Beni Ulid - Tarhuna - Azizia - Tripoli
The advance to Tripoli was a fairly relaxing affair as far as the 5th Field was concerned. The whole of the 5th Brigade was in reserve until the 5th Field passed through the 6th Field at Beni Ulid with the Infantry passing through 6th Brigade later.
During the advance up to Beni Ulid both 4th and 6th Field had been in action a few times and had been subjected to some dive bombing attacks, which had caused a number of casualties. This we had been well informed of, and certainly were not expecting any picnic.
General Freyberg was setting the pace, and although we saw a few Stukas and plenty of explosions we, the 5th Field, did not come under fire until a few miles south of Tripoli at a place called Azizia, when the Germans with a bit of a rear guard action fired a few rounds at us. This called for a hasty turn off the road and a bedding down at around 4 a.m. in the morning. Apparently, it was decided that with Tripoli so close there was little use of exposing the Troops to the unknown.
When we left Beni Ulid the whole countryside changed and we could tell the Desert had been left behind. For the better one hoped as at last there was some sign of life besides the enemy! The sight of Beni Ulid had been most welcome, although once we had a closer look at the place found it not quite as glamorous as from a distance. At least there was habitation and the natives were all very friendly. Most likely they had been the same to the Germans. Quite a few Germans were captured during the time and it was quite surprising the number the Artillery were able to round up.
Beni Ulid had been quite a bottleneck with all the different Troops trying to get through. Most of this was caused by the 7th Armoured cutting across the front of the Division. All we could be thankful for was that there was very little in the way of enemy aircraft. The Enemy certainly could have had a picnic with a few planes.
We passed through Tarhuna on 21st January and heard the 7th Armoured was held up, although from all accounts we had got ahead of the Germans. On 22nd January we had the little brush with the German rearguard and then on 23rd in the afternoon the road was clear. It was then a case of travelling through the lush countryside of Tripoli. The grass and trees certainly being a change to what we had become used to for the previous couple of years.
The fall of Tripoli was announced on 23rd January and the N.Z. Division was not involved. The honour of entering the city first was given to the Scottish Division which had travelled along the Coastal road.
The 5th Field Regiment was deployed in an area with plenty of grass and surrounded by trees. A beautiful area, and what was more surprising the Regiment for the whole advance from Nofilia to Tripoli had not fired a round in anger.
After all the time it had taken to reach Tripoli it seemed a shame if one could not see the city that one had read about, but never thought one would be within a few miles of. With this in mind a few from 'A' Troop decided they had better have a look at this bit of civilisation. So getting cleaned up as much as one was able we headed out onto the road to get a ride into this place Tripoli which had been on all lips for so long.
As it happened a German half track came along driven by a Trooper from the 7th Armoured Division. Obligingly he stopped and so 'A' Troop arrived in Tripoli on an Enemy vehicle. Bas Mitchell, Doug Wiggins and myself had grown moustaches so had our photos taken to prove it sitting on the wall at the harbour then had an Italian barber cut them off. Had a good look around and found a restaurant which although the menu was little better than we had been eating, was at least civilised. And made one feel better to think one could still enjoy the better things in life.
The area of Suani-Ben-Adem became the base for the Divisional Artillery, and it was here that many Gunners were able to catch up on news from friends in other units. This was helped by the local plonk. This was called Purple Death, and many a hole was found in clothing which had the misfortune to have a little spilt on it. Also there were not many mornings when one on his way to breakfast saw what looked like a haemorrhage. But no worry, it was only where the over indulgent soldier had got rid of what he did not want, or need.
Imagine my surprise being told to report to Div. Arty as there was to be a victory parade in Tripoli and I was to go from 'A' Troop. I am sure there were Gunners much more suited to this parade than I. But as my Battle Dress was not what you would call "Groppi Mocker" thought once seen that would be my lot.
So along to this parade I went and fell in with the rest of Div. Arty. Steve Weir came along inspecting the Troops and when he got to me he had one look and said report to the Q.M. and get a new battle dress. So I thought at least I am to get a new battle dress out of it and attended all the rehearsals and the big parade in Tripoli. But low and behold after the parade and back with the Troop I am told to hand the battle dress back. So much for King and Country.
The next thing of any note was the parade for Winston Churchill. What annoyed most was the fact that all Quads and Guns had to be stripped down and polished up. The general feeling being that as we were a fighting unit then that is how we should parade. But that was not how it was, so after a couple of rehearsals which involved marching to the airfield, Castel Benito, and marching around before marching the 4 or 5 miles back to Suani-Ben-Adem.
The great morning arrived, when the full N.Z. Division was to parade as a Division for the first time, and I believe the only time we were away. This was at 7.30 a.m. on 4th February 1943.
