New Zealand Engineers, Middle East
CHAPTER 13 — High Tide in Tripolitania
High Tide in Tripolitania
(December 1942 to January 1943)
While the Division rested around Sidi Azeiz armoured elements were overseeing Field Marshal Rommel's retreat behind his position at El Agheila. Twice before he had emerged from the assorted salt marshes, wadis, mined areas and strong-points at the bottom of the Gulf of Sirte and discomfited his enemy, but even if it had been again possible to replenish from Italy before Eighth Army had built up supplies, the landing on 8 November of an Anglo-American army under General Eisenhower at Algiers, Oran and Casablanca in Northern Tunisia had altered the complexion of the war in North Africa. Certainly the new army was very inexperienced and some hard lessons awaited it, but its arrival in Africa was a fait accompli that could not be disregarded.
It was possible by the first week in December to maintain forward two infantry divisions and 7 Armoured Division. Fifty-first (Highland) Division was moved up and the New Zealanders were to follow, beginning on 6 December. General Freyberg told his commanders to inform their men that it would be necessary to suspend the football competitions until Tripoli was captured but to bring their togs with them.
For the move across Cyrenaica 7 Field Company came under command of 5 Brigade and 8 Field Company under 6 Brigade. Sergeant J. F. Smith and party again reported to Headquarters Divisional Cavalry and remained attached throughout the coming campaign; the rest of 5 Field Park Company handed, over to 36 Water Company, RE, and joined 6 Field Company in a Divisional Group consisting of Divisional Cavalry and gunners of various categories, field ambulances and other oddments. Sixth Infantry Brigade led the way along the Trigh Capuzzo and across the railway the New Zealand Construction Group had built past Belhamed, that slight rise where so many of 4 Brigade a year before had been killed, wounded or rounded up and marched away to captivity. The insignificant resting place of Sidi Rezegh stood silent and lonely below the ridge page 376 that cost the lives of so many of the men of 6 Brigade, which was, with thoughts reaching back to an earlier December, passing that way again.
The column carried on through the El Adem area where 5 Brigade and attached troops, including 7 Field Company, had taken their part in breaking the enemy Gazala line earlier in the year, then travelled almost due west to within 75 miles of Benghazi before turning south for another 70-odd miles to the Divisional concentration area near El Haseiat.
Along the coastal area there were formed roads, towns and villages but down in the desert south of the high country were only tracks, along which nomad tribes travelled according to their circumstances, the seasons and the state of the water holes. They were like well-worn footpaths. The original plan for turning the enemy out of El Agheila was to face him with light mobile formations while threatening to turn his inland flank. The bluff did not work for Rommel had been ordered to hold there at all costs, although his right flank was vulnerable and in his rear was a defile so narrow that the much abused term ‘bottleneck’ was not inappropriate.
The upshot was that 51 Division was to lay on a frontal attack while 2 NZ Division made a forced 250-mile ‘left-hook’ page 377 march and struck for the coastal road near Marble Arch, the British name for the ornate edifice Mussolini had erected on the Cyrenaica-Libya border.
When the Division did start to march on Marble Arch there was some 50 miles of softish going, flat and featureless, without a single patch of camel thorn to break the sandy monotony. Major Anderson expressed the feelings of all who crossed that arid piece of Africa when he said in his slow and deliberate manner, ‘Never in all my life have I seen so much of sweet Fanny Adams.’1
Colonel Hanson was charged with the task of selecting a route to Marble Arch and preparing it for the passage of 3000 vehicles. He had for this assignment the benefit of the local knowledge of an officer from 11 Hussars and one from the Long Range Desert Group, both of whom had prowled over part of the proposed route. On 9 December the Divisional Provost Company marked the selected track for 70-odd miles to the edge of Chrystal's Rift, where Captain Goodsir was probing for a passage that would take the weight of the Divisional transport.
Chrystal's Rift, named after its discoverer and lying fairly across the path of the Division, was a depression up to ten miles wide in places with rugged and rocky escarpments on each side, a very considerable obstacle indeed. A geologist could have a very happy time in the Rift, for there are rocky mounds like islands in a river of deep dry sand nearly as fine as flour, interspersed with areas of harder country and other areas with a crust thick enough to carry a man, but through which a vehicle would sink.
The task was to avoid the soft patches and to take advantage of the islands, but this involved the making of tracks up their steep sides and called for bulldozer assistance. Major Anderson left for the Rift the following day with 2 and 3 Sections and a bulldozer on a transporter. The transporter got bogged in the soft going but arrived the next day with the 'dozer towing the transporter.
General Kippenberger, who commanded 5 Brigade at the time, wrote appreciatively of 5 Field Park's bulldozer operators:
‘Our bulldozers did magnificent work—in fact the move would have been impossible without them. Their drivers always amused me. They wore a curious slouch-hatted rig of their own that could almost be called a uniform, regarded all army ranks with easy contempt, never dreamt of saying “Sir” or page 378 taking the drooping cigarette out of their mouths even while having a casual chat with the army commander, affected a cynical and tired expression, and worked superbly.’2
Entrance to and exit from the Rift was not good even after the grading and construction work. It was fortunate that the enemy air force was not around and the sappers breathed a sigh of relief when the last truck was through. The Division was over the Rift and dispersed by the night of 13 - 14 December, by which time 6 Field Company was working on rough patches along the next leg, which had already been selected by Colonel Hanson and which would cut the important Marada track leading to El Agheila.
