Eighth Army Complates Conquest of Libya and Pursues Panzer Army back to Tunisia (January - February 1943)

“Bardia to Enfidaville” by Major General W.G. Srevens

Chapter 6: ‘On to Tripoli’

15th January

AFTER moving forward during the night 51st (Highland) Division made contact on 15 January with the enemy line and prepared for a night attack. In the southern sector 7th Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions were more mobile. General Freyberg, accompanied by the CRA (Brigadier C. E. Weir), spent the day with Tactical Headquarters, which was shelled at intervals. An officer and three men of the protective troop were wounded.

New Zealand Divisional Cavalry crossed the start line at 7.15 a.m. and reported its first bound clear twenty-five minutes later. This was a ridge immediately west of the Bu Ngem track. At the same time 7th Armoured Division found that the Dor Umm er Raml ridge on its front was held by Axis anti-tank guns. Thus it was not surprising that when NZ Divisional Cavalry advanced to its second bound, the western edge of Dor Umm er Raml, it encountered an infantry and anti-tank screen, and that A Squadron was held up. B Squadron moved off in an attempt to work round the enemy’s southern flank, and in this was partly successful, destroying a German 75-millimetre gun in the process.


General Bernard Freyberg , Commsnder of 2nd NZ Division , nicknamed as “Salamander” by Churchill

Drive to Tripoli

Nofilla to Tripoli

By about 9.30 a.m. the enemy was seen to be in strength sufficient to hold up the advance for some hours. His shelling was particularly heavy. Freyberg therefore altered the thrust line 30 degrees to the south to turn the enemy’s flanks and called the Greys forward as a complete regiment to move behind Divisional Cavalry. The 211th Medium Battery and 4 Field Regiment were also brought forward from the Reserve Group.

On this new thrust line Divisional Cavalry gradually worked round the end of the ridge, helped by some good shooting from 34 Anti-Tank Battery and a troop of 26 Field Battery. About midday the GOC ordered the Greys to follow, but on a personal reconnaissance found the going heavy and about 3 p.m. reverted to the original thrust line. By late afternoon Divisional Cavalry and the Greys were round the end of Dor Umm er Raml and had engaged enemy tanks and transport on the western side. Both units
laagered for the night on the southern slopes of the ridge. In the last spurt of enemy shelling at dusk several more casualties were added to the day’s small total.

The rest of the Division advanced slowly without coming into action. Fifth Infantry Brigade Group could not move at all until 2.50 p.m., and was still east of the Bu Ngem track at the end of the day. By nightfall only some eight miles had been gained and, in the words of the GOC, ‘progress was slow’. From his prepared positions the enemy probably had the better of the engagement; but on the whole Freyberg was satisfied, for the pressure played its part in deciding the enemy to draw back. Nevertheless the objectives for 15 January, Sedada and Tmed el Chatua, were still a long way off.

The tanks of 7th Armoured Division were in action during the day and inflicted losses on the enemy, but at some cost to themselves. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade finished the day well to the south-west, with the Royals near El Faschia, which was still in enemy hands.

At the end of the day the GOC learnt that 30th Corps would resume the advance to Sedada at first light next morning.

The Enemy on 15 January

The action of 4th Light Armoured Brigade had been vigorous enough to force 33rd German Reconnaissance Unit’s southern outposts back towards El Faschia, where there was an Italian garrison. On Dor Umm er Raml 15th Panzer Division, with 3rd German Reconnaissance Unit on its right, resisted attacks all day and claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on British tanks. The reconnaissance unit reported during the morning that it was in action against a strong enemy force (2nd NZ Division) and later that it had fended off an attempt to get round its flank. The German army narrative notes that about midday the Commander-in-Chief (Rommel) ordered a concentration of artillery against the British assembly areas, which no doubt explains the severity of the shelling experienced by 2nd NZ Division.

While Rommel thought that the German defence had done well during the day, he was vividly aware of some unpleasant facts. He expected Eighth Army’s attack to be intensified next day; he was outnumbered in men and his own supplies were most inadequate; and he could not offer prolonged resistance. By midday, therefore, he had already issued the codeword MOVEMENT RED, which meant that a retirement was to commence to a line running from Sedada to Bir el Churgia (20 miles north of Gheddahia), starting at 8 p.m. But the remaining Italian troops, except Centauro Battle Group, began withdrawing in the afternoon to the Homs–Tarhuna line.

16 January – across Wadi Zemzem

The Highland Division attacked at 10.30 p.m. and found that resistance gradually declined, and that by daylight on 16 January the enemy was retiring. For the New Zealand Division the next few days had an overall sameness, a steady advance over increasingly difficult country, often through clouds of dust, often with long delays, with only the most advanced troops ever seeing the enemy, and with no general deployment – altogether a rather wearisome and monotonous period. But again the engineers worked unceasingly on mine clearance, removal of booby traps, and finding ways round demolitions.

The Division began the 16th by discovering that Dor Umm er Raml was deserted by the enemy, except for a few members of 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 15 Panzer Division, who appeared to have been forgotten and who were promptly captured by New Zealand infantry. Their morale was good.

The divisional column was led by the screen of Divisional Cavalry and the Greys, with Tactical Headquarters always well forward, ‘leading the field at a cracking pace until pulled up by enemy opposition at 4 p.m.’ In fact the Greys recorded that the GOC moved at twenty miles an hour and that their heavy tanks could not keep up and had to lag behind. Next after this advanced guard came a gun group of 4th and 6th Field Regiments and 211st Medium Battery. Minefields, both real and dummy, caused delay on Dor Umm er Raml and in Wadi Zemzem, and parties from both 6th and 8th Field Companies were called forward to deal with them. Wadi Zemzem basically was no obstruction. The forward troops were across by 1 p.m. and nearing Wadi el Breg, 12 miles short of Sedada.

After crossing this wadi Divisional Cavalry met heavy and accurate shelling from the direction of Wadi Nfed, on which Sedada was located. The 4th and 6th Field Regiments were both deployed, opened fire about 4 p.m. and continued until dusk. Tactical Headquarters got so far ahead that it outdistanced the Divisional Cavalry screen during this period, and captured three tanks from Centauro Battle Group. The crews, who surrendered to the GOC himself, said they were anti-German and glad to be out of the war.

As daylight faded enemy tanks increased in number, and it was estimated that there were about fifteen German and fifteen Italian. The Greys knocked out two Italian tanks and destroyed many vehicles and guns in an action lasting two hours, but had four tanks hit and evacuated. They captured some twenty prisoners. The 6th Field Regiment finished the day gloriously by capturing sixteen Germans, all from 115th Panzer Grenadier Regiment.

In the late afternoon there were two attacks from enemy aircraft on the forward troops of both 7th Armoured and 2nd NZ Divisions, one by twelve aircraft and one by fifteen, but no damage was done. The 41st Light Anti-Aircraft Battery shot down one raider from the first attack.

The Division had advanced about 40 miles during the day, with 7th Armoured Division keeping level on the right, despite delays on minefields. The leading troops laagered for the night between Wadi el Breg and Wadi Nfed, with 25 Battalion providing perimeter defence for the tanks. The rear of 5 Infantry Brigade was still on Dor Umm er Raml, with the Administrative Group even farther back. And Sedada had not yet been captured, although there were signs that the enemy would go during the night. The opposition had been from 15 Panzer Division and Centauro Battle Group.

The GOC held a conference at 8 p.m., mainly to confirm that the axis for next day would be Sedada–Tmed el Chatua – thence north-west to a point on the Beni Ulid–Bir Dufan road about 18 miles east of Beni Ulid named Obelisco di el Mselleten. The Division had a quiet night except for the comforting noise of aircraft passing overhead to bomb the coastal road and the Bir Dufan landing ground.

The Enemy on 16 January

During the night the enemy withdrew under plan MOVEMENT RED and by 8 a.m. on 16 January was in new positions, 90th German Light Division astride the main coast road near Churgia, 3rd Reconnaissance Unit filling a long gap between 90 Light and the Sedada area, 15th Panzer Division and Centauro Battle Group south and south-east of Sedada, and 33rd Reconnaissance Unit on the western flank falling back to Abiar et Tala, 30 miles west of Sedada. The GAF Brigade was across the coast road 25 miles behind 90th German Light Division, and 164th German Light Division and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment were in second-line positions round Beni Ulid.

Enemy reports show that at first it was thought that Eighth Army followed up slowly; but it appears later that the increasing pressure round Sedada was felt, and even created some alarm. Units drew on their last reserve of petrol, and were running short of ammunition. Moreover, the shortage of troops caused a serious gap between 90th German Light Division and the units at Sedada. Rommel came to the conclusion that he could not resist another day on the same line, and so ordered a withdrawal (MOVEMENT BLUE) to the general line Beni Ulid–Bir Dufan–Tauorga, to be commenced at nightfall.

The unit in real trouble was 33rd German Reconnaissance Unit, which was trying to withdraw north-west through Abiar et Tala to Beni Ulid, through very difficult country. It was both short of petrol and much harried by 4th Light Armoured Brigade. To break clear it had in the end to sacrifice many of its wheeled vehicles, and by nightfall was still many miles from Beni Ulid with only enough petrol to take its armoured vehicles 25 kilometres.

17 January – across Wadi Sofeggin

In the evening of 16 January Montgomery cancelled the caveat he had imposed and ordered the advance to proceed with great resolution and the utmost speed, for he was already a little concerned with the rate of progress. Despite 7th Armoured and 2nd NZ Divisions’ efforts the total advance in two days was not more than 50 miles, which was not enough. Montgomery now wanted to intensify the threat to Tripoli from the flanking column to cause the enemy to thin out in the Homs area, where demolitions along the road promised to be a serious deterrent to the advance there. He then intended to drive hard from his eastern flank once the enemy had drawn away.

During 17 January 51st Highland Division made fairly good progress northwards along the main road and reached Gioda, with little opposition from troops but much from mines, craters and demolished bridges. The Army Reserve, 22nd Armoured Brigade, moved forward to about halfway between Tauorga and Sedada.

A landing ground at Wadi el Breg was completed during the day by 7th Armoured Division and was occupied almost at once by the Desert Air Force. The endless stream of transport aircraft bringing supplies reminded some of the veterans in 2nd NZ Division of the similar – but how different – picture of German aircraft streaming on to the airfield at Maleme in Crete. Times had changed. The RAF column which had been moving with 2nd NZ Division went to this landing ground, which presumably replaced the one intended for Sedada. One heavy and one light anti-aircraft battery were detached from the Division for protective duties there, and rejoined it in the morning of the 18th.

The Division advanced again about 7.30 a.m. and Sedada was soon reported clear; but the advance of the main column was delayed by minefields in Wadi Nfed, both real and dummy, which obstructed the only good track. Engineers from 7 and 8 Field Companies cleared the mines and improved an alternative track; but even then the going was rough and dusty, and movement was in single column. The engineers had their inevitable casualties from mines, but got some satisfaction from destroying a little stock of captured enemy tanks and guns. There were signs at Sedada of a hasty withdrawal, for several small minefields had not been finished, with mines still lying alongside the holes dug for them.

During the day 7th Armoured Division converged on to 2nd NZ Division’s line of advance, owing to the bottleneck across Wadi Nfed. Once during the morning the GOC adjusted the axis to give 7th Armoured Division more space; but shortly after 1 p.m. 7th Armoured Division cut across the Division’s axis and separated the leading groups from the rest. The break came in the 6 Brigade column just south of Sedada, with the result that only 24th Battalion was in touch with the armour and artillery. The mix-up was referred to 30th Corps, which ruled that 7th Armoured Division must have priority. The rear portion of 6th NZ Brigade Group and all groups behind it therefore had to halt until the armour passed through, for at the best there were only three good tracks. This caused 2nd NZ Division to fall behind 7th Armoured Division, a position it could not retrieve for several days.

The advance of the leading groups continued steadily past Tmed el Chatua, across Wadi Sofeggin and on towards Wadi el Merdum. Odd prisoners were collected, including a party of three Italians who came out of hiding and surrendered. In the late afternoon enemy aircraft again made several attacks, causing casualties in Divisional Cavalry and in the artillery numbering six killed and eight wounded.

At Wadi el Merdum the axis of advance turned westwards towards Beni Ulid. By 5.30 p.m. leading patrols had passed Bir Gebira, and when a halt was called the day’s advance was between 40 and 50 miles. Divisional Cavalry and the Greys laagered just west of Bir Gebira, with 24th Battalion, the only infantry unit available, providing protection. The rest of 6 Brigade did not arrive until almost 10 p.m.

A special plan had to be made to bring the remaining groups forward. Provost Company used 400 lamps to light the route for 40 miles. The three groups concerned, Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group, and 5th NZ Infantry Brigade, set off about 7 p.m. and did not complete the move until after midnight.

On the left of 2nd NZ Division patrols of 4th Light Armoured Brigade were ten miles south of Beni Ulid. On the right 8th Armoured Brigade of 7th Armoured Division crossed the Bir Dufan – Beni Ulid road and advanced another ten miles to the west, a notable penetration.

The Enemy on 17 January

The 90th Light Division continued its withdrawal along the line of the main road back towards Misurata. The 164th Light Division, Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and Centauro Battle Group were in and around Beni Ulid. The intention was that 164 Light should act as rearguard after 15 Panzer and the reconnaissance units had passed through, for Beni Ulid was a bottleneck. This left a large gap in the German line, which GAF Brigade filled by moving across from the main road to Bir Dufan. A further gap still remained between that place and Beni Ulid and it was through this that 8 Armoured Brigade had penetrated. In front of 2nd NZ Division , 3rs German Reconnaissance Unit covered the retirement of 15 Panzer Division to Beni Ulid, and at last light was still to the east of that village. After a bad day 33rd German Reconnaissance Unit had escaped 4th Light Armoured Brigade only by the barest margin with the help of a few tanks from 15 Panzer Division.

As on the two previous nights, Rommel decided that he could not stand, particularly as his line had been breached by 8th Armoured Brigade. At 7 p.m. he gave orders for all main bodies to retire to the Tarhuna – Homs line and for the Italian non-motorised troops already there to go back to the close defences of Tripoli. These ran in an irregular line on an arc about 15 miles from the town, were by no means strong, and presented no real obstacle.

Rommel also indicated to Commando Supremo in Rome that not even the motorised formations could make an effective stand on the Tarhuna – Homs line, but would also have to move back to Tripoli, which would be threatened by 20 or 21 January. His main reason for these conclusions was the shortage of all supplies, for he considered that with better maintenance he could hold the Tarhuna – Homs line for some time. The going to the south-west, where an outflanking attack might be made, was known to be very bad – as 2nd NZ Division was to discover.


