Chapter 12: Zuara, Libya. Intense Attacks. 8th Army Snuffs out Afrika Corps
Feb 25,1943 Durragh, Libya : We were bombed last night, but fortunately there were no casualties. Fifteen of our planes left today to join 'A' party at Zuara, Libya. We are expected to leave tomorrow and if the front moves in the interim, we will probably by-pass 'A' party and keep on going.
Feb 27, 1943; Zuara, Libya; We ('B') party left yesterday from Durragh, and we spent the night on our trucks just outside of Homs, on the coast road in Libya. Today we continued our move along the coast road through Tripoli to Zuara. We arrived at the airfield around 5.00 PM and found ourselves back in the middle of another sand storm (Khamseen). We put up our tent but didn’t bother to dig slit trenches because we don’t know how long we will stay here.
The coastal area of Tripolitania from Homs to Aillet (west of Tripoli) is beautiful. There are both palm and fruit trees and white colonial homes to be seen. As far as the eye can see there are plantations with much vegetation and orchards. The countryside consists of rolling hills with fields of corn. Homs was a large garrison town where military had been stationed, surrounded by tall cliffs and the sea. From what we could see in passing through Tripoli, it is large, clean, and modern, with a nice harbor.
Feb 28, 1943: Zuara, Tripolitania. We are now 12 miles from Tunisia. Our airfield was bombed last night, with no casualties, so our luck seems to be holding out, There were a few delayed action bombs exploding this morning around our camp area, which was a rarity, as we had not encountered that before. Our flight has only 3 planes in operation out of 12 right now, due to the heavy wear they have been experiencing lately.
On March Ist, at Zuara, Libya, Al Schoenfeld and I went sightseeing at Tripoli, and spent the day walking around and eating and drinking real food and Ice Cream. It is a nice city, better than Alexandria or Cairo. with a fine harbor lined with palm trees on the promenade which encircles it. On the truck en route back to our airfield, Al and I talked over what we had been through since landing at the Suez Canal. We couldn’t help thinking how lucky we were not to have been injured or killed, given the amount of bombing and strafing attacks we had endured. Tomorrow a small part of 30 men will leave for Medenine, Tunisia. It is expected to be a hazardous undertaking because the Spitfires had to evacuate the field abruptly when German tanks broke through the British 8th Army’s lines. It is being dive-bombed by Me-109 hourly. They will take only enough gasoline and rations for 6 days, as an advanced party when entering Tunisia.
March 2nd was notable because the entire 244 Wing of the RAF’s Spitfires made an emergency landing on our airfield at night. We lined up many trucks and by the light of their headlights the large contingent of planes was able to land safely. The wing had been occupying an airfield at Hazbub which came under attack by the Afrika Korps. We had been scheduled to move to tanks armored cars, the RAF abandoned the field. In view of this, the 57th Group remained at Zuara but not for long.
March 3rd found 'A' Flight on the road to Medenine, Tunisia, and thankfully we did not come under air attack along the way. We passed things we had never seen in the Western Desert, such as orchards of fruit trees, date palms, grass, etc. The houses built by French settlers were of better manufacture than we had ever seen in Africa or Libya. Many have several floors with large windows and spacious interiors.
We are now in Tunisia, at the Mareth Line, which is a mountain range extending inland from the Mediterranean Sea, with the British on our side and the Germans on the other side. The field is situated about 30 miles from the front lines, on a plain this side of the mountain range, with a good part of the British 8th Army behind us: not a very comforting thought!
That night we could hear the Luftwaffe bombing and strafing an RAF Wing of Spitfires locate on an airfield a few miles from us. We understand that the Germans have brought in a number of bombers and fighters from Sicily and Italy, to replace the ones we have destroyed! Our airfield is not yet completed by the Royal Engineers, who believe it will be ready by this evening. Meanwhile however they are suffering casualties daily due to continuous aerial attack.
That night we were told to pack up everything and get on the trucks and spend the night that way, waiting for instructions to retreat. The British planned to have the whole 8th Army retreat about 30 miles, hoping that they could finesse the Germans by having them send the main force of their Tanks and Armored Cars on to the plain, to attack the rear of the British Army. They told us not to get off our trucks for any reason, because all their cannons were pointed toward the enemy, and even the tanks were to be used as howitzers, by having them dug-in in revetments, with orders to fire at anything that moves on the ground!
Once the German armored force was exposed on the plain, the British Tank Corps was to attack them with a view to removing them as a threat, so that the 8th Army could break through the German Fortifications in the Mareth Line.
Can you imagine what was going through our minds that night, on top of our trucks not knowing what was going to happen? At first light, we were told to drive a few miles to a crossroad and to await instructions. Well, we sat there watching howitzers, cannons, & motorized forces all pass us by in a retreat, and still no instructions to withdraw! I can tell you we thought that someone had neglected to tell us to retreat! Around 9 AM, as we sat there, a flight of 15 JU-88s (Medium German Bombers) passed right over us, with racks of bombs in plain view in their bomb-bays.
The bombs began to drop when they were directly over us, however due to the forward movement of the bombers, the bombs likewise continued on a forward trajectory landing a somewhat past us!
Several hours later we were instructed to head toward the coast road and to retreat about 30 miles to the rear. In doing so, we passed the Spitfire Wing previously mentioned, whose airfield took the brunt of the
Luftwaffe’s bombing. It was the worst kind of bombing, called pattern bombing because the entire flight of airplanes drops their bombs simultaneously!
Now-a-days they call that carpet bombing. We saw airplanes and hangars and buildings on fire, and many ambulances converging on the airfield. We thought 'There but for the grace of God went we'!
We reached the coast road, and retreated about 30 miles south where we pulled off the road for the night at Ben Gerdane.
I can tell you that every driver of every vehicle followed in the tire tracks of the first vehicle in so doing, and you never saw a more precise motorized maneuver in your life! We sat there that night and watched the fireworks. Sfax which was not far from us, was being bombed and we could see the Ack-ack tracers criss-crossing the sky. In addition we could see the gun flashes on the horizon and hear the cannons which told of the terrific tank battle taking place at the front. The sounds were close enough that we did not have to strain our ears to hear them.
South African Air Force Spitfire
March 4, 1943 Mefatia (on the coast road). We spent the whole day there, waiting to hear the results of the battle. We were told that the plan succeeded, and that the Germans had lost over 200 out of the 800 Armored vehicles trying to break through the British lines, and that they abandoned the attack and withdrew!
Then we were told to move to a different location several miles away, west of Medenine, and wait while a new field was finished. A South African Air force group took over our old field. We are told that our new field is still under enemy fire! So off we went again and moved to the new airfield.
March 5, 1943. After a night of again listening to cannonfire, we once again got on the road to a place about 3 miles away. There we shall wait until a new airfield west of Medenine, Tunisia is built. The 7th South African Air Force took over the airfield we just left.
March 6th turned out to be a day which I shall never forget because it was only through the grace of God that I was not captured (or killed) by German infantry. I shall deal with it in the next installment of my memoirs, Part 13.
So ends Chapter 12 of my wartime memoirs.