Journey Towards Christmas
Chapter 18 — The End Of The First Half
The End Of The First Half
AFTER losing Tripoli, Rommel had been driven back 200 miles to the Mareth Line, once known as the ‘African Maginot’, which stretched for about twenty-two miles from the sea to the Matmata Hills in the west, and gave him a firm base from which to take the offensive. Soon the Americans were in trouble in western Tunisia and the Eighth Army was forced to return to the attack.
The danger then was that Rommel would break off the earlier battle, regroup quickly, and catch the Eighth Army off balance. By the end of February this seemed to be his intention, so the New Zealand Division was called forward.
The leading units moved early on 1 March, No. 1 Platoon of the Ammunition Company and ten vehicles from No. 4 Platoon travelling with the 5th Brigade. The rest of us moved at seven on the following evening and drove steadily through the night along the coast road. It was pitch dark but we were allowed to use lights.
Our first halt was for breakfast, which we ate on the Tunisian frontier. We were off within the hour and before noon we had passed through Ben Gardane, sixty miles south-east of the Mareth Line. We halted twenty miles farther on, and by half past one all the vehicles were dispersed in the new area. Sand was underfoot and wadis and bare hills surrounded us. We might have been back at El Alamein.
That evening Nos. 2, 3, and 4 Platoons moved out to open an ammunition point in the Divisional area at Medenine, fifteen miles behind the front line. Here they were awaited by No. 1 Platoon. Before them, on Rommel's right flank, were the Matmata Hills, which rose and fell like the tracings on a temperature chart—a record, it seemed, of the Tunisian fever.
The next day the fever mounted and both sides were active in the air. From the ammunition point we saw two Focke-Wulfe 109Fs, the new and alarming fighter-bombers the Germans were using, shot down in flames. The demand for ammunition was normal and we issued small quantities of all types including some ‘beak’ shells page 292 for the ‘pheasants’, the new 17-pounder anti-tank guns. (These remarkable birds, conspiratorially muffled in canvas and surrounded by a cloak-and-dagger atmosphere, had been arriving at the front for some while.) During the day Company headquarters joined the platoons at the ammunition point.
Throughout the 5th (while No. 4 Platoon started the two-day job of carting 25-pounder from the 115th FMC at Ben Gardane to the 116th FMC at Medenine) tanks, transport, and coveys of ‘pheasants’ flowed along the coast road towards Mareth. Plainly the crisis was at hand.
Rommel struck the next day. As the morning mist lifted columns of tanks and infantry came out of the hills. Three thrusts were launched, the most southerly against the junction of the 5th Brigade and a British brigade. None succeeded. In the afternoon a second attack on the New Zealand sector was smashed by our guns, and it was the same story all along the front. By the end of the day Rommel had had enough and that night he withdrew behind the Mareth Line, leaving fifty-two tanks and some dead and wounded.
Beaten on the ground he tried to make himself felt in the air and throughout the 7th the skies were dangerous, especially for the drivers at the ammunition point, which now made a very attractive target. (On 1 March we had been joined by a platoon from the 4th Reserve Mechanical Transport Company carrying surplus ammunition, and later by three Royal Army Service Corps detachments, which had been formed into a platoon to serve British units under the command of the Division.) During the morning fighter-bombers dropped bombs all round the ammunition point, doing no damage beyond marking a few vehicles, and that evening Workshops was machine-gunned from a low level. Two bullet holes in two bivouacs was the total damage, but in the next area the 1st New Zealand Petrol Company lost a lorry and a dump of 680 gallons of petrol.
The 8th was a quiet day in all respects and on the 9th the ammunition point closed down, the platoons joining Workshops in the unit's original area. Three days later we were told about the Division's next move.
Again it was to be a secret one. On reaching the assembly area ninety miles almost due south of Gabes, transport would move in daylight only when it was absolutely necessary and there would be page 293 no fires between dusk and dawn. Wireless silence would prevent us from employing our two wireless trucks—the one with Company headquarters and another that had joined us early in March for use at the ammunition point.
We reached the concentration area early on the 14th after travelling 120 miles, and that evening every vehicle set out for the Corps roadhead at El Dehibat, some sixty miles to the south-east. During the next twenty-four hours we were employed with other NZASC units in carting ammunition, petrol, and supplies to a field maintenance centre near the concentration area. It was dusty, windy, and cold, and we rested only when we were waiting for night to fall so that we could cover the last sixteen miles to the field maintenance centre without being observed.
