28 (Maori) Battalion
CHAPTER 11 — Takrouna
‘Of all the magnificent achievements of 2 NZ Div. I have always felt that the capture of Takrouna must surely have been one of the finest. I went up there myself during the battle just after the 51st Highland Division had taken over, and I cannot, to this day, imagine how it was captured in the face of tenacious enemy resistance.’
Lieutenant-General Sir Brian Horrocks, KCB, MC
For the Maoris the move towards Gabes was a tedious two-day journey while minefields were cleared and rearguards chased away, for the outflanking manœuvre had succeeded and the enemy was in full retreat from Mareth. El Hamma was given up without more ado and Gabes was the Corps' next objective. Fifth Brigade was ordered to go straight for it, but as the Maoris were at the rear of the column the move on 29 March was for them another day spent in stopping and starting.
Boredom was, however, replaced by excitement when 5 Brigade's advanced guard reported that it had entered Gabes on the tail of the retreating enemy, that it was being embarrassed by a civic reception from the French population, and that it was finding it difficult to get on with the job. That was running a war on the right lines and everybody took a new interest; odd scraps of French were resurrected from school days and Cairo nights, and ‘comment ça va's’ and ‘très bien's’ were flung around the trucks with abandon.
The congestion was terrific and the battalion, seven miles south of Gabes at 2 p.m., made only four miles in the next five hours. Darkness found it moving almost imperceptibly and a heavy fall of rain did nothing to help. Finally, in the town, demolitions, darkness, and torrential rain so thoroughly disorganised the column that it was daylight before the last trucks reported at the brigade area two miles beyond Gabes.
The Israelites could not have been more pleased with their first glimpse of the Promised Land after their years in the desert than were the Maoris taking their first look at the country around Gabes. For almost a month they had marched, fought or hung around, either in the desert proper or along the page 283 scorched bottom of Lake Tritonis, and now the Mediterranean Sea sparkled in the sun on one side and, on the other, a palmfringed oasis with fresh water and, wonder of wonders, a warm mineral spring. B Company felt very homesick—others (a very few others!) who could remember back to Thermopylae compared the spring with the Greek pools.
The battalion was lying half-way between Gabes and the village of Rhennouch on the narrow plains between the sea and the hills. The country was cultivated and inhabited by French, Jews and Maltese, all very friendly and all very delighted at the ejection of the German-Italian army and the arrival of British troops. It was, of course, too good to last and soon after breakfast the battalion was on the way again, but only to a position south of Oudref village, where the troops did stay a while.
New Zealand Corps' left hook had succeeded in forcing the evacuation of the strong Mareth line though no significant number of enemy was trapped there. The next likely position for a delaying action was along the line of the Wadi Akarit, about 17 miles north of Gabes. The coastal plain was only from 20 to 40 miles wide and the Wadi Akarit stretched across it into a maze of hills and salt pans.
The 28th Battalion was told to make itself comfortable while the rest of the Division1 concentrated and a plan of battle was drawn up in case the enemy elected to make the Wadi Akarit the scene of something more than a rearguard action. The troops were dispersed, tactically sited and dug in, and then proceeded to obey the orders to make themselves comfortable. To the Maoris this could mean only one thing, and the tender young lamb that accompanied the equally tender young poultry to the mess tins indicated a somewhat over-enthusiastic interpretation of the instructions.
The following day was spent in taking it easy until dark, when a muster parade attended a memorial church service in honour of those who fell at Hikurangi.
April the 2nd was notable for two events: General Montgomery addressed all officers and non-commissioned officers of 5 Brigade, dealing first with the Mareth operations and then with the future role of 2 NZ Division. He stated that on Sunday, 4 April, 30 Corps would smash through the Wadi Akarit line, then being held by four Italian divisions, or rather, what was left of them. They were the Trieste, Young Fascists, Pistoia and Spezia Divisions. In addition, the German 90 Light Division page 284 and infantry from 21 Panzer Division were mixed among the Italians to brace the line. Against them we would pit 30 Corps, with 400 guns and thirty squadrons of aircraft. The role of the Division was to break out through the gap which was to be made and exploit north. The General warned them that the enemy air force was still liable to be a factor. His prediction in this respect was dead right.
The second, and to the troops the more important, event was their first pay since Tripoli, and many perplexing hours were spent working out the relative values of francs, piastres, and lire.
The attack on Wadi Akarit was postponed for two days during which period Captain Awarau, Second-Lieutenant Keelan,2 and fifty other ranks, mostly 8th Reinforcements, marched in. The men were welcomed by Colonel Bennett and sent to their respective tribal companies, while Captain Awarau took command of C Company from Lieutenant Jackson.
April the 5th was spent packing up ready to follow at the rear of 5 Brigade when the hole through the enemy line had been made. Colonel Bennett had attended a brigade conference the previous evening and later passed on to his company commanders the story to the effect that the enemy commander was uncertain whether he would be straight-lefted or left-hooked and was continually moving his troops from one position to another. Eighth Army was definitely attacking on the night 5–6 April in the manner already announced; the role of the New Zealand Division was unaltered and the troops were to be ready to move off soon after breakfast.
The battalion arrangements were for reveille at 6.30 a.m., breakfast 7 a.m., stand by to move off at 9.30 a.m. The move through the bridgehead was to be made initially in nine columns, each following a lettered track through the minefields.
The 496-gun barrage began at a quarter past four in the morning, but even the flash and thunder of the steel curtain was not sufficient to get more than the new men out of their warm blankets before reveille. The battalion was embussed on time and by eleven o'clock was in position behind 23 Battalion ready for the breakthrough. Up forward the battle ebbed and flowed; the enemy left flank broke early; then the right began to show signs of crumbling, but the centre held until the afternoon when 5 Brigade was warned to edge up a few miles. The page 285 Maoris in the rear of the column began rolling at 5 p.m., but the going was difficult and hazardous and only four miles had been covered when orders came through to halt for the night. A few minutes later six Ju88 bombers attempted a hit-and-run raid by flying in from the coast at speed. The planes were quick but the anti-aircraft gunners were quicker and shot down three of them, while the remaining three streaked away with Spitfires on their tails. There was another raid during the night but 28 Battalion was not molested.
An attack planned for 6 Brigade to force the issue in the centre was later made unnecessary by the withdrawal of the enemy, and next day once again the battalion dawdled along behind the column. By midday six miles had been covered through minefields and across the Wadi Akarit, but by 5 p.m. the Maoris were completely through the obstructions and shortly afterwards they laagered for the night.
Lieutenant Mariu, Brigade LO, arrived with new instructions: there were several enemy Tiger tanks in the neighbourhood and a gunline was to be formed by 5 Brigade Group, with 28 Battalion facing south—this order was carried out but the night was uneventful.
The order of march was altered the next day (8 April) and 28 Battalion led the brigade column in an advance that was mostly halts while the armoured screen dealt with rearguard opposition. Captain D'Arcy (Battalion MO) surprised Colonel Bennett by handing over what he hoped, from the ornaments on his person, might be an Italian general or even a fieldmarshal, plus two other less ornate enemy officers. They had been given to him by someone who was too busy to be bothered with them, and although the MO had not acquired a fieldmarshal his trophy proved to be General Mannerini, who commanded the Italian Saharan Group, and a brace of his staff.
Early in the afternoon the CO was instructed to report to 8 Armoured Brigade. Brigadier Harvey said he was pushing north for 16 miles during the night and the Maori Battalion was to accompany him and be prepared for any infantry tasks that might crop up. They reached the objective area without opposition, and while the tanks laagered for what was left of the night the Maoris mounted guard.
Soon after first light the tanks fanned out and occupied high ground just ahead of the laager and the troops were called forward in support. Quite an interesting sight awaited them— page 286 down on the flat about a mile ahead was a road along which was passing a stream of enemy transport and tanks. In addition to this moving spectacle was a nice view of a tank duel. Colonel Bennett was then told that owing to the speed of the general advance his further attendance was unnecessary and he was to report back to 5 Brigade.
He was to take position behind brigade tactical headquarters as it passed Point 264, where the unit was concentrated. This was easier said than done for a constant stream of vehicles was passing, but the battalion managed to slip in only to find that it was well in advance of the brigade and was, in fact, mixed up with the forward armour engaged in a running fight with the enemy. The Colonel pulled the battalion out of the traffic and awaited instructions which, when they came, were to bed down until the morning.
