CHAPTER 10 — Tunisian Campaign
The fall of Tripoli was virtually the end of Mussolini's colonial empire, for by February there was not a combatant Italian soldier in the length and breadth of Italian North Africa. The enemy forces, closely attended by Eighth Army, had retired into Tunisia, where the Italians were left to hold the defences of the Mareth Line.
Field Marshal Rommel, knowing that his adversary would need time to assemble sufficient strength to tackle this line, pitted his refitted panzer battalions against the Americans in western Tunisia, with the result that 2 United States Corps was very roughly handled and an Allied reverse seemed not impossible. An urgent request was sent to Eighth Army to do something to relieve the pressure, so while 2 New Zealand Division continued unloading stores at Tripoli, 7 Armoured and 51 (Highland) Divisions pressed up to the outer defences of the Mareth Line.
Whether the Eighth Army demonstrations succeeded in their object, or whether the American defence finally became too strong, is a matter for military strategists to determine, but the attack was called off and on 27 February a panzer division was back on the Eighth Army front. With the return of the German armour to the Mareth Line, there was now a chance that the enemy might try to overwhelm the two forward divisions before Eighth Army was prepared to receive an attack. When the possibility became a certainty, 2 NZ Division was ordered to move at once to Medenine.
At Medenine was located the most forward fighter airstrip. The town is a centre of semi-nomads and the junction of several tracks from the Matmata Hills, as well as the point where a good modern road turns north-west to Gabes after running nearly due west from Ben Gardane. And at Ben Gardane the supplies were being concentrated for the next offensive.
Fifth Brigade was ordered forward at short notice on 1 March page 235 and promptly issued a movement order to its battalions. It was a hectic day of preparation for the changeover from an occupational role to one of urgent action. Rations, petrol, ammunition, and other supplies were brought up to full battle scale, and the brigade moved at midnight. The convoy travelled all night, stopped for breakfast, then carried on again until met at three in the afternoon by the Brigadier and the commanding officers, who had gone ahead to reconnoitre the brigade area, ten miles south of Medenine. To the troops it was just another move, but to the commanders it was a matter of pride that in a few hours their battalions could, without the slightest hitch, pack up in a rest area, travel 120 miles, and deploy for action.
It was too dark to complete tactical dispositions, so the troops bivouacked around the trucks until daylight, when the companies were led to their allotted positions. The Highland Division was holding the coastal area, with 7 Armoured Division immediately south, and 5 Brigade was disposed to extend the line further south. The Maoris, on the brigade's right, tied in with 201 Guards Brigade; 21 Battalion was in the centre and 23 Battalion on the left, linking up with a battalion of the RAF Regiment on the Medenine airfield. The rest of the Division was to be held in reserve when it arrived.
The front was very wide, with three battalions covering 14,000 yards, almost exactly eight miles. The 21st Battalion's sector, rather smaller than the other two, covered approximately two miles of undulating country broken with odd dry, stony wadis. The companies were sited for all-round defence across a road from Medenine to the Matmata Hills, shimmering blue in the haze, about ten miles away. The whole area was clothed in the spring rush of semi-desert grass, sprinkled with wild flowers with scent of an amazing strength and sweetness.
The preparations for meeting the anticipated armoured blow were based on the lessons of Minqar Qaim, Alam Halfa, and the Alamein counter-attacks, and included the careful siting of anti-tank guns and field artillery with 8 Armoured Brigade in support. For these measures to be thoroughly effective it was essential that the enemy tanks should be coaxed within point-blank range and that our own armour should be free page 236 to manoeuvre unhampered by minefields. To this end few mines were put out, but dummy fields consisting of a single strand of barbed wire with black tin triangles strung along its length were sited to herd the enemy armour towards the places where the anti-tank gunners were waiting. As an extra inducement to the tanks to advance boldly, the field artillery was instructed not to fire until the anti-tank crews had opened at killing range.
Such was the overall picture, and the battalion positions conformed to the general pattern. Mutually supporting platoon posts were dug and concealed, and mortars and anti-tank guns sited to cover them. By night listening posts were put out about half a mile in front, and beyond them a standing carrier patrol strained its ears for the sound of advancing panzers.
Two days and two nights passed thus; they were crucial days, for by 4 March General Montgomery had completed his arrangements and Rommel had missed his opportunity. In the event it was 21 Battalion which opened the battle for Medenine.
Colonel Harding, with Second-Lieutenant Lloyd1 as driver, had gone out in his jeep before dawn on 6 March to visit the carrier patrol at the foot of the Matmata Hills. They heard the noise of vehicles in the mist that precedes the sunrise in Tunisia, but the area was an unlikely place to meet the patrol and they carried on. Captain Hosking2 was just about to bring his three carriers in when the Colonel arrived and pointed out the direction of the suspicious movement. The carriers went to investigate and found enemy trucks, which were immediately engaged and destroyed. The carriers found further employment for, possibly attracted by the noise of firing, another and more powerful group of trucks escorting an anti-tank gun and a heavy machine gun appeared. Hosking shot up the leading truck and the gun before he was himself wounded and his carrier disabled. The other carriers completed the destruction of the enemy party, at least fifty strong, rescued the crew of the disabled carrier, and returned with the information that the attack was coming in and that Colonel Harding was probably page 237 captured. The CO and Second-Lieutenant Lloyd turned up intact soon afterwards, however; they had found the road blocked by enemy posts armed with machine guns and anti-tank weapons, and had had to make a wide detour.
Along and on both sides of the road through 21 Battalion's positions appeared the tanks of 10 Panzer Division, evidently directed on Medenine, but when they came to the wire of the dummy minefield the leaders obligingly veered to their left. There was a wadi there that offered shelter and a covered approach to the Maori Battalion lines, and there was also a nest of six-pounders of 73 Anti-Tank Regiment, Royal Artillery, covering the wadi. The gunners waited patiently until the leading tanks were just where they were wanted; then they all fired at once. Four tanks were knocked out and, with the need for concealment gone, everybody let fly: machine guns, tommy guns and rifles bounced their bullets off the surprised enemy armour. Another tank was brewed up by 28 Battalion and the remainder fled. The artillery opened up on the following lorried infantry and they fled also. And that was practically all 21 Battalion saw of the battle of Medenine, for the enemy did not again come within range of small-arms fire.
The air was full of fighter aircraft dodging and diving among the white puffs of our Bofors and the enemy counterpart. The morning passed into afternoon with one long confused noise of tank and anti-tank gunfire, of artillery, of motor transport manoeuvring, deploying, advancing and retreating, but the panzers were baffled. Four times the German armour attacked, and four times it was driven back, gaining nothing and leaving 52 tanks on the battlefield. Friendly tanks came into the battalion area at dusk and aircraft recognition signals were prepared in case of an attempted breakthrough at night, but neither was necessary. When the mist cleared next morning carrier patrols reported that the enemy had gone. His attempt to delay the inevitable had failed.
The Medenine battle was virtually the beginning of the campaign to force the Mareth Line. The plan was a major attack frontally, combined with an outflanking movement—the now familiar ‘left hook’. The assault on the Mareth Line proper page 238 was to be made by 50 Division, and the ‘left hook’ by 2 New Zealand Division, now regarded as specialists in that operation. It involved a march of over 150 miles across a waterless desert, where the going was incredibly difficult, and then forcing the defences at the Tebaga Gap, a two-mile-wide and four-mile-long defile. It was thought that the gap would not be strongly held, as the French builders of the Mareth Line had considered the outflanking march impossible. The enemy did not share this view, although it was hoped he would. He had disposed as many troops at the gap as he could spare from the main position, and held reserves available to move to either front.
