Chapter 13: Up Against It at Enfidaville
First Contacts with the Enemy Line
THE hills now facing Eighth Army were the spurs of Djebel Zaghouan, a 4200-foot-high mountain some distance farther west. The most easterly peaks of these spurs were Djebel Garci and Takrouna,1 the last-named being on the western side of the entrance to the coastal strip. From Takrouna the hills trended away east of north, coming closer and closer to the coast, until at Hammamet, 20 miles away, they came right down to the water’s edge.
The little town of Enfidaville was situated on the flat land at the entrance to the coastal strip, about halfway between Takrouna and the coast. Behind it, the country rose gradually, and Enfidaville nestled, half hidden, on the fringe of large olive groves which ran down to the sea, and amongst bluegums and other trees which surrounded its houses and lined its streets. On its outskirts some of these gum trees had been felled as road blocks, which later spelt doom to several soldiers who innocently but prematurely tried to enter the town.
The line of peaks, Garci and Takrouna in particular, commanded the coastal plain stretching south from Enfidaville, and overlooked the country across which the Division must travel to come to grips with the enemy. The advantage in terrain for ground fighting thus lay with the enemy, but the advantage in landing grounds now lay overwhelmingly with the Allies.
At first light on 13 April 2 NZ Division resumed the advance when Divisional Cavalry patrols moved up the main road from Sidi bou Ali, and KDG patrolled along the road running north from Sebkra Kelbia. There was a little shellfire on the main road, and KDG struck resistance some five miles north of the Sebkra. The supporting artillery came into action, and was in turn shelled, but armoured cars rounded up several vehicles and captured thirty prisoners, and the enemy withdrew. There seemed to be enemy positions about every three miles, typical rearguard tactics, and
there were undoubted indications that the Division was approaching a stronger line of defence, for enemy shelling became progressively more intense as forward elements approached Enfidaville.
More pressure was wanted, and the tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade were pushed through Sidi bou Ali astride the road. By 1.20 p.m. the brigade was in touch with the enemy, but found difficulty in getting observation from the tank turrets because of the olive groves, so 21 Battalion was sent forward, the carriers leading. Finally, at 4.30 p.m. the battalion took up a position across the road about five miles short of the town.
Meanwhile 5 Infantry Brigade had been called into action. At about 9 a.m. the GOC, from the roof of a farmhouse near Sidi bou Ali, instructed Brigadier Kippenberger to move direct on Djebel Garci, capture it if possible, and then advance on Enfidaville from the flank and rear. The brigade therefore took the secondary road and track from Sidi bou Ali towards Djebel Garci, 17 miles distant.
The proposed operation seemed a fairly extensive one, a ‘tall order’, but one must always bear in mind the special relationship between the GOC and his infantry brigadiers. The latter could estimate correctly just how much or how little was really meant by the General’s sometimes startling instructions, and the General knew that his brigadiers would interpret his orders more in the spirit than the letter. In this case there was another factor, to be mentioned again later, namely that it was believed that the enemy was not going to make a real stand on the Enfidaville line, and that it was quite likely that the hills—including Djebel Garci—would not be strongly held.
The brigade commander at once summoned his battalion commanders, and prescribed the order of advance as 23 Battalion, Tactical Headquarters, platoon 7 Field Company, 5 Field Regiment, 28 Battalion, 21 Battalion, 7 Field Company (less a platoon), Main Headquarters, and B Echelon transport, the advance to be if necessary in single column. Lieutenant-Colonel Romans was told that his battalion, with four Sherman tanks from 8 Armoured Brigade, was to capture Djebel Garci.
Some four miles beyond Sidi bou Ali, 23 Battalion was joined by the four tanks, and here 21 Battalion left the brigade to join 8 Armoured Brigade as already recorded. The movements of the four tanks are a mystery, for they did not accompany 23 Battalion on what became a dash at express speed over the countryside. Whether they fell behind owing to the rapid advance, or were told by Brigadier Kippenberger or Lieutenant-Colonel Romans to disengage, or were forgotten in the excitement is not known.
The 23rd Battalion formed up in desert formation of nine columns, had a meal, and at 1.30 p.m. moved forward in the van of the brigade. At 3.10 p.m. it was some three miles in advance of the road from Enfidaville to Sebkra Kelbia, and was in full view of the enemy on the high ground north of Wadi el Boul. The enemy had commenced shelling the column, the head of which was still some six miles from the top of Djebel Garci.
But by now Brigadier Kippenberger had examined the Garci feature from closer range, and had decided that it was too big for either a battalion or even a brigade attack, and was a divisional objective. Well to the right, however, was another striking feature identified as Takrouna, the capture of which would still enable a flank attack to be made against Enfidaville.
Speed was essential if the enemy was to be caught off balance. So while they were all still moving ahead in their vehicles, Kippenberger shouted out his instructions to Romans for the change of plan. The attack was to go straight in without even waiting for support from 5 Field Regiment, for the regiment was some way behind, and it would take time to bring it forward and to find positions. It was now about 3.30 p.m.
The carriers of 23 Battalion, now in the lead, reached Point 70 overlooking Wadi el Boul, and from there could see enemy transport moving along the road running south of Takrouna. Behind the carriers the companies began to arrive in their vehicles, ‘bumping and bouncing over the rough ground’, and enemy shelling intensified. There were repeated salvoes of four. A self-propelled gun could be seen on the road in front of Takrouna, there appeared to be about three troops of 105-millimetre guns in action, and our own artillery was not available. The enemy was obviously ready, and the brigade commander decided that without artillery or armoured support it was most unlikely that the battalion would ever get to Takrouna, which was still three miles away. So despite the readiness of the battalion commander and the battalion to go on, the brigade commander ordered the troops to debus and take shelter behind the ridge near the hamlet of Hamadet Salah.
The troops debussed and dug in with all speed, while the carriers went forward to shoot up transport. By 5.30 p.m. 5 Field Regiment was in action, but the wide-open nature of the plain made it necessary for the guns to deploy some distance back, a factor that was to affect all artillery activities in the days that followed.
Brigadier Kippenberger decided to hold the high ground round Point 70 and to extend the line to the west with two companies of 28 Battalion, using the other two companies to patrol forward to the road. While he was conferring with his commanding officers
at Headquarters 23 Battalion there was heavy shelling in the area. After this conference, at about 6 p.m., Lieutenant-Colonel Romans arranged the dispositions to be taken up round Point 70, and these were occupied after dark. In the early hours of 14 April the battalion sent fighting patrols as far as the road, but these had nothing to report.
After dark 28 Battalion took up its position, with two companies dug in on the left of the 23rd. The other two sent out patrols up to the road along a stretch of two miles, but had nothing to report except that there was water in Wadi el Boul.
The casualties incurred by 5 Infantry Brigade during the day were surprisingly light, considering the advance across an open plain and the weight of the enemy shellfire. One officer and one other rank were killed, and fourteen other ranks wounded.
Sixth Infantry Brigade Group was assembled in the Bourdjine area by 11 a.m., 24 and 26 Battalions joining Headquarters and 25 Battalion which had moved there the night before. The brigade moved forward by stages during the day to just south of Sidi bou Ali, where it arrived at 10 p.m. A ‘flag-showing’ detachment of carrier patrol strength was sent round via Djemmal and Moknine and received enthusiastic welcomes from the local populace.
Night found 8 Armoured Brigade laagering behind a 21 Battalion gun line five miles south of Enfidaville, and 5 Infantry Brigade dug in four miles south-west of Enfidaville facing Takrouna. King’s Dragoon Guards and Divisional Cavalry maintained patrols across the front, and ten miles from Enfidaville were in touch with ‘L’ Force. The gun group was some miles back, but the Division was gradually assembling, and only needed to have artillery in closer support before making an attempt to breach the enemy line—or so it appeared.
