards to its west, were strongly held by a German battalion. At 6 p.m., about the same time that the other battalions had almost reached their final objective, the Maoris gained possession of the lower feature and maintained a precarious foothold against spirited German counter-attacks. An hour later Battalion Headquarters was established several hundred yards west of the lower feature, but the battalion commander (Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett6) had no communication with Headquarters 5 Brigade by line or wireless, although the battalion's terminal wireless set No. 11 had not at any time lost contact with the control set at Brigade Headquarters. The set, therefore, could not have been readily accessible for Bennett's use, and he was thus unaware of the success achieved by the other battalions on the Corps' front.
Similarly, Brigadier Kippenberger knew little of what was happening in 28 Battalion's attack. About 6.30 p.m., therefore, page 360 he instructed 21 Battalion to send a patrol forward to tell Bennett to make contact with 23 Battalion and to report to Headquarters 5 Brigade by telephone as soon as a line from Brigade reached him. By the time 21 Battalion's patrol reached the Maoris, however, Bennett had already been in touch with Brigade Headquarters by wireless and expressed his anxiety about his open right flank. The Brigadier then instructed 21 Battalion to move a company up to the Maoris' right. It set off about 7.30 p.m., and with it went a party from K Section to lay a line. Soon afterwards line communication was established between Headquarters 28 Battalion and Headquarters 5 Brigade.
Except for a minor breakdown on 23 Battalion's terminal wireless set early in the attack, wireless communications were not interrupted throughout the battle. Early on the morning of the 27th a line was laid forward to 23 Battalion, and communications with Brigade Headquarters were fully restored.
On the left of the Corps' front continuous communication with Headquarters 6 Brigade had been maintained throughout the advance by 24 Battalion's terminal wireless set, installed in the CO's carrier. After the battalion reached its final objective a line was taken forward from Headquarters 6 Brigade by L Section linemen.
At Main Headquarters New Zealand Corps a warning order for a move went out early in the morning, but the headquarters sat about for most of the day awaiting the word to go. These were exasperating affairs, these long intervals of uncertainty in which drivers of vehicles sat continuously at their wheels ready to start their engines and move off. Finally the order went round that all vehicles were to go into column of route for a night move. The men looked sceptical and showed no alacrity in stowing the various bundles of gear and kit that had been progressively removed on some pretext or other from their vehicles during the long wait and now lay about on the ground in disorder. They stood around again for another two hours and then, suddenly, at 10.55 p.m., the head of the column moved off. It passed through the minefield and halted near the Roman Wall to bivouac for the night. There was some enemy air activity over the area during the night, and few men neglected page 361 to dig slit trenches beside their vehicles before they bedded down.
Next morning Corps Headquarters stood to at six o'clock, the time at which the column was to move on. At midday it was still waiting, but it moved off an hour later, only to halt again after a few miles. There were several of these short moves during the afternoon until, at 4 p.m., the column halted finally for the night.
Gabes was entered by advanced elements of New Zealand Corps just before noon on 29 March, when armoured cars of the King's Dragoon Guards and carriers of 23 Battalion reached the southern outskirts of the town, where they were besieged by an excited and clamorous population, the first friendly inhabitants to be liberated by Eighth Army. The KDG and 23 Battalion were just too late to prevent German engineers from blowing a bridge over a stream at the north-western end of the town. They noticed signs that the enemy had just completed his hasty withdrawal, but there was no evidence or smells of fresh paint which might have justified 51 (Highland) Divis- ion's later claim to have ‘captured’ Gabes.
Main Headquarters New Zealand Corps did not reach the town until early next morning, having made a slow and tortuous march around the foothills and through narrow defiles, where the column several times was forced to break down into single file to negotiate the difficult going.
By 31 March New Zealand Corps was assembled in the area to the north of Gabes, and here it relinquished its identity as a corps and became 2 New Zealand Division again, under the operational control of 30 Corps, but under 10 Corps for administrative purposes.
Although the battle for the Tebaga Gap reached several high pitches of intensity in the various stages between 21 and 29 March, Signals came off lightly in casualties, both in men and equipment. None of the sections at Main Headquarters New Zealand Corps, at the headquarters of brigades or at field regiments had any losses. In addition to H Section's unfortunate loss of Benfell and Feeney at Headquarters Divisional Artillery, Signals at Rear Headquarters New Zealand Corps, under the command of the Quartermaster (Captain Waters), lost Lance-Corporal Forbes,7 who with another man, page 362 Signalman Pirritt,8 was salvaging parts of a wrecked jeep in an unmarked minefield near Rear Headquarters when he stepped on an S-mine, from which a splinter struck him in the chest and killed him instantly. Pirritt escaped with wounds in his left leg and arm.
By this time the enemy was withdrawn behind prepared positions at Wadi Akarit, one of the principal features in the narrow coastal plain north of Gabes, but it was not known if he intended to stand there and fight. By the evening of the next day, however, it was fairly clear that he intended to stay, and preparations were begun immediately to turn him out and resume the advance.
The assault on Wadi Akarit was commenced on the night of 5-6 April by 30 Corps, with 51 (Highland) Division on the right, 50 Division in the centre, and 4 Indian Division on the left. On the opening of a breach in the enemy's defences by these three divisions, 2 NZ Division was to pass to the command of 10 Corps for exploitation; meanwhile it waited in the rear ready to move forward quickly. By the evening of the 6th both flank divisions had reached their objectives, but in the centre the attack had not gone forward so well, and 10 Corps was not able to pass through.
Throughout 10 Corps' forming-up area there was a full layout of line communications, but the cable suffered dreadfully from the extensive movement of tracks and wheels in the approaches to the bridgehead. Because of the acute frequency congestion caused by the convergence of both 10 and 30 Corps on the same axis of advance, wireless communications also began to suffer, and sets were trimmed back by reduced aerial dimensions to the minimum radiation consistent with stable signal strengths. In addition, the calibration of all sets was checked daily against wavemeters and standard frequency transmissions.
