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Service in the Queen's Bays
1942 - 1943 - 1944 | North Africa/Italy
My Grandfather, Harry Ranson, served in the Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Guards) during World War II. It wasn’t until 1942 that he was ended up in The Bays, prior to that he was driving lorries for the army, from Mum’s memory, and may have been in the RASC (to be confirmed when I receive his Military Records, which should arrive in the next 6 months). He missed El Alamein, but was involved in the left-hook at Mareth driving with 3 Troop, C Squadron. His tank was destroyed and he was the only survivor, this was mentioned in To War with the Bays by Jack Merewood, although Jack did get it wrong when he said that none of the crew survived:
We could see El Hamma ahead now. Between us and the village were trees and dense undergrowth. We trundled slowly and cautiously forward, our troop and No. 3 Troop in the lead. One of their tanks, commanded by Corporal Jim Nolan, was to our left and slightly ahead; I could see it through my periscope.
Then the quiet was suddenly shattered by a terrific bang. Anti-tank guns hidden in the trees ahead opened fire. I saw Jim's tank hit and it immediately burst into flames. He and his turret crew baled out, all three of them on fire. They ran about screaming ... and all died. The other two crew members never got out of the tank. (To War With The Bays: Chapter 32: Battle of the Mareth Line)
Grandad’s fellow crew members died and were buried in North Africa; Corporal George James (Jim) Nolan, Trooper Maurice Newton and Trooper Reginald Smith are all buried at the SFAX WAR CEMETARY, Nolan and Newton are beside each other. The fourth crew member, Trooper Reginald Frederick Bratby is memorialized on the MEDJEZ-EL-BAB MEMORIAL.
Grandad gets another mention in Jack’s book:
Our squadron was due to go back into action now but B Squadron was sent instead, so we weren't unhappy about that.
Some of us went into Forli. The town had only just been taken and was practically deserted, though there wasn't much damage to the buildings. There was a canteen but very little else. On the way back the driver ran the lorry into a ditch, and we had a walk of about a mile to the squadron.
It continued to rain, and for the first and only time ever, we were issued with gumboots. 'Not before time' was the general comment.
We weren't far from the front line, and could see and hear the battle for Faenza. 9 December: 'A barrage been going on all night, and what a barrage. We can see the guns flashing all along the plains. Infantry about a mile from Faenza. In the evening came the news that we were moving in the morning, but without tanks. Taking over A Squadron other side of river. As Dave and others going on a few days leave tomorrow I have to stay here.'
The towns of Rimini, Cesena, Forli, Faenza, Bologna and Modena are in a line along the foot of the Apennines, the mountains being to the west, and to the east the wide flat plain of the Po Valley. This was the line the fighting was following.
Next day all leave was cancelled, and the squadron left in lorries, leaving tanks behind, we're coming back for them some day. After journey over terrible roads, had lunch then transferred to Bren carriers which took us as far as they could get.'
Our troop was to take over the tanks of an A Squadron troop, so we left the Bren carriers and had a walk of about three miles along a track ahead, in places ankle deep in mud. We were taking over these tanks because some of them were so bogged down they were unable to move.
11 December: 'Last night we had a terrible walk. Done about two miles then Colin cracked up, said he couldn't go on, an extreme case of "shell-happiness".'
Colin just broke down and was almost in hysterics. Sid and I volunteered to take him back to the Bren carriers, while the rest of the troop waited. With Colin's arms around our shoulders we squelched our way back along the track. Another driver was there, 'Busty' Ranson, so we left Colin, and Busty came with us to take his place.
Once more, along with him, we trudged through the mud to rejoin the troop. It was extremely heavy going. There were scattered farms in the area, some occupied by German troops, and as it was now dark we half expected to end up as prisoners, but we kept to the track, and at 1 a.m. finally reached the farm we were bound for.
We had made it to a big barn, half-filled with hay. The New Zealand infantry were here, and the farm was shelled regularly during the night. When it came light we saw a number of bodies in the field outside, three or four Maoris and a Rhodesian with a huge piece of shrapnel embedded in his head.
Some of the surrounding farms were occupied by our own troops, but it was difficult to keep in contact with them. That morning a patrol of four men had been sent out on reconnaissance but they never came back. They must have gone to the wrong farm and had either been killed or taken prisoner.
About 200 yards up the field in front of us one of the A Squadron tanks was hiding from the Germans against the wall of a barn. Dave had gone up there the night before and relieved the tank commander. Tonight I had to go, taking three men with me to relieve the crew. My diary I think, puts it mildly, when it says that this was a 'pretty hair-raising experience'.
In the dark Haley, 'Lofty' Crisp, Busty Ranson and myself prepared for the ordeal. We crawled up the field at the side of a hedge. Here it was grassy, and though wet there was little mud. We had to go slowly, because although we knew in which direction the tank lay, we couldn't see it, and didn't want to suffer the same fate as the earlier patrol.
We'd crawled about 100 yards, then I whispered to the others to stay there. I was going to go on alone; if I didn't come back they had to return to the barn and report me missing. I crawled on, and then to my relief the dark shadow of the tank loomed up in front of me. I went back, told the men to follow me, and we came to the tank. There appeared to be some bodies by the side of it.