During the 17th we reloaded our second-line holding and serviced our vehicles, and on the 18th we slept. After dark we moved two miles to form up behind the 5th Brigade for the coming move.
There was talk of Gabes, a coast town twenty miles behind the Mareth Line, and of a narrow gap that was to be stormed by infantry and armour after another left hook. This gap, though we knew little or nothing about it at the time, was between the northern end of the Matmata Hills and the southern flank of the Djebel Tebaga range. It was some thirty miles south-west by west of Gabes and had once been walled up by the Romans.
We set out for the Tebaga Gap on the 19th at 7 p.m. It was a lovely night, fine and warm. Following the 5th Brigade and steering by the provosts' dim green lanterns, we travelled slowly on a nine-vehicle front, heading north through the Dahar, a rough, scrub-covered wilderness, totally uninteresting, that lay between the Matmatas and the Sahara. When we halted at half past one the next morning we had covered twenty-seven miles and were seventy miles south by west of Gabes.
The New Zealand Corps (the temporary designation of the force under General Freyberg's command for the left hook: it included the 8th Armoured Brigade, General Leclerc's Fighting French, and British medium, field, and anti-tank regiments) was now on the line reached by the Fighting French. Apart from their remarkable achievement in penetrating 1500 miles from Chad, their home terri- page 294 tory, the French were of interest to us at that time because the day before Second-Lieutenant Todd1 and twenty-eight of our drivers had been attached to them to carry ammunition for a flying column whose task was to protect the Corps' flank from patrols and reconnaissance parties.
After dispersing at dawn on the 20th we were told to be ready to move at half past eight that morning, the difficulty of deceiving the enemy any longer having made General Freyberg decide to push on towards the Tebaga Gap at top speed.
We did not move until after lunch—the story was that the advance had been held up by enemy guns—but throughout the afternoon, in spite of wadis, enemy minefields, and patches of soft sand, we made good progress. We stopped for tea after covering twenty-three miles, and an hour later pushed on over appalling country, travelling until half past ten at about two miles an hour. That night, for the first time since leaving the Medenine sector, we were kept awake by bombs. Flares lit up our neighbours, but we stayed in merciful darkness. We were now between twenty and twenty-five miles south by east of the gap.
The next day—the 21st—the Luftwaffe tried desperately to interfere with the advance, and while moving ten miles north-west in the afternoon our convoy was attacked twice by Messerschmitts. No damage was done.
We halted soon after dark and presently the moon rose, revealing desolate country and the outline of the Djebel Tebaga range. Here, surely, was the utmost bound of the everlasting hills spoken of in Genesis. In that timeless presence it was useless to make any distinction in period between a Roman wall and an armoured brigade. Only yesterday the horsemen had waited where we were waiting. They had ridden away, those Berbers, on their rough, strong horses and the tanks had come, and in between the mountains had scarcely found time to sigh. The echo of hooves had died away in the hills, there was a birth in Bethlehem, Titian and Shakespeare lived, Liebig discovered chloroform and Diesel invented a new kind of oil engine, and again an army stood at the Tebaga Gap.
Gunfire reverberated among the hills and there was a demand for ammunition. The night before the Eighth Army had launched a page 295 frontal attack on the Mareth Line and now the New Zealand Corps was playing its part. By morning success leaned towards us for the enemy had lost Point 201.
During the next four days the demand for ammunition increased steadily. We dumped our loads at the guns, reloaded at the field maintenance centre, and returned to the unit area—a round trip of 120 miles. A few hours' sleep and we did the same thing again. On the down trip we carried prisoners.
After moving back three and a half miles on the second day to allow the 5th Brigade to occupy our area—a report said that a panzer division was attempting an encircling movement—the unit stayed where it was, No. 1 Platoon moving forward two miles on the afternoon of the 26th to open an ammunition point.
Enemy nuisance raiders came over in daylight in twos, threes, and fours but our Bofors were too much for them. At night the Luftwaffe had things more its own way. It bumbled around dropping flares and butterfly bombs, and often we awoke in our slit-trenches to find the area lit up like a city street. Above us would be globules of yellow light, which dripped smaller globules like golden tears, and we would lie still while the wind swept the flares away or they faded with agonising slowness. We hated those butterflies with an intense hatred and it was almost a relief when the Germans dropped bombs of the good old-fashioned kind.