Fifth Brigade settled down nearby and the following day's tasks were set out. The intention was that 2 NZ Division was to cut the main coast road about 17 miles north of Sfax. Eighth Armoured Brigade would lead, followed by a gun group, then 5 Brigade followed by the rest of the Division. This would swing the axis of advance to the right with the object of trying to cut off 90 Light and 15 Panzer Divisions, still in the vicinity of Sfax, by occupying La Hencha, about 30 miles north-east of Triaga, the present location of the brigade. In effect it was another left hook, which the enemy was quick to avoid by retiring smartly towards Enfidaville.
Good progress was made, mostly along first-class roads; by midday both Sfax and La Hencha were reported clear, but the orders remained unchanged and when the column halted for the night 28 Battalion was six miles south of La Hencha.
Colonel Bennett wrote of the countryside:
We had now entered that belt of fertile plains which extends in varying degrees from the Djebiniana to as far north as Enfidaville. Olive groves acutely reminiscent of Greece and Crete extended in orderly pattern for miles, interspersed at various points along the countryside with picturesque white-washed homesteads typical of this part of the African coastline. With a background of changing landscape, travelling for once became a scenic adventure; the roads were good and water was readily available from the many wells dotted along the roadside. We had indeed bidden farewell to the sands and the barren wastes of the African desert.page 287
In the morning the troops were told that they were not likely to move for twenty-four hours; in the afternoon they were moving towards the seaport town of Sousse. The enemy rearguard had waited only long enough to make an excellent job of mining, demolishing, and otherwise spoiling the road, but the main thing that impressed the Maoris was that a promised easy day had vanished. By nightfall they had ploughed across country through 25 miles of the scenery described by the Colonel. Sousse was evacuated that night and the chase was resumed after breakfast on the 12th. It was slow going because the terrain now altered to sharp wadis and watercourses until finally the only reasonably direct route was the mine-infested El Djem-Sousse road. The sappers were going flat out detecting mines and filling road craters, but it took seven hours to cover 20 miles, at which point the battalion was directed along a secondary and unmined road with the mission of occupying Sidi Bou Ali village about four miles beyond Sousse. General Freyberg had a keen desire to get to Enfidaville as soon as possible.
Colonel Bennett was instructed that although Sidi Bou Ali was reported clear he was to treat it as hostile, to consolidate on the far side, and to push out patrols for another four miles. No. 3 Platoon, 7 Field Company, would repair any demolitions but all transport was to be off the road by first light. The rest of the brigade would concentrate just clear of Sousse, with 21 Battalion ready to support the armoured screen.
The CO's orders to his company commanders were that A Company was to occupy the village, then patrol forward the required distance and return by first light; B Company was to help the sappers repair the road and cover the return of A Company; C and D Companies were to follow B in transport and dig in on either side of the road a mile beyond Sidi Bou Ali.
The battalion halted one mile east of the village at 11 p.m. while Lieutenant Monty Wikiriwhi, who had volunteered for the job, made a reconnaissance in a carrier. The place was empty and A Company advanced on foot, followed by B Company and the engineers in trucks. A Company had almost completed its patrol when it was fired on, and in the ensuing skirmish it captured a gun mounted on a truck after killing two of the crew and capturing two others at a cost of three casualties, one fatal.
The rest of the operation went according to plan—the support companies dug in and the engineers reported no mines and page 288 only one demolition which could be easily bypassed. Cavalry patrols went through at daylight and the battalion was warned of an early move. This was to be in the nature of a left hook aimed at Djebel Garci, west of Takrouna hill, in support of a thrust by 8 Armoured Brigade on to the high ground around Enfidaville, an important road junction where all roads over the plain met to cross the mountains into northern Tunisia.
The brigade column, led by 23 Battalion, travelled partly by road and partly overland towards Djebel Garci; but, on a closer view, that high country was considered to be at least a divisional objective so Brigadier Kippenberger decided to swing his attack towards the Takrouna feature.
It was hoped that the enemy might be caught off balance by the rapidity of the advance and so easily bustled off Takrouna, but by the time 23 Battalion had reached Wadi el Boul, about three miles from Takrouna, there were enough enemy guns firing to suggest caution and 23 Battalion was ordered to halt on the line of the wadi.page break
The capture of Takrouna
Colonel Bennett was instructed to extend 23 Battalion's line by placing two companies on each flank and to send strong fighting patrols as far as the Pont du Fahs-Enfidaville road. While the Maoris are wading through the knee-deep water in the wadi, it is a convenient time to outline the position of 2 NZ Division in particular and the North African scene in general.
Fifth Brigade was deployed in front of Takrouna-Enfidaville, while 6 Brigade was advancing up the coast road. The end of the long desert trek was near. In front of the New Zealanders was a country of high hills with roads winding through defiles, the enemy holding the passes and the high ground and the Eighth Army on the plains below—Greece in reverse. The German-Italian armies were contained behind a 110-mile line extending from Enfidaville to Cape Serrat, with the sea behind them and British, French, and American bayonets forcing them back step by step. And the Navy and Royal Air Force were there to see that there was no Dunkirk.
Now that the Anglo-American army had joined hands with the Eighth Army, the Allied dispositions along the front were as follows: from the coast at Enfidaville to a point 25 miles inland, Eighth Army; westwards for 25 miles, the French 10 Corps; west and north for 30 miles, the British First Army; the remaining sector of 30 miles was held by 2 United States Corps, with French formations on the coast. Africa Army Group, commanded by General von Arnim, held the two important ports of Tunis and Bizerta and was making a determined effort to deny the Allies the Mediterranean passage.
For the Maoris the next few days were quiet while attempts were made to ease the enemy out of his position without mounting a full-scale attack. Sixth Brigade was moved up to face Enfidaville and 8 Armoured Brigade made an effort to outflank the town. Fifth Brigade shaped up to Takrouna by putting 21 Battalion across Wadi el Boul and generally straightening the line. Reconnaissances by night strengthened the impression that the enemy intended to stay where he was—Maori and other patrols reported parties laying mines in olive groves and numerous enemy parties dug in or digging defensive positions around Takrouna.
Planning for the capture of Tunis, tentatively set for 22 April, gave Eighth Army the mission of drawing enemy forces away from the real thrust line on the First Army front by exerting maximum pressure in the south. Tenth Corps began to deploy for the battle.page 290
The 201st Guards Brigade took over part of 6 Brigade area and 28 Battalion moved back six miles to make room. The Maoris were fully in accord with this move because, for the first time in weeks, they were able to erect their bivvies. Fourth Indian Division moved into position on the left of the New Zealand Division, with 7 Armoured Division on its left. The Maoris slept in until seven o'clock and passed a nice quiet day on the 17th. At last light a flight of wild ducks passed over the battalion area; the troops leapt to life and put up a most impressive anti-duck barrage but there were no casualties. A cartoon in a subsequent NZEF Times depicted an inferno of bursting shells, machine-gun bullets, rifle fire and tracer bursting around the ducks and one saying, ‘I told you not to fly over the Maori Battalion area.’
Colonel Bennett had been informed that his unit would be attacking in the forthcoming battle and, with his company commanders, spent most of the day on a vantage point in 23 Battalion's area studying Takrouna. This is what he wrote about it later:
The key point of the enemy's Enfidaville defence line was the Rock of Takrouna, a pinnacle not unlike the Athenian Acropolis, rising to a height of over 600 feet and standing like a grim forbidding sentinel, nearly four miles to the west of the village of Enfidaville. On the very summit of the pinnacle, and commanding an uninterrupted view to the south were the remains of an old fort, a formidable stone structure of Berberan origin, used in former days to oppose French rule and administration. Resting as it did on a massive foundation of solid rock twenty feet deep, this fortress surveyed the plains below with an air of almost impregnable seclusion.
Nestling half way down the northern slopes of the feature was the picturesque native village of Takrouna, uninhabited at the time of its investment but normally supporting a population of some 500 people. The southern slopes of the rock were precipitous and formidable but at its northern end it sloped away more gently and the narrow track that led from the village down to the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road below made that end the least resistant line of approach.
The intervening country between our position and the rock, though fairly flat and undulating, was a natural death trap.page 291
Around the base of Takrouna, especially between it and the prominent saddle situated about 1,200 yards to the east—the Djebel Bir—were numerous olive patches interspersed with impenetrable walls of cactus so thick as to deny passage to a man's hands.
