CHAPTER 10 — The Pursuit
When the guns flashed into life at 9.40 p.m. on 23 October some Supply Company men were sleeping, some were waiting and watching, others—a group of officers—had gone forward for a closer view. Blue and white flashes and the thunder of gunfire filled the night.
For fifteen minutes the guns poured shells on every known enemy battery. Then, at 10 p.m., as the infantry went forward, the guns dropped to the enemy forward defence lines. The break-in, the first stage of the battle, had begun.
While 30 Corps, of which the New Zealand Division was a part, made the main attack in the north, 13 Corps made a showing of a major assault in the south. By dawn part of 30 Corps was still slightly short of the night's objective, the general line from the Miteiriya Ridge northwards to near the coast, but a break-in had been accomplished.
When daylight came the bombers, Bostons and Mitchells in groups of eighteen, droned forward, and scarcely without pause ran a shuttle service throughout the day; from where it was camped Supply Company could see two groups on their way forward as two came back.
There was work to be done, however, and even in the heat of battle it was routine work. The chaos of Greece, Crete and Libya had gone, and as the enemy was met on a clearly defined front, the rear services of which Supply Company was a part operated in the sane and orderly manner in which the textbooks had always contemplated they should. The only danger was from the air, and even that hazard was now negligible.
Paradoxical as it might seem, while the Army was making an all-out bid in the most significant battle in the war to date, many of the rear services were not required to perform any extra effort. In any well-planned operation there comes page 235 a time when the hustle and bustle of administrative preparation ceases and the whole organisation, wound up like clockwork, begins to move forward under its own power. The climax for many is anti-climax, and on the first day of the Alamein battle there was nothing for Supply Company to do but deliver 16,947 battle rations to units at the replenishment area and carry out some minor reorganisation within itself. This consisted of a handover by 5 Platoon to 4 Platoon of its ‘12,000 millstones’, reserve battle rations. Water for the moment was not a Supply Company worry as units were now drawing direct from the water point at El Hammam.
As the ‘dog fight’ developed in the northern wedge, the Supply Company war diary read like this:
|25th:||1 platoon issues 10,537 consolidated rations taken forward on No. 2 platoon transport. 1 platoon uplifts 13,488 hard rations from 52 DID and returns to No. 4 platoon, which breaks bulk for delivery tomorrow.|
|26th:||1 platoon moves forward to replenishment area and delivers 6089 fresh rations. No. 2 platoon uplifts 4500 fresh rations from 52 DID. As demands on unit transport are very light, personnel are organising games of soccer between platoons.|
‘The short lines of supply on a fixed front have made our job easy, and the way we've been spending our time lately you'd hardly guess there was a war on let alone in full swing,’ Corporal Reynolds wrote home. ‘Been playing footy and cricket as though this was a base camp.’ This was not as fantastic as it might sound, for even fighting units in reserve positions found time to send men back for a swim.
Passing ambulances, however, were a reminder that there really was a war on, and an issue of 7434 rations on 28 October to rear units and field ambulances had its significance; five days earlier, on the eve of the battle, the same issue had required only 2536 rations.
On the night of 27–28 October the New Zealand infantry withdrew from the line to prepare for a new role in the breakthrough, code-named Supercharge. Changing circumstances made a change of plan necessary, and when the scheme was finally fixed the New Zealand Division was to hold a firm base behind the attacking 151 (Tyneside) Brigade and 152 (Highland) Brigade, which were to be page 236 under New Zealand command, as also would be 9 Armoured Brigade and 23 Armoured Brigade. The 1st Armoured Division was to break through the gap made by the assault, destroy the remaining German tank force, and the mobile New Zealand Division, with 4 Light Armoured Brigade as a spearhead, was to crash through after it.
The plan went into operation in the early hours of 2 November, and by dawn 9 Armoured Brigade had dented the enemy line at Tell el Aqqaqir. Hard fighting followed, and by the afternoon of 3 November the Division was ready to sally out from the bulge. The gap through which it was to go would permit only a single line of vehicles, and to solve supply problems in the first few days, units were to carry eight days' food and water.
The New Zealand Division began its thrust on the 4th; the armour was already engaging the panzers, and as the Division struck out first to the south-west and then swung north-west, the armoured battle was clamouring to the north. Next day, in desert formation, the Division cruised west with the object of securing high ground above Fuka.
At a cautious distance the administrative services followed. Still taking it easy in the sunshine near El Hammam, Supply Company roused itself on the afternoon of 4 November, and at 2 p.m. moved forward and down into the desert. The next day at 2 p.m., in company with Petrol and Ammunition Companies, it moved up the congested Springbok track to the main road, thence west past Alamein station to a point south of Tell el Eisa. There were ‘minefields galore, and people being blown up’. Just west of Alamein station that night a British unit was celebrating Guy Fawkes Day with captured flares. An enemy plane joined in with some fireworks of its own, and the display promptly fizzled out.
Three types of trouble complicated Supply Company's work during the breakthrough: wrong map references, including a few that would have taken the company out to sea; weather; and congestion and confusion. The last was the first encountered. From Tell el Eisa 2 and 5 Platoons set out along Boomerang track early in the evening with a replenishment convoy under the SSO, Major Bracegirdle. page 237 There were, in all, 200 vehicles consisting of Petrol Company and Supply Company trucks, 5 Field Park Company, and an escort of one company from 27 (Machine Gun) Battalion and three armoured cars. Soon it was dark. Dust rolled up in clouds, and vehicles jostled for elbow room. There were frequent halts of from ten to thirty minutes; drivers groped forward at a crawl; vehicles dropped into slit trenches. One driver reports covering four miles in eight hours before halting for the night. Vehicles were crowded in on all sides, and dispersal was impossible. The head of the column halted at midnight when the divisional axis of advance was reached.
Headed by 4 Light Armoured Brigade, the New Zealand Division fighting units in the meantime had reached the high ground south of Fuka, where guns were screening the tail end of the escaping enemy forces. On the 6th the New Zealand units pressed on with the task of securing the Baggush landing grounds and holding them so that the RAF could operate from them undisturbed; they were also to sweep clear the coastal area to Baggush, thence west to Charing Cross. As the Division moved forward again light rain turned into a downpour, and everywhere vehicles became bogged in the softening desert. By evening the Division had reached a position south of the Baggush escarpment. That night fresh orders were received for an advance through the minefields south of Matruh, but the rain poured down and the surface water spread to lakes, and the Division could only squat in despondent helplessness while the enemy made good use of the sealed main road to slip away once again.