Then it was our turn. Throughout the night of the 25th-26th our bombers shuttled backwards and forwards, plastering the enemy's defences and filling the sky above them with clusters of golden flares. As they descended and faded others appeared over them. From where we were it seemed as though blocks of flats, unimaginably brightly lit, were being dropped by parachute. During the morning of 26 March we heard that the 1st Armoured Division had arrived. It was part of the 10th Corps, which had been switched from the Mareth front where the Eighth Army had gained and lost a bridgehead before the enemy's main position.
At half past three in the afternoon, Spitfires, Kitty-bombers, and Hurricane tank-busters came over in relays, and half an hour later the barrage started. Heavy fighting went on through the night and all the news was good. Hundreds of prisoners had been taken, page 296 many of them German. The tanks were through. They were pouring through. They were on the outskirts of El Hamma, less than twenty miles due west of Gabes. The Tebaga Gap was in our hands.
On the evening of the 27th we moved off in column of route, picking up No. 1 Platoon as we passed the ammunition point. The darkness and some patches of soft sand gave trouble but we followed the provosts' lanterns and passed safely through the gap in the minefields. We could not see the hills but we could feel them all about us. At half past two in the morning, after travelling about twelve miles, we reached the main road to El Hamma and here we halted, right in the gap, dispersing as best we could on a narrow tongue between the road and some white tapes that indicated mines. The moon was struggling over the hills, glinting on wrecked tanks and burnt-out transport. The sand round us had been scuffled up, and every yard of ground (though nothing was broken because there was nothing there to break except small stones) had that smashed and tormented look that tells of heavy and prolonged fighting. Metal embedded in the sand tinkled as we dug our slittrenches, and the Djebel Tebagas, only four or five miles away now, scowled down on us.
It was windy in our area and blankets of brownish dust flapped disconsolately among the transport. After an early lunch No. 1 Platoon and six vehicles from No. 4 Platoon set off under Captain Gibson to join the 5th Brigade, with which a third of our second-line holding was to travel. The rest of us, thoroughly impatient now, moved at half past two, following the Divisional Reserve Group for ten miles along the road to El Hamma and dispersing before nightfall.
The next day we were told to join the 5th Brigade, which was advancing on Gabes by a route roughly parallel to the one the main body was following. By this time an out-flanking movement had caused the evacuation of El Hamma, and during the afternoon we heard that a British patrol had entered Gabes at midday.
We were off again at two in the afternoon, heading for Gabes behind the 5th Brigade. Most of us were nervous about mines, for we knew that tapes could be torn down and that even the most page 297 conscientious sweeper was fallible. During the day a Don R light-heartedly directed two No. 1 Platoon vehicles on to a minefield, on the far side of which sappers were busy with spades. They said to the drivers: ‘We're burying one of our cobbers. He was talking to some infantry jokers about mines and he went into that field you've just crossed to get one. He got one all right.’
We halted at dusk and waited for almost three and a half hours with our vehicles jammed nose to tail. Then we dispersed for the night. After dark Captain Gibson's detachment pulled out with the 5th Brigade (which was again on the main axis of the advance and had been ordered to move ahead of the 6th Brigade), and the rest of us reverted to the command of the Divisional Reserve Group.
The next morning Major Sampson had trouble in finding where we were to go and we did not move until late in the afternoon. After travelling along the main axis for a mile we turned north to by-pass Gabes and follow a narrow, winding track that took us up hill and down dale and through fields of green corn. It was warm and sunny and the crops were still wet from rain that had fallen the night before. Tanks and lorries had cut swathes through them and the smell from the crushed stalks was sweet and fresh.
We reached our new area, on which Captain Gibson's detachment was converging also, shortly before dark, dispersing among peagreen hills. Four Junkers 88s were dropping bombs about a mile away and ack-ack guns were barking, but over everything there was a sort of peace.
It was that kind of evening.
The battle swept ahead but not out of hearing.
By the end of March the Eighth Army was in front of the enemy's next line, which was at Wadi Akarit some twenty miles up the coast from Gabes. Here the Axis made a last effort to prevent the British from linking up with the Americans. Though not as formidable as the Mareth Line the position was a strong one, its left flank being protected by the sea and its right by the now familiar salt marshes. A frontal attack was called for and while this was being planned the New Zealand Division rested.
We had day-leave to Gabes, seven miles away, and there one could bathe and listen with a mixture of envy and admiration to page 298 small children speaking their native language—French. Our welcome from the inhabitants was warm and pretty girls gave us flowers, but the Gulf of Gabes, in which we were encouraged to bathe, was cold, and as there was nothing to eat and hardly anything to drink most of us went only once to that dusty, pretty French town with the bombed jetty, the shabby, charming houses, the dilapidated green shutters, and the rusty iron balconies. It was the same at El Hamma.