An operation order issued on the night of the 13th stated that in the morning a non-stop march would begin for the high ground near Marble Arch. It was to be reached by the 15th, whereupon the Division would prevent the enemy from withdrawing from El Agheila. The march to Marble Arch was timed at eight miles in the hour for the first day (14th) with minimum stops for replenishment, then all night at four miles in the hour, without lights and in strict wireless silence. The last lap was at ten miles in the hour over rough country striped with wadis and across low ranges where nothing except an odd reconnaissance vehicle had previously roamed, and then without having to keep direction.
That last day got away to a bad start. Some of the tanks of 4 Light Armoured Brigade which was leading the column had not been refuelled by the time they were to move off; this put 6 Brigade two hours behind in its timetable and then enemy were reported to be holding the ground the brigade intended to occupy. There was no point in fighting the enemy on ground of his own choosing so the axis of advance was swung west from Marble Arch to Bir el Merduma, which area was reached late in the afternoon.
At that stage it was thought that most of the enemy armour deployed on the El Agheila line was still to the east of the Division and there were great hopes of collecting the lot. There was high good humour at Divisional Headquarters, for this could be another Minqar Qaim, with the same actors but in opposite roles. In the event that example could not have been more exact.
It was dusk when 6 Brigade started for the road about ten miles away to the north; another mile or so farther north was page 379 the Mediterranean, last seen at Bardia. As soon as the brigade could deploy across the road the Africa Corps was in the bag.
New Zealand engineers rebuild the pontoon bridge across the Suez Canal, August 1943
A deviation past a bridge blown by the enemy in the Sangro River area
The tiki bridge across the Sangro. On the right is the original assault Bailey bridge
Flat country north of the Sangro cut up by vehicles of 2 NZ Division
Building a corduroy road in the Sangro River area
Quarrying metal for roads on the Cassino front
A jeep tests a Treadway bridge erected by New Zealand and American engineers in the Cassino area
A Bailey bridge over the Fibreno River at Sora
Removing a German anti-vehicle mine near Florence
Road repairs in the forward area near Faenza
Sweeping for mines in Faenza
‘Road metal’—see p. 668
Fascine-carrying tank, Faenza
A 27 Mechanical Equipment Company angledozer clears a highway in the Faenza sector
Approximate positions of bridges built by New Zealand engineers over the Senio River, 9-10 April 1945. The bridges are: 1. Raglan low-level; 2. Raglan high-level; 3. Scissors bridge; 4. Seymour low-level; 5. Woodville low-level; 6. Woodville high-level
A 28 Assault Squadron Sherman dozer near the Senio River
Track-making near Budrio
But 6 Brigade did not cut the road; keeping direction in the dark, with trucks diving blindly into dry watercourses and scrambling over obstructions, is not as easy as driving along a main highway, and when the column halted to take stock, it was not really where it thought it was, nor was the road quite where it was expected to be.
Major Reid went forward on a ‘recce’ with Brigadier Gentry and others, ran into an enemy flank guard in the dark and was wounded. Captain Wildey assumed temporary command, and after the brigade had taken up an all-round position above the road, but in fact two miles south of it, the sappers laid 900 mines on the perimeter.
When 5 Brigade halted that night it also was not quite where it thought it was. Seventh Field Company dug itself in as part of the brigade defences but for the sappers the night passed quietly. In the early morning 15 Panzer Division escaped through a seven-mile gap between 5 and 6 Brigades. An ambulance with Major Reid and Lieutenant-Colonel Webb3 of 24 Battalion, also wounded, was returning at this time, but the driver, not recognising the armoured column as hostile, drove right into it and the ambulance was captured. Major Reid, who subsequently lost an arm from the wound he had taken, was not in a condition to realise that he was a prisoner. Captain Pemberton became OC 8 Field Company.
There were alarms and excursions after first light (16th) but, as at Minqar Qaim, the breakout succeeded. Orders were received for 2 NZ Division to clear the Bir el Merduma airfield, to which place Major Anderson departed with 1 and 2 Sections, a guide and a detchment of machine and anti-aircraft guns for local protection. On arrival it was found that there were two landing grounds about one and a half miles apart and that the German engineers had done a very thorough job of making them, and the roads to them, unusable.
All approaches likely to be used by vehicles were mined with Teller and S-mines and a blown-up German Mark IV Special tank and an 8-cwt truck were mute evidence as to their effectiveness. According to the inscription on a grave close by, the occupants had been buried that morning.page 380
At one end of the field were several grounded planes. They were left severely alone, for the enemy knew the Kiwi thirst for souvenirs and without doubt a suitable welcome had been arranged for the first enterprising looter to commence operations.
On the landing strip itself were rows of petrol drums dug in as far as the first rung. Many were trapped with a Teller mine and pull igniter. S-mines covered the gaps between the drums, some with a nice variation of the usual theme—an obvious heap of spoil indicating a buried mine, with a Teller planted a couple of feet away and the surface well smoothed over. Another idea new to the sappers was the use of S-mine cases as tyre bursters. The metal cap around each end of the case had been cut with a hacksaw and the four points turned up to make sharp teeth which protruded just above the ground. A special refinement was the placing of blocks of explosive under a mine case and so connected with a pull igniter that if the case was lifted the charges would explode. Quite the opposite theory, but having the same effect, was the use of pressure igniters under the lid of a mine case so that it would go off if stepped on. A final obstacle, but only a nuisance one, was from dozens of broken bottles strewn over the area.
