23. The End in Africa
23. The End in Africa
It was now accepted that we were up against an organized position and that a set-piece attack would be required. During the next few days, the Army breasted up to it and made preparations.
21 Battalion came back after an interesting thirty-six hours with the armour and on the night of the 14th I pushed it across the Wadi el Boul to occupy a low ridge as a bridgehead. This was done without casualties and next night the battalion occupied Kintiss, an isolated hill west of Takrouna, having two men wounded and taking six prisoners. Patrols during these two nights brought back a fair amount of information about the enemy F.D.L.s and reports that they were working busily. Two of the brigade dispatch riders disappeared. They had heard the B.B.C. announcement that Enfidaville had been occupied, went up the road, and eventually returned from Germany two years later. The Quartermaster of the Divisional Cavalry, with his truck, disappeared in the same way, and so did two senior British sapper officers who had also heard the broadcast.
Orders for the attack were given at a divisional conference on the 16th: 6 Brigade had come into line on our right and was to take Enfidaville, 5 Brigade to take Takrouna and the Djebel Bin, a low ridge parallel with the Takrouna spur between the two brigades. 4 Indian Division had come in on the left and was to take the Garci massif, its attack being separated from ours by two miles of plain.
We patrolled vigorously, but could not get any prisoners. In fact, prisoners were seldom taken by patrols, though every one sent out was told to collect some. If prisoners are wanted you have to hit hard and go in with some strength. We lost a good young officer of the Twenty-first who was severely wounded and could not be brought out. We were relieved page 303 later to hear of him from Germany. He had lost a leg, but even in their desperate position in Tunisia the Germans thought it worth while to ship a badly wounded prisoner to Italy. On the whole we got little more information from our patrols than we got from air photographs and we lost several good men. I spent a lot of time forward with the battalion commanders, studying the ground and working out a plan for tackling our formidable objective. Ralf and Reg had been with me since Ruweisat, Charlie Bennett since Alamein—but we all felt that our happy partnership was nearing its end.
At the final conference the Corps Commander, General Horrocks, spoke optimistically of deep objectives and exploitation. Long afterwards he reminded me that he had asked me what I thought of my task and that I told him it was just on. This conference ended in the evening of the 18th, brigade conference was held on my return, and Monty got out written orders during the night.
Monday 19 April was a perfectly beautiful day, all the land bright with spring flowers and the air balmy and clear. In the late afternoon I went round the battalions, astir with preparations. The men were all veterans—at this time we were not considering candidates for commissions unless they had taken part in half a dozen actions—and they seemed to me purposeful and serene. I saw most of the company commanders, all cheerful and resolute, and my stout battalion commanders were all in their best form. None of us had any illusions about the difficulty of our task—we had had too many days to look at it—but we were all completely confident that the men would do it and satisfied that our plan was as good as we could devise. After dark Brigade Head-quarters moved across the wadi and was established under the shelter of a low ridge, practically on the start-line, and only partially concealed from the top of Takrouna. An American colonel joined us as an observer for the battle.
My plan was to make the attack in two phases. In the first phase the Maoris and the Twenty-first were to advance 3,400 yards on either side of Takrouna, the Maoris being on the right, to a line just beyond a road which ran roughly page 304 parallel with our front behind the hill. The capture of Takrouna was the Maoris' responsibility and was to be undertaken from the rear or flank. The Twenty-first was to seek opportunities of assisting. This first objective was to be reached in 68 minutes. In the second phase, the Twenty-third was to move through the Maoris, form up on the road while the barrage stood for 20 minutes, then advance a further 800 yards in 16 minutes to capture the second objective, ugly-looking features called the Gebel Foukr and the Gebel Cherachir. I warned the battalion that it might have to fight for its start-line on the road. On our front of 2,500 yards we had 168 guns in support, including a few mediums.
Assaulting strengths were low, Twenty-first 360, Twenty-third 383, and Maoris 319. A squadron of Sherman tanks from the Notts. Yeomanry was under command. I expected success after hard fighting and it was essential that we should succeed—the guns supporting us were all moved forward on to the plain after dark and would be terribly exposed if we failed. We had several times discussed the rate of advance and agreed on a hundred yards in two minutes. As it proved, this was much too fast for the heavy going through the olive-groves and cactus hedges, and accordingly our whole programme was thrown out. We had been thinking in terms of an attack over the open desert, where the barrage rates had usually been too slow for our spirited infantry.