In any event we were too busy for holiday-making. In four days we dumped 350 rounds of 25-pounder at each of the New Zealand gun positions—from the unit area to the field maintenance centre and back was a trip of ninety miles—and then we served a regiment of the 50th Division. That brought us to the night of 5-6 April.
In the small hours of the morning an intense barrage started and it was still going when we woke. We were under an hour's notice to move and several times we got as far as warming up our engines, but when dusk came we were still in the same area. We spent the night there, moving on the 7th behind the 6th Brigade.
The enemy was on the run now, with the armour and the leading units of the New Zealand Division in hot pursuit, but there was still a vast array of transport and fighting vehicles to move ahead of us through the narrow gaps in the minefields. By tea-time we had covered less than six miles. We were away again at a quarter past five but progress was still slow and there were enemy planes about. They had been worrying us in daylight for a week past.
We struck the Gabes-Gafsa road (Gafsa being eighty miles north-west of Gabes) at half past seven, forming up in column of route before crossing it because of minefields. We had lanterns to guide us now and the going improved. There were halts and during one of them an enemy plane dropped flares right above us. Friends could be recognised fifty yards away and the lorries stood as though in a lighted garage, casting huge shadows across the desert, but for some reason there was no attack.
We halted at half past one and bedded down for the night. Before we turned in we heard that British armoured cars had linked up with the Americans during the day.
The pursuit went on throughout the 8th but we covered only seven miles. We were now thirty miles north-north-west of Gabes and five from the coast.page 299
The 9th, the 10th, the 11th—the next seven days in fact—stay in our minds as an interminable series of stops (‘Don't wander away, chaps—they're finding out what's going on ahead.’) linked together by little journeys of a mile, two miles, ten miles, all made in low gear. But little journeys add up. Following the 6th Brigade, we moved north and north-west, not always patient but happy all the time except once or twice at dusk when the Bofors barked furiously, or at night when we woke up and saw the yellow globules drifting towards us and heard the butterfly bombs gobbling in the distance.
With every mile the fields became greener and gayer. Scarlet poppies and enormous ox-eyed daisies, wild yellow pyrethrums, dandelions, mauve-coloured thistles—they spread a pinafore prettiness over the cornfields, delighting us after our arid diet of wadis. On the night of 9-10 April we dug our slit-trenches in soft turf among rabbit droppings and Kate Greenaway flowers and great clumps of furze, which later, when the flares started to fall, shrouded us in grateful shadow.
Sfax, eighty to ninety miles up the coast from Gabes, had fallen, and we travelled through wheat and barley and over rolling downland and then through olive trees—mile on mile of olive trees all so symmetrically planted that whichever way you looked you were gazing down endless avenues. We halted among them that evening—we were now twenty-two miles north-west of Sfax—and were told that we should not be moving for several days, so the next morning, after servicing the transport, we did our washing. A canvas lean-to appeared against the side of Headquarters' orderly-room lorry and courts were convened to inquire into two recent accidents.
But before the washing was dry or the findings could be promulgated we were moving through the olive trees in three columns with an air raid flashing behind us and lines of tracer showing pink in the fading light. We passed a burning lorry with a jeep on the back of it but we could hardly take our eyes from the olives. They were growing in pure white sand, smooth and tidy as a tennis-court. It lapped their roots like a clean coverlet, giving them the appearance of gnarled old paupers in a shining white hospital at evening. Their branches crackled against the canopies and our wheels ploughed tracks in the crisp sand as we pushed, like robber bands, through the strange forest.
Tall barley brushed us the next day and when we stopped for page 300 the night we were in a cornfield. As we lay in our slit-trenches the cool green stalks bent over us, dropping beetles and fat grubs into our eyes. Being four feet high, they made our slit-trenches seem seven feet deep, which gave us an illusion of safety when the western sky started to flash and gobble.
Sousse, over seventy miles north of Sfax, had fallen, and we came by rough tracks to El Djem, thirty-six miles south of Sousse, where there was a Roman amphitheatre marvellously well preserved. Here we joined the El Djem-Sousse road, which we followed for some miles before halting and dispersing early in the afternoon.