As an indication of the seriousness of these obstacles it may be stated here that on the night of the attack not only was each assaulting battalion allotted three Crusader tanks for the purpose of smashing a way through these cactus hedges but all available machetes were also issued to the men as part of their battle equipment for the assault. It later transpired too that nearly all these cactus hedges had been heavily mined. the wheat fields dotted here and there across our front were an added impediment and were chiefly responsible for retarding the infantry's rate of advance during the actual attack. The planned close cooperation between our troops and the artillery was thus largely neutralised.
The hilly country to each flank of Takrouna and to the rear provided great vantage points in the enemy's plan for the defence of the Rock for there was not a single line of approach to the fort that was not covered by converged fire.
During these days of ease for the Maori troops the plan of attack was being discussed, revised, and amended at corps, division, and brigade level. In broad outline, 2 NZ Division was to break into the Enfidaville line while 4 Indian Division was to capture the Djebel Garci and then clear along the tops of ridges in a north-easterly direction towards the coast. While the Indians were advancing the New Zealand Division was to deepen its penetration. Seventh Armoured Division would cover the Indians' left flank while 50 (Northumberland) Division was to occupy Enfidaville and put strong patrols north along the coast.
The New Zealand Division's intention was to attack and capture the Djebel el Froukr and Djebel el Ogla features and exploit to the north-west and north. In non-technical language, the New Zealanders were to secure the end of a ridge and exploit into the hills. Fifth Brigade on the left of the New Zealand sector had for its first objective the capture of Djebel Cherachir, which lay beyond Takrouna and Djebel Bir. The final objective, Djebel Froukr, lay a mile further north.
The Enfidaville-Zaghouan road ran between Cherachir and Takrouna and was the final objective for the first phase of the page 292 attack—the responsibility of 28 Battalion, right, and 21 Battalion, left. The 21st Battalion was to reach the road by moving around the left or western side of Takrouna. Takrouna hill itself and Djebel Bir were to be taken by the Maoris, although 21 Battalion was to be prepared to help capture Takrouna if required. Both units were to join up again on the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road, which was to be the forming-up line for 23 Battalion making the assault to the Djebel Froukr.
Colonel Bennett was given the orders mentioned above on the 19th. Zero hour would be 11 p.m. that night and the code word would be oration. A heavy barrage would be fired and would move forward at the rate of 100 yards in two minutes, while the recognition signal was to be red tracer fired vertically. Support arms (Captain Pene) were to be brigaded under the Brigade Transport Officer and each unit would call through Brigade Headquarters for them when required.
After lunch the CO and his officers left for an observation point to study the terrain, after which the plan for the attack was discussed.
The salient features of the Maori dispositions were: A Company (Major Porter) was on the right of the Maori front with the job of taking Djebel Bir, a round hill about 500 feet high and not precipitous except on the western side but known to be well defended. C Company (Captain Awarau) in the centre would advance through the 700-yard gap between Djebel Bir and the bottom of Takrouna to the road behind those two features, then exploit forwards for 200 yards to facilitate the deployment of 23 Battalion. It would have to cross country cut with small wadis and pass through two olive groves surrounded with cactus hedges. B Company (Captain Sorensen) would also pass through an olive grove before skirting Takrouna and, together with C Company, push through to the road. Two sections (Sergeant Rogers3 and Sergeant H. Manahi) would detach themselves and create a diversion in front of the steepest part of Takrouna. D Company (Captain Ornberg)4 would follow the assaulting companies until in a position to attack Takrouna from the more accessible rear.
The barrage opening line was 1400 yards in front of the start line and the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road approximately 1200 yards beyond the barrage opening line.page 293
The difficulty of keeping touch between companies moving by night over rough country was met by the detailing of reliable NCOs whose one task was to maintain contact. The provision of meals was also of major importance, for Maori morale during hard and protracted fighting was helped very materially by hot food and steaming tea. At Point 209 the men on Hikurangi had been provided with a hot meal with the enemy less than fifty yards away and it was to be the same at Takrouna.
Upon their return the officers gathered their men together and told them the whole story, thus ensuring that everybody knew his part in the coming battle. Then the Maoris prepared for the fight: rifles were given a final clean and oiled, automatics tested, ammunition cleaned and water-bottles filled. After last light the battalion was driven up to the Wadi el Boul; then, before going into action, the troops gathered behind a cactus hedge and were led in prayer by Padre Wanoa, after which the CO spoke briefly. He told them that the honour and good name of the battalion and of their people at home were once again in their hands. That night they had a definite duty to perform and, whatever the cost, they were to give of their best, not so much for themselves but for the battalion and the Maori race they had left behind. If every man pulled his weight they would come out of the action covered in further glory. Every man was expected to do his duty.
It was then time to move up to the start line two hundred yards or so in front of the Wadi el Moussa, but Lieutenant Wikiriwhi who was to guide the battalion had not returned from assisting the Brigade IO to put down the tapes. After waiting some time Colonel Bennett decided to lead the troops forward himself. The battalion was halted in a barley field forward of the wadi while the CO and Major Porter scouted ahead to try to find Wikiriwhi. They were not successful and A Company, leading the column, moved off again but soon discovered that C Company, immediately behind, was not following. A Company was again halted and runners sent back to locate the rest of the battalion, still lying in the barley and unaware that A Company had moved. Lieutenant Wikiriwhi arrived at this moment. The tape-laying had taken longer than was expected, but as a result of these delays the battalion was hardly deployed when the barrage opened.
A Company's plan was to advance with one platoon forward and two in support for a converging assault on Djebel Bir, but the platoons were not properly deployed before the barrage page 294 opened. The company got away slightly ahead of C Company and before contact had been made with 24 Battalion on the right. Major Porter sent two men to try to locate it, but they were not successful for the reason that 6 Brigade's start line was behind Wadi el Moussa. Porter was not aware of this and, concluding that 24 Battalion was ahead of him, he ordered A Company to advance at the double, but after covering half a mile and still not finding 24 Battalion he called a halt.
C Company came up after a while but the barrage was again far ahead, and when A Company moved forward it ran into the enemy's defensive fire and began to suffer casualties. The terrain became difficult, with wadis and trenches, but in spite of continuing casualties the company carried on until an east-west track in front of Djebel Bir was reached. Major Porter wrote:
It was right on this track and among the cactus that my Coy eventually came to grief—practically all my leading men including the remaining Platoon Commander were wounded simultaneously through land mines connected up with trip wires…. At this point with less than half a company I decided to get in touch with Bn Headquarters but it appeared that my wireless was the only one in operation. It was then that I decided to look around to see how many men were left in the Coy but as I walked only five yeards or so from the track a mortar shell with New Zealand marked on it for me fell too close to miss.
The loss of Major Porter completed the disorganisation of A Company. Some of the survivors attempted to carry on the attack but were finally halted at the foot of Djebel Bir. Corporal Cook5 organised a small party and removed all the wounded he could locate into shelter. He saved the lives of many men that night and earned the MM he later received.
C Company got away a few minutes late but made good progress as far as the first olive grove, where 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Haig) was delayed by one section having to hack a track through a cactus hedge. By the time it was reorganised enemy fire had driven the men to the shelter of a wadi. Lieutenant Haig wrote:
We struck a barbed wire barrier across the wadi on our left or the upper side. Presuming that this barrier would be page 295 placed thus in order to divert any attacking force—to bear right or move to the lower side of the wadi and thus bring it under more concentrated fire—I retraced my steps hastily and advanced to the left of barrier. Heading into wadi once again, I struck the rest of C Coy milling around without any officers. On being told that the other two officers, Capt W. M. Te Awarau and 2 Lt Tom Keelan had been hit and both were presumed dead, I then assumed command. The time would then be about half an hour after midnight.
While Lieutenant Haig is reorganising C Company we will follow the fortunes of B Company under Captain Sorensen. This company could see 21 Battalion at the start line but soon lost sight of it in the broken country. Enemy defensive fire was encountered about 500 yards on, but once the company got into the first olive grove the cactus hedge gave it some cover. It was while forcing a way through the hedge at the top of the grove that the company ran into trouble for the area was sown with trip-wired mines of the same nature as those in A Company's area. The explosions were the signal for the enemy machinegunners located among the large rocks strewn along the eastern base of Takrouna to cover the front between Takrouna and Djebel Bir with crossfire and B Company was brought to a standstill.