Secrecy and concealment were essential if the proposed turning movement south through the Montes des Ksours and then north to the Tebaga Gap was to have any chance of success. To that end all fernleaf signs on vehicles were obliterated, shoulder titles and hat badges were removed, no fires or lights were permitted during darkness, and movement during daylight was reduced to an absolute minimum. There was to be strict wireless silence, and in their despatches war correspondents made a feature of mentioning that 2 New Zealand Division was holding a position at the Mareth Line.
For the operation 2 New Zealand Division became the New Zealand Corps, taking under command 8 Armoured Brigade, some Royal Artillery regiments, a Free French column, and the King's Dragoon Guards (armoured cars).
Fifth Brigade moved to and stayed in the assembly area west of Foum Tatahouine until the night of 19-20 March, doing a little route marching at night to keep fit. A plaster model of the country to be traversed was studied by all commanders down to senior NCOs and explained by them to the troops, so that the broad outline of the operation was known to everybody.
Sixth Brigade was leading when the dash for Gabes started, and 21 Battalion covered thirty miles over wadis and sand dunes that only desert-wise drivers could hope to negotiate. A previously arranged code-word to push on regardless of concealment was received by New Zealand Corps Headquarters, so instead of remaining stationary and camouflaged the 27,000 men and 200 tanks of the Corps commenced the move from the assembly area and pressed on throughout the day on 20 March. By last page 239 light 6 Brigade was only a few miles short of the entrance to Tebaga Gap. The main attack by 50 Division was due to open at midnight, and it was hoped that the advancing New Zealand Corps would induce the enemy to move reserves to the gap.
Should Point 184 not be captured, it would be impossible to move the troops to the proposed start line to lie up unseen, for the whole plan hinged on secretly disposing the assaulting battalions and doing the unexpected by attacking, not at night, but out of the westering sun in the late afternoon. The vital Point 184 had already resisted capture and, as it was essential that no mistake be made this time, it was made a battalion objective. The 21st Battalion was briefed to take Point 184 and, as on the previous occasion—at Halfaya Pass—when the 21st had been given a single-handed job, it was to be a night show; but, unlike at Halfaya, there was to be ample, even devastating, artillery support.
Harding received his orders at 10 a.m. on 25 March and left immediately with his company commanders to get the benefit of 26 Battalion's local knowledge. He decided to tackle the hill from a flank, and while the company commanders were making themselves familiar with the terrain, the battalion was formed up. There was no time for written operation orders and, if the unexpected happened, the Halfaya instructions of ‘Fight and find out’ applied.
At 6.30 p.m. the battalion moved up ten miles by truck and debussed. There was no time then for excursion into archaeology, but the troops debussed at a point where a wall built by the Romans centuries earlier had served the purpose of keeping the Tebaga Gap closed to unwelcome visitors. At 11 p.m. the Intelligence Officer left with B Company to put out the start-line tapes. At 11.30 the rest of the battalion followed and formed up, with C Company on the right, D on the left, A in support of C, and B in reserve. Battalion Headquarters was established in a wadi half a mile south of the start line.
The objective was the high ground running north from Point 184 and was divided into two areas. Area ‘A’, to be attacked by C Company with A in support, was slightly forward of the point, and area ‘B’, nearly a thousand yards farther north, was allotted to D Company.page 241
At 1 a.m. the artillery concentration was put down on the objective for 15 minutes, with an extra five minutes on D Company's area, and the assaulting companies advanced. C Company was at the foot of the hill within twelve minutes and had scrambled well up the rocky hillside before the artillery concentration ceased. The left flanking platoon (No. 14, under Second-Lieutenant Hirst3) was held up by machine-gun fire, but No. 15 (Second-Lieutenant Miller4) was able to carry on and deal with the posts giving the trouble. Contrary to their usual custom the German garrison, approximately a company strong, did not put up a very good fight. The artillery ‘stonk’ appeared to have stunned them, and the close follow-up with the bayonet completed their demoralisation. Six were killed and 37 taken prisoner. The others made off in trucks standing nearby.
D Company had a harder fight. The artillery concentration ceased when the troops were still 200 yards from the objective, and small-arms fire was quickly brought down on them. One platoon and Company Headquarters moved up to the saddle and round the south of the point, while the other two platoons moved round to the north. Then the whole company closed in from front and rear. The enemy was well dug in and fought until killed or wounded. Twelve were killed and eight captured, together with two mortars and an anti-tank gun. The 21st Battalion casualties in the action were four killed and 17 wounded.
The troops did not expect to be left in undisputed possession of a feature that dominated the front, and prepared for the almost inevitable counter-attack. The ground was too hard and rocky for quick digging, so sangars were built instead. Lance-Corporal Negus,5 D Company, had the company wireless set operating as soon as the fighting finished. He got into communication with Battalion Headquarters, as well as with the other companies, and when tanks and trucks were heard approaching he called for artillery support. The guns turned on a ‘stonk’ within minutes and no counter-attack developed. page 242 A Company, waiting to support D Company if needed, returned to its reserve position near Battalion Headquarters, while the Mortar Platoon and a platoon of machine-gunners dragged their weapons up the hill and formed a line. Around Battalion Headquarters six-pounder anti-tank guns got into position to deal with any enemy tanks that might survive the artillery protective fire. By first light the position was consolidated and at 8 a.m. some twelve tanks and 35 trucks were seen about a mile to the north, apparently preparing a tank-supported counter-attack, but after milling around for some time they eventually moved out of sight.
While the battalion was settling in on the hill that denied the enemy observation, the assaulting battalions of 5 and 6 Brigades were moving to their allotted lying-up position, and by dawn they had all disappeared into the ground. Further back tanks, light, heavy and medium, were concentrating for the final rush that would clear the way for the infantry to pour, like a river in flood, through the Tebaga Gap. On every landing strip within striking distance the Desert Air Force was tuning its engines and loading its bomb bays.
The day that was to see the turning of the Mareth Line opened with a dust-storm. Zero hour was 4.15 p.m. and, for the first time in the campaign, the attack was from the south-west, with the enemy under the disadvantage of looking into the sun. The 21st Battalion, perched on its hilltops, was given the role of protecting the brigade's right flank and neutralising all enemy fire possible. The defenders might not have known where the assaulting troops were hidden, but they had a very definite idea where 21 Battalion was and plastered the area with guns and mortars at intervals during the day. Corporal Negus was kept busy keeping his line and wireless operating, and, after his line was broken by mortar bombs and the valves of his wireless set rendered useless by shellfire, was continually out repairing the line. D Company was never out of communication with Battalion Headquarters for more than a few minutes.
The 21st Battalion had performed its allotted share in the attack and was to have a grandstand view of the first Allied blitzkrieg of the war. Precisely at half past three in the afternoon a rumble grew into a thunderous roar as the first wave page 243 of bombers flew over the lines. The sounds were still echoing in the encircling hills when another wave came over in time to drown the drum-beats of exploding bombs dropped by their now returning advance party. Then the guns began to fire on their allotted targets; the heavy tanks emerged from their hiding places; the lighter tanks came in, followed by the carriers; and finally the long lines of Kiwis appeared, advancing on a two-brigade front. Behind all this the tanks and lorried infantry of 1 Armoured Division, the last of whose trucks got up only 30 minutes before the attack opened, were waiting to exploit success when the breach had been made. At 6 p.m. they passed through the forward positions, and then waited until the moon rose and there was enough light to see their way through the open country and the standing crops of barley and wheat towards El Hamma. The Mareth Line had been turned.
