Eighth Army Pursuit of Rommel's Panzer Army across Libya (5 November 1942 - January 1943)

New Zealand Official History , Alam el Halfa and Alamein - Ronald Walker

The Pursuit


AS day dawned on 4 November, the set-piece battles of Alamein were finished. Montgomery could justly claim that his forecast of a twelve-day dogfight, to crumble the Panzer Army’s fixed defences, had proved true.1 It was perhaps fortunate that the British armour, in spite of its repeated attempts, had not managed to break out earlier as the planning had envisaged, for this failure had prolonged the battle of attrition in the form in which the Eighth Army had the advantage. When, after the false start interrupted by Hitler’s order, Rommel at last managed to get his army moving on the now unavoidable withdrawal, it soon became clear that, had the Panzer Army fallen back earlier when it still had cohesion and control, the British advance might have been slow and laborious. Montgomery has indicated in his writings that such an advance was in his mind, an advance consisting of bringing his superior weight of tanks and artillery methodically against each bound of withdrawal taken up by Rommel and, in fact, such was his method later. But in the initial stages of the enemy withdrawal, the inherent weaknesses in the Eighth Army became obvious. The British armour, as Montgomery had feared, ‘swanned’ about the desert, out of coordinated control in several fruitless encircling movements, while powerful armoured columns were at times held up by weak German rearguards which resisted only because they had no petrol for further withdrawal.

As one army fell back in some confusion and the other followed up across a desert noteworthy for its lack of easily recognisable landmarks, it is only to be expected that records of movement and event should be hazy in details of time and place. Many of the Panzer Army’s surviving records are reconstructions made after the originals were destroyed, deliberately or by battle, and cannot easily be correlated with the Eighth Army’s accounts of running fights and rearguard actions.
The day broke with a ground mist hiding much of the front. Though news of the occupation of Tell el Aqqaqir had been passed around, no one on the British side knew whether the mist would lift to disclose the congestion in the SUPERCHARGE salient to enemy fire.

When the mist dispersed shortly after the sun arose, it became obvious that the enemy had gone except for some distant guns on the north-west which fired on Australian patrols and sent some random rounds towards 6th New Zealand Brigade and the Maori positions. The German records disclose that on the northern flank 90th German Light Division, under orders to prevent a breakthrough along the coastal road, had placed rearguards about Sidi Abd el Rahman while its main body withdrew on Ghazal. South of the road and covering a front of about five miles, 21st Panzer Division mustered possibly twenty tanks in battle order. Next, on an inconspicuous rise known as Tell el Mansfra, the Africa Corps Headquarters Battle Group (Kampfstaffel), with no more than ten ‘runners’ at the most, sat slightly in advance of its neighbours. Some six or seven miles to the west of Tell el Aqqaqir, 15th Panzer Division had as many as 27 ‘runners’ and the 17 survivors of Littorio Division. Still further south, and probably to the west of Africa Corps’ north-south line, remnants of Ariete Armored Division had joined the survivors of Trieste Armored Division, the two divisions coming under 20th Italian Corps and mustering probably over 100 tanks, many of which, however, were in immediate need of repairs and maintenance. To the south of this armoured front, troops of Trento and Bologna divisions of 21st Italian Corps were supposed to be holding a position by Sidi Ibeid but, without transport, ammunition, or stores, were in fact in complete disorder.

Montgomery’s provisional plan of the previous day had been for the New Zealand Division with its attached armour, under command of 30th Corps, to follow the route taken by the armoured cars of the Royals and South Africans in a wide encircling movement round the south of Aqqaqir to gain the Fuka escarpment pass some 45 miles to the west, while 10th Corps’ armour made a shorter and sharper wheel of 10 to 15 miles to cut the coast road about Ghazal. In this way he hoped to bottle up the rearguard, in which he assumed the panzer forces would play the major part, against the coast while the New Zealanders cut off the fleeing remnants of the infantry. Lumsden, whether with Montgomery’s agreement or not is uncertain, had intimated to his divisional commanders that they might be directed on Fuka but, during the night, as the attacks towards Aqqaqir were proceeding, he issued an instruction for an advance merely to outflank the enemy without specific directions. All the evidence shows that, up to this time, no one in the Eighth Army had an inkling of the disorganisation caused by Hitler’s order and Rommel’s indecision in disobeying it, or of the low fighting state to which the Panzer Army had fallen. The resistance met by 9th Armoured Brigade in the SUPERCHARGE operation was still fresh in the armour’s memory.

As far as can be ascertained, the orders on which the armoured divisions acted were for 1st and 10th Armoured Divisions, on right and left respectively, to probe west from the salient while 7th Armoured Division advanced to the south-west across Aqqaqir, prepared to swing north against the flank of any opposition met by the other formations.

Montgomery’s desire to fight a tidy battle was this morning flouted by circumstances. By following the precept of concentrating his attack at one point, he had channelled all his mobile forces, with their massive attendant tails of support, administration and supply columns, along the tracks leading into and through the narrow salient. When word got around that the enemy had gone and the advance was starting, groups of vehicles tried to press forward to be in at the kill while others, obediently awaiting definite orders, blocked the tracks. The confusion and congestion, already bad, reached a peak this morning and it was only by the exertions of the control posts, aided by senior officers, that some sort of traffic order was gradually made out of the chaos as the day wore on.

One of the first to find his way clear of the confusion was General Freyberg’s 2nd New Zealand Division who, fully convinced that the enemy had ‘cracked’, hurried out with a small reconnaissance group to test the route round the south of Aqqaqir. Impatient orders to get the divisional column following in his wake brought the news that 4th Light Armoured Brigade, due to take the lead, was still near Alamein station jostling for its share of the tracks; 5th NZ Brigade was waiting at the base of the salient for the light armour to pass, while 9 Armoured and 6th NZ Brigades were still in the defences on the north-west corner, the latter waiting for its transport which was held up in the rear.

In the salient itself, all three armoured divisions had begun to assemble at first light in columns which at points intersected each other. About 6.30 a.m. 11 Hussars led 7 Armoured Division towards Aqqaqir, but the need to sort units from the congestion in the morning mist, as well as patches of heavy going on the route, delayed progress so that it took nearly two hours for the head of the division to reach the ground won overnight by 5th Indian Brigade. Further north, 1st Armoured Division managed to get itself in some sort of order by the time the mist dispersed and then, about 7.45 a.m., 12nd Lancers cautiously advanced due west at the head of 2nd Armoured Brigade. On Lumsden’s order, 10th Armoured Division began to assemble facing west on 1st Armoured Division’s southern flank but did not move immediately. Shortly after eight o’clock the armoured cars of 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry, followed by the Royal Scots Greys of 4th Light Armoured Brigade, managed to thread their way out of the confusion to a point south-east of Aqqaqir, but here Freyberg held them back until the rest of his force could be organised.

The order of battle of the main components of 10th Corps’ pursuit force was:

1st Armoured Division :

-2nd Armoured Brigade

-The Bays

-9th Lancers

-10th Hussars

-Yorkshire Dragoons (motorised infantry)

-7th Motor Brigade (lorried infantry)

-2nd Rifle Battalion

7th Rifle Battalion


-12th Lancers (armoured cars)

7 Armoured Division :

-22nd Armoured Brigade

-1st Royal Tanks

-5th Royal Tanks

-4th County of London Yeomany

-1st Rifle Battalion (motorised infantry)

-131st Lorried Infantry Brigade

-1/5 Queens

-1/6 Queens

1/7 Queens

-11th Hussars (armoured cars)

10th Armoured Division :

-8th Armoured Brigade

-3rd Royal Tanks

-Notts Yeomany

-Staffs Yeo

-1st Buffs (motorised infantry)

-133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade

-2nd Royal Sussex

-4th Royal Sussex

-5th Royal Sussex

Armoured Car force :

-Royal Dragoons

-4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment

-3 South African Armoured Car Regiment

Except for a little long-range artillery fire, all this initial movement by the British armour met with no organised opposition though increasing numbers of the enemy were encountered, most of whom, both German and Italian, had obviously missed the general withdrawal and, on the appearance of armoured cars and tanks, willingly surrendered.

The first clash with the enemy’s new line came in the middle of the morning when 22 Armoured Brigade, leading 7th Armoured Division, had travelled some miles down the Rahman Track from Aqqaqir and then turned to the west. At the turn it came under 88-millimetre fire. As the brigade halted to deal with this fire, the divisional commander, General Harding, ordered the rest of his column to keep going further south and swing round 22nd Brigade’s left flank. However, it soon become clear that the division was up against an extensive line of tanks backed by numerous guns, too strong to rush and too dangerous to leave menacing the division’s line of advance. Harding therefore called up his field and anti-tank guns and settled down to a long-range duel. This enemy force seems to have been mainly the 100 or so tanks of Ariete Division with 20th Italian Corps’ artillery, including some 88s, to back them up. There may also have been a few surviving tanks of Trieste Motorised Division, while the seventeen tanks left to Littorio Armored Div and positioned on 15th Panzer Division’s right flank were possibly drawn into the battle. Numerous parties of Italian infantry as well as some of 164th German Infantry Division, in process of re-forming before being distributed among the panzer formations, were also caught up in the battle. When Ariete Armored Division reported the engagement to Africa Corps, a battalion group was sent by 15th Panzer Division to fill the gap between its right flank and the Italians. The role of 20th Italian Corps was to guard the Panzer Army’s right flank against encirclement and, according to the German records, Rommel was at first confident that, with over 100 tanks, the Italians would fulfil their task.

In the meantime, 2nd Armoured Brigade of 1st Armoured Division had advanced slowly due west from the SUPERCHARGE salient and was heading for the rise at Tell el Mansfra, where Africa Corps’ Kampfstaffel, of a few tanks and anti-tank guns, was filling the gap between the two panzer divisions. With the Corps Commander, von Thoma, present in person, the battle group put up an exceedingly fierce resistance in which several British tanks were knocked out, including that of 1st Armoured Division’s commander, Brigadier Briggs, who then halted his armour while he called up his field artillery to suppress the enemy’s fire. Under both tank and field-gun fire, the enemy resistance broke, five tanks and a few guns managing to withdraw, according to the German records. The Africa Korps commander GeneralVon Thoma was taken prisoner, along with several hundred German gunners and infantrymen who were sheltering in nearby trenches. Though the engagement ceased and von Thoma was captured shortly after midday, 2nd Armoured Brigade does not appear to have advanced much further in the afternoon, possibly through meeting fire from the panzer divisions on its flanks.

Gatehouse’s 10th Armoured Division, comprising 8th Armoured Brigade and 133rd Lorried Infantry Brigade, had meanwhile assembled during the morning and, having extricated itself from the confusion in the salient, reached the Rahman Track just to the south of 1st Armoured Division’s line of advance by midday. Lumsden then decided that, as both 1st and 7th Armored Divisions seemed likely to be held up, Gatehouse should attempt an encircling movement to the south, though this meant that his columns would have to cut across the routes being used by 7th Armoured Division and the New Zealanders. However, enemyJU-87 Stuka dive-bombers put in one of their rare appearances this day, causing the division to disperse in some confusion, and it was late in the afternoon before 8th Armoured Brigade set off down the Rahman Track. Then, coming in sight of 22nd Armored Brigade’s battle off to the west, the brigade halted to reconnoitre and finally laagered for the night about three miles west of the track.

By the end of the 4th, therefore, the three armoured divisions of 10th Corps had advanced only a few miles west of the line gained in SUPERCHARGE. Unaware of the true state of the Panzer Army, General Lumsden was in fact following the original policy laid down by Montgomery in which the armour, after breaking out, was to position itself to invite armoured counter-attack. It was on this policy that the shallow outflanking movements of the armour were based.

Had the Africa Corps stayed to fight to the last, this method would have paid off. But what the Eighth Army could not, and did not, know was that, shortly after von Thoma’s capture, Rommel’s common sense finally overrode his loyalty to Hitler. Although neither 21st nor 15th Panzer Division had been directly engaged, reports of massed tanks facing them and attacking 20th Italian Corps on the southern flank caused him to issue in mid-afternoon an order that there was no longer any need to hold out to the last man or to permit unnecessary sacrifice, an order which may have reflected his personal feelings over the loss of von Thoma. He then issued detailed instructions for a withdrawal at dusk to a first bound on a line running south from Daba, where the formations were to set out strong rearguards to cover further retreat to the Fuka area. Both these bounds were for assembly and reorganisation, with no suggestion of prepared lines of defence. It is clear that Rommel was waiting to see what he could salvage of his army and what the British would do, and he hoped, or believed, that they would follow up as cautiously as was their custom.

However, there was one man in the Eighth Army who was impatient for bold action. Having gone forward and personally seen the quantities of guns, vehicles and equipment both destroyed and abandoned, and the groups of dispirited prisoners accumulating in ever increasing numbers, General Freyberg was sure that the enemy was on the point of slipping away and was fretting to get his divisional column on the move. Whether he expected to carry out the major encirclement of the Panzer Army unaided is unlikely, but he certainly hoped to block its retreat in time to allow 10th Corps to finish it off. His orders from 30th Corps were for a fast advance, avoiding engagements, on a line south-west from the salient to Sidi Ibeid, and thence north-west along the old Barrel route to the Fuka escarpment and north to Fuka itself, a total distance of some 60 miles. He was warned that at Fuka he might be cut off and have to be supplied by sea, a warning that illustrates the thinking of the time.

In spite of his impatience, Freyberg had first to assemble his force, a task made no easier by the congestion on the salient routes. The Division’s order of battle, with the approximate positions of the various components early on the 4th, was as follows:

HQ 2 NZ Div (Main HQ to the rear of the salient, and Tac HQ on the move forward)
HQ 2 NZ Div Sigs
9 Armd Bde in support of 6 NZ Bde in the north-west and north of the salient
Warwick Yeomanry Composite Regt
4 NZ Fd Regt
31 NZ A-Tk Bty
41 NZ Lt AA Bty
6 NZ Fd Coy
166 Lt Fd Amb
2 NZ Div Cav in the salient and to the rear
4 Lt Armd Bde moving forward from its laager about three miles east of Alamein station
Royal Scots Greys
4/8 Hussars
2 Derby Yeomanry
Fd Sqn, RE
Lt Fd Amb PAGE 432
5 NZ Inf Bde between Alamein and Tell el Eisa except for 22 Bn (in the rear of the salient), 28 Bn (on the north flank), and artillery and other detachments scattered through the salient and by brigade headquarters
21 NZ Bn
22 NZ Bn
28 NZ (Maori) Bn
5 NZ Fd Regt
32 NZ A-Tk Bty
42 NZ Lt AA Bty
2 Coy, 27 NZ (MG) Bn
7 NZ Fd Coy
Coy 5 NZ Fd Amb
6 NZ Inf Bde in the north-west defences of the salient
24 NZ Bn
25 NZ Bn
26 NZ Bn
6 NZ Fd Regt
33 NZ A-Tk Bty
43 NZ Lt AA Bty
3 Coy, 27 NZ (MG) Bn
8 NZ Fd Coy
Coy 6 NZ Fd Amb
27 NZ (MG) Bn (less two companies) with Main HQ 2 NZ Div
7 NZ A-Tk Regt (less three batteries)
(Note: Four platoons of 4 NZ Res MT Coy were needed to make the infantry of 5 Bde mobile, and three platoons of 6 NZ Res MT Coy had to drive through the salient to pick up 6 Bde’s infantry.)

The Division’s original orders were for 4th Light Armoured Brigade to deploy at 8.30 a.m. on the east of Tell el Aqqaqir, ready to advance to Sidi Ibeid. The Warwickshire Yeomanry Composite Regiment of 9th Armoured Brigade with the Divisional Cavalry was to assemble by nine o’clock and await orders, while Main Headquarters, the Reserve Group and 5th NZ Brigade were to be ready to move by ten o’clock and 6 Brigade by midday.

As earlier related, some of 4th Light Armoured Brigade reached its deployment area on time, but the whole of the brigade was not assembled until after ten o’clock. Freyberg meanwhile had been trying without much success to get information on the progress of 10th Corps, but he at least knew from his own reconnaissance that 7th Armoured Division had met opposition close to his proposed line of advance. Some time after 10.30 a.m. he sent the armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry to find a route round the south of the battle and later despatched the tanks of the Royal Scots Greys.

Gradually throughout the day the various groups of the New Zealand force assembled and threaded their ways through the congestion and the gaps in the minefields before opening out into widely
dispersed desert formation. In his diary Freyberg described the gaps as

“feet deep morasses of dust which spouted up in front of and into the vehicles. By this date thousands of vehicles and hundreds of guns and tanks had pounded the loose fine-grained surface of this part of the desert into something resembling discoloured flour. What will it be like if it rains? 9th Armd Bde and 5th NZ Bde moved up and the congestion of vehicles in the forward area would have done credit to Piccadilly. Fortunately the RAF ruled the skies. Div [Headquarters] moved up at 1100 hours and squeezed into the crush….1”

Though many of the divisional groups moved up along Boomerang and Square tracks, it is uncertain exactly where they broke out into the open, but their guiding sign was the black diamond used to mark the Diamond track which led into 6th NZ Brigade’s defences. From somewhere near the end of this track a party of New Zealand divisional provosts with engineers had set off early to find a minefree route, which led in a southerly direction round the east of Aqqaqir and then turned north-west along the path of the reconnaissance group of 4th Light Armoured Brigade. At first these ‘Diamond signs’, of black painted tin set on iron pickets, were placed at frequent intervals, but once in the open one sign sufficed for every 700 yards. Thus marked, the Diamond Track eventually stretched from Alamein to Tripoli.

Shortly after midday 4th Light Armoured Brigade reported to Divisional Headquarters that the Greys in the lead had halted against opposition. At this time Freyberg was holding a conference with his brigadiers, but before the conference broke up the Greys had signalled that they had taken the surrender of 300 prisoners with 11 guns. It would appear that, on swinging round the south of the Italian tanks which 7th Armoured Division was engaging and then turning to the north-west, the Greys had come under fire from the 20th Italian Corps artillery sited behind the tank line. The Italian artillery had put up a token fight, but had soon ceased fire once the Greys worked round to the rear.

At the divisional conference Brigadier Gentry of 6th NZ Brigade proposed an all-night advance to reach Fuka by the early hours of the morning, asserting that the men of the Division had waited for three years for such a victory as was now offered and would willingly endure the strain of a long night drive. Kippenberger of 5th NZ Brigade was more cautious, fearing that in the dark and unknown going, the formations might become separated and be left in some confusion by morning. Freyberg himself was full of confidence that the enemy was on the point of breaking and, though 7th Armoured Division was still fighting not far away, he decided to get his column clear of the confusion and the fighting, and out into the open desert where concentration would be easier. He therefore set off with his Tactical Headquarters to catch up with the light armour, leaving orders for the rest of the force to follow as soon as possible. Main Headquarters, the Reserve Group, 5th NZ Brigade and 9th Armoured Brigade cleared the minefields by late afternoon but 6th NZ Brigade, having to wait for its transport to negotiate the congestion in the salient, did not get going until 6 p.m.

Carrying eight days’ water and rations, 360 rounds for each field gun, and petrol for 200 miles, the New Zealand vehicles, though heavily laden, made good progress once they drew clear of the powdered sand of the battle area and reached the hard sand along the Barrel Track. Of the journey, Freyberg, riding on the outside of his Stuart tank, entered in his diary:

"… we began to pass through enemy positions and tanks of the Panzer Divisions which will fight no more, burning transport, and large calibre guns. It was a change much appreciated to speed across open desert away from the dust heap of the Alamein front. As the Div swept south-westwards the guns of the tanks and arty were in action to the north where the British armour were fighting the Panzer rearguard. 4 Lt Armd Bde was ahead. Behind them marching apparently quite cheerfully were columns of PWs with a solitary armoured car or truck as an escort, carrying a few wounded and a single guard armed with a Tommy gun. We passed an infantry [? artillery] position almost intact with guns in position and ammunition boxes empty….1

During this afternoon, 22nd Armoured Brigade continued its action against the Italian 20th Corps until dark but it is hard to say how this battle really went. The German records, including Rommel’s own account, give the impression that Ariete Armored Division, fighting gallantly to the last tank, was completely surrounded and annihilated. Yet 22nd Armored Armoured Brigade claimed only 29 tanks destroyed and 450 prisoners, against a loss of one tank and a few casualties, while events next day indicate that quite a large part of the Italian force managed to disengage overnight. The Italian stand at least deterred 10th Corps from the encircling movement Lumsden had proposed and allowed Africa Corps an unimpeded withdrawal overnight.

Some ten miles past Sidi Ibeid and 15 miles due south of Daba, Freyberg halted 4th Light Armoured Brigade as dusk was falling, to allow the rest of the divisional force to catch up. Though the commander, Brigadier Roddick, wanted to carry on to the Fuka escarpment, Freyberg had learnt through 30th Corps of an intercepted message that 15th Panzer Division was also making its way to Fuka.

Liaison officers were sent back to find the other formations and, by the use of wirelessed directions and flares, 5 Brigade was guided to the laager by midnight. No sooner had this brigade halted than a minor battle ensued at the tail of its long column. A party of Germans approached one of the rear vehicles apparently to ascertain if the column was friendly or hostile, and the signals officer in the truck did his best to make them believe he was Italian. As the enemy moved off apparently satisfied, this officer went forward on foot to warn 23rd Battalion ahead, but before he could regain his truck firing broke out and a rather wild battle ensued. The mortar platoon of 23rd Battalion took the initial brunt of the fighting, first using rifles and then getting their mortars into action against fire from automatic weapons, and probably from a light anti-tank or infantry gun which accounted for one of the mortars. Carriers and 4th Light Armoured Brigade’s tanks, as well as infantry of 23rd and 28th Battalions, then joined in, upon which the enemy withdrew, taking eight men of the Divisional Signals with them as prisoners, and though chased by several vehicles, got clean away. It was later estimated that the enemy party was about seventy strong, probably a group of Ramcke parachutists searching for transport or petrol. The alarm brought some indiscriminate firing, even Divisional Headquarters some distance away coming under fire, and casualties were recorded as 8 men killed, 5 missing, 26 wounded and 8 taken prisoner; of these last, seven subsequently were recaptured or escaped. The enemy left 17 bodies behind.
Freyberg had been under pressure from Roddick and other enthusiastic members of his staff to continue the advance through the night, but this small battle convinced him of the need to get his force concentrated and organised before going any further and he decided to wait for the rest of the force. The firing had set alight an ammunition truck belonging to 23rd Battalion and this continued to blaze for some hours, providing a handy beacon for 9th Armoured Brigade and 4th Field Regiment when they drew near the divisional laager. It was still burning when, only two hours before dawn, the head of 6th NZ Brigade’s column arrived.


Montgomery’s intentions for the night of 4–5 November were for 1st and 7th Armoured Divisions to keep the enemy facing them in engagement while the New Zealand column continued to Fuka, and 10th Armoured Division, following inside the New Zealand wheel, cut the coast road halfway between Daba and Fuka. However, the evening reconnaissance reports of vehicles massed in retreat between these two places, and other indications, convinced him that the opposition to the armour was likely to fade away overnight and he accordingly told Lumsden to push on boldly everywhere, using the Royals and South African armoured cars to act as a delaying force on the Fuka escarpment until the New Zealand column could get there.

As the night wore on, Lumsden issued a number of orders, presumably based on information sent back by his divisions. He told 1st Armoured Division to stay in engagement with the enemy ahead while 7th Armoured Division, having reported its victory over the Italian armour, drove for the high ground south-east of Daba. Then 10th Armoured Division was to cut the road between Daba and Fuka with its 8th Armoured Brigade, but its lorried infantry was to take up a position south of Daba. Just before dawn, and before the armour broke night laager, Lumsden changed these plans, instructing Gatehouse to send his lorried infantry direct to the Fuka escarpment pass, where it would be joined as soon as possible by 8th Armoured Brigade, while 1st Armoured Division moved directly to Daba with 7th Armoured Division on its left. As Lumsden gave many instructions in face-to-face discussion or conversation over the wireless, not officially recorded, it is possible that there were further variations of his orders.

