This article appeared in the April 1992 NZ 28 Maori Battalion Reunion booklet.
On the night of 19/20 April 1943 the action at Takrouna took place. This was to be one of the last major battles fought in North Africa by units of the 8th Army of which the 2NZEF formed part. The actual unit taking part in operations around and on Takrouna was the 5th Infantry Brigade 2NZEF composed of 21 st, 23rd and 28th (Maori) battalions. The N.Z. Division formed part of 10 Corps commanded by Lt. Gen. Sir Brian Horrocks.
The limestone outcrop was known as Takrouna and the top of it about half a mile in length, was on three different levels and shaped roughly like a crescent. The ledge on the top of the rock face facing south, which the Maoris first gained, will be called the "ledge"; the part where Sgt Smith DCM 23 Battalion chased the Italian and lost him is the central and highest part will be called "the pinnacle"; buildings covered both ledge and pinnacle, and there was a small mosque built on the south-western comer of the pinnacle which was in the nature of a rock keep with four steep sides.
A flight of rough-hewn steps connected the two levels near the mosque; in addition a track started at the same place and worked along the bottom of the drop below the mosque on its western side to the third portion of the crescent. Other methods of arriving and departing this robber's nest were rope ladders from the mosque to the steps below and a tunnel from the floor of the mosque to the same steps.
We have accounted for three of the four steep sides of Takrouna. The fourth, connected by steps referred to, we will call the village because it was a slew of hovels on the western end of the crescent, separated from the pinnacle by a sheer rock wall and sprawling down the shoulder to another and larger group of buildings near the road, this being the actual village of Takrouna. So now we have four areas - the narrow ledge connected to the pinnacle by a set of steps and to the village by a longer set of steps on a lower level; the pinnacle, virtually inaccessible on all four sides; the 'village' with no apparent access to the pinnacle; and Takrouna village.
During the night attack the Brigade's casualties mounted: In the Maori Battalion alone the CO and all but one of the company commanders had either been killed or wounded. A message received during the night at 5 Brigade's HQ from the advanced dressing station reported that they had 11 wounded officers from the Maori Battalion alone which confirmed that the Maoris had met stiff resistance to their advance.
It now became plain to the Brigade that the night's operations had not been successful. The 28th and 23rd battalions had made marginal advances before being halted by the enemy defence system and the 21st battalion has suffered so many casualties on the western side of Takrouna that it became obvious that the troops would be in a very vulnerable position once daylight broke from the commanding heights of Takrouna. So they were ordered to withdraw to their start line positions. Plans were being hastily made to use 21 Battalion which had been withdrawn from the western side of the rock to make an assault up the slopes of Takrouna. However there was no need, for around 5 am, through the dust and confusion of battle they saw to their relief and delight, a stream of prisoners, coming down from the pinnacle on Takrouna. As this was to be the turning point of the battle we now have to follow the fortunes of' ‘B' Company from the Maori Battalion in their night attack, for it was from this company the initial assault on Takrouna that resulted in the prisoners seen by Brigade HQ mentioned above.
'B' Company's orders for the battle ahead were to advance through the olive groves and cactus before skirting the eastern side of Takrouna. Then together with 'C' Company push through to the Enfidaville-Zaghouan road. The two sections as mentioned were to detach themselves and create a diversion under the steepest side of the rock to allow this plan to be carried out. 'D' Company were to attack Takrouna over the more accessible ground to the rear.
'B' Company started their journey through the olive groves at 11 pm on the night of the 19th. The company soon ran into trouble from the many mines sown amongst the cactus and the deadly machine gun fire from the rocks on the lower slopes of Takrouna itself. They managed to advance a further 300 yards to the south eastern toe of the rock. By this time the casualties had mounted, the company commander had been wounded and one of the platoon commanders took command. Platoon Sgts replaced Platoon Officers as the casualties affected the command structure of the company and it was at this point that Sgts Rogers and Manahi left with their small band of men to create their diversion.