Dave and the crew were expecting us. It was very dark and I tapped on the side of the tank, but Dave had seen us. The other crew quickly got out and we dived into the tank. A few minutes later we heard shouting and an explosion.
Afterwards we learned that the crew had strayed off course on their way back to the barn and had run into a New Zealand patrol, who mistook them for Germans and threw a hand grenade at them. Two of them were hit in the legs, but immediately identified themselves. The atmosphere was extremely tense, and they could have easily been killed. As it was, the two men were not seriously hurt and the New Zealanders escorted them back to the barn.
There was a road not far away, and in the dark we heard a
German vehicle come along it. It stopped and we could hear the men shouting. We guessed it was a self-propelled gun. It opened fire, but it was shooting over the top of us in the direction of the barn behind. It fired a dozen shells or so, there was more shouting and the vehicle left.
Busty, the driver, and Haley, the scatter-gunner, had very little room to move and were cramped in their seats. Lofty, the operator, myself and Dave had a little more freedom in the turret, and took it in turn to be on guard half out of the top of the tank. To hand, for instant use if necessary, were a Tommy-gun and hand grenades, and we were also wearing loaded revolvers. The two who weren't on guard could push their heads out to see what was going on and keep the driver and scatter-gunner informed.
Next morning we saw that there really were bodies at the side of the tank, four German soldiers lying side by side and another a few feet away. We were only a yard or so from the wall of a barn, the tank parked parallel to it, and about ten yards away was an orchard. On the opposite side was a haystack.
Through the trees in the early morning mist we could see German soldiers moving about. The tank was facing away from the orchard. The driver and scatter-gunner could only see in front, but we in the turret could see all round.
It was Lofty's turn on guard, and he whispered that four of the Germans were slowly and cautiously coming towards the tank, through the trees. They were carrying a bazooka, a portable anti-tank gun, very deadly, but only when used at close range. They were coming towards the rear of the tank, obviously hoping to get near enough without being detected.
We kept very still and quiet. Lofty had the Tommy-gun at the ready and let them come closer. Then he opened fire. One of them he killed, another was wounded, a third gave himself up and the other ran away. On the wireless we contacted the Maoris back at the barn, who had heard the gunfire, and with the gun trained on the two men, Lofty directed them to the Maoris who were coming to collect them.
It had been very cold and cramped all night in the tank, but we got the stove going and made some tea and opened some tins of stew to warm us up. 'Jerry in house only 100 to 150 yards away and we have to be alert all the time - rather nerve-racking. Bitterly cold and raining. Listening to Jerries talking.'
There were no further incidents that day, but when it came dark we heard the SP gun come up the road again, fire several more shells, then drive away.
My turn on guard came around as dawn broke, but things were quiet. Dave took over and after a while whispered to us to look outside. A revolting sight met our eyes. A pig had come up and was eating one of the dead Germans, pulling at his leg. We watched it for a few minutes then could stand it no longer. Dave killed it with a single shot from the Tommy-gun. It sank to its knees on top of the dead soldier.
During the day the area was shelled heavily and the house adjoining our barn was hit numerous times, turning it into a pile of rubble. 'Things were hot, but about 7.30 p.m. they got even hotter because the haystack was hit. It caught fire and we had to evacuate quick.'
The blazing haystack was too close for comfort. We jumped out of the tank and ran down the fields and to our surprise were joined by some Italian civilians who had been hiding under the haystack. We made it back to our original farm and luckily no one was hurt.
This farm was now full of New Zealanders, many of them Maoris. We got on well together, and they were really good fighters.
That night they planned an attack to try to clear the area of Germans and advance. They left the barn, and we had little rest as they brought back some of the wounded and we helped with them. One young Maori died there as he lay on the ground in the barn. We covered him with a blanket and next morning helped to bury him just outside, in a corner of the farmyard.
There was heavy shelling all day. We heard one land about thirty yards away and waited for the explosion, but it didn't happen, so we went to look for it. It was a huge shell at least a foot in diameter and if it had exploded it would have blown us to Kingdom Come.
Meanwhile the Kiwi attack wasn't as successful as they'd hoped, but they brought back about fifty prisoners and had moved the enemy further away.
15 December: 'He shelled us heavily but we're lucky he didn't hit the house, troop going back, but some of us have to stop and try to get that tank out tomorrow.'
16 December: 'Sid, Dave, myself and a couple of men stayed behind last night and rest of troop left about 5.30 p.m. I lay on the straw with a couple of blankets and slept for fifteen hours! Wonderful! The Gurkhas attacked Faenza last night. New Zealanders advanced and now everything going well.'
It was quieter here now, and we went up to the tank. The haystack had burned out and the tank was undamaged. We drove it back to the barn, down the muddy track we’d recently walked, then back to the squadron a few miles away.( To War With The Bays: Chapter 59 – A Hair-raising Experience and Chapter 60 – Close-quarter fighting)
The Queen's Bays at Mareth
26 March 1943 | Mareth, Libya, North Africa
The Queen’s Bays, along with the 9th Queen’s Lancers, 10th Royal Hussars, 1st Battalion The Rifle Brigade and the 9th Battalion The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, were a part of the 2nd Armoured Brigade and subsequently a part of the 1st Armoured Division and X Corps, Eighth Army, stationed in North Africa in the Second World War.
