The battle of Alamein
During the end of September through to early October training and preparation continued. The battalion was involved in two main battles during 18-29th October for the battle of Miteiriya Ridge. Five awards were later made just before Christmas representative of the gallantry and devotion to duty of the whole battalion.
The first indications of enemy withdrawl came on 3rd November. The 25th were now heading toward Fuka about 12 miles away. They covered 5 miles at dusk and dug in for the night. The following day more Italians were captured – 400 or more including about 100 germans.
‘The Alamein attack, as far as the mortars were concerned, was a matter of being called upon at odd moments to assist the infantry or to knock out enemy mortars or gun positions. Also much assistance was given to our patrols at night by direct barrage, etc. When patrols went out with mortar support at night two mortars would go out on two carriers. These patrols would advance at night to a suitable position and wait for first light to pin-point enemy positions. The carriers would withdraw after the job had been completed.’
On 27–28 October, as part of a reorganisation, 1 SA Division relieved 2 NZ Division, which (with the exception of the artillery) was withdrawn into reserve in the Alam el Onsol area south-east of the Alamein station. (The artillery was left behind to support an attack that night by 9 Australian Division farther north.)
Twenty-fifth Battalion received the warning order for the relief about noon on the 27th and later in the afternoon received orders stating that General Freyberg, who though the enemy might be withdrawing, had instructed that fighting patrols from 25 and 26 Battalions were to be sent out at dusk. The patrols found little to report, though the 25 Battalion patrol captured a German and four Italians.
From 3 p.m. on 29 October the battalion was at two hours’ notice to move.
The new position was a little over four miles north of that held on Miteiriya Ridge and the foremost localities about five miles east of Tell el Eisa station. These were held by 26 Battalion on the right and 24 Battalion on the left, with 25 Battalion in reserve two miles back, on a frontage of 1400 yards, with D Company on the right and C on the left. Sixth Brigade’s task here was to hold the position for three days as a firm base for a forthcoming attack.
The start line for the attack ran north and south about 1000 yards west of the positions occupied by C and D Companies. There was a good deal of traffic through the battalion area and just to the north of it, and the several tracks that were being used were filled with the engineers’ vehicles, the armour, the supporting arms and other essential transport, resembling the congestion behind Miteiriya Ridge on 23 October. Although the barrage at 1.5 a.m. was three times the weight of that given for the attack on Miteiriya Ridge, the general opinion in 25 Battalion was that it was not so impressive. The attacking infantry got away to time and succeeded in capturing its final objective, but the operations of the armour beyond the infantry objective were only partially successful. Further attacks were made during the night 2–3 November to get the armour to the west of the Rahman track, which ran south-south-west from Sidi Abd el Rahman through Tell el Aqqaqir and was about 9000 yards west of 25 Battalion’s position; the attacks were only partly successful.
During the evening of the 2nd 6 Brigade relieved 151 Brigade at the western end of the corridor, the battalion receiving its warning order in the middle of the afternoon to relieve 8 Battalion, Durham Light Infantry. Sixth Brigade’s front faced west and north on two sides of the bridgehead. Twenty-fifth Battalion reached its position, about 5000 yards to the north-west, before midnight and dug in. Contact was made with 24 Battalion (which was on the right and facing north) and with 26 Battalion on the left; all three battalions and also the Maori Battalion, which was on the right of 24 Battalion and under command of 6 Brigade, were forward, 22 Battalion (of 5 Brigade) being under command as the reserve battalion.
Twenty-fifth Battalion had all three companies forward, B right, C centre, and D left, the frontage being about 500 yards, facing north-west. Attached to the battalion were one troop of 33 Battery, six medium machine guns, eight six-pounder anti-tank guns and one company of lorried infantry (both from the Rifle Brigade). The battalion’s strength was very low: B Company, 3 officers, 38 other ranks, and four men from HQ Company; C Company, 2 officers, 33 other ranks, and eight from HQ Company; and D Company, 2 officers, 29 other ranks, and twenty from HQ Company.
In the morning the battalion’s position was spasmodically shelled but fortunately there were no casualties. The afternoon was enlivened by the approach of a Stuka formation which was broken up by fighters and anti-aircraft fire. There was also expectation of a move that night but it was postponed till the the next day, 4 November.
The Alamein battle had in fact been won and the enemy was in full retreat, covered by an anti-tank-gun screen and rear-guards. The first indications of an enemy withdrawal came early in the morning of 3 November and the evidence increased as the day progressed. Throughout that day the enemy had held his position along the Rahman track, but an attack during the night 3–4 November by 51 Division south of Tell el Aqqaqir (about 4500 yards south-west of 25 Battalion) forced the enemy anti-tank-gun screen back to the north-west.
This opened the way for the armour of 10 Corps (1, 7, and 10 Armoured Divisions) and the motorised New Zealand Division to break out to the west from the Alamein line. Tenth Corps was to swing northwards to the main road to cut off the enemy motorised forces at the bottlenecks of Fuka and Matruh while 30 Corps was to maintain contact with the enemy on its front. Thirteenth Corps in the south was to clear up and destroy the enemy in its area.
After passing through the enemy defences, the Division assembled two miles east of Tell el Aqqaqir, a very complicated and difficult movement as formations and units were widely separated and a good many of them were in positions on the battlefield. There was much congestion, with clouds of dust. Fortunately enemy aircraft were unable to take advantage of the wonderful target presented. Throughout the movement the armour and other troops provided a protective screen against any enemy enterprise.
Meanwhile 25 Battalion, relieved at 2 p.m. by two companies of the Black Watch and moving off in the early evening, travelled all night and halted for breakfast near the divisional concentration area.It had been a rough and dusty journey, with many delays and much digging and pushing to extricate vehicles from the many patches of soft sand. The route had been marked by the Divisional Provost Company with diamond signs on iron pickets and with green lights. These diamond signs were destined to show, at about 700 yards’ intervals, the way to Tripoli, 1400 miles to the west.
There were many signs of a defeated enemy in destroyed tanks, guns and vehicles, some of the last still burning, and here and there were groups of prisoners marching east, some under escort, others with large flags and no escort, but controlled by their acceptance of utter defeat. The Italians generally were rather buoyant and anxious to please, the Germans sullen. Salvage parties were busy recovering knocked-out British tanks.
For the move from Fuka, Baggush and onwards 25 Battalion was ordered to pass through the gap in the minefield 13 miles south-south-west of Fuka, and then proceed 22 miles on a bearing practically north-west to the top of the Baggush escarpment. Moving off at 10.45 a.m., the battalion passed through the minefield half an hour later, progress being very slow because of a traffic jam at the gap. Heavy rain commenced to fall early in the afternoon, just as the battalion approached the telephone line four miles south of the escarpment, and continued for the remainder of the day and throughout the night. As will be seen, this rain was to have a very important effect on the operations and for the enemy-was to be literally one of the ‘fortunes of war’.