During the night of 6-7 April there were signs that the enemy was withdrawing from his Akarit defences. By the morning of the 7th he had gone, and the New Zealand Division moved off, page 363 headed by 8 Armoured Brigade, Divisional Cavalry and King's Dragoon Guards, after which came 5 Brigade. After a series of short moves and long halts throughout the day, the Division finally passed through the minefield gap between two of Aka- rit's main defensive features. It halted at 7 p.m. on the Tunisian plain north of Akarit. Lines with superposed Fullerphone channels were immediately put out to Headquarters Divisional Artillery, 8 Armoured Brigade and Headquarters 5 Brigade. As the Division had again taken a mobile role, the main burden of communications fell on wireless, which was now so badly affected by frequency congestion that even the Main Divisional Headquarters forward RT control group became almost unworkable at times.
The advance continued throughout the next five days, in which 8 Armoured Brigade and 5 Brigade squabbled briefly with the enemy rearguard.
The Division entered Sousse early on the 12th, and later in the day 28 (Maori) Battalion occupied the village of Sidi Bou Ali. Main Divisional Headquarters managed to get onto the main road for a spell on the 12th and bowled along at a spanking pace in column of route. As they passed through villages and small towns, the men leaned out from the backs of the three-tonners to acknowledge the enthusiastic greetings of the populace waving Union Jacks and Allied flags, including one which someone said was called the Stars and Stripes.
In the afternoon of the 13th 5 Brigade reached the enemy's ‘twenty-five yard line’ at Enfidaville and attempted to seize a high feature called Takrouna, just to the west of the town, but the enemy was not to be caught off balance and offered stiff resistance. The brigade settled down in front of Wadi el Boul, a difficult obstacle which ran across the front from east to west.
Main Divisional Headquarters passed through Sidi Bou Ali, a squalid little village, on the 14th, and settled into position among the olive groves a few miles to the north. It was a beautiful spot, and few among the men had ever seen wild flowers in such profusion. The old-timers looked at the blossom-decked swards and remembered the breath-taking beauty of Greece's pasture lands, where the scarlet poppies blazed in their hundreds of thousands on the plains of Thessaly; they thought, page 364 too, in shorter memory, of the meadows of the Lebanon decked out in a carpet of anemones and poppies; but they had seen nothing like the infinite variety of colour where Tunisia's wild garden was spread. Here the soft shades of golden daisies merged gently into the blue of gentians and the scarlet of the poppies in such subtle gradation that the elusive shades and half tones of colour were almost lost to the eye. In some places the poppies marched alongside the green barley crops in unbroken patterns of vivid scarlet; in others the natives tilling between the olives had, with unconscious artistry, left splashes of red and white and blue lying against the brown soil.
The bivouac of Main Divisional Headquarters lay some distance off the main road along a low grass embankment, flanked on one side by the fringes of the olives and on the other by meadowland which reminded the New Zealanders of the green sward under the willows along the verges of the shingle beds of South Island rivers. But their stay in this pleasant retreat was short; the headquarters moved on two days later to another site only slightly less sylvan than the first. Here the vehicles brushed to a halt under the green canopy of the olives, beneath which the wild flowers grew in the same profusion as in the meadows at Sidi Bou Ali. Here and there among the groves, in small and irregular patches of cultivation, the men found beds of homely green peas and broad beans with which the Arabs eked out their frugal livelihood.
During the advance from Akarit to Sidi Bou Ali Signals sustained no casualties until the 13th, when Signalman Cox,9 a despatch rider of K Section, and the jeep in which he was taking an orderly from Main to Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade, disappeared without trace, although most people had a fairly accurate idea of where he had gone. It all happened as a result of some silly confusion at Eighth Army or Corps caused by the shortening of a ‘bound’ without an accompanying change of code-name. This bound, or objective line, which went by the unedifying name of sausage, originally lay at Enfidaville, but was later placed some distance south of the town. The forward troops knew quite well where the new objective line lay, page 365 but apparently not everyone at Corps or Army did, so that when someone there said sausage to the public relations people, off went a despatch to the BBC, which announced that evening that Enfidaville had been captured.
If Cox heard this broadcast he must have got off the mark very quickly, because he left Main Headquarters 5 Brigade at 6 p.m. and was not seen again. There was a strong suspicion that he had driven on past Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade, of whose location he had been given most detailed and explicit directions, and gone on into Enfidaville for some reason or other not so difficult to guess. This was more or less confirmed later when he was notified as a prisoner of war. Several other people, including two senior Royal Engineer officers and the Quartermaster of Divisional Cavalry, who had heard the BBC announcement, were accorded a civic welcome by the Germans in Enfidaville but did not stay.
Signals incurred another casualty on the 14th, this time a fatal one, when Signalman Holder,10 of C Section, attached to Divisional Cavalry, was killed by an enemy shell. Next day a casualty occurred in G Section, attached to 6 Field Regiment, when Signalman Childs11 sustained severe wounds from shell fragments and died shortly afterwards at 6 Field Ambulance.
The area in which Eighth Army now faced the enemy for the final act in the North African campaign possesses two principal features. The Dorsale, an extension of the Saharan Atlas in limestone and sandstone outcrops of irregular contour, stretches from the Algerian frontier in the south-west towards the north-east and ends in a number of djebels, of which Zaghouan is the most prominent. From Zaghouan a series of rocky outcrops breaks away from the main massif in a south-easterly direction almost to the coast to the north of Enfidaville, and of these Takrouna, which is the most southerly of the features, is sufficiently high—600 feet—to overlook the whole of the coastal plain in the neighbourhood of Enfidaville. The narrow coastal plain, the Sahel, which at its southern extremity is separated from page 366 the Tunisian Sahara by the chotts (salt lakes) and palm groves around Gabes, ends in the north at Hammamet, north of Enfidaville. To the west the plain merges gradually into a series of steppes which rise towards the Saharan Atlas. The plain is dominated by Takrouna and the Djebel Garci, a forbidding and massive feature some distance to the west.