Farther to the west 4 Light Armoured Brigade and ‘L’ Force had at last light reached a line running east and west just south of Djebibina.
Very little was known of the enemy dispositions except that a line of posts existed west of Takrouna, and numerous infantry had been seen digging in at various points. Air and ground reconnaissance had reported much enemy transport moving west from Enfidaville. Army Intelligence suggested that the enemy main line of resistance might well not be based on the positions at Enfidaville, but that these might constitute an outpost line for a main position between Bou Ficha and Zaghouan. This appreciation became generally accepted.
Available records give little information about the enemy just at this time, save that 15 Panzer Division was in Army Reserve, and both 10 and 21 Panzer Divisions were west of the Enfidaville front. What was left of both 90 and 164 Light Divisions faced 2 NZ Division, together with portions of several Italian divisions, but it is not until a few days later that details are recorded.
1 The word ‘Takrouna’ applies both to the peak and to the village on its northern slopes. The word ‘Djebel’ does not, as is usual, figure as part of the name of the peak. Here, the word ‘Takrouna’ will be used for the peak only. The village will be described as Takrouna village.
A Halt on 14 April
The GOC indicated in the evening of 13 April that he would bring forward the artillery, shell the enemy out of his rearguard positions, and pass 6 Brigade Group through to take over the advanced guard role. As at Akarit, it was hoped that the enemy might be ‘bounced’ from his positions if pressure was maintained.
On 14 April King’s Dragoon Guards under Lieutenant-Colonel M. J. Lindsay was withdrawn from the forward area and passed to the direct command of Eighth Army. So ended a pleasant association with a gallant regiment.
Divisional Cavalry patrols were active all along the front. The 23rd Battalion carriers reported that enemy infantry was holding a line on the road immediately north of Point 70, having apparently occupied it at first light, as patrols during the night had found nothing there. During the morning the carriers, acting on the brigade commander’s instructions, occupied Point 105 two miles to the west of Point 70.
At midday 21 Battalion returned, having been relieved from its task round Enfidaville. Brigadier Kippenberger then ordered it to advance about 1500 yards from the positions held by 23 Battalion, cross Wadi el Boul, and cut the road at an elbow north of Point 70, while the Maori Battalion was to advance the right flank of the line now held by 23 Battalion and so straighten it east of Point 70. The 28th Battalion was also to relieve 23 Battalion on Point 105. This was all to be done after dark without artillery support, at times arranged by the battalion commanders concerned.
The 21st Battalion advance was uneventful. Companies debussed short of Point 70 and marched forward 2000 yards on foot, digging in just south of the road. All companies were in position by 10.30 p.m., supported by two platoons of machine guns. The engineers of 7 Field Company built crossings over the wadi, and vehicles of all supporting arms were over by midnight. The 28th Battalion’s moves were completed without incident by 11.30 p.m. Perhaps the enemy had changed his dispositions since being reported at the road by the 23 Battalion patrols, or perhaps the troops reported there had themselves been patrolling.
After its move 28 Battalion continued to be split to either side of the 23rd, but the two battalion headquarters were close together, and the 28 Battalion companies on the east served as a base from which to send out patrols. The 21st Battalion was completely detached from the other two, forming in effect an advanced strongpoint.
After some discussion between General Freyberg and Brigadier Gentry, 25 Battalion was called forward about 9 a.m. and moved to within about six miles of Enfidaville, where it pulled off the road and dispersed. The carriers and one company were sent forward, the former attempting vainly to enter the town. Later the carriers and some tanks from 8 Armoured Brigade tried to outflank Enfidaville from the east, and progressed until they were about 2000 yards north-east of it. Here they encountered enemy positions and could get no farther. The forward infantry company settled down astride the road two miles short of Enfidaville, and was strengthened by mortars and anti-tank guns.
This advance of 25 Battalion had relieved 21 Battalion from its duties of covering 8 Armoured Brigade, and allowed it to rejoin its brigade.
Sixth Infantry Brigade Group gradually concentrated forward into an area south of Enfidaville. In the late evening and during the night the remainder of 25 Battalion moved up to within 3000 yards of the town, and kept it under close reconnaissance. The 8th Field Company was also called forward to mark and clear minefield gaps.
At midday on 14 April, 2 NZ Divisional Artillery opened its counter-battery office for the first time since Akarit, and during the day the Divisional Artillery and attached regiments gradually came into action under the CRA. By evening 4, 5, and 6 Field Regiments, NZA, 111 Field Regiment, RA, and 69 Medium Regiment, RA, were all surveyed into position. The survey troop had a busy day, and the flash-spotting troop was deployed also. The great trouble was the lack of cover, for the high features to the north, particularly Takrouna, dominated the area, and made good gun positions hard to find.
There was no enemy air activity during the day, but 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment was deployed throughout the divisional area.
Thus disposed, 2 NZ Division, temporarily halted after the advance from Akarit, awaited the moment for operations to be resumed.
The Tactical Picture
It is a commonplace to say that tactics are much affected by topography. In this last corner of Africa held by the Axis, the configuration of the ground as usual pointed to the manner in which
the enemy positions could be most readily overcome. From the tangle of mountains in eastern Algeria, themselves the eastern end of the long Atlas chain, there runs north-east into Tunisia a series of parallel spurs, each spur a range of mountains in itself. Allowing for some simplification, there are three main spurs. The most northern runs in general towards Bizerta, the central one towards Tunis, and the southerly towards Cape Bon. Between the northern and the central spur lies the valley of the Medjerda River—a true river—a gorge in its upper reaches above Medjez el Bab, but there opening out into an extensive plain stretching to Tunis. Between the central and the southern spur is the valley of the Miliane River, with the defile of Pont du Fahs towards its upper end. The natural lines of advance thus run from the south-west to the north-east.
The southern spur culminates east of Pont du Fahs in Djebel Zaghouan, and the spurs of this mountain in their turn form the backdrop to the advance northwards through the Sahel, and present an obstacle to further advances. From this point there is no clear way to the north except for the ever-diminishing strip along the coast, a strip which is commanded all the way by the hills on its western side. There are indeed some roads to Tunis, but they wind through and across a tangle of hills and valleys, are all defiles, and give every advantage to the defender. To attempt to penetrate this area would be rather like charging into a gigantic maze.
But on the side of Medjez el Bab the country slopes gently and evenly downwards to Tunis and Bizerta, and moreover opens out more and more as it nears the city. This was the area in which the superiority of the Allies in manpower, and in air and ground resources, could be used to best advantage, and could more than compensate for the use of an obvious line of approach. Rommel says, ‘This area Medjez el Bab was an ideal place for motorised forces to assemble for an attack on Tunis and consequently represented an “Achilles Heel” for our front.’1
To return to the events of the period—on 11 April Montgomery advised Alexander that he was going to try and ‘gate-crash’ the enemy position round Enfidaville during ‘this moon period’.2 He asked that 6 Armoured Division should be placed under his command in order that all operations ‘between the mountains and the sea’ could be directed by him. Alexander’s reply, received the same day, said that the main effort in the next phase would be made by First Army, which was already preparing for an attack to be launched on 22 April. The most suitable area for the employment
of armour was now in the plain west of Tunis, and he required one armoured division and one armoured car regiment to join 9 Corps as early as could be arranged. The message ended with the words, ‘Hope you can develop maximum pressure possible against Enfidaville position to fit in with First Army attack.’
The 1st Armoured Division and King’s Dragoon Guards were chosen for the transfer, and started their move in the next few days.