Meanwhile Colonel Bennett, following with his headquarters behind C Company, was nearing a white house situated between the two olive groves when he realised that B Company was held up. He sent Lieutenant Wikiriwhi to investigate, and when he returned with the information that it was pinned down he was sent back with orders for Captain Sorensen to bypass the opposition and join C Company. The CO hurried forward to hold C Company until the junction was effected and found it in the wadi and on the point of following Lieutenant Haig, who had already moved off. Bennett ordered Sergeant Kaua,6 whom Haig had put in charge of the rest of the company, to stay where he was, and Haig accordingly soon found himself with only three men. He left them in a slit trench near the track where A Company had been stopped and returned to find out why the others were not following.
He was met by some men of 23 Battalion making a vociferous advance towards their uncaptured start line and waited for the arrival of B Company.page 296
In the meantime the CO, determined to straighten his line, had returned to B Company to accelerate its advance—all contact with A Company had long been lost—and found it still under very heavy fire from the slopes of Takrouna. He sent back instructions to the three three tanks attached to the battalion to turn their guns on Takrouna and ordered Captain Sorensen to leave a party of men with automatics to engage the enemy while the others pushed on and linked up with C Company. Colonel Bennett then left again for C Company to co-ordinate the movements of the two companies but, accepting the risk of stepping over a trip-wire, he exploded a wooden box mine and was severely wounded.
Captain Sorensen got his men another 300 yards around the south-eastern toe of Takrouna before he was wounded and Lieutenant E. Morgan took command, with 10 Platoon commanded by Sergeant J. Rogers, 11 Platoon by Second-Lieutenant Anaru,7 and 12 Platoon by Sergeant Trainor.8 Originally 10 Platoon was to have detailed two sections to make the feint attack on the south face of Takrouna and Rogers left with all the men he could muster to carry out the task.
It was now about 2 a.m., the objective over half a mile away, and the barrage for Phase I was completed. B Company made another start and when, soon afterwards, Lieutenant Morgan was wounded, the two sergeants carried on independently. No. 11 Platoon, farthest from Takrouna, missed C Company and reached the road under fire from high ground ahead. Sergeant Trainor could muster only nine men and in front of him were machine guns covering two 75-millimetre guns. He led his party straight at the pocket, silencing the guns and taking twenty-seven Germans prisoner. He was awarded an MM for the exploit. Half an hour later 12 Platoon was also up to the road.
We must leave B Company with a handful of men on the road, and Sergeant Rogers with his party sheltering in a wadi below Takrouna, and follow the fortunes of D Company. This company's starting time was zero hour plus ten minutes, and its tasks were to mop up behind the assault troops and then attack Takrouna from the rear. It soon caught up with B Company and halted. Mortar fire was particularly heavy, and included the noisy detonations of the new enemy weapon, the six-barrelled nebelwerfer. Battalion Headquarters, which was page 297 moving with the company, was completely disorganised and the Adjutant (Captain Te Punga) was wounded. Captain Ornberg was unable to get any accurate information as to the whereabouts of A and C Companies but gathered from stretcher-bearers that things had gone badly with them. He knew that Captain Sorensen had been evacuated and B Company halted and that Te Punga was wounded; and, suspecting that the CO was also a casualty, he conferred with his platoon commanders and decided that it was time to throw the reserve into the fight.
This is how Lieutenant Lambert9 (18 Platoon) describes what followed:
We advanced across knee high barley crops among which were innumerable ‘box’ mines which we had not encountered before and which one man thought was a suit case. The mines were lying on top of the ground or only partly covered by earth. We hacked our way through three cactus hedges which we did not realise we could by-pass. By this time the moon was up and by dint of careful searching we were able to locate barbed wire which warned us of ‘minen’. The enemy was still firing from Takrouna and the feature on our right. We encountered no troops however. As the enemy was using tracer we were able to avoid the criss cross fire of his machine guns—mortar and shell fire was intermittent. We did not return the enemy's fire but we felt sure he was aware of our presence because his bullets always seemed to be aimed at us.
After we had sheltered for a while in a small cemetery which appeared particularly eerie by moonlight and circumstance, we proceeded in a general northerly direction. It was while we were making our way along another cacuts hedge that Capt Ornberg received a wound in the leg from a piece of 20 mm flack shrapnel, which gun was firing from the slopes of Takrouna. It was a flesh wound low in the calf and Capt Ornberg was much handicapped in his walking but, being the soldier he was, would not dream of retiring.
Eventually, not long before first light we crossed the road and made our way into the deep wadi which ran more or less parallel to it. Once here we were able to take stock of our position. Ahead of us was our objective; from it was coming small arms fire and a medley of English and German voices. These mixed sounds had us guessing. We heard someone page 298 calling to ‘Monty’ and for a time supposed that some of our own Bn were there with 2 Lt Monty Wikiriwhi who was Bn IO. Later we found out that it was Lt Montgomery10 of 23 Bn. (16 Pl, Lt Smith, cleaned up such enemy as were in the immediate vicinity and 18 Pl was sent to make contact with whoever was in front of the Company.) Sergt Weepu11 who was my platoon Sgt and I located some of 23 Bn including Lt ‘Sandy’ Slee12 and his platoon digging in on the ridge of the objective. From these men we learned that Major ‘Sandy’ Thomas who was temporarily in command of 23 Bn was down below. As Capt Ornberg was in no condition to move quickly and as it was just on first light I made my way over to Major Thomas. Major Thomas was pleased to know we were there and I remember that he called out to Lt Slee that he was sending forty Maoris up to give him a hand and we were greatly surprised to hear a German voice say in English ‘Let the bloody black bastards come.’
Before I left Major Thomas the enemy was firing vigorously from the direction of the final objective and as we feared a counter attack I doubled back post haste to D Coy in order to get them settled before daylight really came.
The 23rd, like 28 Battalion, had been disorganised by the broken ground, the cactus, and the heavy fire. Only about one company in strength had got up and the men were consolidating in front of the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road. The Maoris were incorporated in an all-round defensive position sited on the south-east of Cherachir facing Takrouna and Djebel Bir. The majority of 23 Battalion arrived before dawn and were fitted in to the perimeter.
The brigade position, then, was that 21 Battalion, on the left of Takrouna, had been withdrawn after fierce fighting and heavy losses, for; with Takrouna still held by the enemy, its position would have been untenable in daylight; the greater part of 23 Battalion's rifle companies, plus D Company and what remained of 11 and 12 Platoons of B Company 28 Battalion, were virtually surrounded and waiting a counter-attack; page 299 and there was no contact with Brigade Headquarters which had no clear picture of the confused battle.
The only firm report from 28 Battalion had been a wireless message that the CO and all the company commanders, the Adjutant, and the RSM were wounded; this was added to by a message from the Advanced Dressing Station that eleven Maori officers were there wounded. Unless Takrouna was captured, the battle, as far as 5 Brigade was concerned, was lost, for with enemy observation from that feature our guns could not stay on the open plain in daylight.
Something had to be done to retrieve the position.
Normally I should have gone forward at daylight; but the situation was so confused and uncertain that I thought I might be more useful at headquarters for a while. The guns were still out on the plain under direct observation from Takrouna and I started to work out a plan to storm the hill with the reorganized Twenty-first from the area occupied by the Maoris. But there was no need. At 8 a.m. we saw, to our relief and delight, a stream of prisoners coming down from the pinnacle, about 150 of them.13
To explain this most unexpected spectacle we must return to 10 Platoon which we left at 2 a.m.
Sergeant Rogers gathered his men in a little hollow preparatory to creating the diversion that would assist D Company to attack Takrouna from the rear. He found that he had ten men including himself and divided them into two parties: one he commanded and the other was under Sergeant Manahi,14 but before the operation began he received reinforcements—Sergeant W. J. Smith15 of 23 Battalion and Private Takurua16 from D Company, both of whom had lost their companies and had attached themselves to his party.