All the preparations went smoothly, not the slightest hitch being reported anywhere. I walked out on to the start-line and had a final word with Charlie and Ralf. In the moonlight the long lines of silent riflemen brought a catch to my heart. I spoke to Murray, one of the Twenty-first company commanders, who was killed a few minutes later, and I then went a few yards back to where the Twenty-third was forming up. All three splendid battalions were in perfect order on their start-lines, precisely on time, an hour before midnight.
There was a flash on the southern horizon, then a ripple of flashes, the whistling of shells passing overhead and then the thudding of hundreds of guns. I watched the Twenty-first go forward as one man and disappear, watched for a moment page 305 the bursts of the barrage, and went back to the A.C.V., feeling very humble that it was my part to stay behind.
There is nothing whatever that a headquarters can do in the first stages of a set-piece attack. The die is cast and there is nothing to be done but wait. We stood about, watching the flickering gun-flashes and the quick glow of bursts among the olive-groves and high on Takrouna, listening to the incessant screaming and sighing of shells overhead and the thunder and rumble of the bombardment and straining to hear the chatter of automatics. This ominous sound, the signal that the infantry were at grips, came all too soon, as did the nearer crunches of the enemy's defensive fire.
At 11.30 the Twenty-third reported that it was moving off. There was no word yet, or expected, from the forward battalions, but we climbed back into the A.C.V. and settled down. Monty and I sat on opposite sides of a table, each with map on a board and a supply of chinagraph pencils. Also at the table sat one of the intelligence section, keeping a minute-to-minute diary of messages and orders. Two signalmen with earphones on were at their sets. The American colonel sat quietly and observantly on a box in a corner. The L.O.s, runners, some signalmen, and a batman continuously making tea on a primus, sat in a canvas lean-to outside the door. At intervals we would notice that what little space we had left had become jammed with visitors, war correspondents, and the merely curious unemployed, and either Monty or I would sharply clear them out. But after a while the place would fill up again. No one spoke except Monty and me or a signalman reporting. The light was only just good enough and became worse with our smoking.
Except that the A.D.S.1 reported that walking wounded were streaming in, we got no information until after midnight. Then one of the Twenty-first company commanders, one of whom Ralf had never been too sure, appeared with some of his men and a tale of woe. He was badly rattled: his company, on the right of the battalion, had come under heavy fire, had run on to a minefield and had become so scattered that he could think of nothing better to do than page 306 come back. I considered sending him and his party forward again, but decided that nothing would be gained, he was obviously too shaken, so told him to go and lie down some-where handy.
We got Maori headquarters on the air. A Maori signaller said that the colonel, Adjutant, and R.S.M. had all been badly wounded, there was a great deal of fire and many casualties, and he thought the battalion was considerably mixed up, but a lot of fighting was going on. About the same time the A.D.S. reported that eleven of the Maori officers, including all the company commanders, were already in, wounded, with many other ranks. Some of the Twenty-first and Twenty-third wounded were coming in also.
The time for reaching the first objective arrived and passed without any news. The bombardment slackened a little while the standing barrage was being fired, but the chatter of automatics and crackle of rifle fire never ceased. A message arrived that the Twenty-first was nearing the objective, long behind time. Ralf Harding was wounded but carrying on. The hour and twenty minutes for the halt on the first objective passed without any more news. Then Angus Ross came up on the air: Reg had been badly wounded and he had been driven to cover with his wireless set. And it took a good deal to drive Angus to cover. He said that the Maori casualties appeared to have been very heavy and the battalion was much disorganized. Sandy Thomas had led the Twenty-third through, though long after the time for the second barrage, and he could hear the shouting and firing ahead. The Twenty-first reported that it had been held up, casualties heavy, and a good deal of disorganization, but parts of A. and B. Companies were thought to be near the objective.