The next morning—it was 14 April—we skimmed along the main tarmac road for half an hour, stopping two miles south of Sousse. The platoons pulled off the road to left and right and settled down among trees. It was the perfect area. Sunlight struck through the branches and fell in golden pools on patches of wild flowers and on grassy paths. Doves cooed softly and fell in succulent bundles or fluttered away to safety as a brisk volley rang out.
While the billies boiled they cooed in the woods, gently and reproachfully, in the sunlight.O! wither'd is the garland of the war.
The soldier's pole is fall'n.
From coast to coast the enemy was facing Allied armies and behind him was the sea. His positions at Enfidaville, eighteen miles from Sousse, were about the same distance from Tunis as ours had been from Alexandria, but there the likeness ended. He had good cover, and peaks and spurs rising behind the front line provided him with observation posts.
At once we set to work to bring forward the ammunition. Before dawn on the 16th a convoy of 240 vehicles (half were ours and the rest came from the 1st New Zealand Supply Company and an RASC Company) left the unit area for a field maintenance centre near Sfax, from which 21,600 rounds of 25-pounder were to be brought forward to another centre near Sousse. The roads were good and by ten that night half the ammunition had been shifted. The greater part of what was left was diverted to our area the next day to meet a sudden demand from the Artillery.page 301
On the 19th the unit moved forward to join No. 2 Platoon at the ammunition point, which was now a mile south of Sidi Bou Ali, twelve miles north-west of Sousse. Enfidaville was thirteen miles north-north-west of Sidi Bou Ali.
Our new area was as pleasant as the old one—the trees were as shady, the doves as abundant. Raised paths divided it into little squares of flower-filled orchard, like sunken gardens, each of which made a snug harbour for two or more lorries. Nearby, hidden by great cactus hedges, were fields of peas and beans with the pods ripening on the vines. These, we took it, went with the area. Dove and green peas—could anything be more delicious?
The ammunition point had closed on our arrival but No. 2 Platoon reopened it the next day in an area ten miles north-west of Sidi Bou Ali close to a large lake. Here the country was open and one looked across an undulating plain towards Takrouna, three or four miles west of Enfidaville, and the enemy-held hills on either side of it, pale green and primrose in the evening sunshine. Gunfire sounded hollowly among them and in places they were shrouded by a grey mist. Already the Allied general offensive was nearly sixteen hours old, and at that very moment in the hilltop village of Takrouna a small party of New Zealanders was holding a pinnacle in the face of mortars, machine guns, and grenades.
Under gathering rain clouds the hills turned to purple. Presently they were swallowed by the night but the battle went on and on, flashing and rumbling in the rain and darkness.
For a day and a night and another day the 25-pounders, jerking and smoking in the cornfields, sent over an endless stream of shells towards the hills, and endlessly our lorries shuttled backwards and forwards between the ammunition point and the unit area, the unit area and the field maintenance centre near Sousse. We carted 5152 rounds of 25-pounder on the first day and 9832 on the second.
The barrage died down and we relaxed into routine. Heavy rain had fallen, but now the weather was fine and warm and every leaf and flower was in a perfect frenzy of expansion. None of us had seen anything like it before. Here was no slow unfolding, no tentative putting forth. The flowers leapt out of their buds and were off with the first breeze—like birds. The fat pads of the cactus, obscenely glossy, morbidly succulent, seemed to be in danger of blowing up, vampire-like, and deluging everything with page 302 green blood; but already some pads had hardened and dried, horribly suggesting withered and desiccated flesh.
Plainly this spring would be over in a few hours, so we turned our attention to saving the peas and beans. After our own estates had been stripped fatigue parties were taken in lorries to a large field in the neighbourhood of the ammunition point, and here, too, the harvest was gathered in.
Picking and podding beans and peas for the community and cooking them privately in billies—with margarine they made a delicious meal even without the flesh of doves—took up a great many of our off-duty hours, and the rest were spent in bathing, for which transport to the sea was provided, and in clearing cricket and football fields. In this work a battered diesel lorry, which was in fairly good order except for a weakness of the stomach that prevented it from holding down either oil or water for any length of time and from keeping them in separate tubes when it was holding them, was of the greatest help. It puttered up and down for hours, spouting a mixture of hot oil and water and dragging a harrow made from tow chains. Like its counterpart in Workshops, another trophy of the chase, it was in demand when unofficial transport was required, and its official owner was seldom in a position to disclose its whereabouts. Often it was in Sousse or in Hammam-Sousse, three miles nearer. Not that there was much to see in either town; the former was full of bomb holes, broken glass, and vaguely deprecatory Frenchmen; the latter was a maze of small, hot alleys overhung by tall buildings and crowded with open-fronted shops in which tiny meals, compounded chiefly of garlic and olive oil, were perpetually sizzling over braziers. Or it would be fetching loaves and rock-cakes from the New Zealand Field Bakery Section, in which No. 1 Platoon had some good friends.