The enemy on the heights of Takrouna were well entrenched and consisted of an Italian battalion, later reinforced by two companies, and some Germans from 202nd Gruppe plus one German Anti Tank Platoon. The Italians, whose fighting ability had not been highly regarded by the 8th Army, were to resist the assault on Takrouna with such ferocity that it was a surprise to all who took part in the battle.
As dawn broke the small party from 'B' company, who had spent most of the night in a wadi at the bottom of Takrouna, began their assault. Sgt Rogers who was in charge of the 12 man strong party divided it into two and planned to lead one party himself up the south-east side of Takrouna whilst Sgt Manahi was to work his way up the south-west side where they hoped to meet at the top. Just before they began the attack they were joined by Sgt Smith from 23 battalion who had lost his unit during the night attack. Smith attached himself to Rogers' party and the assault began.
As they progressed up the hill they met with stiff resistance from well entrenched enemy positions which were well protected by barbed wire hung with warning devices. Enemy fire of all types was still heavy and a hail of mortar bombs sent the Maoris from rock to rock. Both parties were amongst the enemy with Bren Guns, Hand grenades and bayonets. Smith and Aranui gained some high ground above the trenches and were soon joined by some more men, this, in the confusion of the smoke and noise of battle, convinced the enemy in the lower trenches that they had been over-run, white flags soon appeared and over 60 prisoners were taken.
Meanwhile Smith and Aranui had gained a foothold on the ledge by pulling themselves up on telephone cables. They found that they could look down on a small courtyard where a German soldier was operating a wireless set. Aranui leapt down and captured the German, whereupon a German Officer appeared from a small building and surrendered. The Officer turned out to be an Artillery Officer who had been observing the whole of the New Zealand front from a small window in the building mentioned above. Both Germans were sent down to join the other prisoners. Sgts Rogers and Manahi had in the meanwhile gained the ledge and joined Smith and Aranui who were having a smoke with their prisoners. Smith caught sight of an Italian departing in some haste and gave chase only to lose him, he no doubt having the benefit of chase led Smith to the North side of the pinnacle where there was a sheer drop down into Takrouna village that should have been captured by then - but was not.
Rogers and Manahi decided that the best way to defend the pinnacle was to try and prevent any access from the village, which was at this time full of Italian troops unaware that the heights above them were occupied by the New Zealanders. A rock was placed over the mouth of the tunnel and Manahi covered the steps from the South-Eastern side of the pinnacle. Some men from 'B' and 'C' Companies (28 Battalion) filtered up the hill and with a section of men from 'B' company (23 Battalion), who had strayed from their unit, were incorporated into the defence. The tiny garrison then waited for the enemy reaction that was not long in coming. The enemy soon realised that their occupation of the ledge and the pinnacle had been lost and they subjected these positions to intense fire of all types. Mortar and shell fire continued all day and clouded Takrouna from the sight of all those below on the plain. And it is against this continual fire and the consequent casualties that were suffered that we must judge Manahi's conduct at Takrouna.
Sgt Rogers who had commanded the initial attack was killed by a shell and this left Manahi in command. As the casualties mounted it became obvious to Manahi that unless the position was reinforced they stood very little chance of resisting any further attacks, and, once again Takrouna would be in the enemies hands to harass and observe any movement made by 5 Infantry Brigade on the plains below. Hoping that the enemy would not attack in the meantime Manahi took a chance, and with no communications with 5 Brigade HQ decided to go down and collect some reinforcements. Sgt Manahi went down the slopes of Takrouna which was still under intense fire where he contacted Lt. Haig ('C' company 28 Battalion) and managed to get a section of riflemen, some stretcher-bearers, ammunition and food and led them back up the shell torn slopes of Takrouna which by now was enveloped in smoke and a dust cloud so that those below had no idea who occupied the ledge or the pinnacle on the heights above them. On the way back Manahi was met by an Artillery officer who had come down from the slopes above and told him that the position was impossible to hold and that it was soon to be shelled prior to another attack. Manahi was advised to return to his unit. Manahi decided to carry on. This was a fortunate decision for at the foot of the hill he met another gunner officer, Capt. Catchpole of 5 Medium Regiment, who had even later information on the proposed artillery concentration it had been cancelled. He was told that the positions on Takrouna were to be held at all costs and that reinforcements were on the way. Manahi continued up the hill, positioned the new men and awaited any further attacks by the enemy.