Many miles behind, the ASC units and the B echelon vehicles that had gone back to meet them were in a similar plight. The replenishment convoy that had been halted by darkness and confusion somehow pieced itself together on the morning of the 6th and pushed forward to the replenishment area at Alam el Halif. It was then 11.30 a.m. and the convoy was eighteen hours late. Only one vehicle, from a light anti-aircraft battery, was there for supplies. Fifth Brigade commander, because of the tactical situation, had not released his B echelon transport on the 5th. However, page 238 the 5 Brigade vehicles and those from divisional units and 9 Armoured Brigade turned up in the afternoon and issues were made; Supply Company issued 9004 rations. Loaded B echelon transport began the return trip to their units, and 5 Platoon of Supply Company turned back to 208 FMC, where 13,000 battle rations were drawn.
The main part of Supply Company during this time had issued about 4000 rations to rear units on the morning of the 6th and then struck out into the desert through the minefields and litter of burnt-out tanks and derelicts of all descriptions. Hordes of Italians were wandering about looking for someone to take them prisoner. Away to the left a burning plane smeared a tracer of smoke across the sky, and shortly afterwards a German pilot, who had apparently bailed out, stepped into the path of the Supply Company convoy, clicked his heels together and raised his hands to the surrender position in a smart drill movement. Eager searchers found a photograph of Hitler, which Captain Smith tore in half, and the address of a girl in Alexandria. And, of course, a Luger pistol.
The airman was only one, though certainly the most impressive, of the prisoners rounded up by Supply Company. A ‘forlorn individual wandering across the desert’ turned out to be a very small, thin and miserable German, completely a-tremble. He wore the Iron Cross. He spoke good English and stated that a party of Italians was in a wadi about half a mile away waiting to be picked up. Reynolds, who escorted them back to the prisoner-or-war cage, recorded that ‘you would have thought it was a leave party they were so darned cheerful’.
The sky clouded over, and during the afternoon rain set in, but the company reached Alam el Halif without difficulty. Early next morning a convoy set out for the new replenishment area at a landing ground near Baggush. As the rest of the company followed on, the grey rain beat dancing patterns across the spreading sheets of water. Desert tires squelched through tenacious mud, and one by one the floundering vehicles buried their wheels and stopped, bellied on the soggy ground. A quad, picked up during an earlier page 239 retreat and converted into a truck—its driver was Sergeant Johnson—churned about the desert and dragged out trucks with its winch. Triggs, in a German Volkswagen, slithered about and guided drivers to a firmer ground.
Coming at the crucial point of the pursuit, the rain was dampening in more ways than one, and there was a certain grim humour in a BBC announcement that the New Zealand Division was racing across the desert to cut off the fleeing enemy. There was at least one man, however, who accepted it all with the philosophy of experience. Lyon spotted an English driver under his truck with a spade, and told him, ‘Don't worry, soldier, we'll tow you out.’ The driver looked up from the slush. ‘As far as I'm concerned, sir,’ he said, ‘this is just another day in the army.’ And went on with his work.
Further ahead the supply convoy was in a similar plight. Bracegirdle, who wanted to get ahead to report to Division, came slopping across to Quirk's truck and asked him to take him on as his car was hopelessly stuck. Quirk ‘thrashed the guts’ out of his vehicle, got stuck himself but was rescued by tanks, and at last came up to Rear Division. Rear Division was pervaded by an air of exasperation—‘Everyone was fuming at the delay.’ Units had ample reserves of rations, but petrol was short, and B echelon vehicles that had loaded up the previous day at Alam el Halif had still not returned. Quirk returned to the convoy. ‘Found it hopelessly bogged. Prisoners a nuisance, and none of us with cookhouse. Terry [Nelson] went back to stay with ours some miles away. A miserable night in the bog.’
The next day, cold and bright but still gummy underfoot, the administration group converged on the landing ground. One of the first there was Quirk's replenishment convoy. With the aid of Germans and Italians the trucks were manhandled through the bog and finally came snarling onto the airfield and set up shop at 10 a.m. The RAF took a poor view of this, and Quirk obligingly moved to one side. The RAF, however, looked at the wheel ruts and decided it might be better at Sidi Barrani after all.page 240
‘People were turning up everywhere,’ Quirk recalls. Supply Company came churning through the mud and joined Quirk. Petrol Company sent RASC four-wheel-drive Bedfords ahead to ‘bash out’ a firm track. It pulled up about two miles short of the landing ground, where Supply Company was already in occupation.
Somehow or other most people seemed to get there, and an harassed Brigadier Crump was pleased to learn from Morris that issuing to units was under way.
As the ground dried 2 Platoon was able to go back to 208 FMC for rations. No. 4 Platoon, after issuing 7670 gallons of water, went back also, and the two returned together some time after midnight.
The fighting units, too, had pressed on during the 8th, although they were hindered by soft going. Fourth Light Armoured Brigade was sent ahead to Sidi Barrani; the Division, after detaching 6 Brigade, followed up on the 9th on a course south of the main road. Because of maintenance problems beyond this point, 6 Brigade was sent into Matruh, where it was supplied by 4 Platoon of Supply Company. The armour met an enemy rearguard at Sidi Barrani, but a reconnaissance early on the 10th showed it clear.
The ASC units followed up on the 9th along the main road. They first drove west until they encountered the Siwa Track, then followed this north to the road. Supply Company halted at Kilo 45, but a 5 Platoon replenishment convoy went forward to Kilo 86 during the afternoon down a road flanked by wrecked tanks and vehicles, graves and unburied bodies. Two days' battle rations—16,795—were issued to all units except those of 6 Brigade. No. 4 Platoon, with 6 RMT transport, also came forward and issued 8184 gallons of water.
Leaving Workshops Platoon at Kilo 45 to complete repair work, the company moved on under a clear sky and warm sun on the afternoon of the 10th to Kilo 120, where 208 FMC, operating with giant 10-tonners, had now been set up. Nos. 1 and 2 Platoons between them drew 36,500 battle rations. No. 5 Platoon was sent forward to Kilo 13, beyond Sidi Barrani, to open a supply point. There were ‘crowds of transport’ on the road, but few units came for rations. page 241 It was a bad time of day for issuing—among other things it meant B echelon transport had to return to units in darkness—and closing time for future days was fixed at 10 a.m. By keeping well up, 208 FMC made this possible.
German prisoners at Tebaga Gap
Italian muleteers packing New Zealand rations on the Sangro front
A military policeman rings up another traffic post at the start of the Inferno-North Road tracks
The Inferno track to Hove Dump
Supply Point at Ancona
As the Division prepared for the final attack of the first phase of the pursuit, it was buoyed up by a spirit of elation. News of ‘American’ landings in North-West Africa, coupled with the brilliant success of their own efforts, put everyone ‘sky-high’.
