Chapter 14: ORATION—a Soldiers' Battle
The night of 19 April was brilliant, with a moon nearly full. Zero hour was 11 p.m.
6 Infantry Brigade – 26 Battalion
On the right of 6 Brigade 26 Battalion moved off, following the barrage without difficulty – in fact the companies were exercised not to overrun it. Thus the advance went for the first thousand yards.
Then C Company (Captain J. J. D. Sinclair) on the right met action across the Zaghouan road, where Wadi el Brek and an anti-tank ditch marked an area of organised resistance, and some time was spent dealing with isolated pockets of infantry and in combing out the rising ground. Enemy troops were already daZed by the barrage and were soon overcome. A large stone construction farther north was regarded with suspicion, but when hand grenades were tossed in it the explosions showed that it was a reservoir. Cactus hedges then caused slight delay, and briefly the company fell behind the barrage, but quickened its pace and reached the first objective as the artillery paused a few hundred yards to the north just after midnight. The company then swung east to secure the open right flank and took up positions south-east of Hamaid en Nakrla.
On the left, A Company (Captain Ollivier1), with Djebel el Ogla as its first objective, met nothing to prevent close movement with the barrage and reached its objective. Enemy trenches were found to be empty, the only opposition coming from some machine-gun fire from Enfidaville and a little light shelling. The summit of Djebel el Ogla was hard limestone, which made digging impossible, but when the barrage lifted again at 1.28 a.m. the two forward platoons went on another 700 yards and dug in on the fringe of some olive groves.
The battalion support companies moved up unopposed, and Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine established battalion headquarters behind Djebel el Ogla. The whole operation had been successful and opposition negligible, for the enemy, comprising company outposts from 90 Light Division, had been instructed to withdraw in the face of any strong attack to the main position farther north. Casualties in the battalion were five wounded.
The battalion moved off with B Company (Major E. R. Andrews) on the right and A (Captain Santon2) on the left, and for the first thousand yards or more all went well; but when the companies reached the angle between the Zaghouan road and the road past Djebel el Ktatiss, they ran into a heavy artillery concentration which for a while was thought to be ‘shorts’ from the barrage. B Company went to ground for a while, but then crossed the roads at their point of junction, being by this time in some confusion. Gradually the troops edged to the east towards Wadi el Brek, and took shelter in its upper reaches. While they were reorganising here a heavy mortar concentration landed amongst them, but when the fire
slackened the company pushed on up the wadi and there made contact with the left-hand platoon of 26 Battalion, in whose area they now were.
A Company had a similar experience, and also finished up in the wadi in 26 Battalion sector, where it spent some time reorganising.
Meanwhile C Company (Captain R. J. H. Seal), with battalion headquarters immediately behind, had moved up the centre of the battalion sector without opposition except for some steady shell and mortar fire. Both proceeded until well across the Zaghouan road. Lieutenant-Colonel Conolly then sent runners forward to his leading companies, but they reported that they could not find them. Luckily wireless contact was made and the companies were asked to put up flares, but to Conolly’s surprise these were not only to the right but to the right rear. The CO then ordered both companies to push on to the final objective. Each time flares were sent up the enemy fired concentrations against them. The truth of the matter was that 24 Battalion was passing across the front of the enemy on Djebel Bir and Djebel ech Cherachir, and so was going through an area which the enemy had registered well. Such points as the road junction and Wadi el Brek were obvious targets.
While C Company and Headquarters were waiting for the situation to clear they were heavily shelled, the No. 11 wireless set was destroyed, and Conolly was wounded but remained on duty.
After A and B Companies had reorganised, the two company commanders decided to advance round the east side of Djebel el Ogla, as there seemed a better chance of avoiding the continued shelling. They did this without direct opposition, and in the end both companies went well beyond Ogla and reached a line among olive groves very close to the final objective, although the eastern end was still in 26 Battalion sector.
As soon as the forward companies had reached these positions Headquarters and C Company moved forward, using small wadis as cover from the persistent shelling, and by 3 a.m. were established slightly in advance of Djebel el Ogla. For some time the battalion was out of touch with Brigade Headquarters owing to breaks in the telephone line and the loss of the wireless set, and had to pass messages through 26 Battalion.
It was not necessary to call on D Company’s services. Casualties had been heavier than with 26 Battalion, being five killed and forty-one wounded, a lower than usual proportion of killed to wounded that was to be repeated all over the front. There was practically no physical contact with the enemy.
Other Arms in 6 Brigade
The machine guns supporting 6 Brigade on the right flank fired their tasks without interruption. The 3rd Royal Tanks duly followed the brigade advance, and by 3.50 a.m. was between Djebel el Ogla and Hamaid en Nakrla.
The engineers had mixed fortunes in clearing the tracks for unit support arms. The right gapping party, in 26 Battalion’s sector, had practically a clear run, and by 1.20 a.m. the first vehicle for the battalion arrived in the forward area. But the left column, on 24 Battalion front, first ran into machine-gun fire at a crossing over the anti-tank ditch, and then later into a minefield. Some gallant reconnaissance work was done as usual, and the Scorpions started work, but soon both Scorpion commanders were wounded. It was clear that the route would not be ready by daylight, so the OC 8 Field Company (Major Pemberton) gave instructions that all work should cease, intending to divert 24 Battalion transport to the right-hand route although, in fact, this had already been done by the CSM of 8 Field Company, who had realised the situation. The engineers had two men killed and sixteen wounded, nearly all on the left-hand route, which was under fire throughout.
5 Infantry Brigade – 28 (Maori) Battalion
The start line for 21 and 28 Battalions was laid by the brigade and battalion intelligence officers after dark on 19 April. All helped first to lay the 21 Battalion line, but were a little late owing to delay in collecting enough white tape for both battalions. They were fired on while at work, but were held up only a little on this account. Then the 28 Battalion Intelligence Section began to lay its own tape alone, but was not ready as soon as was desirable.
The battalion moved up from its rear area in transport at 8.15 p.m., assembling just south of Wadi el Boul, where a brief church service was held. It then formed up in column of companies – three forward and one back – ready to move off, but the Intelligence Officer who was to be the guide was late in arriving back from laying the tapes, and the battalion moved off without him. It was thus barely in battle formation on the start line by zero hour.
A Company on the right flank had an additional complication, for Major Porter was doubtful about the position of 24 Battalion on his right, as he was not aware that 6 Brigade was using a start line 200 metres behind 5 Brigade. For a while he thought that he had got behind 24 Battalion, so advanced in double time, but later suspected that he was too far ahead and halted a while. When
C Company (Captain Awarau3) next on the left caught up, A Company moved off again, with Djebel Bir as its objective, but it seems likely that about this time it lost the full support of the barrage, and in any case was running into the enemy’s defensive fire.
By the time the company had reached the east-west track that ran to the south of Djebel Bir it had had many casualties from mortar and artillery fire, and from booby-trapped minefields where wooden box-mines were connected with trip-wires to ‘S’ mines. Opposition was not so great from Djebel Bir itself as from the west. Two platoon commanders were casualties and the company lost any precise formation. On and around the track it came to a standstill, and then the remaining platoon commander was hit. Porter became most concerned at his losses, which had reduced his strength by half, and with such low numbers feared that he might find himself unsupported on both flanks if he were to go on. He tried to get in touch with battalion headquarters by wireless, and at that point was himself wounded by a mortar bomb.