Sometimes our routine was interrupted by a heavy demand for ammunition or by a special job. On the morning of 27 April, for instance, 144 lorries went to the ammunition point and from there were guided in batches of sixteen to the gun positions, at each of which 400 rounds of 25-pounder were required. Dust attracted attention and there was some shelling by 88s, one of the Artillery guides being slightly wounded. In general, though, no exceptional efforts were required of us, and the days that followed, ending April and launching us into May, were lazy and pleasant.page 303
Daily there was more heat in the sun. The flowers had faded now, peas and beans had become scarce, and the crops were the colour of new gold. The cactus leaves were powdered white with dust. Dust lay in warm drifts beside the tracks and when we returned from the ammunition point we were as white as millers.
Except for No. 4 Platoon and small detachments from Nos. 1 and 2, which were now at the ammunition point, and for Second-Lieutenant Delley2 and ten others who were detached with the 1st New Zealand Mule Pack Company, newly formed to supply our troops in the hills, the unit was complete at this time, the drivers who had been with the French flying column having returned to us on 23 May. (Against all expectation they had few adventures to relate: there had been one air raid, one lorry had hit a mine, the French had been careless about lights.)
As always when we were together in a pleasant area and there was little work to be done the platoons were drawn close by organised games, a constant exchange of visits, and the necessity of killing time.
Time killed is time forgotten, but certain memories stand out clear and bold: evening, and Neil's old Opel Blitz and the Italian Spa from Workshops lurching towards each other across the ruts and the footballers in the back bouncing about like peas and laughing and calling out as the lorries pass … afternoon, and masses of khaki shirts and clean boots and a long wait for the Hon. F. Jones and people asking: ‘I wonder if he'll say about going home? I wonder if the cooks are keeping the tea hot?’ … morning, and ugly hammer-headed mules hitched to our olive trees and their masters telling us about their points and boasting of them and abusing them at the same time … night, and the fat thunder drops pattering on canopies and bivouacs and the warm darkness growling above the olive trees. And little things: cactus pads squashed flat by wheels, telephone wires tangled in a white hedge: the winding, crumbling road to the ammunition point and a load of salvage leaping and jangling: a Berber in a straw hat expertly fingering an army blanket: a puncture in the dust: sunshine at breakfast: beans.page 304
May the 5th. After the hot day the cool evening. Near the ammunition point the slim flamingoes settled on the lake's edge in a scarlet cloud. Gunfire no longer worried them. What they hated was being used for target practice by returning fighter planes. In the unit area there was music. A Strauss waltz played by the 5th Brigade Band stole among the olive trees, misty now with dancing midges and mosquitoes, themselves making music—a tiny, persistent shrilling. At the forward ammunition point, twelve miles west of the other point, No. 1 Platoon's drivers had finished digging their slit-trenches and some of them were making for the low hills that bounded one side of the area. From these they would get a good view of the gun flashes.
They had reached the area at lunch-time after travelling slowly along a bad road that had taken them through green and yellow hills to a wide plain. Here their lorries stood axle-deep in corn and in front of them were the wild mountains in which the fighting for Zaghouan and Pont du Fahs would take place.
The day before—the 4th—the Division had started to concentrate in the neighbourhood of Djebibina on the left flank of the Eighth Army. Its role in the coming assault was to support a French drive in the direction of Pont du Fahs, thirty miles north-west of Enfidaville, while the Americans attacked in the north, the Eighth Army in the south, and the First Army struck the main blow in the centre.
The fighting in the mountains began that night, and the next morning we were ordered to dump 163 rounds of 25-pounder at each of forty-eight gun positions. All the lorries in the unit area left for one or other of the ammunition points and at three in the afternoon they started to go forward to the guns. It was no country for motor transport, and long strings of mules loaded with ammunition and supplies for the Fighting French were plodding along the rocky, winding tracks with an air of patient disgust, which changed to anger when a gun went off near them or when one of our lorries avoided hitting them by a hair's breadth; then they snorted fiercely and erected their long ears, framing for an instant a distant foothill or a 75-millimetre gun in a gaping V-sign, which was what the French were doing, good-humouredly, with stubby fingers. The latter, in a foreign sort of way, looked extremely business-like in spite of their beards, their bizarre equipment, and the faintly exclamatory air with which they did everything, whether it was page break page break page 305 kicking over a motor-cycle engine (It marches!), making the V-sign (Bravo, my old ones!), or flogging a mule (Species of an imbecile!).
