Episodes & Studies Volume 2
INITIAL ASSAULT ON TAKROUNA
INITIAL ASSAULT ON TAKROUNA
WHEN two platoons from B Company, 28 Battalion, had moved forward to the road, 10 Platoon had remained in a wadi at the foot of Takrouna. There were twelve men only, under Sergeant Rogers, now in command of the platoon, and Lance-Sergeant H. Manahi.40 These two decided that their small force should be divided into two parties. Rogers would take one party up the south-east side of Takrouna, while Manahi worked round the front to attack up the south-west side. The two parties hoped to meet at the top, when further plans would be made to fit the circumstances. Just before a start was made, Captain S. F. Catchpole,41 forward observation officer from 5 Field Regiment, appeared with Sergeant W. J. Smith,42 a stray from 23 Battalion. Smith attached himself to Rogers' party, a very valuable addition. Catchpole encouraged the Maoris to carry on and set to work to establish communications with his headquarters.
At dawn the two parties started their attack. Enemy fire of all types was still heavy, and a hail of mortar bombs sent the men running for shelter from rock to rock. But they ran forward and were soon among enemy positions. Rogers' party got to work with rifles, while Smith and Private K. Aranui43 gained a ledge overlooking the trenches. More men from both parties were soon battling at close quarters against Italians in deep fighting pits, protected by screens of barbed wire hung with rattlers and other warning devices. Hand grenades, Bren guns, and bayonets were used and several weapon pits were silenced in turn. Some men broke right through, and from half-way up the hill soon convinced the enemy that they now had the upper hand. White flags appeared in quick succession from the defences circling the base of Takrouna, and 60 Italian prisoners were rounded up by Private H. Grant.44
Manahi took three men up a bare ridge that ended abruptly at a sheer rock face topped by stone buildings—the ledge. There was no opposition, a strange fact soon explained by Smith and Aranui. These two had already reached the rock face, up which they scrambled with the aid of a cluster of telephone cables running to the now surrendered enemy positions below. They were confronted by a high stone wall. The cables again proved useful, and the two looked down into a small courtyard where a solitary German soldier operated a wireless set. Aranui leapt down and took him prisoner, and while he was being sent off down the hill an officer called out in English, offering to surrender, from a room opening off the courtyard. He was an artillery observation officer and had been observing from a window that covered the whole divisional front.
There followed one of those strange interludes of war. The officer surrendered to Smith, they smoked together, and the officer went off into captivity. More of the attackers arrived, and the whole area was explored. The men were on a narrow rock ledge, almost covered by a row of stone buildings. Smith saw an Italian ducking through the buildings and gave chase. The Italian eluded him, but Smith carried on up a flight of rough-hewn steps to find himself on the pinnacle. The steps had led up one of four rock faces enclosing an uneven platform from which rose stone buildings in a haphazard maze. Paths zigzagged through the buildings. Smith went through to the north side and saw, immediately below him, an untidy huddle of houses—the village of Takrouna.page 22
Neither on ledge or pinnacle had there been any enemy interference; they had evidently relied on the defences at the foot of Takrouna and on the garrison in the village, for here Italian soldiers were moving round with apparent unconcern—until some shots from Smith scattered them.
Meanwhile Rogers and Manahi had decided that the best method of defending the pinnacle and ledge, for they expected an immediate counter-attack, would be to bar all access from the village. They blocked with a boulder the mouth of a tunnel bored through the rock to the bottom of the face enclosing the pinnacle, and Manahi himself occupied an Italian weapon pit overlooking the flight of crude stone steps that gave on to the path connecting pinnacle with ledge, continuing on below the rock face on the west side of the pinnacle to the village. Other Maoris, together with some stragglers from 23 Battalion whom Manahi called up the hill, were placed in various vantage points covering the village itself and a steep wadi on the west side. By now it was mid-morning on 20 April.
During this period the only link with the actual field of battle and Headquarters 5 Brigade, since the withdrawal of 21 Battalion, had been the wireless set with the 23 Battalion Adjutant, Captain A. Ross,45 from a wadi between Bir and Takrouna. Ross had been able to tell the Brigadier something of the condition of 28 Battalion and had estimated that part of 23 Battalion had got through to positions beyond the road. Early in the morning men could be seen on the top of Takrouna and it was thought that they were Maoris.