Though without officers the company tried to carry on, but heavy artillery, anti-tank, mortar and machine-gun fire was now sweeping the area and what was left of the company finally went to ground on the nearer slopes of Djebel Bir.
C Company’s experience was much the same as A Company’s. Enemy mortar and artillery fire was soon encountered and became progressively more intense, and the advance became disjointed. The company commander and one platoon commander were soon wounded, but the company pushed on, having in one or two places to hack its way through cactus. Mines were found similar to those on the front of A Company, and soon the company strength was much depleted. Lieutenant Haig of 15 Platoon found that he was the only officer still with the company and took command, but by that time numbers were so low – Haig’s own platoon had dwindled to three men – that further advance was impossible, and the company remained under what cover could be found in a wadi running down from Takrouna. The company had made no contact with the enemy, but had become disorganised by the loss of officers and men, by enemy defensive fire, and by the booby-trapped minefields.
All across the front by this time there was much dust and smoke, and visibility was practically nil, particularly about the enemy’s defensive fire zone.
On the battalion’s left flank, B Company (Captain C. Sorensen) made reasonable progress, though slowed down by the cactus hedges, until it reached the foot of Takrouna on the east side; but it
was out of touch with C Company on its right and, because of Takrouna itself, could not keep contact with 21 Battalion on its left. It then ran into intensive machine-gun and mortar fire from Takrouna, laced with crossfire from Djebel Bir. Again mines caused further casualties, and the company went to ground.
By this time battalion headquarters had moved up close to the white house, and the battalion commander sent his Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant M. Wikiriwhi, to find out what had caused B Company to stop and so leave C Company with an exposed left flank. When the IO reported back, he was sent forward again with orders to B Company to push on, link up with C Company and go on to the Zaghouan road. Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett himself then went to visit C Company, and found that it was just about to move on and follow Lieutenant Haig, who had gone on ahead. He told the company to wait for a while until B Company caught up, his idea being to form some semblance of a battalion line.
All touch had been lost with A Company, but Bennett then moved back to B Company, which he found still opposed by very heavy fire from Takrouna. He gave some instructions for countering the enemy’s fire, including sending a message back to the three supporting tanks to use their guns against the hill, and then instructed Captain Sorensen to push on. On his way back to C Company to co-ordinate further this new advance, Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett was severely wounded on a box mine.
It seems doubtful if the tanks were able to help at this time, as it was impossible for them to get beyond the white house; but at first light they were on the northern edge of the olive groves and helped with fire in cleaning out enemy pockets on Takrouna and Djebel Bir.
The wounding of the battalion commander completed the disorganisation of the headquarters, for in the meantime the adjutant and the RSM had been wounded also. Lieutenant Wikiriwhi tried to find Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett after he had been to B Company, but failed. He then took steps to establish a fresh headquarters.
And meanwhile the OC and one platoon commander in B Company had been wounded while the company was pushing on another 300 yards round the toe of Takrouna. No. 10 Platoon was left behind under its commander, Sergeant Rogers ,4 to make the feint attack up the southern slopes, while the platoon commander, Lieutenant Morgan ,5 now acting as company commander, went on with 11 and 12 Platoons. He was soon himself wounded. Nevertheless the two platoons went on edging ahead along the eastern
slopes, and from 11 Platoon two sections managed to reach the road after a difficult advance through intense fire. In one section only one man had survived. When 12 Platoon began the last phase of its advance it had only nine men under Sergeant Trainor.6 Enemy machine-gun posts covering two 75-millimetre anti-tank guns were discovered and promptly attacked and captured, together with twenty-seven prisoners, all German. No. 12 Platoon then reached the road, the time being about 2.30 a.m. A grim persistence had put these gallant few on their objective, even though they were two hours behind the artillery programme, which very obviously was far too ambitious in its timings.
D Company (Captain Ornberg7) in reserve now became involved, for it soon caught up with B Company and had casualties from the same sources. It had been told by the CO to help B Company, but for the moment all it could do was engage enemy weapon pits on Takrouna with machine guns. When it was learned that Captain Sorensen had been wounded, and that it was believed that the CO was wounded also, Ornberg decided to push on round the lower slopes of Takrouna and make for the battalion objective. The company was by now only forty strong, including a few stragglers from B and C Companies. The time was about 2.30 a.m., and by this time 23 Battalion had moved through the Maoris.
Thus A Company had gone to ground on the near slopes of Djebel Bir, C Company likewise was in a wadi running down from Takrouna, two platoons of B Company were on the Zaghouan road with one platoon preparing to make the feint attack on Takrouna, and D Company was about to move on towards the road. The CO, three company commanders, and several platoon commanders were all casualties.
The 21st Battalion advanced behind the barrage on time, with C Company on the right, A in the centre, B on the left, and D less one platoon in reserve. The remaining platoon of D Company was on Point 121 (Djebel el Ktatiss) as a ‘firm base’ for the final position the battalion was to secure, the gun line facing north-west.
C Company (Major B. M. Laird) soon ran into rough country, and became rather scattered among the olives and cactus hedges. At first enemy opposition consisted of artillery and mortar fire, but this was intensified by fire from nebelwerfers, six-barrelledelectric-
ally fired 15- or 21-cm rocket launchers. This was the first time that nebelwerfers had been encountered by 2 NZ Division.8 Fire against the company was then increased by intense machine-gun fire from Takrouna on the right flank, which to the company was an open flank. The left platoon – 15 under Lieutenant Shaw9 – fared better, and for a while carried on with A Company; but the right platoon was forced into shelter and was pinned down by fire while in the middle of a minefield. Sections from the reserve platoon failed in an attempt to get forward. The company commander reviewed the situation, and from a reconnaissance came to the conclusion that the companies on his left had not been successful either, so decided to report back for instructions, taking with him the portions of the right and reserve platoons that were immediately accessible. But in the darkness he missed battalion headquarters and eventually found Brigade Headquarters, which was in the original battalion area. It was then 2 a.m.
But, as it happened, A and B Companies had achieved some success, mainly because they were not obstructed by cactus hedges and could keep up with the barrage, and so had passed the danger area round Takrouna before the enemy opened up. Moreover, these companies were not as close to the lower slopes of Takrouna as C Company. The two forward platoons of both companies had in fact almost reached the road before the enemy opened fire with anything other than artillery.
A Company (Captain Bullock-Douglas) had a few casualties on the start line owing to an artillery concentration which came down on headquarters and 9 Platoon, the support platoon. This delayed their start, but 8 Platoon (Lieutenant Chalmers10) on the right and 7 Platoon (Sergeant Howell11) on the left got away in good time and had an uninterrupted advance to the Zaghouan road, capturing a few prisoners on the way. But by now enemy fire had become more intense and it was realised that their right and rear were much exposed. In fact, one of the sections of 8 Platoon, after handling the prisoners that had been passed back to it, was cut off from the others by small-arms fire from Takrouna.
No. 9 Platoon under Lieutenant Upton12 lost contact with the others, and in a haze of smoke and dust went on alone, having
casualties from nebelwerfers. Upton decided to make contact with C Company on the right and moved in that direction, passing many booby traps, and in fact getting close to the foot of Takrouna hill. Here the platoon became mixed up with cactus hedges, tripwires and minefields, and finally went to ground, by which time Lieutenant Upton was missing.13 The platoon sergeant, Sergeant Dotchin ,14 searched for a lane through the minefield, but when he came back to the platoon he found that they were nearly all casualties on mines. Captain Bullock-Douglas, who after the delay in starting was searching for the company, now arrived, and while Dotchin and he were endeavouring to get forward both were wounded. The two advanced platoons of A Company were thus left on the road with no chance of further support.