A Daimler armored car opens fire to support advance of 7th Armored Division , 18th January 1943


18 and 19 January – Bottleneck at Beni Ulid

On 18 January the Eighth Army plan was to continue the advance all along the front. On the right flank 51 Division passed Misurata and Garibaldi and approached Zliten, while 22nd Armoured Brigade reached a point 12 miles south of Zliten. The enemy’s withdrawal speeded up, but artificial obstructions nullified any advantage gained from this. The Desert Air Force bombers maintained pressure and on the previous night struck hard at Castel Benito airfield, ten miles south of Tripoli, causing widespread damage and leaving some thirty fires.

Castel Benito 1

Castel Benito 2

Castel Benito 3

Castel Benito airfield , most important Axis airbase in Libya after Desert Air Force air attacks on January 1943

Instructions from 30th Corps to the inland column for the 18th were to continue to press the enemy back, with precedence to 7th Armoured Division in case of any conflict over the going. Among the tasks given 2nd NZ Division was the clearing and marking of the track from Sedada to Beni Ulid and the road from Beni Ulid to Tarhuna.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade drove the enemy rearguard out of Beni Ulid in the morning and continued towards Tarhuna. The New Zealand Division, following up, found many tanks, guns and vehicles abandoned but saw nothing of the enemy apart from one slight brush with a reconnaissance unit.

The axis of advance was now westwards from Bir Gebira to Beni Ulid and along the road to Tarhuna; but the going proved very bad, and by evening the leading troops were still east of Beni Ulid. Small changes in the axis proved useless as the country was more difficult than any yet encountered, especially for wheels. It seemed that further movement would have to be by road.

The rather tedious existence of the Administrative Group at the rear of the column changed this day by misadventure. After crossing Wadi Nfed at Sedada it took a wrong turning and followed 7 Armoured Division’s axis along the north side of Wadi el Merdum, then across the Bir Dufan road and for some miles to the north. The Flash Spotting Troop ended up about ten miles north-east of Beni Ulid. In addition the vehicles of several NZASC units tangled with 7th Armoured Division columns, which was very easy to do in a mass of vehicles and clouds of dust and a network of parallel wadis. It was all duly sorted out next morning.

The 7th Armoured Division had a reasonably good day, as the going progressively improved, although it was still difficult. The division met little opposition and by 8 p.m. was over 30 miles beyond Beni Ulid, east of the Beni Ulid – Tarhuna road.

The New Zealand Division advanced only 20 miles on 18 January. It was then instructed to pass through Beni Ulid and advance by road towards Tarhuna. It was hoped that once clear of Beni Ulid it would be able to widen its frontage, for movement through the village was limited to a single column. General Freyberg decided to push 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group through on 19 January, augmented by a squadron of Divisional Cavalry and a few tanks, to concentrate all engineer activities under the CRE, and to halt the rest of the Division for a day’s rest and maintenance.

Writing after the war Montgomery says that on 18 January he was not happy about the advance, which ‘was becoming sticky, and I was experiencing the first real anxiety I had suffered since assuming command of the Eighth Army. … I was determined, therefore, to accelerate the pace of operations, and to give battle by night as well as by day. … I ordered attacks on both axes to be put in by moonlight. I issued very strong instructions regarding the quickening of our efforts. … On 19 January progress greatly improved …’

Monty right beside an M3 Grant tank 20 January 1943

Eighth Army Intelligence had noted the switch of the German Air Force Brigade from the coastal area to Tarhuna, and Montgomery planned accordingly to strike hard on the right flank.

The Enemy on 18 January

Meanwhile Rommel hoped for a short breathing space as he expected our advance to slow down in the broken country southwest and south of Tarhuna. Nevertheless he was nervous about his western flank, and gradually strengthened the troops about Tarhuna at the expense of the coastal group. Defending Tarhuna from west to east were 164th German Light Division, a third of the Young Fascists, Centauro Battle Group (which had lost heavily in the last few days), 15th Panzer Division, and the GAF Brigade. The rest of the Young Fascists were still south of Tarhuna, but moved fast into the Tripoli defences. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit also was south of Tarhuna, and 3rd and Nizza Reconnaissance Units were the link between Tarhuna and the coastal forces, with Nizza apparently never where it was wanted. In the Cussabat–Homs area was 21st Italian Corps, with Trieste Division and two-thirds of Pistoia Division, but with 90th German Light Division in reserve in the Corradini area, for again it was Rommel’s intention to get the Italians back to Tripoli.

The reconnaissance reports which Rommel received from Superlibia held that the Homs – Tarhuna line could not be outflanked to the west by any large force. There is no evidence that he counted on this, and he later records without surprise that British forces were moving towards Garian; but the report showed that the Italian views on what was and was not possible did not coincide with ours.

19 January at Beni Ulid

The Desert Air Force was very active during the night of 18–19 January and next day, particularly against Castel Benito airfield and transport on the roads. Fighter wings operated from landing grounds in the Bir Dufan area. But in the opinion of dispassionate army observers, confirmed by checks of the various roads after reaching Tripoli, the damage done to enemy columns was slight and not commensurate with the number of planes engaged. The technique of this time did not produce the results that reasonably might have been expected from the excellence of the targets. Bombing was carried out from normal bombing heights, for up to that time the air force had not been strong enough to take undue risks. After the capture of Tripoli and a general relaxation of the somewhat rigid orders of past years, the new commander of the Desert Air Force (Air Vice-Marshal Broadhurst) set to work to improve techniques, including training in low-flying cannon attacks. The results were seen at Mareth and thereafter.

During 19 January 51 (H) Division made better progress and next night entered Homs. The 7th Armoured Division was much delayed by mines and bad going, and by nightfall was still eight miles south of Tarhuna opposed by enemy rearguards. In the course of the fighting the GOC of this division (Major-General Harding) was wounded by shellfire and evacuated. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade patrolled towards Garian, but made slow progress over the difficult country of the Gebel. Air raids on the brigade caused casualties numbering seven killed and twenty-one wounded, indicating that penetration so far west touched the enemy on a tender spot.

The New Zealand Division spent the day clearing the road through Beni Ulid, which was situated among ravine-like wadis with steep sides. The only route through was the road, which had been mined and badly cratered. Almost the full complement of the divisional engineers spent the day lifting mines, filling craters, and making improvements. Bulldozer drivers took great risks from the ever-present danger of mines. The GOC, who was anxious to get on, spent much time on the scene. Meanwhile, farther back, 6 Field Company cleared mines from the track in advance of Sedada, and in some three days on this task lost four killed and seven wounded.

It was plain that the Division would have to pass through Beni Ulid in single column and would have to continue along the Tarhuna road in the same way. The exit from the village was all the more difficult in that it was a steep hill. Luckily there was no air activity.

Two days’ rations and water, and petrol for 100 miles, were issued to units in the morning of 19 January, the first replenishment since 14 January. Gradually the Division filtered through Beni Ulid, A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry in the morning, followed by one squadron of the Greys, 24 Battalion and 6 Field Regiment in the early afternoon, all these units moving at least 20 miles clear of the village. Engineers all this time continued clearing the road and marking dispersal areas.

The rest of Divisional Cavalry followed, and then, as it was becoming progressively easier to pass through the village, Freyberg decided to press on during the night along a lighted route. The remainder of 6 Brigade Group began to move through about 7 p.m. and three or four hours later joined 24 Battalion some 18 to 20 miles north. Fifth Brigade Group, having been warned at 4.15 p.m. that it was to pass through 6 Brigade and take the lead, moved off at 7 p.m. from its location east of the Bir Dufan road, and at 9 p.m. began to pass through Beni Ulid. From 4 a.m. onwards on the 20th the group approached the Divisional Cavalry area 25 miles north of Beni Ulid, and there moved off the road and dispersed. Divisional Headquarters and Reserve Group followed 5th NZ Brigade and dispersed just behind it. The whole Division, less Administrative Group, was clear of Beni Ulid at first light on the 20th, which speaks volumes for the engineers who had cleared the route, for the Provost Company who had marked it and controlled the traffic, and for all the drivers.

The Enemy on 19–20 January

Rommel’s comment about this time was that ‘the British commander was now conducting his operations far more energetically than he had done in the past.’ (this remark is like as if he is grading Montgomery’s performance and he hiömself Rommel is not on the run) He was impressed by the increased momentum, including 2nd NZ Division’s night advance, which was duly noted, although the formation was not identified. While he was satisfied with the resistance that his troops had made to a direct assault on the Tarhuna area (by 7th Armoured Division), he was becoming nervous about the outflanking move, which was more obvious every day. The advance of 4th Light Armoured Brigade towards Garian had been magnified into an attack by a full armoured division, and Rommel came to the conclusion that if his forces were to avoid being cut off he must move away to the west without delay – to the west and not to Tripoli. The first sign that the fall of Tripoli was inevitable shows in the orders issued to the Axis forces on the evening of 19 January. The 164th German Light Division and the GAF Brigade were to block the Tarhuna – Castel Benito road until the evening of the 20th; the reconnaissance group ( 3, 33, and Nizza units) were to deploy south, south-east and south-west of Azizia and 15 Panzer was in army reserve thereabouts. The whole of the Italian 21st Italian Corps was to evacuate the Homs position at once, part moving to the Tripoli defences and part back to Zauia, west of Tripoli. The 20th Italian Corps, comprising the Young Fascists and Centauro Battle Group, was also to go to Zauia, and 90th German Light Division was left to carry out a fighting withdrawal along the coastal road.

20 January – into the Gebel

During the night of 19–20 January and next day the Desert Air Force continued its bombing and had good targets even at night, for it was the period of full moon. Tripoli was under a pall of smoke, but some of this and some of the fires seen undoubtedly came from the enemy’s demolitions.

The Highland Division continued its advance and reached Corradini, but was held up there by rearguards. The 22nd Armoured Brigade closed up to Homs. The Army Commander was himself well forward directing this coastal thrust and, in the words of his Chief of Staff, was ‘cracking the whip’.

Bad visibility caused by ground mist stopped 7th Armoured Division from closing Tarhuna until 10.30 a.m., when it was found that the enemy had gone. The advance then continued along the road towards Castel Benito, but the division was soon held up by rearguards in a defile about ten miles to the west. The going was almost impossible off the road, for they were now on the northern slopes of the Gebel.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, making good progress north-westwards from Beni Ulid, at nightfall was about 13 miles southwest of Tazzoli and 20 miles east of Garian, and was searching for a way down the escarpment and out on to the Tripoli plain. The brigade was attacked by twelve Stukas three times during the day, visible evidence again of the enemy’s touchiness about his right flank, but casualties were light.

General Freyberg held his usual conference in the morning and decided to go forward and gain touch with 7th Armoured Division, for it was expected that 2nd NZ Division would have to join in an attack on Tarhuna. The advance continued, therefore, until Divisional Cavalry, in the lead, reached a point about 17 miles south of Tarhuna, where it was learnt from 7th Armoured Division that the town was clear.

The GOC decided at once to swing to the left, although reports from 4th Light Armoured Brigade showed that the going was ‘bad’. Divisional Cavalry, directed on Tazzoli, where the first Italian civilians were seen, reported it clear by 2 p.m. But a route to the village from the Tarhuna road, suitable for all types of traffic, was not discovered until after dark.

Meanwhile the remainder of the Division moved forward along the road from Beni Ulid and then essayed the bad going towards Tazzoli. By last light 5th NZ Brigade Group, in the lead, was about five miles south-east of that village, where it remained for the night. It took the usual precautions against surprise, as some scattered shelling had been seen on the hills to the north, probably the enemy rearguard opposing 7th Armoured Division. The Division stretched back along the axis to where 6 Infantry Brigade Group was located about 20 miles south of Tarhuna.

It was urgent now to find a good route down the Gebel to the plain. The GOC, already impatient about this, decided to send the CRE off in the dark with the task of finding a route, although he had been urged by his staff to wait until dawn. Colonel Hanson already had selected a provisional route from the map, but his task was not easy, for it was supremely difficult country, with precipitous slopes finishing with a drop of anything up to 1000 feet in a few miles. He found a route, however, and ordered 8 Field Company to be on the spot at first light to open a track through a defile.

That evening (20 January) Brigadier Kippenberger gave final orders for 5th NZ Brigade Group to move to Tripoli and for the occupation of the town. In the outcome these orders had to be considerably modified.

The Enemy on 20 January

The enemy assumed his new dispositions, moving the Italians into the Tripoli defences or to points west of Tripoli. With the exception that 90th German Light Division moved back a few miles under pressure, the troops that were in rearguard positions, including those west of Tarhuna, managed to stand their ground. The advance of ‘strong forces’ north-west through Beni Ulid was duly noted, but the German narrative records that these made slow progress during 20 January, ‘obviously because of difficult going’. Undoubtedly this slow advance of 2nd NZ Division helped Rommel to decide to stay in his existing positions on 21 January. He relied on 15th Panzer Division and 33rd Reconnaissance Group around Azizia to break up any debouchment from the escarpment by British forces ‘going large’ to the west.

Rommel would not forget 20 January easily, however. A message arrived from Marshal Cavallero (Italian Chief of Staff) saying, ‘The Duce is not in favour of the steps at present being taken, because they are not in accordance with his instructions to hold the Tarhuna – Homs positions at least three weeks. He does not believe the threat from the south to be very pressing and considers the orders that have been given unjustified and over-hasty. The Duce is of the opinion that the withdrawal will certainly develop into a break-through if all the moves are speeded up, as Army [i.e., Rommel] intends to do. The Duce insists on the line laid down by him being held.’

And salt was rubbed into the wound when Marshal Bastico (Superlibia) stated that in his opinion the threat of encirclement was not so imminent and serious, and requested that orders should be reviewed to prevent the withdrawal from degenerating into a catastrophic flight.

In Rommel’s own words, ‘We gasped when we received this signal. A position which has been broken through or outflanked is valueless unless there are mobile forces available to throw back the enemy outflanking column. The best strategic plan is useless if it cannot be executed tactically.’

That same afternoon a conference took place at which one could wish to have been present, between Rommel, Bastico, Kesselring and Cavallero. Rommel says the discussion was stormy. He maintained that he could not be expected to obey silly orders about time limits, which, he pointed out, he had not accepted when they were first laid down. He asked finally whether he was to stay and fight and so lose the army, or move off to Tunisia more or less intact. Cavallero promised that a decision would be given promptly. During this conference word was received that the British had sunk ten out of fourteen petrol barges west of Tripoli, which cannot have added to the gaiety of the meeting.