The Regiment was divided up into five squadrons, ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’ and ‘D’ with a Head Quarters Squadron. Each squadron was then divided into Squadron HQ and four troops. Below is the Battle order for ‘C’ Squadron on 26 March, 1943:
Trooper Ranson, shown in the picture, is my maternal grandfather.
In 1943 following the victory at El Alamein in 1942, the Eighth Army were pursuing the Axis forces across Northern Africa and on 13 March the Bays were halted four miles north of the little French pre-War garrison town of Medenine. A few miles away to the north east, the forward posts of XXX Corps were in contact with the Axis forces on the Mareth Line, and about the same distance to the east were the Matmata Mountains from where Rommel had led Panzer Divisions down onto the Medenine plain in an attempt to destroy the two leading divisions of the Eighth Army.
The plan was for XXX Corps with three divisions to penetrate the north-eastern end of the Mareth Line and then roll it up from the right. X Corps, with the 1st Armoured and 7th Armoured Divisions, was to pass through the Line and advance on Gabes and Sfax. The New Zealand Division with the 8th Armoured Brigade and the Free French were to move west of the Matmata Mountains and cut the enemy off from Gabes. The Bays were to provide the armour of a so-called ‘Route Task Force’, which was to clear four routes across the Mareth Line and form a bridgehead beyond for X Corps to pass through:
One squadron of Sherman tanks was to go under command of the Yorkshire Dragoons, who were to be responsible for the two routes in the right sector; the remainder of the Regiment with the 1st Field Squadron and one squadron of the Yorkshire Dragoons under command, to clear two routes on the left sector.
At 2300 on 20 March the infantry attack started with an artillery bombardment. Reports stated that the attack was going well and the ‘Route Task Force’ was organised into component parts and made ready to move. There was no move on the 21 March, nor the next day, until the afternoon when the Regiment was ordered to rejoin the 2nd Armoured Brigade.
With the disbanding of the ‘Route Task Force’ the original plan was abandoned as it was not possible to get tanks across the Wadi Zigzaou.
Following a heavy counter attack by the 15 Panzer Division and the 90 Light Division, OPERATION PUGILIST was abandoned, and it was decided that the 1st Armoured Division was to join the New Zealand Corps west of the Matmata Mountains. Orders were received by the Bays in the early hours of 23 March to move at once south east to Kilo10 on the Medenine-Ben Gardane Road, the tanks to be loaded on transporters.
By 1830 on 23 March loading of the tanks was completed and at 1930 the Regiment started a fifty-two mile a night march, twenty miles on transporters to Foum Tatahouine, and a further thirty-two on tracks.
At 0215 on the 24 March the Bays reached Foum Tatahouine and the tanks were unloaded, the move then continued north-west through Wilder’s Gap. The regiment rested for several hours at 0730. During this halt the Bays received fresh orders and the 2nd Armoured Brigade was diverted north-west to an area south of the Gap between Gebel Melab and Gebel Tebag, forty miles on.
The march resumed at 1530, the terrain was described as the ‘worst for sheer difficulty of movement and frustration that they ever experienced. Jack Merewood a member of ‘C’ Squadron, The Queen’s Bays, noted later, ‘what a journey, thick heavy soft sand and the tank rolled just like a ship. Terribly dusty.’
Vehicle after vehicle got stuck in the soft sand, as many as twelve lorries were bogged to the axles. The Regiment halted for an evening meal at 1830 and when it moved on it was in two columns for six miles, until darkness fell, at which time it halted again to wait for the moon to rise. The moon rose at 2045, and the march restarted.
The Regiment set up a leaguer at 0130 on 25 March, seven miles south of Bir Soltane, and had travelled 43 miles in thirteen hours since Foum Tatahouine. At 0430 the ‘B’ Echelon arrived. At day light, with a further 30 miles to go, the attack was postponed for twenty four hours. In the afternoon the forming up area was reached and the Regiment was conducted into it’s night location after a further six hours march.
The Regimental Groups reformed on the 26 March at 0630, with ‘A’ Battery 11 Royal Horse Artillery (H.A.C.), ‘A’ Squadron The Yorkshire Dragoons and a detachment of Royal Engineers under command. There were thirty nine tanks in the Regiment;
21 Mark II Shermans in ‘B’ and ‘C’ Squadrons, 10 Mark III Crusaders and 8 Mark II and close support crusaders making up ‘A’ Squadron and Regimental Headquarters.
At 0730 the Regiment received orders, which were distributed to the squadron leaders at 0900. The initial attack was to be led by the New Zealand Corps with 8th Armoured Brigade leading at 1600 to a depth of 4,000 yards. 1st Armoured were to pass through and advance to the El Hamma area. The 2nd Armoured Brigade were to then capture El Hamma, their first objective being the ‘penetration of enemy lines to a depth of six miles from the starting position before dark, then wait until moon rise and go on to capture El Hama ten miles on.