No clear exposition of 10th Corps’ plans reached Freyberg and it was only later in the day that he learnt of them through contact with the armoured formations themselves. Accordingly, as the sky lightened early on the 5th November, he sent 4th Light Armoured Brigade to lead his column, ignorant that he was sharing the rush to the Fuka escarpment with three armoured car regiments as well as the lorried infantry and armoured brigades of 10th Armoured Division.

Montgomery’s misgivings about what might occur if his mobile forces passed beyond centralised control now began to prove well founded. Some time during this morning he told Lumsden to take the New Zealand column under 10th Corps’ command, but Freyberg did not receive news of this change until some hours later. At 10.40 a.m. he was in receipt of a 30th Corps order repeating the Fuka assignment, and adding the extra task of sending a detachment to the Qasaba landing grounds that lay some 15 to 20 miles further west.

Much had happened before this order arrived for, only an hour after setting out from the night laager, the Greys encountered an enemy force reported to include twenty German tanks. This must have been the panzer regiment of 15th Panzer Division which had been travelling only a few miles ahead on the same course as that taken by the New Zealanders. According to the Africa Corps message log, the division had up to twenty-seven runners on the 4th November and suffered no casualties by battle overnight, but this day it began a rearguard action soon after daylight. About midday (Eighth Army time) it reported to Africa Corps that its strength was down to 8 tanks in running order, 200 infantry, 4 anti-tank, 12 field guns, and no heavy anti-aircraft guns, i.e., 88-millimetre. How much of the panzer division’s losses were due to battle and how much to mechanical failures or lack of petrol is uncertain for the Greys claimed only twelve of the German tanks, including two captured intact.

While the Greys were in action some vehicles appeared on the south of the New Zealand column and opened fire when the commander of 4th Field Regiment, Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart, left the column to identify them. When the tanks of 9th Armoured Brigade returned the fire, most of the vehicles drove off at high speed, leaving two trucks behind from which Colonel Stewart took the surrender of about sixty men. About the same time 1 King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the motorised infantry of 4th Light Armoured Brigade, turning to the north to investigate a body of men and vehicles, was met by numerous white flags. Among several hundred Italian and German infantrymen and gunners captured here, the riflemen found the commander of Trento Motorised Division with most of his senior officers and staff.

By the middle of the day the New Zealand column was stretching out over several miles of the desert. After the enemy facing the Greys had broken off the engagement and retired, the armoured cars took over the lead and were close to the point where the Barrel Track swung north towards the escarpment pass. About this time enemy aircraft swept down the column to drop a few bombs on 5th NZ Brigade. Several men were wounded but the Bofors gunners got quickly into action, claiming hits on two Messerschmitts.

Just a few miles east of the pass, the leading vehicles, with which General Freyberg himself was then travelling, were halted by shell-fire. Reconnaissance established that this shelling came from two enemy groups. One of them, probably Voss Group of armoured cars, artillery and possibly a few tanks, was close to the lip of the escarpment pass, and the other, of 15 Panzer Division’s rearguard, was on high ground to the west. Together the two groups dominated the approaches to the pass, while Voss Group was in a position to fire on vehicles negotiating the track down the escarpment to the coastal plain.

Freyberg had by this time decided not to use the pass but to keep on the top of the escarpment and follow it round to the west of Fuka, with the Sidi Haneish landing ground and the Division’s old defences at the Baggush Box as his objectives. From this point he could control the chain of desert landing grounds south of Baggush and operate westwards to the Qasaba grounds.

As the Derbyshire Yeomanry probed forward to find a way between the two enemy groups, they met a marked minefield running north and south. The armoured brigade’s tanks and vehicles then began to bank up behind the armoured cars and the enemy fire increased, so Freyberg called on Brigadier Weir to deploy the artillery. Under the fire of the field guns, the enemy group on the west withdrew, on which the armoured cars followed up and found a gap, probably the one the enemy had used. Passing through, though still under fire, the armoured cars came in sight of a large concentration of vehicles, stretching several miles to the west behind the northern group of the enemy. According to the German records this must have been the main body of 21st Panzer Division, then beginning to suffer from an acute shortage of petrol. Both to deny the pass and observation over the coastal plain, and to extricate themselves from their precarious situation where they might be encircled and cut off from expected petrol supplies, the German forces opened heavy fire, from medium and field guns as well as 88-millimetres, on all attempts by the British tanks to pass through the minefield gap. During this period of the afternoon several parties of stragglers, including a large body of Bologna Division, had given themselves up to the divisional column. The Division was also joined by the commander of 7th Armoured Division, Harding, who stated that he had been to Daba airfield and found no enemy there.

What had actually happened further east was that 1st Armoured Division had reached Daba in the morning and had met with some resistance. The tanks of 2nd Armoured Brigade had then cut the coast road to the west, while 7th Motor Brigade had laid on an attack which netted numerous guns and vehicles and much equipment but only a small bag of prisoners. Harding with his division had then appeared and, anticipating Lumsden’s next orders, had led his men back into the desert and on to the New Zealand route. In the meantime 8th Armoured Brigade (10 Armoured Division) had somehow cut ahead of the other two divisions to reach the coastal road at Galal, halfway between Daba and Fuka. Here it was just in time to catch the enemy flushed by the other divisions, the only sizable body caught by any of the British encircling movements. After having dealt with some small parties of stragglers, the brigade waited as a large column of tanks, trucks and marching men came unsuspectingly straight towards it. Under fire at almost point-blank range, the enemy was thrown into confusion and offered little resistance. The total of tanks accounted for here by 8 Armoured Brigade was put as high as 14 German and 29 Italian. About 1200 prisoners were taken as well as numerous guns and vehicles in good order. It was generally accepted in the Eighth Army that this engagement completed the annihilation of the Italian 20th Corps which 7th Armoured Division had begun the previous day, but, according to the Rommel Papers, elements of this corps with ‘about ten tanks’ were in Matruh on 7th November. As the German records do not mention either the composition or the loss of this group at Galal, it was probably not part of any formation but a mixed group of rear and front-line troops, including German and Italian technicians and tanks from the Daba workshops.

From Harding the New Zealand staff learnt that he intended to cut round the left of the Division and secure the landing grounds on the south of Sidi Haneish and cut the coast road. It is uncertain if Harding was at this time able to pass on the full extent of 10th Corps’ latest plans. Lumsden had in fact realised at last that the narrow wheels of his armour had encompassed mainly laggard Italians and few combatant Germans, and that the main striking force of the Panzer Army was slipping from his grasp. After telling 10th Armoured Division to clear the coastal plain as far as Fuka, taking care not to engage the New Zealand column by mistake, he sent 1st Armoured Division on a last desperate, and almost impracticable, sweep. Shortly before 2 p.m. he sent a radio message to Briggs with instructions to despatch Fisher’s 2nd Armoured Brigade, then in laager on the west of Daba, on a 70-mile trek to Bir Khalda, which lay a few miles south of Minqar Qaim and some 35 miles as the crow flies south of Matruh township. From this point the brigade was to operate towards the north to block the routes leading west out of Matruh.

Such a manoeuvre might have had an element of success had Lumsden told Harding and Freyberg to engage and contain the enemy facing them in order to give Fisher’s brigade time to get into position, but these two commanders appear to have been unaware of this new plan and its implications. (Lumdsen and other British armor generals limitations and faults are clear here who screwed up Montgomery’s orders) They continued with their aim of cutting the coast road in the Baggush - Sidi Haneish area where 10th Corps Headquarters, from air and ground reports already received, should have known that few of the enemy would be entrapped.

Freyberg’s appreciation of the situation in his immediate area was that the enemy group on his north-west would probably try to break out to the south-west after dark. On this basis he gave 4th Light Armoured Brigade orders to take the ‘high ground’, presumably that to the north-west of the minefield gap, while 9th Armoured Brigade was to get through the gap and deploy facing north, all to be completed before dark but all qualified by an ‘if possible’. The Divisional Cavalry was to cover the north on the eastern side of the minefield, 6th NZ Brigade was to stay in reserve at the rear of the divisional column, but 5th NZ Brigade was to attempt the passage of the gap and take the ‘high ground’ if the light armour failed to do so. What Freyberg had in mind is doubtful, for the deployment he ordered would have left the enemy a clear route of withdrawal to west or north-west, but he may, at the time he issued the orders, have been expecting Harding’s 22nd Armoured Brigade to come up on his left.

In the early afternoon the New Zealand guns fired a smoke screen to cover infantry and sappers of the light armoured brigade, who removed the wire and pickets bordering the minefield and marked a route in which apparently no mines were found. The tanks, well dispersed against the enemy’s shellfire, then drove through and turned north, where they rounded up about 150 of the enemy, mostly German Ramcke paratroops. The advance of the armour drew the attention of most of the enemy gunners away from the gap, so that just before dusk 5th NZ Brigade, travelling in column at high speed, navigated the gap without casualties or damage, and halted in a hollow sheltered from enemy observation. After darkness fell, the brigade moved some way further north in order to clear the exit from the gap and to make contact with the armour. However, no other part of the New Zealand column followed for some hours. Brigadier Kippenberger recorded that his instructions from Freyberg were to harass the enemy but not to get involved with ‘the still powerful German armour’, a remark which helps to explain the caution exhibited by individual commanders but hardly condones the lack of concerted action. In his short night move, Kippenberger had lost touch with his artillery, 5th Field Regiment, and was unable to make contact with the headquarters of 4th Light Armoured Brigade. Estimating that he was still ten miles from the coast road he decided that, without guns or armour, his brigade should stay in a defensive laager overnight.

At 9 p.m. Freyberg conferred with his two brigadiers still east of the gap, that is, Gentry of 6th NZ Brigade and Brigadier Weir of the artillery. He told them that his intention was to proceed at daylight direct to the escarpment overlooking the coastal strip to the east of the Baggush Box area, with 9th Armoured in the lead, followed by 6th NZ Brigade and the Divisional Artillery. The other two brigades, whose whereabouts were uncertain, would be collected on the way. He also stated that 22nd Armoured Brigade would be operating on his division’s left, its objective the escarpment to the west of Baggush. This last statement indicates that Freyberg had now received more detailed information of 7th Armoured Division’s progress and intentions than Harding could have given earlier in the day. Roberts’ brigade had in fact reached the minefield some miles to the south and, without enemy interference, had quickly found that there were no mines between the fences. However, no sooner was it through than it found itself short of petrol. About seven o’clock the brigade laagered, some ten miles south-west of the New Zealand position, to wait for petrol and its lorried infantry, 131st Infantry Brigade, which had become disorganised in attempting to catch up and was scattered over many miles of the desert route.

How much more of 10th Corps’ plans Freyberg knew at this time is uncertain, nor is it certain that he knew he had been transferred to the corps’ command. In fact, the wireless message issued by Lumsden just after midday and giving the latest plans reached the New Zealand Division just twenty-four hours after it was despatched. However, he must have gained some information from Harding and, not long after his conference with Gentry and Weir, he received first-hand news of 1st Armoured Division’s plans when a column of trucks and carriers suddenly tangled with the divisional laager. This turned out to be part of 7th Motor Brigade on its way to join 2nd Armoured Brigade at Bir Khalda.

The orders for 1st Armoured Division to proceed at once to Bir Khalda were issued by 10th Corps shortly before 2 p.m. and received by the division within half an hour, according to the available records, but for some reason the division was not ready to start until 6 p.m. Admittedly the difficulties, of communication, replenishment and preparations, were great at this period, but the late start meant that even 12nd Lancers in the lead had not gone far before dusk made travelling hazardous. In fact the tail of the divisional column was not able to get clear, before dark, of the maze of old defences, slit trenches, minefields, and criss-crossing tracks in the well-occupied coastal strip. However, the division ploughed on gamely on a gruelling all-night march, which took the head of the column some 55 miles by dawn. The Lancers and 2 Armoured Brigade, still some miles short of Bir Khalda, were finally halted by lack of petrol shortly after sunrise, with the rest of the division spread out over more than 20 miles of the desert to the east.

During the morning of 5th November, Rommel seemed at first to think that his Panzer Army was in better shape than it actually was, due perhaps to early optimistic messages from Africa Corps and 90th German Light Division which gave an appearance of some order in the withdrawal, while news of how far or fast his opponents were following up was scanty. First thing in the morning he established his headquarters two miles south-west of the Fuka landing ground and, while there, received authorisation from Hitler and Mussolini for a withdrawal, with the proviso that the non-motorised forces would be extricated.

“We could do nothing but shrug our shoulders, for extricating the infantry was precisely what the original order had prevented us from doing…. Now only Fate could show whether the British would permit us to stay at Fuka long enough for the Italian and German infantry to catch up.”

He then let his staff issue an order that the Fuka position, that is, an imaginary line running due south from Fuka station, was to be defended to the last man according to Mussolini’s directions, together with a sharp reminder to the Italians to get their surviving formations organised on that line. Driving north to the road, he watched vehicles streaming past under constant air attack, and returning into the desert he found Africa Corps in engagement with a British column. Back at his headquarters, he took to a slit trench when the Royal Air Force made two bombing runs over the area, having apparently located the headquarters position through wireless intercepts.

By this time he must have realised, from all that he had seen and heard, that most of 10th and 21th Italian Corps could be written off. Africa Corps had already warned that it was in danger of being outflanked from the south, and then ‘several Sherman tanks came in sight and opened fire on everything they could see. We apparently no longer had any troops between us {Panzer Army Headquarters} and the British.’ The Panzer Army narrative goes on to recount that in the afternoon a breakthrough by strong tank forces between 15th and 21th Panzer Divisions could not be prevented while Voss Group was tied down by a strong tank force, and as there were no more reserves and little petrol, no counter-attack was possible.

As no British forces, except for armoured car patrols, were far enough west to engage Africa Corps HQ at Fuka at this time of the day, the Corps must have been reacting to the tentative probings of the New Zealand column. The Sherman tanks that fired on Rommel may have been armoured cars or the tanks of 4th Light Armoured Brigade that captured the Ramcke troops. Whoever they were, the situation
was enough to persuade Rommel to accept Africa Corps’ proposals for retreat by another bound to Matruh. Accordingly, he gave orders for any available remnants of 10th and 21th Italian Corps to occupy the Matruh defences, and for 90th German Light Division and Africa Corps to retire on the minefields along the Matruh-Siwa road to a point just south of Charing Cross, covered by rearguards supplied by 90th German Light Division at Garawla and to the south.

By the timing of messages issued by its headquarters, 15th Panzer Division began to retire almost as soon as the New Zealand column arrived to face it across the dummy minefield and, after dark, it made all speed for the Siwa track. Both Africa Corps Headquarters and 21st Panzer Division seem to have waited until later in the day, when the panzer division set off but got no further than the vicinity of Qasaba before it ran out of petrol, and Afrika Corps Headquarters moved north towards the main road. Voss Group, which must have been responsible for most of the spasmodic fire on the New Zealand forces, joined 21st Panzer Division after dusk. Through poor communications in its direct link with Panzer Army headquarters, 90th German Light Division did not learn of the orders until well after dark and its assembly was then hindered by heavy bombing of the coast road. Attempts to disperse its columns on the desert tracks running parallel with the road met trouble with the old minefields, but it finally managed to collect its units, spread between Fuka and Sidi Haneish, and despatch them to Matruh by dawn, leaving a rearguard at Garawla.

On the morning of the 6th November, therefore, the New Zealand forces were preparing to advance to the north, with 22nd Armoured Brigade a little way behind on the left, to meet the coast road at a point where only a few laggard Panzer Army troops might still be cut off, while 1st Armoured Division was some 25 miles or more away, deep in the desert to the south-west, but well placed to attack the still critical road junction at Charing Cross had its men and machines not been so fatigued by their long night journey. Off to the south and west of Charing Cross, 4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment, having reached this area the previous evening, reported that its operations were impeded by the mass of prisoners it had so far collected.

At first light Freyberg sent the Divisional Cavalry through the minefield gap with orders to screen the advance of 9th Armoured Brigade and 6th NZ Brigade to the escarpment overlooking the Sidi Haneish landing ground. As the armour was filtering through the gap, a column of vehicles came from the north-east, apparently intending to pass round the south of the divisional laager area. Before the column could be identified, armoured cars and troop-carriers on its flank opened a rather indiscriminate fire obviously intended to cover the passage of the soft-skinned vehicles. The New Zealanders, however, were now not so ready to be taken by surprise and the men of 25th and 26th Battalions immediately returned the fire with Brens and rifles while the six-pounders of 34 Anti-Tank Battery and the two-pounders of 25th Battalion swung into action. Then the men of 3rd Machine Gun Company of the Reserve Group, with their Vickers guns firing from their vehicles, and the carriers of 25th Battalion raced out in an attempt to head off the enemy. Although a portion of the column escaped, a large number of prisoners was collected, variously estimated at from 400 to 600, mostly Italians but including 100 men of 90 Light Division. Among the enemy were some fifty British troops, together with some of their vehicles, who had been captured the previous evening while bringing up supplies for 7th Armoured Division.

This incident was over before the Cavalry and armour had negotiated the gap so, leaving the prisoners to the Reserve Group, 6th NZ Brigade followed without delay, the whole force advancing steadily in a north-westerly direction throughout the morning. No opposition was met, and shortly before midday the leading Cavalry patrols reached the high ground overlooking the Sidi Haneish landing ground.

Back in the desert, Freyberg had called Kippenberger and Roddick to a conference just after ten o’clock to give them instructions to move up on the right of the two leading brigades towards the south-east corner of Baggush Box. However, news from the patrols soon made it evident that the enemy had slipped away and, with petrol running low and the going becoming increasingly difficult, neither brigadier felt the need for haste.

Earlier in the morning, pilots of the Desert Air Force had met low cloud and rainstorms along the coast. As the day advanced the rainstorms increased in volume and frequency, spreading steadily inland. The Daba landing grounds from which the fighters were operating became unusable, so that the fighters had to return to all-weather fields well behind the Alamein line. When air reconnaissance revealed that the road east of Matruh was clear of traffic, unescorted light bombers, relying on the low cloud for cover, were sent to attack the road from Charing Cross to the Sidi Barrani area.

On the New Zealand left, 22nd Armoured Brigade had set off early from its laager deeper in the desert. An enemy column, possibly the survivors of the one that 6th NZ Brigade had engaged, passed across the line of march but drove off to the west before it could be identified; but a second group of Axis vehicles, which seems to have been the rearguard of Voss Group, was engaged and 150 German prisoners taken. These two incidents, allied to a shortage of petrol, delayed 22nd Armored Brigade’s advance so that the brigade was still a good ten miles or more from the coast when, about midday, its supply trucks caught up and it stopped to refuel. Meanwhile, 1st Armoured Division at Bir Khalda, its tanks in need of maintenance and petrol, made no move before midday. Although some of its lost B Echelon vehicles appeared, they carried far from enough petrol to move the whole of 2nd Armoured Brigade, while the main RASC petrol column was still struggling through bad going some 50 or more miles back.

Montgomery himself had driven forward during the morning along the coast road in an attempt to ‘ginger things up’. Here he met Gatehouse of 10th Armoured Division, whose leading troops were reported to be through Fuka just before noon. Montgomery ordered Gatehouse to halt his men and clear the area to his rear of stragglers, and at the same time to despatch all the petrol he could spare to 1st Armoured Division. About one o’clock General Lumsden appeared at Freyberg’s headquarters and, while lunching there, stated that he hoped to get 1st Armoured Division into Matruh before the day ended, and that he was sending 7th Armoured Division to the west of Matruh. He ordered Freyberg to occupy and clear the landing grounds in the vicinity of Baggush and, once the Royal Air Force was operating from them, to clear the area from Baggush to Charing Cross.



General Bernard Freyberg , 2nd New Zealand Division commander

4 November 1942 (8)

8th Armored Brigade tanks in pursuit after El Alamein

The opportunity of encircling the fighting units of the Panzer Army at Matruh passed during the afternoon of 6th November when the weather joined hands with the caution of the Eighth Army’s commanders in exploiting their victory. All along the coastal belt the morning’s rainstorms developed into a steady downpour which the desert sands were soon unable to absorb. On the escarpment plateau widening pools filled the hollows where the sand lay deep, turning them into morasses impassable to most vehicles and then, overfilling, gouged channels down to lower levels. Only on the rocky ridges was travel possible, but many of these soon stood isolated like islands in the sea of rain. From the escarpment, miniature waterfalls cascaded down to the coastal plain to form streams which swept across the road and railway towards outlets through the sand dunes on the beach.

As the New Zealand brigades drove north towards the road, first the trucks with only rear-wheel drive, then those with four-wheel drive, fell behind. As each truck sank to its axles in the wet sand, the men aboard dismounted from the shelter of cabs and canopied trays and, in the cold persistent rain, dug channels for each wheel. With camel thorn, sand trays, discarded enemy tents, or anything that would help the wheels to grip placed in the channels, the men hauled and heaved their vehicles to firmer ground. At first the tracked carriers and tanks were able to tow some of the wheeled vehicles, but soon too many trucks were immobilised and even the tracked vehicles were finding the going treacherous. The rearmost vehicles, driving over ground whose crust had been churned up by those in front, were the first to succumb, so that before long the brigade columns were stretched over many miles of the desert. By late afternoon the men in charge of most of the heavy trucks carrying troops and stores had given up the struggle and the advance slowly ground to a standstill.

In the van, however, two squadrons of the Divisional Cavalry which had reached the rim of the escarpment worked their way with some difficulty down cuttings that led to the Baggush Box, where the Division had been encamped less than a year ago. Crossing the railway on to the main road, one squadron made its way to the Box defences and the other to the Sidi Haneish landing ground. In neither area was there any sign of opposition, though several German and Italian stragglers were found and captured as well as quantities of equipment, much of it in good condition. Several hundred Indian prisoners were released from a compound by the landing ground, where the Cavalry also discovered a large stock of petrol with which they filled up their vehicles. When some of the Warwickshire Yeomanry’s tanks and 4th Field Regiment’s guns followed down the escarpment, the whole force started up the main road to the west. After covering a few miles, the regiment received orders to rejoin 9th Armoured Brigade Headquarters which had halted on the escarpment above Sidi Haneish. The rain had increased by this time and it was with some difficulty that the heavier vehicles ascended the escarpment to the brigade laager. Some of the armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry, of 4th Light Armoured Brigade, had also gained the road and, receiving no orders to return, stayed to laager by the railway station.

As the New Zealand columns struggled forward in the afternoon, 11th Hussars of 7th Armoured Division, on a parallel course a few miles to the west, were reconnoitring ahead of 22nd Armoured Brigade. The Hussars fired on a group of vehicles, probably the headquarters of Africa Corps, which retreated rapidly to the north-west; following up, the armoured cars observed a larger group, including some tanks, stationary to the south-west. This force consisted of the remnants of 21st Panzer Division, with up to thirty tanks, and Voss Group, waiting for petrol in the vicinity of the Qasaba landing grounds. Under cover of the reduced visibility brought by the afternoon’s rain, tanks ( It would appear that the panzer divisions had collected a number of tanks from the rear workshops as they withdrew.) of 22nd Armoured Brigade followed the Hussars and actually turned the flank of the Germans, who were expecting an attack from the south or south-east. According to the German records, the panzer division was unable to deploy its tanks where they were needed through lack of fuel, and an artillery unit, after firing at the British tanks over open sights, was overrun. The British commander intended to work round the rear of the German force but the increasingly poor visibility and the flooded going prevented much movement, so that night fell with the two groups of tanks still firing at each other.

Away at Bir Khalda, Briggs was still trying to get 1st Armoured Division assembled ready for an advance on Charing Cross, but when his petrol columns were still reported to be many miles to the east, he sent 2nd Armoured Brigade off, but without the Bays whose petrol was extremely low. Although not quite so badly affected by the rain as the forces nearer the coast, the brigade made slow time over the broken ground south of Minqar Qaim. At a halt in the late afternoon when it was still east of the Siwa road and some 15 to 20 miles south of Charing Cross, the brigade found that the heavy going had used up most of its petrol so, with the ground becoming increasingly waterlogged, it laagered where it stood. By nightfall elements of 1st Armoured Division were extended from 2nd Armoured Brigade, south of Charing Cross, to the divisional headquarters at Bir Khalda, and for many miles to the east, with tanks and trucks out of petrol or stuck in the wet sand.