That night 110 men of 21 Battalion made a surprise attack on the Halfaya Pass position, caught a mixed German and Italian—mostly Italian—force off guard, killed many and captured 612 for the loss of two casualties, one killed, one wounded. The battle for Egypt was over, and the enemy was back in Libya.
Camped at Kilo 13 on the road from Sidi Barrani, 5 Platoon heard only scattered shots, but there was some excitement in the morning when German aircraft interrupted breakfast with a bombing raid nearby.
A flood of vehicles converged on Halfaya Pass. Fifth Brigade, which was to continue the pursuit, was to have gone up the Sollum zigzag, but the road was blocked by demolitions, so the brigade wound up the barren face of Halfaya. The road below was choked with transport that at one stage formed a triple line reaching back an estimated seven or eight miles. At the top 5 Brigade prepared to push on west, but the order was cancelled, and the whole Division dispersed near Sidi Azeiz.
Supply Company moved to Buq Buq and dispersed early on the morning of the 11th. Two days' battle rations were issued, bringing units back to six days' reserves plus the unconsumed portion of the day's rations. Expecting to go up the pass, the company moved forward during the afternoon, but the clutter of vehicles stretched ahead in an unbroken line. It dispersed three miles east of the Halfaya turn-off. Under a clear sky that night, with a new moon just showing, the men gathered round their radios and heard that French resistance had ceased in Algiers and that Darlan was in American hands. These were great days.page 242
Next morning the company fell into the winding stream of traffic, crawled up the pass, and reached the replenishment area near Capuzzo at 10.30 a.m. Everywhere sappers were clearing away minefields. No. 2 Platoon, however, made its own way to the top. A reconnaissance showed that the Sollum road was open, and after being warned to keep back from the edge where a crater had been filled near the top, the platoon ascended.
Its task done for the meantime, the Division now paused and prepared for its next action.
For the next few weeks the Division remained near Bardia, playing football and other games, shivering in the cold—dress was still shirts and shorts—and becoming depressed with the inactivity. Early orders for a quick move were cancelled, and the prospect of a month's training, with all the unpleasantness that implied, did not appeal. There were diversions, however, and Supply Company had more than moderate success at Rugby; it beat Headquarters Divisional Engineers 29-6 and Headquarters 6 Brigade 17-0.
While the Division waited near Bardia, the enemy was being driven back across Libya. He fell back at last on the old El Agheila line, where he had defied Eighth Army before. Like the Alamein Line, the Agheila position had flanks protected by the sea on the north and soft sand on the south, but it was, nevertheless, a line that could be turned. It was to be the New Zealand Division's task to turn it with a ‘left hook’. The code-name for the operation was Toil; other phases of the plan were blood and sweat.
On 3 December General Freyberg told a conference of commanders and heads of services what was known of the North African situation and how the New Zealand Division was to make an outflanking movement and contain the enemy while other units of Eighth Army applied a squeeze with a direct frontal attack. He was clearly optimistic; he instructed his officers to tell the men they would play the final of the football competition in Tripoli.
The Division was to make the 350-mile approach march across desert tracks, travelling via El Adem, Bir Hacheim page 243 and Msus to El Haseiat. Supply Company and Petrol Company were to go on ahead, replenish units as they passed near El Adem, load up again at Tobruk, and follow on. Starting with the unexpended portion plus six days' reserve rations and POL for 200 miles, the Division, with this one replenishment, should thus complete the journey with a comfortable reserve in hand.
Supply and Petrol Companies and 5 Brigade were to move west across Cyrenaica on 4 December, but there was a small matter of business to attend to before this. Major Pryde had been given a new appointment as commander of 2 Ammunition Company that was being formed at Maadi, and Morris was to take command of Supply Company with the rank of major. Pryde's departure called for a suitable farewell—he had taken command on the eve of the campaign in Greece and had led the unit through the earliest and most difficult campaigns of the war, earning an MBE award—and Triggs was despatched with instructions to find beer. But the desert was as dry alcoholically as it was proverbially. Undismayed, Triggs went up to Gambut, and at the aerodrome asked to see a senior officer. He explained that Supply Company was short of beer and that its CO was leaving, and he suggested that the RAF might be short too. Beer could easily be had for the asking at Matruh, he assured the RAF officer, if only he could be flown there. And away went Triggs to Matruh in a Wellington bomber. Beer, however, was not to be had for the asking at Matruh, so on went the aircraft to Alexandria—also dry—Cairo, Suez and at last Fayid, where a supply was obtained. Back to Gambut went the laden bomber, and Triggs drove triumphantly into the Supply Company area in time for the farewell party on the night of 4 December.
Next morning Supply Company and Petrol Company moved out. With only minor complications, everything went as planned. First 5 Brigade and then 6 Brigade were supplied as they passed through El Adem, fresh supplies were loaded up at Tobruk, and the whole group went on its way. On the 6th Supply Company drove south towards Bir Hacheim through the debris of previous battles, and in welcome sunshine on the 7th rolled west along the Msus page 244 track—familiar to many—and on the 8th south over new country past Saunnu to El Haseiat. This part of the desert was comparatively empty; apart from thirteen burnt-out Crusaders, there were few signs of previous battles or traffic.
Preparations for the ‘left hook’ were begun. On this move there were no supply depots conveniently spaced along the route, and the Division and its attached groups would have to be self-sufficient in rations and water—the ration was half a gallon a day a man—for four days. Four days' battle rations and water were issued on 9 December, and on the 10th Supply Company stocked up with a further four days' rations. An issue of one day's on the 10th and 11th and two days' on the 12th kept units' reserves intact. An RASC convoy from 30 Corps was detailed to carry a further 24,000 rations and 16,450 gallons of water for the Division to the far side of Chrystal's Rift, and Supply Company was instructed to provide an officer to guide it. Lyon was sent.
On the 11th a preliminary move—stage one of the plan—was made 30 miles to the south, and on the 12th, a day of intermittent rain, final preparations were made. From this point the Division was to move 300 miles self-sufficient in POL, and Petrol Company was to carry petrol for an additional 150 miles. Two vehicles from Supply and Ammunition Companies were required to help.
The exact order of march varied during the journey according to circumstances, but in general there was a screen of tanks ahead—Shermans of 4 Light Armoured Brigade—followed by the units of the Division, with Divisional Headquarters sandwiched in the centre and the administration group at the rear. Furthest forward in the administration group was Ammunition Company, for although ammunition was required less frequently than supplies, when there was a call it was needed in a hurry. In some formations Supply and Petrol Companies would be abreast in flank positions, but when the column was closed in Supply Company followed Ammunition Company. If an issue was to be made, B echelon transport would thus know where Supply Company was to be found. There was some complaint about the distance some vehicles had to page 245 travel back for replenishment, however, and later a new system was evolved: a jeep flying a flag was sent forward, followed by supply transport; B echelon drivers had simply to fall in behind the jeep and halt where it halted further up the column.