In Count Ciano’s diary of early January appears this extract: ‘He [Mussolini ] realizes that the loss of Tripoli will cut deeply into the morale of the people. He would like a desperate house-to-house defence like that in Stalingrad. He knows that this is impossible. … He has harsh words for Cavallero and for “that madman Rommel, who thinks of nothing but retreating in Tunisia.” ‘

Times had changed from those when Rommel stood on the fringe of the Nile Delta.

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21 January – the Plains of Tripoli

By the evening of 21 January 51st (Highland) Division had forced the enemy back from Corradini, and Tripoli was less than 50 miles ahead. Despite this the Army Commander was uneasy at the lack of speed, for he noted that demolitions on the road had been skilfully related to the ground, so that it was often impossible for even tracked vehicles to get past. His Chief of Staff, Brigadier de Guingand, writes, ‘demolitions had caused great congestion. … it looked a ghastly picture, and one wondered whether it could ever be sorted out in time.

In the evening Montgomery decided on his final thrust. The object was to get to Tripoli without delay, forgoing any idea of rounding up the enemy, and taking advantage of the fact that the enemy had weakened his coastal forces to counter the inland column. He decided, therefore, to order his Army Reserve, 22nd Armoured Brigade, to pass through 51st Highland Division on 22 January and force its way into Tripoli along the coastal road.

The 7th Armoured Division made little progress on 21 January and at last light still faced the defile ten miles west of Tarhuna. But a first success had been gained towards outflanking the enemy, for 11th Hussars from the division reached the flat country below the escarpment and patrolled up to 25 miles west of Tarhuna towards Azizia.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade moved its main body down from the Gebel during the night of 20–21 January, and patrolled towards Garian and Azizia, one patrol going as far as Bir el Ghnem. Tanks were located round Azizia, and new defences blocking the road south of Castel Benito. Late on the 21st the brigade reported that it was in excellent country for tanks and that there was a good opportunity of cutting through to the coast; but General Freyberg, to whom the suggestion was made, would not agree to release the Greys, and his refusal was confirmed by 30th Corps. The suggestion was rather venturesome.

At dawn 8th Field Company began work on the track through the defile, which occupied it all day and into the night. It was a cold morning, and the troops found ice on their groundsheets. Divisional Cavalry was off early, followed by Tactical Headquarters and using the track from Tazzoli to Garian for about 13 miles, then turning due north into the defile over which RAF fighters and guns from 14th Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment provided protection. To counter ground opposition, a gun group of 4th Field Regiment, 211st Medium Battery, and later 5th Field Regiment, moved immediately behind Divisional Cavalry. At 1 p.m. there was a raid by twelve German aircraft, but no damage was done.

After advancing more than 25 miles along the divisional axis and reaching a point about eight miles south-east of Azizia, Divisional Cavalry came under shellfire and reported the enemy in position westwards from Point 193 – ten miles east of Azizia. The 4th Field Regiment and 211st Medium Battery opened fire and compelled the enemy artillery to retire, leaving behind a gun and a truck. By that time it was dark, and the Cavalry laagered 15 miles south-east of Azizia, with Tactical Headquarters and the Greys close by.

Fifth NZ Infantry Brigade Group did not move from south of Tarhuna until late morning, when 28th (Maori) Battalion led the advance in single column. By evening the battalion was out in the plain making contact with the rear of Divisional Cavalry. Brigadier Kippenberger, who had spent the day forward, gave the Maoris the task of protecting the Greys’ laager. The remainder of 5th NZ Brigade Group halted about 10 p.m. not far behind Divisional Cavalry.

Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group did not pass through the defile until after dark, and halted when just clear. The rest of the Division was still to the east of Tazzoli and farther back along the road to Beni Ulid.

The Enemy on 21 January

During 21 January the enemy maintained his existing positions, 90th German Light Division opposing 51 (H) Division astride the road west of Corradini and 164th German Light Divisionholding up 7th Armoured Division just west of Tarhuna. The GAF Brigade was south of Castel Benito, with Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment behind it, and the Reconnaissance Group south of Azizia, with 15th Panzer Division to its north. The Italians were either withdrawing into the Tripoli defences or were on the way to Zauia.

Rommel had decided not to attempt to make a further stand, as the weight of the attack on his western flank was increasing. He would save his army and abandon Tripoli, while Montgomery wanted Tripoli and looked on the capture of the German army as less urgent. For once the intentions of the opposing commanders were complementary.

So 90th German Light Division was ordered to break off contact during the night of 21–22 January, withdraw through Tripoli to west of Sorman and take up a position facing south and east. The 21st Italian Corps, with oddments of Italian divisions and a rearguard from 90th German Light Division, was to stay in the Tripoli defences at least until the evening of the 22nd, for there was just a chance that the advancing British might not reach Tripoli by 23 January. The 164th German Light Division would withdraw to the area south of Zauia, and GAF Brigade was to take over rearguard duties south of Castel Benito. The Reconnaissance Group was to withdraw when under pressure to the south-west of Bianchi; and 15th Panzer Divisionwould stay at Azizia. Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment apparently withdrew to the west, for it disappears from the order of battle for the next few days.

Early on 21 January Rommel received his answer from Marshal Cavallero saying, ‘the Duce’s directions are unchanged. The destruction of the army must be avoided, but as much time as possible must be gained.’ Ignoring the great discrepancy between this and the previous order, it is difficult to quarrel with this latest directive.

Action at Azizia, 22 January

The Desert Air Force had subdued the Luftwaffe, now forced to use airfields well west of Tripoli. The last air attack on Castel Benito was made on 21 January, mainly to stop the ploughing up of the field, and three ploughs were destroyed, a strange conclusion to an air attack.

On the coastal road 22nd Armoured Brigade passed through 51 (H) Division and by the afternoon was a mere 15 miles from Tripoli, where it was held up by rearguards and demolitions. Only one company of infantry was with it, as traffic jams had made it impossible to reinforce by wheeled transport. So Montgomery sent forward a battalion from 51st Highland Division riding on Valentine tanks, with orders to attack on arrival, which meant a night attack with the armour following through by moonlight.

The 7th Armoured Division cleared the defile west of Tarhuna during the night of 21–22 January, moved down to the plain, and by nightfall was only a few miles short of Castel Benito airfield, with one patrol from 11th Hussars a few miles to the north-east of the airfield. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was well across the Azizia - Bir el Ghnem road 20 miles south-west of Azizia.

It was anticipated that the enemy would make a stand, even if only a short one, across the two roads leading into Tripoli from the south; and from experience it was known that the enemy was most skilful in the way in which he covered a withdrawal or a demolition with a combination of single tanks, single 88-millimetre guns and small parties of infantry.

Divisional Cavalry resumed the advance at dawn on 22 January and by 11 a.m. had established that the enemy was holding the high ground south and south-west of Azizia. His guns and tanks held up any further advance. The 4th Field Regiment and 211st Medium Battery then deployed and engaged the enemy positions, tanks and transport, and under this cover the Greys moved closer to Azizia parallel to the road. Scattered shots were exchanged with enemy tanks, but the ground was broken and the enemy well established. Daylight ended with both sides exchanging fire from hull-down positions. This was the Greys’ last action in the advance. As an indication of what might be expected in such an operation over heavy going, the regiment started with twenty-six Shermans and four Grants but ended with only fourteen heavy tanks, the loss of sixteen being due almost entirely to engine trouble or other mechanical failure.

Fifth NZ Infantry Brigade Group, now rejoined by 5th Field Regiment, began to advance at 10 a.m., keeping off the road. The leading battalion (28 Maori) moved up behind 4th Field Regiment, halted briefly, and then at 11.30 a.m. moved on again, followed by the rest of the column. Progress was slow with frequent stops, and at 2.15 p.m. the column encountered enemy shellfire. Brigadier Kippenberger now gave orders that the brigade was to go straight to Tripoli, but might have to fight for it. It would advance in three columns, with 28th Battalion as advanced guard, 21st Battalion off the road to the right, 23rd Battalion to the left, and the remainder of the group astride the road.

In this order the advance resumed at 3.30 p.m., and half an hour later 28th Battalion was about eight miles south of Azizia. Here the group halted while the brigadier discussed the situation with the GOC, for an intercepted enemy message had now reached Divisional Headquarters that the troops at Azizia were to hold out until 7 p.m., and a deduction had been made that they would then withdraw. It thus appeared that an attack would not be needed and unnecessary casualties could be avoided.

In the calmer atmosphere today, it appears that in fact a wrong deduction was made. The message reads: ‘From Intelligence channels. 15th [Panzer Division] defends Azizia. Ramcke defends 15 km south Castel Benito ordered hold out till 1900 hrs’. The full-stop after ‘Azizia’ conveys the meaning that the holding-out period applied only to Ramcke (the German Air Force Brigade), but this was not realised at the time. The enemy certainly had no idea of moving 15th Panzer Division as early as 7 p.m. In fact it did not receive orders to retire until after 8 p.m. and did not start moving until after midnight. But while this error affected the plans for 5th NZ Brigade, it had no effect on the final result of the operations, the capture of Tripoli next morning.

It was now decided that 5th NZ Brigade would advance after dark in column, with 28th Battalion in the lead, and with the hope that the way to Tripoli would be found clear. B Company of 28th Battalion would be advanced guard, proceeding by bounds and giving various coloured flares as success signals at each bound. Engineers with mine detectors, and two anti-tank guns, went with this advanced guard.

At 8 p.m. the brigade moved forward slowly, Brigade Tactical Headquarters with 28th Battalion. Five kilometres from Azizia B Company met opposition, debussed and went forward on foot. The rest of the battalion followed up at a crawl until it reached the two kilometre peg, and it appeared that Azizia was indeed clear. At that moment, however, a flare went up from a hill east of the road, followed by a dozen others on both sides and then by defensive fire which criss-crossed on fixed lines over the front. The advance naturally stopped. Shortly afterwards the enemy opened up with mortar and artillery fire on the road, and vehicles were hastily dispersed.

Brigadier Kippenberger judged the opposition too strong for him to put in an impromptu attack. Moreover, the brigade transport would be in danger at dawn if the enemy remained, for it would certainly be under direct observation. So the advanced guard was recalled and the brigade withdrew some six or seven miles. Divisional Cavalry and the Greys were now the forward troops, the former being some six miles south of Azizia.

An examination of the enemy position later confirmed that it had been well organised and strongly held.

About 9 p.m. 4th Light Armoured Brigade reported that enemy transport was moving along the road towards Azizia from Bir el Ghnem, and some ten miles short of Azizia. This was probably part of the German Reconnaissance Group retiring northwards. Two sections of carriers and two six-pounder anti-tank guns from 23rd Battalion were sent out westwards to deal with this, but it could not be located.

The remainder of 2nd NZ Division – Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group, 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group and Administrative Group – advanced during the day without incident, and the whole Division debouched out of the hills and on to the plain.

The Enemy on 22 January

The enemy’s efforts were now directed to leaving Tripoli without being rushed. He continued to be more concerned about his southern flank than elsewhere, and kept 15th Panzer Division and the GAF Brigade across the two main lines of approach from that direction, those via Azizia and Castel Benito. He comments on the probing attacks of 2nd NZ Division (but without identifying the formation) and did not fail to notice that the troops pulled back slightly during the evening.

On the coastal road the remaining Italians were to go first and 90th German Light Division was to be the rearguard, moving back through the town and away to the west. Rearguard duties west of Tripoli were to be taken up by the GAF Brigade around Oliveti. The 15th Panzer Division was to withdraw at dawn on the 23rd, leaving strong rearguards at Sabotinia to carry out a fighting withdrawal to Maamura and there to link up with the GAF Brigade. Other detailed moves need not be recorded; but the result would be a defensive line running from Zanzur, in front of Bianchi and then westwards. The nearness to the sea, where landing barges could unload, had in the last few days improved the petrol position, and units now had enough for at least 250 kilometres.

23 January – Tripoli Captured

During the night of 22–23 January General Oliver Leese’s 30th Corps allotted areas in and around Tripoli to be taken up after its capture. The 7th Armoured Division would occupy the west and south-west of the town and keep touch with the enemy; part of 2nd NZ Division would be in Tripoli and part in Castel Benito. The detailed subdivision of the town remained as earlier laid down, but modification seemed likely.

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Italian Prisoners captured during advance to Tripoli , 22 January 1943

The armoured division reported during the night that the enemy had left Castel Benito. Patrols from 11th Hussars entered Tripoli first, their leading patrol at 5 a.m., followed an hour later by troops of 51st Highland Division. It was exactly three months since the opening of the Battle of Alamein, and Eighth Army had advanced 1400 miles; and as a climax had captured Tripoli within the ten-day limit prescribed by Montgomery, to his very great satisfaction.

It seems that a party from 1st Company, 27th (MG) Battalion, were the first New Zealanders to enter Tripoli. When the 5th NZ Brigade attack was abandoned the previous evening, the machine-gunners’ truck had broken down, so they bivouacked for the night. At dawn they could find nobody and, with their vehicle repaired, drove off through Azizia, passed the Divisional Cavalry patrols, and reached Tripoli at 10.30 a.m. as a reward for their initiative.

Early morning patrols confirmed that Azizia had been evacuated, and Divisional Cavalry, followed by the Greys and the GOC’s Tactical Headquarters, resumed the advance. Suani Ben Adem was reached about 11 a.m. and was found already occupied by 8th Armoured Brigade, which (acting under 30th Corps ‘ orders) was on its way to the south-west of Tripoli and so could not avoid cutting across 2nd NZ Division’s line of advance.

Fifth NZ Infantry Brigade Group moved at 11 a.m. and, after passing Azizia, formed up in one column on the road. Just after midday the GOC instructed the brigade to push right through to Tripoli. Brigadier Kippenberger went ahead to the Azizia Gate of the town and in the main square met Major-General Wimberley, commander of 51st Highland Division. The leading unit of 5th NZ Brigade (28th Maori Battalion) reached the gate at 1.30 p.m.

Fifth NZ Brigade had been prepared to arrange for the subdivision of the town, but troops from 51st Highlans Division were already there. Kippenberger and Wimberley discussed a re-arrangement, and ‘everyone acted sensibly and it was made without difficulty’. Fifth NZ Brigade went to the southern part of the town with 21st Battalion in the western sub-sector, 23rs the central and 28th the eastern. The 5th Field Regiment had remained at Suani Ben Adem. Guards were posted on vital points, and the occupation was completed without incident. Civilians gave no trouble.