Since 13 April 10 Corps had been shouldering forward and testing the German defences. By the 15th it was clear that the enemy intended to stand on the Enfidaville line, so preparations for Eighth Army's part in a general offensive to end the war in Africa commenced immediately.
A decision had already been taken that the main offensive would be launched in the north. On 12 April General Alexander had ordered First Army to prepare a large-scale offensive to capture Tunis and to co-operate with 2 United States Corps in its task of capturing Bizerta. The offensive was to begin on the 22nd. With the object of drawing enemy forces from First Army's front, General Montgomery had been ordered to attack on Eighth Army's front on the 20th.
In due course 10 Corps' operation order directed the deployment of the Corps' formations and assigned to 2 New Zealand Division and 4 Indian Division the task of breaching the enemy's defences. On the right of the Corps' front, 50 Division was to hold the eastern sector facing Enfidaville; 2 NZ Division was to break in from Takrouna to Djebel el Ogla, a smaller feature 2000 yards to the east, and then exploit northwards and north-westwards; 4 Indian Division, with its western flank protected by 7 Armoured Division, was to capture Djebel Garci and exploit northwards and north-eastwards towards the coastal road.
New Zealand Division's orders for the operation, which was known by the code-name oration, were published on the 18th, and preparations were commenced immediately at Headquarters Divisional Signals for the provision of the vast network of line communications to serve 5 and 6 Brigades and the Divisional Artillery. In addition to its own three field regiments, the last had under command two Royal Artillery regiments, one of medium guns and the other of 25-pounders. In order that these artillery units might be adequately served, a page 367 signal centre was established forward of Headquarters Divisional Artillery, and from there lines went out to all regiments, which in turn were connected by separate circuits to the headquarters of brigades, so that in most cases the means of communication between the various headquarters was duplicated.
Wireless communications followed the conventional pattern and presented no special problems, except that the frequency congestion brought about by the heavy concentration of the wireless stations of 10 Corps crowded into the coastal plain below Enfidaville continued to hamper the smooth working of most circuits, despite Corps' strenuous efforts in policing all groups to keep them strictly to their assigned frequencies.
By 8 p.m. on the 19th Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade had moved forward across Wadi el Boul and was established immediately south of the Enfidaville-Pont du Fahs road, about 3000 yards south of the southernmost face of Takrouna, and from there K Section laid lines forward to the headquarters of 21 and 28 Battalions near their start lines. There was no intention that these lines should be extended forward behind the battalions as they advanced, the 5 Brigade operation order merely stating that ‘lines were to be laid at earliest opportunity’, which meant, presumably, as soon as the battalions were on their objectives. The CO 28 Battalion, however, instructed his signal platoon to extend the brigade line as his headquarters advanced, but the platoon's line truck was struck by an enemy shell in the early hours of the next morning and was put completely out of action. In any case the line was of little use, as a group of Scorpion tanks detonating mines in the battalion's rear apparently followed the same route and flailed the cable into pieces.
At 10.30 p.m., half an hour before the attack was timed to commence, 21 Battalion went off its line, which was then joined through by K Section to the battalion's B Company line. This line was left on the ground to provide communication from Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade to Headquarters 23 Battalion, then moving to its forming-up area on the right of 21 Battalion's old position in readiness for the second phase of the attack.
Owing to the difficult ground over which 5 Brigade's attack was to pass, the battalions' terminal No. 11 wireless sets were to be left on the start line and their places taken by No. 18 sets until page 368 the objectives were reached. If all went well the No. 11 sets were to be called forward in their vehicles and were to wait as far forward from the start line as they could negotiate in the darkness and difficult going.
The No. 18 sets were all knocked out early in the advance by enemy fire, with the result that no means of communication existed with Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade. Some hours after the attack started—in the early hours of the 20th—a runner was sent back from Headquarters 21 Battalion to bring its No. 11 set detachment forward. He found the set near the start line and began to lead it forward, but after a time he lost direction and could not locate the battalion's headquarters. In the vicinity of a white house, a prominent feature just south of Takrouna, he and the two K Section operators, Signalmen Wiseman12 and Faithfull,13 cast about in the darkness in an effort to find the battalion headquarters. While they were searching on foot they came under heavy enemy machine-gun fire and made off quickly back to their truck. Faithfull tumbled into the driver's seat with the runner beside him, but drove off too quickly for Wiseman who, still scrambling over the tailboard, was thrown to the ground and left behind. Faithfull drove the truck into the shelter of a wadi, where he discovered that Wiseman had vanished, so he started up his set and called Headquarters 5 Brigade, to whom he related his adventures. Instructed to return to Brigade Headquarters, he set off and shortly afterwards encountered 21 Battalion, which was then on its way back to its former position after having failed to reach its objective.
Meanwhile Wiseman, having lain low in a barley field under the fire which still fell in the area round the white house, crawled on his stomach for an hour until he reached the shelter of a shallow wadi, where he was able to get to his feet and make his way back in the direction of Brigade Headquarters. Soon after dawn he rejoined Faithfull and the set at Headquarters 21 Battalion, which was now in its former position only a few hundred yards from Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade.page 369
The 28th Battalion's terminal No. 11 set, which apparently was not left at the start line to be whistled up later, accompanied the battalion transport moving behind Battalion Headquarters. About half an hour after the advance started the truck, a Morris four-wheel-drive vehicle, plunged into a weapon pit in the darkness and broke its chassis; it was then taken in tow by a battalion anti-tank portée. About two hours later, while the vehicle was still in tow, the set's aerial and some of its batteries were destroyed by splinters from a shell which also completely destroyed 28 Battalion's signal platoon line truck travelling a few yards ahead of the wireless truck. By the time Signalman Reader14 and his companion had repaired this damage and connected up the spare set of batteries, the first light of dawn was in the sky. Communication with Headquarters 5 Brigade was restored, but was of little use as most of the officers at Battalion Headquarters, including the CO (Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett), were wounded, and there was little or no battalion organisation.