At 3.30 pm Lt. Shaw with 15 platoon (21 Battalion) arrived on the ledge. Whilst Lt. Shaw, who was to take over command, was being shown around the position by Manahi and 15 platoon was still clambering onto the ledge a strong counter-attack began. Manahi raced to his position at the head of the track and saw twelve truckloads of enemy divided into two parties and attack the north-west corner of the ledge. The enemy made a determined effort to climb the track but Manahi and Cpt. Bell inflicted severe casualties and the attack was stopped in its tracks. The second party managed to close quarter fighting took place among the alleys and buildings. For a time it was touch and go but with the help of 15 platoon and a small party of Maoris, led by Captain Muirhead, who came down from the pinnacle above, the tide was turned and the enemy fled. By 7 pm everything was quiet on Takrouna, Lt. Shaw was in command and Manahi led his small band down the hill to a well earned rest.
Lt. Shaw (15 Platoon) realised that it was imperative that reinforcements be sent if he was to hold the position. A note was sent down, as there was at this time no signal communication with Brigade HQ, and to his relief at 9 pm 14 Platoon (21 Bn) under Lt. Hirst arrived. They had no sooner settled in then yet another attack was launched by the enemy. The pinnacle was re-captured by the enemy and the ledge nearly lost, however the New Zealanders managed to hang on and an uneasy stalemate developed. The enemy now held the pinnacle and showered a continual fire on those below on the ledge.
Daylight on the 21st saw no improvement in the situation Lt. Shaw was wounded and Hirst took command, the situation was again becoming desperate. By this time there was telephone communication with Brigade HQ who decided to reinforce Takrouna again. 28 Battalion were asked to provide, and in particular that Sgt Manahi because of his local knowledge, be included in the party. Sgt Manahi selected men from 'B' and 'C' companies, loaded up with more ammunition, and again made his way up to the ledge on a path he was by now very familiar with. Hirst discussed tactics with Manahi who decided that perhaps the battalion mortars maybe able to dislodge the enemy from the pinnacle. However the range was too great and the bombs fell short. Next a 2-in Mortar held vertically was tried but to no avail for this time the range was too short. Another method was of the artillery, this was to use the 25 pounders of the artillery to range in on the pinnacle. The gunners used over 50 shells to slowly creep the barrage up the hill and at last scored three direct hits on the pinnacle. As this was going on three assaulting parties had been assembled ready to take advantage of the shelling. Sgt Manahi led one party of Maoris on yet another attack up to the pinnacle. The enemy by this time had had enough and mysteriously disappeared, using a secret tunnel as yet undiscovered by the attackers. The pinnacle was again subjected to heavy mortar fire and more casualties suffered. The artillery again came to the rescue and over 300 rounds were fired before the enemy mortars were silenced.
Takarouna village now became the focus of attention and Hirst decided that some softening up was required. By now it was mid-afternoon and no doubt everyone felt that the battle had lasted long enough.
The buildings in the village gave excellent protection to the defenders from small-arms fire so it was decided to use one of the new 17 pounder anti-tank guns to try and blast the buildings apart. This was very successful and to the delight of those on the pinnacle the enemy began to panic. Sgt Manahi seized the opportunity and with a small part of Maoris advanced and won the north-east slope. Using bayonet and grenades several gun pits were overrun and many prisoners taken. Seeing the effect of the 17 pounder shells on the village buildings Manahi and his party made for the village. Hirst meanwhile had come to the same conclusion as Manahi and also made for the village, driving the enemy from house to house towards Manahi. Soon all the enemy resistance ceased and at last the battle of Takrouna was over. Sgt Manahi, as soon as darkness fell, supervised the collection of the dead from the pinnacle and the ledge. The dead were then wrapped in blankets and lowered down the slope by ropes.
The Battle of Takrouna has been called 'A Soldiers' Battle'. It is interesting to note that the Battle at Inkerman in the Crimean War was also called 'A Soldiers' Battle' and twenty Victoria Crosses were awarded for this battle.