Alexander’s initial intention had been to use Eighth Army for a final assault on Tunis, but he records in his despatch how he abandoned this idea, partly on the grounds of topography and partly because an advance from the south would tend to concentrate the enemy in hilly, difficult country, rather than divide it for ultimate annihilation. He therefore decided to use First Army for a thrust to Tunis from the west, driving a strong wedge into the heart of the enemy position. He then proposed to leave the smaller body of enemy troops to the north of this wedge to be mopped up by the force on the spot, mainly 2 US Corps, and to use his main force, First Army, to drive the remainder against the line firmly held by Eighth Army, which would conduct a ‘holding attack’. First Army was to be the hammer, Eighth Army the anvil.
The revised intention was communicated to Montgomery by Alexander’s message of 11 April. It now appears, for the evidence is not conclusive, that Montgomery was not satisfied with the part that Eighth Army was to play in the final offensive. The Eighth Army plan of operations was roughed out on 14 and 15 April, the 10 Corps’ operation order being issued on the 15th. This outlined a major attack that would conclude with an advance up the narrow coastal strip to Hammamet, it being Montgomery’s expressed belief that the Axis High Command would go to Cape Bon, and that was where Eighth Army would go. General Freyberg was in accord with this plan, and thought that it was correct both tactically and from the point of view of the prestige of the formations engaged.
Alexander then issued his final directive on 16 April. Eighth Army’s role was extended and comprised, as well as the earlier task of drawing enemy forces from First Army by the exertion of continuous pressure, the additional task of advancing on the axis Enfidaville-Hammamet-Tunis to prevent the enemy withdrawing into the Cape Bon peninsula. This obviously departed from his original concept, for clearly Eighth Army, with the resources then at its disposal, could not provide a firm base in the Enfidaville area upon which the Axis forces could be driven by First Army, and at the same time advance on Tunis by way of Hammamet. Nor, on the other hand, has any evidence been traced which suggests that Montgomery intended to advance on Tunis. Available sources indicate that his
concept of the combined operations of First and Eighth Armies was that the joint offensive of the two armies would result in an enemy concentration in the Cape Bon peninsula, where he hoped Eighth Army would be well placed to overcome it.
But however much the final plan resulted from dissatisfaction with the earlier role, it is probable that the insistence of Eighth Army that it be in at the kill led directly to it being asked to do more than was possible with the troops then available, and perhaps more than was expected by General Alexander. For Montgomery was expressing the opinion of the rank and file, attuned now to success. Eighth Army as a whole was keen to be in at the finish, and General Freyberg spoke for his division when he said that the plan correctly considered the prestige of the formations involved.
First Army was ordered to capture Tunis, to co-operate with 2 US Corps in the capture of Bizerta, and to be prepared to co-operate with Eighth Army should the enemy withdraw to Cape Bon. The US Corps was to capture Bizerta.
The full resources of the Tactical Air Force were to be available to assist the land operations.
No dates appear in the directive, but it was already understood that First Army was to attack on 22 April. It was then arranged that Eighth Army should attack on 19–20 April in order to ‘draw enemy forces off First Army by exerting continuous pressure on the enemy.’
The following table gives some idea of the comparative strengths of the Allies and the Axis at this time.
|Tanks—all types||1,193||About 130|
|Divisions—infantry||15||9 or 10—very weak|
|Artillery—field and medium||1,472||475|
As examples of the low strengths of the Axis divisions, 164 Light Division was only 2500 strong, Trieste 1000, and Spezia 500. The strongest Axis division numbered only 7000.
Yet against these figures must be weighed a contemporary estimate of a total of 185,000 Axis troops and the final bag of about a quarter of a million prisoners.
By this time (mid-April) the United States 2 Corps (four divisions) had moved to the northern end of the Allied line facing Bizerta. First Army (six British and three French divisions) was astride the Medjerda and Miliane valleys, and Eighth Army (six divisions1) covered the remainder of the front.
The allocation of the enemy’s formations between 5 Panzer and 1 Italian Armies was reasonably well known to the Allies. The situation towards the end of April was as follows:
5 Panzer Army1 Italian Army
German infantry divisions42
Italian infantry divisions13
In other words, the Axis forces were already noticeably stronger in the west than the south, and the enemy, realising his danger, had strengthened his forces in the west at a very recent date. In the circumstances there would not appear to be any chance that he would move troops back again, and the task assigned Eighth Army, of drawing enemy troops from First Army, appears to be realistic only when it is remembered that at the time it was believed that both 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions would be used as at Mareth and Akarit, as mobile reserves to seal off penetration on either front.
There persisted, however, a belief that the enemy would not stand, and that the attack would at the most be a steady advance against rearguards pulling back to main positions on higher ground, ending at Bou Ficha. This belief ran right through the Army at the time, and had its effect on corps, division and brigade planning, but as the days went on the attitude changed a little. At the last it was thought that there would be resistance, although even then the degree of resistance was underestimated.
Throughout the whole of its career to date the Eighth Army had fought in the desert. It had become accustomed to fast movement (both forward and backward), deep penetrations, wide frontages, open flanks, open country with no natural obstacles except wadis and soft going and the occasional escarpment, and a terrain that on the whole was flat. Broken country had been found in the approaches to Tripoli, in the Matmata Hills, and at Wadi Akarit, but none of these positions had any depth.
1 Includes 51 (H) Division, withdrawn for pre-Sicily training, and 56 (London) Division, still en route from Iraq. The latter’s divisional sign was a black cat, deriving from the story of Dick Whittington, Lord Mayor of London.
The Army was now confronted with something new, mountainous country with no clearly defined lines of advance. The front edge of this irregular belt overlooked the approaches from the south, and had natural defensive depth for 30 miles; and if the objective was to be Cape Bon, then it was more than thirty. The terrain now gave all the advantages to the defence, and greatly reduced the effectiveness of Eighth Army’s superiority in air, armour and artillery.
Eighth Army approached this last corner of Tunisia flushed with victory and full of confidence, for the farther it had advanced the speedier had been its victories. There was only this last pocket of enemy troops to brush away and the Army would have completed the task it had begun at Alamein.
This attitude can be easily understood, but it was not accompanied by a realisation that the same methods which had given victory in previous months were not now strictly applicable. There was a failure to appreciate that tactics suitable to the desert were not necessarily suitable to the hills. Montgomery was conscious that an advance north from Enfidaville was more difficult than one north-east from Medjez el Bab, and after a while was an advocate of a more passive role for Eighth Army; but initially he planned for a final victory on his own front, an understandable ambition. We find him using words to the effect that nothing short of the capture of the enemy Supreme Headquarters would suffice, that he was not in the least interested in the west, that the Axis High Command was at Cape Bon and that was where the Eighth Army would go. On 18 April he stated that the bulk of the Axis forces was on Eighth Army’s front, which proved to be incorrect, and became progressively more so as the days went on.
This strain of optimism and invincibility ran right through the Army, and the effects are clear in the various operation orders. The enemy, on the other hand, was aware of the defensive strength of his position at Enfidaville, had thinned out already, and had no real fears for that part of his line. But Eighth Army did not appreciate that it was faced by a new problem requiring a new solution.
About two months earlier when Rommel was attacking towards Kasserine, the German forces found themselves suddenly in hilly country. After stating that one particular attack collapsed, Rommel says, ‘The trouble was that they had gone the wrong way about it. After fighting for so long in the desert the officers had suddenly found themselves confronted with a terrain not unlike the European Alps.’4 The error then made by the Germans—to try to advance along the valleys without attacking the hills—was not one that was likely to be made by British troops experienced in fighting on
the North-West Frontier of India, but the incident shows that Eighth Army was not alone in making errors when the terrain changed.
The truth was that the era of deep penetrations in the attack had ended and was to be replaced by penetrations of a few thousand yards at a time, with a greater density of troops, and a slower rate of progress. Such were the inevitable concomitants of warfare in hilly country. The New Zealand Division had seen something of these problems in Greece, and was later, after a shaky start, to deal successfully with them in Italy, as indeed was the whole Eighth Army. But for the moment the answer was elusive.