The Birgade formed up astride the center line of the 1st Armoured Division, three miles north of the leaguer with the Bays to the left and the 9th Lancers on the right at 1430 on 26 March. At 1500, the Bays moved up to the New Zealand start line south of the Roman Wall. The Desert Air Force had already started their bombardment, X Corps artillery added to this starting their barrage at 1600 as the 8th Armoured Brigade and New Zealand infantry moved forward. The 2nd Armoured Brigade followed close behind with the El Hamma Road dividing it, at 1630 they passed the Roman Wall.
The Regiment came under ant-tank fire from the left, then approximately six tanks and some infantry attacked from the same direction. There were many burning tanks of the 8th Armoured Brigade, and as the Regiment moved on the anti-tank fire intensified.
The leading Regiments were ordered to speed up their advance, so they pushed on, but by last light the objective had not been reached. The 9th Lancers on the right were a little behind because of anti-tank fire which was also enfilading the leading squadron of the Bays. Light decreased sufficiently to reduce the efficacy of the anti-tank crews to draw an accurate bead, Lieutenant- Colonel A H Barclay ordered the advance to continue. The Squadrons were in and out of the Wadis and managed to get into the middle of the enemy gun line causing much confusion, many of the German gun crew surrendering at once. Jack Merewood remembers they ‘pushed on, right into the middle of the enemy encampment where there was confusion. Vehicles were running about not knowing which way to turn, some even coming towards us. We fired at everything in sight. We sent up more vehicles and tanks in flames and completely overran an antitank position. The crew ran past us to give themselves up. Tracer bullets raced across the sky. It was fierce, intense, yet, in the moonlight an eerie experience that left one with a feeling impossible to describe.’
By 1930 the Bays reached the ‘Forward Staging Area’ which was the objective of the first phase of the attack. The 9th Lancers arrived twenty minutes later, both Regiments paused until moonrise which was at about 2230. At 0000 the signal “RINGWOOD” was received, the order to advance on El Hamma.
There was a haze which prevented clear moonlight when the Bays and 9th Lancers set off at 2½ m.i.h. (miles in the hour). Disorganised groups of the enemy were all along the road, and the machine guns were ‘used to great effect.’ Every half mile or so the advance encountered Wadi’s which had to be crossed in single line ahead and then the tanks would fan out after crossing.
At 0430 on the 27 March orders were received to stop the advance and at dawn El Hamma was in sight. The advance had taken the 2nd Armoured Brigade through the 21 Panzer Division which was now trapped between the armour and the New Zealand Corps. The Bays had lost two Shermans destroyed with two more damaged tracks and one Crusader stuck in a Wadi. There were no personnel casualties.
Sergeant L W Smith, was the commander of the Crusader;
“During the night advance, while crossing a piece of rough country, my tank fell into a ditch, which proved subsequently to be a tank trap. A track was torn off. I remained with my tank.
“About 7 a.m. an anti-tank gunner officer came up to me and said, ‘ Enemy tanks are approaching, can’t you do something about it ? ‘
” ‘No,’ I said, ‘owing to the angle of’ the tank. I cannot cock the gun up above the bank.’
” ‘What are you going to do ?
” ‘Stay with my tank.’
” ‘O.K.,’ he said and went off.
” ‘I saw the tanks coming straight at me ; the crews were shouting and singing ; they were all drunk. 1 popped into a slit trench with my crew twenty yards away. One of the tanks came straight on and stopped short of’ the ditch. He traversed right and fired twice and then left and fired twice and two A.P. shots hit the top of my trench.
“I never thought that I’d be pleased to have A.P. shots landing near my head, but I was then.
“The tank retreated five hundred yards.
“I suddenly saw one of the ‘ B’ Squadron men trying to put out a fire in the back locker. Lance-Corporal Bradley jumped on to the tank, seized a fire extinguisher, opened the locker and put out the fire. The enemy tanks theft went off.
“A quarter of an hour later an Itai officer walked up to me, very smartly dressed, and spoke English :
” ‘Are you my prisoners or am I yours ?’
” ‘You’re mine.’
” ‘Oh, has Gabes fallen ?’
” ‘Yes, twelve hours ago.’
” ‘In which case,’ he said, come with me and collect your prisoners. There is also an 88 mm. I will show you.’
“I went with him round the bend in the wadi and there they were-14 officers, 38 other ranks and an 88 mm. in perfect order. A gunner O.P. then came up in a Honey and marched them off down the road.”
The Bays and Lancers were ordered to continue the advance at 0700. They immediately came under fire from a screen of ’88′s and Infantry belonging to the 164 German Division which with the 15 Panzer Division, had been moved back from the Mareth Line to protect the escape routes.
The enemy guns were engaged by ‘B’ and ‘C’ squadrons, the strong opposition, bad weather, and dust storms halted the tanks. Jack Merewood wrote later:
Between us and the village were trees and dense undergrowth. We trundled slowly and cautiously forward, our troop and No. 3 Troop in the lead. One of their tanks, commanded by Corporal Jim Nolan, was to our left and slightly ahead; I could see it through my periscope.
Then the quiet was suddenly shattered by a terrific bang. Anti-tank guns hidden in the trees ahead opened fire. I saw Jim’s tank hit and it immediately burst into flames.