Sergeant Rogers had with him (as far as can be traced) Lance-Corporal H. Ruha,17 Privates E. Douglas,18 J. Douglas,19 W. page 300 Ratahi20 and Takurua, and the pakeha Sergeant Smith,21 while Manahi's ‘force’ consisted of Privates H. Grant,22 J. Ingram,23 K. Aranui24 and J. Takiwa.25
It was agreed to separate and attack from two directions, Rogers from the right and Manahi from the left; or, more precisely, from the east and south-west. Almost as soon as they showed themselves a green flare from the enemy position brought a shower of mortar bombs, but the Maoris dashed from rock to rock strewed on the base of the hill and grenaded, bayoneted, and shot their way through the system of defensive pits in front of Takrouna until they were above and behind the enemy.
By this time dawn was breaking and the shooting was good; three tiers of rifle pits stretched from the 21 Battalion area to a bulge on the eastern side of the feature and the occupants were sitting shots for the Maoris behind them. White flags began to flutter and Manahi sent Hinga Grant down to expedite the surrender. He rounded up sixty Italians and escorted them away from the war.
This is Private Takurua's version of the action in a letter to his mother:
just day Break I could see straight up the Pinicell [Pinnacle] about 600 feet from the foot of the hill to the top Well the time is now getting on to about 0700 hrs in the morning when a voice call out is their any volunteer I call out Yes Ill be one this sargent was from B Coy Sargeant Roger and one Pakeha sargeant of the 23rd and three other men I was the fourth one. I jump up from where I was waiting and went up with Sargeant Roger and Sargeant Smith and the four of us men. mortar shell Where Dropping about 50 yards at the Back of us while we where climbing up the Hill I look back down the Hill their was some of our Comrade where coming up to Join us we are now between nine and twelve as we where going up the Hill same time calling out page 301 from behind cover surrender New Zealander you Burstards surrender they have heard this famous name New Zealander well it was quite enough for them they came down from where their machine guns where looking down at us With their hands up calling comarade commarade capture 30 to 40 of them they where Hities and german some of our boys where mopping up around the side of the Hill Takrouna they took charge of the Prisoners that surrendered to our party.
Aranui and Smith had by now joined forces and kept on climbing until they reached a steep rock face that was too perpendicular to climb, but a bunch of telephone wires running to the now surrendered pits below suggested a method of scaling the face. They went hand over hand up the wires to the base of a stone wall, but the wire still led upward and upward went the pair to the top of the wall. They looked down into a small courtyard where a single German soldier was busily operating a wireless set. Aranui dropped in on him and Smith collected an officer dictating from a room opening off the courtyard, where he had been observing from a window that commanded the front. Manahi and Rogers also reached the rock face with their men and followed around seeking some way up. They eventually came to a section that was climbable and found themselves on a narrow ledge covered in stone Berber buildings. They also found Smith and his prisoner having a quiet smoke. It had all depended upon who reinforced first as to who was prisoner of whom.
While the new garrison of the top of Takrouna was taking stock, Sergeant Smith caught sight of an Italian departing with some speed and gave chase. The Italian had the benefit of local knowledge and eluded him, but Smith carried on up a flight of stone steps to a higher and wider part of the summit. There was no enemy about, so he went on to the north side and saw that there was a sheer drop down to the village of Takrouna that should have been captured by then—and wasn't.
It will make the next few hours clearer if the geography of the limestone outcrop known as Takrouna is described in some detail. The top, about half a mile in length, was on three different levels and shaped roughly like a crescent; the ledge on top of the rock face facing south, which the Maoris first gained, will be called the ledge; the part where Smith chased the Italian and lost him is the central and highest part and will be called page 302 the pinnacle; stone buildings covered both ledge and pinnacle, and there was also a small mosque built on the south-eastern corner of the pinnacle which was in the nature of a rock keep with four steep sides.
A flight of rough-hewn steps connected the two levels near the mosque and, in addition, a track started at the same place and worked along the bottom of the drop below the mosque on its western side to the third portion of the crescent. Other methods of arriving and departing from this robbers' nest were rope ladders from the mosque to the steps below and a tunnel from the floor of the mosque to the same steps.
We have accounted for three of the four steep sides of Takrouna keep—the fourth, connected by the steps referred to, we will call the village because it was a stew of hovels on the western end of the crescent, separated from the pinnacle by a sheer rock wall and sprawled down the shoulder to another and larger group of buildings near the road—the actual village of Takrouna. So now we have four areas—the narrow ledge connected to the pinnacle by a set of steps and to the village by a longer set of steps on a lower level; the pinnacle, virtually inaccessible on all four sides; the village with no apparent access to the pinnacle; and Takrouna village.
Rogers and Manahi decided that the best way to defend the pinnacle was to block all access from the village, which was full of Italians quite unaware that the top of Takrouna no longer belonged to their side—at least they were unaware and moving about freely until Rogers took time off for a little snap-shooting.
A rock was put over the mouth of the tunnel and Manahi covered the steps from the south-eastern side of the pinnacle; the others were placed overlooking the village. A handful of B and D Company men filtered up the hill and were incorporated into the defence scheme, as was a section of B Company 23 Battalion which had strayed from its unit. With Takrouna's tiny garrison thus organised, we will leave them for the moment and take up the story of the rest of the battalion and, more generally, of the whole operation.
Lieutenant Wikiriwhi, after failing to locate Colonel Bennett upon his return from B Company, went back to Battalion Headquarters. He found it completely disorganised and the RSM and Adjutant wounded. At first light the tanks that were to have gone forward with the infantry, but which had lost touch and withdrawn, began on brigade orders to go to the assistance of page 303 23 Battalion, and Lieutenant Wikiriwhi, carrying out the threefold duties of Intelligence Officer, Adjutant and Commanding Officer, went up to locate the Maoris. He had seen enemy dug in on northern slopes of Djebel Bir (A Company was dug in on the southern side) and he suggested to Private Heka26 of A Company who appeared from somewhere that under protection from the tanks attached to the battalion he should take a closer look at the rear of Djebel Bir. Heka was willing and Wikiriwhi went back to the tanks with his suggestion, which was acted upon immediately. When the tanks began to fire Heka moved up Djebel Bir single-handed and saw an anti-tankgun post which surrendered to him after he had killed the commander. Then three machine-gun posts attracted his attention, all of which he put out of action. He returned with fourteen prisoners and was awarded a DCM for the operation. D Company 28 Battalion and sections of 23 Battalion firing back from their positions on Djebel Cherachir completed the clearance of A Company's objective.
Wikiriwhi then met Haig, who said that he had been searching for C Company men and that those he had found were securely dug in. Captain Awarau had also been found and before being evacuated had instructed Haig to carry on and get to the objective if at all possible. Stretcher-bearers had given Haig the impression that most of the officers were out of action and, with the intention of organising a daylight advance, he had sent runners to find the other companies. Wikiriwhi suggested that Haig stay where he was while he (Wikiriwhi) reported back to 5 Brigade Headquarters for instructions. He arrived shortly before 8 a.m. and gave the first firm information about the battalion. Little was known at headquarters about 23 Battalion at the time, and Wikiriwhi27 was instructed to reorganise his battalion on a line running from the south of Takrouna to A Company on Djebel Bir.
It will be remembered that Brigadier Kippenberger was at the time contemplating an attack by 21 Battalion on Takrouna, still, as far as was known, held by the enemy, and Wikiriwhi's mission was to prepare a second line of defence in case 23 Battalion was bypassed or overrun.
The Maoris were in point of fact already roughly on the line ordered by the Brigadier, and as the whole area was being page 304 continually shelled by the enemy little more could be done than to discover the company positions and instruct the men to stay where they were until nightfall, when they were to return to Battalion Headquarters at the south-eastern corner of the olive grove. Instructions were sent by Brigade to B Echelon for Captain Pene, senior surviving officer, to take temporary command of the battalion and for Lieutenant Wordley and Captain Hayward to come up and command A and B Companies—Lieutenant Jackson had already arrived and was in command of C Company.
While the battalion passes an uneasy day under fire and 23 Battalion improves its position against counter-attack and support arms finally succeed in getting forward, Takrouna must claim our attention again.
When the enemy realised that his observation post on Takrouna was lost, both the pinnacle and the ledge were subjected to fire of all types. It was kept up almost continuously during the day, and the events which follow must be pictured as occurring under a constant deluge of mortar and other shells. All the garrison found targets in Takrouna village and viciniy; Private Takurua found an enemy 2-inch mortar and six bombs which he delivered to the village, and Corporal Ruha, ensconced on the cupola of the mosque, picked out two of our captured 25-pounders and with his rifle prevented them not only from firing but also from being withdrawn to a safer position.