The day’s journey ended at 7 p.m., eight miles south-west of Baggush and five miles short of the escarpment, when the battalion settled down for the night
The remainder of the Division had spent the morning on the high ground south of Fuka and in the early afternoon moved off to the north-west. Much difficulty was experienced in negotiating the sodden desert which the heavy rain was rapidly transforming into a bog. The Division had instructions to see that the landing grounds in the Baggush area and the coastal strip in the vicinity were clear of the enemy and so available to the RAF; another task was to clear the enemy from between Baggush and Charing Cross (the road junction south-west of Matruh and about 30 miles north-west of 25 Battalion).
Dawn on 7 November found the desert a quagmire after all-night rain; the whole Division was bogged and so, too, were the supply vehicles some miles back. Without petrol, quite apart from the impossible state of the going, the Division could not move. It was a most unpleasant day, the frustration of the high hopes, or indeed of the certainty of cutting the enemy line of retreat, accentuating the gloomy conditions. But Private Hawkins found some humour to relieve the gloom. ‘We had something to grin about,’ wrote Hawkins. ‘With all the trucks potentially bogged, we stood listening to the BBC-“Rommel is in full flight for the Egyptian border with the NZers in hot pursuit”.
By 10th November they had pushed through and crossed minefields to take Mutruha were foodstores were salvaged and trains and ships unloaded at the small port.
The Division (less 6 Brigade) had experienced little difficulty in its advance, the first real resistance being encountered at the formidable Halfaya Pass, which was captured by 21 Battalion in a surprise attack before daybreak on 11 November. The troops moved on to El Agheiha and were fighting in Wadi Matratin Desert by 16th December 1942.
In Rome, one of the finest hotels, the Quirinale, had been transformed into another very popular New Zealand Forces Club. Here conditions were really on luxury lines, and the city had boundless sources of interest. Tours of the City of the Seven Hills were among the many amenities provided free of cost in divisional transport with experienced guides. Leave to Rome was arranged as liberally as possible, and the field ambulances were able to release large quotas of men for day leave. Three-day leave to the lovely island of Ischia was also reinstituted. This wooded island off the Bay of Naples, with its ancient castles and pleasant beaches, provided a place of relaxation from the strain of war conditions.
Mount Vesuvius was climbed on numerous occasions by the members of the staff of 2 General Hospital. From the rim of the crater one looked down into a huge cavity of forbidding appearance, but all around was a panorama of marvellous variety and beauty: to the north-west the city of Naples, and beyond, the Isle of Ischia; then the majestic Bay of Naples, bordered to the southwest by the Sorrento Peninsula and the Isle of Capri. Close to the foot of Vesuvius in the south was both old and new Pompeii, while away to the north and east, across wide plains checkered with cultivated fields and vineyards, extended the rugged Apennines.The Sorrento Peninsula was a popular place for leave for a while, but it was not long before restrictions
were placed on going there. Sorrento was an attractive, straggling village of one main street, meandering happily along craggy cliffs high above the sea. It commanded a superb view of the shimmering Bay of Naples. From there an hour’s trip in a launch took one to the Isle of Capri, with its famous blue grotto and the heights of Anacapri. Farther round the rugged coastline were Amalfi, Ravello, Maiori, and Positano. This last village was built on an inlet, with a tiny, sandy bay
cluttered with half-painted fishing smacks. Houses perched precariously on the cliffs were outwardly unprepossessing but within were spotless and wonderfully cool. Positano had a magical charm as a ‘honeymoon haunt’ for some of the staff of 2 General Hospital, for in this as in other hospitals hardly a month passed but some of its female staff were married.
Advance to Tunisia
The battalion remained in its Sidi Azeiz bivouac till 4 December, spending the interval in training, reorganisation, and recreation. No time was lost in leveling an area for a parade and sports ground. A series of inter-unit rugby, soccer, and hockey matches was played throughout the Division; athletics, baseball, boxing, and wrestling competitions were also organised. As usual, various working parties were required and 25 Battalion sent troops to Bardia to work on the wharves and trucks to carry supplies from Bardia to Tobruk. To ease the difficult supply problem captured Italian rations were issued to the battalion, an unpopular innovation because of the surfeit of macaroni.
Before dawn on the fourth day the carriers rejoined 25 Battalion. There was a very heavy fog when the march was resumed after breakfast. ‘A great sight when things cleared a bit,’ wrote Corporal Wakeling, ‘as a real little army was moving forward over the miles of sand; tanks, trucks, armoured cars, jeeps, ambulances, and guns of all descriptions.’ From further reports it was clear that the enemy was now in full retreat. Unfortunately, the Division was
Some delay ensued while the confusion amongst the vehicles was straightened out. Twenty-fifth Battalion was off its trucks a little after midnight (15 – 16 December) and, with C and D Companies forward and B Company in reserve, moved 2000 yards almost due east and took up a position overlooking the road. At the same time 24 Battalion advanced against the ridge. There was some enemy shelling during the advance but 25 Battalion made no actual contact with the enemy. Before dawn the engineers had laid a minefield on the battalion’s right flank, which was likely to be exposed to tank attack by enemy forces retiring from the east. Captain Matthews, with the battalion carriers, moved towards the coastal road and reported that the enemy in three columns was retiring westwards. Targets on the road were engaged by our artillery.
On 24 Battalion’s front, to the left of 25 Battalion, it was seen, when daylight came, that a ridge 500 yards to the north obscured a view of the road which, instead of being close to the position as expected, was over 3000 yards away. An attempt by 24 Battalion to occupy this ridge was forestalled by enemy tanks. There was also a little enemy activity on a hill to the west of Brigade Headquarters, from which the enemy would gain observation over the transport vehicles of the brigade. This situation was dealt with by the reserve battalion and the artillery.
There was little information available regarding the strength and whereabouts of enemy forces to the east of the Division, though about the time 25 Battalion moved forward to occupy its position, a concentration of enemy vehicles with tanks south-east of Merduma was reported to be moving to the south-west. This caused a stir in the Divisional Administrative Group, which had already moved back ten miles, and caused it to retire a further ten miles to the south-east. Other reports indicated that enemy armoured forces were still to the east of the Division. To meet a possible attack from that quarter, General Freyberg concentrated his tanks in readiness to push in front or to the right of the Division and arranged for 5 Brigade to reduce the very wide gap that existed between it and 6 Brigade.
Enemy columns including tanks were reported on 5 Brigade’s front on the morning of 16 December. From the evidence since available it seems certain that 15 Panzer Division, which was to the east of 2 NZ Division, probed at various points to ascertain the dispositions of the New Zealand forces and then, moving south of 6 Brigade, escaped in a north-westerly direction, between 5 and 6 Brigades. Other enemy columns, including 21 Panzer Division, escaped along the coastal road.
In the early afternoon C Company had the misfortune to lose a truck in the minefield on the battalion’s right flank, Lieutenant May3 and three men (McPhillips,4 Thompson,5 and Woolford6) being injured. About the same time two Germans were brought to Battalion Headquarters. Otherwise all was quiet and only an occasional enemy vehicle was passing along the coastal road in front of 25 Battalion. A little later orders were received to move back to the vehicles and rejoin the brigade en route to the Division ten miles back. Just before the vehicles moved off, a German tank was destroyed by the anti-tank guns attached to the battalion and three Germans, who had abandoned their tank but offered fight, were captured by Major Morrison of D Company. Another German was taken by C Company.