Transport near Wadi Akarit
Dispersal, near Wadi Akarit
The heights of Takrouna
Some of the gun positions were under observation from the enemy, and as these could not be approached until after dark it was very late before many of our drivers got home. Most of them, probably, were on the road again within a few hours, for during the next three days the demand for ammunition was heavy and continuous.
When we were not working we seemed always to be congregated in or around the platoon orderly rooms, infuriating busy clerks and making them wonder why on earth it had ever occurred to them that orderly-room lorries were good places for platoon wireless sets. On Friday, 7 May, we heard that the French were in Pont du Fahs and that Bizerta and Tunis were on the point of falling, and on Saturday we heard that they had fallen the day before.
Throughout Sunday, under a hot blue sky, our lorries went backwards and forwards between the ammunition point and the unit area and the field maintenance centre, passing and repassing in a flurry of white dust; and from daylight until dark heavy traffic moving up to the forward point laid a smoke-screen across the cornfields.
The news on Monday the 10th was that large forces of the enemy, including our old friends of the 90th Light Division, were surrounded in the hills in front of the Eighth Army, British armour having swept round behind them and cut them off from the Cape Bon peninsula. During the afternoon No. 1 Platoon closed down the forward ammunition point—it was not needed now, for by this time the Division had moved back to the Enfidaville front—and relieved No. 4 Platoon in the area near the ravaged beanfields and the lake with the scarlet flamingoes.
That night a battle started in the mountains. They threw back the long echoing roar of the bombardment, and from the ammunition point our drivers could see the small foothills leaping out of the darkness as the guns flashed. The noise and the flashes went on hour after hour, and the next morning the guns were still firing. They fired throughout the day with only a few pauses, and the enemy guns answered valiantly. After dark our drivers could see page 306 the yellow flash of our guns and the reddish flash of enemy shells exploding near them.
And the next morning they were still firing. It was Wednesday, 12 May, and it was the day of the races.
After lunch half the company was taken in lorries to Sidi Bou Ali where the New Zealand Mule and Donkey Turf Club (incorported with the Mule Pack Company) was holding its first and last spring meeting. Wearing our new summer clothes (and our new summer clothes were garments in which Frankenstein's monster might have hesitated to appear in public), we milled around with five thousand other New Zealanders, shoving bundles of notes through the windows of the totalisator, losing money on Imshi (ridden by ‘Sheriff’ Davies) but recovering a little on Packdrill (Lieutenant Delley) and Doubtful (‘Tiger’ Tarrant3) and spending a thoroughly hot and happy afternoon. And in the distance, never quite drowned by the voice of Captain Toogood, which the public address system was diffusing over the whole field and among the olive trees, was the voice of the guns. We listened to them with quiet satisfaction, as schoolboys on the last evening of term listen to the slamming of desks. We might never hear guns again.
Von Arnim, General Officer Commanding-in-Chief, African Army Group (Rommel was safe in Europe), had been captured during the day and the enemy forces in the hills had no hope of holding out much longer, but when darkness came the guns were still firing.
Near the ammunition point, where the YMCA Mobile Cinema was screening Something to Sing About, a white cone of light shone steadily on the side of a three-tonner. Innumerable red pinpoints, wavering a little, glowed softly in the blue darkness, and when matches were lit sections of the audience, close-packed on rocks, on cushions, on empty jerricans, sprang out of the night haphazardly. Music and rasping dialogue competed with the rumbling of the guns, and beyond the screen, beyond the caperings of James Cagney, wild-fire flickered in the mountains. The audience took little notice of it, for the film was banal beyond belief and the business of not enjoying it occupied nearly everyone.
The guns fired fitfully through the night but by ten the next morning all was quiet. An hour and three-quarters later, Marshal Messe, Commander of the Italian First Army, surrendered unconditionally to General Freyberg. It was the 13th of May.