Corporal George James (Jim) Nolan and his crew baled out, he and his turret crew, according to Jack Merewood, were all “on fire. They ran about screaming … and all died. The other two crew members never got out of the tank.’ Here Jack was wrong, understandably as the driver and co-drivers of tanks invariably did not escape from burning tanks. Somehow Trooper Ranson got out of the tank and was the only survivor of the crew.
Ranson’s fellow crew members died and were buried in North Africa; Corporal George James (Jim) Nolan, Trooper Maurice Newton and Trooper Reginald Smith are all buried at the SFAX WAR CEMETARY, Nolan and Newton beside each other. The fourth crew member, Trooper Reginald Frederick Bratby is memorialized on the MEDJEZ-EL-BAB MEMORIAL.
Jack Merewood’s tank was also damaged;
I found myself covered with blood, but it wasn’t mine, it was Nobby’s. He’d been hit on the head and he dropped straight down into the turret behind me. Our wireless operator lay on his back on the floor in a state of terror, beating the floor with his fists and his heels. Colin, our driver, shouted over the intercom, ‘My periscope’s shattered, I can’t see where I’m going.’
Without stopping to think, I jumped up, took Nobby’s seat and, half out of the tank, saw we were still heading straight for the trees. Shells were flying everywhere. Any minute I expected we’d be hit again.
‘Jink, Colin, jink,’ I shouted.
Colin zigzagged but we were still going forward. I yelled at him: ‘Pull on your right stick as hard as you can.’
He did as I said, and we made a complete U-turn. ‘Put your foot down. Let her go.’
Colin kept his head, did as I directed and we kept going until it was safe to stop. We were all very shaken. Nobby had a bad cut on the head. We saw a Red Cross vehicle not far away and handed him over to the people there, then turned to assess the damage to the tank.
The shell that had shattered Colin’s periscope had hit us on the track. Part of it was sheared in half, the pins broken at one side and just holding the track together at the other. We were amazed that after the jinking and U-turn the track had still held. If it had broken we wouldn’t have lived to tell the tale.
In total four Shermans were hit and lost. The Bays withdrew to a position overlooking El Hamma by the Tomb of Sidi Abd En Nomi. The Regimental diary states two other-ranks were killed, these are recorded in the Regimental History as Corporal Nolan and Lance Corporal Evans, with four other ranks wounded.
At 1800 the Bays moved back approximately one mile, a rum issue was approved and issued.
- Beddington, Major General W. R. A History of the Queen’s Bays (The 2nd Dragoon Guards) 1929-1945, 1954, Warren & Son
- Merewood, Jack To War with the Bays: Tank Gunner Remembers, 1939-1945, 1996, 1st The Queen’s Dragoon Guards
The Mareth Line
20 - 26 March 1943 | Mareth, Libya
The Mareth Line was a system of fortifications approximately twenty-two miles long, between the Mediterranean Sea and the Matmata Mountains, which ran north-south protecting the Axis right flank, in southern Tunisia. It had been built by the French in the late 1930′s in order to keep the Italians out of Tunisia, and was often referred to as ‘the Maginot Line of Africa’.
The Germans had increased the defences which now included concrete blockhouses and steel cupolas. The concrete gun positions covered every approach across the Wadi Zigzaou, which was immediately to the south of the Line. The Wadi was a dried watercourse, but was sometimes quite a deep river, and was largely impassable to any vehicles, including tanks. In some places the banks were sheer and as much as 12 feet deep. In areas the Germans had steepened and deepened the Wadi, they had also dug and anti-tank ditch twenty feet wide and eight feet deep.
One of the German commanders, Oberleutnant Heinz-Ubner Schmidt was “delighted” by the protection offered by the concrete bunkers, he said they were:
practically shell and bomb proof. But among them were bunkers that had been constructed with an eye for cover rather than for field of fire. Others had no loopholes. Then, too, most of them had been planned to house French 25mm and 47mm anti-tank guns and were too small for our 50mm and 75mm guns which we had to leave behind the bunker line, There were a number of machine-gun and mortar positions ready in the centre of the trench system – constructed in the sandstone ground.
Major-General Douglas Wimberley, Divisional Commander of the 50 (Highland) Division, later recorder he was:
most struck by the strength of the Mareth Defences. Not only was there plenty of concrete to be seen, but there were complete communication trenches, and forward saps, such as reminded me of the 1914-18 war.
In front of the Wadi Zigzaou the Axis forces had planted hundreds of Teller anti-tank mines and bouncing S-mines.
Manning the garrison, under the Italian General Giovanni Messe who for two years had been the officer commanding the Italian Expeditionary Corps in Russia, was among others the 22 Italian Division, the 10 German Infantry Battalion and the 15 Panzer Division, a total of nine divisions, 80,000 men with 150 tanks (including those with 10 Panzer Division which was in reserve), and 680 guns.
When the French Built the Line of defences, with the quality of motor transport available it was determined by them that the line could not be flanked via the Matmata Mountains. The Long Range Desert Group, in 1943, found a way through, which meant a 160 mile journey leading to a narrow pass. The pass was two miles wide between, at the north end, the Matmata Mountains and the Djebel Tebaga, at the south, beyond was El Hamma, and was called the Tebaga Gap. The gap had been recognised by the Romans as a potential point of penetration, so they built a wall there for protection.
