2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
Operations around Djebibina
Operations around Djebibina
The units moved off after several postponements, drove along the dusty road south-westwards towards Kairouan, and then turned north-westwards. The 4th Field despatched 25 Battery to join 19 French Brigade in the hills to the left or west of the Divisional position, and its commander, Major Bretherton, acted as liaison officer with the French force. The rest of the regiment camped for the night in an area that is described as ‘very cactusy’. Next day it was found that the 78th Field, RA, whose positions the 4th Field occupied, had left behind its 309 Battery to replace 25 Battery. The 5th Field put 47 Battery into position in the evening of the 4th, its vehicles coming under shellfire as they approached the gun positions, which were very close to the infantry FDLs in an area which still harboured many S-mines.
The RAF and USAAF had maintained their dominance of the skies to such an extent that a sudden raid by eight FW19os with anti-personnel bombs in the late afternoon of 5 May came as a shock, a reminder of the ‘bad old days’ when aircraft overhead could not be assumed to be friendly. Three of the bombs landed within 100 yards of the Headquarters ACV, but they did no harm.
When Lieutenant Russell40 and a party of X (Survey) Troop checked the survey of positions for the 5th Field carried out page 508 hastily the previous evening, he found that some of them were in front of the FDLs. It was dangerous work. Only 47 Battery had gone into position overnight and, when the position was reassessed on 5 May, 27 and 28 Batteries were sited some 4000 page 509 yards to the rear. Meanwhile 47 Battery dug in its command post and was getting comfortable when an armoured scout car of C Troop was blown up on a mine. Captain Haslett41 had a lucky escape, but Bombardier Ramsay42 was killed, a gunner was wounded, and another gunner was badly shocked. Only C Troop fired this day—on a hostile battery. Next day 27 and 28 Batteries and RHQ moved forward before dawn and they did so gingerly. Later in the morning a B Troop OP vehicle also struck a mine, but without harm to its occupants. Then Major Snadden's jeep went over a mine and his driver, Gunner Gilbert,43 suffered fatal injuries. Snadden was sent back for a few days' rest and Captain Robertshaw44 took over 28 Battery. With the end of the North African campaign so obviously close, these last-minute casualties were hard to take and for the 5th Field it was somewhat nerve-racking.
For the next two days, therefore, it was just as well that there was plenty of work to keep the field gunners busy. A series of counter-battery stonks in the afternoon of the 7th was followed by harassing fire after dark and then more CB fire. These tasks were shared also by 5 AGRA, with field and medium units. Some tasks were in support of the French corps. The 25th Battery of the 4th Field, which had far more ammunition available than the French batteries, also found plenty of targets.
The air was electric with rumours about the fighting elsewhere in Tunisia and of the impending surrender of the Axis forces. On the 7th news arrived of the entry of American troops into Bizerta and of the 11th Hussars into Tunis itself. In the light of this the current operations in the heavily mined and booby-trapped country north of Djebebina seemed rather pointless. Then, on the 8th, the 4th Field, including 25 Battery, moved hastily back in the evening to the laager area between Sidi bou Ali and Enfidaville, preparatory to moving back into the line vacated on 1 May. This was, if anything even less welcome. The 5th Field, with 32 and 42 Batteries, stayed one more day with 5 Brigade in the existing area.page 510
forward north of Enfidaville to simulate the registration of targets, to put down smoke at times, and generally to disguise the thinning out of guns that was taking place on that front. When they finished this task the two guns went back to the B Echelon area for a rest. By first light on 4 May the rest of the regiment was deployed in olive trees near the town, and at noon they began a series of harassing fire tasks that was to last for 26 hours. The enemy replied vigorously and a heavy concentration at dusk on the RHQ area killed Lance-Sergeant Dickens45 and wounded a gunner. When the series ended at 2 p.m. on 5 May the 6th Field fired counter-battery concentrations. Then, in the evening, the regiment, with the 4th Field, RA, and the 1st Medium, fired a mock barrage to simulate a tank and infantry attack. By the end of the day ammunition expended amounted to 3000 rounds.
General Freyberg was now in temporary command of 10 Corps and wanted it to push north of Enfidaville towards Hammamet. The 6th Field therefore fired a short but intense programme in the evening of 8 May to support the first stage of this plan, an attack by 56 Division north of Enfidaville. In 55 minutes the regiment fired 4000 rounds. The enemy, too, was active, having detected the forward movement before dark, and Lance-Bombardier James,46 a C Troop artificer, was killed. During the barrage a limber of 30 Battery was hit in its pit and set on fire; but the gun crew escaped harm.
Dumping on the 9th brought the ammunition stocks up to 700 rounds per gun in preparation for the next phase, which started at 3.35 p.m. The fire programme was a series of concentrations with a total expenditure of about 5500 rounds. While it was being fired the enemy laid down ‘fairly intense’ counter-battery fire. The 4th Field had arrived and 25 and 26 Batteries went into their former positions north of Enfidaville, while 46 Battery took up a slightly different position to the west. This regiment prepared DF tasks, then new ones were ordered for the positions which 56 Division hoped to capture. The attack, however, failed and the first series of tasks ‘still stood’.