First away on the march were 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 6 Brigade, which went south for 30 miles on the afternoon of the 12th. Early next day the rest of the Division began to spread its vehicles across the desert and rumble down the thrust line, marked by the Divisional Provost Company with black diamonds—the now familiar diamond track. It was well into the afternoon before the last units were away; as they passed, the diamonds were lifted and replaced by petrol tins, two high and marked with the fernleaf emblem.
Lyon reported in to Supply Company Headquarters with his RASC convoy at 10 a.m. on the 13th, then moved on after the Division. The company itself moved off at 10.30 a.m., but there was a traffic hold-up, and it was not until about 3 p.m. that the company was on its way south. Rain had laid the dust, and the trucks swarmed across the firm page 246 undulating sand and gravel without the customary betraying dust cloud. They came at last onto sand, and though there were soft spots where vehicles had to drag themselves free, the damp surface packed down under the broad tires. Through Chrystal's Rift, the most treacherous obstacle on the route, the convoys closed into three columns, and vehicles lurched along through deeply rutted but firm tracks. Beyond the rift the convoys turned west and opened out again, but the broken country made it difficult to keep formation. Supply Company halted at 6 p.m. near a grave marked with an aircraft wheel. The Division had now completed stage two and was at the southernmost point of the ‘left hook’.
Left Hook round El Agheila
There were rumours about that the enemy was pulling out of his El Agheila positions. A message received that night from Headquarters 30 Corps confirmed this and wished the Division ‘good hunting’, but no immediate changes of plan for the next day were made. Observing strict radio silence still, the group was to push on and seize positions overlooking the enemy's escape routes. The administration group during the operation was to consist of Ammunition, Supply and Petrol Companies, 5 Field Ambulance less a company, 6 Field Ambulance less a company, Divisional Ordnance Field Park and Divisional Workshops.
Supply Company moved up the divisional axis of advance at 8.30 a.m. on the 14th. No. 5 Platoon went ahead, and while the rest of the Division was getting itself into motion issued two days' rations—22,820—and water to quartermasters from supplies carried forward by the RASC convoy, giving units seven days' reserves and the unexpended portion of the day's ration, and leaving Supply Company with four days'. From the supply point of view, the Division could face long isolation.
This business of issuing to a mobile division in the desert was a technique that 5 Platoon had developed through long experience. Rations, loaded in bulk on the trucks, were broken out and issued directly to units without such refinements as scales for measuring things like tea and sugar; men measured by the scoopful. In earlier days this sort of thing would have been considered impossible, but the Division's page 247 constant mobile role converted an impossibility into a necessity, and despite the primitive methods and the vast quantities handled, the scheme worked well. Since only a small error with each unit would be magnified enormously in the aggregate, this says something for human judgment and adaptability.
The Division moved off beneath a heavy mist that lifted during the morning. It was a short leg to the end of stage three, just east of the Marada track, where the leading elements paused while the tanks and administration group closed up. Then, over broken ground, the vehicles jolted on through the darkness, crossing the Marada track and striking north-west on a course roughly parallel with the coast, 30 miles away. Still some miles behind, the administration group trucks were shuffling along nose-to-tail and side to side. A loaded Petrol Company truck that had caught alight on the crest of a rise provided an unwelcome blazing beacon as the group moved past. The Division halted shortly after midnight, with the administration group still near Marada track.
Now roughly abreast of the enemy rearguard positions on the coast, the Division continued on its north-westerly course on the 15th towards Bir el Merduma, and during the morning began to brush against enemy elements. The administration group, from which Ammunition Company and 6 Field Ambulance had been detached and which was now under the command of Major Stock, left the Marada track—‘an Iti road and big wire fence; only sign of civilisation for days’—and followed up. Ammunition Company's position at the head was taken by 4 and 6 RMT Companies, which moved up through Supply Company at 8 a.m.
Sixth Brigade reached a point west of Bir el Merduma during the afternoon, then turned north to cut the coast road. Fifth Brigade was to follow up and fall in on a flank. The rest of the Division reached the area west of Bir el Merduma in the early evening, and the administration group rolled up at 6 p.m. and dispersed six or seven miles to the south-east of Divisional Headquarters. Towards the end of the march X Water Issue Section and 4 Platoon 6 RMT lost contact with Supply Company, and as the company did not page 248 park on the divisional axis the lost trucks missed it and drove on to Rear Division.
Fifth Brigade was late in arriving, and instead of following up 6 Brigade was ordered to halt and take up positions facing east.
Although the position at the moment was not clear, it was known that substantial enemy forces were wedged between 7 Armoured Division to the east and the New Zealand Division to the west. Some hours later it was learned that 21 Panzer Division and 90 Light Division were believed to be in the trap, and probably 15 Panzer Division. This was clearly no place for soft-skinned transport, and fairly early in the evening of 15 December it was decided to send the administration group back down the divisional axis of advance. Supply Company men had barely turned in when orders came at 9 p.m. to retire 10 miles. They rolled out of their blankets and ‘milled around’ until about midnight, when the moon appeared. In the new positions guards were posted and the rest of the men curled up again for some sleep. But they were not left long in peace.
At 12.10 a.m. 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported encountering tanks that were moving south-west and which would endanger the administration group. At 4 a.m. orders for a further 10-mile withdrawal were received by Supply Company, and it was dawn—a beautiful rose-pink dawn, though few probably cared to notice it—as the vehicles rolled into the new area and parked. Artillery fire could be heard not far away.
The decisive hour had come, but it was a sad disappointment; the outflanking force was too small, and though the ‘left hook’ may have hurried the enemy along, as a tactical move to cut off the enemy it was a fizzer. While 90 Light Division had prevented 6 Brigade from reaching the road, 21 Panzer Division had escaped along it during the night. Further inland 15 Panzer Division bumped into New Zealand elements in the morning, swung a little to the north and ducked through an unintended gap between 5 and 6 Brigades, suffering relatively lightly.page 249
The enemy now fell back to Nofilia, and on the 17th the New Zealand Division followed up with another ‘left hook’. Profiting by experience, Major Stock issued a general instruction to the administration group on the 16th that incorporated a plan for a swift retirement: if the group was required to ‘move urgently for safety's sake’ the code word Swordfish would be given, followed by a direction to be taken by the head of the column along the divisional axis.
It was a cold, wet, grey day as the trucks swarmed across the rolling, scrub-covered country on the 17th. Late in the morning the Royal Scots Greys and Divisional Cavalry bumped into German elements near Nofilia. Fifth Brigade, coming up behind, moved past to the south, then swung north and jabbed at the road, along which German columns were streaming.