The enemy was now reported to be holding Nofilia, 35 miles to the north-west, and the following morning (17 December) the Division advanced in that direction via the desert route with the intention of passing south of the village and cutting the road beyond. As the battalion passed to the south of Nofilia along the divisional axis, 4 Light Armoured Brigade and the Divisional Cavalry were in action nearby and the men were interested to see men and children from some bedouin tents in the vicinity standing around, apparently wondering what it was all about. After travelling 41 miles in six hours, the battalion halted at 4.30 p.m. about eight miles south-west of Nofilia.
In the meantime 5 Brigade a couple of hours earlier had passed through to the lead and had turned north to endeavour to cut the coastal road about 12 miles west of Nofilia. It encountered considerable opposition from an enemy covering force and took up a position 2500 yards from the road, but was unable to cross the road itself. Sixth Brigade Group occupied positions south-west of the village to assist 4 Light Armoured Brigade to contain the garrison there, and two batteries of 6 Field Regiment provided a screen of guns to guard the brigade against attacks by tanks. Twenty-fifth Battalion established a perimeter defence near where it had halted on the outskirts of the Brigade Group, with D Company (Major Morrison) on the right flank, C Company (Captain Wroth) in rear, and B Company (Captain Wilson) in rear of 6 Field Regiment. A Company (Major Hutchens) was in reserve.
During the night (17 – 18 December) further attempts by 5 Brigade to cut the road failed, and a couple of hours after daylight it was found that the enemy had gone, apparently escaping along the main road and also by a track nearer the coast. According to a captured German officer, the strength of the German garrison at Nofilia had been about 2500 men with four 88-millimetre guns, 32 anti-tank guns, and 32 tanks. Once again the enemy had escaped the trap.
The rapid clearing of various airfields and landing grounds for use by Desert Air Force fighters was again a responsibility of the New Zealand Division, a vital task as the fighters, operating from forward positions, could protect Benghazi and ease the most difficult supply problem. The airfield at Merduma was being cleared by New Zealand engineers, and when it was found that the enemy had gone from Nofilia, two sections of carriers of 25 Battalion under Captain Matthews escorted 8 Field Company to Nofilia airfield for a similar task, returning to the battalion the following day.
A stage had now been reached when it was necessary for Eighth Army to pause for a time while the divisions were brought up to strength and sufficient reserves of ammunition, petrol, stores, and supplies of all kinds accumulated. For this reason a plan for the New Zealanders to seize a gap near the Tamet airfield, 100 miles to the west, was not proceeded with, and after a few days of uncertainty, which affected all units, 25 Battalion was able to settle down for a rest period until 3 January. To guard against any enemy enterprise, 5 Brigade occupied a covering position to the west of Nofilia and the Divisional Cavalry provided a screen on the divisional front.
Four days before Christmas 6 Brigade, with the exception of 24 Battalion which followed a day later, moved about 20 miles to an area astride the main road eight miles north-west of Nofilia, adopting the brigade twenty-four column desert formation before digging in. Twenty-fifth Battalion was north of the road, with 26 Battalion behind and Brigade Headquarters and (later) 24 Battalion to the south of the road. It was a beautifully fine day for this change, which brought the battalion within easy reach of the coast, and all ranks looked forward to a clean-up and then, Christmas. The camp and sports grounds were improved, football was played, and a compulsory bathing parade was held, compulsory, presumably, because the weather was bitterly cold. The men did not enjoy a march to the beach in the afternoon of the 22nd. One comment read:
‘Bitterly cold morning—route march to the beach at 1.30 and after two hours of plodding through mud and slush arrived at the sea wet through with perspiration and mud to our knees. A great dip in the Meddy though a bit on the chilly side. What a march home! Letters.’
The water supply situation at Nofilia was difficult as the enemy had polluted or destroyed the wells, and for a few days, until the engineers had remedied matters, the men were on a very meagre issue, the only available water coming nearly 500 miles by road from Tobruk, via a supply point at Marble Arch. On Christmas Eve the companies marched to the beach and had lunch there before returning to camp where, to the delight of all, a large parcel mail awaited them. Christmas Day was fine but appropriately cold for the fare to come. After a church service in the morning a sports meeting which followed was enlivened by an American pilot, who flew over the battalion with his aircraft upside down and had the men guessing what sort of plane he was flying. The American pilots indulged in a good deal of low-flying over the New Zealanders’ bivouacs: ‘These Yanks will hit a man’s bivvy one of these days,’ wrote one man, ‘as they fly so low and put the breeze up us when we don’t see them coming.’
The men’s Christmas dinner, the third away from home, was held at midday. Great efforts had been made to provide Christmas fare and make the day a memorable one. Excellent fresh white bread, a great luxury in the desert, was provided by the New Zealand Field Bakery, which had been brought up to Nofilia. Stores for the occasion, ordered some months previously, came forward over the hundreds of miles from the Nile Delta in time to be distributed for Christmas, 25 Battalion’s order for beer, cigarettes, and foodstuffs being collected two days previously. New Zealand ASC transport brought up the Christmas mail which, for the whole Division, included 60,000 parcels. A general distribution of a bottle of beer, fifty cigarettes, a National Patriotic Fund parcel (of tinned fruit, cake, and other gifts), and a rum issue was made to every man of the battalion. The dinner itself was impressive and reflected great credit on all concerned in its provision, especially the cooks, who overcame all the difficulties of cooking in the desert and prepared a splendid meal. The menu included turkey, fowl, roast pork, baked and boiled potatoes, peas, apple sauce, plum pudding with sauce, and nuts. Colonel Bonifant visited the men at their meals to wish them the season’s greetings, while the officers waited on their men and had their own meal in the evening.
The men’s evening meal was a very good one, the rum issue which followed it providing just the finishing touch required. Purchases from Regimental Funds and private parcels supplemented the excellent Christmas fare, which was doubly appreciated by men who for months had lived on plain desert rations, often prepared under very difficult conditions. To illustrate what a real achievement it was to bring all these Christmas supplies forward over the great distances involved, General Freyberg, when speaking to one unit said: ‘It would take two tons of petrol to bring three tons of beer from the Delta to Nofilia’.
Rain fell during the evening and Boxing Day was very cold. Work and training were resumed immediately. A landing ground at Sidi Azzab, 40 miles to the west, had to be prepared for use and the three battalions of the brigade sent off that day eleven officers and 300 men under Major Morrison of 25 Battalion to do a week’s construction work there. ‘Normal army rations for the working party were augmented by the gazelle (the N. African antelope) chased and shot by parties of soldiers in light vehicles,’ commented Major Morrison. Throughout Boxing Day the monotony of the usual desert scene was broken by the advance of 7 Armoured Division along the road near the battalion and the long columns of tanks, guns, and vehicles of all kinds made an impressive sight.