At 1.30 p.m. we marched past on foot and then had a drive past with Quads and Guns. After which Churchill spoke very well and said that the N.Z. Division was a Ball of Fire, finishing up with his quotation which went something like this ... If your children or grandchildren ever ask you what you did in the War. Suffice to say, "I marched with the 8th Army".
After that it was a case of getting back to Suani which we did about 7 p.m. Quite a tiring day, but after a few plonks and a few laughs life carried on.
A couple of things I will mention happened at Suami and may bring a few memories back.
The first was when Ernie Fishlock, one of our drivers, was told to shift his Quad. Now Ernie was on the plonk and climbed into the cab, started up the engine, put it into gear and revved up. Unfortunately he was going nowhere because his Quad was up on blocks.
Next I am not going to tell you why, but those who know Les Sheehan and should see him, just ask why he was seen rushing out of a Bivvy partially undressed, saying all sorts of things to himself, at Beni Adem.
Time was going along nicely with a little training, a few games of rugby, sports interspersed with the odd trip into Tripoli. Then we were told we were to go into Tripoli to unload ships, before the push into Tunisia. What versatile people we were. Soldiers, builders of aerodromes, and now to be wharfies. Wonder what the wharfies at home would have said to working for 7/6d a day with the Luftwaffe making sure things were not too easy. Most likely call us scabs. So on llth February we were taken into Tripoli and bivvied at a place called the Benito Gate amongst the olive trees.
We had approximately 3 weeks unloading the ships and what a profitable 3 weeks they were. This unloading of the ships was done in shifts and a meal was brought down to the wharves at the appropriate time. All Gunners took down a sandbag with a label on it with name and unit. These bags were filled surreptitiously and as the meal was unloaded so were all the bags filled with the good things of life. So for the rest of the action in Tunisia the boys lived very well indeed. In fact I believe some of the rations lasted until the days of Italy.
This of course did not go down very well with the Provost who were guarding the gates and did not know how so many crates of rations were being broken open. They even had General Freyberg came down to complain to him but where there is a will there is a way, and for all the investigations that went on I cannot remember one Gunner being charged on account of having stolen rations.
One who did get 28 days at the Benito Gate area was Ted Burgess. We were lined up for our evening meal before leaving for the night shift when Ron Stitt, the R.Q.M.S. came along. Ted had had a few and Ron must have said something to Ted. Any rate Ted said "Stitt you shit" and took a swing. This was an air shot, but away Ted went and received 28 days for the little frolic.
The prize episode though was the day we were on morning shift, and we were given the job of unloading a lighter which had Tankies rations on board. The Provost thought they would stop any pilfering of this as each crate had a bottle of rum in it. So to stop any nonsense they had two lines of Provost a yard or so apart from the lighter to the truck. So here we were carrying the cases between the rows of Provost and placing them on the tailboard of the truck. The only thing was they gave no thought to the canopy in front of the tray. So the boys on board smashed all the crates as they went on board and passed the rum out to waiting hands in front.
After we had finished that job we were given the job of rolling drums of petrol along the wharf and stacking it. So what with a gargle of rum and a little push of drums there were some funny sights getting around, one of the funniest being Bas Mitchell. Now Bas was a fisherman from Timaru. And as a seafaring man was a good boy on the rum. As this rum was overproof maybe he was not used to that strength. Any rate as he rolled his drums he would go over the top and the drum would roll over the top of him. This went OK for a little time until someone started to ask questions. So luckily we were able to get Bas onto a truck and back to camp out of the way.
I am sure there are other stories could be told of our time on the wharves of Tripoli but suffice to say when it was time to leave all vehicles were stocked up with provisions that made life so much more pleasant.
On 25th February we were told our effort as unloaders of much needed supplies was over and it was back to Suani where all had a good stocktake of what stores they had and found storage space on vehicles.
Told we are to go on exercise for a few days. So all is a flurry to get vehicles and men operational again. Then we are told the exercise is off and we are in an active role again. So although on the wharves we were constantly reminded there was a War on, by bombing raids and where we were could hear and see plane activity, once again we were to be thrust into the deep end.
Things had not been going too well with the landing in Tunis. The Americans had lost a lot of tanks at Kaserine Pass and the 8th Army had sent some of the Scots Grey Personnel up to help out the 1st Army. At least I think it was the lst Army. So here was the N.Z. Division all set to travel westwards for what was hoped to be the end of the North African campaign.
While we were in Suani a new weapon arrived for the Anti Tank Regiment. These weapons were all covered up and we were told it was the secret weapon called a Pheasant. This turned out to be a 17 Pounder and was to be the answer to the German 88.
We moved from Suani at 1100 hrs on lst March, and with a few 8th Reinforcements to make up the numbers wondered what was in store for us in the next day or so.
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.