The gap had been fortified by the Axis forces, and was manned by the Saharan Group which was commanded by the Italian, General Mannierini, and consisted of what Messe described as units ‘picked up here and there’. The group consisted of a ‘Savona Brigade’ and various companies largely drawn from frontier guards and remnants of garrison posts in southern Libya. The troops were not particularly well organised.
General Bernard Law Montgomery, the officer commanding the British Eighth Army, had been preparing his plans for the attack on Mareth before the Eighth Army had arrived at Medenine, the proposed plan being set by 27 February, 1943, and was called OPERATION PUGILIST.
PUGILIST split the Eighth Army into two corps for the frontal attack:
XXX Corps, with the 50 (Northumbrian), 51 (Highland) and 4 Indian Division with the 201 Guards Brigade
X Corps, with the 1 and 7 Armoured Divisions.
The plan called for XXX Corps to make a very heavy attack on the northeast of the Line, near the coast, to break into and then roll up the line from the right. X Corps, initially the Army Reserve, would then be ready to ‘exploit success’ by passing through and advancing towards Gabes and Sfax.
With the establishment that a flanking manoeuvre was possible, provision was made for this, and the outflanking troops were to consist mainly of the New Zealand Division with the 8 Armoured Brigade and General LeClerc’s “L” Force under command, the force provisionally designated the New Zealand Corps.
The outflanking force was required to establish itself across the Gabes-Mareth Road in order to cut off the Axis Force and prevent its escape. The New Zealand Corps would have to break through the subsidiary defensive line, consisting mainly of minefields constructed between Gebel Tebaga and Gebel Meleb.
D-Day for OPERATION PUGILIST was set as 20 March.
There were numerous preliminary operations designed to drive in Axis outposts on the nights of the 16 and 17 March. These were generally successful, except for the operation by the 201 Guards Brigade, which resulted in heavy casualties when they became involved in minefields.
The New Zealand Corps, less Leclerc’s “L” Force, assembled a few miles east of Medenine, and was to set off from a staging area between Ben Gardane and Foum Tatahouine, where dumps of petrol had been arranged so that units could replenish, and move from here to the assembly point, about 70 miles.
The move forward towards the staging area was to be by night, but there were delays owing to the ‘opening and closing of columns in the darkness and without headlights’. All units assembled without incident and were ready to start their march on the 18 March.
At 1800 on 19 March, the New Zealand Corps began to advance in desert formation on a nine mile front at a speed of 8m.i.h (miles in the hour). The move to the next staging area, about 30 miles, was completed just after midnight.
By nightfall on the 20 March the Corps was a few miles short of the Tebaga Gap. They had travelled without concealment in an attempt to divert attention from the preparations being made by XXX Corps for the attack scheduled for 20 March.
At 2230 on 20 March the attack by XXX Corps began when 50 (Northumberland) Division advanced to assault undercover of very heavy artillery fire, following an air bombardment. Wadi Zigzaou in this sector was very deep and steep sided with a muddy bottom. Members of the Durham Light Infantry were carrying scaling ladders to assist with climbing the walls of the Wadi and the anti-tank ditch beyond.
An officer carrying a hurricane lamp, led minesweeping Scorpion tanks towards the Wadi Zigzaou, where the water was eight feet deep in places. Valentine tanks followed, with their crews dumping dozens of facines (dense bundles of sticks) into the Wadi, in an attempt to give tanks greater purchase. Four Valentines successfully negotiated the minefields and Wadi, the fifth stalled blocking the gap cut in the minefield.
By first light on the 21 March, portions of the attacking infantry had established a shallow bridgehead. The bridgehead was one mile wide and half a mile deep, weather hampered any air support. The Italians intensified their artillery barrage, and the Young Fascists were reinforced by German Grenadiers and artillery.
Oberleutnant Schmidt had to rally is battalion following the opening barrage, but the sandstone sides of the trenches had collapsed in places and he was
scrambling over shattered masonry or heaps of rock, even leaping over dud enemy shells. I reached one of the lower bunkers in the centre of the of the sector on the lip of the Wadi Zigzaou. A number of the detachment there lay dead round their gun. In front of the bunker entrance and a little to one side, in a trench, I came across two soldiers who had been slightly wounded. ‘Tanks on the rise immediately ahead of us!’ one shouted to me. I did not know him – he must have been one of the replacements. ‘The tanks have destroyed our bunker armour with direct hits,’ he shouted again. ‘It is suicide to remain in the bunker.
The men were ordered to occupy a weapons pit which was dug next to their wrecked bunker and Schmidt scrambled inside to drag out the machine-gun, the two men were dead when he emerged. The British attacked,
They are lying in front of our trench. Now the game was on. Men raced about the trenches giving the immediate alert: ‘Infantry attacking – weapons in position!’ In a few seconds the machine-guns that the enemy artillery had not blotted out were blazing away criss-cross over the front…belt after belt whipped through the guns.
Schmidt’s forward company which was on a slight ahead of the main defensive line was overrun by Valentines and most were taken prisoner or killed. The main position held, although small groups of British infantry got into the lines and captured one bunker with some additional trenches.