The two 6 Brigade battalions were well dug in with supporting arms up and communications established, and Brigadier Gentry was confident that they could resist any counter-attack. At dawn Brigadier Kippenberger had ordered the tanks of the Notts Yeomanry under his command to go forward on the east side of Takrouna to mop up and to find and help 23 Battalion. General Freyberg instructed the regiment of 8 Armoured Brigade in reserve to clean out any pockets of the enemy between the two brigades, and then went forward to Headquarters 5 Brigade with the CRA, Brigadier C. E. Weir.46
At this stage Lieutenant Wikiriwhi, who had taken the triple role of commanding officer, adjutant, and intelligence officer of 28 Battalion, arrived at 5 Brigade Headquarters with the first definite news of his battalion. He had just witnessed the remarkable exploits of Private T. Heka47 who, supported by two tanks at long range, had, quite alone, moved up Djebel Bir. A whirlwind series of ‘engagements’ resulted in the capture of an anti-tank gun and surviving crew, together with three machine-gun posts. Thus Wikiriwhi was able to report that Bir had been captured, to confirm that some men had reached the top of Takrouna, and that although the battalion had suffered heavy losses it was being reorganised. Brigadier Kippenberger gave him a definite line for reorganisation—stretching between Bir and Takrouna—to act as second line of defence should the enemy by-pass or break through 23 Battalion, concerning which there was no firm knowledge.
At ten o'clock word was brought back from 23 Battalion on Cherachir. The Intelligence Officer, after a hazardous trip through the valley between Bir and Takrouna, then told the Brigade Commander of the events of the night attack and, which then interested him more, the situation of the battalion that morning. This was reasonably good, although no supporting arms could get through and ammunition was running short. Could artillery concentrations be put down on Point 136, where the enemy was seen collecting for the expected counter-attack?
With this information it was only a matter of minutes before an artillery programme was under way to the loudly expressed gratification of Thomas and his men. The tanks were given renewed instructions to push on to Cherachir, a difficult task owing to the many mines, and the supporting arms were told to get through. These latter could not move far, for no soft-skinned vehicles could survive the shellfire, and machine guns, anti-tank guns, and carriers had to give up after several unsuccessful attempts. The tanks eventually reached the Zaghouan road.
By this time artillery observation officers, among them Captain J. C. Muirhead48 from 5 Field Regiment and an officer from an English medium regiment, had been to the top of Takrouna. From the information sent back by these officers it was debated at Headquarters 10 Corps, and discussed with General Freyberg, whether the few troops on Takrouna should page 24 not be withdrawn, the whole feature heavily pounded by artillery, and a new assault launched that would clear the whole area, including the village and the northern slopes. Fortunately, for the effectiveness of artillery in steep, rocky country and among stone buildings is restricted, this policy was not adopted. Brigadier Kippenberger knew nothing of it. He still held to his decision to hold the ground that had been won, and with the intention of finding out himself what further support could be given to the forward troops, had gone up to the 28 Battalion area and on to the lower slopes of Takrouna. The Brigade Commander concluded that the small group on Takrouna should be relieved by a platoon from 21 Battalion, and instructions to this end were given to Colonel Harding shortly before midday. Some adjustments were made to the line on which 28 Battalion was being reorganised.
During the afternoon General Freyberg again visited Headquarters 5 Brigade, and on hearing the number of casualties—estimated at 40 for the Brigade at this stage—said that he would transfer the reserve battalion of 6 Brigade. Accordingly, arrangements were made for 25 Battalion to relieve 23 Battalion on Cherachir during the coming night, the relief being completed without incident.
Little more could be done. The attack as a whole had not reached the planned objectives, as 4 Indian Division, after a particularly bitter fight, had not managed to capture its first objective and had been left in a similar position to that of 5 NZ Brigade. Obviously nothing further was possible in the meantime: it remained to tidy up the existing positions, and at all costs, with the artillery exposed in the open plain, to hold Takrouna.
The Struggle Continues on Takrouna
Meanwhile the small party on Takrouna had been receiving the concentrated attention of the enemy mortars and artillery. Heavy shelling of the feature began soon after the men had got into their positions, and continued throughout the day with little intermission. The Maoris were not daunted and engaged such targets as presented themselves. Lance-Corporal H. Ruha49 so worried the crew of two captured 25-pounder guns with Bren fire from the dome of the mosque that they unsuccessfully attempted to withdraw from their positions on the northern slopes beyond the village. Private W. Takurua50 fired all the ammunition he could find for an enemy 2-inch mortar slap into the village, and followed this up with a box of Italian stick grenades. All were busy.