While at Tripoli in January, Montgomery had been told that Eighth Army was to form the British component of the Allied force which would later invade Sicily. This task was now approaching and some thought had to be given to planning for the invasion, and to conserving the troops nominated for it. Montgomery therefore decided to rest Headquarters 30 Corps while 10 Corps conducted the forthcoming attack, and to call forward 56 (London) Division – a newcomer to the theatre – to relieve one of his three forward infantry divisions – 50 (Northumbrian), 51 (Highland), or 2 New Zealand, all of which had long experience. The final decision was to relieve 50 (N) Division by 56 (L) Division, and to employ 51 (H) Division only lightly.
The little port of Sfax was in use from 14 April, and Eighth Army was also drawing part of its supplies from the First Army replenishment area at Sbeitla, but the greater part was still coming from Tripoli 300 miles away.
Allied air strength was by now so overwhelming that enemy aircraft seldom appeared over our ground troops, and most of the air activity took place behind the enemy’s lines. Our air offensive was steadily increasing in intensity, and the enemy’s shipping, air transports, landing grounds, and every kind of activity were being subjected to a relentless attack.
At this time the long-term employment of 2 NZ Division was again under consideration. While the inter-governmental communications,5 as in the previous December,6 had no effect on the immediate activities of the Division, it is of interest to mention them.
On 14 April Churchill cabled to Fraser in New Zealand giving details of the forces to be used for the invasion of Sicily, saying that Alexander particularly wanted to use 2 NZ Division, and asking if it could be made available.
To this Fraser replied that the future employment of the Division at the end of the Tunisian campaign would have to be discussed in a secret session of parliament, which could not be before 19 May. The problem for him was that New Zealand’s whole manpower position required review, as between the demands of the Mediterranean and the Pacific, for the country had over-reached itself in supplying men for the forces. Despite various pressing cables from Churchill, including a suggestion that they should take a gamble on a favourable result of the parliamentary debate, Fraser adhered to his first cable, and said that he must wait for parliament to decide. Time was against further delay, for if the Division was to be used for the invasion of Sicily it would have to be withdrawn from the line almost at once and trained for an amphibious operation. So on 20 April Churchill said that in the circumstances he would tell Alexander that the Division would not be immediately available, but he went on to say that he hoped it could be used later for the follow-up in Europe. There the matter rested, with the result that 2 NZ Division saw out the campaign in Tunisia to the end, and did not take part in the Sicilian campaign.
10 Corps ‘ Plan
On 15 April Lieutenant-General Horrocks visited 2 NZ Division and discussed the future, roughing out a plan with Lieutenant-General Freyberg. Later in the afternoon the Army Commander also called to see General Freyberg, after which it was arranged that 50 (N) Division was to take over the eastern part of 2 NZ Division’s front on the night 16–17 April.
Late on 15 April 10 Corps Operation Order No. 22 was issued. The ‘Intention’ was that 10 Corps would prepare to advance to the Bou Ficha line, the high ridges between Zaghouan and Bou Ficha. The 4th Indian Division, on the right, and 7 Armoured Division were coming into the line on the left of 2 NZ Division, and the latter would arrange with its neighbours, 50 (N) Division and 4 Indian Division, for mutually acceptable inter-divisional boundaries.
The role of 2 NZ Division was ‘To break into the Enfidaville line in the area Takrouna - Djebel el Froukr. Thereafter the division will be prepared to exploit north-east to the coastal road via Djebel Mengoub ‘. It was then to advance along the coastal road. The 50th Division was to capture Enfidaville and patrol up the road. The 4th Indian Division was to capture Djebel Garci and then Djebel
Biada, and exploit north and east to the coast road near Sebkra Sidi Kralifa, about eight miles north of Enfidaville. There would be full-scale air support by fighter-bombers and light bombers. The codename was ORATION, and ‘D’ day was later set for the night 19–20 April.
On 18 April 10 Corps issued a further order (No. 23) elaborating on the above, but adhering to the objectives. Thus does the failure to realise that the terrain had changed become more apparent. Operating from flat country overlooked by the enemy, 10 Corps was proposing to break into the hills, and with successive actions advance across them for some 15 miles. Such penetrations were common in the desert where the mass of supporting arms could invariably closely follow the assault, as 10 Corps had only recently done in the breakthrough at Akarit, but in the circumstances of 18 April the plan was certainly ambitious and seems to have ignored the marked difference in the terrain. It was based on the belief that the enemy’s main line of resistance was farther north, in which case the attack would progressively come up against stronger defences. The plan reflects the general atmosphere at the time, that it would be easy to push the enemy back at least as far as Bou Ficha. Horrocks knew that the plan was ambitious and relied for success in part on the low state of morale in the Axis troops. But this was to prove illusory, for even the Italians showed a sudden revival of spirit.
2 NZ Division, 15–18 April
From 15 April onwards the work of the Division, and indeed of 10 Corps as a whole, was directed to reconnaissances and planning for the forthcoming operation, including the usual series of conferences and administrative preparations.
The countryside in which the Division now found itself was much cultivated, as elsewhere in Tunisia, but in spite of this and the absence of any appreciable surface water, stagnant or otherwise, mosquitoes began to be very troublesome. Luckily they were not malarial, but from sunset to sunrise they were active in swarms, causing restless nights and swollen faces, and contributing in marked measure to the fatigue which came over the troops before the end of the campaign.
6 Infantry Brigade and Enfidaville
Early attempts by 8 Armoured Brigade and 6 Infantry Brigade to capture Enfidaville, or even to enter the town, and a later attempt by Divisional Cavalry to bypass it on the east, were all foiled either on minefields or by bad going or by the resistance of an alert enemy. As early as the afternoon of 15 April any idea of a stronger attack or large raid was abandoned, in view of forthcoming alterations to the front. The 26th Battalion came into the line on 15 April on the left of 25 Battalion, so filling a gap between 6 and 5 Brigades.
During 16 April there was some desultory enemy shelling, but no casualties. Commanding officers of relieving battalions from 201 Guards Brigade of 50 (N) Division made their reconnaissances during the day, and both 25 and 26 Battalions were relieved shortly after midnight 16–17 April, the former assembling some miles in the rear. The 26th Battalion then side-slipped to the left and was located entirely west of the main road, and the boundary between 50 (N) Division and 2 NZ Division was fixed on a line running just west of the road, but 2 NZ Division retained a right to use the road for administrative purposes.
In the readjustment of frontages 26 Battalion took over the front covered by the two right companies of 28 Battalion, the inter-brigade boundary being just east of Takrouna.
5 Infantry Brigade and the Takrouna Area
All three battalions of 5 Brigade experienced fairly heavy shelling, and realised how completely they were overlooked from Takrouna – which for the moment had just to be borne – and also from Djebel el Ktatiss (Point 121) to the west of it. This was not so difficult to deal with, and a platoon from 21 Battalion captured it after dark on 15 April, taking six prisoners from the Young Fascist Division. A bright spot on the same day was the capture of an enemy truck that drove along the road in front of 21 Battalion, evidently unaware of the presence of our troops. It was first stopped by machine-gun fire, and then driven into the battalion lines.
As detailed plans would rest largely on the outcome of patrol activities, this day was the first of several of active patrolling. The result of the first day’s work was to suggest that the enemy held a defensive line along the front of Takrouna joining up with the defences of Enfidaville. This was of particular interest to 5 Brigade, for the brigadier had already been told that the capture of Takrouna would be the task of the brigade. Despite enemy shelling on 23 Battalion, Brigadier Kippenberger held a conference at battalion headquarters on 16 April to discuss the future, and one of the decisions was to continue active patrolling, as there was uncertainty still about the enemy’s posts.