Casualties, however, were mounting. Privates Ingram, Ratahi, and Moore28 were all killed by one shell, and soon afterwards another killed Sergeant Rogers and Private E. Douglas and wounded his brother, J. Douglas. The last was also killed later in the fighting.
There was still no communication with 5 Brigade Headquarters so, with a vital section of the defence now almost unmanned, Sergeant Manahi decided to go down and collect some reinforcements and chance the enemy attacking in the meantime. Had they done so Takrouna would have probably been retaken.
Manahi managed to contact Lieutenant Haig and, having obtained a section of riflemen, stretcher-bearers, food and ammunition, he led them back to the smoke and dust-cloud that enveloped Takrouna. On the way he met an officer from a medium artillery regiment who had been up Takrouna and page 305 who told Manahi that it was not possible to hold the position. The place was going to be ‘stonked’ with everything that could be brought to bear prior to another attack, the artillery officer said, and Manahi should go back to his unit.
Manahi was not convinced and carried on. It was a fortunate decision for at the foot of the hill he met Captain Catchpole29 (5 Field Regiment) with later information that the intended artillery concentration had been cancelled. Reinforcements were on the way and the hill was to be held at all costs. Manahi climbed Takrouna, placed the new men, and delivered the kai to the others. About 3.30 in the afternoon Lieutenant Shaw30 scrambled on to the ledge at the head of 15 Platoon 21 Battalion. They were the promised reinforcements and Shaw was to take command. He was being shown around the position by Manahi and part of 15 Platoon was still clambering on to the ledge when a counter-attack came in.
There was a pause in the preliminary mortaring and Manahi raced for his position at the head of the track. His intuition was correct for twelve truckloads of Italians had divided into two parties and were attacking from the north-west corner of the ledge.
The Italians made a really determined effort to climb the track but Manahi and Corporal Bell31 mowed them down with their automatics. The second party forced its way on to the ledge and there was some close-quarter fighting in the alleys between the huts. The Italians lobbed a grenade into a building where the wounded were gathered; it is not suggested that they knew the men were wounded, but the grenade killed most of them. The Maori reaction was ferocious and Italians, whether they wanted to surrender or not, were shot, bayoneted, or thrown over the cliff.
No. 15 Platoon of 21 Battalion had been caught at a disadvantage but enough of the men got into the fight to make a material contribution before a few more Maoris led by Captain Muirhead,32 a 5 Field Regiment officer who had been on the pinnacle when the attack started, turned the scales by a counterattack from above. The last of the enemy fled, taking three page 306 Maori prisoners with them, and by 7 p.m. everything was quiet on Takrouna; Lieutenant Shaw had taken over and Manahi was leading his men down to a well-earned rest.
The divisional position at this stage was that 6 Brigade, which had taken all its objectives in the initial attack, was reorganised and firmly settled; on 5 Brigade's front there had been no material alteration during the day except that communications had been established. The enemy held the western approaches to Takrouna and the hill itself—with the exception of the ledge and pinnacle. On the Division's right 201 Guards Brigade was settled in around Enfidaville and in touch with 6 Brigade; on the left 4 Indian Division held on to the ground it had won. Tenth Corps' orders were: ‘Hold and prepare for the future.’
By first light on the 21st 28 Battalion had been withdrawn to the vicinity of the south-east corner of the olive grove, 25 Battalion (transferred from 6 Brigade) had relieved 23 Battalion—and the Italians were in possession of the pinnacle.
Another platoon from 21 Battalion (14 Platoon of C Company under Lieutenant Hirst33) had reinforced 15 Platoon and had very much the same experience as Shaw's men—they had scarcely got settled in when they were taken by surprise. The attack on the ledge was repulsed after some sharp fighting, but to the consternation of the garrison a shower of grenades from the pinnacle was bursting between the buildings. Every possible approach to the pinnacle was covered and it was quite impossible for the enemy to be there, but the bursting grendes were no figments of the imagination. The fight for the top of Takrouna developed into a stalemate—neither side could shift the other. There was telephone communication to Headquarters 5 Brigade by this time—the line was frequently cut by traffic or shellfire but the Divisional Signals linesmen just as often repaired the break—and when Headquarters 5 Brigade was apprised of the situation a message was sent to Captain Pene for reinforcements. It was particularly requested that Sergeant Manahi be one of the party on account of his local knowledge. Captain Pene wakened him and told him the position on Takrouna.
Rather than risk the lives of those who had already been on Takrouna Manahi selected new volunteers, eight from B Company and four headed by Sergeant Ihaia Weepu from D page 307 Company, loaded up with ammunition, and went back to the ledge.
Lieutenant Hirst (Lieutenant Shaw had been wounded during the fighting) discussed with Manahi the problem of ousting the enemy from the pinnacle, and as a first step Manahi decided to use the battalion 3-inch mortars to blast the mosque and other buildings sheltering the intruders. The mortar platoon (Lieutenant G. Katene) was keen to help but the range was too great and the bombs fell short. A 2-inch mortar on Takrouna itself was tried next and two cases of bombs were fired by Manahi and Weepu with the mortar barrel held vertically like a howitzer, but the range this time was too short. A third method of softening the position was suggested by Captain Harding,34 Forward Observation Officer, 5 Field Regiment, who had arrived by this time, and after some hesitation owing to the small margin of error—about 50 yards—he was asked to go ahead.
The FOO got a 25-pounder from E Troop 28 Battery, at about 8000 yards, to range its shells up the side of the hill a few yards at a time. It took fifty rounds to bring the gun on to the target but the last three were dead on.
Meanwhile three assaulting parties had been detailed: one of seven Maoris led by Manahi, one of seven pakehas led by Lance-Corporal Worthington35 of 21 Battalion, and one of twelve Maoris and some 21 Battalion men led by Sergeant Weepu. The first two rushed the mosque and the third covered the pinnacle, but the enemy had left as mysteriously as he had arrived.
Enemy mortar reaction was immediate and there were more casualties, but by this time the artillery FOOs had both observation and communication with their guns; one by one the mortars were silenced and the Italians made to realise that this time Takrouna was definitely lost.
Takrouna village itself was so situated that the field guns could not get at it so one of the new 17-pounder anti-tank guns, hitherto kept in the background, was brought up into action by Major Fairbrother while the Brigadier was with the forward troops. Sergeant Manahi had decided that he had been a target long enough, so when the solid shots were ripping through the page 308 stone buildings and creating confusion and despondency among the enemy hidden there, he collected a couple of other Maoris and went out on a private reconnaissance. He patrolled north-west towards the two captured 25-pounders that Corporal Ruha had dealt with the previous day and which had not been removed during the night. There several posts were stalked and captured and Manahi felt better.
Corporal Horne,36 probably actuated by the same feelings as Manahi, collected seven other Maoris, slipped quietly away from the ledge, and made unobtrusively towards Takrouna village. At the same time Lieutenant Hirst, who had just returned from a reconnaissance which Brigade had ordered him to make preparatory to a night attack on the village, took Worthington and four of his men down the western slopes to the rear of the village. With Maoris in front and pakehas behind them, the enemy capitulated smartly and eighteen Italian officers, five German other ranks, and 300 Italians were marched away. The enemy were from I Battalion 66 Infantry Regiment, Trieste Division, and from the Folgore Division, two companies of which had reinforced the garrison, and were by general consent the best fighting Italians the Maoris had met.
The whole of the Takrouna feature was at last in our hands and 21 Battalion was sent to hold it. While he awaited the arrival of the rest of the composite company made up from A and B Companies of 21 Battalion, Lieutenant Hirst occupied enemy pits sited to oppose an attack from the north, and incidentally the direction from which D Company would have attacked had the original operation gone according to plan.
With Takrouna safely held there remained one more task for Sergeant Manahi to supervise. As soon as darkness fell the dead lying on the pinnacle and ledge were wrapped in blankets and lowered by ropes down the rocky cliff face and laid to rest in a specially dedicated plot. Of the 17 officers and 302 other ranks who had taken part in the action, 12 officers and 104 other ranks were killed, wounded, or missing; 21 Battalion suffered 171 casualties and 23 Battalion 116.