Wireless communication on 6th November was probably the worst experienced in the campaign. Although the Eighth Army was now well equipped with transmitter/receivers of relatively good quality, so that detached units and supply columns should theoretically have been able to keep in touch with their parent formations, all wireless contacts had suffered for various reasons since the pursuit began. The great distances involved were of course partly responsible, as was interference from the enemy’s radios, but the main fault lay in what might be called ‘over-indulgence’; spread out as they were and on the move, everyone in the pursuit forces with a set available—and that included practically every tank, armoured car, supply column, and all the various headquarters, high and low—was either asking for or sending instructions or information all through the day. On this particular day the weather also took a hand, with atmospheric interference which at first was intermittent, apparently preceding each rainstorm, and then in the afternoon became continuous, blotting out reception almost completely in many wireless sets.

If the Eighth Army’s pursuit forces found 6th November a trying and exasperating day, for the remnants of Panzer Army it was a time of near-panic and depression. As the fighting troops moved back on Matruh, the German commanders realised that this important forward base, with its stores and workshops augmented to congestion by materials brought from further east, would have to be evacuated as quickly as possible. Leading west and south from Matruh there were several routes threading their ways through the uncharted minefields of past campaigns and deep in soft sand through constant use, so that they could not take any great volume of traffic at any speed. As the rain increased these tracks turned into quagmires, forcing all vehicles leaving the area on to the main tarmac road. But this portion of the road, as the New Zealanders had found to their cost in June, was lined on both sides by mines from Matruh to Charing Cross and beyond so that movement off the tarmac at any point was hazardous.

The situation met by the New Zealanders when moving against the Eighth Army’s retreat some six months earlier was now to be repeated along this same stretch of the road. Rommel’s own account was as follows:

“Conditions on the road were indescribable ! Columns in complete disorder—partly of German, partly of Italian vehicles—choked the road between the minefields. Rarely was there any movement forward and then everything soon jammed up again. Many vehicles were on tow and there was an acute shortage of petrol….”

The diaries of the Africa Corps and lower formations offered an even worse picture, of officers in panic, drivers out of control, trucks and guns being demolished and just abandoned to block the narrow road, and of the summary execution of offenders. As the Eighth Army had been saved on this same stretch of road by the Luftwaffe’s inability to keep up with Rommel’s ground advance, so the Panzer Army was saved by the weather, but to a lesser extent. Although the rain-soaked forward landing grounds put the area out of the range of fighters and fighter-bombers, the Desert Air Force’s light bombers made numerous sorties and found occasional breaks in the cloud through which they bombed and machine-gunned the road through Charing Cross.

By this day Rommel, having relinquished any hopes he may have held that some of the lost groups of his army might reappear, could now make a candid accounting of the pitiful handful of fighting men on whom he could rely. To add to his worries, after hearing that one tanker had arrived in Benghazi on 4th November with 5000 tons of petrol, a belated reply to his earlier urgent demands but still welcome, he was then told that nearly half this quantity had been lost through British air attacks. When an envoy from Cavallero appeared, Rommel stated flatly that his available force could do no more than delay the British advance east of the Egyptian frontier. However, his spirits rose when so little happened on 6th November for he wrote, ‘During that day, we succeeded in forming a fairly firm front and beat off all enemy attacks. Although the enemy must have been aware of our weakness, he still continued to operate with great caution.’ He then proposed to reorganise his motorised forces to hold Matruh for a few days while defences were prepared at Sollum.

The presence of British armoured car patrols to the south and south-west of Charing Cross had earlier been reported but Rommel discounted this danger. Towards evening, however, a force of tanks, obviously 2nd Armoured Brigade, was observed in the same area, and 15th Panzer Division, which had just settled down with its back to the Charing Cross minefields, and Rommel became worried lest it be outflanked and bottled up. Then, at dusk more bad news arrived in messages from 21st Panzer Division. With petrol drained from all bogged or damaged tanks and trucks, which were then demolished, the division had begun to fall back under cover of darkness from the danger of encirclement by 22nd Armoured Brigade. The heavy going caused more vehicles to break down or become bogged, these in turn being demolished or abandoned, and soon the petrol of the remaining vehicles was exhausted. Somehow the division met a supply column carrying fuel and, after an arduous all-night drive, reached the Africa Corps area in the vicinity of Charing Cross by daylight on the 7th. How this journey was accomplished on a night when most other desert traffic was at a standstill remains a mystery, but it left 21 Panzer Division with a total strength of four tanks, a battalion of infantry, and skeleton units of field, anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery, engineers and signals.

For the majority of the men of both armies the night of 6–7 November was memorable for the discomfort it brought. Although the heavy downpours became less frequent as darkness fell, light showers and drizzle persisted throughout the night. In the New Zealand column there were few men who had not already become soaked to the skin in their efforts to push and haul their vehicles through the wet sand. Such activity ceased towards last light which, with the heavy clouds above, came early and thoughts turned to food and rest. In the tanks and carriers, the crews improvised covers to keep the rain out and huddled in their seats. The infantry’s 3-ton trucks, loaded with reserve ammunition, weapons, water and rations, could offer cover from the rain but little comfort to the men crowded aboard. There were few places on the sodden ground where bivouac tents could be erected. As for a meal, the heavily laden cooks’ trucks, following the units they served, were among the first to succumb to the wet sand and were in many cases miles to the rear.

In spite of orders for the conservation of fuel, the lights of many petrol and sand fires flickered through the rain squalls just before blackout time as billies were hastily boiled and reserve rations or hoarded tins from Patriotic Fund parcels produced and shared around. Then, grumbling impartially at the conduct of the war and the weather, the troops retired to whatever cover they had devised from the drips and runnels of rain, and even welcomed being disturbed to take a turn at sentry duty. And at 2 a.m. the Eighth Army put its clocks back an hour.

Dawn on the 7th showed clearing skies but the sand had been too well soaked to dry out quickly. Although tracked vehicles and the lighter types of wheeled vehicles such as jeeps and staff cars were able to move provided they avoided the worst of the wet areas, no formed body of the Eighth Army could move any distance without constant halts to dig and winch out the heavier trucks and guns. Moreover, having used up more than their estimated consumption in attempts to keep going the previous day, most groups were running low in petrol. Replenishment, however, proved difficult, for the New Zealand ASC columns bringing up supplies and the Division’s B Echelon trucks which ferried the supplies from the replenishment points to the brigades and units were themselves hampered by the waterlogged going. The main supply column, commanded by Major Bracegirdle, the Division’s Senior Supply Officer, had left the Alamein area in the afternoon of the 5th November , intending by that evening to set up a replenishment point on the Division’s axis south of Galal. Caught up in the still-thick traffic flowing after the pursuit forces, the convoy, which included 5th Field Park Company, 4th Company of 27th Machine Gun Battalion, and a guard of three armoured cars and amounted in all to some 200 vehicles, had not threaded its way out through the enemy’s old defence lines by nightfall when the thick dust and the danger of mines and abandoned weapon pits brought it to a halt. Next morning it reached the appointed rendezvous, some eighteen hours late, to find only one B Echelon truck waiting to draw supplies. More divisional transport arrived in the afternoon, together with Lieutenant-Colonel Hillier, the Division’s AA & QMG. Loaded with 13,700 gallons of petrol as well as water and rations, the B Echelon trucks set off for the Division and, after arranging for another replenishment point for the afternoon of the 7th at a landing ground on the escarpment south of Baggush, Hillier followed.

As the earlier rain showers turned to a solid downpour, Bracegirdle began to doubt whether his supply convoys could keep the new rendezvous and accordingly set off to find the Division. On the way he overtook Hillier, whose vehicle had become stuck in the wet sand. With considerable difficulty the two officers reached the Division, only to find that few of the B Echelon trucks had made the journey and that the division was practically out of petrol. Urged by the possibility that the weather might improve and the advance be resumed, Bracegirdle first collected a number of guides from the various units and showed them the position of the proposed replenishment area on the landing ground; he then made his way to the main road. Fortunately, while other vehicles of his column had gone back to the Alamein area to refill, the petrol-carrying section had been sent to Daba and was already moving up the main road. Bracegirdle then led it by a route of hard going that he had found from the road to the landing ground, arriving just as night fell, but owing to the difficult conditions, only a little petrol was issued to units after dark.

Some time during the night of 6–7 November, and before the effects of the heavy rain had been appreciated, new orders were sent out by 10th Corps. Although some of the details are not clearly recorded, Lumsden’s new proposals were for 10th Armoured Division to advance along the main road to deal with any forces holding out at Matruh while the New Zealand and 7th Armoured Divisions joined 1st Armoured Division in the Minqar Qaim - Charing Cross area. From this point, one formation was to block escape from Matruh while the others moved through the desert to encircle Sidi Barrani and Sollum.

As far as is known, the major part of 1 Armoured Division, bogged and short of petrol, made no major move on the 7th, but 7 Armoured Division managed to struggle to a point a few miles east of Minqar Qaim, passing on its way the tanks and trucks wrecked or abandoned by 21st Panzer Division. On the main road the leading troops of 8th Armoured Brigade (of 10 Armoured Division) drew level with the New Zealanders on the escarpment above Sidi Haneish.

The New Zealand orders based on Lumsden’s plans and issued shortly after midnight gave Minqar Qaim as the immediate objective, from which point the Division was to force a passage through the minefields to the west. Acting on these orders and in spite of the weather, Roddick attempted to lead 4th Light Armoured Brigade, then a few miles south of Baggush, due west across the desert, but he soon found progress too slow and costly in petrol. The armoured cars of 2nd Derbyshire Yeomanry, which had stopped overnight at Sidi Haneish station, were then sent west along the main road to see if any of the tracks leading inland from the road might be passable. In the vicinity of Garawla, the cars came under anti-tank gun fire and withdrew. Efforts were made to get the nineteen remaining tanks of the Warwickshire Yeomanry to follow up the armoured cars but these ceased when it was realised that, though the tanks and the Divisional Cavalry’s tracked vehicles, topped up with captured petrol, were able to move, the guns of 4th Field Regiment and the wheeled vehicles of 9th Armoured Brigade were either stuck in the sand or out of petrol. For the same reason, the two infantry brigades, further south in the desert, were immobile and there is reason to believe, though there are no recorded orders to this effect, that Freyberg was unwilling to let part of the Division advance without the whole, not only because of the danger of enemy action but also of the danger that he might lose command of his armour to one of the armoured divisions.

In the late afternoon tanks of 8th Armoured Brigade moved up the main road past the New Zealanders on the escarpment at Sidi Haneish and past the roadblock that had stopped the Derbyshire Yeomanry earlier. The enemy outpost, however, had fallen back to a stronger rearguard position at Garawla, where heavy machinegun and anti-tank gun fire met the British tanks. As the state of the ground made an outflanking move off the road practically impossible, and an advance by the tanks in single file along the road offered too vulnerable a target, the brigade commander called up his infantry, 1 Battalion of the Buffs. The infantry deployed over the sodden ground against defences which stretched across the road and some way to the south, but made little headway before dusk, when the attack was called off. In the engagement the previous evening and the follow-up this day, 7th Armoured Division claimed the capture or destruction of 15 tanks and 7 heavy guns and a bag of 2.000 prisoners.

For the Panzer Army the rain proved a mixed blessing. It gave a short but valuable respite in which the chaos of supply and fighting troops on the road from Matruh westwards could be partially sorted out under the cover of the cloud which hindered the British air efforts. It also gave the fighting formations a chance to rest, reorganise and distribute supplies. Well before daylight on the 7th, on Rommel’s order to hold Matruh for as many days as possible, the Panzer Army headquarters instructed 90th German Light Division to deploy from Garawla across to the Siwa road, with Voss Group on its south, to cover the assembly of 15th and 21st Panzer Divisions in the Charing Cross area. When this order arrived, 90th German Light Division had already recalled its rearguard at Garawla and was preparing to retire through Charing Cross. The division then sent 220th Reconnaissance Unit to establish a roadblock east of Garawla and 361st Infantry Regimental Group to back it up. The reconnaissance unit fell back during the day under attack but 361st Regiment held until nightfall, claiming heavy losses inflicted on tanks and infantry which engaged it. In Matruh itself, the Axis fighting troops found that many of the stores and installations on which they relied for replenishment had been removed or demolished in the previous days’ panic. To meet immediate requirements, petrol had to be sent by air from Benghazi to Sidi Barrani and then taken up in trucks. By this means enough arrived on the 7th to give Africa Corps 100 kilometres of travel, sufficient to ensure another bound in the retreat. Then news reached Rommel that Colonel Ramcke had arrived near Sidi Barrani with 600 survivors of his parachute troops after an epic journey deep in the desert, during which they had fought several engagements and captured enough British vehicles and petrol to keep going. (1 On 20 October, Ramcke Brigade’s ‘ration strength’ in Africa was 4610, of whom more than 2000 were listed in the Panzer Army records as casualties by the end of November.)

Although the wet weather allowed the Panzer Army’s transport already on the main road to keep moving back, it also caused heavy losses of sorely needed vehicles which were travelling off the road. When such vehicles became bogged, the men aboard destroyed or just abandoned them, and often jettisoned their weapons; they then made for the main road to thumb lifts on the already overcrowded trucks passing by. In this way German rear-line troops and Italians of all units and formations became so inextricably mixed that the control points on the road found it impossible to re-form any of the Italian fighting units, and Rommel had to tell 20th and 21st Italian Corps to get their men back as quickly as they could to Buq Buq and Capuzzo before attempting to organise them.

The low cloud and the soggy ground hindered the Panzer Army’s reconnaissance so that the presence of the British armour in the Minqar Qaim area was not detected until the middle of the afternoon, when air reconnaissance reported a column of tanks 30 kilometres south of Matruh and armoured cars 40 kilometres further west. German JU-87 Stukas and fighters sent up claimed four tanks or armoured cars destroyed, but this claim was counter-balanced by news of another Italian tanker sunk in Tobruk harbour by RAF bombers and of naval gunfire on the Halfaya and Sollum passes. Realising that a stand at Matruh would only last until the desert dried out, Rommel decided to take what advantage was left of the wet going to whip his fighting formations back overnight for some 70 kilometres along the main road.


pursuit 2

When the meteorologists forecast that the rain was passing and the weather would clear, the ‘old desert hands’ knew from their experience that a few hours only of wind and sun would make the desert navigable again except perhaps in the sandiest hollows. With the best part of four divisions almost encircling Matruh, the Eighth Army knew that the reduction of the defences there would be only a matter of time. What air and ground reconnaissance had been possible during the stormy period all confirmed that an almost unbroken line of transport had been moving west from the town. This and other signs seemed to indicate that the enemy might be leaving the area to no more than a delaying rearguard.

Accordingly, early on 8th November, Eighth Army issued a new set of orders in which 30th Corps was to move up and assume responsibility for clearing the ground up to Baggush, and 10th Corps was to drive hard to the west with its main line of advance along the railway on the inland plateau. The armoured corps’ main tasks were to clear the landing grounds at Misheifa, to the south of Sidi Barrani, for Air Force use, and then to encircle Sollum from south and west and clear the landing grounds at Sidi Azeiz to the west of Bardia.

On receipt of these orders Lumsden told 7th Armoured Division to start as soon as it could along the railway with Bardia as its possible objective. The New Zealand Division was to clear up any resistance left at Matruh and then send 4th Light Armoured Brigade and one infantry brigade along the main road through Sidi Barrani to approach Sollum from the east. The rest of 10th Corps was to reorganise and replenish, ready to follow.

Sunday the 8th of November dawned fine and clear. The morale of the pursuit forces, depressed to some extent by the rain, the hard travelling and inability to come to grips with the enemy, rose with the sun and then rose again when news began to spread of the Allied TORCH landings in Northwest Africa. Already much of the desert had become passable and the New Zealand replenishment point, established overnight on the landing ground south of Baggush through the admirable efforts of officers and drivers of the NZASC, became a scene of activity as petrol, rations, and water were distributed. Over 50,000 gallons of petrol alone were issued during the morning.

Freyberg’s orders were that the brigades should move as soon as they were replenished to a concentration area north of Minqar Qaim. From this area 5th NZ Brigade was to feint towards Matruh from the south while 6th NZ Brigade attacked from the west. On the fall of the town, 6 Brigade was to clear and occupy the defences, assuming control until relieved by 51st Highland Division, while the rest of the Division, using the main road, cleared the coastal plain as far as Sollum.

With many trucks still bogged to the axles and having to be towed or dug out, few of the units had completed their replenishment and assembly when Freyberg left, at 8.30 a.m., to attend a 10th Corps conference in the Baggush Box. While he was there, news arrived that a force of 1st Armoured Division, unaware of the latest orders, had penetrated the Matruh defences and had encountered no organised resistance east of Charing Cross. Freyberg also learnt that 7th Armoured Division, having received the new orders, had moved out at daylight from its laager to the east of Minqar Qaim and had already crossed the Siwa road some miles south of Charing Cross. Further reports coming back during the day showed that the division was making good time in spite of occasional patches of heavy going. By nightfall its leading troops had travelled over 60 miles to reach the railway line only a few miles east of the Misheifa area.

The New Zealand advance was considerably slower. The reconnaissance group of 4th Light Armoured Brigade had set out early but had come up against a minefield on the flat below Minqar Qaim. Unable to find a passable gap, the group finally led the brigade on to the high ground to the south and along 7th Armoured Division’s route to the Siwa road. Divisional Headquarters and the two infantry brigades left late in the morning, using the track to the north of Minqar Qaim, along which many of the men had watched the enemy’s columns trying to encircle their positions the previous June. Patches of still wet ground and suspected minefields slowed the progress of the infantry’s heavily laden trucks, offering the opportunity for some of those who took part in the Minqar Qaim fighting to revisit the battlefield. It was getting dusk before contact was made with 4th Light Armoured Brigade. Bringing up the rear, 9th Armoured Brigade, travelling due west from its laager above Sidi Haneish, ran foul of the difficult wadis around Qasaba and halted at nightfall several miles east of the rest of the Division.

Freyberg, after an eventful trip back from Baggush during which his escort had to open fire on a party of Germans before they would surrender, rejoined the Division in the afternoon with the latest orders. These were for an advance along the main road to Sidi Barrani and Sollum the next morning, with 4th Light Armoured Brigade in the lead. This brigade was to send a party to occupy and garrison the Misheifa landing ground, a curious task in the light of 7th Armoured Division’s orders and progress, and one which may be explained by a confusion in the records between the landing ground just south of Sidi Barrani and that at Misheifa some 30 miles further south. While the rest of the Division followed the light armour, 6th NZ Brigade was to move into Matruh, its brigadier, W. G. Gentry, taking over the task of Town Major in charge of prisoner-of-war cages, dumps and installations until relieved by 51st Highland Division.

The Panzer Army had only just got its tail clear of Matruh before the Eighth Army moved in. Split up into small groups to lessen the danger of air attacks, and mixed up with the last supply columns to leave the township, Africa Corps had filtered most of its vehicles on to the main road before dark on the 7th. Progress was slow as the road in places had been washed out by the rain. Numerous vehicles were lost by Royal Air Force bombing and strafing and more were abandoned when, dispersing off the tarmac under air attack or negotiating the washouts, they became bogged. Acting as rearguard, 90th German Light Division reported that it had destroyed anything of value left in the township and harbour before its own rearguard troops pulled out almost at dawn on the 8th.

Because of Rommel’s sudden decision to pull back from Matruh instead of holding for some days longer, the fighting formations’ withdrawal crowded the transport already on the road up against the bottlenecks of the Halfaya and Sollum passes, both of which had become extremely difficult through the effects of the heavy rain. The two panzer divisions overnight reached a point east of Buq Buq, where they were halted by the congestion on the road further west. Here Rommel learnt from his Quartermaster that it would take two more nights to get the army over the two passes and, because the old minefields east of Sollum restricted dispersal against air attacks, it would be best to keep the columns spread out as far to the east as possible. He then gave orders that the Sidi Barrani - Buq Buq area should be held until the morning of the 10th.
(The scale of demolitions and particularly booby traps and mines by retreating remnants of Panzer Army increased steadily after 7th November, on which day Major-General Karl Buelowius became Chief Engineer to the Panzer Army. In February 1943 Rommel recommended his promotion for his ‘outstandingly careful and anticipatory actions’ in the retreat.)

On receipt of these orders, 90th German Light Division set up a roadblock some 15 miles east of Sidi Barrani with Voss Group watching the desert to the south.

Rommel had already learnt of the Allied armada approaching the coast of Africa and later this morning he received news confirming TORCH landings in French Northwest Africa. He must also have been told, or perhaps he had knowledge of Axis plans for such an event, that Axis forces would occupy Tunisia, for otherwise he might just as well have driven down the road to meet Montgomery. In any case he realised that the chances of receiving reinforcements for his Panzer Army were now even slimmer than they had been and that Mussolini’s latest order, to defend Sollum, was quite impracticable. The best he could do would be to make a steady withdrawal from base to base round the bulge of Cyrenaica to Agheila, where the terrain offered a chance of holding a short front. The desert route across the bulge was out of the question owing to the petrol situation and the state of the Panzer Army’s vehicles. The need to explain his action in disobeying Mussolini brought an assessment of the troops available for the defence of Sollum, which amounted to 2000 Italian and 2000 German fighting troops, 15 German antitank guns, and 40 German field guns with some Italian artillery. For a mobile reserve to cover the wide open southern flank of the Sollum position he could muster 3000 German and 500 Italian troops, 11 German and 10 Italian tanks, and German artillery consisting of 20 anti-tank, 24 anti-aircraft and 25 field guns.

Towards evening Rommel himself drove back to Sollum to find that the congestion, under forceful control, was easing and vehicles moving in a steady stream over the two passes, the steep Halfaya pass a few miles west of the village and the zigzag road at the village itself. From 90th German Light Division he learnt that only armoured cars had approached the rearguard east of Sidi Barrani, but had fallen back after two had been knocked out. So, unless the British moved with unaccustomed speed, there was now a chance that Africa Corps and 90th German Light Division might be able to use the good going of the main road rather than the desert route through Habata to pass the frontier wire. Good demolitions and small holding forces at the passes and suitable points on the road further west might then allow time for the Panzer Army with its drawn-out tail to be organised and stepped back to Benghazi before the British could prepare a force to cut across the bulge of Cyrenaica. Throughout the night of 8–9 November a steady flow of vehicles climbed the two passes, in spite of heavy bombing. By morning only about 1000 of the rear-line trucks were still east of the escarpment.

On the evening of the 8th November, Freyberg issued a detailed order for the Division to move at first light next morning, with 4th Light Armoured Brigade in the lead, followed by Divisional Headquarters, the Reserve Group, 5th NZ Brigade and 9th Armoured Brigade. As soon as the last of the column passed Charing Cross, 6th NZ Brigade was to move up the road into Matruh. Before it was completely light, a detachment of the Divisional Provost had marked a route with the black diamond sign through the minefields on to the Siwa road. Following the signs, 4th Light Armoured Brigade travelled up the road to Charing Cross and then turned west on to the tarmac. At this crossroads, surrounded by the old uncharted defensive minefields, skeletons of British vehicles lost in the June retreat lay side by side with bombed, burnt, and abandoned Axis transport, in places lining the road verges like a fence. Behind the armour the Divisional Headquarters column was followed by 5th NZ Brigade in the order of 21st and 28th (Maori) Battalions, 5th Field Regiment, 5th Field Ambulance, 23rd and 22nd Battalions, and ancillary units. With no deployment possible off the route, the vehicles moved in single file so that it was high noon before the way was clear for 9th Armoured Brigade. The tanks of the Warwickshire Yeomanry, however, were nowhere in sight, having been delayed by petrol and mechanical troubles, so the Divisional Cavalry led the rest of the brigade, leaving the tanks to follow later.