Situated as it was on the right flank of the advance, with Free French troops further east in the hills, 21 Battalion suffered a night of shell and mortar fire. The Maoris' right flank had been held up, and the enemy showed no sign of moving. He was in fact holding the fort while the Mareth garrison raced back from the doomed position to temporary safety west of the Gabes Gap, a narrow corridor between the coast and the salt lakes.
The day of the 27th was relatively quiet in the battalion area, although enemy shells were still coming from the east. Late in the afternoon the Maoris captured Point 209, and at 10 p.m., after being relieved by the Free French, the 21st was moved to the left flank of 5 Brigade on the El Hamma road. The armour was still battling against determined opposition and the Mareth garrison was still streaming westwards. After dark New Zealand Corps began to move forward, leaving 5 Brigade to take care of the right flank, where the Free French were still fighting in the hills.
The 21st Battalion was warned at eight o'clock next morning to prepare to move, and set off at midday with the brigade group along a secondary road south and east of the New Zealand Corps' axis of advance. It was a day of clouds, dust, and many halts while mines were lifted, and the noise of the tank battle page 244 could be heard somewhere forward. Two trucks were damaged, luckily without casualties, when the Frenchmen mistook the column's nationality. Another truck was destroyed when it ran over a mine, and enemy planes dropped bombs at a wadi crossing. The enemy had evacuated El Hamma and 5 Brigade was directed on the seaside town of Gabes.
The 21st Battalion stood by its trucks for hours while the forward elements chased the enemy rearguard out of Gabes and the troops up front made a ford where a bridge had been blown. It was dark when the battalion passed through Gabes, where friendly French civilians had welcomed the rest of the brigade. The troops camped down west of the town and were amused to hear over the radio that 51 (Highland) Division had taken Gabes. The Scotties were good fighters and cheerful blokes off duty, and what was an odd town or so between friends. Anyway it was all cleared up later.
Fifth Brigade felt its way cautiously behind patrols of Divisional Cavalry which were prodding at the enemy rearguard preparing another stand on the far bank of the Wadi Akarit, about twenty miles north-west of Gabes. The rest of the Division concentrated in the area behind 5 Brigade, and at 5 p.m. on 31 March New Zealand Corps, its job done, was disbanded and 2 New Zealand Division again came under command of 30 Corps.
The brigade stayed in the area for a week. Plans were made for two attacks that did not come off, and the area was eventually taken over by 201 Guards Brigade. The 21st Battalion moved back nearer Gabes and rested. The officers and NCOs were addressed by the Army Commander, who briefly reviewed the Mareth battle and outlined the part Eighth Army would play in the rest of the Tunisian campaign. Enemy aircraft did their best to make life unpleasant. Parcels and papers from New Zealand were distributed. Engineers demonstrated the latest German mines. Unauthorised trips were attempted into Gabes with varying success.
Preparations were finalised for worrying the enemy out of his position at Wadi Akarit: 4 Indian, 50, and 51 Divisions were to make the breach and the New Zealand Division was to carry on the pursuit. The Gabes coastal area was roughly page 245 thirty miles wide, bounded by the sea and inland by salt lakes, and covered with scattered scrub, brackish water and palm trees. The gap was about six miles wide, covered by wadis converted into anti-tank ditches. Two days' hard fighting opened the road. The troops stood by their trucks listening to the guns blasting the way for the assaulting infantry. They edged forward a little and on the morning of 7 April passed through the gap, over the last of the hills, and out on to the Tunisian plain.
The enemy gave up the maritime plain, together with the ports of Sfax and Sousse. Tripoli was now 300 miles behind the line, and as soon as these seaports were working again, the strain on the single road from Tripoli could be relieved.
The armour ranged far ahead and there were stubborn rearguard actions. The other Axis army was also falling back before the British and Americans coming up from Algeria, and the two had joined forces.
On the afternoon of 12 April 21 Battalion passed through Sousse. Again it was at the rear of the column, but it came in for its share of ‘Vives’ from the populace—‘Vive les Anglais’ and ‘Vive les Enzed’—which accompanied odd bottles of wine given to the troops and bundles of flowers pressed on the grinning drivers. This was running a war on the right lines, and the battalion hoped to be at the head of the column at the next town.
The battalion halted for the night in an olive grove west of Sousse. It was a quiet night, and those who had known them told of olive groves in Greece and Crete. How many years ago? They could hardly remember, but it was in the days when they were very young soldiers.
As for the enemy, he had hills behind him again.
This was the overall position in North Africa at that moment. The Allied right flank was held by Eighth Army from the sea near Enfidaville to a point 25 miles inland. On its left, continuing the line westwards, the French 19 Corps covered a front of 25 miles, then came the British First Army, with a front of over thirty miles. The remaining thirty miles were held by 2 US Corps, with French formations on the coast. The enemy thus held the ports of Tunis and Bizerta, with a ring of steel page 246 in front of him and the sea behind. General von Arnim, the supreme commander of the African Army Group, hoped to hold the line and continue to deny the Allies the Mediterranean passage.
Eighth Armoured Brigade, probing towards Enfidaville, was having a difficult time in country studded with olive groves, and complained that the low branches of the trees obscured the vision of both commanders and gunners. The 21st Battalion was detailed to give the armour local protection and moved off on the morning of the 13th to the new job. The Bren carriers ferreted around in front of the tanks, while the companies, moving in bounds, kept close on the heels of the tanks. Sergeant Housham's6 carrier flushed a self-propelled gun and two machine guns, all of which objected violently to his presence. The carrier shed a track and had to be repaired under fire. By 4.30 p.m. they were about five miles south of Enfidaville, and the battalion formed a gunline behind which the armour harboured for the night.
The battalion rejoined 5 Brigade next day, to find that a plan had been made for the brigade to capture Djebel Garci, but finally this had been considered too tough for a brigade objective. Instead the brigade had been directed on the rocky outcrop known as Takrouna, between Garci and Enfidaville. It was an unmistakable landmark, a forbidding looking rocky crag slightly in advance of the range of hills forming the northern boundary of the coastal plain. What appeared to be a stone fort, but which was actually a mosque, crowned the summit. Below the building was a sharp drop to a rocky ledge on which was situated a native village. Behind Takrouna on its easier slopes was another part of the village, and at its base were olive groves and green barley-fields. To the left of the hill, as seen from 21 Battalion's position, was another and much smaller outcrop separated from the main feature by a wadi, and in the open spaces the grass was studded with flowering fennel, stocks, scarlet poppies, blue irises and white, mauve, pink, and yellow wild flowers. Tunisia in the spring has a breathless beauty.page 247
To the enemy Takrouna was vital as an artillery observation post, for with his planes almost completely denied the air, he had to make the most of any advantage afforded by the ground.
Clearly the pursuit from Akarit was halted for the time being at least for the coastal plain narrowed to a few miles and was dominated by the northern end of the high ground in which the harried Germans and Italians were constructing defensive positions. At this point the role of Eighth Army was changed: First Army was in easier country and was to make the main effort to end the war in North Africa, while Eighth Army exerted pressure on its southern sector.