The GOC sent the following message to Brigadier Kippenberger: ‘Please accept and convey to your brigade my congratulations for their magnificent efforts in the initial attack on Takrouna and in the action today which resulted in the capture of Takrouna village.’page 309
The following broadcast account of the battle for the Takrouna pinnacle was given over the Italian radio on 30 April 1943:
A previous report has revealed the heroic conduct of our garrison of the Rock of Takrouna which was organised by the Command of the First Army as a defensive stronghold. One battalion of the 66th Infantry Regiment (Trieste Division), a section of the 202nd Gruppe and one German antitank platoon of twenty men were sent to garrison the Rock of Takrouna. These heroes were presented with an Italian and a German flag so that the symbols of the fatherland should be present.
In the early hours of the night, British artillery laid down its barrage. After a concentrated barrage the New Zealand and Maori troops advanced flanked by tanks which acted as mobile artillery in order violently to pave the way for the assault formations. The New Zealanders, despite the gaps caused in their ranks by our accurate fire, went into the attack on the slopes of the hill. But our infantry sprang upon them and stopped them with hand grenades. They were seen to be rushing amidst the smoke with drawn knives. The defence of the hill of Takrouna gave rise to countless incidents of heroism.
The struggle continued without respite, without breathing space for the whole night. By the morning the enemy had succeeded in penetrating the streets of the village. This enemy thrust threatened our garrison and a company of Grenadiers was sent in support. The enemy attackers were clinging to the hillside but the Grenadiers succeeded in joining the garrison.
In the early hours of the afternoon two companies of a battalion of the Folgore Division also succeeded in reaching the position and in lending their help in a new counter attack which completely restored the situation. But the British Command did not spare its forces in order to break through the Rock of Takrouna where the battle was raging most furiously. Detachments of the 50th English Division were sent to reinforce the New Zealand Division but these attacks were in vain. Our artillery laid down a concentrated fire, and broke up every offensive attempt, dispersing the enemy masses which were attacking in waves. One of the most terrible artillery duels ever registered in North Africa then flared up. The enemy intended literally to submerge page 310 under an avalanche of steel and fire the garrison of Takrouna. The struggle reached the pitch of unprecedented violence. The next day the BBC said that the hill had been defended foot by foot.
The enemy impressed by the reaction of our artillery, hesitated, but the British artillery did not cease for a minute. At 1700 hrs. the communications to the garrison were broken when the radio operator collapsed over his machine, struck by splinters. Right until the second night the battle was continued by our men who, barricaded among the smoking remains of the village and entrenched behind natural cover, continued strenuously to defend the flags as they had promised.
When the day of the 23rd broke and the enemy was able to set foot in the position, he found nothing but dead and wounded. The victor, exhausted by the bitterness of the battle and by the terrible losses inflicted by vastly inferior forces, was obliged to call a halt, to take refuge in trenches and to cover himself with camouflage netting for fear of further attacks from troops who were fighting until the last breath of life.
The truly lion-hearted courage of our infantry made a deep impression on others besides the New Zealanders, the Maoris and the British of the 50th Division. Even the BBC commentators noted for their blindness to Italian heroism had to recognise the indomitable valour of our soldiers. The Germans of the anti-tank detachment fought in this battle for life and death, firing until the last cartridge and performing deeds of great valour.
From the heroic defenders of Takrouna a chaplain, Don Giuseppe Maccariella, a sergeant and a few soldiers managed to return to our lines. The behaviour of all these valorous men was sublime. This is evident from the story of the priest who ran from spot to spot administering the last rites to the dying and from the statements of the soldiers. Takrouna will constitute an indelible page of the exceptional valour of our soldiers in the immense battle of Africa and the heroes of this epic resistance will forever remain engraved in the hearts of the Italians, from Capt. Politi, the commander of the battalion who with his senior assistant, Capt. Lirer, personally led the remaining soldiers in the counter-attack, to Capt. Giacomini, to Diletti, 2 Lieut of the grenadiers, that soldier who found the strength to joke about his wound by saying, page 311 ‘If I lose this leg I shall save in shoe leather’, to Cpl. Sessa who alone faced four New Zealand soldiers with his rifle killing one and putting the others to flight, to Sgt. Bressaniniche who, although wounded wrote with his own blood upon a scrap of paper, ‘Long live the King! Long live Italy! God save Italy!’ and then died clutching his rifle. This is the temper of which the defenders of Takrouna were made. It is the temper shown by the soldiers of Italy every day in the violence of the battle of Tunisia.
The Maoris were relieved the next night, 23–24 April, by a battalion of Seaforth Highlanders from 51 (Highland) Division, and Major Keiha, who had arrived and taken over from Captain Pene, led his depleted command to the 5 Brigade bivouac area.
The rest of April was spent in rest and reorganisation while 10 Corps, following the policy of ‘peaceful penetration’, felt and probed around the enemy positions. Not that the offensive had slackened; further west and north British and American armies were driving towards Tunis while the Eighth Army, which had come so far and fought so hard, was relegated to the role of exerting pressure and pinning down as many troops as possible away from the vital area.
The men were made as comfortable as possible; hot showers were available, and organised swimming parties went daily to the beach at Hergla where 5 Brigade's band played morning and afternoon; the ‘left out of battle’ group returned to the unit with fifty-six reinforcements from Base under command of Captain Henare, thereby largely replacing the causalties of Takrouna.
May was ushered in with a two-hour route march, which to the knowing indicated that the rest period was coming to an end. Two days later the brigade moved back about 15 miles into an olive grove for at least another fortnight's rest—and within two hours was just as busy packing up again as it had been unpacking. It was going back into the line on the right of the French 19 Corps, where the New Zealand Division was to prevent the enemy from withdrawing troops from that front and be ready to go forward should the French attack be successful.
The Maoris left early the next morning and by dusk were deployed in brigade reserve south of the Saouaf-Pont du Fahs road in the Djebibina area, about 15 miles west of Takrouna. It was a nice locality, with plenty of shelter and comfortably page 312 beyond the range of the enemy gunners, who did not appear to be unduly dispirited by the continuous advance of the Allied forces in the north. They stayed there until the 6th while the forward battalions carried on an energetic policy of peaceful penetration. Very little was known about the enemy dispositions except that he was in the hills north of the Saouaf-Pont du Fahs road and had mined every road, track, and other suitable area in the locality.
The line had been pushed forward some miles by patrolling, by pinching out isolated points that gave the enemy observation, and by other similar tactics without bumping into anything solid, and a very little more of the same would make the whole of the Djebel Garci feature untenable.
Bizerta and Tunis fell on the 7th and the only enemy problem left was how to stage a second Dunkirk without being involved in Allied naval operations. That was a problem for the enemy generals—there was still plenty of fight left in the rank and file.
Lieutenant-Colonel Keiha had been instructed that 28 Battalion would be taking part in the operations set down for the night 7–8 May. Two small hills in front of 23 Battalion were to be taken, while 21 Battalion on the left had similar objectives.
D Company (Captain Matehaere) was detailed to capture Point 212 and A Company (Captain Henare) was to take Point 237, about three-quarters of a mile to the right of 21 Battalion's objective. The 23rd Battalion would support with two companies and artillery concentrations would soften up the objectives. After the assault A Company would tie in with B Company 21 Battalion under Captain Roach.
The troops prepared during a day that threatened rain, and besides loading up with 100 rounds of ammunition each man filled his pockets with grenades, fastened a pick or shovel to his person, and carried a greatcoat and a day's rations. The greatcoat was a sound precaution for the threat of bad weather developed into a drizzle, then to heavy rain with thunder, lightning, and wind at gale force—one of the dirtiest nights experienced in the African campaigns.
D Company had great difficulty because of the night and the terrain in keeping direction, but once into a wadi the objective could be seen against the skyline and disclosed itself as two distinct peaks. Captain Matehaere set a platoon against each peak, held one in reserve and, supported by automatics and the company 2-inch mortars, rushed the positions. Many of the page 313 crews of four machine guns and a mortar were killed and the rest captured.
Captain Henare had intended to attack Point 237 from a flank but at the start line decided that the danger of missing the objective altogether in the rain was too great. He consequently altered his tactics and advanced frontally with two platoons up and one in reserve. En route several snipers and enemy pockets were overrun, but when the top was gained the enemy had departed. So far there had been no losses, but a patrol sent towards 21 Battalion ran into another enemy position and suffered three casualties, one fatal, before returning to Point 237. A half-hearted counter-attack was turned back with grenades and the company consolidated.