Training and recreation filled the last days of December. Parties of men attended the Corps school of mine-clearing and patrolling and a composite platoon represented the battalion in a film of the recent advance which was being produced at Nofilia by the New Zealand Film Unit.
Since the battalion had left Matruh on 20 November there had been few casualties: one man had died of wounds and one officer (Lieutenant May) and five other ranks had been wounded.
Sunday, the third day of the New Year, was most unpleasant. There was a gale on shore and a severe electrical storm a short distance out in the Mediterranean. The few very large drops of rain which fell were insufficient to lay the dust and a cold dust-storm raged. More rain which fell in the afternoon reduced the dust but the wind and low temperatures continued to make conditions very uncomfortable. The following day was even worse, a very cold sandstorm raging as the Division concentrated to the south of Nofilia and 25 Battalion marched (on foot) to the new area, a distance of 17 miles over rough country. During the march and just after midday, General Montgomery watched the troops go by and later addressed all the officers of 6 Brigade Group; he congratulated the brigade on its part in the recent operations, gave an indication of his plans for the future, and showed the greatest confidence in the successful conclusion of the campaign.
Twenty-fifth Battalion remained in the concentration area for four days. Its carriers with full crews then joined the other carriers of the brigade, all under Captain Matthews (25 Battalion), and went back to Nofilia for carriage on transporters to the next destination, the Tamet area about 25 miles west of Sirte.
When the march was resumed some care was taken to prepare for the crossing of the large Wadi Tamet which lay immediately ahead. To prevent congestion the Division moved in blocks at hourly intervals, anti-aircraft guns were sited to cover the route, and fighter cover was asked for. However, no difficulty was experienced, though the sound of bombing and anti-aircraft fire to the north just before the battalion started served as a warning that precautions were necessary even in these desert wastes. The battalion’s vehicles did a good deal of climbing up and down small, steep slopes, but completed the journey of 30 miles in a little less than three and a half hours.
Another heavy air raid was heard the following evening and-again the next morning, 14 January. The column was now in the vicinity of Pilastrino, 30 miles south of Buerat, and ap-proaching the El Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track, beyond which was the enemy defensive line to the south-west of Buerat.
Planning to drive quickly to Tripoli to secure the port as a base. The inland column was now concentrated, ready to cross the Gheddahia–Bu Ngem track in the morning (15 January), and at an early hour the Divisional Cavalry crossed the road while 6 Brigade Group in rear approached it slowly. It was a fairly quiet day for 25 Battalion, which moved at dawn when the artillery in front was in action against enemy positions, and only nine miles were covered, the men then watching the artillery duel. A move was made early in the afternoon but was halted by a tank battle some distance ahead, a few of the very unpopular 88-millimetre high-velocity shells landing amongst the battalion’s vehicles without effect. Late in the afternoon 25 Battalion crossed the Bu Ngem track and shortly afterwards halted for the night. C Company (Wroth) was sent forward to join the front of 26 Battalion, which was providing a defensive screen for the laager area of the Greys, Divisional Cavalry, and forward guns of the artillery. Some very stony country was passed and after crossing the Bir Dufan–Beni Ulid road, 25 Battalion was on the roughest piece of desert it had met for some time; it consisted mostly of large rocks and the column was soon held up 11 miles north of Beni Ulid, no further move being made that day. Small green valleys with a few trees dotted about were to be seen occasionally and were a welcome relief from the drab desert.
Now 30 miles south-east of Tarhuna, General Montgomery had made it very clear that the very difficult supply situation made it impossible to accept any delay in the capture of Tripoli (40 miles north-west of Tarhuna).
There was something of the atmosphere of a race for Tripoli between 51 Division on the coast, 7 Armoured Division in the centre, and the New Zealand Division on the left, while 22 Armoured Brigade, also near the coast, was well placed. A route down the escarpment, 12 miles south-west of Tarhuna, was discovered, and the leading troops of 2 NZ Division entered the plain on 21 January. In a series of short moves and long halts 25 Battalion, near the rear of the Division, covered 16 miles in thirteen hours, to be within ten miles of Tarhuna. There was a slight frost that night which caused ice to form on the men’s groundsheets, but the morning sun soon asserted itself to the great comfort of the troops.
The battalion had another long, slow move the following day, changing early to three-column formation because of the rough ground, and then to single file to pass through Tazzoli. After travelling 36 miles in fifteen hours, 25 Battalion halted for the night on the coastal plain an hour before midnight. The country traversed during the day was a little more attractive, with a dahlia-like weed and patches of grass giving some resemblance to a green landscape. A few Arabs with their donkeys added interest to the scene; small white houses were dotted among the valleys and an occasional large building, also white, could be seen on the hills. As the battalion passed through an Italian village, the men found the people quite friendly but otherwise unimpressive as they stood on the roadside and asked for cigarettes.
During the morning of the 23rd January 1943 25th battalion prepared to enter Tripoli, thus completing in 80 days, the dessert journey of 1400 miles from Alamein.
25 Battalion formed into three columns, but no move took place. On the previous day 5 Brigade had been held up by the enemy at Azizia, 14 miles to the north-west, but found that the village had been vacated during the night. During the morning British troops had entered Tripoli, and 5 Brigade reached the city in the afternoon, thus completing in eighty days the desert journey of 1400 miles from Alamein. While British and New Zealand troops occupied the town, 7 Armoured Division continued the pursuit.
In the afternoon General Freyberg and a party of senior officers of the Division (which included Brigadier Gentry and 6 Brigade’s Staff Captain) had a very narrow escape when their cars ran into a close ambush while on reconnaissance near Bianchi, 25 miles south-west of Tripoli. Gentry’s driver was wounded while trying to turn the car, and later died, and three other men were wounded. The incident emphasised the necessity for an adequate escort for reconnaissance and other parties entering territory recently occupied by the enemy, a necessity that does not appear to have been sufficiently realised from time to time throughout the war.
The occupation of Tripoli proceeded smoothly. The civilians gave no trouble, the few who were on the streets appearing to be friendly, but most stayed indoors.
In the morning following the capture of Tripoli, 25 Battalion in single column moved along the tarsealed road through Azizia to its allotted area near Giordani. For seven miles to the north of Azizia the road was lined with gum trees, presenting a very pleasant picture, and from the Italian colonies all round families were out watching the troops and, inevitably, asking for cigarettes. The cultivated belt on the Tripoli plain was a striking and very attractive contrast to the desert. By New Zealand standards the country could not be described as very fertile, but given water it would grow almost anything. Starved by months in the barren desert of the sight of green grass, trees, and the like, the men revelled in the change, and the ample supply of very fine water was the champagne of the occasion.
A tremendous afforestation scheme, covering hundreds of thousands of acres over the last decade or two, was the most outstanding feature. Everywhere, eucalyptus and pine trees had been planted annually along the roads, on vacant desert between settlements, and along boundaries. The value of trees in a treeless, sandy country was manifest. In the battalion’s bivouac area the young children playing nearby and gathering round at meal times greatly interested the men after their long isolation from any form of home life, and the cooks gave the children a little fruit salad, cottage pie, and other titbits, to their great delight.