As soon as it was dark 21 Battalion moved through 23 Battalion's outposts across the Wadi el Boul, about two miles nearer Takrouna, and formed a bridgehead. B, C, and D Companies were dug in forward of the wadi, with A Company in reserve. A troop of anti-tank guns was attached to each company, and in addition a platoon of machine guns was with C Company.
When daylight came the troops found that they were under direct observation from Point 121, a bare, bold feature which, like the kopje of the South African veldt, seemed to have no geological reason for being where it was. It was about one mile north of the Wadi el Boul and, though not extensive enough to contain many troops, was an excellent observation post. Two miles farther back stood the rocky, precipitous, 600-foot-high pinnacle of Takrouna.
From dawn to dark the time was passed in fighting mosquitoes, millions and millions of them. They outdid the Western Desert flies in tenacity, and puffed faces and swollen eyes bore witness to their blood-thirsty determination. Movement was almost impossible while the enemy remained on Point 121, and as soon as darkness fell Lieutenant Chalmers took 8 Platoon and attended to the matter. Six Italians were captured at a cost of two wounded. The platoon consolidated on the point, and the garrison, though isolated during daylight, was relieved each night by fresh troops.
The 16th of April was another quiet day for the battalion. That did not apply to the men on Point 121, which was plastered off and on by shellfire. There were no casualties, but a machine-gun platoon that had been sent up to strengthen the defence had a gun put out of action.page 248
In the meantime plans were being made to capture the hills overlooking the coastal plain. No air photographs were available, but patrols established beyond doubt that the enemy was going to stand and fight. Second-Lieutenant Nunns7 was detailed to take a reconnaissance party out on the night of 16-17 April to the foot of Takrouna and report on the condition of the country for wheeled traffic after the proposed attack. They were returning by a different route when they were challenged in Italian and fired on by a Breda automatic and some rifles, about ten in all. After the fire died down the patrol edged away and carried on with their mission. Their report raised some doubts about the identity of the enemy formation —Germans had been reported by other patrols in the same area a night or so earlier—and the position of his forward posts. Brigadier Kippenberger felt that further investigation was necessary and suggested that a few prisoners would decide the question. Nunns knew the exact position of the outpost; he was given the assignment, told to make his own plan, and was offered artillery and carrier support.
He writes: 'I decided that a silent approach and sudden rush to the enemy position was probably the best approach. Ten men from my platoon volunteered to join the patrol, including Snowy Hutson,8 although I told him I did not expect him to go out a second night.' Unlike on the previous night, there was a moon. The patrol was halted about 200 yards from the estimated position of the outpost and Nunns and Private Hutson crawled forward to reconnoitre. Soon afterwards there was a terrific burst of fire, which lasted for probably ten minutes. Nunns was severely wounded and his companion received wounds from which he died. ‘I thought’, Nunns continues, ‘that the rest of the patrol might try to come in to get us out, which would have been fatal, so I called out and ordered them to get back to our lines and leave us…. [Later] some Italians came out and picked me up.’
A 210 mm German howitzer overrun by British tanks at the top of Halfaya Pass
Aerial mosaic showing the dispositions at Tebaga Gap between 21 and 29 March 1943
The pinnacle of Takrouna from the ledge
From Takrouna south-west to the 21 Battalion start line
Resting on the march to camp near Taranto
The eroded gully on the right was part of the objective north of the Sangro
The following orders were issued on 20 April for the attack by 21 Battalion on Takrouna:
|information:||1.||Enemy: Force of Germans and Italians holding takrouna.|
|2.||Own troops: 28 NZ Bn on right and 4 Ind Div on left.|
|intention:||3.||21 NZ Bn with attached arms will attack western slope of takrouna feature and advance across enfidaville zaghouan rd. and form gun line facing approx NW.|
|method:||The operation will be in two phases.|
|4.||The Bn will advance with three coys fwd. C right A centre B left and D in support. Bn Hq will follow D Coy.|
|5.||Start line will be laid down by 5 Inf Bde on an east-west line. Coys will be on start line by 2245 hrs.|
|6.||Bn will advance due north compass bearing 10°.|
|7.||Arty concentration opens 2300 hrs for 30 mins. Barrage starts at 2332 hrs. Coys will move fwd to barrage line at 2300 hrs to within 2-300 yds of arty opening line.|
|8.||During barrage Bn mortars from Z plus 30 to Z plus 40 will put down concentration as arranged and then await verbal orders.|
|9.||Carrier Pl will move along left flank of Bn covering the advance.|
|10.||Success will be signalled by wireless Squash or runner to Bn Hq.|
|11.||Zero 2300 hrs.|
|12.||On completion of phase one the Bn will form a gun line facing north-west from Enfidaville Rd. (Map ref 2786) to outpost feature general compass bearing along line 240°.page 250|
|13.||Order of coys A B C D. Extent of coy areas A B and C Coys 800 yds D Coy 500 yds to tie up with outpost feature.|
|note.—Line will be reinforced at first light by one sqn notts Yeo.|
|14.||A Coy 23 Bn will contact A Coy 21 Bn.|
|15.||Carrier will form screen while gun line is being put down.|
|adm:||16.||Bn Hq located in wadi 2784. RAP same area.|
|17.||Dress battle order; one day's rations to be carried plus full water bottles.|
|18.||Each fighting vehicle as per separate list will form up in rear clump olive trees at right of B Coy by 2100 hrs. These vehicles will be under OC Hq Coy and will be led fwd on a message from Bn Hq.|
|19.||Bn Hq will be mobile following coys advance until completion of gun line when it will be est[ablished] as in para 16.|
|20.||Cooks truck will remain in present area until sent for.|
|21.||All blankets except one pl D Coy will be dumped at coy cookhouses on night zero and brought fwd as situation permits. Greatcoats will be carried.|
|22.||Hot meals will be served as tactical situation permits. Coys will have 15 cwt trucks standing by at present cook house area loaded with blankets etc.|
In the morning of the 19th Colonel Harding received his final orders for a set-piece attack the next night. It was to be a two-divisional effort, with the New Zealanders on the right and 4 Indian Division on the left; 6 Brigade was to take the hill features west of Enfidaville, 5 Brigade the miniature Gibraltar of Takrouna, and 4 Indian Division was to tackle Djebel Garci.
The brigade plan was to attack in the first phase with two battalions forward—the Maoris on the right and 21 Battalion on the left. Takrouna was to be bypassed and taken from the north, where the grade was easier; this was a Maori Battalion objective, and the capture of the all-important feature was to page 251 be assisted by a diversionary attack by one platoon up the southern and less practicable side.
There was to be a barrage fired by 168 guns, and the two-mile gap between 21 Battalion's left flank and 4 Indian Division would be taken care of by the Carrier Platoon.
The 21st Battalion was to skirt the western slopes of Takrouna feature and continue over the Zaghouan road, then feel to the right for the Maoris' left flank. In the second phase 23 Battalion was to use the Zaghouan road as its start line and carry the attack on to the ridges Djebel Froukr and Djebel Cherachir.
The battalion moved from its positions along Wadi el Boul to the start line about half a mile forward, and was deployed in battle order an hour before midnight on 19-20 April. The sky was cloudy and there was a waning moon. The barrage was to start on a line a mile further forward, and the troops were to follow it for the remaining mile to the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road.