B Company’s advance (under Captain Roach15) had followed a similar pattern. The two leading platoons reached the road in front of the enemy’s defensive fire – and it is believed outside the area covered by the barrage – while headquarters and the third platoon encountered severe fire and were cut off from the forward elements. Captain Roach went with the reserve platoon to within a few hundred yards of the road, but as he could find no trace of the rest of his company he went back to battalion headquarters to report.
Meanwhile runners from the platoons of A and B Companies on the road were also on their way back with situation reports.
D Company (Captain I. A. Murray) at first advanced without interference, and then passed through a belt of enemy defensive fire but was screened by the dust and smoke. However, shortly afterwards the murk cleared and the company possibly became visible in the moonlight, for it was subjected to a heavy mortar and artillery concentration. The company commander was killed, and there were many casualties. Lieutenant P. Robertson16 assumed command and moved the company a little to the west where there was some cover.
Headquarters 21 Battalion, advancing behind D Company, also had several casualties, including Lieutenant-Colonel Harding, who was wounded but remained on duty. Headquarters was for a while lost in the haze, but the RSM reconnoitred ahead, made contact with D Company and then led the headquarters forward to a site from where there was good observation. D Company was told to dig in where it was, but so far the CO had no contact with any of
the other companies, for all wireless sets had ceased to function, either sets or operators being casualties.
The carrier platoon advanced on a line to the west of the companies, and soon ran into heavy enemy fire. Sergeant Mellsop’s17 carrier charged and silenced two machine-gun posts and then silenced an anti-tank gun, but despite an offensive spirit throughout the platoon, there were too many anti-tank guns about for comfort, and the platoon withdrew a few hundred yards. It seems probable that only darkness saved it from destruction.
The CO was already beginning to suspect that the operation had not gone according to plan. The runners came in from A and B Companies, and Lieutenant Shaw with 15 Platoon and parts of 13 and 14 from C Company also reported about the same time; but there was no later news. No success signal had been seen from 28 Battalion, which meant presumably that Takrouna was still in enemy hands, and observation on the spot made it only too clear that the enemy still occupied the south-west and west slopes. About 2.30 a.m., therefore, Lieutenant-Colonel Harding sent the runners back to the forward platoons of A and B Companies with instructions that they were to withdraw to the area of his headquarters should they not have made contact with 28 Battalion on their right. At the same time he sent a runner to Brigade Headquarters to report his decision.
Meanwhile both companies had severe fighting to the north of the Zaghouan road, where they were in fact in contact with the enemy’s main line, held here mostly by Trieste Division. When 8 Platoon reached the road it took cover in a ditch, while Lieutenant Chalmers tried first to find company headquarters, and then to make contact with any friendly troops on the right. He went some distance, as far in fact as the foot of the track leading up to Takrouna village, but found no trace of either 28 or 23 Battalions. (The latter at this time was still fighting for its start line.) No. 7 Platoon was under heavy fire, and Sergeant Howell, the commander, was killed. Lance-Sergeant Steiner18 took charge, organised an attack across the road, with 8 Platoon giving covering fire, and led his party forward, attacking with Tommy guns and grenades. Five machine-gun posts were destroyed, but Steiner then found that only two other men were left, and one of these was soon afterwards mortally wounded, so the little party withdrew back to the road.
Lieutenant Chalmers had now returned, and in company with Sergeant Steiner went back to battalion headquarters to report, leaving the company under Sergeant Klaus.19
To the left of A Company, 12 and 11 Platoons of B Company crossed the road and attacked the enemy, and soon were engaged in bitter fighting. Both platoon commanders, Lieutenants Donaldson20 and Taylor ,21 were killed, and Sergeant Parris22 of 12 Platoon was shortly the only senior NCO available. He found that when the enemy position had been taken there was only a handful of men left, and in fact he could find only four who were still fully active. Neither platoon was capable of further effort; and as an enemy counter-attack seemed imminent, Sergeant Parris decided to go back to the road, where he found the remnants of A Company. He then went back to try to find either company or battalion headquarters.
At Brigade Headquarters all the information tended to show that 21 Battalion could not hold its objective. The early information from the OC C Company seemed to indicate that the position of the battalion would be untenable at first light if Takrouna were not taken. Then a runner from B Company arrived, having failed to find battalion headquarters, and reported the position on the Zaghouan road as it had been when he left, before Lieutenant Taylor had been killed. Moreover, the news from the remainder of the brigade front was not reassuring. Accordingly, shortly after 2.45 a.m. Brigadier Kippenberger sent messages to Lieutenant-Colonel Harding, by two liaison officers moving separately, to the effect that the battalion should withdraw to its original area if its position would be untenable at first light. The messages from Brigade Headquarters crossed with the one from Harding saying that he intended to take just that action.
It is doubtful if the runners from battalion headquarters to A and B Companies ever got through, but Lieutenant Chalmers and Captain Roach had located Headquarters by this time and conferred with Lieutenant-Colonel Harding. The final decision, taken at 4.30 a.m., was that the forward companies would withdraw if by 5.30 a.m. contact had not been made with either 28 or 23 Battalions. Each company was to act independently, and armed with these instructions Roach and Chalmers went forward again.
About 5.30 a.m. battalion headquarters and D Company, together with part of C Company, began to withdraw. The remnants of A and B Companies were also assembled and taken back, many not arriving until after daylight. They were fired on during their journey, but had no more casualties and even collected a few Italian prisoners. It was obvious from personal reconnaissance by Roach, Chalmers, Dotchin and Steiner that the withdrawal was timely, as there was still much enemy activity on the slopes of Takrouna.
So on the west side of Takrouna, although the scene of much courageous fighting, the brigade attack had failed, and it is time to return to the east side, where 23 Battalion was deeply involved.
At 10 p.m. 23 Battalion moved off northwards from near Point 70 in column of route, joined the Enfidaville - Djebibina road near Tactical Brigade Headquarters, and from there turned off the road practically at once, deployed, and headed north-east towards the valley between Djebel Bir and Takrouna. B Company was on the right and D on the left, with Headquarters in the centre. C and A were on the right and left in support. There was considerable haze from dust and smoke, and some casualties, for the valley was well covered by criss-crossed lines of fire of all types. Before going far Lieutenant-Colonel Romans was wounded, and Captain W. B. Thomas, commanding A Company, was called forward to take over. About the same time the OC B Company (Captain Wilson23) and one of his platoon commanders were wounded, together with all the platoon commanders in D Company.
It was already apparent that 28 Battalion had not captured either Takrouna or Djebel Bir, and was well short of the Zaghouan road, but when handing over to Captain Thomas, Romans emphasised that his instructions from Brigade Headquarters covered such a situation, and that the battalion was to go on with the attack.
When Captain Thomas arrived there was some disorganisation in the battalion owing to the number of casualties to officers and the intensity of the enemy fire. One NCO says, ‘Sgts were promoting themselves to Platoon commanders, Corporals to Sgts. and so on and in many cases they no sooner promoted themselves than they were wounded, but everyone stood their ground and there was no panic.’24 Simple words, but a great tribute to the individual men and their discipline in battle.