No. 1 landing ground was the X type with runways 200 yards wide and half a mile long, which were searched by sections in line on a forty-yard front. Drums were removed by first digging them loose, disconnecting any wires, then pulling them away on the end of a fifty-foot rope. Only one with an unnoticed trap exploded out of the two hundred or so removed. Any loose wire was suspect and one such, tied to a stake and buried some distance away, was carefully fastened to the rope and the buried end pulled clear to disclose nothing but an old tin of bully beef. Full marks were given to one Jerry with a sense of humour.
General Freyberg was advised that it would take three days to clear both fields properly but that No. 1 ground would be ready for restricted use the next afternoon (17th). The RAF requested that the ends of the runways be marked with an L of drums on their sides, ten to each leg, with two placed upright on the corners. When an RE field squadron arrived to take over, all that remained to be done was the corner marking and the tamping of a few soft spots on the runway surface. They were told of all the devices prepared for their embarrassment when they started on the second field. The New Zealand sappers returned to Company Headquarters the next morning (18th).page 381
The Division left the sappers working on the Bir el Merduma landing ground and carried on to the west during the morning of the 17th, 6 Brigade following 4 Light Armoured Brigade, then 5 Brigade and finally the Administration Group, which still contained 5 Field Park and 6 Field Company. The plan was to outflank Nofilia near the coast some 30 miles away and again try to cut off some of the enemy rearguard.
Seventh Field Company travelled with 5 Brigade, which passed through the leading formations and, when about ten miles west of Nofilia, advanced north towards the coast road. By nightfall the infantry, after a sharp action, were held up by a strong flank guard covering the road while the last of the enemy slipped through the nearly closed gate.
In the meantime two sub-sections, one each from Nos. 2 and 3 Sections, were told off to make a wide detour towards Nofilia and mine the road. Twenty-third and 28th Battalions were each to provide a company for local protection and guide the sappers to their destinations. C Company, 23 Battalion, bumped an enemy party but was able to occupy a hill which overlooked the road and 160 mines were laid before the recall signal. D Company, 28 Battalion, had to make an extra-wide detour and dodge three tanks before reaching the road, where a bridge was to be mined. The enemy had probably mined the area themselves before leaving, for two sappers were killed by a booby-trapped 40-gallon drum left in the middle of the road. Mines were laid on the Nofilia end of the bridge approach before this party also had to stop in order to be clear by daylight.
Meanwhile 6 Brigade had been halted to the south-west of Nofilia in case the enemy, prevented by 5 Brigade from using the road, tried to break through in that direction. The over-all position at first light was that the enemy rearguard had got away again, and because of the thorough mining of the whole area there was no road connection between the New Zealand Division and the remainder of Eighth Army. Maintenance necessitated another halt until the shallow Benghazi harbour was working and sufficient stores were accumulated for the next bound to Tripoli. The New Zealand Division, therefore, would stay in the area and the engineers would lift mines eastwards towards Marble Arch, clear landing grounds for the RAF and prospect for water.
Eighth Field Company was given the task of clearing the road to and then opening up the Nofilia airfield. Two sections of carriers and a wireless van accompanied them in case there page 382 were still enemy around. The road, including several detours around water-scoured wadis, was open by the evening (18th). The airfield was in much the same state as Bir el Merduma and it was estimated that a fortnight would be needed to clear the runways and dispersal area of about twenty-two acres.
Incidentally, 2 NZ Division might have had need of another GOC and several staff officers if the sappers had not been able to stop three Honey tanks and a couple of cars from running on to the airfield, where General Freyberg had a rendezvous with the Corps Commander.
Before the return of Major Anderson and the two 6 Field Company sections, Captain Goodsir set out with No. 2 Section to clear the main road from the 20 kilometre peg west of Nofilia and work east towards the sappers of 7 Armoured Division, who were doing a similar job in the Marble Arch area. One sub-section was detached and worked with the signallers by clearing tracks for their vehicles along the telephone lines. They were through to Nofilia the next day (19th).
In the meantime Major Anderson's party had arrived at Company Headquarters and, after a night's rest, No. 2 Section joined 8 Field Company on the Nofilia airfield while No. 1 Section lifted mines in the village itself as well as on a mile of track to another airfield. The main road through Nofilia was strewn with mines, particularly in wheel tracks, between buildings, and in places where a vehicle would have to keep to the road. When the road through the village was safe the section joined No. 2 assisting 8 Field Company and worked on until the moon set (20th–21st). No. 3 Section met 21 Field Squadron, RE, of 7 Armoured Division at the 21 kilo peg east of Nofilia, then returned and cleared an area around the village wells until the 24th, when it returned to Company Headquarters and began widening road deviations.