A little after 2 o'clock a runner came in from these two companies. He said that the company commanders were casualties, that Mr. Taylor had sent him back to Battalion Headquarters with a message and that when he had failed to find Battalion he had come on to Brigade. His message was that Taylor had about fifty men of the two companies, was near the objective, and intended to fight his way on to page 307 join the Twenty-third behind Takrouna. This runner was a youngster of the Eighth Reinforcements, a nice-looking boy. I told the signalmen to give him some tea and told him to stay with them till morning. Later the signalmen told me that he had decided to return to his mates.
Other messages arrived, showing that the Twenty-first had been heavily punished and was considerably disorganized. It became clear that it would not be able to reach the objective in any strength.
I had no reserves except the squadron of tanks, which could not be used till morning. It was evident that Takrouna would then still be in enemy hands and the Twenty-first, on open ground, would be hopelessly exposed. Some measure of success had been obtained on the right, where by now there were indications that the Twenty-third had reached the road, and the Maoris could be depended upon to mop up everything behind them. I decided not to try to retrieve failure but to reinforce success and to withdraw what remained of the Twenty-first as a reserve with which to support the fight on the eastern side of Takrouna. This was a hard decision as it would be difficult to get Taylor's gallant party back. I sent two of the L.O.s, moving separately, with orders to Ralf to withdraw.
During their absence a runner came in from Ralf and reported that he was recalling his forward companies and reorganizing in a defensive position in a wadi a few hundred yards short of the road. The early hours passed very slowly and anxiously. Our guns were now silent but small-arms and mortar fire remained continuous. A message came that Sandy had reached the road with thirty-five men and about 4.30 a.m. another that more of the battalion, much diminished in numbers, had joined him. Ralf reported at 5 a.m. that he was withdrawing and soon after daylight the Twenty-first was reorganizing near Brigade Headquarters. Only one platoon of the forward party had received the order to retire and it got back independently. The remainder could still be heard fighting on until long after daylight.
Angus reported that he was still pinned down with his wireless set on its jeep, and that the battalion's supporting page 308 weapons had been unable to get forward owing to the intense fire. Both the Twenty-third and the Twenty-eighth were being very heavily shelled and mortared, the Germans for the first time using their six-barrelled Nebelwerfers. One troop of the Notts. Yeomanry had gone forward with the attack to make gaps in the cactus hedges. In the dust and confusion of the night they had lost touch with the infantry, had run into anti-tank guns, and had wisely withdrawn. At first light I ordered the whole squadron forward, and though troubled by mines it slowly turned the scale in the fierce fire fight still proceeding on Gebel Bin and in the valley between that feature and Takrouna.
Two of the Maori companies had been heavily engaged on Gebel Bin. With the help of a couple of Crusaders they finally cleared the ridge soon after daylight and part of another company crossed the road on the right and came up level with the Twenty-third, actually on the first objective. These successes secured our junction with 6 Brigade.
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. After the battle, with much questioning, we discovered what had happened.
10 Platoon of B. Company of the Maoris had been given the task of storming the pinnacle of Takrouna. The platoon commander had been wounded in the early stages of the attack, half the men had been hit, and the remainder held up at the foot of the hill. At daylight the two sergeants, Rogers and Manahi, and seven other ranks were left. They decided ‘to continue the advance to the platoon objective’. Rogers and Manahi reconnoitred the approaches and made a plan. As their report stated, they divided into ‘two forces’, one of four men under Rogers climbing the slopes from the south, and the other of three under Manahi advancing from page 309 the south-west. A third ‘force’, namely a Sergeant Smith who had gone astray from the Twenty-third, joined in the assault.
The slopes were steep and half-covered by heavy boulders and they came under intense but ill-aimed fire. At 7.30 a.m., two hours after first light, the two parties had fought their way to the foot of the final pinnacle. On the way they disposed of numerous enemy posts, killing a score or so of the enemy and taking seventy prisoners, who were escorted back by the several men who had been wounded.