After a rapid survey of the situation and a brief consultation with such officers as were near at hand, Thomas decided to go on, one of his reasons being that it seemed to him that the battalion was now beyond the zone of the enemy’s defensive fire. The two forward companies (B where Lieutenant Robins25 had just taken command, and D under Captain H. C. Black) were still in reasonable order, so Captain Thomas called on them to advance, and on they went firing to the front and shouting loudly, partly to give confidence and partly, it was hoped, to frighten the enemy. They passed rapidly through the area in which C Company, 28 Battalion, had suffered so many casualties, causing some alarm to their friends from the noise they were making. Lieutenant Haig of C Company was at the moment on his way back to find out what had happened to the rest of his company, and says, ‘Their advance was a particularly vociferous one and I can assure you that it was a fearsome thing to encounter especially when on one’s own.’26
The companies advanced in bounds of about 200 yards, fired concentrated bursts of small-arms fire on Djebel Bir and Takrouna, and finally reached and crossed the Zaghouan road. As with preceding units there were many casualties from enemy fire and mines, and trip-wires were found connected as warnings to the enemy in their pits. They reached a deep wadi to the south of Cherachir, from which frontal fire was now coming – they were in contact with the main enemy line – but were still some 200 yards short of their intended start line. It was 1.30 a.m. and the barrage had already moved on from the long pause, and they were without their two support companies, who had not heard Thomas’s shouts to them to come on. A quick check showed that B Company could muster only twenty men, and D seventeen. Captain Thomas sent the IO, Lieutenant Bailey ,27 back for the other two companies, and instructed B Company to capture the eastern slopes of Cherachir forthwith, and D Company to capture the western side and then move on Djebel el Froukr. This was maintenance of the objective with a vengeance!
B Company started the climb with some shouting, but finally went on silently up a wadi, which was steep and stony. Despite much enemy mortar fire which went over their heads, and flares which lit the way for them, they were not observed and reached the crest,
but were then fired on from both left and right. D Company’s advance helped them on the left, and they concentrated on the enemy on their right, but were finally forced to take cover just below the top, still on the southern side.
D Company had greater trouble and gradually lost all its officers.28 The three platoons were now commanded by Sergeant McLean ,29 Sergeant Muir30 and Corporal Smellie ,31 and then Muir took command of the company, which charged up the slopes and reached the crest. Again, however, the company had to go to ground just below the top, as the crest of Djebel ech Cherachir was untenable.
Captain Thomas with part of battalion headquarters established himself in a wadi north of the road, but for a while had no exact knowledge of the progress made, and was not in touch with Brigade Headquarters or any of the other battalions. The only wireless set was with the adjutant, Captain Ross ,32 and the rest of battalion headquarters back in the wadi near where Lieutenant-Colonel Romans had been wounded. Here Captain Ross had set up what amounted to a firm base and an administrative post for the battalion, and was keeping in touch with supporting arms and passing what information he had back to Brigade Headquarters.
On one occasion Thomas gave orders for red tracer to be fired vertically as a recognition signal, but this brought such violent fire from the enemy that no further attempt was made to ‘prove’ the front. Djebel Bir and Takrouna were still clearly held by the enemy and 23 Battalion was isolated, and once a party of about twenty Germans dashed right past battalion headquarters without either side firing on the other. Each side was calling to its own troops, and members of 23 Battalion did their best to confuse the enemy by also shouting, and even started a cry of ‘Panzer!’ to make the enemy believe that tanks were coming.
B and D Companies reported that they had been able to clear as far as the rim of Cherachir, and part of C Company arrived under its commander, Captain Slee, and was sent off to capture the southern end of Cherachir south of B Company. This it duly did after a series of brisk engagements, but as with the other companies, it was thin on the ground.
Then part of A Company, now under Lieutenant Hunt ,33 arrived and was sent to occupy Point 73 west of Cherachir and to link up with D Company on the western end of the feature. A platoon of this company was later sent to a position on the battalion right flank behind the part held by C Company.
While these efforts were being made there was a burst of fire from an area which had already been combed out. A cautious investigation by Lieutenant Montgomery34 of C Company disclosed that it was occupied by Maoris from D Company, 28 Battalion.
23 and 28 (Maori) Battalions
We left D Company, 28 Battalion, at the point where Captain Ornberg had decided to push on towards the Zaghouan road, as he felt that some decisive action by the reserve company was essential. The company moved up through the gap between Djebel Bir and Takrouna in silence, and despite the enemy fire crossed the road and entered the wadi south of Cherachir, where it halted to take stock of the situation. Various shouts in English led the men to believe that some of the rest of 28 Battalion had got through, and Captain Ornberg – who had been lightly wounded – sent an officer forward to find out what had happened. This officer made contact with Captain Slee of C Company, 23 Battalion. After consultation with Slee and later with Thomas, Ornberg agreed to assist C Company on the eastern flank. His company then dug in on the south-east end of Cherachir, facing back towards Djebel Bir and Takrouna. By now it was almost daylight, and a counter-attack could be expected.
So in the end 23 Battalion, with D Company of 28 Battalion, was established, not very firmly, between the Zaghouan road and the crest of Djebel ech Cherachir. The companies were sited for all-round defence, for the battalion was virtually surrounded, and so far no support arms or carriers were available. The carriers had started forward with the battalion, but had gradually been brought to a halt by a combination of bad going and enemy fire, and with the approval of the adjutant were used during the night for the evacuation of wounded. Just before dawn, on the instructions of Brigade Headquarters, the carriers were placed on the brigade right flank to the east of Djebel Bir. Other support arms remained in the old battalion area ready to move up when conditions permitted.
Determination by all ranks despite heavy losses and much disorganisation had enabled 23 Battalion to effect a definite penetration into the enemy’s line, but the outlook was not very bright.
The Assault on Takrouna
Sergeant Rogers with 10 Platoon of B Company, 28 Battalion, remained at the south end of Takrouna when the rest of the company went on to the Zaghouan road. The platoon had a difficult task in front of it, for the southern face of Takrouna was sufficiently steep to make climbing hazardous even in daylight, and although the impression that this face was unoccupied was soon proved to be wrong, it was expected that the summit would be securely held.
The initial attacking party consisted of ten men from B Company, one man from D Company, and Sergeant W. J. Smith35 of 23 Battalion, who had lost touch with his own unit and so attached himself to the party, a most welcome addition. Sergeant Rogers and his second-in-command, Lance-Sergeant Manahi ,36 consulted together and decided to divide their forces. Rogers with one party, including Smith, would attack from the south-east, and Manahi with the other from the south-west. A forward observation officer from 5 Field Regiment, Captain Catchpole ,37 arrived about this time and gave some advice and encouragement before reporting to his regiment.
The parties set off just before daybreak and found that the slopes were occupied. They gradually worked their way up the hill, running for shelter from rock to rock, and firing on enemy positions. By first light they were halfway up the slope and able to fire down into what turned out to be deep fighting pits, and soon convinced the enemy that they had the upper hand in more ways than one. Italians, their pits now exposed, showed signs of surrendering, and Private Grant38 alone rounded up some sixty prisoners. Even though daylight had come they pushed on, and little by little reached the ‘ledge’, the last twenty feet being up an almost sheer rock face. To climb this they made good use of bunches of telephone cables running to the abandoned enemy positions below. From the ledge they occupied the maze of buildings on the ‘pinnacle’, which surprisingly enough was not specifically defended, and their movements round the pinnacle resulted in the capture of a German artillery observation officer and his wireless operator.