The continuing rain on the 22 March added to the difficulties for the British infantry. The Axis forces put in a heavy counter-attack at 1310 using the entire 15 Panzer Division and part of the 90 Light Division, in three columns, from an assembly area seven miles north-west of Wadi Zigzaou.
On the 50 (Northumberland) Division front, some combatants were fighting hand to hand. Axis resistance was stiffening. Panzers were supporting infantry in local counter attacks. The under gunned Valentines was killed and they began to take heavy casualties.
Two infantry battalions attacked, surrounding the bridgehead so tightly the Desert Air Force feared killing British soldiers, and again were unable to assist the 50 (Northumberland) Division. Thirty-five Valentines were reduced to smoking hulks.
In Schmidt’s sector, his men forced the British out and began to take prisoners.
One doctor bandaged a young English Lieutenant who had been wounded. “What are you still fighting for?” The Englishman demanded. “We have an overwhelming superiority of men and materials. It is only a question of days or weeks and the war will be over for you anyhow.” We refused to believe this and laughed at his optimism.
By nightfall the bridgehead was almost lost and the 50 (Northumberland) Division was preparing to withdraw to their start line. On the night of 23 March the troops fell back, on orders, across the Wadi Zigzaou undercover of artillery fire.
At 0200 on 23 March, General Oliver W. H. Leese had reported to Montgomery, that the 50 (Northumberland) Division had pulled nearly all surviving troops back across the Wadi and the follow-on attack by X Corps was cancelled. This meant the focus of the plan now shifted to the outflanking manoeuvre under the command of Freyberg.
It was planned for the New Zealand Corps to make a serious threat in the Gabes-Matmata Road on the night of the 20/21 March, the same night that XXX Corps was to commence the offensive against the Mareth Line. The outflanking and frontal attacks were two parts of the one offensive which, for success, required action as one event. Any hesitation of either part would cause failure.
The attack was due to occur on the night of 20-21 March, with the Gap being forced early on the morning of the 21 March. The New Zealand Corps was in position for the attack about twelve hours early, and Freyberg determined to move at first light on 21 March, and requested that his objective – codenamed PLUM, be bombed at 0800 thereby losing any advantage.
The plan was for the King’s Dragoon Guards to reconnoitre the enemy line at first light, and for the 8 Armoured Brigade to move at 0700 and to break through the eastern end of the defences. The pace of the attack was lagging and the planned infantry attack was postponed.
The Divisional Cavalry began operations at 0610 and established patrols on a six mile radius. It was in touch with French patrols at it’s southern point, the French reaching as far south as the Hallouf Pass.
The King’s Dragoon Guards reconnoitred well up to the Axis lines, and the 8 Armoured Brigade advanced towards the eastern end of the Axis positions, but was halted by a combination of mines and shellfire.
PLUM was bombed at 0800, but the bombardment was insufficient to all the tanks, unsupported by infantry, to get through.
The rest of the day was a day of reconnaissance, and by afternoon it was established the Axis defences followed the line of the Roman Wall. By the middle of the afternoon plans were formulated for the infantry to force a way through the minefield, thereby allowing the tanks to push through. At the time of formulation it was erroneously believed that the Germans had arrived in the line.
At 2200 the artillery opened fire and the infantry advanced. The Axis forces did not open fire until the twenty-one minute concentration was over, and the forward companies were ahead of the Axis lines, the advance was not held up. Soon after midnight the objectives were reached.
The attack had shown good planning and was an outstanding success.
Further developments allowed the 8 Field Company to fill an anti-tan ditch and to prepare lanes through a minefield. The squadron of tanks under command of 6 Brigade started to move up behind 25 Battalion at 0230. Before daylight all supporting arms for the attack had been brought forward and were in place. In the first hours of daylight, the combined efforts of the various infantry weapons and a supporting tank, caused a large amount of damage and led to the surrender of a further 400 Italians and a wedge had been driven through PLUM.
It was at this point that an opportunity has apparently been lost, and if 8 Armoured Brigade had passed through at 0300 it may have disrupted the Italian position and been through the four mile length of gap by daylight.
Over the next four days – 22 to 25 March – the actions of the New Zealand Corp were similar, inching forward in the centre and flanks, with exploratory reconnaissance on either flank. The total advance in the centre was only 1500 yards, because by the evening of the 22 March the 21 Panzer Division had arrived, as had the 164 Light Division on the 23.
On the 23 March, Freyberg was alerted to a change in plans by Montgomery, and that the flanking move was to become the main focus of the attack. It was decided that the three divisions under Leese in XXX Corps were to remain on the coast to occupy the defenders at Mareth, while Lieutenant-General Brian Horrocks of X Corps was to assume command of the new plan to be called SUPERCHARGE II, with Montgomery telling Freyberg “Am sending Horrocks to take charge. Am sure you will understand.”
Horrocks’ force was to consist of X Corps Headquarters with the 1 Armoured Division, it was to move off after duck on the 23 March and was expected to join with the New Zealand Corps on 25 March, a force of 300 tanks.
At the same time the 4 Indian Division, under XXX Corps was to thrust into the mountains to the west of the Matmata Mountains. The objective of this move was twofold – to open the road from Medenine to Bir Soltane via Ksar El Hallouf as a shorter route of supply for X Corps, and to advance along the spine of the Matmata Mountains to cut the Mareth-Gabes Road.