The 23rd Battalion, whose task was the capture of Djebel Froukr—the second phase of 5 Brigade's attack—moved off from its forming-up area near Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade towards the valley which lay between Takrouna and Djebel Bir, a smaller feature a few hundred yards to the east. It was to advance up this valley in the wake of 28 Battalion, whose final objective, just beyond the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road, was to be 23 Battalion's start line for the attack on Djebel Froukr. The 23rd Battalion's line from Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade was not to be laid behind it as it moved; communications, therefore, were restricted to the No. 18 set, which was to be used until the terminal No. 11 set could be brought forward. This No. 18 set, however, was knocked out early in the advance, but the Adjutant (Captain Ross15) went back a few hundred yards and brought up the No. 11 set, which fortunately was not far behind.
At the southern end of the valley between Takrouna and Djebel Bir the CO (Lieutenant-Colonel Romans) was wounded. page 370 Command was then taken over by Captain Thomas,16 who led the attack and eventually reached the south-western slopes of Djebel Cherachir, north of Djebel Bir and beyond the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road. The No. 11 set, however, was not forward with him and his two companies, but remained under Ross's control at the southern end of the valley where Romans had been wounded. Communication between this set and Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade was not interrupted at any time during the battle, but this was of little use to the Brigade Commander, who was completely out of touch with the events taking place at Djebel Cherachir, where Thomas had established his headquarters at a wadi junction on the south-western fringe of the feature.
On the right of the divisional sector the two assaulting battalions of 6 Brigade, the 24th and 26th, crossed their start lines behind the artillery barrage and advanced against slight enemy opposition towards the brigade objectives, Djebel el Ogla, a feature about a mile to the east of Djebel Cherachir, and Hamaid en Nakrla, a low ridge which ran roughly north and south to the east of Ogla. Both battalions' lines to Headquarters 6 Brigade were extended behind them as the advance proceeded, and the terminal No. 11 set accompanied the battalions' headquarters. No interruptions occurred to Headquarters 26 Battal- ion's line or wireless communications to Headquarters 6 Brigade, but on the left of the brigade sector Headquarters 24 Battalion came under some heavy enemy shelling and the terminal No. 11 set was completely destroyed by a direct hit, which wounded its two operators. The shellfire was causing trouble to the line back to Headquarters 6 Brigade, too, so that 24 Battalion was frequently out of touch with Brigade Headquarters. During the interruptions to his line Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly17 managed to send some of his messages to Headquarters 6 Brigade through Headquarters 26 Battalion, on his right, by means of its line.page 371
By first light on the 20th the Division was in only partial possession of its objectives. Although communications between Headquarters 6 Brigade and its forward battalions had been fully restored, the situation in 5 Brigade's sector on the left was not nearly so satisfactory. Communications to Headquarters 21 Battalion, now back in its former position a few hundred yards from Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade, were easily restored by line. There was still no direct communication by line or wireless with Tactical Headquarters 23 Battalion below Djebel Cherachir, although the battalion's terminal No. 11 wireless set, still with the Adjutant at the southern end of the valley, had been working back to Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade without interruption since the attack commenced. From Headquarters 28 Battalion, now established in the olives near the south-eastern corner of Takrouna, there was still no communication with Brigade Headquarters.
During the morning K Section attempted to take a line forward to 28 Battalion, from which it was to be extended on to Tactical Headquarters 23 Battalion at Djebel Cherachir, but the line party could not get forward owing to heavy enemy small-arms fire. The line was terminated temporarily in the wadi where Captain Ross of 23 Battalion still remained with his wireless set; by three o'clock that afternoon it was taken forward to Headquarters 28 Battalion, and later, about five o'clock, on to Tactical Headquarters 23 Battalion. It was about this time that Ross decided to rejoin his battalion headquarters with the wireless set; the set was mounted in a jeep and he drove under heavy enemy shellfire until he reached the road just south of Djebel Cherachir. Here he organised a carrying party of enemy prisoners to manhandle the set and its heavy batteries up the wadi to where Captain Thomas had established his tactical headquarters. From then on communication with Headquarters 5 Brigade continued uninterrupted.
Meanwhile, from 21 Battalion's positions near Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade, some enemy machine-gun posts had been observed on the western slopes of Takrouna; these posts were pointed out to a forward observation officer who was observing 4 Field Regiment's fire from a position just to the north of Tactical Headquarters. The FOO could not see the posts from page 372 his position, so some cable and the services of two signalmen were obtained from 5 Brigade and a line was laid forward from the FOO's armoured car until the enemy posts could be seen. A 21 Battalion officer called corrections back to the FOO's armoured car, which in turn brought down fire from 4 Field Regiment on the enemy positions with gratifying results. Later in the afternoon, however, some tanks entered the area and damaged the telephone cable to such an extent that the observed artillery fire was interrupted.