From the pinnacle they looked down into Takrouna village below, and got what Sergeant Smith described as ‘lovely targets’, as the enemy was unaware that the pinnacle had been captured. Shots
from our men soon scattered the Italian soldiers in the village, and Rogers and Manahi decided to block all access to the pinnacle from the village, which meant posting men to overlook some steps cut in the stone, and blocking the mouth of a tunnel with a large boulder. The pinnacle and the ledge were then organised for defence. Some stragglers from both 28 and 23 Battalions, some of them hailed by Manahi from the top, filtered up the hill and joined the tiny garrison, and soon afterwards a forward observation officer from 64 Medium Regiment arrived but only for a reconnaissance. By this time it was mid-morning.
Situation at First Light, 20 April
The attack on the front of 6 Brigade had been successful. Communications were established between battalions and Brigade Headquarters, support arms were forward, and the regiment of tanks under command had moved up to the objective.
On the right flank a patrol from 26 Battalion entered Enfidaville just before first light and found it empty. At 6.58 a.m. 8 Armoured Brigade reported it clear, and this information was passed to 50 Division, whose task it now became to occupy the town and patrol northwards along the coast road. Pending the arrival of 50 Division, NZ Divisional Cavalry patrolled north for four miles and captured four men from 90 Light Division. In the early afternoon 201 Guards Brigade from 50 Division came forward and occupied positions on a line running from the coast north of Enfidaville and linking up with the right of 6 Infantry Brigade.
On 5 Infantry Brigade’s front enemy opposition and the difficulties of the going had made success impossible. On the west of Takrouna the attack had failed completely. On the east side there had been some gains, which had not been firmly consolidated, and only part of the first objective had been reached and none of the second. Communications within the brigade were not good, two battalions had lost their COs, and one had lost all but one of its company commanders and many other officers and NCOs besides.
On the left of 2 NZ Division the attack by 4 Indian Division met with only slight success. Djebel Garci proved too great an objective for one brigade, and the Division had to be content with taking Djebel Blida, which was no more than an outpost to the defences on the main feature.
Farther to the west 7 Armoured Division was just north of Djebibina.
The FDLs of 2 NZ Division now ran from a point about 1000 yards north-west of Enfidaville in a curve trending first north-west and then west round the northern slopes of Djebel Ogla, held by
6 Infantry Brigade. There was then a gap across the valley to Djebel ech Cherachir, which feature was held somewhat precariously by the isolated 23 Battalion with part of 28 (Maori) Battalion. Behind them the Maoris held the southern end of Djebel Bir, with a few troops on the Zaghouan road to the north-west. There was a slender footing on the top of Takrouna, not linked with any other troops. To the left 21 Battalion had returned to its start-line positions.
The artillery had fired its programme with practically no interference from the enemy, and despite earlier fears no guns were knocked out. But 6 Field Regiment, which was in the open in full view of Takrouna, was pulled back at first light.
6 Infantry Brigade on 20 April
At 6.45 a.m. Brigadier Gentry reported to General Freyberg by telephone and gave him a report on his front, which was a good one. At that moment the situation on 5 Brigade front was not known at Divisional Headquarters, but it was known that there was an enemy pocket between the two brigades, and 8 Armoured Brigade was given the task of mopping up with its remaining regiment (Staffs Yeomanry), while 3 Royal Tanks (under 6 Infantry Brigade) moved westwards with the same task. The Royal Tanks lost three tanks on mines, but neither regiment had any losses from shellfire, which was heavy.
For 26 and 24 Battalions the day was spent mainly in keeping to slit trenches to avoid the constant shelling. Enemy transport and other enemy activities were seen to the north-west, and at 11.15 a.m. our artillery engaged observation posts on Djebel el Froukr, and also the flat ground between Froukr and Ogla.
5 Infantry Brigade
At Headquarters 5 Infantry Brigade the picture was put together as information came in. It will be easily understood that at first light the position with 23 and 28 Battalions was obscure, but one thing was certain, that assistance would be wanted. Just before 6 a.m. Brigadier Kippenberger sent part of Notts Yeomanry forward to clear up any pockets of resistance on the east side of Takrouna, and to give what help it could to either battalion. Notts Yeomanry succeeded in crossing the Zaghouan road, but had lost six tanks on mines and one by shellfire. However, their presence was both welcome and useful, and they took twenty prisoners.
Among other results, the tanks helped to capture Djebel Bir. First light found 28 Battalion much disorganised, with most of the officers wounded. Lieutenant Wikiriwhi went forward to look at the situation, especially on Djebel Bir, where A Company was dug
in on the southern edge, with the enemy occupying most of the remainder. He suggested to Private Heka39 of A Company that he ‘should take a closer look’ at the rear of Djebel Bir, under protection of the tanks. As soon as the tanks opened fire as arranged by Wikiriwhi, Heka advanced alone, attacked and captured an antitank-gun post, and then put three machine-gun posts out of action, finally coming back with fourteen prisoners. Help also came from the troops on Cherachir, who fired into the backs of the enemy on Djebel Bir. The result was the collapse of all resistance on the feature.
Prisoners in this area were all German and came from either 47 or 361 Infantry Regiments. The 90th Light Division, in reporting the loss of Bir, gives some credit to the support given by ‘50 tanks’, and it is possible that the operation being carried out by Staffs Yeomanry and 3 Royal Tanks in the gap between Bir and Ogla had some effect on this surrender. But nothing can detract from Heka’s little victory.
Wikiriwhi then met Haig, who was searching for more C Company men and getting them securely dug in between Takrouna and Djebel Bir. This action was confirmed, and Wikiriwhi then went to Brigade Headquarters to report, arriving there about 7.45 a.m. By this time he was functioning as a combination of CO, adjutant and intelligence officer.
The GOC and the CRA had arrived at Headquarters 5 Brigade not long before, and at much the same time our own troops could be seen on the top of Takrouna, the first indication that they had arrived there.
Brigadier Kippenberger now heard the first authentic information about 28 Battalion, and after listening to Wikiriwhi’s report gave him a definite line on which to reorganise, with the object of establishing a second line of defence in case 23 Battalion was overrun. Captain Pene ,40 the senior surviving officer, was sent for to take command of 28 Battalion, and other officers to take over the companies. Pene did not arrive from the B Echelon area until late afternoon, and meanwhile Wikiriwhi had restored control within the battalion. A telephone line was run from battalion headquarters to the Maoris on Takrouna. The whole valley between Takrouna and Djebel Bir was under shell and mortar fire during the day, and tasks such as this, and the evacuation of the wounded, were performed under great difficulties.
After the conference at Brigade Headquarters the CRA at once fired several ‘stonks’ with all available artillery on Djebel el Froukr and other features beyond Djebel ech Cherachir, in the belief that while the exact position of our troops was not known, supporting fire on any points held by the enemy would be good for morale. Enemy retaliation against the artillery continued to be negligible, and in the afternoon 6 Field Regiment moved forward again to positions not far south of Takrouna.