The 5 Brigade of the 4 Indian Division and the 1 Armoured Division entered Medenine at the same time, with the former being held up. It was held up even further by a brigade of the 7 Armoured Division following the 1 Armoured Division.
Both of the 7 and 5 Brigades of the 4 Indian Division got to Hallouf Pass on the night of 24/25 March. By the evening of the 25 March, most of Horrocks’ force was at the Tebaga Gap. Progress had been slow due to congestion, the difficult terrain and mechanical issues. Jack Merewood of the Queen’s Bays, part of 1 Armoured Division, thought the area was one of the worst ‘we had ever attempted to cross; and to make matters worse, there were in addition locusts flying about in thick black clouds.’ The Bays history noting that vehicle after vehicle got stuck in the soft sand.
SUPERCHARGE II basically boiled down to the following; the initial attack was to be made by the New Zealand Corps with the 8 Armoured Brigade leading at 1600 to a depth of 4,000 yards. The 1 Armoured Division would then pass through and advance to the El Hamma area.
At 15:30 on 26 March the forward units of the New Zealand Corps set off orange flares to denote their positions, overhead the Desert Air Force appeared and for thirty minutes bombed and strafed the Axis positions, in a relay of fighter-bombers which first bombed and then strafed anything that moved. The bombardment was organised such that there was always at least two squadrons of fighters over the area at any one time.
Thirty minutes later, the Corps artillery with two hundred field and medium guns opened fire. This was followed by the advance of the 8 Armoured Brigade and the 3 Battalion of the New Zealand Infantry. The barrage was arranged to lift at a rate of 100 yards per minute for the first 1,000 yards.
The tanks were attacking out of the setting sun, followed by the stirred up dust caused by the movement of the tanks. The Axis forces did not react until about 1615. The artillery response, must have had the tank commanders thinking that they had caught up with the artillery barrage, so they halted, which was quickly rectified and they moved on after a pause of a few minutes.
The attackers reached their first objective without too much difficulty, with the infantry following the tanks, and in some cases catching rides on the back of the tans, as in the case of some members of the 28 (Maori) Battalion who caught rides with the Sherwood Rangers.
The smooth advance of the Sherwood Rangers was interrupted as the leading tanks reached POINT 209. As the tanks banked up and veered around to the left flank anti-tank guns opened fire. ‘B’ Squadron of the Sherwood Rangers bore the brunt with three Shermans hit.
The 28 (Maori) Battalion were to attack and take POINT 209. ‘C’ Company were ordered by their commanding officer Lieutenant-Colonel Benet, to swing right and capture POINT 209, while the other three companies were to ‘dig-in’ and establish a firm bas.
It now became clear that what the Maori had thought was POINT 209 was in fact a lower crest of the feature, POINT 209 actually had two significant rises and was much deeper and more heavily defended than expected.
Captain Peta Awatare of ‘C’ Company, organised his men for the attack, 13 Platoon were to go around the hill to the right, 14 Platoon to the left, and 15 Platoon to head straight up the centre towards the summit.
15 Platoon got pinned down near the foot of the hill, while 13 and 14 platoons reached points near the crest. The commander of 14 Platoon, Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu had already destroyed two machine-gun posts single-handed and his men two more, clearing their side of the ridge.
The Germans on the ridge counter-attacked, supported by machine-gun and mortar fire, on a number of occasions which were withstood with severe losses to ‘C’ Company. Captain Awatare had been wounded, and refused to leave the Point until his ‘wounded leg had swollen so much that he could only crawl’, Second-Lieutenant Ngarimu had also been wounded but had been given permission to stay.
Battalion support arms came up after dark and hot food was distributed at 2000, even to the men of ‘C’ Company who were within earshot of the enemy. The report was eventually mad that POINT 209 had fallen.
By this time, the main attack had reached the final objective, and at 1800 the tanks of the 1 Armoured Division had passed through the 8 Armoured Brigade, and by night fall was almost four miles beyond the final objective.
The 1 Armoured Division then halted until the moon rose and continued its advance to El Hamma, passing through the remnants of the 64 Light Division and the 21 Panzer Division.
There was still fighting on POINT 209, with the Maori and Germans only about twenty yards apart, the former were alerted to counter attacks by the sound of footsteps, when the men of 13 and 14 platoons would throw hand grenades. Ngarimu moved around to each platoon as needed, in one such case, he had moved to 14 Platoon’s sector, killed some Germans with his Tommy gun, and frightened others off by throwing stones as if they were grenades.
In the last counter attack on 27 March, Ngarimu was seen waving his men on, Tommy gun in hand, and was then shot on the crest of the hill. It was then feared that the hill would be lost, but the Battalion Carriers were brought forward to cover the area, and the Germans withdrew. The Maori had secured the lower crest of POINT 209, which had been called Hikurangi, the area of New Zealand from which most of the members of 28 (Maori) Battalion came from.
At dawn on 27 March, the artillery opened fire on POINT 209, and undercover of a smoke screen ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies changed places, and by 1200 the Germans had surrendered and the battle for POINT 209 was over. The 1 Armoured Division almost reached El Hamma but was held up by a screen of anti-tank guns.
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