Another change of scene occurred on 2 February when 25 Battalion moved to the brigade’s new area near Suani Ben Adem, 14 miles south of Tripoli. It was a most pleasant camp site, situated amongst acacia, gum, and fruit trees. Here the battalion carried out smartening-up drill and then took part in a brigade parade, in preparation for a divisional review and address on 4 February by Mr Winston Churchill. At the review Mr Churchill, in the uniform of an air commodore and accompanied by high-ranking generals, addressed the troops in his own inimitable style and made a deep impression.
On the 11th, twenty-fifth Battalion took over the duties of 5 Camerons and was accommodated in the Law Courts building and in and around the Governor’s Palace. Five guards of a total strength of 1 officer, 17 NCOs, and 51 men were mounted, two of the more interesting posts being those on the wine factory and the brewery. Referring to the local wine one man wrote: ‘In Tripoli the men first made contact with the species of high explosive known coloquially as “plonk”, a vicious type of red wine. Casualties were many but none fatal.’
Late the first night wharf duties were taken over in heavy rain and a high wind which caused the sea to break over the mole and made the work hazardous. Throughout the month the battalion provided guards and working parties on shore, lighters, and ships, both by day and night, the total number of men varying from 100 to 300 daily. Sudanese troops took over most of the guard duties on the second day, and 25 Battalion guards were reduced to one officer and eight men, the battalion war diary containing the entry: ‘… and the petrol dump guard discontinued. An officer was maintained on the wine factory.’
The working parties had a march of two miles to the docks, where they unloaded a wide variety of items including 44- gallon drums of petrol, rations, ammunition, 500-pound bombs, and medical supplies. A satirical comment on this work by ‘some person or persons unknown’ went the rounds of the battalion: ‘The Kiwis could unload more in three months than the Regulars in twelve, but as they “acquired” more in three months than they unloaded in twelve, the score was about even.’
24th February 1943
‘Some nights we would wake with the ground practically jumping under us and a noise as if all hell were let loose. It would be one of the frequent air raids and we were inside the concentric rings of guns of increasing calibre which sent up a devastating cone of fire…. With the rest of the Bn we worked on the unloading of ships—sometimes by day, more often it seemed by night and on several occasions long stretches of both. We weren’t so — keen on it at night … for raids were always in the offing and it wasn’t particularly funny lying between a couple of tram lines while bombs screamed down and the guns barked thunderously and spewed shrapnel which had to come down. Nor were such raids altogether very frightening; the spectacle of it all was so big and awesome, like some super drama in relation to which one was a mere spectator. It was like that the night our lads were unloading the three bottomless holds of a Liberty ship on to lighters, in the middle of the harbour. At the forward hold, bombs and shells came up in the slings and were gingerly lowered into their lighter. Amidships, away down below, the lads packed cases and tins and bags of provisions on to the slings…. At the stern hold toiled the Aks-Aks, half the team down in the hold and half in the lighter, handling tins and 40-gal drums of petrol, with Tommies working the winches. Then it came upon us—guns and bombs, roaring planes and shrapnel plopping everywhere. Smartly out of the hold scrambled the boys and we strained our gutses out to get a heavy tarpaulin over the hatches to keep away from the petrol any stray hot bit of shrapnel. Down on the lighter the lads just sat down on the drums of benzine until it was all over, which was half-an-hour later. Night was well ended when we were told to heave to.’
The city was disappointing. The buildings were badly battered and the harbour seemed full of sunken ships. Most of the city had been destroyed and the greater part of the civil population had been evacuated. Food was unprocurable by the troops, and indeed its purchase was forbidden because there was insufficient food for civilians. There was evidence, however, of the former beauty of the city:
‘The esplanade along the waterfront, lined on the landward side with ultra-modern buildings and on the seaward side by a beautiful concrete balustrade, the road itself a double avenue of splendid palms all set in flower gardens, is easily the finest I’ve ever seen.’
The coming attack was expected on 4 March in the Medenine area, and 2 NZ Division was ordered forward to be in position in that locality by the afternoon of 3 March.
Sixth Brigade left Suani Ben Adem for Medenine, about 160 miles to the west, in the morning of 2 March. Travelling throughout the night, 25 Battalion reached Medenine the following morning. The greater part of the journey was over the asphalted coastal road which, although cratered in many places, provided easy going, but the 50 miles of road beyond Ben Gardane was badly potholed. Burnt-out vehicles, road demolitions, and marked minefields were familiar signs of the enemy’s retreat. Headlights were permitted as far as Ben Gardane, 25 miles west of the Tunisia–Tripoli border. It was a tiring journey, very cold, with the men cramped for room, and it was a relief to reach the position.
The brigade was in reserve on high ground to the north-east of Medenine. The troops stood to arms at a quarter to six next morning (4 March). The day was beautifully fine after a chilly night that had been disturbed a little by Desert Air Force bombers passing overhead and by the crash of their bombs in the distance. A field of oats of two acres accommodated part of 25 Battalion, which enjoyed a fairly quiet day. In the late afternoon there was some excitement when about twenty aircraft were manoeuvring overhead and the anti-aircraft guns were very active; three aircraft were shot down and, after much argument as to their identity, it was learnt that they were German.
During the night while the companies practised night operations, fire from the artillery nearby added a realistic touch. Extensive movements of enemy tanks and transport reported by air during the day had pointed to the possibility of an attack the following day, but all remained quiet though small parties of enemy infantry, transport, and armoured cars were seen.
For 25 Battalion and the remainder of 6 Brigade Group in their somewhat retired positions, 6 March opened with a rumble of guns. Though only two shells fell in the battalion’s position, bursting near B Company without effect. There was also much air activity, including enemy dive-bombing, which had the men moving rapidly into their slit trenches throughout the day; little damage was done.
For troops holding the forward positions the picture was different. About 6 a.m. fairly heavy enemy shelling commenced and for the next hour and a half enemy transport, guns, and tanks advanced eastwards from the hills west and south-west of Medenine. Orders had been issued to withhold fire until tanks were at point-blank range, and it was remarkable to see the enemy advance proceeding while the Allied guns remained silent.
About 1000 enemy infantry and forty tanks advanced against Pt 270, an important tactical feature about five miles west of 25 Battalion. It was met by devastating artillery fire and repulsed with heavy casualties. There was considerable air activity at dawn, and an Italian pilot who had been shot down landed near 25 Battalion.
To deal with the Mareth line General Montgomery decided to attack in the coastal sector and at the same time carry out a wide turning movement around the enemy’s inland flank. New Zealand Corps comprising 2 NZ Division, 8 Armoured Brigade, King’s Dragoon Guards, 64 Medium Regiment, RA, and General Leclerc’s (Free French) force was to undertake the turning operation.