Further back, shells dropped into New Zealand units moving up, and the order went back to the administration group to turn about. No order was ever obeyed with more alacrity. Some Supply Column men saw an airburst smudged against the cloud up ahead, and the next moment vehicles came roaring back towards them. The ‘El Agheila Derby’, as it became known, was on. As the trucks pelted by, others turned and followed, and soon the whole group was headed back down the divisional axis. Sixteen miles back a halt was called. Later in the day a small party of German prisoners was brought back. Like others caught at this stage, their morale was high, and they were emphatic that they would not leave Africa.
Petrol reserves were now wearing thin. Having already covered 350 miles—fifty more than the distance allowed for when petrol was drawn at Haseiat—Supply Company now held sufficient for only 50 miles a vehicle, and a despatch rider was sent to inform Command NZASC of the situation. The ration situation was better. Units still carried four days' plus the unexpended portion, and Supply Company carried another four days' rations.
Attacking with spirit, 5 Brigade made an effort to get astride the road, but ran into soft sand and a determined flank guard. The fight went on into the night. Then in the darkness the Germans slipped away, and once again Rommel page 250 evaded his pursuers. The New Zealand Division had gone to the limit of its resources and was now forced to halt.
Petrol reached the Division on 18 December, and with fighters droning overhead the administration group moved up to rejoin the rest of the units. A warning order for a further westward advance was issued, then cancelled. The Division settled down at Nofilia.
There was time now to think about such luxuries as Christmas festivities; there was time to think and relax a little. The New Zealanders were still in a forward position and were covering the road, but the enemy appeared to be high-tailing back to Sirte, 80 miles away, and was in no condition to bounce back. At all events, no move was anticipated for ten days, and football fields were formed and a training programme begun.
But the main thought for the moment was Christmas, the third some men had spent away from home and the second the Division had celebrated in the desert. For ASC units, including Supply Company, it was the third Christmas in the desert: the first was at Fuka, during Wavell's campaign, and the second also at Fuka after the second Libyan campaign, though some sections were still in Libya then. It had been shown on these occasions that sufficient will power and organisation could overcome the handicaps of an arid desert, but this time things were rather different; the Division was 1200 miles west of the Delta—the width of the Tasman—it was in the front line, and it was actively preparing to pursue a dangerous enemy. The Naafi, Eighth Army supply lines and Supply Company overcame these difficulties.
On 19 December Lyon was sent away with a convoy of thirty-five vehicles to El Adem, 600 miles back, where he would meet a similar convoy from the Delta region carrying 19,200 bottles of beer, ten loads of mail and 12,000 Patriotic parcels; however, he was not due back until 29 December, and supplies for Christmas—beer, rum and pork, together with whatever else units bought with their funds—came through other supply channels in time for Christmas. Christmas mail, including 60,000 parcels, was brought up page 251 from El Agheila. Lyon's convoy was used by General Freyberg when he visited NZASC Headquarters on Christmas Eve as an illustration of the supply problems now facing the Division; to bring three tons of beer from the Delta, he said, it required two tons of petrol. The General thanked the NZASC units for nursing their vehicles through the campaign, and asked them for even greater efforts in future operations.
Probably no Christmas gift was more welcome than the fresh bread that reached the troops in time for Christmas dinner. Formed on 1 December, NZ Field Bakery left Maadi on the 9th and reached the area west of Marble Arch ten days later. It baked for the first time on the 23rd and issued to Supply Company for a Christmas issue. On 26 December the bakery moved into Supply Company's area, and in future operations was usually found close to the company, which of course made the issue of 5000 lb. a day. The bakery's ‘patrons’ later included the Army Commander, General Montgomery, and during the preparations for the Mareth ‘left hook’, when daylight movement was forbidden, the only vehicle seen abroad in daylight in the Supply Company area was the Army Commander's truck, which called daily for his bread.
Christmas Day was fine and clear, one of those peerless, blue Mediterranean days when the dazzling white shore sets off the hues of sea and sky. A Protestant service was conducted in the Supply Company lines by Padre Holland near the water's edge, and Roman Catholics knelt among the low, green shrubs near 5 ADS. Father Forsman1 officiated. Then there was a day of eating, drinking and visiting, a day of conviviality and relaxation—a day of nostalgic memories.
But it was a brief Christmas—one day. No time for Boxing Day, no time for any other day, for there was serious work to be done. Everywhere there was activity. Sappers swarmed across the countryside flanking the roads sweeping with their ‘Hoovers’—mine detectors—and probing with their bayonets. Transport aircraft and fighters of the Desert page 252 Air Force crowded the airfield near Marble Arch. Motor transport hummed back and forth along the road and around the many detours. For Supply Company, in addition to the mundane daily round of drawing from 108 FMC, east of Marble Arch, and issuing to the Division, there was an administrative build-up to attend to for the next phase of the campaign. The reserve to be achieved was eleven days' rations and water—seven days' with first-line transport and four with second-line transport. Petrol Company had to lay up petrol for 350 miles.
Supply Company had got to work after the El Agheila ‘left hook’ activities had ceased on 19 December, issuing four days' rations; this brought units up to six days' and the unexpended portion. On the 20th Roberts took the first convoy back past Marble Arch to 108 FMC. The administration group was disbanded at midnight on 19–20 December, and units returned to individual command.
On 21 December Supply Company moved to the beach. It drove back 15 miles, then turned north across rough ground, passing Nofilia, a small village pierced by a white minaret and backed by a medieval-style Italian fort of turrets, bastions—and a radio mast. Camped on the coast, Supply Company men were fortunate; petrol now was precious, and transport to carry men of some units to the beach was strictly controlled. The sea was cold and swimming not over-popular, but it did provide a bath.
Except on Christmas Day, the work of drawing and issuing went on daily, though there was time for Rugby; still unbeaten, Supply Company beat Divisional Signals on 28 December 5-0. There was an echo of Christmas on the 29th when Lyon's beer convoy came home from El Adem; he brought also 12,000 Patriotic parcels, 12,160 tins of New Zealand tobacco, 600,000 New Zealand cigarettes, 171,000 South African cigarettes, and other stores from Maadi. Next day there was a free issue to each man of the Division of one Patriotic parcel, a tin of tobacco, fifty New Zealand and fourteen South African cigarettes. The beer was sold to units, and other goods were distributed through canteens.