The 23rd Battalion expected a counter-attack at first light, but nothing happened. The troops were all dug in or in sheltered positions and the perimeter was so small that central control from battalion headquarters was possible by runner, and even on occasion by voice. Cherachir was held by the battalion, but the security of its tenure seemed doubtful. D Company was on the north-west end of the feature: B on the north-east and east: part of C Company together with D Company, 28 Battalion, at the south-eastern end: the rest of C Company on the south-western face: and A Company partly on the western end of Cherachir and partly on Point 73. They were overlooked on three sides, and were not sure ‘what side owned what ground’, as a survivor has put it, but they were determined to stay there. The offensive spirit was still alive, and probably had some effect in stopping a counter-attack, for Captain Thomas decided to take a gamble on further supplies of ammunition getting through, and ordered the battalion to keep on engaging the enemy. So the northern slopes of Takrouna were fired on, odd enemy positions cleared out, transport at the rear of Takrouna engaged, fire directed into the backs of the enemy on Djebel Bir, and a party of Germans trying to get to Takrouna from the north pinned to the ground. B Company even captured about twenty Germans who walked into its area.
As there was still no sign of supporting arms or tanks, and as there were indications of the enemy massing behind Point 136 to the north-west, at 9 a.m. Captain Thomas sent the Intelligence Officer, Lieutenant Bailey, back to Brigade Headquarters to report. Bailey had a hazardous journey down the valley, but reached Brigade Headquarters about 10 a.m. This was the first direct information from 23 Battalion, and within minutes Point 136 and other targets were ‘stonked’, much to the delight of Thomas and the battalion. It was some comfort also to know that the IO had got through.
The tanks of Notts Yeomanry were still involved in the very difficult ground near the Zaghouan road, and one tank which managed to cross the road was immobilised on a mine.
Varying fortunes attended the attempts of the supporting arms of 23 Battalion to reach the forward positions, for the valley was no place for soft-skinned vehicles. The machine-gun platoon made three attempts but was forced back by artillery and mortar fire. In the afternoon two six-pounders of the anti-tank platoon reached the south-east slopes of Takrouna, but were withdrawn after dark. Neither could the carrier platoon join up, although one carrier did get far enough forward to be used for evacuating wounded.
Until the afternoon the adjutant, Captain Ross, stayed in his original post, and from there kept up a link with advanced headquarters and with rear echelons, but then he decided that something must be done to get at least the No. 11 wireless set forward. He was told by Brigade Headquarters to wait for an armoured vehicle, but the armoured car which did arrive was holed almost at once and made unserviceable. So Ross decided to run the gauntlet in his jeep, and managed to get as far as the Zaghouan road. There he organised a party of prisoners of war to carry the set to Headquarters, warning them in advance of what would happen were the set sabotaged. From then on, direct communication from battalion to brigade was established, and the unit was able to call for artillery fire at short notice. So by the end of 20 April, 23 Battalion was at least well in hand, and the first steps had been taken by Brigade Headquarters to relieve it after dark by 25 Battalion.
Takrouna, 20 April
The foothold on Takrouna was no more than a foothold, and as soon as the enemy realised that he had lost the pinnacle he subjected it to a steady deluge of shells of all kinds. Casualties were heavy, and of the gallant first party five at least were soon killed, including Sergeant Rogers, so that Manahi was left in charge. The enemy fire on Takrouna persisted during all the activities still to be described.
The few troops still left on the top continued to guard the pinnacle offensively by firing at targets on lower levels, including two captured 25-pounders that the enemy had sited on the northern slopes.41 Every member of the little garrison played his part.
Meanwhile Captain Catchpole moved his armoured car as close to Takrouna as possible and established a post in the northern fringe of the olives, sending back to his CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow, what information he received from the top. Another officer from 5 Field Regiment, Captain Muirhead,42 originally detailed as forward observation officer to 23 Battalion, climbed to page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break
the top and made a detailed reconnaissance. From there he went back to 5 Field Regiment and reported the position to Glasgow, so confirming reports from Catchpole. Both officers said that more infantry were wanted if Takrouna was to be held.
By this time Brigadier Kippenberger had himself been up to the foot of Takrouna and had decided that the Maoris on the summit would be relieved by a platoon from 21 Battalion, instructions to this end being given at 11.45. a.m. Kippenberger had rejected a suggestion from both Corps and Divisional commanders that all troops in the vicinity of Takrouna should be withdrawn and the feature pounded with artillery. In view of the comparative failure of the whole attack he preferred to hold on to what had been gained, especially when it was such a key point. But until the top could be made secure the success of this policy hung in the balance.
During his forward reconnaissance Kippenberger visited the area held by 28 (Maori) Battalion and made some adjustments to the line.
Before reinforcements could arrive the retention of even the toehold on Takrouna became doubtful, as was only to be expected when the defenders of the peak were confined to such a restricted area and under such heavy and continuous fire. Fortunately the enemy was limiting his action to fire, and still showed no signs of counter-attacking. Manahi realised that very soon there would be nobody left to defend the spot, so took a risk, went down from the summit, found Lieutenant Haig of C Company and obtained from him a section of men and some stretcher bearers, food and ammunition. On the way back he was told by the Medium Regiment forward observation officer (who did not know that this policy had been dropped), that he should clear his men away from the feature as it was going to be heavily shelled. Manahi then consulted Catchpole, who told him to hang on at all costs, that reinforcements were on the way (this was an inspired guess), and that he would stop any artillery programme against the summit.
So Manahi went back with his section and again posted them to cover all approaches, and not long afterwards 15 Platoon of 21 Battalion arrived under Lieutenant Shaw. But while Shaw and Manahi were making a brief reconnaissance the enemy at last attacked both pinnacle and ledge. The defence was furious in its vigour, and the enemy troops were shot, bayoneted, or pushed over the cliff. And at this point Captain Muirhead arrived back with a few Maoris he had collected and clinched the victory. The attackers were believed to be all Italians, but 90 Light Division mentions a few Germans from 47 Regiment.
It was now 6.45 p.m. The ledge and pinnacle were cleared, and in the following lull most of the Maoris, by now near exhaustion, went back to their battalion.
Captain Muirhead and Lieutenant Shaw then consulted together, with the result that Shaw sent a runner to Brigade Headquarters to ask for more men, and 21 Battalion was promptly instructed to send up another platoon. Runners had to be used to and from the top, as despite wearying work the brigade signallers were unable to keep up communication by telephone for the cable was continually cut.
At last light, therefore, while the territory held on Takrouna had not been increased, it had at least been held.
For 21 Battalion the day was spent in reorganisation and in collecting the wounded. The latter activity was made difficult by enemy fire, and at least one search party was pinned to the ground. During the afternoon Captain Nathan43 of 4 Field Regiment, together with Captain Roach of B Company, ranged on enemy machine-gun posts on the western slopes of the hill. There was a good deal of enemy shelling throughout the day.
In the afternoon there was a report that enemy tanks were in the vicinity. Staffs Yeomanry moved out to the west, but could find nothing, nor could anything be found by tank-busters and Spitfires that later circled the area. The report must have been incorrect, for one feature of this battle was the complete absence of enemy armour.