The company dispositions were: C Company (Major Laird9) on the right, with 13 Platoon (Lieutenant Ashley10) right, 15 Platoon (Lieutenant Shaw) left, and 14 Platoon (Lieutenant Hirst) in reserve; A Company (Captain Bullock-Douglas) in the centre, with 8 Platoon (Lieutenant Chalmers) right, 7 Platoon (Sergeant Howell11) left, and 9 Platoon (Second-Lieutenant Upton12) in reserve; B Company (Captain Roach) on the left, with 12 Platoon (Lieutenant Donaldson13) right, 11 Platoon (Lieutenant Taylor14) left, and 10 Platoon15 in reserve; D Company (Captain Murray16) in battalion reserve, less one platoon (Second-Lieutenant Bullock17) on Point 121.page 252
The ground was uneven, rising and falling sharply and studded with cactus shrubs and patches of prickly thorn. Where the ground was level there were patches of knee-high barley, but in spite of these obstacles to movement by night the forward companies were on the artillery opening line by 11.30 p.m. The barrage moved forward and the troops followed.
On the right flank C Company ran into a patch of very difficult country: steep-sided wadis, tributaries of Wadi el Boul, wound haphazardly down from Takrouna, and there were cactus bushes everywhere. The rough going prevented the company from keeping up with the barrage, and the forward enemy posts, either missed by the searching shells or with adequate shelter, went quickly into action with small arms and their new weapon, the nebelwerfer. These six-barrelled mortars fired their bombs simultaneously and were the cause of much confusion that night.page 253
At the start line Major Laird had detailed a section of 14 Platoon to accompany his headquarters, but when the enemy fire opened the section went astray in the thick, tall cactus, whereupon he joined the remainder of the reserve platoon. The advance continued until they reached a small olive grove at the foot of Takrouna. The grove was surrounded by a cactus hedge and a ditch, where 14 Platoon halted while Laird looked for the rest of the company. There was no sign of 15 Platoon. (It had missed the hedge and carried on with A Company until it came to the rocky outcrop on the left of Takrouna, where Lieutenant Shaw halted and waited for the rest of the company to arrive.)
Lieutenant Ashley and 13 Platoon were in difficulties, judging by the stream of fire being directed upon their axis of advance, and an attempt was made to debouch from the grove to their assistance, but fire through the trees made this impossible. There was no sign of the Maoris on the right, but steady enemy fire suggested that they also were held up. Hirst thereupon took half of 14 Platoon up the left side of the grove to try and outflank the opposition. They did not succeed and were forced to take shelter.
Laird was now left with one section of 14 Platoon. The barrage had moved forward on the left, where A and B Companies had gone in, but defensive fire was pouring from the foot of Takrouna. Ashley at this point arrived at Company Headquarters and reported that his platoon was held up in a patch of prickly thorn by machine guns above them, and that there had been several casualties. He returned and got the platoon back to the shelter of the ditch and joined up with the forward section of 14 Platoon.
The barrage was then far ahead of C Company and, judging from the number of enemy posts in action, it appeared to Laird that both the Maoris' and 21 Battalion's attacks had failed. Fire was coming from the east, west and above, nebelwerfers were dropping concentrations of bombs in front, while artillery was searching behind and around his position. He decided to report back for instructions, but missed Battalion Headquarters and eventually, with a dozen or so prisoners captured en route, found Brigade Headquarters, now located in the original battalion area.page 254
There was some sharp and well-directed enemy shelling at A Company's forming-up point, but this was soon silenced by our own artillery. The forward platoons got away on time, but Company Headquarters and Battalion Headquarters were delayed on account of casualties sustained in the shelling. No. 9 Platoon was largely composed of new men who did not realise the necessity of leaving the wounded to the stretcher-bearers. Meanwhile 7 and 8 Platoons kept well up to the artillery cover and did not suffer from the small-arms fire that opened as soon as the barrage had passed. A few prisoners were gathered in, but little opposition was met until the platoons were almost on the road objective.
No. 9 Platoon, owing to the delayed start, missed the barrage and was fired on from the lower slopes of Takrouna. After the platoon had advanced about 1200 yards without joining the company or making contact with C Company, Second-Lieutenant Upton moved over to his right to locate C Company. The platoon reached the olive grove behind C Company, but found the olive trees were booby trapped so turned left towards the original line of advance. The next obstacle encountered was a cactus hedge, which it followed towards Takrouna until it came to a minefield. Sergeant Dotchin18 writes:
I told the platoon to take cover and wait until a way had been found through the mines. I soon managed to find a lane but on returning discovered the remainder of the platoon had tried to cross on their own initiative and had become casualties. At this point I noticed that Lieut Upton was missing. [He had found a hole in the hedge and was killed while making a reconnaissance.]
Captain Bullock-Douglas joined Dotchin at this time and the pair crossed the minefield and were in sight of the road when they were both wounded by rifle fire from Takrouna. They started back together but lost contact in the scrub. Dotchin continues:
Now alone, I withdrew until sheltered by a small wadi. I was applying a field dressing to a gunshot wound in the thigh when I noticed the head and shoulders of a figure approaching. I was just going to knock him off, for he was only a few yards away, when I saw the rest of the party about twenty all told with three machine guns. page 255 They were too many to engage single handed so I put my rifle down again. The enemy party continued on its way towards Takrouna and I passed through the lane in the minefields and returned to No. 9 Platoon.
Dotchin tried to move the wounded from the minefield but found that each movement resulted in further explosions, which in turn drew fire from the village above. He then found Battalion Headquarters and reported the position of the platoon before seeking the RAP. A Company, therefore, was on the road with two platoons and the third virtually eliminated.
In the absence of Bullock-Douglas, Lieutenant Chalmers assumed command of A Company and, with a patrol of two men, moved to the right to tie in with somebody on his flank. Neither C Company 28 Battalion, which was to clear the road for 23 Battalion, nor 23 Battalion was met, and the patrol returned to A Company's area. Chalmers found the company sheltering from persistent enemy shellfire. Sergeant Howell had been killed, and Sergeant Steiner was in command of 7 Platoon. They had been deluged with small-arms fire from a rise beyond the road, and Steiner had taken a few men with him and dealt with the situation. Under cover from 8 Platoon, they had charged with everything blazing and had destroyed five machine-gun posts, two of which fell to Steiner personally. There was only one other survivor when he returned to the platoon. The two leaders decided to report the position to Colonel Harding. The remnants of 7 and 8 Platoons, about twenty-five all told, were left on the objective under Sergeant Klaus, while Lieutenant Chalmers, accompanied by Steiner, returned to Battalion Headquarters.
B Company, on the left, also went forward on time behind the barrage. The two leading platoons veered somewhat to their left, so that 10 Platoon and Company Headquarters on the correct bearing lost touch and were stopped temporarily by the flanking fire from Takrouna, in the same way that the rear platoon of A Company was separated from the rest of the company. Nos. 11 and 12 Platoons went on without opposition until they came to a deep watercourse just short of the Zaghouan road. Defensive fire was being laid down in front of them and the company was on its objective, but Harding's instructions page 256 had been emphatic that the country in front would also have to be cleared to enable 23 Battalion to form up on its start line.
11 and 12 Platoons attacked from the road across a flat approximately 100 yards wide and to the left of a ridge running from enemy territory down to the road. We were heavily fired on by mostly small arms and some light mortars, although 12 Platoon casualties were actually light until we reached the hill and then we were attacked with grenades. I think we more than held our own in the close fighting and we took the ridge. After a quick check up I discovered that Mr Donaldson and all the other 12 Platoon NCO's had been wounded. The only contact I could make with 11 Platoon were two privates who informed me that their platoon was badly knocked about and a quick move over to their area convinced me of this.