Divisional Cavalry bivouacked four miles south of the city, Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group between Suani Ben Adem and Bianchi, and Divisional Artillery concentrated in an area south of Suani Ben Adem. Sixth Infantry Brigade Group remained south-east of Azizia, pending a move next day to the Bianchi area.

Bianchi was reported clear by 30th Corps, and so the GOC, accompanied by his ADC (Captain Griffiths), Brigadier Gentry and his staff captain (Captain Cook) and Brigadier N. W. McD. Weir (on attachment from New Zealand), set off about 2.30 p.m. to examine its possibilities as a bivouac area. But Bianchi was still occupied by rearguards of 15th Panzer Division, and the party ran into rifle and machine-gun fire at very close range, followed shortly by mortar fire. Captain Griffiths returned the fire with a Tommy gun. The party went to ground, but the GOC’s driver (Lance-Corporal Norris16) went back to his car, which was under fire, turned it, picked up the GOC and his ADC and drove off at full speed to get assistance. Brigadier Gentry’s driver received a fatal wound, three other men were wounded, and Captain Cook’s car was destroyed. The party took shelter in a nearby farmhouse.

The GOC soon found some machine-gunners of 3 MG Company and led them back to the scene of the ambush, but as no one could be seen, he thought that the brigadiers and the others had been
captured. Two tanks of Protective Troop now arrived and were sent in pursuit, but although they chased two armoured cars, could not overhaul them. The party was then found in the farmhouse, having had no further losses.

In a letter describing the incident General Freyberg said in a postscript, ‘I will be more careful in future’. It was apparent to all that had the Protective Troop accompanied the party an awkward predicament might have been avoided, but as the GOC had been assured that Bianchi was clear, his indignation later in the day when speaking to the Corps Commander was understandable.

The incident became known in conversation throughout the Division as the ‘Battle of Bianchi ‘. The Panzer Army’s narrative for the day speaks of ‘strong enemy reconnaissance parties thrusting forward’, and perhaps the GOC’s journey was one of these.

Tripoli British infantryman

A Kiwi infantryman in Tripoli 23rd January 1943

The Enemy on 23 January

The enemy withdrew with the same orderliness in which he had conducted the retirement throughout. On the coast road the final rearguard left its position east of the city at 11 p.m. The GAF Brigade had difficulties fending off attacks from 7th Armoured Division and speeded up its timings to commence withdrawing at 9 p.m. on 22 January instead of at midnight. The 15th Panzer Division withdrew from Azizia between 1 a.m. and first light, leaving rearguards in front of Bianchi. In the morning of the 23rd 7th Armoured Division was checked south-east of Zanzur. There was thus no rapid retreat, and while air reconnaissance showed steady movement to the west, there was nothing resembling a flight. The enemy was apprehensive about the possibility of a wide outflanking movement along the foot of the Gebel westwards to Medenine in Tunisia, but his general plan was now to retire to the Mareth Line in any case, sending all the Italians first and leapfrogging the German formations along the coastal road. By the evening of 23 January the enemy rearguards were west of Zauia, and thereafter they withdrew steadily towards the Tunisian frontier.

The advance to Tripoli involved 2nd NZ Division in very little fighting. Indeed, for the most part, action was restricted to the Divisional Cavalry and the Greys, with some assistance from the artillery. The engineers were frequently called on for mine clearing and track making, and the supply echelons, of course, concerned themselves constantly with the maintenance of the Division. But for the infantry, accustomed as they had become to action and to setting hardship at defiance, the journey from Nofilia to Tripoli was an easy one. It was mostly very much a matter of sitting patiently in their lorries, enduring the jolting, the dust and the delays until their arrival in what had become a common term for Tripoli – the promised land.

The Division’s casualties since beginning the march from near Nofilia on 9 January were 21 killed and 56 wounded, of whom one killed and ten wounded were from infantry units. The total casualties since leaving the Bardia area early in December were 69 killed, 197 wounded and 8 prisoners of war.


Prime Minister Churchill ‘s Visit

During the time spent in and around Tripoli the troops derived some pleasure from living among greenness and cultivation, with an occasional (or perhaps only one) visit to a large town; but the real culmination to the advance on Tripoli came on 4 February, when the Division paraded for Mr Churchill – one of the most memorable occasions in its history.

Instructions issued on 30 January concerned a review by the Army Commander. Then it became known that the parade was to be in honour of a ‘Mr Bullfinch’, who was soon identified by rumour as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.

Two or three days were devoted to preparations, and leave to Tripoli was cancelled. The Division was organised into five groups:

Divisional Troops (comprising Greys, Divisional Cavalry, Divisional Engineers, Divisional Signals, 27 (MG) Battalion, and Headquarters)

Divisional Artillery

5th Infantry Brigade

6th Infantry Brigade



The review took place on a stretch of open green country surrounded by bluegums, not without its resemblance to that homeland so far away. Before lunch there was a full rehearsal, at which the GOC found himself at the point where he had to call for ‘Three cheers for …’, and at that very moment realised that he had not prepared an alternative name for the Unknown Guest, and so after a fractional pause plunged deeply and went on ‘… the Prime Minister’, thus confirming or confounding all rumours.

The whole force paraded before 2 p.m. to await the official party. Mr Churchill, dressed in the uniform of an Air Commodore, arrived standing up in an open car with General Montgomery seated beside him. In the cars that followed were General Sir Alan Brooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), General Sir Harold Alexander and other senior officers. An escort of armoured cars swept into line beside the saluting base, and as the Prime Minister’s car halted, General Freyberg ordered a general salute. The GOC was greeted warmly and invited into the car and, with Mr Churchill still standing, they drove along the lines of the massed troops.

After returning to the saluting base the Prime Minister addressed the Division, speaking at first in the well-known grumbling tone, with rather a monotonous delivery:

“General Freyberg, officers and men of the New Zealand Division and the Royal Scots Greys and other units attached thereto – when I last saw your General, Bernard Freyberg, my old friend of so many years of war and peace, the Salamander, as he may be called, of the British Empire, it was on those bluff and rocky slopes to the south of Alamein where you were then preparing to receive what was then expected to be a most dangerous and deadly thrust by the hitherto victorious Rommel. At that time also we had had great doubts and anxieties as to the position in Russia and what would happen in the Caucasus and in all approaches to the great oilfields without which the plight of Germany is hard.”

(And then his tone changed and he electrified his audience, bursting out triumphantly.)

"But what a change has taken place since then. By an immortal victory, the Battle of Egypt, the Army of the Axis Powers which had fondly hoped and loudly boasted it would take Egypt and the Nile Valley, was broken, shattered, shivered, and ever since then, by a march unexampled in all history for the speed and force of the advance, you have driven the remnants of that army before you until now the would-be conqueror of Egypt is endeavouring to pass himself off as the deliverer of Tunisia. These great feats of arms entitle the Army of the Desert to feel the sure deep-founded sense of comfort and pride based on the footing of valiant duty faithfully done. Now I come and find you here, 1500 miles from where I saw you last, and you may well feel that in that period a great change has taken place in the whole position of the war, and that we now have a right to say that a term will be fixed to the intense exertions to which so many well disposed and good-hearted people have been compelled by the brutal attacks which have been made upon them. Now a turn and a change has come upon the scene, just in the same way as after all these hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert you suddenly came again into green and fertile lands. "

“So there has been a movement of the whole world cause with its United Nations, a movement towards a far surer hope and a far nearer conclusion than anything that was possible before. You will march into fairer lands, you will march into the lands where the grim and severe conditions of the desert lie behind; but having endured those conditions, the military qualities, the grand fighting qualities you have displayed will only shine the brighter and be turned to greater advantage. Far away in your homes at the other side of the world all hearts are swelling with pride in the deeds of the New Zealand Division. Throughout the Motherland – our little islands, which stood alone for a year surrounded only by children from overseas, against dire odds; far away in New Zealand, throughout the Motherland, all men are filled with admiration for the Desert Army, and we of the British Isles, our hearts go out in gratitude to the people of New Zealand who have sent this splendid Division to win glory across the oceans and who, unanimously, by their Parliament in secret session, accorded to you what is, I am sure, your wish to see this particular job through to the end. The enemy has been driven out of Egypt, out of Cyrenaica, out of Tripolitania. He is now coming towards the end of his means of retreat and in the corner of Tunisia a decisive battle has soon to be fought. Other great forces coming in from the west – the First British Army, the powerful armies of the United States, a French army coming back to its duty after having been first defeated and them shamefully misled. All these forces are closing in and all these operations are combined, but in them, I am sure, the Desert Army and the New Zealand Division will bear a most recognisable and honourable part. What I would say to you is that the sun has begun to shine.”

“The good cause will not be trampled down. There will be more justice and mercy among men – there will be more freedom – there will be more chances for all as a result of this great world movement in which all the most powerful communities not locked in the Nazi or Fascist heresy will take their part, and in this struggle those whom I speak to now and see before me in their massive array have already taken a glorious part but have still before them the opportunity of increasing the debt which all free nations of the world owe, and I give to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, on behalf of all the people of the Homeland – I give you our expression of earnest and warm-hearted thanks. We cherish the memory and the tale of all you have done. We wish you God Speed and God’s assistance in your further efforts and we feel that as duty will not fail so success will be achieved.”

When the speech concluded General Freyberg called for three cheers for the Prime Minister, which were hearty indeed. Then in order of groups the Division marched past the saluting base to the music of the massed pipe bands of 51st (Highland) Division, with the troops nine abreast, an unorthodox formation but most suitable and impressive. The armoured and artillery units marched to their nearby vehicle parks, where they mounted their tanks, carriers and guns, and in column of six vehicles abreast were again reviewed.

So for half an hour an almost unbroken line of men, tanks, guns and vehicles passed in salute to the great leader of the Commonwealth cause. General Freyberg described it as ‘the most impressive and moving parade of my career’.

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Page 45, An impressive parade and march past of the Highland Division during the visit of Mr Churchill to Tripoli_SMALL

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Mr Churchill ‘s reference to General Freyberg as the ‘Salamander of the British Empire’ puzzled many people, though they all knew it to be high praise of some kind. The salamander is a lizard-like animal to which the superstition once attached that it could live in fire, from which characteristic the parallel of General Freyberg ‘s career, involving battle after battle and wound after wound and surviving still, was an easy one. Today the arms of Baron Freyberg include as supporters ‘on either side a Salamander Proper’.

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Chapter 7: The Medenine Incident

Early Days in Tripoli

THE New Zealand Division was in and around Tripoli for over a month, engaged in a variety of duties, and enjoying a reasonable amount of sport and recreation. Dock labour, control of civilians, guard duties, training, reorganisation and absorption of reinforcements, maintenance, Churchill ‘s visit, and for the officers discussions of the past and planning for the future – all these figured during the period. Many corps, such as the engineers, the anti-aircraft artillery, and the ASC were busy with their normal operational duties.

Administrative Group 2, the last of the divisional groups in the advance, did not catch up until 25 January. On that date Divisional Headquarters was assembled near Suani Ben Adem with Divisional Artillery and the Reserve Group, 5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group was in Tripoli, and 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group in the Bianchi area. Fifth NZ Brigade stayed in Tripoli only three days, however, being relieved on the 26th by a brigade from 51st Highland Division and moving to an area near Castel Benito.

The Division was on three hours’ notice for operational employment until 27 January. This was extended to twenty-four hours; but there were indications that in any case the Division would be in its present area until the end of February. Units retained petrol for 100 miles, but for some days there was a shortage which enforced economy. Supplies of petrol, and indeed of everything, depended on the opening up of Tripoli port.

The work of the Navy in clearing the port and making it usable again was a notable factor in maintaining Eighth Army’s offensive. To the untutored eye, the devastation in the harbour and the obstructions in the entrance seemed to indicate that the port would be unusable for months. But the first vessel entered the harbour on 3 February, followed by a whole convoy a few days later, and shortly thereafter over 2000 tons a day were being handled. As a temporary measure before 3 February, vessels were unloaded by lighter outside the harbour.

On 26 January the GOC held a conference of formation commanders and heads of services, and led discussions on past operations, on future operations, and on activities in the month ahead. For the immediate future he prescribed a general ‘sprucing up’, to include weapon training and marching. Leave to Tripoli, games, a sports meeting, and concert parties would provide the necessary element of entertainment.

Leave to Tripoli began on 29 January, a tenth of unit strength going there every day, but the men were disappointed with the city, which could offer no food or normal entertainment. There were strict orders not to buy food from inhabitants, and the general impression was that one visit was enough, despite the fact that it was a real town with an attractive seafront esplanade. Some trouble was caused by over-indulgence in the local wine, soon known as ‘plonk’, which was plentiful and cheap. It was a not unusual sight to see odd unit vehicles scouring the countryside on ‘plonk missions’, or in other words looking for fresh supplies of the local substitute for beer.

Churchill ‘s words about coming into green and fertile lands had good foundation, for the plain of Tripoli was indeed fertile compared with the desert country which was all the Division had seen for many long months. There was ample artesian water to irrigate the innumerable small farms which were the visible sign of the Italian Fascist attempt to colonise Tripolitania; and the results of hard work were seen in fields of maize and other crops, olive and almond groves, and avenues of trees, all a truly pleasing sight, especially when the almonds came into early blossom.

By the beginning of February the whole Division was concentrated in the Suani Ben Adem – Castel Benito area. Brigade groups and the Reserve Group were broken up, and all units reverted to their own corps’ command. The Greys remained with the Division, but the attached artillery went back to its regiments.

Demonstrations and Discussions

Eighth Army made use of the lull and of the minor concentration in the area by holding a series of demonstrations and discussions on the technique of modern battle. Syndicates from the three divisions forming 30th Corps were to demonstrate the solution of problems in which they were experienced: 7th Armoured Division, in a ‘telephone battle’, showed how an armoured division attacked; 51st Highland Division how to make a night attack through minefields, and 2nd NZ Division how to move and deploy in the desert.