Although in the rear of the Division’s column the journey was one of stopping and starting, the head of the column advanced fairly rapidly until the afternoon when, some 15 to 20 miles short of Sidi Barrani, 4th Light Armoured Brigade’s leading vehicles came under artillery fire. For the loss of one Stuart tank, 4/8 Hussars surrounded one outpost, taking 160 prisoners of 90th German Light Division, but were then engaged by stronger positions further west. On hearing of this resistance, Freyberg told Kippenberger to speed up his advance by opening 5th NZ Brigade into desert formation off the road, but hardly had this been done before the brigade encountered mines and its vehicles had to be channelled back on to the tarmac again. As dusk fell the Division’s vehicles were stretched over more than 50 miles of the road, so Freyberg told Roddick to disengage and laager until the Division could be concentrated.

As the leading brigades were threading their way past Charing Cross, the commander of 24th Battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Gwilliam, on instructions from Brigadier Gentry, took his A Company and a party of engineers into town of Mersa Matruh to report on conditions there. On reaching the area of buildings, dugouts, and dumps which surround the harbour, the men of the 24th Batalion found a surprisingly large number of the enemy still in occupation—Axis engineers who had been working on last-minute demolitions and booby traps, doctors and medical orderlies caring for the sick and wounded in field hospitals, and innumerable stragglers, some unaware that they had been left behind and others just waiting to be taken prisoner. There was no resistance, but a compound of Basuto labour corps troops had to be forcibly restrained, when released, from looting, rioting and attacking the enemy. When he heard that Gwilliam could do with assistance, Gentry himself drove into the town with a party of provosts, field security men and more engineers, and after the tail of the Division had cleared Charing Cross, the whole of 26th Battalion and the remainder of 24th Battalion followed. Before sunset 26th Battalion had occupied the Egyptian Barracks by the lagoon and 24th Battalion had taken up quarters on the east of the harbour. The whole of the defence area by this time was full of activity as supply columns came in along the main road from the east to establish replenishment points, engineers searched for booby traps and demolition charges and started to repair the damage to the wharf installations and railway, and prisoners were rounded up and packed aboard empty trucks to be taken to cages further east, while from the sea light naval vessels arrived with petrol in drums.

The next day 25th Battalion, which had been held up by the mass of other traffic attempting to get on to the main road at Charing Cross, moved into Matruh to take up quarters by the lagoon. Though initially intended to rejoin the Division within a few days at the most, and kept on short notice to do so, 6th NZ Brigade remained in Matruh until 20th November, when it moved up to the Bardia area. This was partly because the brigade was not needed for action and partly to ease the supply problem. Matruh appeared to be damaged more by British air action than by the Panzer Army’s, attempts at demolition, and in its scattered buildings and dumps a surprisingly large quantity of material was recovered in usable condition, both of enemy stocks and British stores left behind in the June retreat. One partially damaged store of the Egyptian barracks was piled to the roof with Italian boots; nearby was a heap of British spigot mortars, and elsewhere were found quantities of medical equipment, machinery, and tinned food, of both British and enemy origin, as well as much Italian issue wine of the type known to the Eighth Army as ‘plonk’ or ‘purple death’. With periods allowed for swimming and sport, the men of 6 Brigade spent the waiting period in Matruh in tidying up the area, unloading vessels at the landings, and assisting in the railway yards. The first train from Alexandria reached the station on 14 November.

When 4th Light Armoured Brigade halted against the opposition east of Sidi Barrani late on the 9th November, the rest of the New Zealand Division, strung out behind on the coast road, had to keep going throughout the night to catch up. After his brigade’s unsuccessful attempt to travel off the road, Kippenberger had hurried ahead with his leading troops but at dusk was still some miles behind the armour. He then called a halt to get the brigade concentrated, but it was midnight before the tail of the brigade drew up and the advance could be resumed.

A first-light reconnaissance on the 10th November by 4 Light Armoured Brigade revealed that the opposition had melted away overnight. In fact, according to its war diary, 90th German Light Division had fallen back in the middle of the previous afternoon, its rearguard of 361st Infantry Regiment being chased by an armoured force, of which four tanks and four armoured cars had been destroyed in a battle in which its own losses had been considerable. As no other battle appears to have occurred in this area, 90th German Light Division’s report must refer to the loss of its rearguard outpost to 4th Light Armoured Brigade, which reported one light tank as its only casualty. By the evening of the 9th, the main body of 90 German Light Division was just east of Buq Buq, some 20 miles west of Sidi Barrani, under orders to hold firm overnight in order to let Africa Corps negotiate the escarpment passes. In spite of widespread attacks by the Desert Air Force on Sollum, Halfaya, Capuzzo and Bardia, the Panzer Army’s withdrawal had become more orderly now that the Italians and supply transport were west of the two passes, so that the two panzer divisions were able to ascend the passes during the night. By dawn of the 10th, only the light division and some artillery units were still east of Sollum.

By this time 7th Armoured Division, following a route to the south of the railway reconnoitred the previous evening by armoured cars, was approaching the frontier with the intention of making a wide sweep to west and north to encircle Capuzzo. On the coast, 4th Light Armoured Brigade set off at daylight, cutting across the desert in a direct line for Buq Buq and passing the Sidi Barrani landing ground, which was found littered with abandoned and burnt-out Axis aircraft, vehicles and equipment. Having caught up with the armour in time to follow its daylight advance, Kippenberger found that the unrestricted travel in open formation over the desert caused his leading transport to overrun the armour’s tail, so called a short halt for breakfast. At 8.30 a.m. the brigade resumed its march, after detaching 21st Battalion to move on the coast road into Sidi Barrani village. Here some forty of the enemy all Italians, offering no resistance, were rounded up, after which the battalion hurried west on the road to join its brigade. Its B Company, however, was left to occupy the landing ground, some two miles inland, with orders to start clearing it for Royal Air Force use.

About nine o’clock the armoured cars of the Derbyshire Yeomanry came in sight of vehicles and guns on the road just to the east of Buq Buq. As the armoured brigade halted and deployed to engage the enemy, 5th Brigade’s tactical headquarters drove up just in time to receive the ‘overs’ from the enemy guns. Freyberg, whose tactical headquarters had kept pace with the armoured brigade, then told Kippenberger to take his brigade to the south, presumably on the Buq Buq - Habata track, and to climb the escarpment, following it to the north-west to reach the top of Halfaya Pass. Kippenberger immediately sent 23rd Battalion off to lead the way, with instructions to travel at maximum speed and to fight if necessary. In this way Freyberg hoped to cut off at least the end of the enemy’s tail, for the occupation of the escarpment above Sollum by one determined battalion could deny the enemy’s escape up the two passes for some time. However, it was after midday before the orders had been issued and the necessary preparations made. The battalion, with brigade tactical headquarters, then set off, while the rest of the brigade assembled ready to follow, but the leading troops had covered only about seven miles of extremely bad going when Kippenberger received orders from Freyberg to return on his tracks. On gaining the main road, the column had considerable difficulty in forcing a space for itself in the almost stationary press of vehicles that had piled up nose to tail along the 20 miles between Sidi Barrani and Buq Buq.

Freyberg’s cancellation of the outflanking move had been brought about by the receipt of news that 7th Armoured Division had already passed through Habata on the inland escarpment with Capuzzo as its objective, as well as by the fact that the enemy rearguard on the main road had begun to fall back just before 4 Light Armoured Brigade’s tanks, working their way through the desert south of the road, could cut off its escape.

It would appear that all 90th German Light Division’s troops still on the coastal plain, including the rearguard, hurried back over Halfaya Pass to join the main body in laager a mile or so west of the top of the pass. This enabled 4th Light Armoured Brigade to advance and helped to ease the congestion on the road, but, about ten miles west of Buq Buq, the tanks met the old minefield laid early in the war as part of the Egyptian frontier defences. It was now late afternoon, and as the tanks, still travelling on the desert south of the road, reconnoitred for a gap, they came under shellfire. This fire came from a Panzer Army artillery group which, through lack of liaison, had been left unprotected and unaware that it was the last enemy force still on the coastal plain. The tanks deployed behind the minefield and returned the fire, upon which the enemy guns were hastily withdrawn under a smoke screen. As dusk began to fall the Derbyshire Yeomanry’s armoured cars found a gap in the mines and led the brigade through. While this engagement was occurring, enemy aircraft flew down the main road to drop several bombs which fell close to one of the New Zealand artillery columns, damaging some vehicles and wounding three men.


Halfaya Pass

THE New Zealanders’ approach to the Sollum escarpment, a natural defensive position against attack from the east, offers an interesting study of possibilities. Air reconnaissance had reported that numerous guns, some of heavy calibre, had been observed on the escarpment, sited among infantry positions and minefields, but so far none had fired on the vehicles congregating in the failing light within ten miles of the top of Halfaya Pass. Still of the opinion that the Panzer Army had a sting in its tail that could maul his light armour and infantry, Freyberg was faced with the immediate alternatives of a surprise assault up the pass in the darkness or of exposing the mass of British transport to the enemy’s observed fire in daylight in an area where the old minefields hindered dispersion of the vehicles and deployment of the artillery. The second choice would commit him to an artillery duel followed by a prepared night attack, which might prove costly, or to a wait of unknown length while the position was encircled from the south. That the defences would fall eventually to a concentration of 10th Corps’ available forces was certain, but at this time Freyberg was not fully aware of 7th Armoured Division’s exact position and progress, nor of whether it still had sufficient tanks in battle order to subdue the enemy on its own. In the event, however, Freyberg pinned his faith on 7th Armoured Division for his diary carries the comment, ‘Kippenberger thinks they will have gone from Halfaya tomorrow morning as 7th Armd Div are due behind them tomorrow. If not, difficult to get up the defile road.’ He gave no orders for the dispersion of the columns on the road or for the deployment of artillery.

In the failing light Freyberg established his tactical headquarters just to the east of the minefield, where he discussed the situation with Roddick and accepted the latter’s assurances that his light armour and motorised infantry would attempt the ascent overnight. However, he seems to have taken out the insurance of warning both Kippenberger and Harding of 21st Battalion that their infantry might be called on.

Kippenberger then sent word that his battalions were not to halt for the night until they had closed up on his headquarters, but the units were so extended that it was nearly midnight before the last of the brigade column came to a halt, and even then the units were stretched over several miles of the road. Behind 5th NZ Brigade the Divisional Cavalry had been deliberately making slow time to allow the Warwickshire Yeomanry’s tanks to catch up. On hearing that the tanks were still suffering from mechanical troubles brought on by wear and tear and insufficient time for maintenance, Freyberg told 9th Armoured Brigade that the tank regiment would not be needed for further operations. The tanks therefore stopped some distance east of Sidi Barrani, while the rest of the armoured brigade carried on to laager on the east of Buq Buq.

Although the day’s going had been better on the whole than that previously encountered, by evening the Division was already suffering a new crop of replenishment difficulties and it was becoming clear that the Eighth Army’s estimates of petrol consumption made before the pursuit began were far from accurate, so much so that, on figures kept by the NZASC, petrol was being used at almost twice the quantity calculated. The reasons for this were attributed to various factors, including deviations from direct routes to avoid the enemy or difficult ground, the rain and the soft going, night driving in low gear and, to a lesser extent, certain faults which had developed in the system of replenishment. A great deal of petrol was, however, wasted through damage to the American-style four-gallon tins or ‘flimsies’, quite unsuitable for the heavy wear of desert travel, and a certain amount went up in flames when, several times each day, every one of the thousands of vehicles in the pursuit force had its separate petrol and sand fire to boil the billy. On this day 2nd NZ Petrol Company manned a petrol point just east of Sidi Barrani to which the Division’s B Echelon transport came to draw supplies, but, owing to the petrol demands by the supply columns of 7th Armoured Division, the petrol company was unable to bring up enough to meet the Division’s requirements.

By the evening of 10 November all units of the Panzer Army had surmounted the escarpment by one or other of the passes. On Rommel’s orders, 90th German Light Division was to defend them, in company with a large detachment of Pistoia Infantry Division, by all accounts of a strength equivalent to two battalions, which had occupied defences on the escarpment some days earlier. According to its war diary, the light division placed a German battalion with some artillery to cover Halfaya Pass and two companies in position above Sollum, but these were ad hoc units formed from survivors and stragglers of 164th German Infantry Division, who, on retreating ahead of the fighting formations, had been collected in this area. Units of the light division itself went into laager between the escarpment and the frontier wire.

The German and Italian troops guarding the passes provided a formidable rearguard with excellent observation by day over the movement of any troops approaching over the plain below. However, Rommel had earlier refused to add the burden of Pistoia Division to his Panzer Army command, so that it was operating under what was left of the Italian fighting command and was thus without effective liaison with the German troops. In the event, 90th German Light Division seems to have settled down for a night’s well-earned rest behind the protection of the defenders of the passes without warning either the units of 164th German Infantry Division or the Italians of the close approach of the British along the coast, while Pistoia Division left control of the defences and the blowing and mining of the pass roads to the Germans.

On the evening of the 10th November , Panzer Army Headquarters had reports of armoured cars in the desert to the south and south-west of Capuzzo and also on the coastal road east of the passes, but as yet was unaware of the progress of 7th Armoured Division which, with some fifty tanks still in going order, laagered at dusk for replenishment close to the railway line running west from Habata. A curious message reaching the headquarters, of heavy shellfire on Halfaya Pass, must have been investigated and discounted. During the night German engineers worked on demolitions on the Sollum zigzag, but the Halfaya road was left untouched, as if it was thought that either German or Italian detachments were still on the coastal plain.

The task given to 4th Light Armoured Brigade, embodied in an order issued by the New Zealand Divisional Headquarters, was to seize and hold Halfaya Pass and reconnoitre towards Sollum to see if the zigzag was held. The brigade was to stop on top of the escarpment to cover the Division’s ascent. Just as daylight was failing, tanks of 4/8 Hussars set off up the road to a point where the turn-off to Halfaya Pass branched from the main road to Sollum. Along this stretch three Stuart tanks scouting ahead fell victim to mines, on which Roddick halted the Hussars and called on King’s Royal Rifle Corps to send forward infantry patrols to reconnoitre the road on foot for mines, demolitions and enemy defences.

Two patrols of four to five men each then came up, one under Lieutenant N. J. Warry and the other under Lieutenant M. Fyfe. Warry’s party set off on the northern side of the road, cutting across the bends by scrambling up slopes and through wadis, and making considerable noise in the process. However, the patrol reached the top of the escarpment in about two and a half hours undetected by enemy sentries. By this time the moon was bright enough for the men to discern, only a few hundred yards away, numerous vehicles with the forms of sleeping men around them. Several sentries were on duty and, like most Italians at night, were making it known they were alert by calling out or singing. The patrol had just taken cover in some empty sangars near the escarpment lip when a motor-cyclist came in view on the road and drove past down the pass.

Meanwhile Lieutenant Fyfe’s party had been climbing up the road itself, examining it for mines and demolitions, and was nearly at the top when the motor-cyclist appeared. Stopping the rider, an Italian, Fyfe sent him down the road with one man as escort carrying a report that the road was clear of mines and negotiable for transport. Fyfe’s patrol joined Warry’s in its sangars just before midnight, to face a curious situation. The behaviour of the enemy was hardly that of an alert rearguard preparing to defend the pass against imminent attack, but rather that of a convoy resting overnight away from immediate danger. The officers then decided to test the enemy’s reaction by firing a few short bursts from their two Bren guns. This brought immediate and heavy, but indiscriminate, retaliation from several automatic weapons. With limited Bren ammunition, the Rifle Corps men held their fire and manned their sangars against attack, but the enemy made no attempt to reconnoitre or even to move his trucks out of danger. Other than Italian ineptitude, the only reason that can be offered for the defenders’ behaviour is that the men of Pistoia Division had had previous clashes with Panzer Army columns withdrawing through their positions and assumed that the Rifle Corps patrol was just another trigger-happy group passing by. The patrols then stayed to watch the enemy settle down as before until, about 2 a.m., the prisoner’s escort arrived with orders for Fyfe to return. Warry and his patrol continued their watch for another two hours, undisturbed by the enemy. Shortly after 4 a.m. sounds of movement up the pass were heard and, on going down to investigate, Warry met New Zealand infantry on its way up.

While Roddick’s men were still investigating the pass, Kippenberger had established his tactical headquarters shortly before midnight at a point estimated to be only three miles from the Halfaya turn-off. About half an hour after midnight, Harding stopped his two companies (B Company had not returned from the Sidi Barrani landing ground) some two or more miles further to the east, but at this time the tail of 5th NZ Brigade was still on the road east of Buq Buq. The rest of the divisional columns were strung out as far back as Sidi Barrani, mixed up with B Echelon transport and supply columns of 10th Corps and Royal Air Force convoys, often nose to tail as they waited their turn to negotiate deviations caused by bomb damage to the road or blockages of derelict (and in some cases still burning) enemy vehicles, a model target of which the Luftwaffe failed to take advantage.

The sequence of events is somewhat confused, with personal and official accounts disagreeing in details, but it would seem that, on receiving the patrol report from Warry and Fyfe, brought to him by the prisoner’s escort about half an hour after midnight, Roddick considered sending his tanks up the pass but decided that they would be too vulnerable to gun fire as they passed over the crest. He then further decided that his lorried infantry, of 1 King’s Royal Rifle Corps, were too few to take and hold the pass firmly enough to let the armour up. These deliberations took about an hour for it was at 1.30 a.m. that he sent a signal to Divisional Headquarters intimating that he needed assistance, and also despatched a liaison officer for the same purpose.

Another half hour passed before the news reached Kippenberger who, after the initial warning, had been told that his men would not be needed, and had settled down to sleep. It would appear that he sent an immediate signal to Harding and then drove back himself to ensure that the need for speedy action was appreciated, for only a few hours were left until dawn should disclose the packed columns to enemy observation. Harding, however, needed no urging and was already rousing his men. Even then it took the best part of an hour for the men of the two companies, sleeping in and around their scattered transport along the verges of the road, to be awakened, equipped and assembled in trucks on the road. Then, led by Harding and his second-in-command, Major McElroy,1 the small column of C Company under Major N. B. Smith2 and A Company under Captain Roach3 drove in the darkness along the road to the foot of the pass. Arriving here about 4 a.m. the column was met by Kippenberger, who had gone ahead to discover what was known of the situation from Roddick. The latter gave Harding to understand that the top of the pass was held by a weak company, or even half a company, of Italians, but at the same time he expressed concern at the small number of men provided, for the two 21st Battalion companies mustered no more than 110 fighting men. Kippenberger, however, considered the force strong enough as all the officers and men were experienced and capable infantry fighters, and that what by report was no more than an unprepared enemy outpost would give way to a ‘brusque’ attack.

In a short discussion on the method of attack, Kippenberger and Harding agreed that an assault on the lines laid down in pre-war training manuals would best suit the conditions, with the infantry advancing up the road to deploy against opposition and then charging with the bayonet under covering fire from Bren guns. Having watched the small column start up the pass road, Kippenberger returned to his headquarters to issue orders for 23rd Battalion to prepare to follow up the attack under artillery covering fire, if needed. McElroy, with reluctance, also went back to wake the rest of his battalion, many of whom were still asleep and unaware that the two companies had left. He ordered the cooks to have a hot breakfast ready to take to the top of the pass for the victors.

Guided by an officer of 1 King’s Royal Rifle Corps (probably Lieutenant Fyfe), Major Smith, who had travelled over Halfaya Pass in previous campaigns, led the way with his C Company, followed by Harding with two signallers, and then Roach and A Company. The men made good time up the road and, on nearing the top, were met by Lieutenant Warry who told Smith what he had observed of the enemy’s positions. Within an hour the column had reached the point where the road began to level off before it surmounted the true crest of the escarpment, but, in spite of this fast climb, there was little time left before the sky would lighten.

Harding told Roach to bring his men up on C Company’s right while Smith, with some of his officers and NCOs, made a reconnaissance towards a ruined stone hut close to the road, from which he observed enemy troops and vehicles in front and to the right of the battalion position. The two companies then advanced in line, and within a short distance C Company flushed some Italians from sangars on the north side of the road. However, A Company, keeping pace but meeting no enemy, found itself faced with a steepsided and rocky wadi and moved in towards the centre to avoid it. Harding then told Roach to take his men round the rear of C Company and advance on its left.

From this point, the action developed into a display of initiative by individual officers and men. On C Company’s right, Lieutenant McLean’s platoon, aiming at some positions observed on a ridge to its right, collected over fifty prisoners before it had gone 50 yards. The other two platoons, under Sergeants Kelly and Jennings, came up quickly to help and, against little organised resistance, added another batch of Italians to the collection. Within a short time, there were over 200 prisoners assembled by the headquarters Harding had established at the head of the pass, close to some abandoned light anti-aircraft guns with stacks of ammunition and other light weapons. As the headquarters was manned by the commander, a signaller and two runners only, Harding recalled one of C Company’s platoons to stand guard.

On the left flank, Roach led two platoons of A Company along the road, with the third moving wide on their left. With sticky bombs ready for dealing with armoured vehicles, the thirty-seven men of the two platoons with Roach advanced by textbook fire and movement towards some vehicles seen in the half light ahead and, against little retaliation, quickly found themselves in possession of five trucks and forty Italians. A search of sangars and trenches nearby brought more prisoners as well as much ‘loot’ in the way of pistols, binoculars and masses of documents.

The platoon on the left, of fourteen men under Lieutenant Chalmers, met the only genuine opposition in the initial part of the action. Here the enemy positions were covered by a minefield through which Chalmers’ men had to thread their way under machine-gun fire. While they were engaging one point of determined resistance, Corporal Ellery with two men of his section made a wide outflanking march which brought him unexpectedly into another sector of the defences, which then sprouted a forest of improvised white flags. As Ellery by himself, under covering fire from his two men, advanced further, the whole position facing him capitulated. With at least 143 prisoners on their hands, the three men set off to rejoin their platoon. In the meantime Chalmers’ party had broken through the minefield and, after losing one man killed and one wounded, attacked the main point of resistance with vigour, killing quite a number before the rest would surrender. It was full daylight by this time and, with some 250 prisoners in hand, including Ellery’s bag, the platoon set off to return to the head of the pass.

Further over to the north, the other two platoons of A Company were still spread out in their search for hidden stragglers and loot, and Roach was trying to assemble them when a column of eight vehicles, some with anti-tank guns on tow, appeared in the west, driving on a track that led to a gap in a minefield. Two men near the gap opened fire as the enemy column drew close and, as the trucks stopped and the men aboard went to ground, others of the two platoons joined in, advancing and firing at the same time. Under this summary attack, the enemy offered little resistance and another party of prisoners was added to A Company’s total.

Away on the right of the road, McLean’s platoon of C Company saw in the growing light a group of five guns which German artillerymen were hastily hitching to their tractors. While some of the platoon gave covering fire, others raced for a gap in the minefield wire where they hoped to cut off the guns, but the Germans managed to get their vehicles moving and through the gap before the attackers came within effective range.

Believing his area clear of the enemy, Major Smith was returning to Harding’s headquarters to report when he came under machine-gun tracer fired from a position in the rear of A Company’s line of advance. On reaching the headquarters he sent Sergeant Jennings and three of the men guarding the prisoners there to deal with this position. With his Bren-gunner firing from the hip, Jennings led his small party in a charge through a minefield to overcome the machine-gun nest and then, seeing some trucks ahead, he set off to investigate, but found his way barred by an anti-personnel minefield. As the four men sought a way clear of the mines they were seen and fired on by enemy around the trucks, but the Bren-gunner retaliated, keeping the enemy’s heads down while Jennings managed to start the engine of an abandoned truck standing nearby. With the Bren-gunner and his two riflemen firing from the moving vehicle, Jennings drove straight at the enemy, who thereupon surrendered. This action brought in five Italian trucks in good order, 10 machine guns, two anti-tank guns, and some 50 prisoners.