New Year's Day 1943 was the Division's last in North Africa. There had been other New Years when Eighth page 253 Army had been reaching forward to a victory that always proved an illusion. But this time the victory was real and decisive, and ahead lay Tripoli, so long sought by the British, so long jealously held by the enemy, a prize in which the Italians, whose colony this was, placed great store. Tripoli was a symbol—of achievement for Eighth Army, of defeat for the enemy. The men whose good fortune it was to take it approached it with a sense of excitement. In faraway prison camps, less lucky soldiers waited for the news of its fall with an oft-repeated admonition, ‘Roll on Eighth Army’.
And in the New Year Eighth Army was preparing to roll on, for Tripoli, whatever its symbolical value, had a very real military value too. Its possession by the enemy gave him short lines of communication; its possession by the British forces, relying now on battered Benghazi and the long land link to Tobruk, would provide a valuable port and force the enemy to reach further back for his supplies.
The enemy was now holding a line running inland from just west of Buerat, but it was thought unlikely that he would stay to fight. His resources were wearing thin, and urgently needed reinforcements were being drawn off to Tunisia to meet First Army's threat from the west. Eighth Army was to repeat the El Agheila formula, thrusting along the coast and sending the New Zealand Division, together with Shermans of the Royal Scots Greys, along an inland route to perform yet another ‘left hook’. The requirements of the administrative build-up would not permit an attack before 14 January.
There was just time for one more indulgence, a seven-a-side Rugby tournament on 1 January, won among jubilation by the redoubtable Supply Company team, and the New Zealanders turned to more serious things. Fifth Brigade, with one sergeant and six men from Supply Company for supply work, moved 60 miles west to clear a landing ground near Wadi Tamet. On 3 and 4 January the rest of the Division left its Nofilia positions and in a blinding dust-storm moved out into the open desert. It was a miserable two days; dust or no dust, Supply Company had to carry out a minor dumping programme at the new location, and page 254 on the 4th—while grit filled ears, eyes and mouth—it had to dismantle its camp, pack and move. In addition to the discomforts there were still hazards: thermos bombs were lying about, and there were still undetected mines; a truck was blown up at 108 FMC on the 3rd not far from a Supply Company convoy.
The administration group excepted, the Division made a preliminary 41-mile move on 9 January as an exercise. Then on the 10th, with a bitterly cold wind whipping up the dust, the whole group moved forward to join 5 Brigade near Wadi Tamet.
The first part of the advance was in the nature of an approach march on a rather grander scale than that for the second Libyan campaign fourteen months earlier. By 14 January the New Zealand Division, together with 7 Armoured Division, was to be ready on the enemy's southern flank, and as the attack was made along the coast by 51 (Highland) Division, New Zealand Division and the armour was to strike inland.
For this approach march an intricate system of supplies had been worked out. When the move began, Supply Company had built up ration requirements; units carried seven days' reserves, plus the unexpended portion, and three and a half gallons of water for each man. Supply Company itself carried three days' rations, one day's bread and a day's water. No. 4 Platoon 6 RMT, attached, was to carry the water. Field Bakery was also attached for the purposes of the move.
Over the first stages of the advance Supply Company operated a leapfrog system. Triggs' 4 Platoon established a dump of two days' rations—based on a strength of 13,500, including the Greys and 5 Brigade—near the site of the first day's bivouac—10–11 January—while Quirk's 5 Platoon remained behind to pick up rations missed the previous day. X Water Issue Section had already moved up on 9 January and constructed a filling point at Gasr Bu Hadi. On the 11th there was a pause. From Triggs' dump, one mile to the south, 25,609 rations were issued. Irvine2 took page 255 2 Platoon ahead across Wadi Tamet and formed another dump for two days at the site of the next camp. Water tankers filled up at Gasr Bu Hadi. To watch Irvine's dump, 5 Platoon provided a guard.
Two administration groups were organised on 11 January, Supply, Petrol and Ammunition Companies being included in the first, which was to tag along behind 5 Brigade, the rearmost fighting formation of the Division.
With a nagging wind blowing up clouds of dust, the Division filed into Wadi Tamet on the 12th and jolted along the track prepared by the engineers and marked with the diamond sign by the provosts. The day's move carried the Division forward 38 miles. As they halted, vehicles turned north to reduce shadow and prevent reflection from the windscreens, and camouflage nets were drawn across them. While the Division had moved forward, other vehicles moved back down the axis, among them a Supply Company convoy under Quirk and Irvine. At 110 FMC they picked up a day's rations, water, and flour for the Field Bakery, and rejoined the unit next day. Water was drawn from Gasr Bu Hadi.
During the daylight hours of the 13th—still cold and dusty—the Division remained stationary. Two days' rations and one and a half gallons of water a man were drawn from the dump three and a half miles west of Divisional Headquarters. In the late afternoon most of the Division moved on and continued its move into the night. The administration groups followed up on the morning of the 14th, again a dirty, dusty day. Irvine came up from 110 FMC, and Supply Company now held rations and water. Supply preparations were now complete. No further rations were drawn until Tripoli was reached, and there were no further issues for four days. Now, close to the southern flank of the enemy line, the Division was stocked up for the thrust on Tripoli.
There were signs that things were stirring. Throughout the afternoon and evening the rumble of bombing and gunfire came from the north-west, and flares could be seen. During the night of 14–15 January the New Zealand Division and 7 Armoured Division crossed the Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track and began to probe forward, and at daylight spread page 256 out into desert formation. Soon the forward armoured columns ran into shelling; there was a skirmish between tanks, and that night the enemy fell back. Pressing on in daylight on 16 December, the divisions crossed Wadi Zemzem and swung towards the north on a course roughly parallel with the coast. Without encountering any appreciable resistance, the force rolled on on the 17th, swinging to the west again at Wadi Merdum and striking in the direction of Beni Ulid. On the night of 17–18 January it received instructions to advance on Tarhuna with the object of outflanking the enemy force stubbornly resisting on the coast.
Behind the Army came the Air Force, its transport swarming onto landing grounds and its aircraft reaching overhead to strike at enemy troops and at Tripoli. But within all this ceaseless activity Supply Company had a dull time bouncing over rough, dusty going, hearing distant sounds of battle, but seeing little else beyond lines of rolling transport. In the war diary it looked like this:
15: Coy moved to new area Misurata 1/500,000 XA5862. No issue. No draw. Big barrage NW.
16: A1 order to move X4262. Pockets of enemy west and south. Main body north west. No issue. No refill.
17: Sitrep shows capture or destruction of six tanks—prisoners. Move on 12 vehicle front to area 16 miles south east Sedada. No issue. No refill.
What those official entries meant in more descriptive terms is shown by Quirk's diary:
15 January (Friday): Move off at 0930. A slow day of much waiting in which we covered about 30 miles, mostly north of west. Parked for night close to 6 MDS. Occasional rumble of gunfire close by. Much aerial activity (ours). Grand fighter sweeps. Heavy artillery barrage during the night.