The flat top of the pinnacle was about thirty yards square. Nearly all the space was occupied by stone buildings, including an Arab tomb with a round dome. There was a sheer drop of ten to twenty feet all round this little top, and round most of the circumference there was an overhang. Somehow the assaulting party scrambled up one at a time at the only possible point, hurling grenades ahead of them, and in a few minutes' wild scramble cleared the buildings. Only four of the original ten stormers remained, with Manahi in command, the others being killed or wounded. Several Germans, including an artillery O.P. officer, were among the total of 150 prisoners and some forty or fifty had been killed. The prisoners were sent down the hill under escort of walking wounded and a few more Maoris arrived to reinforce the little party on the pinnacle. Once the enemy realized that they had lost this vital point they started to shell and mortar it and the slopes of the hill below, and this continued all day without intermission. About 10 o'clock, Arthur Bailey, the intelligence officer of the Twenty-third, came in. He had made a perilous journey back through the valley and wanted to tell us about it and about the events of the night. I checked him sternly and held him to an account of the situation when he left the battalion, which he gave clearly, question and answer. The companies were considerably disorganized and were short of the final objective but were well dug in beyond the road and Sandy had the situation well in hand. The tanks were held up by minefields and shelling, and small-arms fire was too heavy for supporting arms or Angus with his wireless to get through. The position was badly overlooked page 310 by Germans on the Gebel Cherachir who maintained a heavy fire and who were in a good position to counterattack. We checked the positions on the map very carefully and in a few minutes Monty had the guns putting heavy ‘stonks’ down on this area, much to the relief of the Twenty-third.
A little later Wikiriwhi, the Maori intelligence officer, came in. He reported that he had reorganized and established Battalion Headquarters, and had communication with the companies. Mopping up of enemy pockets was proceeding, the men were in good spirits, and he thought the position was well in hand. Having reported, he at once returned. I went up to the Maoris and found that though being heavily mortared they were in very good humour and pleased with themselves. I made a few adjustments, sent for a platoon of the Twenty-first to relieve the Maoris on Takrouna, and ordered the supporting arms of the Twenty-third to make another effort to get through.
Shaw's relieving platoon got up about 4 in the afternoon but the supporting arms were again stopped by heavy fire of all kinds. Gradually, in many little fights and with the very effective help of the tanks, the valley, Gebel Bin, and the lower slopes of Takrouna were cleared. The enemy held on stubbornly in the village, a huddle of stone houses on a sort of platform below the pinnacle, and continued the incessant shelling and mortaring. The Twenty-third, for a long time isolated, cleared the ground behind it and checked every attempt at a counter-attack, mainly by calling down ‘stonks’ on any movement. The General called and was rather upset by my estimate of 400 casualties. He promised to put a battalion of 6 Brigade under command. Tom Morten, C.O. of the Twenty-fifth, arrived shortly for orders and I told him to relieve the Twenty-third after dark. At about the same time Angus Ross at last got his precious No. 11 set through to the Twenty-third. I began to feel that the crisis was past and went to my caravan for a rest.
It was quickly interrupted. At 6 o'clock Shaw reported that the Italians had got back on the pinnacle and he was hard pressed. I ordered the Twenty-first to send another page 311 platoon up, there was no room for any more, nor was there anything else that we could do. Before it arrived the pinnacle was again reported clear, but nearly all our little garrison were casualties, most of them still on duty with grenade splinter wounds. Hirst, a tough little youngster whom I remembered as a private soldier of the Eighteenth in Greece, arrived on the top with his platoon at 9.30 p.m. All the wounded were got away but, half an hour later, the Italians were again attacking and a bitter, close fight continued all night and on into next morning. The top was lost and regained once more, but nearly all of the little garrison were hit.
The relief of the Twenty-third went off without incident though there was a lot of shelling during the night. The Maoris sent some of their men back to the pinnacle to help the Twenty-first. Brigade Headquarters spent another wakeful night but for all we could do we might as well have been soundly asleep. Enemy shell-fire was extremely heavy during the whole of the morning of the next day, 21 April. There was never a moment that the top of Takrouna was not half hidden by shell-bursts. The buildings gave good protection but there was a steady trickle of casualties. The Italians made another lodgement on the pinnacle in an ancient tomb, a solid stone affair with a big round dome. The artillery O.P. officer, Harding, engaged this target with one gun, working its rounds up the hill, until about midday he scored a direct hit only a few yards from himself and the infantry who at once rushed the tomb. What Italians were unhurt had escaped and it was found that from a trap-door a rope led down the face of the cliff to the village twenty feet below. This explained the enemy's repeated appearance on the top.