From 11 to 17 March the various groups of New Zealand Corps were moving by a circuitous route to an assembly area about 50 miles south-south-west of Medenine. This route ran through Ben Gardane, 43 miles to the south-east. Twenty-fifth Battalion followed a little later in the day, halting for a few hours at a staging area about 70 miles away, and then, travelling throughout the night, reached its area another 70 miles farther on a little after daybreak. It was cold and dusty in the vehicles and, as no headlights were permitted, the journey was slow and the driving difficult, with the vehicles constantly opening out and closing.
The orders required that all precautions were to be taken to avoid observation and identification during the move. Arrangements were made for wireless deception and silence, the fernleaf signs on vehicles were obliterated, and shoulder titles and hat badges removed. After arriving at the assembly area in the morning of 12 March vehicles were to move as little as possible during daylight, and then only at reduced speeds to avoid raising dust; no fires or lights were permitted after dusk; no tents were to be pitched and bivouacs were not to be erected before 6 p.m.
In the late afternoon of 12 March the appearance of an enemy reconnaissance aircraft caused some anxiety. While the remainder of the New Zealand Corps was assembling, 25 Battalion continued to carry out such training as was possible under the restrictions imposed. Conferences and tactical exercises without troops were held for the officers. A plaster model of the area where operations were expected to take place was used to explain the overall plan, first to the officers and then to the senior NCOs, so that before the battalion left the area, the leaders of all ranks had been well briefed and the men had a good understanding of the impending operation. Air photographs of the enemy position at Tebaga Gap became available after a few days and were a very valuable aid to realistic discussions and planning.
On the 17th a strong, cold wind with much dust, followed by rain the next day, made conditions very unpleasant. ‘Very cold and wet night. Packed ready for a move but no move. Real winter’s day’ read an entry in a diary. The battalion carriers rejoined a couple of hours after midnight, titles, badges, and vehicle signs were replaced, and at dusk on 19 March 6 Brigade Group resumed the advance on the Tebaga Gap. The wind had eased and the sky had cleared as 25 Battalion closed to night-visibility distance and moved off over rough, scrubby country abounding in sand drifts and wadis which gave the drivers some difficulty. The Brigade Group was following the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry and armour at the head of the Corps until the early morning, 25 Battalion halting for the night about 2 a.m. some ten miles east of Ksar Rhilane and 40 miles south of the Tebaga Gap.
After breakfast, as the battalion was on its way once more, artillery fire in the distance dispelled any illusion there may have been that in these wide desert spaces the war was far away. The march continued slowly all day, over rough country at times, crossing many dry creek beds which forced the columns to converge on occasions. Towards evening American Warhawk aircraft attacked but the battalion was not involved, and after travelling about 30 miles it halted just after dark. Some distance ahead artillery in action could be seen.
21st March 1943
The Gap was a defile about four miles wide, with high hills to the south-east and north-west. The road through it gave access through El Hamma to Gabes on the coast, 30 miles to the north-west of the coastal end of the Mareth line and about the same distance from the Gap. Allied troops passing through the Gap would therefore be a grave menace to the enemy holding the Mareth position.
His defences ran north-west across the Gap, following generally the line of the old Roman Wall, which the passage of centuries with their countless sand-laden winds had reduced to an archæological curiosity, a mere two-foot wall of rubble in many places. A few hundred yards in front of the wall, that is, on its south-western side, and almost in the middle of the Gap was Pt 201, a defended outpost; a minefield extended across the front and barbed-wire entanglements protected part of the defences. Further works to the north-east gave some depth to the position.
The attack was to be made by 26 Battalion on the right and 25 Battalion on the left, the inter-battalion boundary running north and south through the centre of the objective. A start line 3500 yards from the objective was selected. On the battalions’ leaving the start line at 9.30 p.m., the artillery would open fire on the enemy forward positions about a mile away, the fire remaining there for twenty-one minutes and finishing with one round of smoke per gun. The fire would then lift 300 yards and after one minute lift again, and continue on Pt 201 at the rate of one round per gun per minute as a guide for the advancing infantry.
The infantry rate of advance was to be 100 yards in one and a half minutes as far as the enemy forward positions and thereafter 100 yards in two minutes. The axis of advance to the centre of the start line would be lit with the usual provost lights, ending with two blue lights. A section of engineers was attached to each of the two battalions to clear lanes through the minefields, 2 Section 8 Field Company being with 25 Battalion.
A slight hitch in placing the lights on the axis caused Brigadier Gentry to delay the start half an hour. Meanwhile, in the early afternoon, 25 Battalion had moved forward for two hours over a track from which the loose sand had been removed by bulldozers, and halted in desert formation while tanks and artillery were engaging the enemy. It was during this halt that the brigade order for the attack was received, and at 5.30 p.m. The battalion advanced another two miles, debussed, and marched about half a mile to its forming-up position. During the move the battalion was machine-gunned by a low-flying Ju88 but suffered no casualties or damage.
It was bright moonlight when at 10 p.m. 25 Battalion crossed the start line with two companies forward, C Company (Norman) on the right and A Company (Matthews) on the left. D Company (Morrison) was in the centre behind the leading companies, with Battalion Headquarters following and B Company (Wilson) in reserve in rear. After advancing about 1500 yards without opposition, the first three companies and Battalion Headquarters passed through the minefield and over a deep anti-tank ditch with little difficulty, though heavily laden men had some trouble scrambling up the steep sides of the ditch. At this stage C Company, losing direction a little, deviated to the right and, encountering a double-apron wire entanglement while under heavy small-arms fire, overcame the obstacle and captured its first objective; this was a strongly prepared position which was actually in 26 Battalion’s area. Many Italians were captured.
The final objective, Pt 201, lay about 2000 yards ahead, and after reorganising C Company continued the advance. The enemy appeared to be taken completely by surprise and the company, still well to the right, secured the south-eastern slopes of Pt 201, capturing many Italians, including a colonel, and much war material. C Company then reorganised to meet a possible counter-attack; its casualties were three killed and ten wounded.
On 21st March 1943 Pt John Green was badly wounded. On 7th April 1943 he was admitted to 6 field ambulance and transferred to the X(ii) list as a battle casualty [STI].
A Company continued the advance on the left of C Company and the two leading platoons. Drawn away to the right in trying to keep touch with C Company, worked their way forward to the wire entanglement and under sweeping fire cut gaps. Charging through with shouts that were heard by Brigadier Gentry 2000 yards back (and which gave him his first indication that the attack was going well), the platoons swept through all opposition.
The advance continued until it was discovered that the battalion was about 400 yards to the right of its objective. A few unsuspecting enemy callers and escapees were captured while the company was digging itself in. There were many prisoners and much material, including three field guns, three trucks, and many medium machine guns. A considerable quantity of rations was found and appropriated, the German bread being especially relished as a fine change from hard biscuits.