We were ordered to close the ammunition point, and for the last time No. 1 Platoon took the crumbling white road to Sidi Bou Ali. Heading in the same direction and riding for the most part in their own transport were thousands of prisoners. Even the drivers were prisoners in many cases. The Italians, naturally, seemed quite at home under these circumstances—they were hooting their horns in an easy civilian way and slapping along with a good deal of flash gear-changing—but the task sat oddly on the Germans. Their young, sunburnt faces were serious under the white, peaked forage caps of the Afrika Korps, and they drove slowly and conscientiously, intent on the job in hand. It seemed important to them not to scrape a mudguard.
In the backs of the lorries some of the prisoners were singing, but again steadily and gravely. They were singing, perhaps, the old battle song of the Afrika Korps:With clattering trucks,
With engines roaring,
Panzers roll forward
One or two of our drivers waved to the prisoners, and many waved back, though a few were sullen.
After the surplus ammunition had been fetched from the gun sites there was no work for us. We played cricket or went swimming or stood under the olive trees near the road and watched the lorries go by. Often a lorry pulled up to allow the prisoners to get out and walk over to the ditch. It was as though a whistle had shrilled and the players were mingling on the field at half-time.
The opposing team was of enormous size, and when dusk fell the lorries were still going past our area, crushing the cactus pads deeper in the white dust by the roadside as they rolled forward in Africa.
That evening there was an issue of two bottles of beer a man. The tires hummed on the road and the mosquitoes echoed their page 308 humming in a higher key and the shadows became one shadow. And we drank our two bottles of beer slowly and appreciatively, as players, at half-time, suck lemons.
On 15 May, at ten minutes past seven in the morning, we set out for Maadi Camp, 1864 miles away.
Engines warming up in the darkness, the shiveringly cold darkness, and moves before daylight. Overcoats shed as the sun rises, then jerseys, then shirts. Warm, dry wind blowing against bare skin and the tires on the hot bitumen making a noise like sticking-plaster being ripped off. Punctures and blowouts and plugs oiling up and bearings giving trouble.
Through Kairouan—the Prophet's barber lived there—through Gabes and the Mareth Line—a cool, green gap between the sea and the hills—through Medenine and Ben Gardane. Near Tripoli we spend the second night. The next day we dump our ammunition at a depot and then load petrol, which we are to carry for the Division. We spend two days near Tripoli and in the evenings the Kiwi Concert Party performs in our area—legs kicking under black sateen lined with white, stage a red mouth in the blue twilight: ‘We're the Cancan girls from the Folies Bergères’….
Jerricans full of petrol in the backs of the lorries. Jerricans shaking loose and pushing out the sides of the canopies. Vicious tugging at jerricans to unwedge them from tight rows. Jerricans being filled from ‘flimsies’ and the petrol spilling over the warm grass. Petrol cold and greasy on shirts and shorts.
Homs passed and Misurata. Long delay east of Misurata because the road has been washed out fifty miles ahead. Buerat passed and Sirte, and we halt near our old area at Nofilia. Marble Arch, El Agheila, and Agedabia. Benghazi, and we take aboard more petrol and spend the next day in the staging area, getting leave to town. Tocra Pass, Barce, Giovanni Berta, Derna Pass, Gazala, Tobruk, and more petrol. Bardia shining white on our left, Capuzzo, the border, Halfaya Pass, Buqbuq, Sidi Barrani, and Mersa Matruh. In front of the Lido Hotel, innocent now of rich Greeks, we splash and swim in the warm, purple water. Garawla, Qasaba, Sidi Haneish, Baggush, Fuka, El Daba, El Alamein, the Matruh turn-off, page 309 and Amiriya. The next morning—31 May—we set out on the last stage of the journey.
The road black and straight like a typewriter ribbon for miles, then the short steep climb, then round to the left, to the right, then down, then Mena House and the Pyramids, Sharia El Ihrâm, Cairo, the Nile, Maadi, the bump over the railway, NZASC Training Depot going past, the dustbowl on the far side.
The lorries halt in line, mudguard against mudguard. They sway as they halt, and one after another the hand brakes go on, croaking like frogs.
The news goes round the dustbowl like a hot wind, raising temperatures, making hearts stop for a minute and then beat faster. The lists are made out already: they will be read tomorrow; they will be read this evening; they will be read now.
Captain Gibson has papers in his hand and he begins to read:
‘The following will be returning to New Zealand under the Ruapehu scheme for three months' furlough: Aicken R. B., Annan A. E., Ashton D. H….’
The drivers sit quietly in the warm sand, hearing their names—the fortunate ones—but not feeling the happiness straight away, only the shock and the ache under the heart and the nearness of tears.