In such a restricted area the men on Takrouna were very vulnerable to the enemy fire. Nebel- werfers had added to the devastation. Rogers was killed and five of the original party were early casualties, and soon Manahi realised that the area was practically undefended. He sent down the hill for reinforcements, and later went himself to collect some. Happily the enemy made no counter-attack during this period.
Manahi managed to find C Company, 28 Battalion. Lieutenant Haig gave him a section of riflemen, stretcher-bearers, food and ammunition, and Manahi returned with them to Takrouna, which was wreathed in the dust and smoke of bursting shells. On the way he met the officer from the Medium Regiment coming down, and was told that the feature was no longer tenable and that he should go back to his unit. The officer said, not knowing that this policy had been discarded, that Takrouna would be heavily pounded with artillery that afternoon as a prelude to a renewed attack. This left Manahi in a quandary, as he felt that a renewed attack would give the enemy time to get firmly lodged on pinnacle and ledge, previously undefended. At the bottom of the hill he spoke to Captain Catchpole, who had been in communication with his CO, Lieutenant-Colonel K. W. R. Glasgow,51 and was told to take his men up and to hold on at all costs. Catchpole said, although he did not know it at the time, that reinforcements were on the way and that any artillery programme would be stopped. This was a critical moment.
Manahi went on. Again men were posted to cover all approaches to ledge and pinnacle. The relieving platoon from 21 Battalion arrived under Lieutenant Shaw at 3.30 p.m., and while the relief was taking place the long-expected counter-attack was launched. A pause in the shelling had been followed by the approach of a group of Italians coming directly from the village along the bottom of the face below the pinnacle. The ensuing struggle was bitter and ferocious. Manahi and Corporal J. P. Bell52 dealt with a few who had broken through to the steps, mowing them down with machine-gun fire. Other Italians made more progress, forced a way on to the ledge and thoroughly aroused the Maoris by tossing hand grenades into a building sheltering wounded. Italians were shot, bayoneted, and pushed over the cliff during one of those grim moments when all control is lost.
In the midst of this pandemonium, Muirhead, who had been indulging in the rare spectacle of observing at close quarters the operations of an Italian cookhouse in the village immediately below the northern side of the pinnacle, charged down to the ledge. He had been on the way back from the far side of the pinnacle, had seen what was going on, had collected two or three page 26 Maoris and put an end to the enemy attack in spectacular fashion, tommy guns blazing. The enemy withdrew, taking three Maori prisoners, and by nightfall both ledge and pinnacle were again in our hands. Most of the Maoris, now completely exhausted, returned to their battalion.
Shaw sent a note to Brigade, for no signals cables had withstood the heavy shellfire despite the gallant and constant endeavour of the Brigade signallers, explaining what had happened and asking for reinforcements. Another platoon from 21 Battalion was sent, taken from C Company under Lieutenant Hirst. This party arrived at nine in the evening.
Hardly had the reinforcements got into position before the enemy again attacked, taking the two platoons by surprise as they thought that all access routes were covered. The pinnacle was captured, and an attempt was made to clear the ledge. But the men were rallied and drove the enemy back to the pinnacle, where they occupied the mosque and adjacent buildings. A stalemate developed. Neither party could remove the other, each endeavour being frustrated by a shower of hand grenades and small-arms fire.
With daylight on the 21st the enemy took advantage of the extra height of the buildings on the pinnacle, and it was soon clear that it would be no easy task to dislodge them. Shaw was wounded while sniping from a gap in a wall, and Hirst took command. At the bottom of the hill the Brigade Commander ordered 28 Battalion to send reinforcements—Manahi, if possible, and any others familiar with the layout of the buildings on Takrouna. Manahi responded magnifycently and led about twelve men up to the ledge to join Hirst.