During the afternoon I went up but found there was nothing I could do and returned thankfully. The valley was now clear, but the Twenty-fifth was getting a steady shelling. On my return, a little after 5 o'clock, I found that Monty had brought a seventeen-pounder forward and it was firing solid shot at the village. It was most interesting to watch the tracer shells streaking in a slight arc across the valley and ricochetting crazily among the houses. Harding was also page 312 carefully directing a troop of twenty-five-pounders on the same target. It appeared that the time had arrived to put an end to this affair. Over the phone I told the Twenty-fifth to have a company ready to move on to the pinnacle after dark and assault the village from this higher ground. Shaw had been wounded and Hirst was now in command. I told him to reconnoitre routes for their assault. He said that the Italians obviously disliked the seventeen-pounder fire and he thought prospects were good.
An hour later resistance suddenly and unexpectedly collapsed. While Hirst was doing his reconnaissance, he noticed that Manahi and another few Maoris were methodically stalking posts below the village, clearing one after another without trouble. In the village he saw that the Italians were shaken. He stopped the shelling, collected the half-dozen remaining men of his platoon, and sallied down. The enemy had had enough, there was no resistance, and in a few minutes he rang joyfully to say that he had more prisoners than he could handle, about 350 in fact. We rang Division equally joyful. These Italians, who had up to the cracking-point fought really well, were parachutists of Folgore Division and northerners from Trieste and Sardinia, with a good stiffening of Germans from 104 Panzer Grenadiers.
As soon as it was dark I sent Roach with two weak companies of the Twenty-first and a platoon of machine-gunners to occupy the whole Takrouna feature. He organized it efficiently and we were at last firmly in possession of three-fourths of our objective. Monty and I went up together to see Morten, whom we found in an uncomfortable position. We worked out a plan for attacking the Gebel Cherachir before dawn and went back to lay on an artillery programme but later called it off as too uncertain and hurried. It was quite wrong for Monty and me both to be away together, but he was sick and tired of being tied to his desk and was refreshed by getting forward. Still we both felt uneasy and guilty until we got back.
22 April was quite uneventful except that both sides shelled incessantly. The brigade diary reports nothing beyond: ‘Probably the heaviest shelling ever experienced by page 313 our forward troops, especially those on Takrouna. Casualties were fairly light.’ We were not strong enough to attack again and all day simply lay low and waited for the enemy to get over his ill temper. Bill Gentry called to say good-bye before leaving to take up an appointment in New Zealand. We were sad to part. Ike Parkinson took over 6 Brigade.
After dark Twigden took me up in a Dingo to see Morten. This was an unpleasant trip. The sickly sweet smell of death lay heavily over the valley and there were still many unburied dead. The valley was being constantly shelled and at short intervals there was a burst fairly on the track that the sappers had very gallantly cleared and taped. We reached the road which was frequently raked by machine-gun and anti-tank-gun fire. Twigden stayed with the Dingo in some very insecure-looking cover and I walked forward and found Tom Morten's headquarters in a dry watercourse. His men had had an uneasy day, under constant fire and badly overlooked, and I thought some of them were showing the strain. We talked again of the possibility of improving his position by a night attack. I decided against it and ordered him to withdraw from the useless low ground that he was in and take up fresh positions on the northern slopes of Takrouna and the Gebel Bin.
On the way back we stopped to ask some directions from three soldiers. While we were speaking two high-velocity shells burst very close and Twigden started up suddenly. There was a cry of ‘Stop!’ We stopped and I scrambled out to find that one of the three soldiers had been knocked over and had a broken and badly lacerated arm. It was a poor place to stop and apply a field dressing, so we got him into the Dingo where he sat on my knee and we hurried on. We were back at the dressing station in ten minutes but it was a grim little journey. I held the lad in my arms and hung on to his arm while he silently fought the pain. We left him at the dressing station, where he thanked me with a pleasing politeness. My clothes were soaked in blood, which caused a small sensation when I got back to the A.C.V.