D Company (Morrison) followed behind until the minefield was reached, when it came forward on the left of A Company. The enemy then opened fire with machine guns and 20-millimetre Bredas. The wire entanglement gave some trouble as a Bangalore torpedo failed to explode, causing delay while several gaps were cut by hand. All three platoons suffered casualties. The company then charged through the wire and attacked the first enemy positions, which were quickly overcome by the use of bayonets and grenades. No. 17 Platoon captured a Breda gun and killed the crew; 18 Platoon charged and captured a small field gun and some prisoners and then advanced half-left to cover the company and battalion left flank. There it surprised a number of the enemy near several vehicles, which it immobilised, and knocked out some machine guns, capturing a great many prisoners in deep dugouts near a couple of small hills and in a wadi. Crossing the wadi, the platoon took more machine guns and prisoners on the flat ground beyond.
The capture of the final objective, Pt 201, was completed about 11.30 p.m. and, with the exception of 12 Platoon, B Company took up a position at the rear of the battalion on the reverse or southern slopes of the hill.
The anti-tank platoon also struck trouble in the minefield, as Private Hawkins relates:
‘Waiting on the starting line we all took good nips and joked and the show looked fine. Half-an-hour later it was just merry hell as well-dug-in Bredas went “glug-glug-glug-glug” and red-hot tracer shells skimmed the ground; as LMG fire sprayed the area with illuminated death; as S-mines4, telemines, and mortars went off on all sides. Our model show had developed into a nightmare.
‘Then suddenly it was all over. D Coy … had worked around the flank and appeared silhouetted on the hill-top behind the enemy, whence, in the most thrilling sight of my life, they delivered a rapid and overwhelming attack on the key positions. Soon Hill 201 was in the hands of the Battalion. Support groups came up and the position was consolidated.’
During the many hours of daylight preceding the attack the men lay concealed in their slit trenches. The casualties since the attack on 21–22 March were one officer and twenty-two other ranks; of these, three other ranks were killed, one died of wounds, one officer and eighteen other ranks were wounded.
The absence of any increase in the enemy artillery fire, except against the newly captured positions of 21 Battalion, was evidence of the success of the measures taken for concealment, though perhaps some credit should go to the windy and dusty conditions which reduced visibility, especially as the enemy had the wind, and therefore the dust, in his face.
Twenty-fifth Battalion’s position on Pt 201 was under enemy observation from the high ground, particularly that to the north-west. It was well prepared against tank attack by the siting before dawn of three 17-pounder, ten 6-pounder, and three 2-pounder anti-tank guns for all-round defence, and in addition was covered by such of the Corps artillery as had been moved within range.
As dawn broke, 6 Platoon of 2 MG Company attached to 25 Battalion, which had just dug positions on the northern slopes of Pt 201, was fired on by 47-millimetre guns situated on a ridge 1500 yards away. This caused an immediate reaction by the machine-gunners, whose heavy fire forced the enemy to retire; they also engaged enemy vehicles at long range. Later in the morning a Crusader tank on occupying the ridge destroyed one of the 47-millimetre guns and secured the surrender of about 200 Italians.
The battalion mortars were active after dawn against any targets which presented themselves; a mortar section with D Company silenced four field guns at 950 yards range, causing thirty-eight Italians to come over and surrender; anti-tank guns at 2600 yards were silenced and various machine guns were fired on. Mortars with A Company were also engaged with machine guns and those with C Company fired on infantry in positions to their front. The machine guns and mortars were particularly valuable at this stage, when the artillery was moving forward and was required to conserve ammunition for vital tasks.
Exposed to observation as it was, 25 Battalion during the day experienced a good deal of artillery fire, suffering ten casualties, including Captain Matthews, the commander of A Company, who was wounded. The New Zealand Corps artillery responded briskly to the enemy guns and its counter-battery bombardments were very effective. Crossings over the anti-tank ditch and through the gaps in the minefield were widened and improved during the early hours to assist the advance of the armour. As early as 2.30 a.m. a squadron of Sherman tanks under command of 6 Brigade commenced to move forward through the gap behind 25 Battalion, following the carriers but ahead of the other supporting arms of the battalion. At first light an armoured regiment advanced through the obstacles and was followed by the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry. Enemy artillery was quickly in position on the high ground on both sides of the Gap, and heavy fire from 88-millimetre guns at long range and from other anti-tank guns at shorter ranges prevented the armour from pushing through and exploiting success as had been planned. Little effort appears to have been made to exploit success.
From their elevated position on Pt 201 the men of 25 Battalion had a grandstand view of all that occurred. They watched the RAF bomb and machine-gun the enemy positions and saw the first Spitfire and Hurricane tank-buster aircraft in action; this was most impressive though some of the first targets were ill-chosen. The armoured regiment and the Divisional Cavalry did not get more than 2500 yards beyond Pt 201, though they were collecting prisoners throughout the morning and were engaged at times in hull-down actions with enemy tanks, which soon appeared in increasing numbers. Several small ineffective enemy air attacks took place during the day.
At 7.30 p.m. (22 March) 6 Brigade was to take over from the armour the responsibility for the front, and by that hour the two forward battalions after dusk were to straighten the front. Twenty-fifth Battalion was to move its right flank farther to the right (or east) and swing its left forward a little. Twenty-sixth Battalion on the right was to advance level with 25 Battalion, but its right flank was to be refused or swung back to the south-east. Except for some fighting on the right of 26 Battalion, the new front was established without difficulty, 25 Battalion moving B Company (Captain Hewitt) forward and farther west on the left flank of A Company, the foremost defended localities of the battalion being generally a little short of the Roman Wall.
Wakeling said in his diary:
‘Mar 23. Stand-to at daylight as our tanks moving forward. Shelled consistently all morning as bty of our 25-pdrs moved in close behind us. Coy formed up again so went back with Capt Hewitt. Plenty of shelling off-and-on during the afternoon and the total of prisoners around the 2000 mark. Moved forward about 1000 yards at 7 and dug in.’
By the morning of 23 March the enemy had reinforced his position with tanks and infantry and was using tanks defensively to provide a screen for his guns. Early in the morning the British armour had attempted to infiltrate the enemy positions on the right or eastern flank but had met with severe artillery and anti-tank fire and had made little progress. During the morning 25 Battalion’s position was bombed on three occasions by enemy aircraft and once by the RAF, all with no effect. In the afternoon ground strips and smoke were used to direct the RAF to the enemy positions. The battalion ‘had a large V of cut-down kerosene tins burning all night to direct ‘planes, right next to us,’ wrote Captain Webster (A Company). ‘This was the first time the Battalion had been in charge of one of these guides and were not too happy about it as it was in full view of the Hun but he never wasted a shell on it.’ Throughout the day there was considerable artillery activity on both sides, including counter-battery exchanges.
After dark 24 Battalion occupied a position on the left of 25 Battalion, extending the front along the general line of the Roman Wall to a point about 3600 yards north-west of Pt 201. The armour, which had moved over to the left flank where the ground was more suitable, advanced slowly the next morning and the artillery, concentrating on any targets that presented themselves, seemed to be gaining the ascendancy. Enemy aircraft on three occasions again dropped bombs near the battalion, again with no effect, and one aircraft was seen to be shot down. By nightfall tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade had secured high ground on the left, 4000 yards north-west of the battalion’s forward positions, and a Divisional Cavalry patrol was 2500 yards north of the battalion.