General Montgomery was present on 8 and 9 February, when the demonstrations were first given to an audience of formation and unit commanders from the Corps. The New Zealand Division syndicate spoke first. The GSO I (Colonel Queree) described the ground, the forces, and the plan; the GOC described the organisation and characteristics of a mobile division, and examined the three stages of planning, approach march and deployment. The CRA (Brigadier C. E. Weir) then explained the drill for putting out a ‘gun line’ when the whole Division was deployed, and the commander of 6th NZ Brigade (Brigadier Gentry) spoke about desert formations. No comment was made on this demonstration, perhaps on account of its convincing nature, but probably because General Freyberg had such an awe-inspiring reputation.

Montgomery spoke to all officers and some senior NCOs stationed in and around Tripoli who gathered in a local theatre. He began by saying, ‘You may cough for one minute, then there will be no more coughing’ – but he did pause each fifteen minutes to let his audience relax and cough. In his address he outlined the position on the Russian and North African fronts, and gave an indication of future events, when Eighth Army would combine its operations with the Allied troops in Tunisia.

About a week later a ‘repeat performance’ of the demonstrations was attended by brigadiers and above from local troops, and by many distinguished visitors from farther afield, including Generals Alexander, Paget and Dempsey of the British Army, and Generals Patton and Bedell Smith of the United States Army. This second series coincided with the Casablanca Conference between President Roosevelt, Mr Churchill, and the Allied Chiefs of Staff, at which decisions were taken affecting the future fighting in North Africa, among them the appointment of General Alexander to command an Army Group made up of First and Eighth Armies.

At the demonstrations General Montgomery and Air Marshal Coningham reviewed recent campaigns and future operations; and the three divisional demonstrations were repeated, without any comment from the visitors. It was after this exercise that General Patton made his famous remark which has been variously reported, but which implied that it had taught him nothing, at least about methods of command.

Dock Labour

On 10 February 2nd NZ Division took over from 51st Highland Division guard duties in Tripoli, provision of working parties in the dock area, and part of the anti-aircraft defences. For this purpose 6th NZ Infantry Brigade moved into Tripoli, Brigade Headquarters being in the Governor’s Palace. Infantry units found guards for power stations, wine factories, hospitals, breweries, petrol depots, water points, flour mills and so on. Brigade Headquarters co-ordinated demands for dock working parties, 900 men being drawn from the brigade itself, 1200 from a composite artillery regiment stationed in the town, and up to 1150 a day from other divisional units (5th Brigade, Divisional Cavalry, and 27th (MG) Battalion). Shifts were worked day and night both on the ships and on shore.

The work on the docks was well done, and received praise from higher authority and even from Mr Churchill himself, who on one occasion sent a laudatory telegram. It transpired that the discharge figures were signalled to him daily, and a figure of 2700 tons on 14 February had inspired the telegram. For the moment, tons of stores were more important than ground gained.

However, there was a reverse to the medal, for there was too much pilfering; and on one occasion there was an explosion on an ammunition barge being unloaded by the Maoris, the suspected cause being smoking by some of the men, although this was strictly against orders. At least-one man was killed and several wounded. This last episode led to a stiff interview between General Montgomery and Brigadier Kippenberger, who was temporarily in charge of the Division in General Freyberg ‘s absence. The Army Commander hauled the Brigadier over the coals for the Division’s delinquency, and although he stoutly defended the Division, Kippenberger was conscious that he was on shaky ground.

There was then a general tightening up of discipline among the working parties, both by stricter control by Divisional Provost Company to prevent pilfering, and by a closer supervision by officers in charge of parties. The CO 28th (Maori) Battalion went so far as to stop leave for the unit for some days until he could be convinced that general behaviour had improved. Progressively from 17 to 28 February demands for labour from the Division were reduced, and the work was taken over by pioneer and labour units. The Composite Regiment returned to its units on 25 February and 6th NZ Infantry Brigade to its bivouac area at Suani Ben Adem on the 28th.

Meanwhile 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment had been frequently in action along the waterfront, and had fired 30,000 rounds as part of the anti-aircraft barrage over the area. There were enemy raids almost daily, but the damage caused was negligible, and the New Zealand units had no casualties.

Other Activities

During the time at Tripoli the weather was wintry. There was a lot of rain, and one or two washouts, both actual and figurative. A normally dry wadi in 28TH Maori Battalion area, for example, became a fast-flowing stream and washed away several tents; and four troops of carriers from Divisional Cavalry, sent to picket an area to be used by the RAF for a bombing exercise, after getting thoroughly wet, found that the exercise had been postponed. On the other hand there were some days of bright sunshine, one of them the day of Churchill ‘s visit.

The provision of working parties for the docks, and other duties, interfered as always with any coherent training programme. There were a number of exercises on particular subjects, such as radio-telephony and how to deal with mines, and some ‘spit and polish’, mostly in the shape of formal guards on headquarters offices. However, it must be admitted that the Eighth Army, so formidable and efficient in war, had become rather like a collection of pirates, gipsies and partisans in appearance and sometimes in conduct.

Work interfered also with the elaborate plans for a divisional athletic championship. But the divisional rugby tournament, commenced at Bardia and continued at Nofilia, was at last finished on 14 February, when 28 (Maori) Battalion beat Divisional Signals by 8 points to 6.

The first reinforcements from New Zealand for over a year joined the Division at Tripoli, the previous draft – the 7th Reinforcements – having arrived in October 1941. Most of the 8th Reinforcements had been under arms in New Zealand for over a year and the well-trained 100 officers and 3000 other ranks helped to give new life to the Division. Because of the long distance from Maadi Camp, an Advanced Base was opened at Suani Ben Adem, to hold reinforcements nearer the Division for as long as the campaign continued in North Africa.

Reinforcement was especially welcome to the engineers, whose casualties over the months had been much higher than the official estimate of ‘likely wastage’. It will have been apparent already that this was due to exceptionally hard work in overcoming the enemy’s prodigal use of mines and demolitions.

The Kiwi Concert Party arrived in Tripoli on 8 February and gave many performances in the town from 11 February onwards.

On 25 February the Royal Scots Greys ceased to be under command, but before leaving handed over some of their Stuart tanks to Divisional Cavalry. They had served the Division well and had done much to improve co-operation between infantry and armour. On the same day 7th NZ Anti-Tank Regiment received the last of its 17-pounder anti-tank guns (known as ‘pheasants’), a completely new weapon. The regiment then had sixteen pheasants and forty-eight six-pounders. Courses were held to train crews for the new weapons, which had high muzzle velocity and great hitting power; it was hoped that they would prove as effective as the German 88-millimetre.

Eighth Army changed from Zone B to Zone A time at midnight on 22–23 February when clocks were retarded one hour. Zone B time (two hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time) was that applicable to Egypt. Eighth Army had gone farther and farther west using this time, until an artificial state of affairs had arisen, and was in effect using a ‘daylight saving’ of one hour. The adjustment was to the time used at the western end of the Mediterranean and coincided with that used by First Army.

The Casablanca Conference

In Tunisia in the meantime the reorganisation of the front continued, combined with a gradual build-up of Allied forces. In particular 2nd United States Corps attained its full strength of four divisions, one of which was armoured. The Americans, who were on the southern end of the front, gradually took up positions on a line, albeit a thin one, from Fondouk through Faid to Gafsa. Next to the north was the French 19th Corps, holding from Fondouk to Pont du Fahs, and then the British 5 Corps disposed through Medjez el Bab and thence to the north-west. The Allied line was progressively weaker as it passed from north to south, and the American sector resembled a long arm stretched out towards Eighth Army. The latter by mid-February was in touch with the enemy forces on the Tunisian frontier.

At the Casablanca Conference in Morocco on 14 February it was decided that Eighth Army should come under Eisenhower’s command when it entered Tunisia, although it would continue to be supplied from Egypt, that an Army Group Headquarters should be formed to control both First and Eighth Armies and to be known as Eighteenth Army Group, and that General Alexander (then Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces) should be appointed to command this Group under the direction of General Eisenhower, and at the same time should be appointed Deputy Commander-in-Chief to the whole Allied Expeditionary Force. General Alexander then assembled a small tactical staff and arrived in Algiers on 15 February to take command. The directive issued to him by General Eisenhower on 17 February gave as his mission the early destruction of all Axis forces in Tunisia.

It was at this conference that the air forces were reorganised, the old Western Desert Air Force becoming the group of the Tactical Air Force primarily intended for continued co-operation with Eighth Army.

The period about the middle of February 1943 was thus one of a major recasting of organisation and plans in the Allied forces. At this time the two wings of Eighteenth Army Group were still separated by at least 150 miles.

The Enemy Attempt at Disruption

From the time that they were faced with fighting on two fronts, the Axis commanders – Rommel of the German-Italian Panzer Army, and von Arnim of 5th Panzer Army, the title of the Axis forces in Tunisia – had been apprehensive about an Allied thrust towards Gabes or Sfax from the west, for if successful, this would cut the Axis forces in two. The presence of Allied forces at Gafsa and Faid, even if weak in numbers, was a persistent threat. Rommel had not objected, in early January, when one of his star divisions ( 21 Panzer Division) was sent to Sfax. It is thus not surprising that after the fall of Tripoli the Axis commanders thought that the time had come to deal with this particular danger, for they were now concentrating in a central position and could take advantage of being on interior lines.

As a result of the flare-up over the withdrawal from the Homs - Tarhuna position, Rommel was in bad odour with his Italian superiors; so it was not surprising when on 26 January he was told that because of his bad health he would be released from command as soon as his forces reached the Mareth Line, and was to be succeeded by the Italian general, Messe. He had no illusions himself about the real reason, and in the first rush of anger asked that Messe should come over as soon as possible, for in his own words, ‘I had little desire to go on any longer playing the scapegoat for a pack of incompetents’.

However, this feeling did not affect his conduct of the immediate operations, and from 23 January the German-Italian Panzer Army continued to withdraw in good order to the Mareth Line. By the middle of February all the Italian forces were in the line, but the German forces remained mobile. Messe arrived on 2 February; but then Rommel showed no haste to go off ‘on leave’, waited for a direct order to hand over, and left the unfortunate Messe hanging about with no definite job. Rommel now had a new interest and wanted to see it through, for the Axis appreciation was that it would take Montgomery some time to reorganise and replenish the British forces at Tripoli, so that for once time, however short, was on the enemy’s side.

A side issue of this period is the disappearance of Marshal Bastico, who resigned his appointment as Governor of Libya at the end of January. Strangely enough, Rommel speaks of him in a kindly manner in retrospect, and gives him credit for much helpfulness. In his final report Bastico was very critical of Rommel, who in his opinion had lost his nerve after the Battle of Alamein, and thought only of retreat back to the Gabes Gap. Possibly some of Bastico’s bitterness springs from Rommel’s failure to give the importance to Libya which Bastico naturally thought it deserved. On the other hand, Bastico’s failure to realise the strategic necessity of a withdrawal to Gabes Gap, as the Axis called the Akarit position, is fairly typical of the military myopia of Rommel’s Italian superiors.

At this time – early February 1943 – the control of the two Axis armies was being exercised direct by Comando Supremo in Rome. There was no other official form of co-ordination. The higher direction of the Axis campaign in North Africa is a major subject in itself, a fascinating study of conflicts of ambition, national pride and incapacity, and of failure to find a satisfactory solution. Hitler ‘s view that he was the Supreme Leader of the Axis opposed Mussolini ‘s view that he was an equal partner: the Germans’ contempt for their ally, sometimes thinly-veiled and leading to a dislike of having to acknowledge any form of Italian command: the exact position of Kesselring, who was sometimes only a Senior Supply Officer, and then was in and out as commander of all German troops in the Mediterranean, sometimes with tactical control and sometimes not: geographical factors which made German troops dependent on Italian rail and sea facilities: the fact that most of the fighting took place on what was technically Italian soil, but where the effective striking force was German – all these led to a situation where often it could be said that no one knew who was commanding what. It was thus inevitable that there should be great confusion, never more noticeable than now when there were two armies in North Africa. All the German post-mortems on the campaign name the ‘command muddle’ as one of the main causes of their defeat.

However, in February the situation was that Hitler had conceded that control of operations in Tunisia would be an Italian responsibility, although Field Marshal Kesselring, as German Commander-in-Chief, South, was inserted between the Italian Comando Supremo and the two German army commanders, Rommel and von Arnim. By representations to Comando Supremo, and by constant personal visits from Rome to the respective battle headquarters in Tunisia, Kesselring was able to ensure that German tactical demands were met. Vital orders had still to be issued by Comando Supremo, and this made Kesselring’s task as much that of ambassador-at-large as Commander-in-Chief, South, for both von Arnim and Rommel made direct overtures to Comando Supremo, and neither of them willingly subordinated the interest of his own particular project to that of the other.

The immediate Axis intention in Tunisia was that the Eastern Dorsal, the range covering the coastal plain, should be secured, and to this end von Arnim planned to drive the Allies from the wedge they held in the Sidi bou Zid area. Rommel’s intention was to drive 2nd US Corps from Gafsa, and this operation would not get fully under way until von Arnim’s thrust had achieved sufficient success to enable him to release some ninety tanks from 21st Panzer Division. Initially, von Arnim would have under command both 21sdt and 10th Panzer Divisions, with just over 200 tanks, as well as the new heavy tank battalion with a dozen Mark VI Tigers, while Rommel would start his Gafsa operation with 70 tanks, 53 from 15th Panzer Division and the rest Italian. These decisions were made on 9 February, and the operations began soon afterwards. Greater success than anticipated persuaded Rommel that if only he could get command of the three panzer divisions he could burst through to Tebessa, with Bône, and the consequent withdrawal of First Army and 2 US Corps to Algeria, his ultimate objective.

Consultations between Kesselring, von Arnim and Rommel, together with Rommel’s direct approach to Comando Supremo, resulted in a formal directive which Rommel interpreted as giving him Le Kef as his initial objective, the capture of which would involve most of his force and thus prevent his attempt at a wide outflanking drive from Tebessa to Bône. Moreover, von Arnim was given complementary tasks in the north, and although both 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions had been transferred to Rommel’s command, only part of 10th Panzer was released and Rommel did not exert his authority to secure the remainder. Splitting his force, Rommel attacked towards Sbiba and Kasserine on 19 February. Successful only at Kasserine, Rommel again split his force and thrust simultaneously towards Tebessa and Thala. By 22 February he decided that success had eluded him, and ordered withdrawal. His action, however, together with von Arnim’s continued aggression in the north, postponed effective co-operation between First Army and 2nd US Corps on one hand, and Eighth Army on the other.