Parris's account is something of an understatement. The two platoons had in reality captured a portion of the brigade objective, but there were only Parris and four men left to hold it. They occupied an enemy weapon pit, but later went back to the road when a counter-attack in force appeared imminent. The platoon lost 13 killed and nine wounded and missing.
After his section commander was wounded he took charge of the section and, before they were all wounded, captured an anti-tank gun, two machine-gun posts and a mortar post. He then fought on alone until wounded and out of ammunition.
Meanwhile Captain Roach, out of touch and unable to get forward, halted 10 Platoon and Company Headquarters and returned to Battalion Headquarters for information and instructions.
It will be remembered that the Carrier Platoon was to patrol the left flank of the battalion area. There was a wadi running north and south that was to be the position of the gunline, and the carriers were to operate west of this wadi. The carrier page 257 commander, Second-Lieutenant Swanson,21 had been the prime mover in the idea of carriers going into a night attack. The platoon did not keep in touch with B Company, but carried on without incident until within a few hundred yards of the Zaghouan road, when it ran into very heavy fire. Sergeant Mellsop22 located and charged two machine-gun posts, silencing them both. He then engaged an anti-tank gun, which was also silenced. The enemy must have been prepared against a tank attack in this area, for it was covered by other anti-tank weapons and only the semi-darkness saved the platoon from annihilation. After shooting up everything it could see, the carriers withdrew to shelter some hundred yards in the rear. A check-up disclosed that the platoon had only four serviceable carriers left, and that Lieutenant Swanson was wounded. Mellsop and Private Laurie Cornwell23 went on foot to report to Battalion Headquarters, as the wireless had been destroyed. When Mellsop returned he found that his carrier had received a direct hit in his absence, leaving only three still mobile.
D Company, less the platoon commanded by Second-Lieutenant Bullock on Point 121, advanced without interference until within 300 yards of its objective, roughly level with and to the left of the area in which C Company had been held up. It passed safely through a belt of enemy defensive fire, but shortly afterwards an artillery concentration fell amongst its men, killing and wounding a number. Captain Murray was among those killed. A strong following breeze had carried the smoke and dust ahead of the company and acted as a screen against enemy observation posts on Takrouna, but when the company arrived at its destination the smoke cleared, leaving it exposed in the moonlight. Lieutenant Robertson quickly took charge of the situation and moved the company over to the left in the shelter of rough ground that afforded protection from the bursts.
Battalion Headquarters, advancing behind D Company, was not so fortunate in passing through the artillery defensive belt page 258 and lost several of its number. Colonel Harding was among the wounded, but he carried on. Contact had been lost with D Company, but the RSM, WO I Jack Farmer, scouted forward through the artillery defensive fire until he located it and returned and led Battalion Headquarters forward.
The Colonel set up his headquarters in a wadi near D Company and instructed Lieutenant Robertson to get the company dug in across the axis of advance until the time came to establish the gunline along the left flank.
Information slowly trickled in to Battalion Headquarters. All wireless sets had been smashed or their operators wounded, but runners from A and B Companies reported that their companies were on the objective. Lieutenant Shaw, whom we left waiting for the rest of C Company to come up, found Battalion Headquarters and reported his position. Lieutenant Hirst, in charge of the remainder of 13 and 14 Platoons, had taken patrols out, but could not find a way through the cactus and had also reported to Colonel Harding. It was clear that Takrouna was still held by the enemy. Harding decided to keep the remnants of C Company in reserve, for unless the enemy was denied observation from Takrouna by first light, the position of the battalion would be more than precarious.
Meanwhile the brigade attack was not going well; 28 Battalion had succeeded in fighting its way little beyond its start line. Both commanding officers had been wounded and casualties in both battalions had been very heavy. Brigadier Kippenberger decided to withdraw 21 Battalion unless the position improved before daylight, and a signal was sent to the battalion to that effect. Colonel Harding had come to the same conclusion prior to the receipt of the Brigadier's message; accordingly, when Lieutenant Chalmers, Sergeant Steiner, Captain Roach and Sergeant Mellsop reported almost at the same time, they were instructed that if contact had not been made with either 28 or 23 Battalions by 5.30 a.m., each company was to move independently and to return to the positions held before the attack. Contact was not made and the survivors of A and B Companies were brought back.
The position at first light on the 20th was that 21 Battalion was working back to Wadi el Boul, a part of 23 Battalion had page 259 got beyond the Zaghouan road but was virtually isolated and without communications, and Takrouna was still held by the enemy. All through the night the stretcher-bearers worked tirelessly bringing in the wounded, and when daylight exposed the position carriers went forward to evacuate some still untended. To the credit of the enemy, when he realised the carriers were being used as ambulances he refrained from firing on them. Even then some men were still unaccounted for, excluding 10 and 11 Platoons, who were beyond rescue behind the enemy lines. The missing were reduced by four the following night when Private Meyer,24 who had hidden in a wadi with three of his section, came in. They had been wounded and Meyer had stayed behind to care for them.
In the end it was 10 Platoon 28 Battalion, with the diversionary role on the south side of Takrouna, that captured the enemy strongpoint. Taking advantage of the chaos around the base of the hill, it divided into two parties, rushed the enemy weapon pits above them, and climbed the precipitous sides of Takrouna. Where it was too steep to climb, the Maoris clambered hand over hand up bunched telephone wires until they were on the topmost ledge and pinnacle. The enemy had depended on the posts at the bottom of the hill to protect the observation posts on the top, and with the Maoris now in possession, turned their guns on it. About noon Harding was instructed to send a platoon to the top of Takrouna to relieve the hard-pressed Maori garrison.
No. 15 Platoon had suffered no losses during the night and Lieutenant Shaw was given the job. The platoon took a day's rations, extra water and ammunition, and went through the Maori Battalion area and up the southern side of the hill. It found a narrow track, which it followed in single file until it was fired on. The platoon took cover while Shaw with a couple of his men skirted around and came back above the enemy. About ten Italians vacated the post as soon as they were in turn fired on, and the rest of the climb was made without further incident. Shaw was being shown around by Sergeant Manahi,25 who was in command of the few Maoris holding page 260 the approaches to the highest part of the hill, and the last of the platoon, still in single file, were scrambling onto the small ledge when they were attacked from two directions. The platoon was caught at a disadvantage, and though the Maoris stopped one party of the enemy, the other climbed up a rock-strewn wadi onto the ledge. The whole area was covered with stone huts, and there was some bitter fighting until one of the Italians threw a grenade into a hut sheltering Maori wounded. He may not have known that it held wounded men, but on this apparently callous action the Maoris went back a few generations and fought as their forefathers had done. No prisoners were taken, and the enemy were shot, bayoneted or pushed over the cliff; some jumped over of their own accord. The timely arrival of an artillery officer and a few more Maoris from the highest point of the hill demoralised the Italians, who made off by the way they had come. The attack had been launched by Italian reinforcements who had been rushed to the north-west corner of Takrouna in twelve trucks, but very few got back.