Just before daybreak a troop of 4th Light Armoured Brigade’s anti-tank guns appeared at the head of the pass and deployed round Harding’s headquarters. About the same time an officer of the brigade in a Dingo came up and drove along the road, where he met Roach who was then on his way to reconnoitre some distant vehicles which he thought might include anti-tank guns sited to fire at vehicles emerging from the pass. The officer refused Roach’s request to use the Dingo for a reconnaissance, stating that he was returning at once to report the road clear for his tanks. Harding, whose wireless was proving ineffective, had already sent a runner, on an abandoned Italian bicycle, to Kippenberger with the news that his men had cleared sufficient ground at the head of the pass for other troops to come up. It was not long before the tanks could be heard grinding up the road, Roddick himself being in one of the first to reach the top. Passing Harding, he established his headquarters about a mile along the road where Harding joined him. At first treating 21st Battalion’s claim of 600 prisoners with reserve, Roddick changed his attitude when invited to look over the collection the two companies had assembled, and congratulated Harding heartily.

The battalion had in fact secured about that number for well over 700 Italian prisoners were counted as they were marched down the pass, while a large number of wounded and those left tending them were later collected. Some sixty of the enemy had been killed, and the booty included 30 Italian and German vehicles in going order, 20 anti-tank guns, several field guns, and a large collection of machine guns and other light weapons. All this had been gained for the loss of the one man killed and one wounded. The action brought the battalion several awards, which included the DSO for Lieutenant-Colonel Harding and Military Medals for Sergeant Jennings and Corporal Ellery.

The success that fell to 21st Battalion’s two slender companies cannot be attributed simply to the weakened morale of the enemy’s troops. Admittedly the Italians encountered showed little desire to live up to Pistoia Division’s motto of ‘Valiant unto Death’, but the collapse of their resistance was not due to any foreknowledge that they had been left on their own to face the British pursuit. Prisoners’ statements and all other evidence—the reaction to the fire of the Rifle Corps patrol, the action of the despatch rider, and initial reaction to 21st Battalion’s appearance—indicate they were unaware of their true situation. Although the defences were not well sited, being too far back from the lip of the escarpment, as if the Italians thought the German units would be covering them, the men of Pistoia Division were entrenched among minefields and well supplied with arms and ammunition, so that under good leadership they could have inflicted severe casualties on any troops attempting to ascend the pass.

In the event, the surprise effect of 21st Battalion’s unexpected appearance was exploited to the full by both officers and men. Had there been any hesitation by the infantry, the few Germans present might have set an example to the Italians, especially those covered by the minefields, and held up the New Zealand advance for at least several hours. Instead, one of the best delaying positions on the Panzer Army’s line of retreat fell in a matter of a few hours to the efforts of a handful of determined and enterprising men.

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While the Halfaya Pass engagement was being waged, 90th German Light Division was resting, with a feeling of security in the protection afforded by the pass garrison, in its laager only a few miles to the west and within sight of the frontier wire. This wire barrier, breached in many places in previous campaigns, offered no shelter, but to many minds in the desert it marked not only the boundary between Egypt and Libya but also the point where the rigours of the Egyptian desert sands gave way to the greener and more interesting Italian colony of Marmarica. In the Panzer Army records, there is a distinct impression that fortunes might change after the wire had been reached, that the British might pause and give the harried troops time to get their breath. When news got around that the British were not pausing at the wire, the order and control imposed to clear the passes was lost and panic and desperation again seized a large part of the German and Italian forces. Rommel himself was under no illusions that either the frontier wire or even the fortress of Tobruk would offer a breathing space. Though he received orders from the Italian Supreme Command and Combined Headquarters to hold on to Marmarica as long as possible so that positions around Agheila could be prepared, he felt certain that the British would cut across the bulge of Cyrenaica direct for Benghazi, while the state of his transport and the still difficult petrol situation forced his army to use the long and narrow road along the coast, where minefields, defiles and other obstacles kept trucks in single file. Before he knew that Halfaya had fallen he replied to the Supreme Command that he would attempt an orderly evacuation of Cyrenaica, but the time factor depended on the strength of the British pressure.

This reply could hardly have been prepared before Rommel learnt that the Eighth Army was not stopping at the frontier. No sooner had 4th Light Armoured Brigade assembled at the top of the pass than its reconnaissance unit, shortly before 8 a.m., set off towards Capuzzo and made contact with elements of 7th Armoured Division coming up from the south. The commander of 90 Light Division, probably driving east to see for himself the situation at Halfaya, came in sight of the mass of British armoured vehicles in totalshock and had just time to turn back and alert his division, which retired northwards at speed under cover of a rearguard. This rearguard reported having to fight a hard action before it could disengage and fall back through Bardia. Before 11 a.m. the head of 4th Light Armoured Brigade was in Capuzzo and by midday reached Sidi Azeiz after capturing or destroying numerous vehicles and guns. In the afternoon of the 11th, 4th Light Armoured Brigade received orders from 10th Corps to pass from New Zealand command to direct corps command, and to assume command of 4/6 South African Armoured Car Regiment and the Royals.

As soon as the armoured brigade had cleared the head of Halfaya Pass, the rest of the New Zealand column prepared to follow. One of the first tasks was to search the area of the turn-off from the coast road and the ascent for mines and booby traps, for already several had been discovered. Engineers of 7th Field Company began work at daylight and continued well into the next day, finding at least twenty unexploded Teller mines on the ascent. Most of these had been laid double and were booby-trapped against easy removal, and it was only good fortune that more vehicles had not fallen victim to them. After dealing with the pass, the sappers cleared and marked gaps in the defensive minefields on the top of the escarpment and then searched the track leading to the Sollum-Capuzzo road, and on to Capuzzo itself. As the progress of the heavily laden vehicles up the pass was slow and in single file, the traffic along the coast road piled up in a solid block reaching for several miles to the east and offering a temping target for air attack. The Desert Air Force, however, managed to maintain sufficient fighter cover to keep enemy aircraft away except for some hit-and-run attacks by single planes. Owing to the congestion below Halfaya, Kippenberger was advised to take his brigade along the road to Sollum and up the zigzag, but he then learnt from the engineers that the zigzag was impassable so the brigade had to regain its place in the queue at the foot of Halfaya. Later in the day 6th Field Company took over the task of clearing the Sollum route and, working in shifts with the help of 5th Field Park’s machinery and men of C Company of 28 Battalion, had the road open for traffic within twenty-four hours. One crater blown by the enemy on the zigzag needed an estimated 5000 cubic yards of spoil. In the meantime New Zealand provosts, controlling traffic at Halfaya, counted nearly 5000 vehicles grinding up the pass. Most of 5th NZ Brigade managed to get up the pass during the morning of the 11th November and was then led through Musaid to Capuzzo and on to the Trigh Capuzzo. On Freyberg’s orders, the brigade laagered for the night close to Sidi Azeiz. During the afternoon a detachment from 23rd Battalion was sent to Bardia, which it found vacated by the enemy but mined and booby-trapped as well as damaged by air raids and demolitions. Divisional Headquarters and the Cavalry caught up with 5th NZ Brigade before dark, but the remainder of the Division waited below the escarpment until next day.

The fall of Halfaya Pass brought a period of indecision over the employment of the New Zealand Division. Freyberg and Lumsden met while the Division was waiting at the bottom of the pass and held a discussion which prompted Freyberg to enter in his diary:

“I thought of saying to the Corps Comd that no one minds criticism which is constructive but that does not apply to the uninformed criticism of his staff.”

There appear to have been two points at issue: one, that the Division had not been reporting its position at the exact hour laid down by Corps Headquarters; and the other, that the Division had not advanced fast enough. The New Zealand records indicate that sufficient situation reports had been sent back to allow Corps to follow progress, though possibly not at the exact hours specified, and their receipt may have been affected both by the difficulties of communication and the methods of operation of the Corps Headquarters.

The complaint that the New Zealand Division had not pressed its advance as it might have done was more serious. In his report on the pursuit operations Freyberg wrote:

The policy was not to get involved, but, if possible, to position our forces to cut the enemy off.

This of course was the policy agreed with Leese when the Division set off on the pursuit under the command of 30th Corps, and perhaps it had not been fully understood by 10th Corps when the latter took over. The New Zealand Division was a motorised infantry force which, stationed across the enemy’s line of retreat, could have employed its infantry, and particularly its powerful artillery component, in what would have been, for that limited phase of action, a defensive role. The veteran survivors of 9th Armoured Brigade would have provided protection in such a defence, while the light armoured brigade was intended to reconnoitre and act as a spearhead for movement rather than for offence against panzer formations. As Freyberg understood it, the policy was for his men to hold up the enemy while the three British armoured divisions acted offensively against the enemy’s armour. As the pursuit developed, there were two major factors, apart from the unexpected rain and replenishment difficulties, which influenced his actions. The first, and most important, was the belief generally held throughout the Eighth Army that the Panzer Army still retained a force of armour that could mount a powerful counter-stroke, and the second factor was the manner in which Lumsden had employed his three armoured divisions. For a blocking role, the New Zealand Division had to be concentrated at the point of resistance, and Freyberg was determined that his force would not be placed in a situation where it could be overrun piecemeal by an armoured counter-stroke away from support by the British armour. (as happened so many times till August 1942 when Montgomery took command and put a strong leash to British armor)

It is clear that Lumsden and the 10th Corps staff did not always see eye to eye with Freyberg. After the pursuit passed Halfaya, Lumsden, faced with replenishment problems, was thinking in terms of an ad hoc force of any troops available to continue the advance, all others being left behind or even sent back to the east where they would interfere less with supply of the forward area. Freyberg, firm against the dismemberment of his force, asked for a short rest in which to bring up the tail of the Division, including 9th Armoured Brigade and 6th NZ Brigade, and to organise replenishment. His request for 6th NZ Brigade seems to have received a favourable answer from Lumsden for he sent a signal to warn it to stand by, ready to move, but the final permission was withheld by 10th Corps Headquarters, possibly on the grounds of the supply problems. As for 9th Armoured Brigade, wear and tear had reduced its armour to a mere squadron of the Warwickshire Yeomanry by this time.

Freyberg was thus in a bad bargaining position if he wished both to concentrate his force and to continue with the pursuit, and he had accordingly to release 4th Light Armoured Brigade, with the Warwickshire Yeomanry attached, on its arrival, to go under corps command for immediate operations. In return he received a promise from Lumsden to be given 8th Armoured Brigade (of 10 Armoured Division), but then either Corps or Army Headquarters insisted that the whole of 9th Armoured Brigade be sent back to re-form under 10th Armoured Division. The Warwickshire Yeomanry therefore handed over its few surviving tanks to the light armoured brigade and prepared, with the rest of 9th Armoured Brigade, to join 10th Armoured Division in the Matruh area.

These arrangements were settled by the evening of 11th November and, having been given an estimate of three days before 8th Armoured Brigade could be brought forward and assembled for action, Freyberg planned to use the time in catching up with administrative details. He told his AA & QMG to bring up ‘pay, beer, and battle dress’ and the units to organise recreation and swimming, while he himself settled down to prepare reports and deal with a back-log of correspondence with the Maadi base. An area near Menastir, a few miles inland from Bardia, was selected on ground unlikely to be flooded in wet weather and offering flat spaces for parades and sports, and by morning of the 12th most of the Division was in occupation, with bivouac tents being erected, medical aid posts in operation, and communications established between the various headquarters. The pause in active operations brought a considerable increase in the number reporting sick.

Freyberg’s office work, however, was interrupted early that morning by the arrival of Lumsden with a plan for the Division to advance on Tobruk. Of this visit, Freyberg’s diary recorded, ‘According to Lumsden, Germans have withdrawn in orderly fashion and are not unduly perturbed at reverse’, and both commanders were agreed that the Panzer Army would probably attempt a stand at Tobruk. On this appreciation, Lumsden wanted to get as many of his forces as possible within striking distance of the fortress, but Freyberg pointed out that he had released his armour on the understanding that it would be replaced and, until it was, he ‘did not propose to take Division anywhere where we were likely to be bumped by tanks’. This comment was followed by the short sentence ‘Lumsden understood’, but it is not clear whether the understanding was of Freyberg’s solicitude for his men or of a possible invocation of the powers of his charter.

On a promise that armour would be provided before the Division went into action, Freyberg agreed to move further to the west, with the Divisional Cavalry starting off immediately to open up the Gambut landing grounds for Air Force operations, and the remainder of the troops following at first light the next morning.

The Cavalry set off at once, but the necessary warning messages for the early morning move had not yet reached all units, upsetting their plans for the rest period, before Lumsden’s arrangements with Freyberg were upset by the corps staff, who insisted that the combined problems of bringing up 8th Armoured Brigade and overcoming the replenishment difficulties could not be solved in a matter of a few days. Furthermore, the latest reports from air reconnaissance indicated that the Panzer Army seemed to be vacating Tobruk as fast as it could, so that it was doubtful if the fortress would be defended. If this were so, the next effective encircling operation would have to be aimed directly at Benghazi and Agheila, and for this, the Sollum-Bardia area was the obvious springboard.

On learning merely that the movement of the Division had been cancelled, Freyberg appears to have suspected that 10th Corps might wish to detach the Cavalry to join the forces encircling Tobruk for he took some trouble to ensure that Lieutenant-Colonel Sutherland, the regiment’s commander, understood that he could complete the reconnaissance of the Gambut landing grounds but was not to go beyond that point. After further indecision on the Division’s employment, 10th Corps finally told Freyberg on 16th November that his force would stay in the Bardia area for organisation and training for an indefinite period. This period in fact lasted until 4th December.

The urgent message to the Cavalry was received by Lieutenant-Colonel Sutherland on his way to Gambut, which the regiment reached on the evening of the 12th after a journey delayed by mines and demolitions. Two men of the regiment, killed when a carrier ran over a mine on the main road, were the last battle casualties suffered by the Division in this phase of the campaign.

The battle of Alamein claims a place in military history if only because it was the first victory of any magnitude won by British forces against a German command since the Second World War began. Preceding the seaborne invasion of North Africa by just sufficient time to allow the Eighth Army’s achievement to be viewed on its own, it was a battle that caught the popular imagination as an example of Commonwealth solidarity, with its employment of English and Scots, Australians, New Zealanders, South Africans and Indians. Also it brought into prominence the personality of the latest Eighth Army commander Montgomery and, in doing so, has led several writers to explain why the tide of fortune should turn at this moment in terms of personalities rather than facts. Alexander, Auchinleck, Gott and, of course, Rommel all suffered their share of this form of criticism by comparison.

Though there is no doubt that the characters and abilities of the commanders affected the campaigns, the importance of the personal influence has perhaps been unduly emphasised by the voluntarily accepted briefs of opposing literary lawyers, for there were many other factors besides generalship that helped to turn the tide at Alamein. Axis commitment in Russia, relegating North Africa to a minor theatre of war, was one. Another was the fact that Britain, no longer under the threat of invasion, had with American assistance at last geared her economy to supplying the Middle East with the quantities of aircraft, tanks, guns, shells, petrol, trucks, and other equipment needed to give the Eighth Army not only initial superiority but the continuing superiority called for by Montgomery’s method of attrition.

The imminence of the TORCH landing was known to the higher levels of the Middle East command, adding vigour to their prosecution of the battle as the opening round of the long-awaited Allied counter-offensive, while the Panzer Army, under a deputy commander, short of equipment and stores, and feeling forgotten by the Axis high command, was far from the top of its form. It is to their credit that the Axis troops resisted so stoutly and so long.

Finally, tribute for the victory should be bestowed on all those Allied troops who had a share in the fighting and behind the lines. Among them the men of the New Zealand Division rank high, for their experience and example had a great influence in the planning and operations. How much General Freyberg personally contributed to victory may never be truly assessed, but it was certainly more than appears in the surviving records. On 20 November he completed a report on the two operations, lightfoot and supercharge, for which Montgomery, never effusive in sharing the honours, wrote the following foreword:

The Battle of Egypt was won by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire. Of all these soldiers none were finer than the fighting men from New Zealand.

This pamphlet tells the story of the part played by the 2nd New Zealand Division in that historic battle. The Division was splendidly led and fought magnificently; the full story of its achievements will make men and women in the home country thrill with pride. Possibly I myself am the only one who really knows the extent to which the action of the New Zealand Division contributed towards the victory. The pamphlet contains many lessons that will influence the future training of our Army.

I am proud to have the 2nd New Zealand Division in my Army.


eighth army

Middle East
December, 1942


Well , a bad attempt of humour from my part maybe but , the men from Land of Hobbits and Elfs had higher fighting qualities than anyone else knew or assumed

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WHEN Mr Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, addressed the men of the 2nd New Zealand Division outside Tripoli on 4 February 1943, he alluded to the Battle of El Alamein and its sequel. ‘By an immortal victory, the Battle of Egypt,’ he said, ‘the Army of the Axis Powers … 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.’

The march ‘unexampled in all history’ began on 4 November 1942, when General Montgomery’s Eighth Army, after a battle which had lasted eleven days, broke through the German-Italian Panzer Army’s Alamein defences and set off in pursuit of Axis troops, whom Field Marshal Rommel had managed to extricate from the battlefield. The New Zealand Division, which had played a distinguished part in the battle, had joined in this pursuit together with 1st and 7th British Armoured Divisions under the command of 10 Corps.

The Division at that time had only two infantry brigades, those numbered 5 and 6. Fourth Infantry Brigade had gone back to Maadi Camp some months earlier to recover from the heavy casualties of the fighting in June and July 1942, and then to reorganise completely and train and equip as an armoured brigade; it took no further part in the fighting in North Africa. Thus the Division had to be strengthened by the attachment of formations from the British Army; and when the pursuit began from Alamein these were 4th Light Armoured Brigade, consisting of two armoured car regiments and one armoured regiment, and 9th Armoured Brigade, which had had so many casualties in men and tanks at Alamein that it had been reduced temporarily to one composite regiment.

The pursuit was exhilarating but unfortunately also frustrating. At a critical stage just short of Mersa Matruh, when there might have been an opportunity of encircling the retreating enemy, heavy rain turned the desert into a quagmire. On 7th November this halted the New Zealand Division and other formations travelling across the desert and allowed the enemy to escape by the one road. By the time the advance could be resumed, the enemy had evacuated Matruh, which 6th NZ Infantry Brigade occupied on 9th November as a firm base for 10th Corps. Next day 9th Armoured Brigade dropped out of the pursuit, and the Division carried on towards the Libyan frontier with only 4th Light Armoured Brigade and 5th NZ Infantry Brigade.

Westwards from Matruh the escarpment south of and parallel to the road gradually encroaches on the flat coastal plain until the escarpment and coast converge at Sollum, near the frontier. This compelled the pursuit forces, after they had passed Sidi Barrani, to make increasing use of the road. As a result, the congestion of traffic offered a superb target for the German Air Force, but mercifully the Royal Air Force was in complete control. The 7th Armoured Division, which had made a wide cast to the south earlier in the pursuit, was already on the high ground south of the escarpment, but it was still necessary to find a way up for the New Zealand Division and other troops.

There were only two routes up the escarpment; the enemy had blocked the one near the coast, the Sollum Hill road, by blowing a gap in it, and was holding the other, at Halfaya Pass, about five miles to the south-east, with Italian troops in some strength. The Division was given the task of clearing Halfaya Pass, and in a brief but brilliant assault before dawn on 11th November 21st Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Harding) stormed the pass, and with the loss of only one man killed and one wounded, killed some sixty or seventy of the enemy and took more than 700 prisoners. This was the last of the fighting in Egypt.

The Division, using the newly opened Halfaya route, crossed into Libya. It was almost exactly a year since it had entered Libya for the first time at the beginning of the offensive which had led to Sidi Rezegh. In the intervening twelve months the Division had survived the violent ups and downs of the campaign in defence of Egypt and had suffered grievous casualties, but now nobody doubted that a decisive victory had been won; this time there would be no withdrawal.

The Halt at Bardia

After 21st Battalion’s capture of Halfaya Pass 4 Light Armoured Brigade continued the pursuit, and in the afternoon of 11 November came under the direct command of 10 Corps. It was now intended that 7th Armoured Division and 4th Light Armoured Brigade alone should advance into Cyrenaica, with considerable assistance from the air force, which was having great success against the Luftwaffe and the mass of enemy transport on the road west of Bardia.

The New Zealand Division concentrated in the vicinity of Sidi Azeiz, in the desert south-west of Bardia. At first it appeared that it might be moving on almost immediately towards Tobruk, but the same day 10th Corps cancelled this move, and only Divisional Cavalry (Lieutenant-Colonel Sutherland) went farther to the west. This regiment reached the roadhouse at Gambut by the evening of the 12th, and from there patrolled some ten miles westwards without finding anything of particular interest to report. Divisional Cavalry remained in that area for a week before rejoining the Division.

The units in the Sidi Azeiz area were advised on 13 November that the Division was likely to remain there until the 15th; they were told that day that there would be no move before the 18th, and finally on the 17th that no move was likely in the near future, which as it happened meant not before the first week in December. Difficulties of administration would prevent the assembling of more troops in the forward area until the port of Tobruk was open.

On 12 November the Division was asked to send an infantry battalion to Sollum for port duties. Fifth Brigade was instructed to send 22 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell2), and only a few hours after it had arrived in the Sidi Azeiz area this battalion was on its way back to Sollum, where it arrived early on the 13th. By chance, at the same time the question had arisen of the choice of an infantry battalion to be transferred to the New Zealand armoured brigade (formerly 4th Infantry Brigade) and reorganised as a motor battalion. Fifth Brigade had four battalions—21, 22, 23, and 28 (Maori)—so the unit transferred obviously would have to be one of these. Brigadier Kippenberger, the brigade commander, was faced with a difficult choice, but accepted 22 Battalion’s move to Sollum as an omen and nominated that unit. The Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces (General Sir Harold Alexander) and General Freyberg visited the 22nd at Sollum on 13 November, and in the course of an address the GOC told the battalion of its new role. The 22nd worked at Sollum until the 17th, when it began its return to Maadi. It took no further part in the campaign in North Africa.

The activities in the Halfaya–Sollum area attracted several small enemy air attacks on 15 November, which caused a few casualties, including three men wounded in 22nd Battalion. As a result 41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery was detached from the Division on the 16th to occupy positions around Halfaya.

Meanwhile 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group was still at Matruh. On 11 November the Division asked 10th Corps to send the brigade forward, but although certain administrative responsibilities at Matruh were handed over to a British headquarters on the 12th, orders were not issued for the brigade to move, and its commander, Brigadier Gentry, began to make arrangements for training in the Matruh area. Gentry has since said that after the first few days of minor pillaging of captured stores and of comparative plenty, the troops became restive about remaining there. Apparently the GOC was also restive, for finally Divisional Headquarters, on its own authority, ordered the brigade forward and advised 10 Corps of the action taken. Sixth Brigade left Matruh on 20 November, the greater part of it travelling by an inland route instead of the coastal road, and rejoined the Division two days later.

After their arrival in the Sidi Azeiz area the brigade groups were disbanded and the attached units and sub-units reverted to their own commands, the artillery to Headquarters NZA, the engineers to Headquarters NZE, and the machine-gunners to 27 (MG) Battalion. But it seldom seemed possible for the Division to be complete. Already one light anti-aircraft battery had been sent to Halfaya, and on 25 November 42 Battery was detached for duty in the Acroma area, near Tobruk. And then the engineers, those maids of all work, were employed on repairing the water supply installations in the vicinity of Bardia, on improving the roads between Sollum and Bardia, including the cratered Sollum Hill road, and clearing minefields. Parties of infantrymen helped in the road work.

The units were advised on 22nd November that they were to hold three days’ reserve rations and three days’ water for each man, plus two days’ rations in unit transport and one day’s rations for consumption the next day. They were also to hold enough petrol, oil and lubricants for 200 miles’ travel. Even though there was a pause in the advance, it was clearly intended that the Division was to be ready if sudden action were called for.

The NZASC and other service units continued their normal work of maintenance; and the usual demands were made on other corps, especially the infantry, for guard duties and working parties. Otherwise the troops were occupied by physical and weapon training, NCO training, route marches, lectures, salvage and repair work, reorganisation, and where possible sea-bathing, this last for cleanliness and recreation. As soon as it was known that there would be a lull in operations, an elaborate sports programme was planned, providing for Rugby and Association football, hockey, basketball, boxing and wrestling. This programme optimistically was drawn up for as far ahead as 15 December, and for some items as far ahead as Christmas Day. Sports gear, provided by the National Patriotic Fund Board, was distributed to units. About the same time two YMCA mobile cinemas began nightly screenings, which were permitted in the open as long as the light reflected from the screen was concealed, an indication of how little anxiety was caused by the activities of the German Air Force.