Early that morning, about daybreak, a party of about a dozen Maoris of 28 Battalion had succeeded in scaling the south-eastern and south-western faces of Takrouna and had seized the pinnacle. During the afternoon they were reinforced by a platoon from 21 Battalion, which had hardly arrived when two enemy parties attacked in a most determined fashion. After a bitter struggle, which ended with the feature still in possession of the Maoris and 21 Battalion men, several attempts were made to gain touch with Headquarters 5 Brigade by means of a No. 18 set, but without success. Then a line was laid to the pinnacle from the armoured car of a 5 Field Regiment FOO in the olives below the feature, but it was destroyed by enemy shellfire within a few minutes of being laid. Later, in the early evening, another line was run to the pinnacle, this time by the signal platoon of 28 Battalion, and connected to 28 Battalion's switchboard, through which communication was immediately established with Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade.
Soon after nine o'clock that evening the small garrison was reinforced by another platoon from 21 Battalion, but hardly had the newcomers arrived and settled in when the enemy attacked again and this time secured possession of the pinnacle, which he retained throughout a period of brisk exchanges of grenade and small-arms fire with the defenders on the lower ledge until midday next day. During this spirited fighting Lieutenant Shaw,18 one of 21 Battalion's officers, spoke several times to Tactical Headquarters 5 Brigade through 28 Battalion's exchange.
Meanwhile, on the previous night 25 Battalion, which had been lying in reserve at 6 Brigade, had passed to the command of 5 Brigade and relieved 23 Battalion, which was withdrawn from Cherachir shortly after midnight and brought back to the rear. The line running forward from 28 Battalion to Cherachir was taken over by Headquarters 25 Battalion and remained, of course, the responsibility of K Section for maintenance.
Throughout the whole of the 21st all lines in 5 Brigade's area suffered heavily from shell and mortar fire, the line between 28 Battalion and Takrouna, in particular, being continually disrupted by enemy fire. By the morning of the 22nd, when K Section's detachment laid out another line, this time between 25 Battalion at Cherachir and 24 Battalion on the left of 6 Brigade's positions, to serve as an alternative means of communication, the linemen under Corporal Davies19 were almost in the last stages of exhaustion. Since the attack started the detachment had worked almost continuously for three nights and two days, often under direct observation from enemy positions and, particularly during maintenance work on the line between 28 Battalion and Takrouna, under heavy mortar and shell fire. Laying the line between 25 and 24 Battalions on the morning of the 22nd was a particularly hazardous task as the route lay along a fireswept wadi for a considerable part of its length, but Corporal Davies and Signalman Nilsen exhibited exemplary coolness and an almost complete disregard of danger. page 374 For their work during the Takrouna battle Davies received the MM and Nilsen a bar to the MM he had been awarded for his work at Headquarters 4 Brigade the previous July in the Ruweisat battle.
In the Enfidaville battle Signals escaped lightly in casualties, only eight men being wounded, including Signalmen Miles20 and Richards21 of L Section, who were the operators on 24 Bat- talion's terminal No. 11 set when it was destroyed by enemy fire on the morning of the 20th, and one man killed, Signalman Franklyn22 of G Section at 6 Field Regiment. Franklyn, with three other men from G Section, was laying a line from Headquarters 6 Field Regiment to Headquarters 65 Field Regiment, Royal Artillery, when his truck ran over a mine near the Kairouan road just south of Enfidaville. The truck was completely wrecked and Franklyn, who was driving, was killed instantly.
On the night of 23-24 April 5 Brigade was relieved by a Highland brigade and withdrawn from the front, but it was not until the night of 26-27 April, after it had been employed in operations around Djebel es Srafi and Djebel Terhouna, threc miles to the north of Enfidaville, that 6 Brigade was withdrawn.
While 5 Brigade was in a rest area behind the Takrouna positions a parade of K Section in full inspection order was addressed by Brigadier Kippenberger, who paid the men a most agreeable and handsome compliment for their work during his tenure of the brigade's command. His remarks can best be given in his own words:
The more experience I have of war the more I realize how valuable Signals are. During the last three months, in fact, the last six months, or ever since I took over command, this Section has rendered valuable service. The exchange operators, wireless operators and particularly the linemen, have done excellent work. The linemen have done almost impossible work under extremely difficult conditions.
This Section of Signals is appreciated and, despite the fact that you have to put up with irascible Brigadiers and Brigade Majors, we have always received courteous and efficient service.page 375
Words are cheap and, as you know, I am not one to throw praise about but I would like you all to know how much we appreciate the good work you have done.
Although both New Zealand brigades were now withdrawn from the line, the Divisional Artillery remained in position in the Enfidaville area where the New Zealand guns were to assist in the extensive artillery support to be given 10 Corps' proposed operations to push northwards along the coast. The scale of line communications within the Divisional Artillery remained very much as it had been at the start of the Enfidaville operations a week earlier, that is, the largest that the formation had ever employed in the whole of the African campaign.
By this time the linemen at the field regiments' signal sections were beginning to feel the strain imposed by the unceasing work of maintaining lines in good repair under heavy and continual enemy shellfire, so on 28 April arrangements were made at Headquarters Divisional Signals for some of No. 1 Company's men to give them a short spell. No. 1 Company was in fair shape to do this because the previous day Main Divisional Headquarters had moved back from its battle position in the cactus hedges below Enfidaville to a pleasant spot in the olive groves seven miles to the rear. Here an easy routine was adopted in which no work, except for those employed on essential duties, was done after lunch at midday. Bathing parties were taken in unit transport to the beach at Herglia, and for those who remained behind sports were arranged in the Divisional Headquarters' area. Here, too, unusually willing fatigue parties rounded up by the RSM gathered several plots of green peas in full pod and shelled them for the men's mess.
Meanwhile 10 Corps' plan to push northwards along the coastal sector, which General Freyberg had regarded with only lukewarm interest because of his opinion that it would achieve only a limited success, had been postponed because of the failure of one of its subsidiary operations. The 56th (London) Division, on the coastal sector, had seized some advantage north of Enfidaville, but had been thrown off its new ground by an enemy counter-attack. At this setback General Alexander, the page 376 Deputy Commander-in-Chief Allied Forces in French North Africa,23 authorised the abandoning of Eighth Army's attack, as 56 Division's failure was not likely to affect the plans for concluding the war in North Africa.