When enemy headquarters learned that the effort to retake Takrouna had failed, they plastered it with high explosives and there were several casualties. Most of the Maoris then went back to their battalion and 15 Platoon reconnoitred its position. The men found that they were on a narrow rock ledge, both sides of which were difficult of access. One end led down to a track to the village of Takrouna, perched on the hillside, and the other terminated at the stone ledge up which was a flight of crude steps leading to the pinnacle. Both areas were covered with stone buildings, and a small mosque was situated on the pinnacle. The sections were disposed to cover all likely avenues of approach to the ledge, and a message was sent requesting reinforcements. No. 14 Platoon was detailed. Lieutenant Hirst arrived with his troops about 9 p.m.
The platoon arrived at an opportune moment, for another counter-attack was pending. The Italians were not molested until within point-blank range and few, if any, escaped, but to the consternation of all it was found that the pinnacle above the position had been occupied by the enemy. It was inexplicable, for there was no known method of access not covered, page 261 but the grenades thrown from the pinnacle and exploding between the huts were no figments of imagination.
At first light it was found that the enemy was holding three buildings isolated from the others and situated on the edge of the pinnacle. Shaw organised an attempt to rush them under cover of Bren-gun fire but was wounded in the attempt, and the position developed into a stalemate—neither party could shift the other.
Hirst took over from Shaw and, while the platoons were fighting a 50-yard duel with the enemy, firing through loopholes in their stone forts against their adversaries on rooftops and behind doorways, Manahi and 13 Maori volunteers rejoined the garrison. The Maori sergeant and the pakeha lieutenant discussed the problem of winning back the pinnacle, and decided that two parties, one from each battalion, advancing from different directions would attempt to rush the buildings. It was also decided to soften the opposition before the attempt, and Manahi tried to get the 28 Battalion mortars on the flat below to range on the pinnacle, but the distance was too great. Captain Harding,26 forward observation officer 5 Field Regiment, had arrived by this time to set up an observation post, and suggested sniping with a 25-pounder. There was no room for mistakes with less than fifty yards between the parties, but it was decided to give it a go. There was some fine artillery shooting as, step by step, the range was lifted up the hill, until finally three shells were landed slap onto the target. The parties commanded by Corporal Worthington27 and Sergeant Weepu28 worked cautiously to within thirty yards of their objective, then rushed the buildings. They returned very puzzled indeed, for there was no enemy except a dead Italian. The mystery was explained when a rope was found dangling over the precipice, showing the way the enemy had come and gone.
From the new vantage point the defenders could see over a hundred Italians withdrawing into the stone buildings down page 262 the northern slopes of Takrouna. They were given a send-off with grenades.
The 28th Battalion sent up a carrying party to evacuate the wounded, while the enemy, when he realised that Takrouna had been lost again, blanketed the top with high explosives. A large proportion of the garrison was already deafened with grenades bursting in enclosed spaces, as well as suffering minor wounds from the same cause, and the continuous rain of mortar fire inflicted more casualties. Captain Harding got his battery on to the mortar pits and silenced them one by one. The garrison took the offensive again and shot at any movement in the village below them.
By this time there were several more forward observation officers directing fire from the top of Takrouna, and Hirst discussed the position with Brigade Headquarters. The field artillery was not able to drop shells into the Takrouna village, huddled under the face of the pinnacle, and Hirst was instructed to reconnoitre a way for a night attack by 21 Battalion, now reorganised and ready for further employment. This was done, but in the meantime Major Fairbrother, Brigade Major 5 Brigade, had decided to try the effect of the new 17-pounder solid-shot anti-tank shells on the stone buildings of the village. The first shot tore through the roof of the building on the pinnacle occupied by the garrison and drew an emphatic protest from the occupants. The guns were promptly corrected and the shots now ripped through the stone walls of the village houses— demolished buildings marked their passage.
The Maoris were already stalking in the outskirts of the village and Hirst took Worthington and four others on a similar mission. They went down the northern slope to the rear of the village, which was not the way they were expected, and the now demoralised enemy defence collapsed completely. Altotogether over 300 prisoners, including 18 officers, were collected. Dusk was falling, and the platoons took over the enemy weapon pits around the village and wondered what the word ‘sleep’ meant.
Arrangements, however, had been made for their relief. A composite company had been made of the survivors of A and B Companies, under Captain Roach, to make the night attack page 263 for which Hirst had reconnoitred the route, but with the necessity for the operation removed, was standing by for new instructions. Roach was instructed to relieve Hirst and to hold Takrouna firmly. Under command for the operation were the battalion mortar platoon and 12 Platoon 4 Machine Gun Company. They went up after dark in trucks to 28 Battalion headquarters, whence guides to'ok them on foot through the mines to the top of Takrouna and then down to the captured village. After the relief Hirst's party went thankfully to sleep in reserve on the top of the hill, while the new garrison was disposed to protect the brigade's open left flank.
Later that night General Freyberg sent the following message to Brigadier Kippenberger: ‘Please accept and convey to your brigade my congratulations for their magnificent efforts in the initial attack on Takrouna and in the action today which resulted in the capture of Takrouna village.’
There were no more enemy efforts to recapture the vital hill, and Hirst took his depleted force back to the battalion area in the morning of 22 April. Roach's company had the unenviable distinction of not only being subjected to continuous artillery and mortar fire, but of undergoing the severest concentration yet experienced in North Africa. It was relieved by a battalion of Cameron Highlanders (51 Division) during the night of 23-24 April. The mortars remained in position until the following day, then both sections rejoined the battalion, which had moved to a bivouac area after relief by 7 Battalion Black Watch.
The LOBs came up and the battalion reorganised, with the companies commanded by Captain Bullock-Douglas (A Company) Captain Roach (B Company), Captain Chinchen29 (C Company), Captain Bailey30 (D Company). Bullock-Douglas was wearing his arm in a sling after making an unauthorised departure from the casualty clearing station.
There was reorganisation at higher levels also. The Corps Commander, General Horrocks, went to another command further west and General Freyberg took temporary command page 264 of 10 Corps; Brigadier Kippenberger relinquished command of 5 Brigade to command the Division, and Colonel Harding became Brigadier 5 Brigade. The 21st Battalion's new commander was Lieutenant-Colonel Fairbrother, who took over from Harding on 30 April.
The battalion was withdrawn some fifteen miles or so and told it was to have a lengthy rest period, with the emphasis on comfort—dug-in bivves for the troops, messes and mess tents for the sergeants and officers—all home comforts in fact. The sergeants, most of whom had been promoted since Alamein and who had been eating with the troops for months, took a dim view of their new splendour and asked that the old arrangements be continued. They were overruled and the erection of tents continued, but not for long. A message was received: ‘Colonel Fairbrother to report to Brigade Headquarters urgently.’
At the brigade conference Brigadier Harding announced that the brigade had been ordered to relieve an under-strength motorised battalion of King's Royal Rifles on the Djebibina sector, south-west of Garcia. More pressure than they could exert was to be brought to bear to distract attention from the main thrust being mounted further west and also to pin down enemy reserves.
With the previous commander of 5 Brigade to make the choice, there was no doubt which brigade would lead the Division, and with the previous commander of 21 Battalion to decide the brigade order of march, that was a foregone conclusion also. Certainly no one would be able to say they favoured their late commands.
There was some frantic pulling down of tents, checking of arms and ammunition, stowing of gear and general preparation for action, but no belly-aching—21 Battalion was a fighting machine with all its earlier troubles forgotten.