As part of the readjustment of the front, 28 Battalion handed over its eastern sector to 26 Battalion, and Point 105 passed to 4 Indian Division on the left. The result of these adjustments was to reduce the divisional frontage to about five miles.
The forward area was now becoming very congested, and strict orders had to be enforced about the class of vehicle to be allowed into brigade areas, which for the occasion had definite rear
boundaries. The opportunity was taken to move 8 Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry back into rear areas, as for the moment there was no task for them.
The artillery’s main problem was one of concealment, as any positions within required ranges were visible to the enemy. Forward gun positions and command posts had to be dug at night and carefully camouflaged, while ammunition also was dumped at night. Guns not immediately required went back to laager areas. The Survey Battery was active in all its roles, including the issue of meteorological information.
On 17 April an air observation post appeared for the first time.7 This consisted of a light aircraft and a staff of one officer and four other ranks, all gunners. It was attached to 6 Field Regiment, and units were warned that it would be operating on the divisional sector. There had been a long struggle with the RAF to persuade it to supply such a machine, and it now arrived at a time when its services might prove of real value, as it was difficult to observe targets from posts in the plain. It proved very useful, but like all new developments took some time to show what it could do. It was not until the Division was in Italy that it reached its full usefulness.
The engineers’ main tasks were to prepare crossings over Wadi el Boul on the front of both brigades, and over Wadi Moussa on 6 Brigade front.8 One task, with an undertone of cynical humour, was to erect signs on all roads leading into enemy territory. This arose after a premature announcement by the BBC that Enfidaville had been captured, followed by the loss of several senior British officers and others from Army Headquarters and below who had gone forward to look at it. The only loss in this way from 2 NZ Division was the quartermaster’s vehicle from Divisional Cavalry.
On the front of 6 Infantry Brigade it was not possible to start patrolling until the night of 17–18 April, as it was only then that the brigade was in firm occupation of its new sector, but a good deal of information was obtained from air reports and from local inhabitants, especially concerning an anti-tank ditch which ran west from Enfidaville. Good air photographs were not available until 17 April, and a study of these led Brigadier Gentry to decide that in the forthcoming attack he would need two battalions instead of the one hitherto considered adequate. The photos showed that Wadi el Brek, running across the brigade sector, was unexpectedly deep, and might cause trouble.
On 5 Brigade front patrolling commenced on the night 15–16 April, continued right up to the night 18th–19th, with patrols going out both by day and night from all three battalions. Several patrol reports mention that the alarm was given in the enemy position by dogs. There is no evidence that the enemy had any special ‘dog force’, and the probability is that the dogs were the usual strays found in all native areas.
Despite a period of good weather with bright sunny days, overprint maps embracing the information available from ground and air reconnaissance were not available until the afternoon of 19 April, not long before zero hour, which was to be 11 p.m. In the light of subsequent knowledge these maps contained little helpful information, and added little to the patrol reports. The reports brought back by the patrols were not very conclusive, and often they were contradictory. Because a patrol on the night 16–17 April found a number of empty trenches which seemed to have been occupied by German troops, the belief grew that enemy positions south of Takrouna had been abandoned. A daylight patrol seemed to confirm this, and a section was briefed to occupy the top of Takrouna should there be little opposition. But enemy troops were found, and the project was not pursued. On the night of the 18th further patrols found definite evidence that the enemy had not gone.
This lack of certainty, combined with the prevailing spirit of optimism, had an undoubted influence on both the scope of the forthcoming operation and on the plans. There was an atmosphere readily understood by those who experienced it, but difficult to describe in the aftermath. Perhaps it would be going some distance towards the truth to say that, although few had the least appreciation of the difficulties ahead, and though the most favourable interpretation was invariably put on the patrol reports, there was at the back of everybody’s mind the thought that there might be unexpected difficulties. Only the sobering experience of the operation itself crystallised these thoughts.
To say this is not to say that plans were carelessly made or lightly entered into, for that would be contrary to fact. The planning was meticulously carried out, and within the scope of the operation there were no loose ends. Indeed, as the date of the attack came closer, but after all the plans had been finalised, General Freyberg said at a conference that it would be unwise to underestimate the difficulties ahead, for there might be considerable opposition. Brigadier Kippenberger said that the operation would be the most difficult since the attack on Miteiriya Ridge.9 But in spite of these opinions, upon which it is easier to place emphasis now that the
difficulties are known, the general feeling remained, as one of the battalion commanders explained to his officers, that the whole thing was ‘a piece of cake’.
Perhaps the reason for this, apart from the altogether commendable spirit of invincibility, was the miscalculation concerning the enemy positions. The plans themselves make this clear, and it was emphasised at the final conferences when Generals Freyberg, Horrocks and Montgomery all referred to 10 Corps ‘ objectives as covering positions for a main line of resistance farther back. Thus the eyes of the planners were not focussed on Takrouna, or even on Djebel Garci, but on Djebel Froukr and on Djebel Mdeker. But because it was admitted that maps were poor, that there was limited information from reconnaissance, and that, generally speaking, information was inadequate, there was an element of experiment in the plans. Adhering to his principle of maintaining balance and poise, General Montgomery insisted that the further development of the operation, a hook eastwards along the ridges from Mdeker, would depend entirely on the degree of resistance met during the first phase. Horrocks went no farther than to claim that all they could be certain of were the first and second objectives. But even this was too much.
10 Corps’ Orders
On 18 April 10 Corps issued its final order for ORATION, amplifying and bringing up to date the earlier order of 15 April. The objectives were given as the line Enfidaville–Takrouna–Djebel Mdeker and a hill feature four miles to the west of Djebel Garci. The New Zealand and 4 Indian Divisions would carry out this attack, while 7 Armoured Division, which General Montgomery had explained earlier must be kept as protection on the left flank until 56 (London) Division came up from Tripoli, carried out a limited advance on the left, and 50 (Northumbrian) Division, which was not to get heavily involved, would watch the right flank, occupy Enfidaville after the objectives had been carried, and send out patrols.
The objectives for the attack were divided into two series. First, 2 New Zealand Division was to break into the Enfidaville–Takrouna line, 4 Indian Division was to capture both Djebel Garci and Djebel Biada, and 7 Armoured Division was to advance to the Enfidaville–Djebibina road and be prepared for a further advance on the west flank. Second, 2 NZ Division was to capture Djebel Froukr, a high peak commanding the coastal area, and 4 Indian Division was to capture Djebel Mdeker, about four miles north of Garci and over five miles north-west of Froukr. The 4th Indian Division was then to swing to the east and advance along the ridges towards the
coast, occupying in particular two features, Djebel Abid and Sidi Mehed. The New Zealand Division was to assist in this by exploiting forward from its second objectives, and 7 Armoured Division was to make further advances on the west flank. The village of Enfidaville, tactically desirable only as an important road junction, would then be occupied by 50 (N) Division, which would also send patrols up the coast road.
Timing for the operation, a reflection of the uncertainty of the degree of opposition that would be encountered, was laid down only for 2 NZ Division’s two objectives, and for Djebel Garci, the major part of 4 Indian Division’s first objective. As was explained at the final conference, everything depended on what was met, and General Horrocks did not expect that 4 Indian Division would be launched on its hook to the coast until at least the night 20–21 April, twenty-four hours after the operation had begun.
When all objectives had been consolidated, and when at least one brigade from 56 (L) Division was available for the protection of the western flank, 7 Armoured Division would be launched along the coast road towards Hammamet. This was to be the culmination of the whole operation, and it was hoped that, protected by the infantry on the high ground, covered by the guns of the Army, the armour would achieve a decisive breakthrough.