16 January: Moved again 0930. A long, slow day of stops and starts in which we covered only 21 miles, stopping eventually at 1630 hours…. Rolling country, scrub and dust. Coy travelling five lanes 150 yards between vehicles.
17 January: Fine, clear chilly day. Away again at 1000 hours. Very cold last night. Another very boring and uninteresting day of long halts. We covered only 25 miles over good rolling country, rocky hills. In Wadi Zem Zem saw some stunted trees and green bramble, a change for the eye. Air Force again in page 257 prominence. Transports going over us. Camped for night in wadi with green bramble bushes. Brilliant moonlight so we strolled over the hills. Intensely cold in bed.
While the leading units of the New Zealand Division some 30 miles ahead edged up to the Beni Ulid road on the 18th and paused some miles to the east of the village, the administration group followed in its own time. Setting off in the morning, it wound down a narrow defile into the Sedada wadi, a pleasant place of trees and green grass, and a few ruins. But there were mines about—one truck went up in a cloud of dust not far from Supply Company—and wrecked Italian tanks showed that the enemy had passed this way. After clearing the wadi the group clapped on the pace and went haring after the Division in a vast cloud of dust—or so it was imagined. Actually, the leaders had gone astray where the New Zealand Division and 7 Armoured Division axes of advance diverged in the wadi, and most of the supply vehicles were on the heels of the tanks. In the confusion, Supply Company became divided, but pieced itself together on the 19th, when the wayward trucks retraced their steps—they had finished up on the wrong side of a wadi—and came up the divisional axis.
On the 19th there was a pause. The road was heavily mined and Beni Ulid, in precipitous country, presented an embarrassing bottleneck for such a huge force awheel. The ASC grasped the chance to set up a supply point at the rear of 5 Brigade, and Supply Company made its only issue during the advance: two days' rations gave units supplies to 24 January. Water was also issued on this and subsequent days.
In brilliant moonlight on the night of 19–20 January the Division streamed through Beni Ulid and at daybreak was dispersed 30 to 40 miles south-east of Tarhuna, which lay among hills. The road ahead was badly damaged by demolitions. Supply Company followed up with the first administration group on the morning of 20 January. Progress was slow to the Beni Ulid road. There were mines everywhere, and a litter of dead natives, shot-up enemy trucks and Italian tanks. It was a dusty journey of many stops, and page 258 when darkness came the moon was concealed by cloud. The trucks ground through Beni Ulid and down through the pitch blackness of a defile beyond, and emerged at length onto the Tarhuna road. Supply Company halted at the 60-kilometre peg at 9.30 p.m. Here some English troops attached walked on a mine; two were killed and four wounded.
X Water Issue Section spent the 20th searching for a suitable water supply. Some small wells found were inadequate for pumping, but in Beni Ulid others were found which, although slow, served the purpose. Water issues were made on the 21st, 22nd and 23rd, and on the 23rd the two water-carrying platoons—3 Platoon and 4 Platoon 6 RMT—returned to Supply Company with a full load of water.
Ahead, reconnaissance detachments had found a track, bulldozers scooped out some sort of a road, and on the 21st the Division squeezed through in slow single file. The rearmost vehicles, which of course included Supply Company, edged along inch by inch and did not emerge onto the coastal plain until the 22nd. Quirk and Nelson went on ahead on the 22nd with bread and mail for units—a ‘door-to-door’ delivery. Their convoy ran past Italian settlements of stone houses and climbed up into the hills and along the newly made road— ‘Going terrible. Soft sand and steep wadis.’—and down onto the plain to B echelon detachments.
Fifth Brigade and the Greys, meanwhile, had reached the Garian road and had turned north towards Tripoli. South of Azizia they met 15 Panzer Division, and for a while exchanged shells. A brilliant display of tracer on the night of 22–23 January dissuaded 5 Brigade from pushing through, but in the morning the road was clear.
On 23 January Eighth Army converged on Tripoli from three directions. The operation was completed on schedule.
‘Trees and grass and orchards. Blossom and the smell of bluegum. Neat Italian settlements, white stone houses. Railway (shot up). Lay in the grass, threw off our clothes and bathed in the open. Water from irrigation taps. Wells everywhere.’page 259
This cryptic diary note dated 24 January reflects the sublime contentment with which the New Zealanders looked about them on the morrow of the capture of Tripoli. Camps were among rows of olive and almond trees, and anyone who had cause to make a run back down the coast saw green, cultivated country. Tripoli itself offered none of the civilised comforts of Cairo—restaurants were empty of food and shops boarded up—but it was a pleasant, clean city of white-walled buildings and broad streets flanked by palms.
It was a good place to rest at the end of a long, dusty desert advance, and whatever its deficiencies it had opportunities to offer; he is a poor soldier who cannot turn the most unpromising situation to some advantage. For Supply Company men, with readily available transport and their roving role, Tripoli's particular benefit was an apparently inexhaustible supply of radio sets. Italian civilians were instructed to hand in their sets, and Supply Company men, seeing an Italian trundling his radio through the streets, would make an offer. Anticipating that they would never see their sets again anyway, the Italians were ready to make a deal. Soon there were few trucks in the company without a radio, and company workshops were kept busy converting them to operate on direct current.
From Tripoli, too, came the materials for the conversion of the orderly-room truck into one of the most opulent orderly rooms in the British Army. It is described as being ‘the ultimate in cliftie’. From the stores department of the equivalent of the city council came plywood panelling for the walls; from the council offices came steel filing cabinets; and from various other places odds and ends to complete the job. In this sophisticated splendour, such plebeian pastimes as brewing up and toasting over a primus seemed hardly in place, but they persisted, none the less, despite protests from Morris.
Supply Company settled in near Castel Benito, south of Tripoli on the Tarhuna road. Fifth Brigade was in Tripoli itself as New Zealand's visible contribution to the occupation, and 6 Brigade was at Bianchi, south-west of Tripoli. With the Division now static, supply work became routine again, but Supply Company trucks were involved in the page 260 vast operation of ferrying cargoes from lighters in Tripoli harbour—being worked by New Zealand labour—to depots in and around the city. A good proportion of the Division's transport was engaged in this task, which called for strict traffic control to avoid congestion in the dock area. For although the enemy had been well pummelled, he was still very full of life and frequently sent his aircraft over to harass the work.