And so the time passed pleasantly enough. Morale, already high, was further stimulated by the news of the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria early in November and by the prospect that the Axis forces would shortly be assailed from both east and west. Indeed morale had survived the knowledge that the last remaining Australian division in the Middle East (the 9th) was on its way home after playing a notable part in the victory at Alamein.

Advantage was taken of the lull in operations to make various changes in organisation, for which purpose the GOC held a series of conferences with the heads of corps and leading administrative officers of 2 NZEF.2 As can be seen from the order of battle,3 the Division was an assemblage of units drawn from fourteen different corps: cavalry, artillery, engineers, infantry, machine-gunners, signals, army service corps, medical, dental, provost, postal, pay, ordnance, and electrical and mechanical
2 Officer in charge of Administration, Military Secretary, and Director of Medical Services.

A history which attempted to cover at all stages the activities of all these corps would become an indigestible mass of words. There must be a high degree of selectivity.

Lord Wavell once said, when referring to military planning, ‘Sooner or later the time will come when Private Snodgrass must advance straight to his front.’ In other words, the culminating point of all planning, even though begun on the inter-governmental level, is the advance of the infantry. That is the yardstick by which success or failure is measured. Thus it may often appear that what is recorded here is not so much the history of the Division as a whole as that of the infantry, but it must not be forgotten that although the infantry were invariably in the spearhead, behind them was a shaft which gave both weight and direction to the thrust. Much work by many hands in a diversity of units made it possible for the infantry to be where they were.

Apart from the infantry this volume is concerned chiefly with those units which came into close contact with the enemy—the cavalry, armour, machine-gunners, and engineers. The artillery is referred to in sufficient detail to show the effect of its fire; the provost occasionally figure in the battle area, either on traffic control or on marking the axis of advance. The remainder of the Division carried out faithfully their normal duties, which generally cannot be described for any particular operation, but a few words must be said about those upon whom was thrown an extra burden.

The success of the campaign turned primarily on movement and supply, which broadly were the functions of the army service corps, ordnance, and electrical and mechanical engineers. The NZASC at this stage comprised one ammunition company, one petrol company, one supply company, and two reserve mechanical transport companies, each with its own workshops. Each platoon in any of these companies consisted of thirty 3-ton lorries and a few administrative vehicles, and could carry the marching infantry of one battalion when not being used for its normal duties. But despite their distinctive titles the NZASC companies together were a large pool of vehicles and formed one comprehensive transport organisation of great flexibility. Nevertheless certain weaknesses had been seen during the previous months, so it was decided to add a second ammunition company and to enlarge the petrol company from its existing two platoons to five. The second ammunition company did not join the Division until after the end of the campaign in North Africa, but the additional petrol platoons arrived in March 1943, in time to play their part in the last few weeks.

The carrying capacity of the transport of the Division, therefore, was of unfixed limit. The Division carried with it rations, water and petrol for anything up to ten days and 400 miles’ travel, and enough ammunition to attack or resist the enemy at the end of a move. Difficulties of supply did not impede any operation. On only one occasion during the campaign, and even then for only one unit in unusual circumstances, was there a miscalculation sufficient to cause delay.

The transport in which the Division set out from Alamein already had survived much wear and tear; indeed some of the cars and lorries were veterans of the 1941 Libyan campaign. Despite the excessive strain imposed on the skill and ingenuity of the workshops staffs in keeping such worn-out or nearly worn-out vehicles in running order, the Division, throughout the many hundreds of miles of desert motoring that lay ahead, maintained a proud record of not abandoning transport on the march.

The contribution of the Divisional Signals should not be ignored, although its work was normally of a routine nature. Almost every activity of the Division involved some form of signal communication, and in effect the corps of signals was the glue that kept the manifold segments of the Division from falling apart.

Two small items of reorganisation may also be mentioned. First, the formation of a mobile field bakery, which joined the Division after about a month and baked fresh bread for the troops. Secondly, the departure of the artillery survey troop from the Division to join 36 Survey Battery at Maadi, where a more comprehensive artillery survey unit was being formed. Parts of this reorganised 36 Survey Battery joined the Division from time to time in the months that followed.1

In this campaign movements of the Division were carried out almost entirely with ‘brigade groups’, of which 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades were the nuclei. Under brigade command there normally would be a field artillery regiment, an anti-tank battery, an antiaircraft battery, a field company of engineers, a machine-gun company, and a field ambulance advanced dressing station. (A brigade signals section and a brigade workshops were integral parts of an infantry brigade.) At times, depending on tactical requirements, other units or sub-units might be added, such as a squadron of divisional cavalry, extra artillery, extra machine guns, and so on.
It was the custom to affiliate certain units to each brigade, so that the normal constitution was as follows:

5 Infantry Brigade Group
Headquarters 5 Infantry Brigade

21 Battalion

23 Battalion

28 (Maori) Battalion

5 Field Regiment

32 Anti-Tank Battery

42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery

7 Field Company

1 Machine-Gun Company

company 5 Field Ambulance

troop-carrying transport of 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company

6 Infantry Brigade Group
Headquarters 6 Infantry Brigade

24 Battalion

25 Battalion

26 Battalion

6 Field Regiment

33 Anti-Tank Battery

43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery

8 Field Company

2 Machine-Gun Company

company 6 Field Ambulance

troop-carrying transport of 6 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company

This continued affiliation had obvious advantages. The remaining units of the Division were organised into a Divisional Headquarters Group, a Divisional Reserve Group, and an Administrative Group. The Headquarters Group usually consisted of Headquarters 2 New Zealand Division, the headquarters of the Divisional Artillery, Divisional Engineers and Divisional Signals. The Reserve Group included 4 Field Regiment, 5 Field Park Company, 6 Field Company, 36 Survey Battery, and the headquarters and unattached sub-units of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and 27 (Machine-Gun) Battalion.

Sometimes, again depending on the tactical situation, a gun group, consisting of the field artillery units not under brigade command (for example, 4 Field Regiment) and any attached Royal Artillery units, would be formed separately under the CRA.

The Administrative Group consisted of all the units of the Division not otherwise allocated: Headquarters Command NZASC, 1 Ammunition Company, 1 Petrol Company, 1 Supply Company, 4 and 6 RMT Companies less troop-carrying transport, 4 Field PAGE 10Ambulance, 5 and 6 Field Ambulances each less a company, 4 Field Hygiene Section, Mobile Dental Section, Divisional Workshops, Divisional Ordnance Field Park, Postal Unit, and so on. This group moved under orders issued by the Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General of the Division. Sometimes the group was divided in two, the rear part consisting of those units not likely to be required for some days.

The Divisional Cavalry was usually reconnoitring under the direct command of Divisional Headquarters and so leading the advance. But if a light armoured brigade was attached, the cavalry acted in concert with the armoured car regiments of that brigade.

During active operations, and certainly in a pursuit, the GOC generally moved well forward with a small Tactical Headquarters consisting of himself, a ‘G’ staff officer, an ADC and the Protective Troop of tanks. Normally Tactical Headquarters moved near the headquarters of the reconnoitring force.

None of the above arrangements was invariable; but an organisation of infantry brigade groups and Divisional Reserve Group persisted throughout the campaign.

It was the custom to issue few formal written orders. Conversations, discussions, exchanges of information and conferences went on continually and provided the background necessary for a clear understanding of any impending move or operation. The divisional conferences under the direction of General Freyberg were an essential part of this procedure; the form they took was no doubt peculiar to the Division, for the General had his own ideas of how to get the best out of his subordinates.

Before any major operation or move it was necessary to issue a written order stating all the main points; but this was only the culmination of the interchange of ideas during the preceding few days or even weeks. Experience had shown, however, that an operation order for a course of events extending over several days often proved inadequate to cope with the vagaries of fortune, and orders for the later stages had to be altered; so there was a tendency to issue the formal order for the first phase only and leave remaining phases to be controlled by the usual conference, verbal order or signal.

The pause at Bardia was a welcome one, for pursuit is fatiguing both to the nerves and physically. The Division was able to collect and rest itself before approaching the next hurdle. Nevertheless, for commanders and staff, planning went on without a break.

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Chapter 2: Squaring Up to the Agheila Position

Air Power

THE victory at El Alamein had been made possible by the close co-operation between ground and air forces and owed much to the unceasing air attacks on every kind of enemy activity, on sea, on land, or in the air. This invaluable co-operation continued throughout the campaign; but except when direct support for the advancing troops was specifically requested, or when aircraft were visibly attacking the enemy near the foremost troops, the air offensive took place out of sight of the army. Formations of aircraft passing steadily overhead, an occasional dogfight, a column of smoke far behind the enemy lines, or especially at night, the heartening sound of bombs falling on an enemy port – these were all that the land-bound soldier saw or heard of the Air Force, but it was enough to comfort him and to maintain morale.

The decisive air battle had already been won: our air forces had clear superiority throughout. On any day or night they were operating somewhere, attacking enemy transport aircraft or vessels at sea – especially tankers – bombing airfields, dumps and transport concentrations, shooting down enemy fighters and bombers, and making low-level attacks on tank laagers and other targets. The air offensive was unceasing, and forms as it were a perpetual bass accompaniment to the more intermittent fighting on land.

The force directly supporting Eighth Army, known as the Desert Air Force, was commanded by Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham,1 a New Zealander serving in the RAF. It included RAF, USAAF, and South African Air Force squadrons, flying fighters, fighter-bombers, tank-busters, light and medium bombers, close reconnaissance aircraft, and day and night interceptors.

The Desert Air Force was aggressive throughout the campaign.

To gain the utmost advantage it required to operate from advanced landing grounds as early as possible, especially during a pursuit. The speedy capture of the enemy’s airfields, and the clearance of all the obstructions and mines sure to have been left there, were the best ways in which the army could co-operate with the air force.2 The provision of advanced landing grounds was a primary objective in almost all the army’s operations; and 2 NZ Division was frequently given this task.

Operation TORCH

At the Washington Conference in June 1942, attended by President Roosevelt and Mr Churchill and their advisers, it was decided that an Anglo-American army would land in French North Africa, and in conjunction with the Eighth Army, would clear the North African coast and open the Mediterranean to Allied shipping. The codename chosen for the operation was TORCH. In accordance with this plan Allied forces landed on 8 November (when the pursuit from Alamein was at its height) at Casablanca on the Atlantic coast of Morocco, and at Oran and Algiers on the Mediterranean coast of Algeria. The United States was still on speaking terms with Vichy France, unlike the United Kingdom, and the forces were given an all-American complexion, with an American commander – General Dwight D. Eisenhower. This operation was thus the first venture into true partnership between the forces of the United States and those of the British Commonwealth.

The forces landing at Casablanca, all American, were brought direct from the United States, and so commenced their involvement in the European theatre of operations with an opposed landing at the end of a long ocean voyage; those landing at Oran, also all American, came the shorter distance from England. The Algiers landing was mainly a British one. The Allied forces as a whole comprised parts of seven divisions – five American and two British.

French resistance to the landings ceased after three days, following orders issued by Admiral Darlan, the Vichy commander of the French armed forces, who was there by chance. Morocco and Algeria thus became Allied territory pro tem., and the Allied forces were freed to go into action against Axis forces wherever found. A considerable body of French troops, some two or three divisions, now joined the Allies.

The arrangement with Darlan had included Tunisia also; but immediately the Allied landings took place the Axis began landing troops in Tunisia at a fast rate, helped by the short sea-crossing from Sicily. The French Resident-General in Tunis was a helpless spectator of this build-up, and could not offer any resistance, so that in a short time there was a considerable German-Italian army in Tunisia, under command of a German general, von Arnim.

British forces from Algiers, consisting of most of 78thInfantry Division and a small part of 6th Armoured Division, began a thrust on Tunis on 15 November, and on 28 November were only 12 miles from the city, after an advance of some 450 miles over most difficult country; but the enemy was already strong enough to block the foremost troops and, indeed, to force them back. Great efforts were made by the Allies to reinforce the British spearhead – now constituted as 5th Corps of First Army – and American combat units, and ad boc supply and transport echelons came forward. The intention was to make another attempt to reach Tunis about the middle of December.

At the beginning of December the Allied army in Tunisia and Eighth Army in Libya were still some 1100 miles apart. The time had not yet come for close co-operation in the tactical field; but it was always in the minds of the Allied Chiefs of Staff that at some point the efforts of the two forces would be centrally controlled.

The Enemy Retirement into the Agheila Position


While 2nd New Zealand Division was resting near Bardia, Eighth Army’s pursuit of the enemy continued across Cyrenaica, employing mainly 7 Armoured Division with 4 Light Armoured Brigade as the spearhead, supported throughout by the Desert Air Force.

Tobruk 1942 - David Mitchell Green

An Axis stand at Tobruk was now conceivable and the Italians were directed on 8 November to ‘employ every means’ necessary to prepare the fortress’ defence, primarily along the south-eastern front. The German quartermaster in Rome queried whether cranes were available at Tobruk or Benghasi capable of unloading the latest Mark VI Tiger tanks. Rommel, however, elected to withdraw his Italo–German forces further west, on the basis that any stand would be tantamount to approving a new siege. Elaborating later, he explained that Tobruk:

“now possessed only symbolic value. Militarily it could not be held in the situation at that time, without delivering up a large part of the Army to certain sacrifice. We did not intend to repeat the mistake which the British had made in 1942. Thus the enemy was able to occupy it, virtually without fighting, on the night of the November 12th, after its evacuation by the 90th German Light Division.”

After a reconnaissance aircraft from 40 Squadron, SAAF, reported no sign of enemy activity, A Squadron of 4/6th South African Armoured Car Regiment (fittingly) entered the town of Tobruk on the evening 12 November 1942 – 146 days after its fall. Retaken for the last time, twelve Germans fell prisoner and 10,000 tons of valuable Axis supplies were commandeered as war booty by British. Several hundred native South Africans, in new uniforms pilfered from stores, waved to their liberators. Employed by the Germans as dockside labourers, they recounted their maltreatment, ‘we helluva suffer’, and told of their comrades killed in the Allied bombing. Surveying the damage, a visiting US war correspondent recorded, ‘The city was a shambles – an eery place of horrors with its sunken ships in the harbour and its buildings reduced to stunning battered rubble … a ruined shell of war – a name in history – with its wreckage the monuments of a graveyard for thousands of dead.’

Bardia to Enfidaville (cont)

Tobruk was entered on 13 November by 4th Light Armored Brigade, after an abortive attempt to cut off the garrison by an outflanking attack towards Acroma. The garrison got away almost complete, and the enemy continued his withdrawal towards Benghazi.

At this point the most urgent task was to obtain possession of the airfields in the Martuba area without delay. A convoy bound to Malta (Convoy STONEAGE), the first for seven months, was to leave Alexandria for Malta on 16 November, and would have to get through if the defence of the island was to be maintained and the population kept from starvation. To provide air cover to this convoy in Central Mediterranean for the latter stages of the journey it was essential to have the use of the Martuba airfields in Derna region ; and the critical day was 18 November. The landing grounds were in the end brought into use on the 16th, the passage of the Malta convoy duly covered and Malta in effect relieved.

Meanwhile the enemy continued his withdrawal, making use only of the main coast road through Gebel Akhdar and round the Cyrenaican bulge. There was a temptation to repeat the strategy of sending a force direct across the arc of the bulge to cut the enemy off around Agedabia. But two previous ventures of this nature, in early 1941 and early 1942, had led to disaster from a swift enemy counter-attack against advanced forces; so this time only light reconnaissance forces went by this route initially, and they were held up by waterlogged ground. It then became known, however, that the enemy’s shortage of petrol might well lead to a standstill in his transport. So a second and stronger column was sent across the bulge; but the enemy fought off this threat and retired into the El Agheila position. Meanwhile Benghazi was occupied by 7th Armored Division on 20 November for the third – and last – time.

A Full Life , Memoirs of General Brian Horrocks

The main problem at this period was whether the 8th Army could overrun the important airfields in the Derna area in time for them to be used by our air forces and thus give air cover to a vital convoy which was sailing to Malta. It was a close-run thing. Malta was almost at its last gasp, but we won the race and the island was saved by about twenty-four hours. Benghazi was reached on
the 20th, so the 8th Army had advanced 700 miles in fifteen days.

But here there was obviously going to be a battle because the Axis forces were preparing to fight on the Agheila position. The desert veterans reminded us gloomily that twice before we had reached
this position, but never got any farther. Would we be more successful at the third attempt? We were.

The attack started with active patrolling on the 9nth December andby the ipth the German rearguards were streaming back.

By now Harold Young of the I2th Lancers had become my A.D.C. and we remained together, except
for the period when I was in hospital, up to the end of the war. Few people realise what an important part an A.D.C. plays in the military hierarchy. He can be of the greatest assistance to his commander or he may be a complete menace. A general in battle leads a lonely life with immense responsibility resting on his shoulders. For much of the time he is putting on an act, disguising his innermost feelings. He alone must make the decisions which affect the lives ofthousands of his men, for battles cannot be run like board meetings. A commander will spend a large part ofevery day driving round units accompanied by his A.D.C. and it makes all the difference if they get on well together so that the mask can be dropped when they are alone. An A.D.C. can act as a buffer between a commander and
an all-too-importunate staff, but this has to be done with considerable tact or the A.D.C. will be accused of becoming swollenheaded. The sensible, sympathetic A.D.C. who is trusted and liked
*by both the commander and staff is worth his weight in gold, and he can do a great deal to make the wheels go round smoothly. I was very lucky with mine. Later on in Europe Young was joined by Lord Rupert Nevill who in spite ofavery youthful appearance turned out to be extremely shrewd. *

I was now told that Herbert Lumsden (10th Corps commander who was sacked by Montgomery on 20th November due to his insubordinate attitude and inabilityto follow army command orders. Montgomery would continue to clash and add enemies to himself in person like that throughout his professional carerr though from an objective perspective ,Lumdsen should have been relieved of duty long time ago) was going back to the United Kingdom and I was to take over command of 10 Corps,
then in reserve at Termimi some fifty miles west of Tobruk.

Though my new command was admittedly in reserve it was at least several hundred miles closer to the battle and I was getting very bored with being out of it all. My headquarters was eventually established outside the town of Benghazi on the embankment looking down on the airfield which had been so successfully raided by Major Stirling and two N.C.O.s of the S.A.S. I could also see the famous Benghazi-Barce narrow gauge railway. This short strip of the line was most useful for moving stores, and was therefore highly prized by the administrative staff. So, when we had been forced to withdraw from Benghazi in face of Rommel’s initial offensive, the officer in charge of the railway had removed a vital part of the one available diesel engine and thrown it into the sea. But the plan miscarried. As soon as the British had departed a wily Arab who had watched the whole proceedings dived into the water and retrieved the vital part, which he then sold to the Germans. The story, however, does not end here.
When the time came for the Germans in their turn to beat a hasty retreat from Benghazi in November 1942 the same Arab was watching again. Sure enough a German officer this time threw the same vital part into the sea. It was once more retrieved and proudly sold to us at an increased price when we reoccupied the town later on. Had Benghazi continued to change hands in this mobile war a most
deserving Arab would unquestionably have died a rich man

Bardia to Enfidaville (cont)

Part of the comparative slowness – and the qualifying word ‘comparative’ must be emphasised – of our advance was due to the administrative position. At Agedabia the troops were more than 350 miles by road from Tobruk, the nearest port functioning, and until Benghazi was in working order again it was manifestly unwise to push too great a force in advance of that port.

At one stage two squadrons of Hurricanes operated well inland from a safe airstrip in advance of our forward troops and were maintained entirely by air. Then, in the few days following the enemy retirement to El Agheila (24 November onwards), the Luftwaffe became unexpectedly aggressive and made a number of attacks on advanced units of 7th Armoured Division. These attacks were all the more noticeable, and the more talked about, because for some time the RAF had had almost complete control of the air. But in a day or two the Desert Air Force had restored the position and stopped most attacks, or greatly minimised their intensity.

For the moment the enemy’s intentions were not clear. The morale of the German troops was apparently still high; but it must have been clear to them that this time they had been hustled back into the El Agheila position, whereas on the two previous occasions they had retired there of their own volition with the intention of resuming the offensive – a case of reculer pour mieux sauter. But whatever the enemy’s intention, Montgomery was determined that the British forces should not be caught again; and not for the first nor the last time he used the word ‘balance’, meaning that formations were to be so placed as to be ready for any eventuality, especially an enemy counter-offensive. Thus, while 7th Armoured Division was pursuing the enemy, 1st Armoured Division and 2nd New Zealand Division, under command of 10th Corps, were based in the area between Derna and Bardia, with plans prepared for defence should the enemy launch a major counter-attack. The New Zealand Division’s part in this plan was to occupy a position in the Acroma–Knightsbridge area.

Towards the end of November, 51st (Highland) Division, which had remained at Alamein, was brought forward to a position behind 7th Armoured Division, so strengthening the first line of defence; and steps were taken to move 50th Infantry Division forward from Egypt to take its place. At the same time Headquarters 30th Corps took over responsibility for operations beyond Agedabia, leaving 10th Corps responsible only for the second line of defence.

As the days went on it became clear that the enemy had no thought of counter-attack and that the immediate tactical problem was to eject him from the El Agheila position and then resume the advance to the west. But before discussing this problem and the part played in its solution by 2nd New Zealand Division, it is proposed to say a few words about the opposing commanders, Montgomery and Rommel, and about the enemy.

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There is now available in many publications (including his own Memoirs) enough material to cover all the facets of Montgomery’s personality, but we are concerned here only with his capacity as a general as known after the victory at Alamein. His army was most impressed by his characteristic soundness – which was also, in Lord Wavell’s opinion, the chief virtue of Wellington. In Montgomery’s case it meant that he prepared for his offensives on a rigidly firm foundation of administration, waited for the right moment to attack, and refused to be hurried, even by Churchill; he adhered to his basic plan even though there might appear fleeting chances of a more spectacular – but more speculative – victory; he handled his manpower in truly economical fashion, never took risks where failure might lead to disaster (like Ritchie ,Cunningham and Auchinleck constantly did from Operation Battleaxe in June 1941 , Operation Crusader November 1941 , Benghazi in January 1942 , Gazala and Tobruk and Mersa Matruh in May and June 1942) and did not persist with failure; he disposed his forces in depth so that his army could not be overrun if the enemy attacked unexpectedly; he disregarded criticism, especially if it was directed at his apparent slowness; he always planned on the assumption of success (his own words about himself), fought no battle unless he was certain that he could win it (Rommel’s words about him), and always planned two battles ahead. Montgomery – and Wellington – were both accused of caution, and Rommel considered that Montgomery was excessively cautious, but Rommel touched on the vital point when he went on to say that Montgomery could afford to be cautious because material superiority, and thus time, were definitely on his side.

In an address to the officers of 2nd New Zealand Division on 4 January 1943 Montgomery said: ‘In the various battles we have fought out here you may have noticed that we have intervals where we sit still and do nothing, and you may wonder why. The reason is that part of my military teaching is that I am not going to have out here in North Africa any failures. …I definitely refuse to do anything until we are absolutely ready administratively, until we have built up sufficient strength to be certain there will be no failures. …’

It was Montgomery’s way to issue personal messages to the troops as an aid to morale, and in the early stages of his command something of this nature was sadly needed. They caused comment among the troops, even if this was sometimes cynical and amused. Probably to British troops they held some appeal until the end, even though it may later have diminished, and the same applies to his talks to troops, which were given before any battle. There is evidence to show that Montgomery was aware that his methods of personal approach were regarded differently by New Zealanders and he endeavoured to vary his talks when speaking to them.

In November 1942 the Army knew beyond doubt that they had a commander who could win battles, and on whom they could rely unquestionably.

Rommel and the Enemy

There had been a period in 1941 and 1942 when Rommel was almost as well regarded by the Eighth Army as by the Africa Corps and Panzer Army Afrika, for the British soldier admires a sterling foe who fights cleanly. By December 1942 Eighth Army probably thought less about him, its emotions being directed more towards the enjoyment of victory and the need for further offensive action. But Rommel remained a respected figure who needed watching, as he was quite capable of retaliating with vigour.