The first objective for 2 NZ Division was an east-west line passing just north of Djebel ech Cherachir, and the second an east-west line passing north of Djebel el Froukr. The right boundary of the Division, and of 6 Brigade, was a ‘grid easting’ running about a mile west of Enfidaville. The left boundary of the Division, and of 5 Brigade, was a series of points between Takrouna and Garci which ran two miles west of the peak of Takrouna. This boundary was changed just before the attack to include Djebel ed Debonaa, east of Djebel Biada, an Indian objective, in the New Zealand sector. The widened sector was covered by placing one squadron of Divisional Cavalry under command of 5 Brigade for duty on that flank, and by adding Djebel ed Debonaa to the brigade’s exploitation tasks.
The 2 NZ Division operation order was issued before it was decided that 6 Brigade would be attacking with two battalions, and was accordingly amended on 18 April to meet the new requirements. The intention was to ‘attack and capture the Dj el Froukr and Dj el Ogla features and exploit to the NW and North’. From a two-brigade front the battalions would advance under a barrage at the rate of one hundred yards in two minutes. Sixth Brigade, on the right, with two battalions attacking and one in reserve, had a start line behind that of 5 Brigade because of the wadi across its
front. For this reason, and because it was necessary to cover the area west of Enfidaville, the barrage line was hinged at the brigade boundary, straightening out to a straight line covering both brigades before lifting on the 5 Brigade front. Attacking due north, it was simple to define the first and second objectives, and the boundaries, by the map grid lines. First objective for 6 Brigade included Djebel Ogla, for 5 Brigade Djebel ech Cherachir, a ridge to the north of Takrouna. The second objective for 6 Brigade was less well defined by geographic features but included a ridge system, Hamaid en Nakrla, beginning just to the east of Ogla and running north and south. Djebel Froukr was second objective for 5 Brigade.10
Timings were so arranged that, with the artillery opening at 11 p.m. on the opening line of the barrage, the infantry would have eighteen minutes to close up to the barrage from their start lines. Thereafter the barrage would lift one hundred yards at two-minute intervals for 2000 yards, to the first objective, where it would pause for eighty minutes while the infantry consolidated and, on 5 Brigade’s sector, a fresh battalion passed through to its start line. The barrage would then continue a further 800 yards in the same manner to the final objective. Smoke shells were to be fired on each of the outside edges of the barrage as a guide for the infantry. The barrage was to be fired on 6 Brigade front by two and a half field regiments, and on 5 Brigade front by three and a half, the three field regiments of 50 (N) Division coming under command for the purpose. One other field regiment was allotted special targets over the whole front, particularly Takrouna and the west side of Enfidaville. Two medium regiments from 5 AGRA were to fire on suspected enemy positions, track junctions and possible concentration areas, with one regiment devoting a whole hour to Takrouna.
The rate of the barrage was fixed, after an earnest discussion between the brigadier and his commanding officers, at 100 yards in two minutes. This rate, which proved to be too fast, was based mainly on the rate used in the Battle of El Alamein (100 yards in three minutes), where in flat, open country the commanding officers thought the rate too slow.
An armoured regiment from 8 Armoured Brigade was to come under command of each brigade, to support the attack and to supply flank protection after the objectives had been reached. The remainder of the armour was to be used for exploitation towards Enfidaville, and should the armour get beyond the town, Divisional Cavalry, being held in reserve, was to be passed through to work along the coastal strip.
8 Armoured Brigade
The 8th Armoured Brigade’s order, issued on 18 April, simply detailed 3 Royal Tanks and Notts Yeomanry to the command of 6 and 5 Brigades respectively, and prescribed a suitable assembly area where the rest of the brigade would remain in readiness for future exploitation.
6 Infantry Brigade
The 6th Infantry Brigade operation order named only the objectives, Djebel Ogla and Hamaid en Nakrla, for its two attacking battalions, although Djebel Ogla lay within the divisional first objective and 6 Brigade was to fire success signals when it was reached.
On the right was 26 Battalion with, under command, two platoons of machine guns and a troop of six-pounder anti-tank guns; and on the left 24 Battalion with no troops under command. The prescribed inter-battalion boundary made it the task of 26 Battalion to capture the summits of both the above features, leaving 24 Battalion to attack up the low ground between these features and Djebels Bir and Cherachir on the right of 5 Brigade sector. The 25th Battalion was to be in reserve and would occupy 26 Battalion’s area after 3 a.m. on 20 April, i.e., after the attack had finished.
The 3rd Royal Tanks had three tasks: to provide six Crusaders for gapping parties, one party for each attacking battalion; to move when ordered to an area from which enemy fire on the right flank could be neutralised; and to be prepared to support 26 Battalion. ‘Gapping columns’ were organised for each attacking battalion, consisting of detachments from 8 Field Company, Scorpions, Crusader tanks, followed by battalion carriers, engineer transport and battalion transport in that order. These would provide crossings over the deep Wadi el Boul, deal with any minefields, and prepare routes for supporting arms.
A composite company of 27 (MG) Battalion – 1 and 2 Platoons of No. 1 Company and 8 Platoon of No. 3 Company – was to neutralise the area on the south-west face of Enfidaville for an hour after zero, and 201 Guards Brigade was also asked to maintain mortar and machine-gun fire there during the attack. The brigade commander had previously drawn attention to the threat to his right flank from Enfidaville, which was not being formally attacked; and these arrangements were made to strengthen the defence there.
The infantry start line for the brigade ran east and west, between Wadi el Boul and Wadi Moussa. This was 200 metres behind the start line of 5 Brigade, necessary owing to the course of the wadis.
Brigade Headquarters was to open some two miles behind the start line, a distance that was greater than normal, because the ground in the area was so completely under enemy observation.
The frontage of 26 Battalion was 1500 yards, and it was intended to attack with two companies forward and two in support. It was expected that the battalion objectives, Djebel el Ogla and Hamaid en Nakrla, would be strongly held. The approach to these was not easy, the ground being intersected by many wadis, one or two impassable to wheels. On the right, a little north of Wadi el Brek, were three arms of the anti-tank ditch which protected Enfidaville.
The 24th Battalion sector was 800 yards wide, and it also was to attack with two companies forward and two in support. There did not appear to be any particular natural difficulties in the ground to be crossed.
5 Infantry Brigade
On the front allotted to 5 Infantry Brigade a little more was known of the enemy dispositions, but the going was certainly more difficult, and the relative location of the various hill features made it an awkward problem to subdivide the front into battalion sectors. The frontage of attack was 2300 yards, and the boundary with 6 Brigade left Djebel Bir, Djebel ech Cherachir, and Djebel el Froukr within the 5 Brigade sector.
As with 6 Brigade, the objectives of 5 Brigade were described as features, although attention was drawn to the grid lines on which the artillery barrage would pause and which delineated the phases of the operation. Djebel Bir and Takrouna were the first objectives, Djebel Froukr the second. In the first phase 28 (Maori) Battalion on the right and 21 Battalion on the left were to advance to the first objective, each having under command one six-pounder anti-tank troop, one platoon of machine guns, a detachment of engineers, and two or three Crusader tanks to crush gaps in cactus hedges. The inter-battalion boundary ran north and south practically through the peak of Takrouna, which nevertheless was the responsibility of 28 Battalion, although 21 Battalion was to be prepared to assist if required.
As a safeguard on the left flank, for there was no contact on the ground with 4 Indian Division, 21 Battalion was to keep a small garrison – one platoon and one troop of anti-tank guns – on Point 121 throughout the operation. On completion of the first phase the battalion was to establish an anti-tank gun line facing north-west from Point 121 to a point on the Enfidaville – Zaghouan road just north-west of Takrouna.
The second phase affected 23 Battalion only. The battalion was to form up behind 28 (Maori) Battalion on the line of the first objective and capture Djebel Froukr. An 80-minute pause was designed to allow time for the forming-up procedures, after which, at 1.28 a.m., the barrage would resume. The 23rd Battalion also was to have a troop of six-pounder anti-tank guns and one machine-gun platoon under command.