On 23 February, Comando Supremo announced plans that had been long maturing. Just as the Allies had instituted unified command for the land forces by the establishment of Eighteenth Army Group, so the Axis grouped all their forces into Army Group Africa, which included 5th Panzer Army and the German-Italian Panzer Army, or First Italian Army as it had been designated during Rommel’s absence at Kasserine. Although it had been planned that von Arnim was to command Army Group Africa, Rommel was persuaded to accept command on the basis that he would relinquish it to von Arnim at a time of his own choosing. In the meantime von Arnim would command 5th Panzer Army and Messe’s 1st Italian Army, while Rommel retained under his direct command the three panzer divisions. The immediate task for Army Group Africa was the disruption of Eighth Army’s concentration before the Mareth Line, and the panzer divisions were reserved for this purpose. Fifth Panzer Army would carry on with offensive operations in the north aimed to delay for as long as possible any effective co-operation between the two Allied armies.

Allied Counter-action

Alexander took over command of Eighteenth Army Group just after Rommel’s attack started, and was barely in the saddle when he was called on to restore a battlefront that had almost been shivered to pieces. Part of his defensive measures in the broadest sense called for action by Eighth Army, and on 21 February he ordered Montgomery to create a threat as powerful as possible against the enemy’s southern army. But only two days later he was able to tell Montgomery that the crisis had passed and that he was not to prejudice his future plans, even though he was to keep up pressure. That ‘future’ included the strong possibility of an enemy attack before very long.

It will be remembered that 7th Armoured Division had followed the retreating enemy after the capture of Tripoli. Its advance was slow, owing to the thoroughness with which the coastal road had been mined and destroyed, and also to heavy rains which turned the salt flats near the coast into impassable obstacles. However Ben Gardane, the first village in Tunisia, was occupied on 15 February, and Medenine on 18 February, on which date 4th Light Armoured Brigade reached Foum Tataouine, 30 miles to the south. (aka Luke Skywalker’s home planet , where George Lucas filmed Star Wars Episode IV A New Hope in 1976)

Medenine was important, first as a junction of many roads and tracks, secondly because it was a good assembly position for an attack against the Mareth Line, and thirdly because of a number of airfields in the area.

At this stage 2nd NZ Division became aware of a force then known as the ‘Fighting French Column’, under its commander, General Leclerc. It had been formed in French Equatorial Africa, and was a mixed force – infantry, artillery and armoured cars, machine guns, oddments of transport and even a small air force. In late December 1942 it advanced north, captured all the Italian posts in southern Libya, and made contact with Eighth Army just after the capture of Tripoli. There Leclerc willingly agreed to serve under Montgomery, and his force was replenished as liberally as could be done. About the middle of February it reached Nalut, on the Tunisian frontier some 80 miles south of Ben Gardane. Its travels are not without interest, for the force served later under Freyberg ‘s command.

In the first half of February 51st (Highland) Division was moving forward at measured speed, its leading brigade reaching Ben Gardane on 19 February. When Montgomery received Alexander’s order of 21 February to intensify pressure, he was compelled to push 51st Highland Division faster than he had intended. By 25 February the whole division was west of Medenine, and both 7th Armoured and 51st (H) Divisions were pressing against enemy defences east of the Mareth Line proper. For once, however, Montgomery was ‘off balance’, with not enough troops in the forward area, no developed defences, and no reserves between them and Tripoli 170 miles away – no ‘back-stop’ should the enemy attack and penetrate the forward line. He moved Leclerc’s force forward to Ksar Rhilane (50 miles south-west of Medenine) as an additional threat to the enemy – a bold move – and took immediate steps to send forward additional forces from Tripoli, including armoured formations and 2nd NZ Division. He has since recorded9 that from 28 February until 4 March he suffered his second period of great anxiety during this long advance, the first having been during the advance from Buerat to Tripoli.

By early March all enemy forces had fallen back into or behind the Mareth Line, which ran roughly from Zarat on the coast through Mareth to Toujane, where it swung to the north-west.

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BATTLE OF MEDENINE (Or Montgomery pummels Rommel one last time in Africa)

In the Background – Operation PUGILIST

The title of this chapter, ‘The Medenine Incident’, is not intended to minimise the engagement of 6 March, still to be described. The reason is that Montgomery himself, in spite of anxiety for a few days, looked on the Battle of Medenine as an incident occurring during his preparations for the much greater battle for the Mareth Line. That this is so is borne out by his general plan for the next offensive, which was issued on 26 February, well before the existing crisis had been resolved. It is of sufficient importance to be quoted in full.

Most Secret 26 Feb 1943.

Operation PUGILIST General Plan of Eighth Army

  1. Object:

The object of operation PUGILIST is to destroy the enemy now opposing Eighth Army in the Mareth position, and to advance and capture Sfax.

General Considerations

  1. Eighth Army has made very good progress during the last week, and this has definitely helped in forcing the Germans to withdraw from the Kasserine Pass and to break off the fight in that area.

  2. Our advance, and the pressure that we have been exerting against the Mareth position, now constitutes a definite threat to the enemy. As he has broken off the fight in Central Tunisia it is quite possible that he will transfer troops quickly to the Mareth front, in order to strengthen that front. He might even consider the possibility of an offensive himself against us, in order to inflict casualties and force us to postpone our own attack – which he must realise is bound to come sooner or later.

From our point of view such an offensive by him in the near future would be exactly what we would like; it would give us a great opportunity to take heavy toll of the enemy as a first step, and then to put in our own heavy attack when he was disorganised as a result of his abortive offensive.

  1. The immediate policy in 30th Corps will therefore be as follows:

(a) To hold on to the positions already gained, and on the left flank to improve these positions in the mountains about Halluf in conjunction with LeClerc’s force.

(b) To organise the Corps area for defence, so that any attack by the enemy to interfere with our own preparations for ‘PUGILIST’ will have no possible chance of success.

(c) By patrol and other activity, from firm bases, to press on with preparations for ‘PUGILIST’.

  1. It will be seen, therefore, that the underlying principles of our action for the next two weeks, as outlined above, are to make quite certain that the enemy gains no success from any offensive he may contemplate; meanwhile we ourselves will quietly get ready for ‘PUGILIST’.

An essential feature of our own policy must be to gain and keep complete ascendancy over the enemy air forces; for this, the selection and preparation of suitable forward air fields is of great importance.

Grouping for ‘PUGILIST’

  1. 30th Corps 50th Northumberland Infantry Div

51st Highland Div

4th Indian Div

201st Gds Bde

23rd Armd Bde

NZ Corps 2nd NZ Division

8th Armd Bde


One Med Regt

LeCler’s Force

10th Corps 1st Armd Div

7th Armd Div (incl 4th Light Armd Bde, less KDG)

FF Flying Column

Operations 30th Corps

  1. Before the date for the main attack, 30th Corps will carry out such preliminary operations as are necessary to ensure that the main attack will be immediately effective and will cause immediate enemy reactions.

The provisions of paras 4 and 5 to be remembered all the time.

  1. The main attack of 30th Corps will be delivered on night 20/21 March against the enemy left or eastern flank.

Object: To break into the Mareth position, to roll it up from the east and north, to destroy the enemy holding troops and prevent their escape, and subsequently to advance and capture Gabes.

Operations NZ Corps

  1. The task of NZ Corps will be to make a turning movement round the enemy western flank, moving via Nalut and Ksar Rhilane.

The Corps will then advance northwards, will break through any enemy troops or switch lines, and will endeavour to establish itself astride the road Gabes - Matmata so as to cut off the enemy and prevent his escape.

  1. The movement of NZ Corps will be so timed that by night 20/21 March it has begun to create a serious threat against the road Gabes – Matmata.

Operations 10th Corps

  1. 10th Corps will be in Army reserve. 7th Armd Div will pass to command 10th Corps in situ at a date and time to be notified later. This date will probably be about 15 Mar.

  2. 10th Corps will ensure adequate protection for the left flank and rear of 30th Corps during the period immediately preceding the launching of 30th Corps attack, and during the attack itself.

  3. 10th Corps will then be held ready to exploit success, being prepared to operate towards Gabes and Sfax.

Further Operations

  1. The final objective for operation ‘PUGILIST’ is Sfax. Once operations have begun on night 20/21 March they will be conducted relentlessly until Sfax has been reached.

Administration to be arranged accordingly.

  1. Once Sfax is secured, the Eighth Army will operate north-westwards against the rear of enemy forces in front of the Allied divisions in southern Tunisia, and will ‘drive’ on to Sousse.

Royal Air Force

  1. Operation ‘PUGILIST’ will be supported by the full weight of the Allied Air Forces now supporting Eighth Army, and by the air striking forces in Central Tunisia and in Malta.

  2. An essential feature in the preparatory stages will be the selection and preparation of forward air fields for fighters and light bombers, so that we can dominate the enemy air force and give adequate cover to our own troops while the battle is being built up.

  3. Details of the air action will be notified later.


  1. Tac Army will be with Main 30 Corps

Tac 10th Corps to be established near Tac Army.

  1. Each Divisional Commander will be given one copy of this memorandum.

(Sgd) B. L. MontgomeryGeneral, G.O.C.-in-C. Eighth Army.

This plan requires few comments. The tenor of paragraphs 4 and 5 shows that the enemy’s moves were not to be allowed to upset long-term planning, and that the Army Commander was determined to keep the initiative in the broader field. This intention to adhere to the plan already prepared was later translated into rejecting the immediate advantage of a decided victory over 1 Italian Army.

On the date this plan was issued many of the formations named in paragraph 6 were still back near El Agheila – Headquarters 10th Corps, 50th Infantry Division, 4th Indian Division, 201st Guards Brigade and 1st Armoured Division. The Free French Flying Column, which came into existence before the Battle of El Alamein, was composed partly of Foreign Legion and partly of Moroccans, and comprised sub-units of armoured cars, a tank company (Crusaders), some anti-tank guns and some lorried infantry. It should not be confused with Leclerc’s force.

It must be emphasised that planning for the next stage, the attack on the Mareth Line, and many preliminary moves and much administrative detail were taking place concurrently with the defensive preparations at Medenine.

2nd NZ Division Moves to Medenine

Late on 28 February General Freyberg was warned that 2nd NZ Division would move immediately to Medenine, to come under command of 30th Corps. He was himself to fly to Medenine to see both General Montgomery and Lieutenant-General Leese. Before leaving, Freyberg left instructions that 5th Brigade was to be prepared to move at once, so that delays on the single, narrow road between Tripoli and Medenine would not prevent the immediate deployment of a complete brigade group. The rest of the Division was to follow as soon as the necessary arrangements were made.

Accordingly, while Freyberg was away, 5th Brigade Group was informed early on 1 March that it would receive replenishment priority and, accompanied by its ancillary arms, would move with its second-line transport and additional ammunition, petrol and rations to Medenine. The 5th Brigade orders group left Suani Ben Adem at midday, reaching Headquarters 30th Corps six hours later. Here Brigadier Kippenberger was given details of the area which the brigade was to occupy. Meanwhile the brigade group assembled, and by midnight was ready to move. However, the remainder of the Division had by this time so advanced preparations for the move that when General Freyberg returned he put Main Headquarters NZ Division, Survey Troop of 36 Survey Battery, 4 Field Regiment, Headquarters Divisional Artillery, Engineers and Signals on the road first. This group left Suani Ben Adem at 9.30 p.m., 1 March, and the 5th Brigade Group left an hour later. The rest of the Division was not far behind, 6 Brigade being on the road at 10.15 a.m., 2 March, and the last group, which included Divisional Cavalry, that same afternoon. The GOC and the CRE, Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson, went by air early on 2 March, followed in another aircraft by the CRA, Brigadier Weir, and the GSO I, Colonel Queree.

The move of the Division demonstrated once more the flexibility of the components of Eighth Army. On the first day of March, with the exception of 5 Brigade which had been warned of the move before dawn, all formations of the Division were occupied by the diverse activities of a non-operational period. The Divisional Artillery moved that morning to the south of Azizia to begin a three-day course of tactical and gunnery exercises, 6th Brigade was holding a football tournament, Divisional Cavalry was testing and adjusting the 37-millimetre guns which had arrived for the Stuart tanks. If any thought was given to future operations it would have been in terms of Montgomery’s outline plan for PUGILIST, in which 2nd NZ Division was scheduled to advance into the Dahar by way of Nalut. Yet within two days the vast quantity of supplies necessary to move the Division and to maintain it in battle for six days had been drawn and distributed, bivouac areas had been evacuated, vehicles had been prepared, and all units had left the area. Within one more day the Division was ready for battle nearly 200 miles away.

The road was narrow, not built for heavy traffic, and was frequently blocked by tank transporters, some of which had to be off-loaded to cross bridges south of Ben Gardane. All groups took rather more than fifteen hours to cover the distance, the complete move being made with very little incident. At Medenine, 30th Corps had issued an operational order on 28 February, defining the divisional areas that were to be occupied for the defensive battle that was expected on, or soon after, 3 March. General Freyberg had seen the area assigned to 2nd NZ Division on 1 March, and that same evening the 5th Brigade orders group arrived at HQ 30th Corps to be given details of the brigade sector. In this way all commanders down to battalion level had a fair understanding of the task, and the areas to be occupied, before the units arrived.

5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group and 4th Light Armoured Brigade in Position

In the 30th Corps area 51st (H) Division was already in position north of the Medenine – Mareth road with its left flank at Kef Ahmed ben Abdullah, and its line running thence to the northeast; and 7th Armoured Division occupied from Kef Ahmed south-eastwards parallel to the Mareth road, including the prominent feature Tadjera Kbir, the peak of which was known as Point 270. The New Zealand Division was to go into position on the left (south) of 7th Armoured Division, the northerly limit being about one mile south of the road from Metameur to Toujane, and the sector stretching south and east for some 13,000 yards, facing west and then south. The line was in an arc about four miles from Medenine. The Division was to have under command 4th Light Armoured Brigade (which now included the Free French Flying Column), and 73 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA. Fifth Brigade Group was to occupy the sector described above, with 6th Brigade in reserve and 4th Light Armoured Brigade protecting the open flank in the south.

The ground for some ten miles in advance of Medenine was a gently rising plain, broken by numerous dry wadi beds, and bounded on the west and south by a range of hills, from which the enemy would presumably debouch.

At 8.30 a.m. on 2 March the 5th NZ Brigade orders group made contact with 1st Buffs (from 7th Armoured Division), which was occupying part of the area now to be taken over, and made a quick reconnaissance of the area, the brigade commander deciding forward defended localities (FDLs) and inter-battalion boundaries. By midday the GOC had arrived, the position was further discussed, and final arrangements for the brigade approved. Commanding officers then made their detailed reconnaissances, and in the afternoon met the battalions as they arrived and guided them to their positions. The 21st and 23rd Battalions were deployed shortly after dark, although the final location of posts was left until daylight; 28 Battalion did not arrive until late, and moved forward into its sector early in the morning of 3 March.