Two points emerge from contemporary German documents. The first is that Rommel operated under the control of higher echelons of command which frequently irked his independent and aggressive spirit. In Germany there was OKW, the German Supreme Headquarters, which meant Hitler; and in Rome there was the Italian Comando Supremo, under Mussolini, which in theory was responsible for all operations in North Africa, where the forces, again in theory, were Italian, campaigning with German assistance. Then followed the Italian Command in North Africa, known as ‘Super-libia’, the senior officer being the Governor of Libya, an appointment held in December 1942 by Marshal Bastico.

Running across – or perhaps parallel to – this hierarchy came Field Marshal Kesselring, senior officer of all the German troops in the Mediterranean, with no direct operational command at this time, but responsible for the assembly in Italy of all German supplies for the forces in North Africa. Rommel often quarrelled with Kesselring, and up to the time he left Africa did not think very highly of him; but later reflection caused a change in his opinion, and his final summing up of Kesselring is a high one.

In his days of success Rommel could behave with scant respect for his Italian superiors; but now that things were going badly they were treading on his heels all the time, and he had repeated visits from representatives of the Comando Supremo or Superlibia. The Italian authorities held the whip hand in one vital respect. The movement of supplies of all kinds from Italy was, with Hitler ‘s agreement, under Italian control, and Rommel was dependent upon what they sent him, always a doubtful matter in view of the successful interference of the Royal Navy and the Allied Air Forces. Even when spurred on by Kesselring, Comando Supremo was inefficient, and Rommel’s correspondence about this time is one long appeal – and complaint – about deficiencies in supplies. (though these were overrated as post war studies showed , Italian logistics and frontline units showed a lot more efficiency than they were given credit)

While tactically he remained much his own master, any strategical action he intended was often opposed; and owing to the decline in Axis fortunes, there was a tendency for rearward authorities to trespass more and more into details. Rommel had difficulties in getting freedom of action in his El Agheila operations, and elsewhere throughout the period covered in this volume. He was harried by sometimes absurd orders from higher authorities, and cramped in his endeavours to make the best use of what troops and supplies he had.

The second point that emerges from German documents is that after Alamein – the ‘battle without hope’ in Rommel’s words – Rommel was firmly of the opinion that the campaign in North Africa was lost, and that the correct thing to do was to evacuate all the troops from Africa for use in Europe. He says succinctly, ‘If the army remained in North Africa, it would be destroyed’. He was deeply impressed by the Allies’ superiority in material, and now in numbers too, and he realised that their superiority in both these factors would increase; whereas on the Axis side they were poorly supplied, inferior in the air, and in no position to remedy any weakness. Alamein was the decisive battle of the African campaign, and the Germans had lost it. He resisted most strongly the accusation made against him, by Bastico among others, that he was defeatist; but claimed that he was truly realistic and that there were people who ‘simply did not have the courage to look facts in the face and draw the proper conclusion’. His one aim became to save his troops and prevent annihilation. But in the end some 250,000 troops went into Allied prison camps.

Rommel’s forces were known as the German-Italian Panzer Army, constituted as:

German :

Africa Korps – 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions

90th German Light Africa Division

164th German Light Africa Division

Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment

German Air Force Brigade


20th Corps (which was almost complately destroyed at Second Battle of Alamein)

21st Corps

As it happened, the troops opposing 2nd NZ Division were German almost throughout. The main German strength, however, lay in the two panzer divisions, with 90th German Light Division as a strong supporter.

The panzer divisions normally were composed of a reconnaissance unit (a combination of scout cars, armoured cars, and armoured troop-carriers), a tank regiment of two battalions (each of 84 tanks at full strength), a lorried infantry regiment of three battalions, a field artillery regiment of three battalions, an anti-tank battalion, an anti-aircraft battalion, an engineer battalion, and service units; and the light divisions usually comprised a reconnaissance unit, three lorried infantry regiments, an artillery regiment, an anti-tank battalion, an anti-aircraft battalion, an engineer battalion, and service units. In November 1942 the strength of each division was only that of about a regiment (equivalent to a brigade) or less. The reconnaissance units often operated separately as a reconnaissance group. The lorried infantry regiments were known as Panzer Grenadiers, a title accorded them by Hitler. It is unnecessary to give the numbers of all the units in the German divisions, but their formations were:

15 Panzer Division

8 Panzer Regiment

115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

33 Panzer Artillery Regiment

21 Panzer Division

5 Panzer Regiment

104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

155 Panzer Artillery Regiment

90 Light Division

155 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

361 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

190 Artillery Regiment

164 Light Division

125 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

382 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

433 Panzer Grenadier Regiment

220 Artillery Regiment.

Rommel had realised that he could not hope to stop Eighth Army’s advance until the El Agheila position was reached; and from the middle of November the first steps were taken to withdraw all non-motorised units behind that line, and to organise the defence of the area. Most of the Italians were among the non-motorised troops. The Italian authorities had directed that there must be an orderly withdrawal of the Italian troops – doubtless there were still bitter memories of the aftermath of Alamein – and for once Rommel was prepared to comply. Progressively the non-motorised forces, both German and Italian, were withdrawn first into the El Agheila defences, where they carried out some work, and then later back to Nofilia and Buerat. Remaining in the El Agheila position were the German motorised troops, with the addition of a tank battle group from Ariete Division.

There was a brief moment when Rommel toyed with the idea of a limited counter-attack, and of repeating his performance of previous years by destroying the advanced British forces; but he answered this himself when he said that it was a purely academic discussion, as they had neither the petrol nor sufficient tank destruction units for any such scheme. The German official narrative says briefly that the petrol and ammunition shortage and the low strength of the motorised and armoured formations made it impossible to carry out any offensive action. By the time Afrika Korps retreated to El Aghelia it had in total 16 panzers left.

At this point in the war in North Africa – late November – the German High Command was concentrating on the defence of Tunisia, and the ‘eastern front’ in Libya became secondary. Troops and supplies were being poured into Tunis; but there was nothing for Rommel. It is easy to understand his bitterness when it is realised that only a small part of the effort now being made to build up forces in Tunisia, if made in the summer of 1942 and directed towards Egypt, might have carried him to the Suez Canal though logistics tail from Tripoli and Benghazi had been so long and under RAF air interdiction , not to mention both Tripoli and Benghazi harbours were quite insufficient for higher unloading tempo and Italian merchant marine was slowly melting in Mediterraneanunder onstant RAF and Royal Navy attacks and Italian Navy immobilised due tolack of fuel and lackof air cover by Axis air forces , it was not possible to bring these reinforcements to Alamein in time even in 1942 summer and expect full performance from them. It is a very alluring day dream what if dellusion from Rommel and his post war acolytes but realistically had little chance of success.

But all the same the Fuehrer’s well-known dislike of giving up any ground prescribed that the El Agheila position was to be held at all costs; and the Duce was a loud-voiced echo of the Fuehrer. It took much effort on Rommel’s part, including hurried visits by air to both Fuehrer and Duce, to get this rigid ruling modified – for hard facts soon dictated another course of action.

As early as 20 November Rommel was advocating most forcibly at Berlin during his face to face meeting with Hitler and Goering (who both critised even verbally abused once valued Desert Fox due tohis retreat from Egypt) that no stand should be made at El Agheila, that there should be a steady withdrawal to an intermediate position on the line Homs – Tarhuna (some 60 miles east of Tripoli), and that thereafter Tripolitania should be evacuated completely, and the main stand made at the Gabes Gap, 120 miles west of the Tunisian frontier. He was always in favour of this last position, even in comparison with the more famous Mareth Line, for it could not be outflanked.

However, the most he could achieve, and this only after a four-day conference at the Fuehrer’s headquarters in East Prussia and after being told initially that every man must be put into the El Agheila line to hold it to the last, was that he was given a free hand to withdraw to the Buerat position only, which again was to be held to the last. The outcome of these discussions was that as early as 2 December Rommel had decided to retire from El Agheila, and had even decided that the first day of withdrawal was to be 5 December, on which day a detached garrison at Marada (75 miles south of El Agheila) was to start moving out.

The Germans’ shortage of petrol was very nearly vital in the true meaning of the word. The shortage was a persistent theme in the German narrative of these weeks, for there is not a day when it is not alluded to in one way or another. The position was ‘very critical’, ‘catastrophic’, ‘at the moment the Afrika Korps has no petrol’, ‘the German motorised formations are now completely immobilised’, ‘supplies brought forward amounted to only about one fifth of the quantity necessary’, ‘extremely critical’, ‘by the evening of 5 December the army would have no petrol at all’ – and so on day after day. Every two or three days there is a reference to sinkings, either by submarine or aircraft, sometimes as many as three vessels in one day. In November for instance, while 4879 tons of petrol reached the Axis forces, 8110 tons were lost. The shortage had its effect on the Luftwaffe also, which often did not have enough petrol to take the air operationally. Small wonder that the Germans make rueful comments on our apparently limitless supplies.

The El Agheila Position

The El Agheila position marked in effect the indeterminate division between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (the two northern subdivisions of Libya), and when occupied by troops could well be a barrier to the passage from the one to the other. Its strength lay in the fact that its eastern, southern, and south-western approaches are covered with salt marshes, soft sand, or exceptionally broken ground unsuitable for manoeuvre, the only clear approach being the narrow strip along the coast road.

The British forces knew it as either the ‘Agheila’ or the ‘El Agheila’ position; but actually the enemy’s line of defences ran from the coast at Marsa Brega to the south and then to the west, and the Germans always referred to it as the ‘Marsa el Brega’ line. The defences round El Agheila itself, some 25 miles behind Marsa Brega, formed a second position to the main line.

Whatever its name, the position was known to be strong. From the coast near Marsa Brega the line ran behind (i.e., south-west of) the salt marsh Sebcha es Seghira as far as Bir es Suera, thence south to Bu Mdeues on Wadi el Faregh (which also was an obstacle), then turned to the west along the wadi to Maaten Giofer, and then south again along the Marada Track to Sidi Tabet, with a detached strongpoint at Marada. Minefields were laid at various points in front of the main defended localities.

Nature and the works of man had combined to make venturesome any direct assault on the position, but both sides knew that it could be outflanked. It was also known that the outflanking force would need to make a long cast to the south before turning west and north, and that careful reconnaissance would be necessary to find a practicable line of advance.

The defences of El Agheila village itself included a chain of minefields at about four kilometres radius, touching the coast on both east and west. Some 17 miles to the west of El Agheila there was an anti-tank ditch protected by minefields, running from the sea to the tip of Sebcha el Chebira, another salt marsh. The narrow gap between sea and marsh, known to the Germans as ‘ El Mugtaa Narrows ‘, made this point a bottleneck.

Cognisance had to be taken in planning of the fact that the defences anywhere near the coast – at Marsa Brega, at El Agheila, and at El Mugtaa Narrows – were strong and therefore it would be advisable to avoid a frontal attack. The more quickly the enemy could be turned out of the position the better, as he would otherwise have time to improve his defences, always assuming that he intended to stay and fight.

Plan of Attack

As long as bulk supplies had to be carried forward almost 400 miles from Tobruk, it was not possible for the Eighth Army to advance farther in strength, and there was a limit to the number of troops who could be maintained facing the El Agheila position and beyond it towards Sirte and Buerat. The bulk supplies available at the ports had to maintain not only the army but also the air force, and by mid-December the air force alone would require 1400 tons of stores a day. The offensive of the air force ranked equal with that of the army; and one of the essentials for any advance was that the air force should be able to operate with maximum capacity from advanced landing grounds. The opening up of Benghazi harbour thus became top priority; but at best it would be of little use until the latter half of December. In the meantime the build-up of supplies was dependent upon the long haul from Tobruk.

Montgomery decided, therefore, that the attack on the El Agheila position must be carried out by not more than three divisions, of which one alone would be armoured, and that it could not take place until mid-December. There was a faint hope that the enemy would not pause at all at El Agheila, and Montgomery wondered if a few manoeuvres on the southern flank might not be enough to cause him to abandon the position. But this was only a passing thought, and he soon decided, in his own words, to ‘annihilate the enemy in his defences’ or ‘get behind the German forces and capture them’.

The general plan was to attack the main position from Marsa Brega to Sidi Tabet with 51 (Highland) and 7th Armoured Divisions, and to send 2nd New Zealand Division, reinforced by 4th Light Armoured Brigade, on an outflanking march to the south, west and north-west with Marble Arch as the objective; but reconnaissance was necessary before this outflanking move could be definitely ordered.

On 30 November a patrol of the King’s Dragoon Guards, under Captain P. D. Chrystal, using three armoured cars and three jeeps, started from El Haseiat and proceeded south of Sebchet Gheizel, thence across the Maaten Giofer – Marada track, and north-westwards to the Marble Arch area, the object being to find out if there was a suitable route for the passage of a large mechanised force.

The reconnaissance party had difficulties that were only to be expected in such broken country, but in the end found a route with going that was always fair, and usually good, for the whole way to the Marble Arch. The only considerable obstacle was a large rift, some eight miles across and with steep or precipitous sides, lying athwart the route. This had to be crossed at right angles at a point about 80 miles from El Haseiat, for there did not appear to be any alternative. The crossing was quite feasible but there would need to be considerable detailed reconnaissance and marking of routes. This obstacle was at once known as Chrystal’s Rift.

The remainder of the route offered no special difficulty. After crossing the Rift it went roughly west until it reached the Marada Track some 25 miles north of Marada (or 30 miles south of Maaten Giofer), thence along the track northwards for some ten miles and then generally north-west to Marble Arch, keeping to the north-eastern edge of Chor Scemmer, which was an impassable marshy ravine. A frontage of several miles could be maintained over most of the route, with the exception of Chrystal’s Rift. There were parts, however, especially west of the Marada Track, where low hills and small steep escarpments would make for difficult night driving.

Chrystal’s reconnaissance was carried out without interference from the enemy, although it seemed certain that it had been seen, as on two occasions enemy aircraft flew overhead, once following the patrol for some miles, and once circling round for twenty minutes.

Preliminary Moves

Having assumed operational responsibility for the forthcoming attack, 30th Corps began in the first days of December to make closer contact with the enemy. The 51st (Highland) Division12 occupied the area opposite Marsa Brega and Bir es Suera, while 7th Armoured Division patrolled south and west. On 2 December 2nd NZ Division passed from the command of 10th Corps to 30th Corps, and preliminary orders were issued for it to move to the Agedabia area. The Division was to leave the Bardia area on 4–5 December, and be fully assembled at El Haseiat, some 35 miles south-east of Agedabia, by 9–10 December. Tracked vehicles would travel on transporters via the main coast road, the remainder of the Division across the desert.

In the morning of 3rd December the GOC briefed his formation commanders and heads of services and discussed plans. The Division’s part was to be an outflanking march with 4th Light Armoured Brigade under command along the route reconnoitred by Captain Chrystal. The chief difficulty would be the supply of petrol in the quantities needed to move the Division, and even at this early stage General Freyberg stressed the necessity for economy in its use. After reviewing the general strategic position – the enemy’s shortages, the lengthening lines of communication of Eighth Army, and so on – he told the conference that Rommel had been ordered to hold the El Agheila position at all costs. He ended with instructions to officers to tell their men about the coming advance, and to say that the final of the rugby competition would be played in Tripoli – for which purpose sports gear was to be taken!

Orders later issued for the move to El Haseiat prescribed the groups and timings:

Formation Departure Arrival at Destination
6 Inf Bde Gp 11.30 a.m., 4 December Not later than 11 a.m., 9 December
HQ and Res Gps 6.30 a.m., 5 December Not later than 4 p.m., 9 December
5 Inf Bde Gp 11.30 a.m., 5 December Not later than 11 a.m., 10 December
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The route was west along the Trigh Capuzzo to El Adem, thence to Bir Hacheim, and along the 7th Armoured Division’s marked route to Msus – Saunnu – Ridotto Terruzzi – El Haseiat.

The 50th Division took over the engineer tasks in the Tobruk – Bardia area so that the sappers could move with the Division, and the detached light anti-aircraft batteries similarly were called in, 41st Battery from Sollum – Halfaya rejoining forthwith and 42nd Battery from Tobruk rejoining en route. General Freyberg had a rooted objection to leaving any part of the Division on detached duties when operations were afoot; and in this case this feeling was augmented by the need for full anti-aircraft protection on a march that might well be taking the Division behind the enemy lines.

Thus, hastily, the pause at Bardia ended and the Division, rested and revived, set out again on its long journey westwards. About El Adem and Sidi Rezegh the survivors of the CRUSADER operations recognised the battlefields of the previous year still littered with wrecks and debris. But morale ran high. There was a feeling that this would not happen again.

The move was uneventful, except that three or four vehicles were damaged on old minefields near Bir Hacheim , and six vehicles a little north of Haseiat. Each group arrived well on time, the Division – less its tracked vehicles – being complete by the evening of 9th December. Petrol consumption was less than had been expected.

The armoured fighting vehicles, including those of Divisional Cavalry, a total of 32 Stuart tanks and 135 carriers, went on transporters of 6 Company, RASC, by the main road through the Gebel Akhdar, and arrived in the El Haseiat area to unload before darkness on 10 December.

13th Corps issued its initial operation order on 4 December for operation GUILLOTINE. Briefly, 51 (H) Division was to attack astride the main road to capture the defended localities in and south-west of Marsa Brega, codename SWEAT; 7th Armoured Division was to attack in the Bir es Suera area, create a gap and then pass through, codename BLOOD; 2nd NZ Division was:

(a) To advance from El Haseiat and establish a firm base on the tracks north of Marada.

(b) To destroy enemy posts north to Giofer inclusive.

(c) To push out patrols towards Marble Arch and Zella.

(d) To contain Marada and take every opportunity to occupy it.

The codename for 2 NZ Division’s tasks was TOIL.

These various tasks were given on the assumption that the enemy would stand his ground at least until a major attack developed.

Dates for the operation were communicated to commanders separately. It was intended that 2nd NZ Division’s advance from El Haseiat – task ( a) – should commence on 14 December, but no firm date was given for the other objectives, the achievement of which depended on the general course of operations.

There is a slight degree of mystery about the Division’s tasks ( c) and ( d), for on 5th December 30th Corps arranged for a party to reconnoitre Marada and Zella. Drawn from King’s Dragoon Guards, one of the regiments of 4th Light Armoured Brigade, the patrol – four armoured cars and three jeeps – went out on 7 December, entered Marada during the night 8–9 December and found it unoccupied, and then went on towards Zella and a little farther to the north-west. This was duly reported to regimental headquarters on 10th December, but possibly owing to the transfer of 4 Light Armoured Brigade from 7 Armoured Division to 2nd NZ Division at this time, does not seem to have fully registered with any superior headquarters. Meanwhile the enemy garrison of Marada had moved out on 6th December as the first stage of the thinning out of the Marsa Brega position.

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In the El Haseiat Area

The GOC held a conference on 9 December in the El Haseiat area. The domestic situation was good and presented no difficulties. The main doubt remaining was over ‘going’, and the CRE (Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson15) was therefore to co-operate with 11 Hussars (an armoured car regiment from 7 Armoured Division) and with Captain L. H. Browne16 of the Long Range Desert Group in selecting a detailed route for the advance, especially at the crossing of Chrystal’s Rift. The GOC then reviewed alternative courses of action for the Division in case the enemy got away before the advance began, although he did not think this would happen.

In the flurry of conferences and discussions that took place from 9 December onwards, it took two or three days to determine the actual dates for the moves of the Division. On 11 December, under
arrangements made with Headquarters 30th Corps – there do not appear to have been any formal orders – the Division moved some 30 or 40 miles to the south of El Haseiat to an area designated as ‘Stage I’. It was then intended that on 14 December it should move across Chrystal’s Rift to ‘Stage II’, on 15–16 December to ‘Stage III’, a point on the Marada Track, and on 16–17 December northwestwards to ‘Stage IV’, some ten miles west of the Marada Track.

On 11 December 30th Corps issued orders for the period beyond Stage IV, when 2nd NZ Division was to seize Marble Arch and Merduma, clear landing grounds at both places, and then reorganise and prepare to move to Nofilia. The first part of this operation – the seizing of Marble Arch and Merduma – was to take place in daylight on the 17th.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade (Brigadier C. B. Harvey, DSO) came under the command of the New Zealand Division on 9 December, but had not then joined the Division, which was still at El Haseiat. At that time the brigade consisted of the following units:

Armoured Cars

King’s Dragoon Guards (KDG)

Royal Dragoons (Royals)


Royal Scots Greys (Greys)


3 Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (3 RHA)

one troop 211 Battery, 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery (211 Med Bty)

one troop 41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery


1 Battalion, King’s Royal Rifle Corps (1 KRRC)


One troop 21 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers

In addition there were various service units such as RASC and RAMC. Armoured brigades had what can only be called a lavish establishment of vehicles. Their large B Echelon – the vehicles not used for fighting – was divided into B1 and B2, and like all units they found it necessary to have their transport near them. The result often was that between the armoured brigade fighting vehicles leading an advance and the next following combatant group – guns or infantry – would come a long tail, either delaying the troops behind or else ‘cluttering up some one else’s area’, as a participant observed, a problem that was never satisfactorily solved.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade had moved forward to ‘Stage I’ on 9 December, and was already in that area when 2 NZ Division arrived two days later. The one exception was the Greys, which remained at El Haseiat. Only a few days previously this regiment had taken over a fresh issue of tanks, which required servicing and calibrating. These included seventeen Shermans, the first that the regiment had ever had. Consequently the Greys were entering a new campaign with a proportion of fighting vehicles of which the crews had had no previous operational experience. The delay at El Haseiat was of greater importance than was realised at the time, and caused certain difficulties later on.

The Greys’ total strength in tanks on 12 December was 36–17 Shermans, 4 Grants, and 15 Stuarts (the last also known as Honeys). This was regarded as inadequate by General Freyberg, and had been the subject of much discussion at Division, Corps and Army Headquarters. Freyberg had made his view clear, that if there was to be any rounding up of the enemy, the outflanking force would need more armour. But for administrative reasons Montgomery decided that he could not allot a much stronger force of tanks to 2nd NZ Division, although he partially met the request by allotting A Squadron, Staffordshire Yeomanry (with nine Shermans) to 4 Light Armoured Brigade. This squadron joined the Greys on 12 December. It was a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, for Staffordshire Yeomanry was part of 7th Armoured Division, which was then so much the weaker.

When reviewing the events of a few days later, it should be remembered that from the outset no one thought that there were enough tanks with the Division. It was doubly unfortunate that some of the tanks available should start off with the handicap of inexperienced crews and that last-minute training should cause delay.

Between 9 and 12 December the CRE and his party, including detachments from 6 Field Company with bulldozers, prepared a crossing over Chrystal’s Rift. At frequent intervals in this depression were rocky island mounds impassable to vehicles, and between them the sand often was soft, almost as fine as flour and also impassable. The route selected therefore wound about a great deal, adding to the length of the crossing. It required some work with explosives in addition to bulldozing, but was sufficiently good for transport to cross on a three-vehicle front at six miles in the hour.

Desert warfare had something in common with naval warfare because of the extensive area of featureless ground and the ease of movement in all directions. As a result it often was necessary to navigate by nautical methods, that is by celestial observations.

The Long Range Desert Group was expert in this for its raids, reconnaissances and approach marches to lying-up grounds behind the enemy lines were often across hundreds of miles of unmapped and almost featureless desert. The GOC decided to ask that Captain Browne, a New Zealand LRDG officer skilled in desert navigation, should be made available as navigator for the forthcoming march, and on 12 December part of R1 (New Zealand) Patrol of the LRDG, two officers and 18 men under Browne, joined the Division. The patrol, however, was still operating under orders of Eighth Army, and was given several other tasks, including reconnaissance in the Buerat area, a long way ahead at the time, as well as that of navigating for the New Zealand Division.

During this time the Division was steadily accumulating supplies for the move. The NZASC issued enough petrol for 300 miles in unit vehicles, and held enough for another 100 miles in ASC vehicles. Filling unit transport to this scale meant the issue of 180,000 gallons. Rations and water for six days were held in unit vehicles, and rations for another three days and water for another four days in the ASC vehicles.