And there were other hazards beside enemy aircraft. Naturally in Tripoli there was a fair infestation of what Americans like to call ‘top brass’, and at any given moment a high ranking officer was likely to be abroad on the road. While driving an officer into Tripoli one day, Driver Sleeman3 very wrongly attempted to pass a small convoy when a motor cycle approaching from the opposite direction forced him to cut in. He was in Tripoli for a second time that afternoon when an officer ‘all red tabs and badges’ stopped by his truck and demanded, ‘Are you the man who nearly crashed the Army Commander's car this morning?’ Sleeman couldn't be sure about that, but he conceded that he had cut into a convoy, and was informed that he had cut across the nose of General Montgomery's staff car—‘You nearly killed him.’ Sleeman was put on charge, but if Field Marshal Lord Montgomery recalls the incident he might be interested to know that three ‘mistakes’ were found in the charge, which was in consequence dismissed.
The most notable event of the Tripoli occupation was the visit of Mr Churchill on 4 February, a calm, clear day on which the green grass of the parade ground and the flanking bluegums basked in the sun. Seven officers and 200 men of Supply Company fell in with a services group and took up their place in the long khaki lines, and at 2 p.m. Mr. Churchill's open car, in which was also seated the familiar figure of General Montgomery, with black beret, rolled onto the parade ground. Behind, in a German staff car, came General Sir Harold Alexander and General Sir Alan Brooke, and in following cars Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese and various other senior officers. Mr page 261 Churchill drove along the lines of troops, then from the saluting base told them that they would ‘march into fairer lands…where the grim and severe conditions of the desert lie behind.’ He dispelled any hopes that this fairer land might be New Zealand, however, by reporting that the New Zealand Government, in secret session, ‘accorded to you what is, I am sure, your wish to see this particular job through to the end.’ Of this particular job he said:
[The enemy] is coming towards the end of his means of retreat, and in the corner of Tunisia a decisive battle has soon to be fought. Other great forces are coming in from the west…. All these forces are closing in and all these operations are combined, but in them, I am sure, the Desert Army and the New Zealand Division will bear a most recognisable and honourable part.
Then, in lines of nine abreast, the formations marched past. Armoured and artillery units marched onto a vehicle park, and the tanks, guns and vehicles fell in again behind the marching troops.
Several days later General Montgomery had a word or two to say himself when he addressed officers of Eighth Army in the Miramare Theatre, Tripoli. Speaking of the three divisions that had fought their way up to Tripoli from Alamein—7 Armoured, 51 (Highland) and 2 New Zealand—he said, ‘Nowhere in any army in the world are there three such divisions as these.’ Eighth Army would go forward into Tunisia with the support of 300 fighter aircraft, 300 bombers and 600 tanks. Rommel had a bad attack of the jitters, said General Montgomery. ‘That man is rattled.’
And so Eighth Army got ready for the next move. There was still time for Rugby: Supply Company played interplatoon games; the company on 21 February, playing under the eyes of the ASC selectors, beat Petrol Company 6-3; and 28 (Maori) Battalion won the divisional competition. But the spell in Tripoli was drawing to an end. On 24 February Major Bracegirdle instructed Supply Company to begin building up supplies, and as the transport became available, the work was done. On 1 March the order came: ‘The Company will move west to Ben Gardane 2 March 43 in rear of 1 NZ Ammunition Coy.’page 262
While the New Zealanders had been at Tripoli, other units of Eighth Army had been chasing the Axis forces back towards the Mareth Line, which formed a taut barrier between mountains and the sea. The enemy was now in a tight spot—First Army was applying pressure from the west, and the area left to him was narrowing—but he still had vim for a counter-attack. Eighth Army was not concentrated to meet such an attack, and the New Zealand Division was called up to assist.
It was all done in haste and with the frenzied activity that goes with an emergency move. Fifth Brigade had its orders early on 1 March, but not until later in the day was it known that the complete Division would be moving. A normal one-day ration issue had been made that morning, and this was followed by a six-day issue to most units; some had already received three days' the previous day, and these received a further four. Fifth Brigade was packed off that night with 1 Platoon of Supply Company, commanded by Rawle, in attendance. Rawle's platoon carried four days' rations. The rest of the company loaded up with four days' reserves for the remaining units, and at 8 p.m. was ready, with laden trucks, to move on an hour's notice. Some 6 RMT vehicles were assisting with the load-carrying.
Sixth Brigade moved off on the morning of the 2nd, and the rest of the Division trailed along behind during the afternoon and evening. With headlights dimmed, Supply Company fell into the chain early in the evening; the route was north to the coast road, then west. The glowing, growling line of vehicles was apparently of no interest to enemy aircraft at that moment bombing Tripoli. The convoy moved west through the bitterly cold night until the dawn glinted on the salt lakes flanking either side of the road. At daybreak the company streamed through Pisida and soon after halted short of the Tunisian frontier for a welcome breakfast. Then, with a benign winter sun shining from a clear sky, the vehicles moved on along the good Italian-made highway. But progress was slower. Transport and tanks cluttered the road, and it was not until late morning that the company crossed the border. There was immediate transformation: on the Italian side the land was well kept page 263 and cultivated and trees turned roads into pleasant avenues; on the French side the land turned to desert, and the road became a narrow, bumpy strip. Burnt-out vehicles, minefields and demolitions marked the route.
Ben Gardane was a small native village, with shelter-like buildings showing, in their grilled windows, a Moorish influence. Seventeen miles further along the road the company halted at 3 p.m. after being twenty hours on the road. Already the two infantry brigades were in position at Medenine, 27 miles up the road, and ready for action.
While the infantry busily strengthened their positions at Medenine, Supply Company went back into the old routine of drawing—from Ben Gardane—and issuing—at a replenishment area 19 kilometres east of Medenine. There seemed to be tanks everywhere as replenishment convoys moved back and forth along the narrow strip of tarseal. Burnt-out and wrecked vehicles were littered about, craters pitted the ground, and here and there were graves. Then, on the morning of 6 March, gunfire rumbled in the east. To Supply Company came an order to detach two platoons—Nos. 2 and 3 were sent—to carry ammunition from 115 FMC at Ben Gardane to 116 FMC at Medenine.
Early that morning, while white mist smothered the front, enemy guns had begun to bark, and an enemy thrust converged on the Medenine junction. Shrewd defensive planning drew the panzers into a hornets' nest of anti-tank guns, and 25-pounders lashed the following infantry. Stukas screamed down on the road near Supply Company early in the afternoon, and at 6 p.m. the storm burst over the company and some nearby 8th Reinforcements who had just arrived. As dusk was gathering a group of aircraft came skimming in low; a momentary thought that they were RAF aircraft playing games was dispelled as tearing machineguns sprayed out tracer, and there was a scatter for cover. For some minutes ten light bombers raced about with malicious glee, and then flew off with two petrol dumps flaring behind them. It was a parting shot; the counterattack had failed, and the enemy ground forces withdrew behind the Mareth Line.