Headquarters 5th NZ Infantry Brigade was established close to the Medenine–Kreddache road about a mile and a half clear of Medenine.

The 28th (Maori) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel C. M. Bennett) was on the right facing south of west, with its line running from the boundary with 7th Armoured Division, across the tracks from Metameur to Ksar el Hallouf and from Medenine to Ksar el Hallouf, with three companies forward and one in reserve. At a later date (4 March) 28th Battalion relieved the left company of 201st Guards Brigade, the next formation to the north, thus extending the battalion frontage to 5500 yards. One platoon of 4 Machine-Gun Company was sent to the battalion to help occupy this extension.

The 21st Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel R. W. Harding) was in the centre astride the road from Medenine to Kreddache, with two companies forward and two in reserve. It also faced south of west.

The 23rd Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel R. E. Romans) was astride the road from Medenine to Ksar Krerachefa with its left on the road to Foum Tatahouine. One company on the right faced south-west. The other three were then in the line facing south.

When 28 Battalion had taken over the additional front, the total brigade frontage was some 14,000 yards, and the troops were rather thin on the ground. But to add strength in addition to the normal allocation of one anti-tank battery from 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 5 Brigade was allotted three anti-tank batteries from 73 Regiment, RA, which were already deployed. One of these batteries was allotted to each battalion. On the morning of 4 March the new 17-pounder anti-tank guns just issued to 7 Anti-Tank Regiment arrived, and of these seven were placed in support of 5 Brigade, sited in depth across the front. This gave the brigade greater anti-tank strength than ever before. The normal artillery support coming from 5 Field Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Glasgow10) was augmented by support from 4 Field Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart11), although the latter was intended to give support also to 201 Guards Brigade.12 But in case of need even further artillery could be called upon.

All three battalions were in initial – sometimes provisional – positions by first light on 3 March and were patrolling to their fronts shortly thereafter. The situation was firm enough for General Freyberg to report to Corps Headquarters about 2 p.m. that both 5th and 6th NZ Brigades were in position and ready for action. The 1st Buffs, which had been temporarily holding the line, then returned to 7th Armoured Division.

Behind the left of 23 Battalion was an airfield known as Hazbub. A battalion of the RAF Regiment and a light anti-aircraft regiment protected this airfield, together with some armoured cars and a battalion of French troops. There was some liaison with 5 Brigade, mainly to the extent that the ground troops were known to be available on the left flank if required; and the CRA was in touch with the anti-aircraft regiment.

Brigadier Kippenberger described the 5 Brigade position.13 He says: ‘Each battalion position had a depth of about a mile… and six-pounders [anti-tank guns] echeloned in depth. The men were dug into single rifle pits seven or eight yards apart so that each section was on a front of about sixty yards and no amount of shelling would do much harm. The greatest possible emphasis was placed on concealment – I preached that a post spotted is a post destroyed, and hardly one was visible from any distance in front. … All weapons had orders to hold fire until decisive range. We always thought this Medenine position was our masterpiece in the art of laying out a defensive position under desert conditions.’ And that this was so is borne out by the fact that after the battle the Corps Commander sent senior officers from all formations in the Corps to look at it.

In the evening of 4 March the brigade commander issued instructions that dummy minefields were to be laid on each battalion front. If necessary 8 Armoured Brigade from 7 Armoured Division would make a counter-attack through 5 Brigade, in which case live mines would be an encumbrance.14

The 7th Field Company started marking the fields at 8 p.m. on 4 March and finished by midnight, by which time there were some 1000 yards of dummy field on the front of 28 Battalion, 1500 yards on 21 Battalion front, and 1700 yards on that of 23 Battalion. Particular attention was paid to a deep wadi on the front of 28 Battalion, and the field was so arranged as to ‘canalise’ advancing tanks to come out on to higher ground. Live mines were placed each night as blocks across the roads leading into the position, and were removed each morning.

The brigade group had made its final adjustments by daylight on 5 March. All battalions had patrols well forward, and 23rd Battalion sent out a standing patrol eight miles to the south-west. The Royals of 4th Light Armoured Brigade were continuously on patrol farther out across the whole brigade front. They kept touch with Brigade Headquarters, and withdrew their armoured car screen behind the FDLs each night.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade deployed concurrently with 5 Brigade. In addition to its armoured car regiments and supporting arms, it had under command the New Zealand Divisional Cavalry, Staffordshire Yeomanry (Sherman tanks), and the Free French Flying Column. The role of the Royals has been given. Staffs Yeomanry was concentrated behind the left flank of 5th NZ Brigade, and Divisional Cavalry was in the same area. The 2nd Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps, with one squadron of King’s Dragoon Guards, and with field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery support and a field squadron of Royal Engineers, was to hold Haddada, 20 miles south-west of Medenine, and was to give warning of any wide enemy outflanking move. The FFF Column filled the gap to the north between 2nd KRRC and the Royals, and was also to watch for enemy movement across the plain to Medenine.

The Remainder of the Division

Divisional Headquarters arrived at midday on 2 March and was established just east of Medenine, north of the road to Ben Gardane. The 4th Field Regiment arrived two hours later and was at once deployed. The commander of 6th NZ Infantry Brigade (Brigadier Gentry) and the commanding officers of 6 Field Regiment and the three battalions met the GOC late in the afternoon and inspected the position the brigade was to occupy north-east of Medenine in second line. The GOC was not entirely satisfied with this position and would have preferred it to be south of the Ben Gardane road and so better placed to support 5th NZ Brigade. Discussions went on for the next few days, the point at issue being that the GOC wanted 6th NZ Brigade in closer support of 5th NZ Brigade, while both the Army and the Corps Commanders wanted it placed behind the northern sector of the front as Army Intelligence forecast an enemy attack along the coast. The position in the end was a compromise, not so far north as Army wanted, nor so far south as Freyberg would have liked.

The brigade arrived in its new area at intervals between 6.30 a.m. and 3 p.m. on 3 March, and the battalions occupied positions already reconnoitred, all some two miles north-east of Medenine across the road to Bou Ghrara. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel D. J. Fountaine) was on the right (north) just east of the Bou Ghrara road, and faced north-east. The 24th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel J. Conolly) was west of the road and faced west, while 25th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel T. B. Morten was also west of the road south of 24th Battalion and facing west and south. The area was thus organised for all-round defence and was supported by 6 Field Regiment (Lieutenant-Colonel Walter16) deployed farther back. Anti-tank guns were sited with interlocking fields of fire.

The way in which 6th NZ Brigade’s area had been organised was, as directed by 30th Corps, to form a strongpoint should the enemy break through; but at the same time to support 5th NZ Brigade or other parts of the line and even to counter-attack any enemy penetration. The task was thus a fluid one, with emphasis on a ‘back-stop’ role. For that role the brigade was well-prepared; but for a counter-attack role armoured support was needed. Brigadier Gentry has said since that the discussion about his possible roles were rather ‘airy-fairy’, but adds, ‘I am quite clear that our primary role was to defend our own piece of ground against attack from the flanks or rear after German penetration, and that any attack by us against that penetration would have required a properly laid-on plan with tanks and artillery support.’

On 3 March 6 Brigade formed a small mobile force of 31 Anti-Tank Battery and 3rd Machine-Gun Company, under Major Nicholson of 31 Battery, which was to be ready to go to either flank of 25th Battalion as required. Positions were dug in readiness. (Both these sub-units were additional to the normal allocation to the brigade.) A composite Bren-gun platoon was then formed by 8th Field Company and placed on the left flank of 25th Battalion, so committing these engineers to a fighting role if required.

The CRA had all his regiments linked up on a common communications system which even included the anti-aircraft guns on Hazbub airfield, briefed for possible anti-tank duties. Full use was made of the survey troop of 36 Survey Battery and for the first time the flash-spotting troop was deployed, setting up a base on high ground round Metameur and Point 270. The Divisional Artillery was also linked with that of 7th Armoured Division, 51st (H) Division and 5th Army Group Royal Artillery , with the result that the whole front was covered by a network of interlocking zones of fire.

During 3 March the remaining units of the Division arrived in their new area, the NZASC companies carrying four days’ rations and 350 miles of petrol for the whole Division. Units were ordered to replenish daily, and to maintain their petrol supplies at 350 miles – for the shadow of PUGILIST was always in the background.

5th NZ Brigade Positions

Lull before the Storm

General Freyberg held a conference of all formation and unit commanders in the afternoon of 3 March to review the position and to tie up the loose ends that were inevitable after such a fast move. He discussed the positions of 30th Corps as a whole, pointing out that all three divisions had an unusually large number of anti-tank guns and extra field artillery, and that 51st (H) Division had an armoured brigade (23rd Armored Brigade) in support. The role of 2nd NZ Division was to form a solid base round Medenine, and also to operate southwards against any penetration by the enemy towards Ben Gardane. Thirtieth Corps had 300 heavy tanks (as against the enemy’s maximum of 150), and 467 six-pounder anti-tank guns. The New Zealand Division had 112 anti-tank guns, with 50 heavy tanks of Staffs Yeomanry under command and another 16 with the FFF Column. He made it clear that no attempt would be made to pursue the enemy after he had been repulsed. The timings already set down for PUGILIST would be observed.

Complete wireless silence was maintained by the Division; and to keep secret that New Zealanders were in the area a set manned by British operators from 4th Light Armoured Brigade worked from Divisional Headquarters, the difference in accent between British and New Zealand voices being enough for the purpose. Similarly a British operator was lent to work the RAF tentacle set.

As usual, landing grounds were of particular importance. In the area round 2nd NZ Division there were three, one of them west of Medenine and now in the front line. Another was at Hazbub and the third ten miles to the south. Precautions were taken to ensure that no transport drove over these grounds except in cases of operational necessity. New Zealand engineers and working parties from 5th NZ Brigade spent about two days improving the Hazbub ground, which it was intended to use. Nine enemy aircraft raided this ground on the evening of 4 March, but no damage was done, and the RAF destroyed three aircraft.

On 3 March there was still uncertainty about the enemy’s intentions. In the evening parties of enemy infantry attacked the carrier screen of 51st (H) Division, but were quickly driven off. It is possible that this somewhat limp attack was a form of reconnaissance for an advance down the coast, in which case it cannot have given the enemy much information. There was a little air activity but all in all the enemy was very quiet, and carrier patrols operating some miles in front of the FDLs on 4 March had nothing to report.

Tactical air reconnaissance on 4 March disclosed much movement of tanks between Matmata and Kreddache, but there was no clear indication whether the enemy would attack in the north or the south; but the point had now been reached when it did not much matter, for our defensive line was ready.

The morning of 5 March was still quiet, and the day uneventful, except for the activities of a long-range enemy gun, which spasmodically shelled the Medenine area, and particularly the Hazbub landing ground. It succeeded in denying the use of the ground to our aircraft from time to time, and its activities were most irritating. Despite flash-spotting and sound-ranging locations and air reconnaissance, the gun was never definitely located, far less dealt with, during the time 2nd NZ Division was in the Medenine area, and the CRA described it laconically as ‘very troublesome’. The 4th Indian Division overran the gun position in the main Mareth attack later in the month; and it was then found that there had been a troop of two 17-centimetre guns, well out of range of the guns of Eighth Army. One of the guns was then presented to 2nd NZ Divisional Artillery, and, manned by 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, was in action until the end in North Africa.

Carrier patrols from 5th NZ Infantry Brigade went out as far as the hills on 5 March, with authority to break wireless silence if necessary; but although they saw small parties of infantry, mechanical transport and armoured cars, the enemy showed no desire to engage. He covered his real intentions with considerable skill. There was even a school of thought that his plan was not to initiate an attack, but to counter-attack from the south-west when Eighth Army attacked the Mareth Line, and it is indeed true that Rommel asked for such a plan to be prepared. However, expectations generally were for an early attack from three panzer divisions, their exact location not being known.

It was clear to everyone, from Montgomery downwards, that the brief crisis had passed. Fast movement and efficiency in establishing a strong defensive line had put Eighth Army in such a position that it would be able to resist any attack that 1st Italian Army could mount against it.

The Enemy Prepares

Meanwhile Rommel continued with his preparations. His new command, Army Group Africa, now comprised 1st Italian Army under Messe, 5th Panzer Army under von Arnim, and a mobile battle group under direct Army Group command of the three panzer divisions ( 10, 15 and 21 Panzer) and a group of reconnaissance units. Rommel was running true to form in retaining personal command of the armoured force. But he decentralised enough to ask Messe to prepare plans for his attack and he accepted a part of Messe’s plan affecting the lines of advance. His own idea had been to attack from the north from Mareth to Bou Ghrara; but he listened to Messe and other officers and changed the main line of attack to the south where the going was better for tanks. The thrust lines were then to be:

10th Panzer Division, with 40 tanks and with elements of 164st German Light Division under command, from Ksar el Hallouf directed against Metameur. 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units, plus a small force drawn from the German equivalent of an army headquarters protective unit and known as Kasta, all under 10th Panzer Division, were to ‘go large’ farther to the south-east.

21st Panzer Division, with 40 tanks, from Djebel Tebaga (southeast of Toujane, and not to be confused with the hill feature of the same name which 2nd NZ Division came up against later in the month) – directed towards Tadjera Kbir, which was recognised as the key of the British defences.

15th Panzer Division with 62 tanks – from behind Djebel er Remtsia (east of Toujane) towards Kef Ahmed ben Abdullah.

The aim was stated to be the destruction of the enemy troops; but at the most, Rommel really hoped to disrupt Eighth Army’s assembly area and so gain more time. For limits were set to exploitation, the farthest objective being Ben Gardane; and the final stage was to be a return to the protection of the Mareth Line. The Axis Headquarters thought that the Eighth Army line was held from north to south by 51st Division, 44th Division, 2nd NZ Division and 7th Armoured Division, the last-named being identified south of Medenine. It is probable that 44th Division was identified because 131st Infantry Brigade from that Division was under command of 7th Armoured Division at this time; and the presence of 4th Light Armoured Brigade south of Medenine probably accounted for the identification of 7th Armoured Division, for the brigade frequently formed part of that division.

The German codename for the operation was CAPRI.