The augmented 8 Field Company, using ten Goldsack detectors and working in shifts by daylight and moonlight, had the Nofilia landing strips fully cleared by midday on the 23rd at a cost of six 6 Field Company casualties, one fatal. Work then began on the dispersal area and continued until Christmas Eve, by which time 6 Field Company had lost another sapper killed and 8 Field Company had one truck blown up and one sapper wounded. An RAF party equipped with Pilots and Scorpions arrived during the afternoon; the New Zealand sappers were recalled to their headquarters and the war was declared off for Christmas Day.page 383
As soon as it was possible to move into Nofilia 5 Field Park started to repair and clean out the village wells. There were five altogether, one of which was supposed to be poisoned. The water was not poisoned but it was certainly filthy and the taster—a German prisoner—could not have found it very nice to drink, for among other things it was polluted with dieselene and picric acid. While a compressed air pump was removing the contaminated water a second well full of rubbish, including fourteen mines, was being cleared. In the meantime a well-boring unit arrived and found ample water at 130 feet, whereupon work on the second well was stopped and the party (Sergeant Jackson4) assisted the well borers in rigging and connecting pipes. These sappers took only enough time off to eat their Christmas dinner with the Company then carried on preparing a water point for issuing on Boxing Day. Three casualties had been sustained up to this time. Other Field Park teams were working with Divisional Cavalry patrols, bulldozing a path past road demolitions, building a PW pen and guarding the handful of inmates. The prisoners were discovered to be exceedingly lousy and were marched to 6 Field Ambulance for treatment, but the Ambulance was not in a disinfesting mood and asked that the patients be removed before they distributed their vermin too widely.
Seventh Field Company had one section helping on the second airstrip at Nofilia until the 23rd and another on a small landing ground at Sultan, 35 miles farther west. The obstacles were similar to those already described, but as the RAF was not interested in this area at the moment, the work was stopped on the 24th and a line of drums placed across the runway to prevent an accidental landing. The rest of the Company worked on the road to Sultan, which was the limit of the New Zealand area and the responsibility of 5 Brigade. Sergeant W. E. Dudeck, who seemed to have an instinctive understanding of mine mechanisms, supervised the lifting of over 600 mines, plus many booby-trapped attachments, on this stretch of road without a casualty. His careful organisation and personal example from Alamein to Tripoli was recognised by the award of a DCM.
During this period the brigade water supply was augmented when a ‘recce’ party of 7 Field Company discovered a well at Bir el Nizem with a capacity of 2000 gallons daily. The Com- page 384 pany set up a water point there and supplied each man in 5 Brigade with nearly an extra half gallon above the daily ration.
The sappers did not expect anything spectacular in the way of Christmas dinners. They were over a thousand miles from Cairo, say from North Cape to the Bluff, and every ounce had to be carried at least some distance over desert trails by lorry. But they reckoned without the streak of sentiment in the supply authorities.
On the day, the troops sat down to a dinner of roast pork, turkey, vegetables, plum pudding, fruit salad, a bottle of beer, fifty cigarettes and a Patriotic Fund parcel. It took two tons of petrol to haul two tons of beer, and a last-minute thought of a tot of rum per man was brought in by air. The cooks saved up water to boil the puddings and were the most popular men in the Division. Other highlights were an issue of fresh white bread supplied by the newly arrived Field Bakery Unit, 60,000 parcels and all the Christmas mail, a combined effort of the Divisional Postal Unit and the NZASC. Christmas Day, 1942, was really something. A good number of sappers recalled two other Christmas Days—one before the real fighting started, one after the disasters at Sidi Rezegh—and now, with the taste of victory in the air, the next one would be at home for sure.
Eighth Field Company returned to Nofilia landing ground on Boxing Day and carried on clearing the dispersal area. Major Pemberton was not impressed by the amount of work done by the RE party with its four Scorpions and fifty-odd crew. The ‘Scorps’ were Mark II models and supposed to be improvements on those used at Alamein, but to Pemberton's jaundiced eye, instead of improvements, more disabilities had been thought up.
In a report to the CRE he said that in one and a half days' work an area 200 by 70 yards had been proved and one mine found; a sapper party with three detectors would be expected to cover the same ground in four to five hours. He reported on the machines very fully and in very correct technical terms, and then, excusing the men for the poor showing, he ended on a more forthright and colloquial note: ‘This is very bad for the morale of the operators. (They know the damn things are no bloody good.)’
After Christmas, 6 and 7 Field Companies were employed on the 30-mile stretch of road to Sultan and on marking with ‘safe page 385 exit’ notices (constructed by 5 Field Park Company out of petrol tins) suitable localities every few miles for the dispersal of transport.
Major Currie had made a reconnaissance along this road and reported that the German engineers had excelled themselves. There were no bridges but plenty of culverts, every one of which had been blown and both crater and debris liberally sown with mines. The road itself was mined at frequent intervals, the fields running a hundred yards or so into the desert on each side. Cuttings and fillings were generally mined, with particular attention being paid to places where vehicles were likely to leave the road to bypass the danger spots. Before the ‘recce’ was finished the Major's PU went up on an unnoticed Teller mine, fortunately without serious injury either to himself or his driver. It was lucky they were driving a Dodge PU for the cab was high and away from the wheels. The front wheel and the sandbagged floor took most of the damage. Before that reconnaissance was finished another jeep had gone up on an S-mine and the Major's driver, Sapper Mark Cook,5 had been wounded. There was no rush of applicants to fill the vacancy.