On the other flank a French force had infiltrated the enemy positions on the high ground south-east of 6 Brigade and was attacking the following day to link up with the right flank of the brigade. In the late afternoon of 24 March the appearance of a lorry, preceded by a motor-cycle, on the El Hamma– Kebili road, and moving steadily towards the New Zealand position, intrigued the men of 25 Battalion on the forward slopes of Pt 201. Unfortunately, as so frequently happened on such occasions, someone—this time the New Zealand machine-gunners—opened fire at a range of 2000 yards and so prevented the much closer view the expectant infantrymen had hoped to obtain. The following morning bombs were dropped at the rear of the battalion’s position by an enemy fighter-bomber and during the day there was the usual shelling, which the men were beginning to find very irksome. No doubt the enemy infantry felt the same about the shelling they were receiving, probably much more so.
The enemy gave every indication of his intention to hold his positions stubbornly, as well he might in view of the danger to the Mareth line, and it was obvious that a full-scale attack would be necessary to dislodge him. The British frontal attack on the coastal sector of the line on 20–21 March had failed, and this had caused General Montgomery to decide to hold the enemy in that sector and to make the decisive attack on the New Zealand Corps front. Headquarters 10 Corps and 1 Armoured Division were ordered to reinforce that front with a view to breaking through without delay. Very heavy air support had been arranged for the operation, which was finally
Tebaga Gap, 26 – 27 March 1943
timed to commence at 4 p.m. on 26 March. At that hour the New Zealand Corps was to advance astride the main road for a distance of 4500 yards to the north-east of the Roman Wall; 1 Armoured Division would follow up the advance and at 7.20 p.m. would pass through New Zealand Corps and concentrate beyond the Corps’ objective by dark. At 11.15 p.m., on the moon rising, 1 Armoured Division would advance astride the main road and capture El Hamma. Immediately the armour had passed through, New Zealand Corps would, with the greatest possible despatch, destroy the enemy in the hills on either side of the Gap so that it could rejoin the Armoured Division in the Hamma-Gabes area without delay. The attack by New Zealand Corps was to be made on a two-brigade front, 5 Brigade on the right and 6 Brigade on the left, with 8 Armoured Brigade superimposed over the whole front. The attack would be supported by the whole of the Corps artillery, reinforced by two field regiments and one medium regiment of 10 Corps. A creeping barrage was to be fired, with timed concentrations on known enemy positions and batteries. Eighth Armoured Brigade during the attack was to move in advance of the infantry and at 4 p.m. would cross the start line, which in the centre was about 600 yards north-east of the Roman Wall, followed at 4.15 p.m. by 5 and 6 Brigades.
The rate of advance to the first objective, 2000 yards from the start line, was to be 100 yards in one minute, and to the second objective (a further 2700 yards) 100 yards in two minutes. There was to be no pause on the first objective. The Divisional Cavalry in support of 6 Brigade would move north-east along the foothills on the western flank and assist in mopping up.
On the capture of the final objective 5 Brigade was to exploit along the high ground to the east while 6 Brigade completed the mopping-up of enemy pockets in the foothills to the west. Before the attack several adjustments in the dispositions of the forward troops were necessary. On the night before, 5 Brigade was to take over the existing forward defence line of 6 Brigade and was to capture Pt 184, a dominating feature on the right flank, which completely overlooked the start line.
Twenty-sixth Battalion was to be relieved by the Maori Battalion and would then take over the 25 Battalion area to the east of the road and forward of Pt 201, to 1000 yards beyond the Roman Wall. Twenty-fourth Battalion was to remain on the left flank as far as the road, with its forward line level with 26 Battalion.
Twenty-fifth Battalion, on relief by 26 Battalion, was to relieve a battalion of the Buffs on the left flank. For the operation 25 Battalion was allotted one machine-gun platoon and those anti-tank guns of 33 Anti-Tank Battery already supporting it, and was also to take over 57 Anti-Tank Battery, RA, from the Buffs.
All these preparations were to be completed in darkness and movement after dawn was to be restricted to a minimum to prevent the enemy discovering the start line dispositions. However, 25 Battalion moved over to the left flank in the early afternoon of 25 March and relieved the Buffs as arranged, a strong wind and a good deal of dust reducing enemy observation. Only light shelling was experienced during the move.
In the very early hours of the 26th, 21 Battalion was firmly established on Pt 184 and the other battalions then moved to their allotted positions, though a company of the Maori Battalion could not reach the start line by dawn and so dug in a thousand yards short of it. The tanks also moved up in darkness into wadis and behind spurs ready to advance through the infantry in the afternoon.
On 6 Brigade’s front the attack was to be made by 24 Battalion. There were two objectives: one, the high ground 1000 yards ahead, and the other a wadi another thousand yards farther on. From its position on rising ground on the left flank, 25 Battalion was to support the attack with observed fire and also assist the Divisional Cavalry in mopping up on that flank. The battalion was also to be prepared to advance to the line of the final objective on the left of 24 Battalion, a diversionary operation to widen the front of attack and so reduce concentration of fire against that battalion. It was to be supported by overhead fire from 1 MG Company, which had joined 25 Battalion the previous night.
Punctually at the arranged time, 3.30 p.m., the Allied air attack on enemy positions and gun emplacements began and the tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade moved from their concealed positions towards the Roman Wall on their way to the start line. After half an hour’s air attack the guns opened fire and the tanks, followed by carriers, crossed the start line and commenced their advance.
From their elevated positions about 3000 yards west of the left flank of the first objective, 25 Battalion saw the first wave of the fighter-bomber attack sweep low across the enemy position, shooting up everything in sight, a most impressive display. The battalion’s position was also strafed, causing one casualty. Earlier in the afternoon a United States pilot had baled out of his burning aircraft and landed in the battalion area, where he was joined by another pilot on his way to the rear. One Spitfire pilot, shot down just prior to the attack, remained with the battalion for the operation; much amusement was caused later on his remarking that he would rather do ten crashes than take part in another ‘ground show’.
The leading troops of the attacking battalions crossed the start line fifteen minutes after the barrage opened and followed the tanks and carriers towards the first objective. Seventeen minutes later, 25 Battalion advanced on its diversionary and mopping-up role. The battalion had two companies forward and two in support, C Company on the right supported by B Company, and A Company on the left supported by D Company.
C Company (Captain Norman) encountered heavy machine-gun and rifle fire and sent two sections forward under the covering fire of the remainder of the company. The sections advanced to an enemy position on a spur in line with the first objective of 24 Battalion and about 2000 yards out from its left flank, and, with a spirited attack with the bayonet, captured the position. The enemy immediately behind the spur retaliated, however, with small-arms fire and hand grenades and forced the sections back to take cover. From there the two sections inflicted many casualties on the enemy with rifle fire, resulting after dark in fifty men coming over and surrendering. C Company then moved up and occupied the enemy position, capturing fourteen heavy machine guns and so emphasising the great value of the operation to 24 Battalion. C Company lost four men killed and six wounded.