Notts Yeomanry was to assemble in 23 Battalion’s area round Hamadet Salah, and at 4 a.m. on 20 April would move some two miles forward in readiness for mopping-up and flank protection duties.
Fifth Brigade had two machine-gun companies under command, one of which provided a platoon to each battalion. The other remained concentrated, and was to take post between the left of the start line and Point 121, where it was to support the advance of 21 Battalion by firing 300 yards in front of the artillery barrage along the west side of Takrouna, lifting in accordance with the barrage timings.
The support arms of all three battalions were to assemble in a transport area south of Wadi el Boul, and battalions when they required them were to call for them through Brigade Headquarters, which would control their movements.
Headquarters selected a point just south of the Enfidaville – Djebibina road, and would establish itself there before the attack commenced. This was close to the start line, a very suitable location.
28 (Maori) Battalion
The plan for 28 Battalion was finalised from a forward vantage point in the afternoon of 19 April and orders were verbal. The battalion objectives were Takrouna and Djebel Bir, and the road running between these features and Djebel ech Cherachir was, in all discussions, generally regarded as the final objective, although provision was made for exploitation for 200 yards beyond the road.
Takrouna was a peak, rising abruptly on the south side from the plain for some 450 or 500 feet. The southern slopes were steep but by no means unscaleable, although the last twenty feet before the summit was precipitous. On the summit was a stone village of Berber origin, with a domed mosque as the most striking feature. This area was later known as ‘the pinnacle’. Nearby, on a lower level north-west of the pinnacle, was a line of stone buildings running along a level ridge with very steep sides, known later as ‘the ledge’. On the northern side the slope was more gradual, and here was the small native village of Takrouna, a collection of a dozen or two stone and mud houses. It was known as ‘the lower
village’ to distinguish it from the village on the pinnacle. From the lower village the ground sloped irregularly but not steeply to the Zaghouan road. The normal approach to both villages was by way of a track up the northern slope.
Stretching south from the base of Takrouna was a series of large olive groves, and among them a distinctive white house. It was expected that the summit would be strongly held, although the garrison was believed to be Italian. It was not expected that much opposition would be met on the southern slopes, and no special steps were taken to deal with this area.
The second feature, Djebel Bir, was some 1000 yards east of Takrouna, with a valley between. It was a roundish feature rising some 300 feet above the plain, with a steep bluff dropping down to a wadi on the west side. The indications were that it would be defended. The ground between it and Takrouna was uneven, and was cultivated in places, with occasional cactus hedges.
Beyond Djebel Bir the Enfidaville–Zaghouan road ran through a defile between Djebel Bir and Djebel ech Cherachir, the latter being an east-west ridge. Just across the road a deep wadi ran eastwards to join Wadi el Brek. Little was known about Cherachir, and its tactical importance appears to have been overlooked.
The battalion was to attack with three companies in line. The fourth company was to mop up and was to swing round and capture Takrouna from the rear after the leading companies had reached the road. To help deceive the enemy and make him think that a frontal attack was intended, one of the leading companies was to send two sections up the southern face, and Kippenberger advised that attack by the most difficult approach might be the most effective.
One Crusader tank was attached to each forward company to breach gaps in hedges, and all available machetes were issued to the troops for the same purpose.
The 21st Battalion’s sector included the western slopes of Takrouna and a number of smaller spurs separated by wadis. As far as Takrouna the going was reasonably good except for olive groves and cactus hedges. Farther north the country was more broken. Both Italians and Germans had been heard by various patrols, but practically nothing was known of the fixed defences in the area.
The intention of the battalion was to advance to the Zaghouan road, which was just short of the barrage pause line for the first phase. Normal exploitation on the ridge beyond the road would follow. The attack was to be made by three companies with one in
support. When the battalion had consolidated on the road the gun line was to be formed facing north-west and running back to Point 121, with all four companies in the line. One squadron of Notts Yeomanry would be available to support the battalion at first light.
The task of helping 28 Battalion was doubtless in the mind of the battalion commander; but no special action was taken and no reserve was available for the purpose.
The plan for 23 Battalion was straightforward. There were special instructions for taping the start line, and for measuring the distance to the second objective. This was to be checked by pacing by one man in each platoon, three men in each company headquarters, and three men in battalion headquarters, the distance being 1100 paces.
The battalion was to advance through 28 Battalion with two companies forward and two in support. During the 80-minute pause of the barrage on the first objective, the battalion was to form up on the line of the Zaghouan road and then move up to the start line, which was about 200 yards north of the road. Once it had reached the final objective – the northern side of Djebel el Froukr – the leading companies were to dig in, while the others exploited along Djebel Ebilate and linked up with 24 and 21 Battalions on the flanks.
These plans, together, reflected the combined intentions of Generals Alexander and Montgomery. As already outlined, Alexander’s instructions to Montgomery had been enlarged to include an advance along the coast to Hammamet, the initial axis for which was the final objective of Operation ORATION. Montgomery’s influence in bringing about this expanded role may or may not have been considerable – the point is irrelevant here. What is of importance is that the role was accepted, and that Montgomery’s corps and divisional commanders prepared their plans without dissent. Moreover, the primary role of Eighth Army remained that of launching an attack which would, at the least, pin down all enemy forces on its front and, if possible, draw enemy troops away from First Army which was to make the major thrust. Such an attack, to be effective, had necessarily to be on an ambitious scale, but it may well be that a more closely defined attack on any of the commanding ground between Zaghouan and the coast would have had better results.
However, the Army plan did make it necessary for 4 Indian and 2 New Zealand Divisions to seek objectives which now seem quite unrealistic. These two divisions were to break into country that was more mountainous than Mareth and Akarit, and of much greater defensive depth, but in both these operations the attacking strength was nearly twice that thought necessary here. An operation such as ORATION could have been planned only in an atmosphere of unlimited optimism. It is difficult to make a case for the influence of the misappreciation of the enemy positions on these plans, for if Ogla, Takrouna and Garci were believed to be outpost positions, from which the enemy would withdraw in face of spirited attack, how much more unrealistic it now appears that one Indian brigade should be used to capture Djebel Mdeker, and that one New Zealand battalion was to capture Djebel Froukr, both believed to be in the heart of the main position? The conviction that the enemy would withdraw to Cape Bon must have been very strong indeed.
An optimistic army plan inevitably results in an optimistic divisional plan. The New Zealand Division proposed to tackle its part by delivering a modified SUPERCHARGE. It was to be an attack similar to that at Tebaga, but without the close air support and in country which ruled armoured support virtually out of the question. But the area was divided into sectors, the infantry was to crash through behind a creeping barrage, and emphasis was placed on maintaining momentum to the final objective without becoming over-concerned with pockets of resistance. It is here that the conflict between the methods so successfully employed in the desert and the requirements of a changed topography become so evident.
Perhaps the brigade plans bring this point out more clearly. The 6 Brigade plan was simple and straightforward, there were no really difficult geographic features in the sector, and the two battalions committed were confidently expected to deal with an unknown degree of opposition. But the 5 Brigade plan made virtually no allowance for the formidable and essentially defensible features in its sector. The right-hand battalion was to burst through the valley between Bir and Takrouna to reach the road, the start line for the battalion attacking the second objective. Bir and Takrouna were to be cleared up after the road had been reached, and although stiff opposition was expected from the summit of Takrouna, only one company was assigned to this feature. There was no allowance for the type of delay that was experienced at Tebaga on both flanks, in broken but easier country, and all companies were committed. There was no reserve.