Hirst and Manahi then discussed the problem of driving the enemy from the pinnacle. Manahi tried to get the 28 Battalion mortars from the flat below to bombard the building in which it was suspected that the enemy was concentrated, but the range was too great. Then an attempt was made to hit this building—within 10 yards of the ledge—with a 2-inch mortar that had been brought up the hill. This, too, was unsuccessful as the range was too short. Captain A. F. Harding,53 who then arrived to observe for 5 Field Regiment, persuaded Hirst to allow him to try a 25-pounder gun, accepting the obvious risk of hitting the ledge instead of the building on the pinnacle. After an unsuccessful attempt to range directly on the building, Harding brought the fall of shot, lift by lift, up the southern slopes of the hill. Some fifty rounds were fired before the target was hit, and then three direct, penetrating hits were scored from the final ten rounds.
Immediately two parties from the ledge, one led by Manahi, the other by Sergeant I. Weepu,54 went up to the pinnacle. The enemy had gone! A thorough investigation showed that he had left by the same mysterious means by which he had surprised the two platoons from 21 Battalion the night before—the tunnel giving on to the path to the village. Manahi remembered that he had forgotten to point out the tunnel during the relief.
The end was not yet, however, for the enemy was still firmly entrenched in the village and on the north-west slopes. It was approximately midday, and it seemed that the position was little better than on the previous day. There had been an improvement, for line communication had been re-established during the night and both Headquarters 5 Brigade and the supporting 5 Field Regiment were in direct communication with the summit of Takrouna, an advantage that was soon apparent.
As soon as the enemy realised that the pinnacle had changed hands once more, both ledge and pinnacle were again subjected to heavy and continuous mortar fire. More casualties were page 27 suffered and movement became very dangerous. Harding immediately got his guns on to the mortars, some of which he could see firing from pits on the north-west slopes, while others were concealed behind the village. Altogether, more than three hundred rounds were fired before the mortars were finally silenced.
The village itself was a different proposition, not so easily dealt with. Perched on a narrow ridge, huddled close to the abrupt face of the pinnacle, it was a very difficult target. Yet Hirst believed that some softening was necessary, as all access routes were covered from solidly built stone houses that would afford complete protection against the small-arms fire of any attacking party. He rang Headquarters 5 Brigade in the middle of the afternoon to discuss the situation.
The Brigadier was up with 28 Battalion, but the Brigade Major, Major M. C. Fairbrother,55 after considering the possibility of getting a two-pounder anti-tank gun up the hill, decided to get one of the new 17-pounders to range on the village from its emplacement near Brigade Headquarters. The 17-pounder was still on the secret list, to be used in emergencies only. However, permission was obtained to use it, and the gun crew was soon briefed. The first shot landed on the roof of a building occupied by Hirst's men, drawing immediate and anxious objections, but soon the gun was sending its solid shells ricochetting through the village. The excited observers from the summit saw that the stone buildings gave little protection against this bombardment, and that the enemy had been reduced to panic.
The opportunity was promptly seized. The first move was made by Manahi and a group of Maoris. While the 17-pounder had been in action, Manahi and his men had been stalking enemy posts on the north-east slopes, dodging and creeping among the boulders, swift to use bayonet or grenade. Several weapon pits had been taken in turn and many prisoners captured, when Manahi noticed the effect of the 17-pounder on the enemy in the village. He believed that the plum was at last ripe for the plucking, and with several others made for the village.
The other movement was made by Hirst. Brigadier Kippenberger, with reserves now at his disposal since the relief of 23 Battalion and the reorganisation of 21 Battalion, had directed that a route should be reconnoitred to the village for an attack to be made by a company from 21 Battalion that night. Hirst had made this reconnaissance and had returned to the pinnacle, where he came to the same conclusion as Manahi concerning the state of the enemy in the village. Taking a small party, he went right round to the north side of the village and began a house- to-house search, rounding up the enemy and driving them towards Manahi's party operating from the other side. The collapse of the enemy was complete. Takrouna, the scene of so much dogged fighting, so much individual gallantry and sacrifice, had fallen.
Below on the flat Brigadier Kippenberger heard the news with grim satisfaction. He had nursed the operation with all the means at his disposal and had given a war correspondent the chance of referring to him as ‘red eyed and unshaven’. Later, messages of congratulation were received from General Horrocks, the Corps Commander, and General Freyberg. In the Division as a whole the men who had survived the struggle were regarded with something akin to awe. For two whole days and nights Takrouna had been hidden by the smoke and dust of the bloody battle, and strange stories of passages and secret entrances had circulated amongst the troops. Already, Takrouna and the battle there had become legend.