Next day, the 23rd, was another day of heavy shelling and no movement. It was pleasing that the heaviest concentrations page 314 fell on the area that the Twenty-fifth had given up. Our guns were hard at work and there was all the noise of a real battle. Late in the afternoon George Murray came up to say that 152 Brigade would relieve us that night. We discussed positions and ways and means and he asked whether my headquarters was in a good place and whether we got shelled there. We had not actually been hit though Jerry obviously regarded the area with suspicion and I noticed that our visitors did their business and got away pretty smartly. I said it was a very good place and we did not get shelled. One of the signallers looked up suddenly and George looked at me suspiciously. He said he was pleased to hear my views and we went on to the next question.
The Highlanders came in after dark and the relief went smoothly under the control of the two Brigade Majors. George sat in the A.C.V. with us and we chatted intermittently. I said that I had noticed at Akarit that they were still taking their pipes into battle. He said ‘Yes’ but added gloomily that they would have to stop. I asked why and he explained that those pipers got hit every time and the pipes cost f80 a set. We considered this difficulty in silence for a while, George repeated that it was too expensive, and we went on to another subject. The relief was completed about 3 a.m. and we moved a few miles back to the cactus plantations.
In this difficult operation, 5 Brigade took 732 prisoners of whom 164 were Germans. We also captured ten anti-tank guns, seventy-two heavy machine-guns and uncounted light weapons, mortars, and stores. Including those in the supporting arms and the Twenty-fifth, we had about 500 casualties. The rifle companies who, as usual, bore the brunt, suffered heavily. The Twenty-first lost 159 out of its assaulting strength of 360; the Twenty-third 116 out of 383; and the Maoris, including 12 of their 17 officers, lost 131 out of 319. Considering that this was near the end of ten hard months' campaigning and that many of the men had already been wounded once or twice, this was a very good performance. It was a real soldier's battle in which the initiative and determination of the fighting troops won the decision.page 315
Manahi was recommended for a V.C. and got an immediate D.C.M. Sandy Thomas and Wikiriwhi got well deserved D.S.O.s, Hirst an M.C., and there were many other, good awards. I do not remember ever being so impressed by the gallantry disclosed in the citations. Many good soldiers fought their last battle. Charlie Bennett was very badly wounded and had years of suffering ahead of him. Porter, who had taken part in fourteen attacks, was among the Maori officers severely hit. Herbie Black, who had been wounded at the Tebaga Gap and just rejoined after wangling his way out of hospital, was killed farthest forward of anybody. He, with Peter Norris, killed at Nofilia, and Teddy Dawson, the first officer killed in Greece, were the last three officers I had commissioned into my Territorial battalion before the war. They were all little and dapper, school friends separated only by their deaths, all flawlessly brave and loyal. Reg Romans had a nasty wound in the foot and had difficulty in avoiding being invalided home. Keiha took command of the Maoris and Dick Connolly, who had given me the photographs at Galatos, took over the Twenty-third.
We rested for a few days and got a small draft of returned wounded and sick as reinforcements. On Sunday I attended rather moving church parades with the battalions separately. I went back to see George Murray and got a warm reception. Far too warm, for his headquarters was shelled quite sharply during my visit and he would not allow me to leave when it started. He said I obviously needed a demonstration of what was and what was not shelling. His Brigade Major was permanently deafened by one of the near misses.
Being insatiable sightseers, like most New Zealanders, we made up a party to visit Kairouan, alleged to be a holy city. It was a hot and dusty day and we thought little of the place but agreed that the mosque, with its hundreds of alabaster and marble pillars looted from El Djem, was worth seeing. The inhabitants were unpleasant-looking and very surly. On return I dined at Division and with regret heard talk of a projected attack along the coast. Until the end of the month this was under discussion and I had to screw myself page 316 up a little to work up any enthusiasm about it. Mr. Jones, the New Zealand Minister of Defence, came up and one day I took him to look at Takrouna, with strict injunctions from the General not to run him under fire. We had the luck to see some heavy shelling and a spectacular little attack.
Ike and Monty and I did a reconnaissance up the coast to view the ground for the projected attack. None of us particularly wanted to do it but the proposals were feasible. 1 Army was now deployed and fighting on a wide front and we hoped that it would get on well and quickly enough to make further attacks by us unnecessary, but still we did not altogether like being relegated to a passive role. Planning went ahead and there were several conferences, with everyone determinedly cheerful and aggressive. I could see no reason why the Axis armies in Tunisia should not put up as stubborn and protracted a resistance as the Germans had at Stalingrad. We would certainly have done so if positions had been reversed. I remarked as much and the General said ‘No’: the Germans would crack and crack completely.