By this time the enemy had been manoeuvred out of his rearguard position at Sirte, some 30 miles west of Sultan, by an armoured-car threat to his flank and had backstepped another 60-odd miles to Buerat. Administrative difficulties brought the follow-up to a stop in front of Buerat, but when supplies had again been accumulated Eighth Army was not going to stop until it was safely in the city port of Tripoli. It was estimated to be a ten-day job for a self-contained force and petrol, food and the like were still being hauled across the desert from Tobruk. Benghazi port alone would never be able to handle all the material needed, and it was now a case of ‘Tripoli or the bush’.
The road was safe as far as the Sultan landing ground on 28 December—at a cost to 7 Field Company of four more sappers killed and seven wounded. Twenty-eight sappers, two of whom were bulldozer drivers, had been killed or wounded clearing roads and landing grounds in the area.
Fifth Field Park Company was now delivering 50,000 gallons of water daily: 11,000 gallons to 7 Armoured Division and the rest to 2 NZ Division—half for daily use and half to build up reserves.page 386
Before the Eighth Army could move on Buerat, where only very light forces were deployed, it was essential, in the absence of reliable maps, to make topographical reconnaissances for landing ground sites, for crossings over several deep and wide wadis, and to survey the best routes for the multitudinous vehicles. The quest for this information was partly the affair of the Air Force, partly that of a Long Range Desert Group patrol who were specialists in finding their way across Godforsaken deserts; but chiefly, as far as 2 NZ Division was concerned, it was the responsibility of Headquarters Divisional Engineers, which contained qualified surveyors who could determine their position by sun shots at the end of the day and plot a route with accuracy.
In the advance to Tripoli the coast road along which 7 Field Company was working was to be used by the transporters, maintenance convoys and the like, while the fighting formations were to move inland across the desert. Two routes were being selected and marked from Agheila to Nofilia, where 2 NZ Division would take over. At that point the tracks, known as ‘O’ (the northern) and ‘A’ (the southern), were to be increased by two more, so that the four tracks, each about 1000 yards apart were, from north to south, ‘O’, ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’. They were to be sited along good going as far as the Army concentration area at Wadi Bei el Chebir, south of Buerat, by 10 January 1943.
The new year found 5 Field Park Company operating water points, the bulldozer crews filling demolitions and all spare men out on road work near Nofilia; 8 Field Company was marking the O and A tracks from Nofilia to the considerable barrier of Wadi Tamet between Sirte and Buerat; 6 Field Company, less No. 1 Section (Lieutenant Hermans), working on a difficult access road into Wadi Tamet, was marking the B and C tracks. The sappers of No. 1 Section had unexpected company on this job, miles away from anybody, for the area was thick with gazelles. A drill was evolved of driving at full speed into a herd before they took fright and on one occasion seventeen were shot, more, it was freely admitted, by good luck than good marksmanship. For the time being the section, which had not tasted fresh meat for nearly three months, dined on gazelle stew, roast gazelle, gazelle steaks, gazelle chops; and when Colonel Hanson dropped in for breakfast he was served gazelle fry and bacon.page 387
During this period 7 Field Company was clearing mines on the road to Sirte. Seventh Armoured Division assumed responsibility for the B and C tracks at Wadi Tlal, due south of Sirte, on 7 January, whereupon 6 Field Company, still less No. 1 Section, made camp and improved rough patches on the tracks and thickened up the petrol tins and stone cairns marking the routes.
The axis of advance forward of Wadi Tamet reconnoitred by the CRE posed some problems. General Freyberg wished to pass well to the south towards Bu Ngem, but the desert changed to a rocky surface not unlike the waves of a frozen sea and all progress was finally ended by a vertical sided depression at least fifty feet deep. Two or three days were spent in trying to locate a reasonable route south of the obstacle but without success. Finally, after returning twice to Wadi Tamet, a route practicable for the Divisional transport, bearing to the north rather than to the south, was discovered and Colonel Hanson, after his breakfast of fresh gazelle already mentioned, returned to Divisional Headquarters. En route he was delayed by a combined rain and sand storm and found on reporting to the GOC that he had been included in a casualty list as ‘Missing’.
Eighth Field Company was to carry the tracks on past Wadi Tamet to the Divisional concentration area at Wadi Bei el Chebir at the earliest possible moment, but six tracks had first to be marked across the Wadi Tamet and exits provided.
Bluffs and watercourses set difficult problems in the location of the O and A tracks to Wadi Chebir, and it was not until the night of the 12th that the route was finally decided upon and 6 Field Company moved back into Divisional Reserve. Eighth Field Company marked the route to Wadi Bei el Chebir and then reported back to 6 Brigade, while 7 Field Company joined 5 Brigade and 5 Field Park Company the Divisional Administrative Group.
Plans for the capture of Tripoli were drawn up with various alternatives according to the possible reactions of the enemy, and in the final analysis it was the situation that would arise should the bulk of the hostile forces withdraw from Buerat before a full-scale attack could be mounted that had to be dealt with.
Preparatory to the operation, sub-sections of sappers were detached to various duties: 5 Field Park Company bulldozers (Captain Jones) joined Divisional Engineer Headquarters; Lieu- page 388 tenant Morris6 and a sub-section from 3 Section, 6 Field Company, were attached to the Greys Armoured Regiment; Lieutenant Standish and two sub-sections from 3 Section, 7 Field Company, reported to Divisional Cavalry Headquarters.