Situation at the End of 20 April
At the end of the day 2 NZ Division had consolidated its first-light positions. Communications had improved, and the various headquarters knew the situation in detail, but the general outlook was little better. Prisoners amounted to 380, of whom 120 were German, all from 90 Light Division – either 47 or 361 Regiment. The Italians came from Trieste Division, and in the main had fought surprisingly well. All the opposition was still on the front of 5 Infantry Brigade. On that of 6 Infantry Brigade there was only token opposition, for the reason, still not fully appreciated, that the real line of defence was even farther north than had so far been reached.
The enemy showed little desire to counter-attack. Nothing came of the feared assembly opposite 23 Battalion, and his only offensive ground action anywhere was the small attack against the summit of
Takrouna. The defence had centred, only too effectively, on guns, mortars, and small-arms fire, brought down over likely areas of approach and any movement, and mines had hampered movement whatever its nature.
On the flanks of the Division also there was stalemate. The 201st Guards Brigade on the right was able merely to patrol some few miles north of Enfidaville. The 4th Indian Division on the left resisted continuous enemy counter-attacks against its foothold on Djebel el Blida, but made no further advance.
During the morning of 20 April the tanks of 15 Panzer Division moved from the Bou Ficha area west and then south towards the rear of Djebel Mdeker, apparently to be ready in case of a breakthrough on our part. But they were never close enough to be in contact with our troops, and once it was evident that the advance of 2 NZ and 4 Indian Divisions was definitely checked, the tanks were moved back again. During the next day or two they went to the front of First Army. Eighth Army’s attack had thus not even pinned down the enemy troops on its front, far less caused the withdrawal of those opposing First Army. The enemy had every reason to be content with the check he had given Eighth Army from the security of his positions based on strong natural defences.
At 11.10 p.m. on 20 April 10 Corps issued a message outlining its plans for the immediate future, but other than foreshadowing the relief of 50 (N) and 2 NZ Divisions and the arrival in the area of 51 (H) and 56 (L) Divisions, the instructions amounted for the moment to ‘hang on to what you’ve got’. For 2 NZ Division the’ interest lay in its relief by 56 (L) Division, followed by further operations northwards, but no date was given for the relief and no details of the operations.
In fact, most senior officers were beginning to wonder just what they could hope to achieve by continuing the attacks in any form.
20–21 April – Some Reorganisation
During the afternoon of 20 April General Freyberg again visited Headquarters 5 Infantry Brigade and was told that the casualties in the brigade were likely to be about 400. In the discussion that ensued Brigadier Kippenberger asked for another battalion to relieve 23 Battalion, and the GOC agreed that 25 Battalion, the reserve battalion of 6 Brigade, should do so. Lieutenant-Colonel T. B. Morten reported to Brigadier Kippenberger at 3 p.m. and was told to carry out the relief after dark, moving up to Cherachir westwards from 24 Battalion area.
At 7 p.m. 25 Battalion moved on foot along the 6 Brigade axis to the Zaghouan road, and thence to 23 Battalion area. Transport was used for support arms for part of the way. There was a little shelling, but the relief was completed without incident at 11 p.m. The companies were placed in a perimeter with the mortars and only two six-pounder anti-tank guns, and with the carriers on the east flank of the battalion. The remaining anti-tank guns were not retained as the country was naturally tank-proof. One platoon of 2 Machine-Gun Company was withdrawn from the west side of Takrouna in the early hours of 21 April and sent up to 25 Battalion. It came under heavy mortar and machine-gun fire while getting into position, and both this platoon and a later relief platoon were so severely shelled that they could do little effective work.
The 23rd Battalion withdrew down the valley between Takrouna and Djebel Bir up which it had attacked, and without much incident was picked up by transport and taken well back.
During the night D Company of 24 Battalion moved into the gap between the left of 24 and the right of 25 Battalions, so completing the divisional line. The engineers cleared the Zaghouan road from Enfidaville as far as 25 Battalion, and also cleared a passage through the mines between Djebel Bir and Takrouna. The 28th Battalion by this time had reorganised and taken up a position facing north-west between Djebel Bir and the olive groves south of Takrouna.
On Takrouna itself 14 Platoon of 21 Battalion under Lieutenant Hirst44 joined 15 Platoon shortly after 9 p.m. on 20 April, and almost immediately afterwards the enemy attacked, achieved a measure of surprise, and succeeded in occupying the mosque and other buildings on the pinnacle, but was stopped from clearing the ledge. The enemy had gained access through the tunnel, which had been overlooked in the course of the various changes of personnel. A period of stalemate followed, for neither side could move the other, but when daylight came on 21 April the enemy if anything had the better of it, as he was on higher ground. Lieutenant Shaw was wounded early in the morning of 21 April and was evacuated with difficulty. Lieutenant Hirst took charge.
21 April – the End of ORATION
Divisional Cavalry spent 21 April patrolling on the front of 6 Infantry Brigade and up the coastal strip for some five miles north of Enfidaville. The artillery had an active day, shelling enemy batteries heavily. The 4th Field Regiment, for instance, expended 3143 rounds and 5 Field Regiment fired nineteen concentrations and six ‘stonks’ in addition to other tasks.
In 6 Brigade’s area the day was uneventful. It was Brigadier Gentry’s last day in command, for at midnight 21–22 April he was to hand over to Brigadier Parkinson ,45 and start his journey back to New Zealand to take up the appointment of Deputy Chief of the General Staff.46
The GOC held his usual conference early in the day to decide what further action could be taken. The 8th Armoured Brigade was sent to work round the west of Takrouna and to get as far north as possible, even to the Zaghouan road. Staffs Yeomanry made the attempt, directed on Point 136, but met heavy and accurate fire, particularly from Djebel Biada on the left, lost three tanks and could make little progress. As 21 Battalion had already discovered, this stretch north of and parallel to the Zaghouan road was part of the enemy’s main line, and was strongly defended.
There was enemy shelling and mortaring on Cherachir from first light until dark, and snipers were a perpetual annoyance until three Crusader tanks moved into the area after 3 p.m. and gave some relief. Notts Yeomanry moved on to Djebel Bir and as far as the road between there and Cherachir, overran a few enemy posts, took another twenty-three prisoners and won commendation from the infantry for steady and helpful work.
On Takrouna there was great activity all day. During the night 20–21 April communication had been established between the summit and headquarters of both 5 Infantry Brigade and 5 Field Regiment, and Brigadier Kippenberger took direct control of further operations against the peak. There was steady enemy shelling throughout, and this extended southwards into the area of both 21 and 28 Battalions.
When it was learnt that the enemy had regained part of the feature, Kippenberger arranged that 28 Battalion should send reinforcements, including Sergeant Manahi and any others who knew the layout on the summit. Manahi responded at once and took a party of about fourteen volunteers drawn from B and D Companies, arriving soon after first light.
Lieutenant Hirst and Manahi planned first to soften up the enemy posts and then attack from two directions. Fire from the battalion mortars from below the hill was ineffective as the range was too great, and when a 2-inch mortar was brought to the ledge the reverse was the case, for the range – only 100 yards – was too
short. Then Captain Harding ,47 who was observing for 5 Field Regiment, opened fire with one gun, taking the risk of hitting the ledge instead of the summit; after trying conventional ranging, he finally brought the fall of shot round by round up the southern slopes, until from the last few rounds out of about sixty fired, three direct hits were obtained on the mosque, the range being about 8000 yards. It was by now about midday.