We took the Brigade to the sea for a bathe—a real picnic day, with the band playing and hours to bask in the sun. On the 30th I went with a party to look at Sousse and Monastir. We were overtaken by a dispatch rider with an urgent message to return at once and hurried back expecting orders for the attack. I reported complete with map case under my arm, but the General laughed and said ‘No attack this time’: he was going to 10 Corps and I was to take command of the Division. We talked long that night. It appeared probable that his departure would be permanent and that was a solemn thought. For me it was pleasing to get command of the Division but campaigning without the General seemed unthinkable. I went to Division in the morning, put up stars and crossed swords and acquired an A.D.C. Ralf Harding took over 5 Brigade, Monty went to command the Twenty-first, and Denis became Brigade Major.
My spell in command of the Division was short—fourteen days—and not particularly eventful. The coup de grâce was to be delivered by First Army, and Eighth Army had only to hold and maintain a certain amount of pressure. page 317 General Horrocks went to First Army to command the Corps making the break-through and 4 Indian Division moved across to carry out the initial assault. All the time we had been engaged round Takrouna the Indians had been fighting hard on Garci but they still had possession of only portions of that huge and complicated feature.
For two days I could find nothing whatever to do except yarn to Paddy Costello, write letters, and sleep. On 3 May orders arrived for the Division to take over a sector on the western side of Garci. Queree and I went over on an insufferably hot and dusty trip and did a lengthy reconnaissance. We found that the line we were to take over was very thinly held by John Currie's 4 Light Armoured Brigade, with a very partially equipped French Corps under General Juin on the left.
Next day 5 Brigade moved across and took over the line after dark with instructions to work forward to close contact with the enemy positions. On the way it was bombed by some American fighter-bombers and had several casualties, including the very nice provost sergeant of the Twenty-first. Steve Weir brought his guns plus three British field regiments. A French officer came over with messages of welcome and a copy of an order of the French Corps which said that ‘la Division Nouvelle Zélandaise, une division d'assaut d'un caractère le plus formidable, avec plus de 200 canons’ had come into line and was going to do great things with which the French would conform. The French divisional commander arrived later and I explained that there was a misunderstanding. I had no instructions to carry out any major attack but would certainly conform and cover his flank if he cared to do so. He was a bit dashed and explained that he had a lot of Goums who were very good at attacking and cutting throats but not for holding ground or anything else and he had only about a dozen guns. I offered to cover any attack he made with all our guns and he got very excited and said that he would certainly prepare a plan and make a tremendous attack.
On the morning of the 5th I visited Brigade Headquarters and after looking round and watching some patrols slowly page 318 working forward ordered a 2,000 yards advance during the night. There was some enemy shelling and numerous mines had been discovered. The General came over from Corps and was disappointed that I thought there was no sense in a projected operation to pinch out the Garci massif. During the night our guns fired heavy concentrations on targets that the French had indicated. We understood that they were going to attack and were surprised to find in the morning that they had made no move. The divisional commander came over to say how much they had admired the bombardment.
5 Brigade got forward with little trouble and only a few casualties from mines. I went to see Ralf and then visited John Currie whose Brigade had side-stepped to the right when we came in. We went forward together and, as on Miteiriya Ridge, got into a very exposed position, and waited each for the other to say the word to go. Finally we had to crawl a hundred yards with a Spandau almost stroking our backs. The General was waiting for me at Division and, perhaps because of this incident, found me warmly in favour of the pinching-out proposal. He ordered me to go ahead with it and I told 5 Brigade to take three small features near the village of Saouf in its front during the night. We heard that the First Army offensive had started and was going amazingly well.
5 Brigade's attack went off smoothly. One company was used for each objective and all were taken with nineteen prisoners and only three casualties. I visited the Brigade in the morning and directed further small advances. We were squaring up ready to deliver a heavy blow. We spent much of the day in the intelligence truck listening to a flow of reports of astounding successes on the First Army front. In the late afternoon, the thrilling news came in that 11th Hussars had entered Tunis. It was clear to the most pessimistic that we were within sight of the end of the war in Africa.