The New Zealand Division and 7 Armoured Division were directed first to the oasis and outpost at Beni Ulid, thence north-west to Tarhuna and Tripoli, while 51 (Highland) Division would take the coastal route towards the same objective. The inland concentration was to be complete on the night 14 - 15 January, when the two divisions were to move in the moonlight into suitable jumping-off areas, with the armour to the north of the New Zealanders. Zero hour was first light on 15 January.
Sixth Brigade, with a Divisional Cavalry screen out ahead, crept cautiously forward while it listened to the familiar sounds of distant gunfire where 7 Armoured Division was already in action. Lieutenant Hanger with No. 1 Section, less one subsection, of 8 Field Company, travelling at the head of the brigade, went forward to search for mines along a desert track that had to be crossed. The brigade halted while a few mines were lifted. The armour was heavily engaged and the brigade did not move until the late afternoon, when it nosed another mile or so towards an enemy-held ridge from which the sappers came under fire and suffered two casualties, one fatal. The brigade stopped again while the cavalry tried to find a way around the ridge. Scots Greys' tanks under Divisional command were sent to assist and the enemy was ejected. Sixth Brigade laagered for the night while the other formations moved up. The situation was that a gap had been made in the enemy line but 7 Armoured Division was still halted by an anti-tank screen. During the night the troops heard the sound of a barrage as 51 Division attacked 20 miles to the north. In the morning the enemy rearguard had departed. It was the almost invariable tactic of the enemy to hold on if possible until darkness permitted an orderly withdrawal.
Before their departure the Germans had left a minefield in the path of the Division and Major Pemberton took 8 Field Company, less one section, to clear it. The field was found to be mostly dummy, with a few live mines scattered about. This day, the 16th, was a day of no opposition from the enemy, now page 389 about 40 miles away in an area broken with wadis. The Divisional Cavalry was having a busy time feeling forward and Lieutenant Pickmere with two working sections was sent to assist with minefields, mostly dummy but entailing delay. The Cavalry encountered strong positions at Wadi Nfed and waited for the Greys and the guns, and 6 Brigade laagered while the affair was debated. In the morning the way was open as far as the next enemy stand at Beni Ulid. It would be more correct to say the way would be open after the engineers had made it so, for the tangle of wadis was a mass of mines and craters. A single vehicle track was cleared by 8 Field Company around demolitions across Wadi Nfed, but the worst obstacle was the damaged road down the 100-foot-high steep-sided wadi that contained Sedada village, an outpost of Italian colonisation—some settlers, empty houses, a fort (also empty), a few trees and an area of grass—the last being something the sappers had not seen for a long time. Not that the German engineers had not done their best; the road into the wadi was so thoroughly blown that deviations had to be made by the attached No. 3 Section for the Divisional Cavalry screen to get forward. It was here that Lance-Corporal Milligan7 did some more of the work that resulted in the award of an immediate DCM. Part of his citation reads:
‘As a bulldozer operator L/Cpl Milligan has displayed outstanding gallantry and has performed valuable work…. It was, however, at Sedada on 17 Jan 43 and Beni Ulid on 19 Jan 43 where his work in operating the bulldozer on heavily mined craters was of such outstanding value. Undismayed by the explosion of several mines and the occurrence of casualties among adjacent personnel he rapidly cleared a track down the defile into Sedada and as a result both the 7 Armd Div and the 2 NZ Div were able to continue their advance without delay.’
Lieutenant Morris's sub-section, working with the Greys, had a busy time demolishing the aftermath of the previous afternoon's gun fight: three M13 Italian tanks, one 37-mm anti-tank gun, two 50-mm guns, two 70-mm anti-tank guns and one 90-mm anti-tank gun were given gelignite treatment.
Another 40-odd miles were made before nightfall, when the troops laagered 25 miles east of Beni Ulid while the rest of the Division made a night march to catch up.page 390
Beni Ulid was reported clear of enemy at midday on the 18th. The Division was now in country where freedom of manoeuvre was restricted by steep-sided wadis and only 20 miles were covered before it cut the road that connected Beni Ulid through Bir Dufan with the coast at Zliten. No. 2 Section was despatched to clear mines from this road for the passage of 6 Brigade, which halted nearby for the night. Sixth Field Company had also been detached from Divisional Reserve Group to clear the road from Sedada to Beni Ulid. By nightfall some distance had been made at a cost of four sappers killed and seven wounded.
The Division found itself in such a topographical nightmare that brows were furrowed at Headquarters because, having started the march on Tripoli with stores sufficient only for the estimated ten days' operations, the Division was almost at the point of no return. Certainly 7 Armoured Division had cut the tarsealed road to Tarhuna, but unless the engineers could counter their opposite number's obstructions a withdrawal was not impossible.
Even worse than the entry into Sedada was the road down into Beni Ulid, a 12-mile-long oasis situated in a canyon 150 feet deep. It had once been a Roman outpost and some of the fortifications were still there. Now it was full of villages, palms, olive and fig trees—a complete contrast to the surrounding desolation. There was, however, one slice of good fortune: the pumping station that supplied water to the considerable native population of Beni Ulid had been all set for demolition, but the German officer who was to fire the charge had inadvertently stood on one of his own S-mines—and the station remained in operation.