On 30 April 7 Armoured Division and 4 Indian Division were detached from Eighth Army and sent to reinforce First Army for the operations planned to break into the enemy's defences and capture Tunis and Bizerta. Eighth Army's policy was now to hold its existing line and exert pressure by limited attacks. The 1st Free French Division, from 19 French Corps, came under the command of Eighth Army, which then had a total of four divisions plus two armoured brigades. The Army Commander decided to use 56 Division and 1 Free French Division to hold the line, keep 51 (Highland) Division in reserve, where it might begin training for the Sicilian operations, and to use 2 New Zealand Division and one armoured brigade for operations on the western flank of his front.
General Alexander's plan was for 9 Corps—reinforced by 7 Armoured Division and 4 Indian Division—to strike the main blow from Medjez el Bab towards Tunis during the night of 5-6 May and break into the enemy's defences. When this had been accomplished, the armour was to break through the breach and assail the enemy's inner defences around Tunis before he could strengthen them sufficiently to repel the British thrust. In the north 2 United States Corps was to continue its attacks and capture Bizerta. On the right of First Army's front 19 French Corps was to attack north-eastwards on 4 May to capture Djebel Zaghouan, while the New Zealanders, from the Djebibina area on Eighth Army's left, attacked northwards to support the French right flank.
Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division moved to the Djebibina area on 4 May along narrow, dusty tracks on which the column was held up several times by heavy traffic congestion. On arrival in the divisional area Signals put out the usual line communications, with the addition of a lateral circuit to 1 Algerian Division to provide communication to 19 French page 377 Corps. On the 7th a No. 9 wireless detachment, under the A Section sergeant, McConway,24 was sent off to join 1 Algerian Division. The detachment was back in a few days and, although no one would ever dream of describing Jack McConway as a timid person, his forceful description, embellished by a careful choice of singularly appropriate adjectives, of the disadvantages of serving with French North African irregulars caused much amusement.
In the early hours of 6 May 9 Corps broke through the enemy line near Medjez el Bab after a full-scale attack and some bitter fighting. By the middle of the morning the corps was well inside the enemy defences and 6 and 7 Armoured Divisions had passed through the breach. That night the armour was half-way to Tunis; the enemy, his forces cut in two, was not able to organise resistance in any strength. Ninth Corps' armour entered Tunis during the morning of 7 May and that afternoon 2 United States Corps entered Bizerta. Enemy troops, including some old acquaintances of the New Zealanders, 15 Panzer Division, were trapped in the area between Tunis and Bizerta and surrendered on 9 May. On the day after the fall of Tunis 6 Armoured Division drove on from the city towards Hammam Lif, with the intention of cutting off the base of the Cape Bon peninsula and so prevent escape to the beaches in the north-east from which the Germans might attempt to stage a Dunkirk. But the tanks met stubborn resistance in the narrow defile between the sea and Hammam Lif and did not reach Hammamet until the evening of 10 May, two days later. By then, however, the enemy was completely surrounded and evacuation no longer possible.
In the meantime, after limited operations by 5 Brigade on the left of Eighth Army's front, 2 NZ Division had moved back to the Enfidaville area on 8 May in order to be able to take advantage with 10 Corps of any signs of weakening in the enemy defences north of Enfidaville. Fifth Brigade, relieved in the Djebibina area on 9 May by 4 Light Armoured Brigade and L Force, returned to the Enfidaville area and rejoined the Division.page 378
Throughout 11 May the enemy, far from showing any signs of surrendering, continued to bring heavy artillery and nebel- werfer fire down on 10 Corps' positions in front of and around Enfidaville. But the end was not far off. The 6th Armoured Division had pushed down the coast and by last light on the 11th was just to the north of Bou Ficha. Farther to the north a First Army formation had combed the Cape Bon peninsula, captured many prisoners and vast quantities of equipment, and brought organised resistance there to an end.
The morning of 12 May brought undiminished enemy artillery activity north of Enfidaville, although the pattern of fire suggested that he was shooting away his ammunition. To encourage his surrender heavy artillery concentrations and powerful air strikes were employed, and in the afternoon 90 Light Division sent out a wireless message asking for terms. By 8 p.m. the surrender of the enemy forces trapped between 6 Armoured Division and 56 Division was complete. General Count von Sponeck, commander of 90 Light Division, surrendered to 6 Armoured Division.
At Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division interest centred in an exchange of wireless messages between the Italian First Army, still holding out opposite the centre of Eighth Army's front, and a Divisional Signals wireless set No. 9 which had been switched to intercept duties to pick up any traffic which might interest the G staff. At 4 p.m. on the 12th the New Zealanders heard an Italian First Army set trying to make contact with the British First Army by both speech and telegraphy. During the afternoon messages had been broadcast by several British formations calling on the enemy to surrender, and it was in answer to these messages that the Italians, urged by their well-developed instincts for self-preservation, were attempting to establish communication with the British First Army. At one stage they succeeded in netting to a British First Army group, but some operating delays and a falling off in signal strength resulted in confusion, which was still further increased by other British stations interrupting the transmissions in endeavours to make contact with the Italians.
At half past eight that evening a message broadcast by the Italian First Army was copied by 2 New Zealand Divisional page 379 Signals' set and passed to the G staff for transmission to 10 Corps, who then asked if the Division would establish a link with the Italians. A No. 299A set brought into use for this task was thoroughly warmed up and carefully adjusted to the Italians' operating frequency of 3460 kilocycles. At 9.15 p.m. the Italians came up with a call to British First Army, but no answer was made. This was the signal for John Shirley, his enthusiasm properly aroused, to go into action. Ever since the Italian broadcasts had commenced he had been running between the set and the G office with all the eagerness of a Boy Scout trying to cram a week's good deeds into one day. He immediately instructed the operator to open transmission and send off 10 Corps' first message to the Italians, which read:
Commander First Italian Army from Commander 10 Corps. Hostilities will not cease until all troops lay down their arms and surrender to the nearest Allied unit.