When daylight came A Company's position was not good; from the north it was overlooked by another and higher ridge, the eastern flank was open, and there were enemy hidden in the scrub between it and 21 Battalion. The troops were pinned down all day by extremely heavy shelling and suffered ten more casualties, five fatal, before darkness. D Company was not so solidly punished and could move. The supporting artillery fired continual ‘stonks’ and concentrations. Perhaps the Germans did not know their days of active service were numbered; perhaps they wanted to use up as much ammunition as possible before the end was inevitable; perhaps they were good soldiers fighting until they were told to stop?
The night, when it came, brought no relief. If anything the contrary, for the enemy continued to throw everything he possessed into the 23 and 28 Battalion areas. Nebelwerfers, firing four at a time, each sent their six bombs screaming inwards; 88- and 210-millimetre guns fired haphazardly all night, happily without finding targets.
A Company had been out of communication all day owing to the telephone cable being cut and the No. 18 set operator not being able to raise Battalion Headquarters. The wire was mended at last light and Captain Henare reported that the enemy was infiltrating between him and 21 Battalion. Repeated artillery ‘stonks’ failed to stop the movement and he asked for another platoon and some mortars to reinforce his position. Before this could be done further reports suggested that the enemy was working around the company from the other flank so, with most of his Bren-gunners casualties, Henare decided to pull his company back on 23 Battalion. This was effected without further loss and the company fitted in between D Company page 314 and A Company 23 Battalion. The next day (9 May) was quieter although far from placid. A Company was in poor shape after its ordeal by rain, cold, and enemy action, but D Company in the Maoris' last fight in North Africa was very much on top. Two patrols surprised and took fifty prisoners, some machine guns, and a mortar while they were probing in the wadis on the northern slopes of Point 212.
During the night the battalion was relieved by a French formation, and back at B Echelon A and D Companies found dry blankets and the first rest for forty-eight hours. Fifth Brigade moved back to the coast the next day, 10 May. The Maoris had fired their last shots in North Africa and the enemy was surrounded but still fighting, although an invitation had been sent to him to surrender and save useless bloodshed.
The troops were settled in by midday and in the evening each man in the battalion received a gift of £1 donated by the folks at home. That night fires and demolitions were reported behind the enemy front.
The 11th was a day of swimming at Hergla beach for some and of showers at the Mobile Shower Unit for the others; Colonel Keiha returned from the brigade conference with the news that 2 NZ Division would be returning to the Delta in a few days; 10,000 troops from 21 Panzer Division arranged to surrender the next morning, and that evening pictures were shown in the Maoris' area—the main feature was entitled ‘Something to Sing About.’ By the end of the next day only the Italian First Army was under arms, and at a quarter to twelve on Thursday, 13 May, Field-Marshal Messe surrendered unconditionally. Three hours later 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.page break
Returning through the Marble Arch between Tripolitania and Cyrenaica
Marching in Cairo on the United Nations' Day parade, 1943
Awaiting embarkation at Alexandria for Italy —
Chaplain W. Te T. Huata on right
Arrival at Taranto
28 Battalion moving across the Sangro
The approach to Orsogna
Major J.C. Reedy, Captain R. Tutaki, Lieutenant-Colonel R.R.T. Young, 2 Lieutenant M. Raureti, Captain G. Marsden, February 1944
The bombing of the Monastery at Cassino, as seen from the bank of the Rapido River, 15 February
The attack on the Railway Station, Cassino, from outside the RAP. Smoke has been put down to give cover
Ready to advance into Cassino — 2 Lieutenant W.S.L. McRae in the foreground
Route 6, about a mile from Cassino — a portee, two jeeps, and an anti-tank gun burnt out
From the RAP in the entrance to the crypt at Cassino
Preparing for a hangi at Isernia
Battalion Headquarters before the entrance into Florence
The final objective on the way to Florence
Bren carriers beyond Rimini
Ready to move in the Faenza sector
Moving into the line on the Senio
Fusing hand grenades, Faenza
The start line for the Senio assault
Signaller and stretcher-bearer at the Senio
Route march, Trieste, July 1945
1NZ Corps was disbanded on 31 March.
22 Lt W. T. Keelan; Gisborne; born NZ 4 Dec 1914; labourer; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
3Sgt J. Rogers; born NZ 29 Dec 1916; school-teacher; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.
4Capt P. F. Te H. Ornberg, MC, m.i.d.; born NZ 2 Apr 1919; clerk; wounded 20 Apr 1943; died of wounds 30 May 1944.
5L-Sgt N. B. Cook, MM; Kerikeri; born Kerikeri, 23 Feb 1919; labourer; wounded 4 Sep 1942.
6WO II T. T. Kaua; Tikitiki; born Tehoro, Gisborne; 21 Jun 1917; labourer; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
7Maj W. P. Anaru; Rotorua; born NZ 27 Feb 1905; civil servant; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
8Sgt T. Trainor, MM; born Ruatoki, 15 Feb 1919; carpenter; died of wounds 24 May 1944.
9Maj H. C. A. Lambert, MC; Auckland; born NZ 14 Jun 1914; clerk; wounded 28 May 1944.
10Maj H. Montgomery; Ashburton; born Carmunnock, Scotland, 25 May 1907; school-teacher.
11WO II I. Weepu, MM; Wellington; born NZ 19 Dec 1910; labourer; twice wounded.
12Maj C. A. Slee, m.i.d.; born Westport; clerk; died of wounds 5 Apr 1944.
13Major-General Sir H. Kippenberger, Infantry Brigadier,p. 308.
14Manahi was awarded the DCM for his part in this action.
152 Lt W. J. Smith, DCM; Lower Hutt; born Timaru, 24 Sep 1917; labourer; wounded 26 May 1941.
16Pte W. Takurua; Wellington; born Picton, 24 Feb 1908; labourer.
17L-Sgt H. Ruha, MM; born NZ 12 Jul 1919; bushman; wounded 21 Apr 1943; died of wounds 27 Mar 1944.
18Pte E. Douglas; born Ngongotaha, 9 Sep 1917; labourer; wounded 11 Dec 1941; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.
19Pte J. Douglas; born Ngongotaha, 24 Aug 1919; labourer; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.
20Pte W. A. Ratahi; born Whakatane, 1 Jul 1918; labourer; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.
21Smith was awarded the DCM and Lance-Corporal Ruha and Private Grant the MM for the action which follows.
22Lt H. Grant, MM; Rotorua; born Mourea, Rotorua, 9 Jul 1921; chainman; twice wounded.
23Pte J. H. Ingram; born NZ 5 Aug 1918; farmer; killed in action 20 Apr 1943.
24Pte K. Aranui; Rotorua; born Rotorua, 6 Oct 1914; labourer.
25Pte J. Takiwa; Taumarunui; born Kakahi, 16 Apr 1917; millhand; wounded 20 Apr 1943.
26Pte T. Heka, DCM; Awanui, North Auckland; born NZ 15 Nov 1915; labourer.
28Pte S. Moore; born Opotiki, 25 Jul 1919; labourer; killed in action 20 Apr 1943. Moore was one of the later arrivals.
29Maj S. F. Catchpole, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Huntly, 12 Apr 1916; salesman.
30Capt R. A. Shaw; Taumarunui; born New Plymouth, 8 Jun 1912; commercial traveller; twice wounded.
31L-Cpl J. P. Bell; Te Awamutu; born Taumarunui, 16 Feb 1918; labourer.
32Maj J. C. Muirhead, MC; Palmerston North; born Palmerston North, 5 Oct 1911; clerk; wounded 23 Nov 1941.
33Lt I. H. Hirst, MC; Auckland; born Auckland, 5 Feb 1915; farmer; wounded 3 Sep 1942.
34Maj A. F. Harding, MC; Wellington; born Wanganui, 27 Nov 1916; accountant; wounded 25 Nov 1941.
35L-Sgt B. A. W. Worthington, MM; born NZ 29 Jun 1919; labourer; wounded 20 Apr 1943; killed in action 19 Dec 1943.
36Sgt E. Horne; born Otaki, 30 Sep 1910; labourer; died Rotorua, 19 Jan 1953.