The full sapper strength of the Division was deployed from Sedada into Beni Ulid and from there along the road towards Tarhuna. Indeed, according to Colonel Hanson, the sappers had received an addition to their strength:
‘Owing to the narrow road, the heavy demolitions and mines all over the place the passage of Beni Ulid and up the steep hill with lots of demolitions towards Tarhuna was quite a job. Mines were planted in the loose dirt blown out of craters and demolitions. This made it particularly hazardous for the bulldozer operators to fill the craters. We were very fortunate not to have more casualties among dozer drivers than we did. I nearly threw a fit when I came up to one demolition and saw the General himself pushing dirt and loose stones into a crater page 391 to help our men. Not long after I had made him keep away from the crater the dozer driver and another sapper were blown up.’
Sixth Field Company worked all that day (19th) on the Sedada–Beni Ulid road while the detachment with the Greys cleared three miles of the Misurata track; 7 Field Company, detached from 5 Brigade into Divisional Reserve Group, worked with 5 Field Park Company bulldozers on craters in the canyon and along the Tarhuna road; 8 Field Company had one section working back to Beni Ulid and the rest in the opposite direction, with an eye for a possible dispersal area for 6 Brigade. The road was open before dark at a cost of four 8 Field Company sappers wounded. Fifth Field Park Company, less detachments, moved up to Main Divisional Headquarters and stood by for bridge work and water duties in Beni Ulid.
The situation in the morning of 20 January was that the Division had wriggled through Beni Ulid in single line, keeping to the middle of the road, and was concentrated 24 miles beyond; 8 Field Company, less Company Headquarters, had joined Headquarters Divisional Cavalry under command of the CRE; 5 Field Park was clearing wells in Beni Ulid; 7 Field Company reverted to the command of 5 Brigade; 6 Field Company worked along the Tarhuna road with 8 Field Company until 7 Armoured Division was met and 8 Field Company went, as above, to Headquarters Divisional Cavalry, whereupon 6 Field Company rejoined Divisional Reserve Group.
The fighting troops balanced themselves for an assault on Tarhuna, the capture of which position would clear the shortest route to Tripoli, but the wily enemy pulled back into broken country commanding the defiles through which ran the Tarhuna–Tripoli road. The Divisional Cavalry was therefore put to ferreting around for a route towards the Italian settlement at Tazzoli, to the west of Tarhuna. It was again open desert, but rough and rocky with patches of soft sand that ended at an escarpment, below which was the cultivated coastal country around the city seaport of Tripoli.
Fifth Brigade was now leading the Division with 7 Field Company divided among the battalions, No. 1 Section with 23 Battalion, 2 Section with 28 Battalion, 3 Section (two sub-sections under Lieutenant Yorke) with 21 Battalion. The advance began about midday and the brigade followed the Divisional Cavalry route, a mine-free one for a welcome change, to a position five page 392 miles south-east of Tazzoli, where it halted while a route was found through the gebel and down on to the plain.
The Divisional Cavalry ferreted around all the afternoon but could find no way of getting down on to the plains surrounding Tripoli, which meant that until 7 Armoured Division forced the Tarhuna defiles 2 NZ Division was immobilised unless it went by doubtful tracks 50 miles inland to Garian and another 50 miles back again. The petrol position was already critical. Consider the situation facing General Freyberg—the Division had worked through the high broken country to within five miles of the escarpment that bounds, at approximately the height of the Rimutaka hill road from Wellington into the Wairarapa, the plains that surround the port of Tripoli. The maps showed no roads and little in the way of tracks anywhere between Tarhuna and Garian.
Colonel Hanson has put on record, at the author's request, the inside story of 2 NZ Division's surprising appearance in front of Tripoli:
‘As evening fell Div. Cav. had still no success in finding anything which approached a track or route through the Jebels.
‘The General at his TAC HQs was becoming impatient. He called Steve Weir8 and myself into conference and even though darkness was falling he was all for sending me off then and there to find a route through. I was grateful to Steve Weir for persuading the General to leave it till the morning. Steve pointed out that if the Div. Cav. had been unsuccessful in daylight, it would be a forlorn hope for one man, even if he was the CRE, to recce a route in darkness. The General let it go at that for half an hour during which time I had something to eat. At that stage his impatience got the better of him and he called me over and without further ado told me to go and find a route through the Jebels.
‘I had, during my working life recced and surveyed many tracks and roads through rough country, over mountains, through bush and across gorges and rivers, but never before had I ever attempted to recce by night a route through completely unknown broken mountainous country, which maps showed to be impassable to all vehicles.’page 393
(Colonel Hanson left in his jeep, contacted the Divisional Cavalry, collected there a wireless truck and a subaltern who had been along the rough Tarhuna-Garian road, then drove to a point about 15 miles west of Tazzoli, which the sketchy maps suggested was a likely place to start looking for a track down to the plains. By this time there was a moon.)