Parties from the ledge went forward at once, and found that the enemy had gone, using the same tunnel by which he had arrived. But he had not finished fighting and soon retaliated with heavy mortar fire from the lower village, where he was firmly entrenched. Harding silenced the mortars with artillery fire, and our troops fired at any movement they could see.
The lower village was a difficult target for field artillery to hit, as it was perched on a narrow ridge. During all this time Brigade Headquarters at the foot of the hill had been closely in touch with all activities, and after other devices had been suggested and discarded, Fairbrother, the Brigade Major, arranged for a 17–pounder anti-tank gun to snipe at the village, its lower trajectory being better suited to rake the target. After a shaky start – the first round hit the dome of the mosque occupied by our men – the gun worked back on to the village from south to north and caused considerable damage with its solid shot, in addition to the alarm caused by its high velocity.
Meanwhile Sergeant Manahi and some of his men had on their own initiative been stalking enemy posts on the north-east slopes, and had captured several, and other Maoris were moving down direct to the village. The enemy there was much shaken by the 17-pounder fire, and Lieutenant Hirst, who had sensed this, took a party, moved right round the western slopes and entered the village from the north, rounding up the enemy and driving them towards Manahi’s group. This was too much for the enemy, who collapsed and surrendered: 323 prisoners were captured, of whom only five were German. The Italians, as before, came from Trieste Division.
The troops then on Takrouna were relieved in the early evening by a force drawn from A and B Companies of 21 Battalion, together with the battalion mortars and a platoon of machine guns, all under Captain Roach of B Company. The relief was effected without incident, and the new troops occupied the northern slopes with a small reserve below the mosque. Takrouna was now firmly held, and the operation brought a special message of commendation to 5 Brigade from General Horrocks and General Freyberg.
With the capture of Takrouna ORATION was over.
Casualties were heavy. From 19 to 21 April 3 officers and 43 other ranks were killed, 29 officers and 375 other ranks wounded, and 2 officers and 84 other ranks missing – a total of 536. The proportion of killed to wounded was luckily much lower than usual. The three battalions of 5 Brigade incurred the major number of casualties. The total for 21 Battalion was 169, for 28 Battalion 124, and for 23 Battalion 115, a total of 408. The 28th Battalion lost 12 officers out of 17.
The brigade captured 732 prisoners, of whom 164 were German. Equipment captured on Takrouna alone amounted to 12 guns of various types, 122 machine guns, 6 mortars and 4 vehicles.
Operations on Djebel Garci
On the left of the Division 5 Indian Brigade had won a toehold on the formidable peak, Djebel Garci, after severe fighting that had cost the leading companies 30 per cent casualties. By the next day, the 20th, four of the six infantry battalions of 4 Indian Division were committed on Garci, the first objective for this Division, and there had been approximately 500 casualties. On the night 22–23 April, by which time the main effort was to hold the ground so dearly won, the Indian division was relieved by a brigade from 51 (H) Division, called up from the rear where it had been preparing for Sicily.48 For the Indian division, ‘the fighting on Garci had been the stickiest affair in two and a half years of savage fighting. ...’49
ORATION in Retrospect
The ambitious nature of the Eighth Army plan, and the manner in which the divisional plan fitted in, has already been discussed. Now that it has been described how few of even the first objectives were captured, it would be excusable to state that little else could have been expected, and leave it at that. Yet such a course would result in too much emphasis being placed on what was, at the time of preparation, a plan accepted without demur by some of the Allies’ most seasoned soldiers, and which only much later, with all the hazards clearly exposed, appears unrealistic. A brief examination of the causes of the failure might discover a course of action which would have allowed Eighth Army to pin down enemy forces without committing itself to an operation which had no chance of success.
But first it is necessary to be clear about the intention – was it to pin down enemy forces, or to gain ground? Was the real intention to turn the whole Axis position with the reduced forces available? Or was the aim more in sympathy with Alexander’s original concept, that Eighth Army was to pin down all the enemy forces on its front and, if possible, attract additional enemy troops from the front of First Army? All that Montgomery said at the time, and his further effort, still to be related, to force Eighth Army along the narrow coastal corridor to Cape Bon, makes his intention clear.
Had the goal for Eighth Army been a genuine ‘holding attack’, to use Alexander’s expression, it is probable that its attention would have been focussed on a target more readily available with the means at its disposal, and perhaps of more value to the operations of Eighteenth Army Group. Almost invariably, vital ground is high ground. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that had Eighth Army limited its ultimate objective, and combined all of its resources for the possession of but one of the dominating peaks between Zaghouan and the coast, more distress would have been caused to the enemy at a lower cost.
The divisional battle complemented the army battle, and although the ultimate possession of Takrouna will always remain an outstanding military feat, Takrouna, in the plan, was a company objective. Froukr remained in enemy hands virtually until the final capitulation. There would be little profit in a close analysis of the cause of this debacle, for the Division shared in the general failure imposed by attempting to do too much with too little. But it is difficult to understand why it was thought that the southern slopes of Takrouna could be neglected, that an assault through the valley between Bir and Takrouna could succeed without gaining control of these peaks, and why Cherachir, a large and well defended feature, was overlooked in the planning. As Messe had hoped,50 the attack was directed to the re-entrants, where it spent itself.
As in the Army and the Corps, there was a strain of optimism running through the Division – a participant has called it ‘Axis HQ fever’ – combined with a failure to realise the changed tactics necessary for the change in terrain. Kippenberger has since said, ‘When we lined up at Enfidaville I don’t think we adjusted our thinking to the closer country there.’51
Whatever the reason – natural optimism, failure to perceive the changes necessary, or more practically a poor assessment of information – there was a sad miscalculation of the resistance to be
expected, too great a miscalculation to be overcome by any efforts made by units. This was the basic error.
Only a month before, at Tebaga on 26 March, there had been an example of first-class planning, careful timing, co-ordination between ground and air and between arms, and excellent preparation of every kind, all carried out in a matter of forty-eight hours or so. Allowing for the normal frictions to be expected in any action, and granting that the units were highly trained, all that the units had to do was carry out the plan given them. But here at Takrouna the plan collapsed almost at once, and units were forced to do the best they could with their own unaided efforts.
Their ‘best’ was of course magnificent – leadership by commanding officers carried on down through the echelons of command as far as the most junior NCOs, and often enough as far as the rank and file: readiness to step forward and take responsibility when those above were put out of action: tackling each fresh problem as it arose with the resources at hand: trying to get information back so that those behind could play their part: and in every way determination to get forward somehow.
Not for the first nor the last time in the long history of war, such victories as were achieved came from the efforts of subordinate commanders and from the initiative and determination of platoons, sections, and individual men. It was that highest glory, a ‘Soldiers’ Battle’.
Takrouna itself remains a supreme example of courage and determination. The way in which a few men in daylight found their way to the top of an ‘unstormable’ hill through a tangle of enemy posts, capturing prisoners many times their own number, reads like an imaginative incident in a romantic novel. And this initial action was followed by a period of bravery and of skill in minor tactics shown by parties from two battalions, although the main honour rests with the Maoris. General Horrocks has since said that it was the most gallant feat of arms he witnessed in the course of the war.52 ‘In the Division as a whole the men who had survived the struggle were regarded with something akin to awe. For two whole days and nights Takrouna had been hidden by the smoke and dust of the bloody battle, and strange stories of passages and secret entrances had circulated amongst the troops. Already, Takrouna and the battle there had become legend.’53