The starting point, 20 miles away, was passed ahead of time on the morning of 4 May. Further west and north the British and Americans were driving towards Tunis, with the enemy dashing tanks and troops against any point that promised an opportunity of bursting out of the frame that surrounded the vast canvas of the Cape Bon peninsula.page 265
It was a brilliantly sunny day when 21 Battalion led the brigade towards Djebibina. There was a 20-mile trail of dust along the single road leading from friendly territory; near Djebibina village there was a light dressing station with a huge canvas red cross spread on the ground. Neither tell-tale trail nor Red Cross failed to deter what the battalion war diary diplomatically states were unidentified planes (but which everybody who could use his eyes could see were American Mitchell bombers) from doing over the village and the column. Provost Sergeant Bill Marshall, MM, was killed, the only casualty in the battalion. An apology was received later, but the battalion had lost a very gallant soldier unnecessarily.
The companies dispersed widely at the laager area just in case the Mitchells came back again. The orders were to relieve the King's Royal Rifles that night, and the CO and his company commanders went forward to reconnoitre the position. The battalion holding the line was very thin on the ground on a wide front and could not be said to be in actual contact with the enemy. A motorised battalion taken forward by day to peck and snipe, about all its strength permitted, it was unable to undertake aggressive action. Little was known about the enemy's dispositions, except that he was holding high ground on the Saouaf-Pont du Fahs road and that the area was heavily mined. The relief was effected without incident after last light.
The companies went by road and lighted track to their allotted positions on the left of the brigade sector. The 23rd Battalion was up on the right flank, with the Maoris in reserve. Colonel Fairbrother disposed the battalion with C Company forward on the right and A Company behind in reserve, and with D Company forward on the left and B in reserve; each forward company covered a mile of front. The battalion anti-tank guns went with D Company and a troop of 32 Anti-Tank Battery with C Company, while each forward company had a section of mortars attached, with a section in reserve alongside the Carrier Platoon at Battalion Headquarters.
When daylight came there was no enemy in sight. Second-Lieutenants McGregor31 and Dale,32 two newly arrived 8th page 266 Reinforcement officers, volunteered and were detailed to make a daylight reconnaissance. Two other ranks accompanied them, and they went about two miles forward before they saw enemy troops in a phosphate factory and located a field gun. There were minefields strewn over the area, as well as elaborately constructed dugouts and defensive positions, all of which had been vacated for some days.
General Kippenberger came up while the patrols were out and decided to move the 5 Brigade line forward about a mile to higher ground. The line was to pivot on the small hill, Point 233, on the left of the 21 Battalion area, which D Company was to occupy while C Company conformed and kept touch with 23 Battalion. There was another hill, Djebel Doumais, forward of D Company, that the artillery thought would make a good observation post; a platoon of D Company was to take a look at it and, if it was unoccupied, settle in.
The advance went in after dark and the objectives were reached without a shot being fired, but Djebel Doumais was found to be occupied and was left alone. There was some shelling and mortaring during the night, but no casualties. Perhaps the enemy patrols had found 21 Battalion in possession for, when D Company was ordered to advance under cover of a ground mist just after daylight and secure it, there was nobody there. C Company, securely in possession, found itself in a sea of S-mines and lifted approximately 150 inside its area. The enemy clearly was becoming annoyed and shelled both companies quite viciously at intervals during the day and following night.
The policy was still one of peaceful penetration, enemy permitting, and to this end it was decided to occupy another feature forward of and between C and D Companies. Artillery ‘stonks’ were put down on likely spots and A and B Companies, now some distance in the rear, went up in transport to the forward area and then on foot to the start line. In the meantime patrols had found enemy in B Company's area so did not advance further, and A Company settled in on the left edge of the feature. A check-up at daylight disclosed that the company had not taken all the ground Battalion Headquarters had intended, and Colonel Fairbrother told A Company to complete the occupation page 267 of Djebel Fareh, peaceably if possible, but fighting for it if necessary. Sergeant Steiner, with two sections, gave a model demonstration of fire and movement. They worked forward for nearly 600 yards and lobbed grenades into the post. Result: four dead Germans, four prisoners, and a real artillery hate on everybody when the German observation post saw the prisoners being marched off.
This was the day Tunis and Bizerta fell to First Army and 2 US Corps, and the news was relayed through Divisional and Brigade Headquarters to the battalions in the line. The signallers had lines out to the forward troops, and though these were frequently cut they remained in operation by alternative circuits, so the results were passed on from Battalion Headquarters to company headquarters, thence out to the platoon posts. As every bulletin giving the part-time score came through, there were cheers and yells of delight which echoed around the hills and must have created a sinking feeling in the hearts of the Germans, not knowing but fearing the worst.
The divisional plan was to keep on nibbling without walking into serious fighting, so to tie up the brigade front 21 Battalion was told to secure another slice of enemy ground in front of C Company. The features, clear enough on the map, were not so easy to pinpoint on the ground, so the artillery was asked to fire a predicted concentration, with the dual purpose of making certain that the area selected for attention was the correct one and of softening up any opposition. B Company, up till then unemployed, was to make the attack, and Captain Roach and his platoon commanders watched the fall of artillery shells and were relieved to find the battalion map-reading correct.
It was a pitch-black night, with heavy rain and gale-force wind, when B Company started out for 21 Battalion's last action in North Africa. There was some shelling and mortaring, which may or may not have been intended for B Company, but good progress was made. The signallers trailed a wire out as the company advanced, so Roach was able to keep in touch with Battalion Headquarters. The cable-layer had not been oiled, however, and Roach's reports were interspersed with original and vehement curses concerning the squeaky layer and the fire it was bringing down on Company Headquarters. Seven prisoners were taken at no cost to the company.page 268
Colonel Fairbrother, going up at first light to the new position, passed a German prisoner making his way unescorted to the rear. He could speak a little English and a conversation, something on the following lines, took place:
‘Do you know Tunis has fallen?’
‘Any good fighting on now?’
‘Then you had better go back and persuade your cobbers to throw in the sponge.’
‘They'd shoot me.’
He might have been right, too, for the defence was as tenacious and vigilant as ever and the troops could take no liberties. There were some minor moves to tie the battalion line together, but no more advances were made, and the troops were relieved on the night of 10 May by the battalion they had taken over from originally. This was accomplished without incident, though C Company was given a send-off by the enemy artillery. The troops bivouacked in the B Echelon area that night and in the morning moved back to the old bivouac area near Takrouna, while in the main battle area the Axis armies were being cut off from their prepared bases in the Cape Bon peninsula.
Fifth Brigade remained in reserve, a most unusual occurrence, while the last incidents of the drama were worked out. Progress reports were still being relayed from Division to Brigade Headquarters and passed on to the units. The last message 21 Battalion received ran:
To British 10th Corps
From Italian Army
Your representatives have arrived here. They are speaking with our commander. We have nothing further to add. We suggest closing down.
Tunis had fallen and the surrender of the enemy followed. While we performed the melancholy duty of going over the Takrouna battlefields to discover and bury 21st Battalion dead, convoys of Germans and Italians drove themselves past. They stopped and asked for instructions—to whom could they surrender? We were sick at heart with our own business and told them to drive to Enfidaville and surrender to the nearest military police. When we had finished, the limit of 21st Battalion's advance at Takrouna was marked with little white crosses.
The battalion had 36 killed, 117 wounded, and 23 taken prisoner (two of them wounded) in the Takrouna battle. Its casualties for the whole campaign in Tunisia were 49 killed, 164 wounded, and 24 prisoners (including three wounded), making a total of 237.
15 Platoon commander not known.