‘I left the wireless truck and jeep at this point. The country to the north towards Tripoli looked anything but promising. Indeed it looked so broken that I thought I must have made a mistake in my map reference. However there was only one thing to do and that was to try it out. At frequent intervals I climbed to high points to look over the country as best I might. The broken rugged country seemed to be never ending. After travelling a mile or more we were blocked by an impossible bluff. We had to return quite a distance before finding another likely leadoff. This sort of thing went on several times during the night. Off to our right we could hear gun fire, apparently where 7 Arm. Div. were thrusting along the Tarhuna–Tripoli road.
‘We continued to make some sort of progress…. Then on turning a bend in a gully we were now following, I suddenly saw fires burning in Tripoli or its vicinity.’
(The pair returned to the wireless truck and radioed that a track had been located and to send sappers with compressors and bulldozers. Eighth Field Company was warned to be at the wireless truck as soon after first light as possible.)
‘The sappers certainly worked with a will on the route through the Jebels. They neither stopped for meals or rest of any sort. They were bombed by a couple of flights of Stukas during the day, but the work went on right into the night. I think I was fully justified in being very proud of my sappers that day. Perhaps only I know of the magnificent efforts they put up. When the men eventually stopped for a meal and a sleep the route had almost become a road and traffic was moving freely sometimes even in top gear.’
Eighth Field Company rejoined 6 Brigade when it passed through on the afternoon of the 22nd.
Tripoli was now about 30 road-miles away. Fifth Brigade was directed on Azizia, an important road junction, and then on to Tripoli, from which centre the enemy was still busily evacuating. Of course, 2 NZ Division was not the only formation worrying him. There were 7 Armoured Division, an armoured page 394 brigade, and 51 (Highland) Division, not to mention the Desert Air Force about which little has been said, this being primarily the chronicle of the sappers' share in the war. There were so few enemy planes in the air that the troops were inclined to forget that our air force was conducting a non-stop blitz on roads, airfields, harbours and other targets.
Fifth Brigade pushed its way across some 17 miles of very soft country on to a tarsealed road that spoke of civilisation. No. 2 Section, with the Maoris leading the brigade column, kept its eyes skinned for mines, but the retiring rearguard must have been too hard-pressed for the road was not infested. The original plan to attack Azizia from a flank was dropped when a signal from Corps stated that an intercepted message had been translated ordering the rearguard to retire at 8 p.m. There appeared no point in rushing things at that stage so two more hours passed before the Maori B Company (Captain Pene9), with No. 2 Section, 7 Field Company attached, felt along towards Azizia. Enemy tanks and infantry had either misread their orders or the Corps translator had mixed his times for Azizia held a decidedly belligerent garrison. The Maoris were withdrawn and the rearguard left to conduct its affairs in peace. As usual, it was gone in the morning.
The delay at Azizia cost the Division the satisfaction of being first into Tripoli, for 51 Division had stolen a march on the New Zealanders. To Major Skinner and his Company Headquarters, travelling with 5 Brigade Headquarters, goes the honour of being the first sappers into the long-sought city, for they made camp that night (23rd) in the grounds of an agricultural experimental farm a couple of miles from the Piazza Italia, eighty days out from Alamein and 1400 miles west of the unimportant railway halt that gave its name to a line and a battle that will live in history as long as history is read.
The enemy may have guessed that his pursuers were almost out of petrol for he was reluctant to leave the environs of Tripoli. Seventh Armoured Division patrols drew very spiteful fire quite close to Azizia. Nevertheless, 7 Field Company, reassembled at 5 Brigade Headquarters, rested for a couple of days while it spruced up, and in the absence of leave drank large quantities of cool clear water, the taste of which they had almost forgotten.page 395
Light armour prowled around the rear of the departing enemy like wolves waiting to snap up stragglers while the Division concentrated in areas outside the city.
The sappers left the units they had been attached to and were disposed by the CRE in areas where work was waiting for them. German demolition parties had been very active under experts in the art of making a mess of communications. While the officers ‘recced’ the various projects, the sappers scrounged around for petrol and conducted a vigorous offensive against any poultry the enemy had missed. The Italian settlers had departed practically en masse for the safety of the city.
One man wrote:
‘We have a great little spot for a camp. It is right in the middle of an olive grove and there are odd fruit trees interspersed among the olives and they are just bursting into bloom. There is plenty of grass about and the field is a mass of little flowers like Cape Daisies and still more mauve hyacinths. Box thorn hedges mark the boundary of the olive grove and the road running alongside us is lined with an avenue of gums…. the civilian population made themselves pretty scarce for the first few days and left all their vegetable gardens intact. You can quite easily imagine what happened to the gardens as soon as we arrived. We couldn't have timed it better. The cabbages and caulis were at their best and we managed to find quite a few lettuces, carrots and spring onions. After living on tinned and dried foods for three months we were overjoyed at the thought of green veges and we made the most of it.’
It was not long before the settlers, probably realising that their throats were less likely to be cut by the invaders than by their Arab subjects, returned to their homes and took up the threads of their existence, which appeared to be growing olives and grapes. Some of them produced quantities of the national beverage and found good custom among sappers who had soon tired of the delights of clear cool water.
1 An Army euphemism meaning absolutely nothing.
8 Maj-Gen Sir Stephen Weir, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Wellington; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939-Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941-Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 4 Sep-17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944-Sep 1946; Commander, Southern Military District, 1948-49; QMG, Army HQ, 1951-55; Chief of General Staff 1955-60; Military Adviser to NZ Govt, Sep 1960–