Later, at 10.23 p.m., the Italians replied:
Reference your message. Our representatives have left to meet yours at 2200 hours your time. We have nothing further to add.
No signal procedure difficulties were encountered in these exchanges as both parties had a knowledge of the international Q code, and the Italians displayed an astonishing familiarity with British Army signals procedure.
No other messages were passed that night, except for one or two exchanges of ‘operators’ chat', in one of which the Italian, in an unmistakable American East Side accent, suddenly said to Shirley, ‘Say Buddy’. Before Shirley could switch to ‘send’ to comply with this innocent request which sounded like part of a parlour game, the Italian went on: ‘Suppose you stand me a drink when this show is over?’
At first light next morning a British First Army station began to cause interference on the Italian link, so Shirley asked the Italian operator to shift down to 3440 kilocycles. The correspondence opened at 5.20 a.m. with a message from the Italian First Army:
We would appreciate information about our two representatives which left last night at 22 hours to meet your own representatives. This information is required at once in order to give orders so as to avoid useless bloodshed.page 380
Then, at 6.15 a.m.:
I once more state that acting upon British First Army suggestion Italian representatives have left last night to meet British representatives and discuss conditions. Subsequently, in order to avoid further bloodshed I have ordered my troops to cease all firing and all hostilities. Signed Field Marshal of Italy Messe.
But, at 7.5 a.m., in a cautious access of Italian valour:
I understand that coloured troops are attacking the defence line of the Italian Army in area 6 kilos SSE Saouaf. As I have stated I have ordered my troops truce (?) I request that the attack be stopped immediately in order to avoid a reaction of my troops and consequent bloodshed. Signed Field Marshal of Italy Messe.
By this time a message, originated at 10 Corps at 7 a.m., was on its way:
Commander Italian First Army from Commander 10 Corps. Understand reps to be on their way. They have not yet arrived. Instruct your troops to lay down their arms and surrender otherwise hostilities will continue.
Apparently, this was too much for Field Marshal Messe, for at 8.55 a.m. came the plaintive reply:
As my proposal for a truce to give time for my reps to carry out their orders has not been accepted and as your troops are still carrying on their attack in the Saouaf area and considering the fact that my reps sent out at 2100 hours yesterday date 12 to First British Army have not yet returned have ordered my troops to lay down their weapons. Signed Field Marshal Messe.
The Commander 10 Corps allayed Field Marshal Messe's anxiety concerning his representatives at 9.30 a.m. with another message:
First Italian Army from British 10 Corps. Your representatives with a British officer carrying instructions have left for your headquarters. I have ordered my troops to cease fire pending your acceptance of these terms by 1230 hours today.
The Italians, their equanimity noticeably restored, replied at 11.23 a.m.:
British 10 Corps from Italian First Army. Your representatives have arrived here. They are speaking with our Commander. We have nothing further to add. We suggest closing down.page 381
This was the last message to pass between the Italians and the New Zealand set. The link was kept open until 11.35 a.m., when a British intelligence officer from 10 Corps arrived at Main Headquarters 2 NZ Division and closed the set down, because (he said) he now had his own means of communication with the Italians.
At 2.45 p.m. that day, 13 May, General Alexander sent the following signal to Mr. Churchill:
Sir. It is my duty to report that the Tunisian Campaign is over. All enemy resistance has ceased. We are masters of the North African shores.
The end of the North African campaign, an event of tremendous importance in the course of the war, brought no excitement or exhilaration in the New Zealand Division. In Divisional Signals officers and men went about their daily tasks much as they had done the day before, or for all that it mattered, a month before. Signal office shifts came and went, and linemen pottered interminably with their drums of cable and layers, but no unusual tinge of interest showed in their manner to mark the defeat of the enemy, unless the Quartermaster's announcement later in the day that there was to be an issue of two bottles of beer for all ranks next day was associated in some minds with a vague hint of official celebrations. The beer duly arrived about six o'clock next evening, but with it came news that swept away in a flash the men's anticipatory enjoyment. A frightened signalman from B (cable) Section had arrived at unit headquarters in a jeep and haltingly announced that Lance-Sergeant McIvor had been killed by the accidental discharge of a captured Italian pistol. McIvor and his companion had stopped on the road near Enfidaville to examine the contents of an abandoned enemy vehicle in which they found a wooden box containing a number of pistols. Unaware that one was loaded and cocked, McIvor had examined them cursorily and then tossed the box into his jeep. When the box landed with a jar on the floor of the jeep, the loaded pistol inside discharged its round, which penetrated the box's lid and struck McIvor in the chest, inflicting a wound from which he died a few minutes later.page 382
In accordance with the plan for First Army to take over from Eighth Army in Tunisia, 2 NZ Division, which was not involved in the preparations for the Sicilian campaign, was withdrawn in the late afternoon to the south of Enfidaville. For the move back to Egypt the Division was divided into two flights, of which the first left the Enfidaville area on the morning of 15 May, followed by the second next day. Seventeen days later, on 31 May, the first flight crossed the Abbas bridge over the Nile at Cairo, after a journey of 1800 miles, turned right into the ‘Mad Mile’, and rolled its wheels along the blistering tarmac, over the familiar railway crossing beneath the pleasant groves of Maadi village, and into its old home, Maadi Camp.
Hardly had Signals settled in the Signal School when the unit was paraded for an address by Lieutenant-Colonel Agar, who announced briefly the details of the Ruapehu furlough scheme, by which men of the First, Second and Third Echelons were to be returned to New Zealand on three months' leave.