Again the infantry gained a little ground without trouble and we felt that we were up against the enemy's position and would have to put on a set-piece affair. I went up page 319 to talk it over with Ralf but on return found orders for Divisional Headquarters and most of the guns to return to the Enfidaville area. This we did in the afternoon, leaving 5 Brigade in position with only a holding role. All news during the day showed that the enemy defeat was becoming catastrophic.
It was a surprise next morning, 9 May, to hear that 5 Brigade had been sharply counter-attacked during the night. Henare's company of the Maoris had been nearly surrounded and had retired with about twenty casualties. Matehaere's company re-took the ground in the morning without much trouble, taking seventy-five prisoners of 164 Division and having no casualties. This was a puzzling affair: the Germans had never before attacked at night in our experience, and it was hard to understand their reasons for now doing so.
There was now a proposal to break through the Young Fascists who were holding the coastal sector. A battalion of the newly arrived 56 Division had made a successful attack on the outpost positions during the night. There was a Corps conference and it was decided that 56 Division should make another attack to secure more of the foot-hills on the left and that 6 Brigade should take over a sector. If all went well with this attack we would mount a break-through probably for the next night. As it happened, 56 Division's attack was a rather bad failure so we attempted no break-through. The whole position was now curious. By the 10th 55,000 prisoners were reported, by next evening 100,000, and Tunis and Bizerta were firmly in our hands. Yet the group in front of us held fast to its positions and resisted every advance strongly. It was no comfort to us that their greatly increased artillery activity indicated that they knew it was no use hoarding reserves. With the end of the campaign plainly in sight, there was a certain amount of gun shyness.
A French division was in our old positions about Takrouna. It attacked our original second objectives on the 11th and took them after some heavy fighting. I went over to watch and thought the enemy's violent shelling was the heaviest I had seen. We had one battalion, the Twenty-fifth, in line page 320 and all our guns in action, and every additional casualty reported was painful.
12 May was a perfectly crazy day. The enemy guns were obviously firing away their ammunition and spraying the whole country-side. There was no scientific gunnery, with clearly indicated safe and dangerous areas: shells pitched at random in a most disconcerting fashion. We discovered the location of 90th Light Headquarters and fired a concentration of 144 guns on it. A very gallant English colonel, Hobbs, who had often been with us since early in 1940, was killed during the morning, and so were several men in the Twenty-fifth and some gunners. The shelling gradually died down during the afternoon. Next morning there were a few shots and then silence: it was all over.
The General returned to Division after receiving the surrender of Marshal Messe, and I went back to 5 Brigade. Prisoners poured in by thousands. I went with a brigade party on to Takrouna where we marvelled at the feat our men had accomplished. Ralf Harding and some of his officers found the graves of Taylor, Donaldson, Upton, and eighteen of their men. The others, we long afterwards found out, had nearly all been wounded and were without ammunition when they surrendered. The young runner who had come back to Brigade Headquarters and had returned to rejoin his mates was dead with them. Ralf had expected to find most of them dead: he said they were all old good soldiers who would fight it out to the finish.
We made a trip to inspect Tunis and on the 16th set out on the 2,000 miles trip back to Egypt. It had been decided that 6,000 of those with the longest service were to return to New Zealand on furlough and that the Division would absorb its reinforcements and reorganize at Maadi. Just before leaving, the little rabbit that was the pride and joy of Reg Mariu, the Maori L.O., got under the trunk of an olive-tree and could not be wheedled out. Rather unscrupulously we hitched the A.C.V. on to the tree and pulled it up by the roots. Ross drove me to Tripoli ahead of the Brigade and I flew on to Cairo and in the middle of June returned to New Zealand in charge of the furlough draft. Ross returned with page 321 me and, when he came loyally back to continue our three and a half years' companionship, he could only visit me in hospital. He had never once let me down in any way. When I saw him again in New Zealand, he spoke of the ‘good old days’. Joe went home with the next furlough draft, and I got a new batman, Fred Cox, as good and faithful as the others of my military family.
1 Advanced Dressing Station.