Lining up for oration
The two days before the attack, 18 and 19 April, on the whole were quiet. The units of 8 Armoured Brigade were either resting or doing maintenance. Their strength was now 69 serviceable tanks, showing a wastage of about 25 in the month since preparations were being made for PUGILIST. Both 3 Royal Tanks and Notts Yeomanry were in close liaison with their respective infantry brigades, and netted their sets into the brigade wireless net. They moved to their assembly positions after dark on 19 April.
Divisional Cavalry spent the few days before the attack in maintenance and reorganisation, including absorbing four new Stuart tanks with power-operated turrets, which did not meet with much favour as they were thought too elaborate.
The field regiments had been preparing their forward positions for some nights, but did not occupy them until after dark on 18 or 19 April, and in the former case did not fire during daylight on 19 April. Mac Troop was at first excluded from firing in the barrage owing to the wear in its gun barrels, but was later reprieved under the strict condition that its range-drum readings were to be 800 yards greater than the actual ranges. To take part in the long-range tasks there now appeared an enemy 170-millimetre gun, one of those which had been such a nuisance at Medenine. It had been captured in the Matmata Hills by 4 Indian Division, handed over to 2 NZ Division, and was now manned by 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment. It was a source of much irritation to its earlier German owners.11
Both 7 and 8 Field Companies took over their Scorpions before the attack, and completed their preparations for mine-lifting.
The medical evacuation chain was now from the ADS on each brigade front to the MDS just north of Sidi bou Ali, thence to the New Zealand Casualty Clearing Station at El Djem, and thence to the newly-opened 3 New Zealand General Hospital near Tripoli. This was the first time that the chain was composed completely of New Zealand units.
Replenishment in the area was normal. As before at Akarit, the ammunition company was the hardest worked. In anticipation of an advance into the hills, 1 NZ Mule Pack Company was formed on 17 April, the personnel—six officers and 155 other ranks—coming mostly from NZASC, and the 102 mules and 96 donkeys from local civil sources. The company began and ended its career with a training programme, as the expected advance into the hills never eventuated.
The composite machine-gun company which was to provide flank protection for the open right flank of 26 Battalion was installed during 18 and 19 April. There appears to have been a local arrangement with the machine-gun battalion of 50 Division by which some of its guns also provided flank protection for 2 NZ Division, for special arrangements were made to prevent the fire of the companies from overlapping.
Within 6 Brigade, 26 Battalion was already in the forward area. The 24th Battalion moved forward in part after dark on 18 April and in part at 8 p.m. on 19 April, some two and a half hours before zero. The 25th Battalion needed only to move into the area vacated by 26 Battalion.
Fifth Infantry Brigade had two battalions already in the forward area—23 on Point 70, and 21 just south of the Enfidaville–Djebibina road. The 28th Battalion had been moved back some five miles, on 17 April, and would have a short approach march. The 23rd Battalion area was shelled at intervals on 18 and 19 April, but there were no casualties.
Unfortunately, after the Tebaga operations information from German sources becomes increasingly thin and unhelpful, and it is difficult to build up any coherent picture of enemy movements. The last previous references to the enemy are made in the passages describing the advance on Enfidaville, where the opponents of 2 NZ Division came from that perpetual rearguard, 90 Light Division. By the middle of April somewhere to the west were bits and pieces—the terms are used deliberately—of all the formations 15 Panzer, 21 Panzer, 164 Light and various Italian divisions.
The only reports available for the period from 13 April onwards are those of Marshal Messe, General Bayerlein, and 90 Light Division. The first-named is of little worth, being written somewhat flamboyantly for home consumption; the second ends on 27 April and the third on 20 April. During the few days about the middle of April there are a few items of interest. The Germans were also preparing to use horses and mules, but because they were short of MT; 90 Light Division’s strength report of 3 April shows that it numbered 5700 all ranks, and on at least one occasion in the Enfidaville line it was bombed by its own planes.
About the middle of April there was a movement of troops away to the north and west to join 5 Panzer Army. The 10th Panzer Division departed from the front of Eighth Army for good, as did the armoured elements of 21 Panzer Division, although some unarmoured elements of this division made their appearance later.
The remaining panzer division, the redoubtable 15th, went into reserve about 13 April, north of Ain Hallouf (ten miles north of Enfidaville), and was still there on 19–20 April. About this time Messe reports that there were only thirty tanks, both German and Italian, in his army, drawn from 15 Panzer Division and Centauro Battle Group.12 They played no part in the next battle, and it appears that the armour of 15 Panzer also went over to 5 Panzer Army. Thus 2 NZ Division, though it did not realise it in mid-April, was not to be opposed again in North Africa by enemy armour.
From 12 April onwards the commander of 90 Light Division (Major-General Graf von Sponeck) supported by the commander of 164 Light Division (Major-General von Liebenstein) made strong representations that it was useless to try to hold a line in the level ground round Enfidaville, or indeed anywhere on the flat, and that the thing to do was to go back into the hills, leaving only token forces on the plain. The line von Sponeck advocated started ‘just east of Takrouna’, and then ran to the eastern slopes of Djebels Bir, Cherachir and Froukr – eastern bank of Wadi Krarrouba – southern edge of Sidi Cherif – southern slope of Djebel Mengoub – eastern slope of Djebel et Tebaga – southern edge of Kef Ateya – eastern slopes of Djebel el Matouch – thence east to the southern tip of Sebkra Sidi Kralifa. Apparently von Liebenstein made much the same kind of representation on his sector, which was west of Djebel Garci.
The 90th Light Division’s war diary says, ‘Takrouna was the dominating point, flanking the enemy in both directions and must be held as long as possible to keep up our OPs’. An extract from Bayerlein’s diary says, ‘1 Italian Army suggested …. that Takrouna be fortified as an advanced strong point not to be evacuated except under heavy pressure. Army Group agreed’. Messe says, ‘I had immediately seen the importance which Takrouna hill could have in the general defensive scheme, though far advanced and almost detached from the main positions. I planned to make it an independent strongpoint whose function would be to break the first impetus of the enemy attack and divert it towards the re-entrants in the coastal and central sectors’.
The enemy’s main line of resistance included Djebels Froukr and Cherachir, then turned north-west to run along the northern side of the Zaghouan road. Djebel Bir also was an ‘advanced strongpoint’. It will be seen from the above that the enemy was apparently prepared to lose Takrouna without considering it a fatal blow, for the reason presumably that Takrouna, overlooking the hills to the north, was far less formidable and threatening as when overlooking
the plain to the south. In the allotment of troops to the line Takrouna was given to the Italians, with only one German platoon doubtless intended to protect the German artillery observation post established there, although a Luftwaffe battalion was positioned behind them in second line.
At a conference held on 14 April General von Arnim, commander of Army Group Africa, agreed to a withdrawal into the hills, with the result that 90 Light Division went back to a sector running from Djebel et Tebaga to the sea, with a part of the Young Fascist Division holding a sub-sector. Rearguards of one company per regiment were left in a line running through Enfidaville, and it is these rearguards which had kept the town in German hands.
By 16 April the front was held by 90 Light Division as above, followed on the west by the main part of Young Fascist Division as far as Djebel Bir, but with part of 361 Regiment (of 90 Light) and part of 47 Regiment (from 5 Panzer Army) holding Froukr, Cherachir and Bir. Then came Trieste Division holding as far as Garci exclusive, with German support behind Takrouna. Farther to the west were 164 Light, Centauro, a part of 90 Light, and unarmoured elements of 15 Panzer, but these were all well away from 2 NZ Division.
About this time 15 Panzer Division numbered 6000, 90 Light was reduced to 5700, 164 Light 2500, and Trieste 1000. In numbers alone 1 Italian Army was hopelessly outclassed, but the next battle was to show the enormous value of a naturally strong defensive position.
There is in the records the usual conflict between Messe and Bayerlein regarding their responsibilities, and in many cases they contradict each other flatly. But the impression emerges that Messe on this occasion was really prepared to fight to the last.