The next event of importance occurred on 4 June, when General Freyberg reviewed a parade of Divisional Signals and addressed officers and men in these terms:
A large number of you are going back on well-earned leave to New Zealand. Towards the finish of our last remarkable campaign I felt I would like to see on parade as many of the troops of the Division as I could and to say a few words of appreciation of what you have done in the last three and a half years.
I don't remember seeing this whole Signal unit on parade in such strength before. I remember seeing you in 1940 up on top of the hill at the time when your late CO, Colonel S. F. Allen, was commander of you.
I hope you know what a very high appreciation everyone has of your work. This unit is probably the most experienced Divisional Signals unit in the world, partly because it has been recruited intelligently and picked from people with prior training, while there is also the additional system which ensures that there is always an adequate reserve of trained personnel. This unit, probably more than any other, has a greater length of war service than anybody in the Middle East and, therefore, of anybody in the British Army.
I remember with considerable pride the part that Divisional Signals took in the original campaign in the Western Desert when the Italians were driven back to Benghazi for the first time. Since page 383 then representatives of your Corps have been taking part in every activity or campaign of the Division. The amount of experience we have gained is very great and we have got to see that the same standard of efficiency is maintained notwithstanding the fact that 250 of our men are going back to New Zealand.
I don't know whether you realize the importance of this Signal Service. During those very difficult operations that we carried out in the Division from Alamein to Tunis the whole of the control of these large forces of ours depended almost entirely upon the intelligent use or silence of our wireless communications. And I am saying further that a good deal of the efficiency of the operations was dependent on the work of the officers and men of this Divisional Signals. I want you to know how much your work is appreciated.
Praise is a good thing but I hope that when you go back to New Zealand you will remember two things: the first is to remember that the war is not yet over. It is a long way from being over. And the second thing to remember is that although, in enthusiasm for our own efforts our local papers have given great prominence to the activities of our Division—and quite rightly so—we have been privileged to fight alongside some very excellent Divisions. I hope when you go back that you will sing the praises of those units which it was our privilege to serve alongside—units such as the Fourth Indian Division, the Seventh Armoured Division, the Fifty-first Highland Division and those excellent battalions of the Eleventh Hussars and the King's Dragoon Guards. Quite a lot of people are inclined to feel that we have been called upon to do an undue amount of work. Another of your jobs on returning to New Zealand is to dispel that supposition as much as you can.
You are going back after three and a half years of very hard and arduous work. For three and a half years the reputation of your country has rested on your heads and I think that you can feel satisfaction in knowing that that trust that was given you has not been misplaced. You are going back now to your own country and the reputation of the 2 NZEF will rest temporarily on the smartness of your dress and your behaviour. So we will be judged in the eyes of our own people. Certainly we cannot have our reputations in better hands. I am certain that you will reflect the greatest credit upon the Division.
I shall not be able to go and see you off on the ship because I am leaving earlier and will be flying there and back and will have left New Zealand before you arrive. I will not forget the work of your Colonel and officers, NCOs and men, and the very great help you have been to us in these last operations. I thank you.page 384
Lieutenant-Colonel Agar, who was relinquishing command of the unit to Major Grant, then addressed the parade:
I wonder if you recognize the significance of the solemn occasion which now confronts us. It is the first occasion on which we have had a full parade of the New Zealand Corps of Signals and at anywhere near such strength. For the reason of the particular system under which we operate, as you know, a full parade of Divisional Signals is a difficult operation. Therefore, it is an important occasion for that reason alone. Another reason for its importance is the pending removal of a large number of experienced personnel from the Corps. Any reorganization is difficult and the removal of long-service personnel will constitute a problem for those left behind.
Besides, the departure of old hands strikes a personal blow in that a large number of friendships must be broken even if only temporarily. I am sure that while the main emotion of those going away will be pleasure and anticipation, they will also feel a wrench at having to leave friends in the unit. And while the most important emotion of those staying behind will undoubtedly be envy of those going home, they will also feel the wrench of parting, even temporarily, from friends.
To judge from the Divisional Commander's remarks this unit has a high reputation and position. It rests with those we leave behind to maintain and enhance that position which they will do without any doubt.
In handing over my command to Major Grant I am also subjected to conflicting emotions. I have been three and three-quarter years with the unit and I feel the parting very deeply. I would like to say farewell to you all individually, particularly those with whom I have had such long contact, but this is quite impossible. I trust, however, that those so disposed will come and shake me by the hand. I now wish you good-bye en masse, and also wish you every success in the future.
Major Grant replied in a few words. He said:
I am very proud to have been given command of this unit. I hope that we shall be able to work together to rebuild the unit, to re-establish its high reputation and to make it a unit of which we shall be proud.
1 First Army had landed in North Africa on 8 Nov 1942.
2 Brig S. H. Crump, CBE, DSO, m.i.d., Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born Wellington, 25 Jan 1889; Regular soldier; NZASC 1915-19; Commander NZASC 2 NZ Div 1940-45; com 2 NZEF (Japan) Jun-Sep 1947; on staff of HQ BCOF and NZ representative on Disposals Board in Japan, 1948-49.
3 The US Air Force later sent an apology.
16 Lt-Col W. B. Thomas, DSO, MC and bar, m.i.d., Silver Star (US); London; born Nelson, 29 Jun 1918; bank officer; CO 23 Bn 1944-45; twice wounded; wounded and p.w. May 1941; escaped Nov 1941; returned to unit May 1942; Hampshire Regt, 1947-.
23 On 19 February 1943 General Alexander assumed command of Eighteenth Army Group, which combined First and Eighth Armies, and became responsible for the conduct of operations in Tunisia as Deputy to the Commander-in-Chief (General Eisenhower) of the Allied Expeditionary Force.