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The Enemy Attacks

All doubts about the enemy’s intentions ceased at an early hour on 6 March, when fairly heavy shelling of all forward positions began at 6 a.m. Then for the next hour and a half tanks, guns, and transport debouched from the hills between Toujane and Kreddache, the approach having been concealed by fog in the early stages. The first tanks to be seen came down the Toujane – Medenine road and then swung north against 7th Armoured Division.

On the front of 2nd NZ Division, contact with the enemy (from 164th German Light Division) was first made by carriers from 21st Battalion, which engaged seven enemy vehicles carrying infantry and anti-tank guns. The carriers opened fire at close range in the fog and inflicted many casualties, but lost one carrier and had two casualties.

Small groups of infantry probed along the whole front, and farther back as the fog lifted, enemy guns could be seen taking up positions. For a long time our artillery was silent, obeying orders not to open fire prematurely, but to wait until targets came within the range of the maximum weight of guns. (This was the result of experience at Alamein.) It was definite policy, moreover, for the anti-tank guns to open at short range, and not to dispel a tank attack by using medium or field artillery at long range. The 5th Field Regiment, for instance, withheld fire until enemy tanks had run up against the forward six-pounders, and then fired on the infantry and the soft-skinned vehicles following the tanks, with the result that the tanks were isolated and received no support from the ground troops.

About 8.30 a.m. tanks were reported from two directions advancing on Point 270 (Tadjera Kbir), which seemed to be the main objective. At this time also 28th Battalion reported that ten tanks and thirty trucks were moving up the wadi on its right front. The tanks reached the boundary of the dummy minefield, and then, as had been hoped, swung towards the rising ground. Two six-pounders from 73 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, then opened fire and knocked out four Mark III Special tanks at 400 yards’ range, and mortars of 28th Battalion finished off a fifth. When the crews bailed out, the mortars and machine guns with the battalion had first-class targets and the artillery was quickly in action. The tanks were taken by surprise and lost cohesion; but then they located the anti-tank guns and opened fire on them. Despite damage to one gun of 73 Regiment and the wounding of two of the crew, the gun kept firing; and when all the other weapons had opened fire, the remaining tanks disengaged and made off in confusion. Fifteen prisoners were taken, including the tank company commander, all from 10th Panzer Division. A member of 27th (MG) Battalion who was on the spot has described the action as ‘a truly grand victory for the Tommy gunners, made still more remarkable considering that it was their very first action. The way in which they held their fire was an example to us all.’

Shortly after 9 a.m. 21 Battalion engaged and dispersed with mortar fire a party of infantry debussing on its front, and by about 10 a.m. the remaining infantry had withdrawn and were digging in some three or four miles back. Our artillery was now active all over the front, bringing down concentrations on previously arranged zones as soon as enemy troops or vehicles entered them.

There was no serious second attack against 2nd NZ Division during the morning, although there was much movement of tanks and transport across the front in a confused way; and indeed, apparent confusion was visible all along the line. But obviously the main enemy thrust was directed against Tadjera Kbir and farther north.

On the left flank, however, the enemy force ( 3rd and 33rd Reconnaissance Units and Kasta, the last with nine tanks) worked round to the Foum Tatahouine–Medenine road; but the Free French, who were holding this area, successfully contained this threat without any assistance. The FFF Column had some fairly hard fighting and incurred twenty-seven casualties, but throughout the day resisted enemy pressure up the line of the road from a point 12 miles south of Medenine.

During the afternoon the enemy brought his infantry into the attacks in increasing degree, and at intervals from 3.30 onwards advancing troops were dispersed by artillery fire from 2nd NZ Divisional Artillery, without coming to grips with our infantry. The climax came at 5.45 p.m. when about 1000 infantry with tanks reached an area just west of Point 270, and were there subjected to a devastating concentration from 2nd NZ Divisional Artillery and Corps and 5 AGRA field and medium regiments, even the heavy anti-aircraft guns on the landing ground. When the area was inspected after the battle it was found that there was rarely more than six yards between the fall of shot. The time spent in linking up the artillery along the corps front had produced a good dividend.

In the heat of the battle there arrived an addition to the Divisional Artillery, in the shape of a troop of captured 88-millimetre guns, staffed by Royal Artillery personnel under Captain Downing, RA. These had been given to the Division by Brigadier McIntyre, RA, commander of a British anti-aircraft brigade. They were deployed near Divisional Artillery Headquarters and for a short while were employed in an anti-aircraft role; but later in the day they moved to 4 Field Regiment’s area, and formed a part of that regiment until the end in North Africa. The troop was soon known as ‘Mac Troop’, officially and otherwise.

On the front of 51st Division and 7th Armoured Division the fighting was more intense, although no serious penetration of the defences was made and Tadjera Kbir was never in danger.

At 6 p.m. twenty-seven enemy tanks and some infantry passing across 21 Battalion’s front out of range of anti-tank guns were engaged by field artillery. This was the last that the Division saw of the enemy in this action.

Throughout the day the enemy attacks had been supported by fighter-bombers and fighters; but the Desert Air Force was very active and the Luftwaffe had little success. Raids over 5 and 6 Brigades and the gun areas caused no damage or casualties, but two men were killed and two wounded in a raid over 4 Field Ambulance, and some slight damage was suffered in rear areas. One German Me.109 fighter was shot down by 26th Battalion with a captured Breda gun.

By last light it was all over and the enemy everywhere was withdrawing, having achieved no success. There was at no time the faintest requirement to call upon reserves.

The detached force of KRRC and other units at Haddada saw no action, but were left very much in the air when the FFF Column on their right was forced back by the enemy attempt to outflank them. For a while the Haddada group thought they had been cut off altogether, but they remained in position and were still there next day.

During the night of 6–7 March 30th Corps patrolled actively, mainly to discover if the enemy would resume his attacks on 7 March, despite his visible losses in tanks. By last light on 6 March it was already known that these were of the order of forty or fifty, so that a renewal of the attack was not likely.

The New Zealand Division had the special task of watching for any movement round the south of the line. Sappers after dark demolished the five tanks knocked out on 28th Battalion front, and similar action was taken elsewhere along the corps front. Some tanks of Staffs Yeomanry were moved forward slightly in case of an attempt by the enemy to penetrate 5th NZ Brigade’s line, but it was a quiet night, except that the Divisional Artillery put down harassing fire at intervals up to 3.30 a.m.

Medenine to those who served

Operation Capri - Failed German attack on Medenine

The Enemy Withdraws

Movement of enemy vehicles, enough to presage a renewal of the attack, was heard during the night 6–7 March, but at first light only small groups of transport were seen moving off to the north and, fired on by our artillery, were quickly out of range. Dawn patrols of carriers from 5th NZ Brigade progressively reached points farther from the FDLs, until at 1 p.m. a patrol from 23rd Battalion skirted the foothills without making any contact. The enemy force on the Foum Tatahouine road was slower to disengage, and still had troops there in the mid-afternoon.

From noon onwards on 7 March a steady stream of traffic was seen converging on the passes leading to Ksar el Hallouf and Toujane. On the main road from Medenine to Toujane vehicles were moving nose to tail, all out of artillery range. This traffic into the hills continued all day, thinning out towards evening, and although the air forces did their best to intervene, low clouds made it difficult for them. By last light 10 Panzer Division had been located near Ksar el Hallouf, and 15th Panzer Division north-east of Toujane. For the moment 21st Panzer Division was unlocated; but the enemy’s offensive was obviously over.

The enemy air force was active in covering the withdrawal but the Desert Air Force prevented serious interference over 30th Corps. However, at 10.15 a.m. 6th NZ Infantry Brigade was bombed by nine aircraft, one man being killed and eight wounded.

Towards midday plans were made at Divisional Headquarters to form a special force known as ‘Currie Force’, after the commander of 4th Light Armoured Brigade. It consisted of one squadron of Divisional Cavalry, 4 Field Regiment less one battery, 34 Anti-Tank Battery and two squadrons of Staffs Yeomanry, and had a separate flank guard of one squadron Staffs Yeomanry, one squadron Divisional Cavalry and 26 Field Battery, all under command of Brigadier Currie. Its task was to operate southwards from Medenine for about eight miles, well clear of the FDLs, and then to work north-westwards across the front of 5 Brigade, sweeping up any enemy troops still remaining.

The flank guard soon made contact with the FFF Column, but found that the enemy had at last gone. Later 26 Battery engaged transport towing guns in the foothills near Ksar el Ababsa, but the enemy was soon out of range. At 5.30 p.m. a single 88-millimetre gun fired twenty-odd rounds at the main column but caused no damage or casualties. The force laagered for the night 7–8 March seven miles south-west of Medenine. At dawn it was again fired on by an 88-millimetre gun and had seven casualties. Later in the morning it was recalled and broken up, as there was obviously no further point in retaining it.

During 8 March Divisional Cavalry took over from the Royals the patrol line along the foothills south-east of Ksar el Hallouf, and was in contact with the enemy, taking two prisoners. The forward companies of 21st Battalion were shelled at long range in the morning, but otherwise there was little enemy shelling. The flash-spotting troop extended its base with little result, for the hilly country gave the enemy ample shelter from observation. Had the sound-ranging troop been available it might have had better luck.

All divisions maintained patrols during the following night, as the enemy armoured divisions seemed to have halted temporarily. Bad visibility on 9 March hampered air observation, but by the end of the day all the indications were that 15 Panzer Division was resuming its role of close support to the Mareth Line, while 10th and 21st Panzer Divisions were going back to the Gabes area. Divisional Cavalry, which kept up observation along the foothills, saw some enemy movement on the escarpment and drew fire from one point. Even on 10 March it was found that all the heights were picketed and any attempt to penetrate drew fire; but enemy offensive action was confined to the everlasting long-range gun, which spasmodically shelled the Medenine area and Hazbub landing ground.

On 10 March the FFF Column left 4th Light Armoured Brigade and moved to join Leclerc’s force at Ksar Rhilane. By this time the task of 2nd NZ Division had finished, although Divisional Cavalry continued to patrol along the foothills until 14 March. Fifth New Zealand Infantry Brigade was relieved by British troops in the afternoon of 11 March, and next day moved to a staging area for the next operation, to which by this time all efforts were being directed. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was transferred to the command of 10th Corps at this time.

medenine art

British artillery in Battle of Medenine

Some Thoughts on Medenine

Rommel has little to say about the Battle of Medenine, but his remarks are of some weight: ‘The attack began extraordinarily well, but soon came up against strong British positions in hilly country, protected by mines and anti-tank guns. … Attack after attack was launched, but achieved no success. … it soon became clear that the attack had failed and there was nothing more to be done about it. … The attack had bogged down in the break-in stage and the action never had a chance of becoming fluid. The British commander had grouped his forces extremely well and had completed his preparations with remarkable speed. In fact the attack had been launched about a week too late. … We had suffered tremendous losses, including forty tanks totally destroyed. But the cruellest blow was the knowledge that we had been unable to interfere with Montgomery’s preparations. A great gloom settled over us all. The Eighth Army’s attack was now imminent and we had to face it. For the Army Group to remain in Africa was now plain suicide.’

The last few sentences show Rommel’s views, which he had already voiced several times, and was to voice again more vigorously to both Mussolini and Hitler within a few days, for this was Rommel’s last battle in North Africa. He departed on sick leave on 9 March, and knew that he would not be coming back to Africa ever. His two years of campaigning in North Africa did not end on a high note. Indeed, for him it ended in near disaster.

The German attack at Medenine was virtually a straightforward charge against our line, with little subtlety, with only a weak flank attack, and with practically no reconnaissance beforehand. The war diaries of all three panzer divisions show that there was little if any co-ordination by Rommel, and in fact the renewal of the attack on a general scale in the afternoon was arranged by the three divisional commanders themselves through personal and radio discussion. Having launched the attack, Rommel seems merely to have looked on and almost to have expected the worst from the outset. Like a ghost from the past, one can see Napoleon at Waterloo standing at his side.

All three divisions speak repeatedly of heavy and devastating shellfire from British artillery and anti tank gun screens. Tanks were blinded and there could be no hope of advance unless the British guns were neutralised. At one critical stage Headquarters 21st Panzer Division was so heavily shelled that it was out of action for half an hour. It is of some interest to read that the German sound-ranging and flash-spotting sections had no success in locating the British guns.

The 15th Panzer Division admitted a loss of twenty-four tanks and 21st Panzer Division twenty-two, while 10th Panzer Division lost about seven or eight. Thirtieth Corps counted fifty-four enemy tanks destroyed, so that the figures are for once in agreement. It was one-third of the enemy’s strength in armour, a crippling loss. More than 640 German infantry accompanying the attacking panzers were either killed or wounded. German prisoners, however, amounted to only eighty-three.

About 6 p.m., acting on mistaken information that 10th Panzer Division had reached Metameur, Rommel planned to move 15th Panzer Division across to the right (south) during the night and resume the attack next morning; but when the error was discovered he ordered a general withdrawal.

The Allied victory had been due to anti-tank defence in depth supported by massed field and medium artillery, a conclusive answer to the armoured thrust. Only one squadron of armour was engaged, without loss. Good concealment minimised the effects of enemy fire against our artillery, so that little help was possible for the enemy armour. And good concealment also made our losses of infantry very small. Brigadier Weir, responsible for much of the whole artillery programme, later emphasised that Eighth Army, for the first time, had good observation.

Earlier in this chapter it has been explained that Montgomery regarded the Medenine battle only as an incident, albeit an annoying one, which occurred while preparations for his next offensive were under way. He did not change those plans because of the victory. Some commanders – Rommel for example – would have jumped at the opportunity of knocking out an already reeling enemy, following up with every man, gun, tank, and aircraft to storm through the Mareth Line. Such tactics are spectacular, and sometimes successful. But it was sounder and surer to delay a little and complete preparations before striking with full strength, and this was the course Montgomery followed.

The part of 2nd NZ Division in the battle was not great, for the severe fighting took place farther north where forty-seven enemy tanks were destroyed. But the Division by establishing itself so quickly in a defensive line which was a model of its kind made a worthy contribution.

Casualties in the Division from 4 to 10 March were 1 officer and 6 other ranks killed, and 2 officers and 39 other ranks wounded. Most of these were the result of air action, for effective concealment had minimised, indeed almost nullified, the enemy’s ground fire.

At Medenine the Germans used Nebelwerfer mortars for the first time against Eighth Army. New Zealand observers both heard and saw them, but they seemed to be firing at extreme range, and there is no record of their inflicting any loss on the Division.

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