The 6th Field and associated artillery reverted to the CRA's command on the 9th. That evening newly-arrived 4th Field men were interested to hear a BBC announcement that fighting on the Eighth Army front had ceased. The comments this drew, page 511 against a background of gun fire echoing and booming in the hills and mingled with the shrieking of nebelwerfer rockets, were quite unprintable.
Some support was given to an early-morning attack on the left by French forces on 11 May. Then there followed the heaviest counter-battery programme of the whole campaign. In four hours 31 hostile batteries were massively engaged and RAF bombers also joined in, guided by smoke fired by the New Zealand guns. Great clouds of airburst concentrations formed over the gun areas as the enemy fired furiously to get rid of his remaining ammunition; but his gunnery was hasty and inaccurate and he did little harm. Mac Troop, also firing air bursts, gave the enemy some of his own back. Bombardier Farquhar,47 who was in charge of signals of A Troop of the 4th Field, won an MM this day for bravery and persistence in repairing his telephone lines under heavy fire.
A new type of nebelwerfer or some similar rocket projector of long range and heavy calibre appeared at this stage, and on 12 May it was most troublesome. RHQ of the 4th Field suffered a severe shake-up in the morning. One rocket landed 25 yards from the main office truck and another very close to the RAP truck. The CO's tank and jeep and another office truck were damaged. Except for the effects of the blast, however, nobody in RHQ was injured. RHQ of the 11th Field, RA, was not so lucky. One rocket burst by the artillery board and killed several people including the CO, Lieutenant-Colonel W. P. Hobbs, a superb officer.48 An unexploded rocket was examined with interest and found to be of 210-millimetre calibre: earlier examples had been 150-millimetres.
RHQ of the 4th Field lost no time in calling for fire on the source of its troubles. The long trail of smoke left by the rockets made them easy to trace to their source; but this was often a gully not easily accessible to 25-pounder fire. At 2.35 p.m. and 3 p.m. Mac Troop engaged multiple rocket launchers with airbursts.
As the afternoon drew on and the guns continued to thunder in the hills, great explosions took place in the rear areas of the enemy, and in some places white flags appeared. At RHQ of page 512 the 4th Field a series of intercepted wireless messages provided a kind of running commentary on surrender negotiations. By 6 p.m. 2000 prisoners had marhced in; but still enemy shells the and rockets kept coming over and the New Zealand guns replied with far greater weight and accuracy. It was exasperating that the last pocket of resistance in the whole of Tunisia should be that facing 10 Corps and that the New Zealand regiments, which were now the senior regiments in the whole of the army group, should have to continue thus when on all other fronts the guns were silent. A triumphant entry into Tunis would have been much more to the taste of the New Zealand gunners. At the end of the day the 4th Field, the senior regiment in North Africa, had fired over 7000 rounds and the 6th Field had fired 3541 rounds (bringing its total for 23 days to 48,902 rounds, an amazing expenditure). Isolated enemy pockets continued to fire during the night and the 6th Field put down harassing fire.
The morning of 13 May was sunny and all guns were still in action; but, as the 6th Field diary puts it, there was ‘nothing to shoot at’. Resistance was still evident to the left, where enemy were reluctant to surrender to French colonial troops; but this soon ceased. On the New Zealand front the gun A1 of the 4th Field—the senior gun—fired six or seven rounds about 9.30 a.m. at a cluster of vehicles. These were the last rounds of the land war in North Africa, and after the distant echoes of their explosions died down, the hills were almost painfully silent. Men of the 90th Light Division, which the New Zealand gunners first knew as the special Africa Division outside Tobruk in November 1941, marched past the guns into captivity, bearing themselves well and earning admiration.
Outwardly the New Zealand gunners took it all calmly. Some of them strolled forward to look over the hills which had hitherto blocked their view. They saw great plumes of black smoke rising up and prisoners or would-be prisoners streaming down the hillsides. Brigadier Weir and his CBO, Captain Spring, drove forward to inspect the results of their massive CB work. In the main they were satisfied; but here and there German guns sited close to steep reverse slopes had come through unscathed. A party from 36 Survey Battery conducted a similar check of hostile battery locations and was surprised at the number of dummy gun positions.
The 5th Field had been ready to drive forward and take its place alongside the other two field regiments, but at the last moment the move was cancelled. Parties had spent 12 May on page 513 the beach and more went on the 13th. In the evening, when all were back in the rest area south of Enfidaville, the regiment held a thanksgiving service, and when the padre, the Rev. C. G. Palmer,49 had finished, Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow spent some time talking to his men.
48 Hobbs had been attached to 34 Battery at Maadi in July 1940 to give the anti-tankers the benefit of his experince with the 3rd RHA on the Libyan frontier and he had won their whole-hearted allegiance. When the old hands of 34 Battery heard of Hobb's death they were much upset.