There was thus great activity, both mental and physical: planning by commanders and staff, discussions of details with subordinates, issues of all kinds of supplies, maintenance and overhaul of vehicles and weapons, movement of supply vehicles back and forth over the desert – all combined with a degree of exhilaration that came from the knowledge that the next move was something new over new country, with the intention of driving the enemy farther back than ever before.

On 9 December the first signs were noticed that the enemy was beginning to thin out. On three successive nights (9–10, 10–11 and 11–12 December) patrols from 51st Highland Division advanced some 4000 yards from their forward localities and penetrated the enemy’s forward positions without meeting other than slight opposition. Air reconnaissance on 10 December showed a clear movement rearwards of transport, and the signs of a general withdrawal were becoming steadily clearer.

The Enemy in early December

Rommel expected an attack as early as 27 November, in the belief that Montgomery might try to ‘crash’ the El Agheila position. Such an attack held no fears for him; but he realised that as time went on Eighth Army would progressively become stronger, and by the middle of December might be able to attack with two armoured and four infantry divisions, thus greatly outnumbering him. He does not seem to have appreciated the restrictions of administration on the number of troops in the forward area.

In early December, before any thinning out had started, the enemy troops in the ‘Marsa el Brega’ position were:


Africa Corps – 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions

90 Light Division

Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment

German Air Force Battle Group (known to us, not entirely accurately, as the Ramcke Group)

Army and anti-aircraft artillery


21st Italian Corps, comprising remnants of Pistoia, Spezia, and Young Fascist divisions

Ariete Battle Group

By 9th December, when 2nd NZ Division was concentrating at El Haseiat, the whole of 21st Corps had been withdrawn and was on its way back to the Buerat position. About the same time the German 164th Light Division, which had been refitting in Tripoli, came forward again as far as Buerat, where it was put in charge of the defence construction work to be done there.

The enemy had identified 7th Armoured and 51st Highland Divisions, but not specifically 2nd NZ Division, although on 25 November he had reported it as already moving forward – nine or ten days before it left Bardia. But he knew that there were other formations in the forward area. He even mistakenly identified 9 thAustralian Division (that division was ordered to be shipped to South West Pacific next month), and on another occasion thought that there were four divisions ready to attack. By 10 December Rommel was sure that the attack would include a ‘wide encircling movement’ round the southern flank; and partly as a counter to this, he slowed down the move of the Italian units towards Buerat and held them for a few days at Nofilia, as he did not want British troops to arrive there and find it undefended. In a report to Superlibia and to Kesselring on 10 December Rommel said, ‘unless the army’s petrol situation is improved at the earliest possible moment, the danger cannot be avoided of the Panzer Army being hopelessly stranded between Marsa el Brega and Buerat, and then. …being sacrificed to the Eighth Army.’

The El Agheila position was manned from north to south on 11 December by 90th Light Division (including a group from the German Air Force Brigade), the Africa Corps ( 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions), and the Ariete Group, the limits being from Marsa Brega via Bir es Suera and Maaten Belcleibat to Maaten Giofer. In reserve were Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment, and certain detached portions of the Africa Corps. Afrikakorps was reinforced with extra 35 tanks recently arrived to Tripoli though. The 15th Panzer Division had 27 tanks, 21st Panzer Division 26, and Ariete 57, the last all Italian. All units were motorised; but there was petrol for only 20 or 30 miles.

It is impossible to ascertain the correct strengths of enemy units but it seems probable that the Germans had altogether about 14,000 men in the area. Ariete Group cannot have numbered more than two or three thousand. One can safely conclude that 30th Corps was very much stronger than the total enemy troops it was likely to meet.


Chapter 3: Left Hook at El Agheila

BY the morning of 12 December Montgomery had come to the conclusion that the offensive against the El Agheila position must start at once if the enemy was not to escape altogether. At 11 a.m. that day 2nd NZ Division learnt that all timings were advanced by forty-eight hours, and that it therefore would have to cross the Marada Track (the move to Stage IV) during the night 14–15 December instead of 16–17 December.

This was not surprising, for in common with other commanders General Freyberg had been aware that the enemy was on the move. But while saying that he would make every effort to comply, he had to point out that neither the administrative preparations nor the attachment of units to groups was yet complete, and that there was no spare time to overcome unexpected obstacles.

Needless to say, 12 December was a busy day with the Division. Luckily replenishment with petrol was complete for the first-line vehicles; and those second-line vehicles which still had to fill up would be able to catch up the next day. But there was scant time for all the myriad things that must be done before a long move, and there was considerable bustle. However, the Division was by this time fully battle-worthy and had reserves of knowledge and resource that helped to meet emergencies such as this.

Orders were issued for groups to move as then constituted (i.e., normal groupings) to an area south-west of Chrystal’s Rift – Stage II. In fact, th4 Light Armoured Brigade and 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group set off the same afternoon (12 December), travelling some 30 miles to a point about 25 miles short of the Rift. The rest of the Division was to follow early on the 13th.

But unfortunately the Greys’ tank crews were still engaged on maintenance and training problems near El Haseiat, and were not ready to leave with their brigade, which thus had to set off without its strongest component.

Eighth Army’s activities on this day convinced Rommel that the offensive had at last begun; and in accordance with what he calls the Duce’s instructions, but which was in fact his own wish not to accept a decisive engagement in the Marsa Brega position, he issued the codeword which meant that a withdrawal was to commence, but only as far as the area El Agheila village – El Mugtaa Narrows. For the moment the Italian 21stCorps remained at Nofilia.

Across the Rift

Rain fell on 12 and 13 December and laid the dust that might otherwise have betrayed the columns of 2nd NZ Division, and low cloud also contributed to the secrecy of the move. In the daytime the temperatures were fresh to cold, and the nights could be quite cold, with even a touch of frost; all in all the desert was a healthy and pleasant place during the winter months.

The Division moved to Chrystal’s Rift in desert formation, but while crossing the Rift had to reduce to a narrow front of three vehicles. At one stage the GOC was not satisfied with the progress being made and ‘sent people forward and hustled everyone through’.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, followed by 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group, led the advance; but by mid-morning Divisional Cavalry caught up and later went into the lead. By the end of the day these leading elements had reached an area some ten to 15 miles beyond the Rift, 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group having travelled about 56 miles. Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group travelled about 80 miles and reached an area just behind the leading formations. Fifth New Zealand Infantry Brigade Group halted almost as soon as it had crossed the Rift, but by that time had been travelling for over eight hours.

The divisional operation order for the move, unusually late because of the speeding up of the programme, was issued at 6.15 p.m. on 13 December. It merely confirmed and assembled in one place the results of a series of orders and instructions, both verbal and written, that had been issued during the previous days. The tasks of the Division were defined:

(a) To block the Marada Track south of Sidi Tabet.

(b) To occupy high ground west of the salt marsh area in order to prevent the enemy withdrawing from the El Agheila position.

This high ground (called Dor Lanuf) was at the north-western tip of Sebcha el Chebira, about halfway between the anti-tank ditch at the El Mugtaa Narrows and Marble Arch. It overlooked the coast road (called Via Balbia by the enemy, its correct Italian name) where it emerged from the Narrows, and was an ideal place to block the enemy.

The Division was to move on 14 December to Stage III, just short of the Marada Track, and was to continue during that night along a lighted route to Stage IV, another 25 miles to the northwest. On the 15th it was to reach the final objective, which was given the codename PLUM. The route in the last stage would be along the south-west side of Sebcha el Chebira and between the Sebcha and Chor Scemmer.

The move to Stage III was to be in normal groupings, but on arrival there a flank guard would be formed as follows under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell of 7th Anti-Tank Regiment:

one squadron Royals (armoured cars) A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry (Sherman tanks) one battery 4th NZ Field Regiment one battery 7th NZ Anti-Tank Regiment one section 6th NZ Field Company one infantry company to be detailed by 5th NZ Brigade one company 27 (MG) Battalion. light section field ambulance second-line and B Echelon transport of the above

The Division was to form up at Stage III in the order of march: the armoured cars of 4th Light Armoured Brigade well out in front (Divisional Cavalry was to fall back into Reserve Group), followed by the Flank Guard, and then the remainder of 4th Light Armoured Brigade, 6th NZ Brigade Group, Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group, 5th Brigade Group, second-line transport of 4th Light Armoured Brigade, and Administrative Group.

When the advance was under way during the night of 14–15 December, the Flank Guard was to move off at the appropriate moment to a position astride the Marada Track on high ground just south of Sidi Tabet, ‘to prevent the enemy breaking out from the El Agheila position’; it was ordered to hold the position at all costs. Such instructions seem ambitious for a force based on one tank squadron and one infantry company. But the truth was that the GOC’s forces were really not large enough for the various duties that might fall to them, especially when one of these duties might be to resist the full strength of the Axis forces in the area.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to report at the earliest opportunity on 15 December on an intermediate objective, APPLE, 15 miles short of PLUM, and then on PLUM itself; and when 6 Brigade had occupied PLUM, 4th Light Armored Brigade was to provide flank protection to the west for the Division. In addition to occupying PLUM, 6th NZ Brigade was to assist, with the advice of the RAF liaison officer travelling with the Division, in clearing grounds at Marble Arch and around Bir el Merduma.

Strict wireless silence was to be observed within the Division until contact was made with the enemy, or until 9 a.m. on 15 December, whichever came first.

When General Freyberg conferred with his formation commanders in the evening of 13 December, the Division had reached the most southerly point of its move, and had met only the problems of an ordinary desert march. From now on they would be heading towards the enemy and the prospect of active operations. The GOC, therefore, after discussing timings and details of the next moves, arranged for Divisional Cavalry with its Stuart tanks to join 4th Light Armoured Brigade if the Greys had not caught up. At that moment the Greys had in fact only just crossed Chrystal’s Rift.

The frontal attack on the Marsa Brega position by 51st (Highland) and 7th Armoured Divisions was much impeded by mines, in the use of which the enemy had been prodigal – a foretaste of the difficulties to be faced throughout the campaign. The enemy had succeeded in slipping away unnoticed during the night of 12–13 December, and next morning the Highland Division carried out intensive shelling against positions that had been vacated. By evening this division was in occupation of Marsa Brega, and 7th Armoured Division had patrolled through Giofer towards El Agheila without making contact with the enemy. By nightfall British troops were in the vicinity of Sidi Hmuda on the Via Balbia. The air forces had had a good day against transport on the road.

At that stage 90th Light Division was a few miles east of El Agheila itself, and Ariete Battle Group some ten miles to the south. Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 580 Reconnaissance Unit, the latter from 21st Panzer Division, were about ten miles farther back, still east of the Narrows. The bulk of Africa Corps was in defensive positions in the Narrows, to the east of 2nd NZ Division’s objective PLUM. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit (from 15th Panzer Division), with a few Italians, was away to the west of Marble Arch. A battle group made up of vehicles from the Army Headquarters Protective Unit was some 15 miles south of Marble Arch.

In the enemy’s appreciation for this day there is no mention of the outflanking march of 2nd NZ Division, probably because bad weather stopped any German long-range reconnaissance. Thus while Rommel was always conscious of the chance of a flank attack, he did not so far appreciate this danger; moreover, he had been thinking of a flank attack of lesser range. However, he still retained some Italian troops round Nofilia, despite urgings from Superlibia to get them back to Buerat.

The enemy situation was known fairly accurately to 30th Corps; as early as 11.30 a.m. a message was sent to 2nd NZ Division giving up-to-date information, which radically changed the situation. For some reason which cannot be elucidated, this message was not received at Divisional Headquarters until 8 p.m. It read: ‘Enemy now evacuated Marada and will be around Zella. Send patrols Zella simulate this deception [sic] while your forward move continues maximum speed. Marsa Brega evacuated. Suera still held. Enemy transport streaming west through El Agheila and north from Giofer. All RAF on this. 15 Panzer Division now 40 miles west Agheila. Good luck and good hunting.’

A 30 Corps intelligence report on the same lines, sent at 11.30 a.m., was not received until 8.35 p.m. About 9 p.m. further situation reports received at Divisional Headquarters showed, among other things, that 8 Armoured Brigade of 7th Armoured Division was approaching the Marada Track in the direction of Maaten Giofer.

The message from 30th Corps reads rather breathlessly. While the main instruction – to push on fast – was of the first importance and was to be carried out, no action seems to have been taken about sending the patrols to Zella. It will be remembered that a party from the King’s Dragoon Guards had set off to Marada and Zella on 7 December, occupied the former on the 9th and reported this to its regimental headquarters. Information on 13 December that Marada was empty therefore appears to be belated. This KDG patrol rejoined its regiment that very evening, having incurred casualties to men and vehicles by running on to an enemy minefield some 20 miles short of Zella. Presumably the GOC thought this information sufficient. In the end Zella was occupied by the LRDG on 20 December; it must have been evacuated by the enemy some days earlier.

The instructions to other formations in 30th Corps on 14 December were that 7th Armoured Division was to clear the road around El Agheila and patrol southwards so as to make contact with 2nd NZ Division at Sidi Tabet, and 51 ( H) Division was to pass through 7th Armoured Division and advance to the anti-tank ditch at the Narrows.

The moves prescribed for 7th Armoured Division made it unnecessary for 2nd NZ Division to go on with the proposed flank guard, and the GOC cancelled this at once, before the guard had even assembled. It then became an urgent matter to decide just how soon the Division could resume the advance, and how fast it could move once it started. The GSO I (Colonel R. C. Queree) advised the GOC that to be properly organised for the next stage, the Division would have to remain where it was until daylight. Moreover, at some time on 14 December there would have to be a pause to replenish with petrol, for undoubtedly there had been a miscalculation of the mileage per gallon to be expected from heavily-laden vehicles in rough going. Normally vehicles might have been able to last out until 15 December. The upshot of these factors was, first, that there could be no question of a night march, and secondly, that it would not be possible to go right through to the coast road on 14 December.

In conversations with his brigadiers over the telephone, however, the GOC still conveyed the hope that there might be some movement during the night, and suggested to 4th Light Armoured Brigade that it might move by moonlight – the moon was already well up – perhaps even as far as Stage III. But it then transpired that the Shermans of the Greys were still in 5th NZ Brigade’s area, a long way behind their own brigade. The most that could be hoped for was that everyone would get off at first light, which would be about 7 a.m.

Thus it transpired that by 9 p.m. on 13 December the course of events had made the Division’s plan, issued only a few hours before, already in need of amendment.

Pushing on – 14 December

Before setting off in the morning of 14 December the Division was replenished with two days’ rations and water from a dump built on the western side of Chrystal’s Rift on the 13th by an RASC third-line convoy. It was then decided that there should be an issue of petrol for 100 miles’ travel at 2.30 p.m. at a point at Stage III just east of the Marada Track; and instructions were issued accordingly.

It was now intended that 4th Light Armoured Brigade, still without the Greys, but strengthened by Divisional Cavalry, should get away as soon as possible; and that the rest of the Division, with 6 Brigade

Group leading, should leave early, travel all day, halt in the evening for a meal, and then continue all night. If all went well the Division should cover 100 miles in the twenty-four hours following daybreak on 14 December, and should be approaching the road at PLUM. But the actual objective had now become fluid, as it appeared likely that the enemy would have passed PLUM before the Division reached it. The GOC was still hopeful of getting into position in advance of the retreating enemy, and then carrying out a local ‘left hook’ and cutting off his rearguard at least. The line of advance of the Division was thus to be moved more to the west; and in effect 4th Light Armoured Brigade now had a task of seeking out the enemy. As the enemy was retreating from El Agheila, the GOC decided to dispense with any rearguard, so leaving Administrative Group last in a divisional column that was by now stretching out more and more.

No part of the Division moved before 7 a.m. on the 14th, mainly because of thick fog. Although the broken country made it difficult for groups to maintain desert formation, Stage III was reached in good order.

There was no sign of Petrol Company’s vehicles at 2 p.m., and indeed the first platoon did not arrive at the Stage III petrol point until 5 p.m., by which time the leading formations of the Division had been waiting four hours. The explanation was that by early afternoon Petrol Company was anything up to 60 miles from the head of the divisional column, and did not receive instructions about the issue until 3 p.m., half an hour after the time set down for the issue at a point some hours’ travel away. Within half an hour of arrival at Stage III the first platoon issued the whole of its 27,800 gallons; but another 20,000 gallons was still wanted, so that the arrival of the next platoon was keenly awaited. But darkness fell, and the second platoon passed right through the delivery area unnoticed; so that it was not until a third platoon reached the petrol point that all demands were satisfied, by which time it was 11 p.m.

In the meantime the Greys, which it will be remembered was the main tank force with the Division, had been stranded without fuel; and as its own second-line transport was many miles behind, General Freyberg instructed Petrol Company to issue high octane petrol4 to the regiment. A figure of 5000 gallons was mentioned, but after drawing 1500 gallons the regiment went on, as it was becoming increasingly desirable that it should catch up with its brigade. Later in the day Petrol Company made an issue to the King’s Royal Rifle Corps battalion, which had also run short of petrol.

Luckily Divisional Cavalry had been able to replenish with high octane petrol the previous afternoon and was not delayed in joining 4th Light Armoured Brigade.

While the leading elements of the Division were waiting at Stage III for petrol, the rear groups were gradually closing up. When the GOC held a conference at 1 p.m. to examine the situation, it was decided to halt until 4 p.m., move for two hours (leaving petrol-carrying vehicles behind to refill), have a meal, and then close into night formation and travel by moonlight until 11 p.m. The advance was to be resumed at first light on 15 December. At the conference the objective was still given as PLUM; but later in the afternoon the General went forward and instructed 4th Light Armoured Brigade to change the thrust line to one trending farther west and leading to Bir el Merduma.

It was fully appreciated at this conference that if the Division did cut off the enemy, his armour would make a fight of it; and the Greys were still well behind. The leading formation, therefore, had no heavy tanks with it, and when the Greys did catch up, they might have little time to prepare for battle.

The advance was duly resumed from Stage III at 4 p.m. in the same order of march as earlier in the day. A halt for an hour for a meal was made at 5.30 p.m., and the advance then continued until 11.30 p.m. along a lighted route, the Provost Company working well ahead to erect its lights. The total advance for the day (14 December) was almost 90 miles, so that in effect the confusion over the petrol issue had not in the end caused any real disruption and any time lost at Stage III had been made up.

The troops went to bed for the remainder of the night. At this point 4th Light Armoured Brigade was well ahead, on the northern side of Chor Scemmer and some 12 miles west of APPLE, while the head of the New Zealand column was a little short of this bound. Incidentally the original ‘Stage IV’ had been disregarded, and in fact had been passed during the evening march.

Administrative Group was some 40 miles back and having trouble with the going. During the night its vehicles closed in until they were side-by-side and nose-to-tail, at which point a vehicle loaded with petrol caught fire and could be seen for miles. Luckily there were no enemy aircraft about.

The GOC broke wireless silence at 9.50 p.m. to answer a query from 30th Corps about locations. He added that he hoped to reach Bir el Merduma by 11 a.m. on the 15th. There was probably no object in keeping wireless silence any longer, for twice during the afternoon a German reconnaissance plane had flown low over the leading elements of 4th Light Armoured Brigade and undoubtedly had seen them.

A further message from 30th Corps that evening directed that A Squadron, Staffordshire Yeomanry, was to revert to the command of 7th Armoured Division. This was surprising and a reply was sent to the effect that the squadron was committed and its release not practicable.

Meanwhile the advance of 51st (Highland) and 7th Armoured Divisions had continued slowly owing to the large number of carefully laid mines and booby traps. In the evening 8th Armoured Brigade had a sharp engagement ten miles south of El Agheila and claimed to have accounted for nine M13 (Italian) tanks. Its opponent was Ariete Group, whose stout resistance was praised in the German narrative, an uncommon occurrence. By last light the general line of the foremost British posts was still some five to ten miles short of El Agheila village; and the main road had been cleared of mines only about halfway between Marsa Brega and El Agheila. The Desert Air Force was active as usual, and enemy opposition was slight; but visibility was bad.

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Enemy Reaction

The enemy troops made no special moves until the afternoon of the 14th, but continued to resist the British advance along and immediately south of the Via Balbia, and were much heartened by the fight put up by Ariete Group. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit patrolled south and south-east from Merduma, but by evening had found nothing. The petrol position, especially for Africa Corps, was bad: units had barely enough to cover the next stage of withdrawal. The ammunition position was also poor, artillery having only a third of its normal issue.

Then, about 4 p.m., a change came over the situation when air reconnaissance revealed the presence of a strong enemy force including tanks (‘probably an armoured division’) advancing west and north-west at a point south of Giofer. In other words the move of 2nd NZ Division from Stage III was discovered, although its identity was not known. The enemy expected that this move would be continued during the night with the object of penetrating through Merduma towards Nofilia – a remarkably accurate forecast. The discovery brought immediate action, for at 4.15 p.m. the codeword was issued for all troops to withdraw at once clear of the El Mugtaa Narrows, and for 33rs Reconnaissance Unit to advance south-east towards Bir Scemmer. Rommel considered that if 15 and 21st Panzer Divisions had had enough petrol, there would have been a good chance of a successful counter-attack against the out-flanking force; but such a move was out of the question.

Into the Blue – 15 December

Before the Division moved off on 15 December Freyberg informed 30th Corps that he was altering the divisional axis to run through Bir Scemmer to Bir el Merduma, with the intention of then turning towards the coast road and occupying the high ground west of Marble Arch. He estimated that his forward elements would reach the objective by 11 a.m. if there was no opposition. The message then went on to say that the Division held no maps ‘west of A.00 easting grid’, which meant no maps covering Nofilia and beyond – a surprising revelation, for Nofilia had been prescribed as an objective for the Division as early as 11 December. Whether the deficiency was due to slowness by the Division in asking for maps, or by Corps or Army Headquarters in delivering them, is not known. They were duly dropped by aircraft in the afternoon of 16 December. The message ended by asking that the coast road should be bombed along a stretch running from Marble Arch for some six miles to the south-east.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, again leading, moved off at daybreak with the armoured car regiments in front. By this time the Greys, still augmented by A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, had rejoined; and their services were important now that contact with the enemy was imminent. Unfortunately they were still low in petrol and had to refuel before they could move. This took till mid-morning, and 6 Infantry Brigade Group, which the tanks were to precede tactically, had to mark time until the refuelling was complete. As it turned out, it was a most unfortunate delay. But it is necessary only to quote the Greys’ war diary to discover the reason: ‘regiment had covered 240 miles since leaving El Haseiat on 12 December. Pace and going had played havoc with the tanks which were getting worn out.’

During the morning 4th Light Armoured Brigade was joined by the GOC’s Tactical Headquarters, which moved with it until evening, a usual practice of General Freyberg ‘s when any fighting was likely. Wireless silence was lifted throughout the Division at 8 a.m.; but the GOC still hoped to retain some degree of secrecy, for as he went forward to join 4th Light Armoured Brigade he put under arrest men who had lit fires to cook breakfast. However, the number arrested became so great that he had to declare a general amnesty.

wadi Matarin

Wadi Matarin

With the probability that friendly forces might soon come near the main road, Air Support Control Headquarters asked the Division at 9.30 a.m. to nominate a bombline for the Desert Air Force. This request was passed to 4th Light Armoured Brigade, which was to reply direct on its tentacle. The brigade asked that there should be no bombing south of an east-west line through Marble Arch and Bir el Merduma or east and west of a line running north and south through Saniet Matratin. This curious and complicated prescription meant that there could be no bombing of the coast road anywhere south-east of Saniet Matratin, which meant in turn that there could be no bombing of Marble Arch or of the area immediately south-east and was in conflict with the GOC’s request made some two hours earlier for bombing of the coast road. The issue was further confused when 6 Infantry Brigade (which intercepted the message) joined in with a request for an area of some thirty-six square miles where the Group was located to be excluded from bombing – an area which was already covered by 4th Light Armoured Brigade’s request. It appears to have been sent to ensure that the 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group was not itself bombed.

The result of all this at Eighth Army Headquarters was a flare-up between the army and air staffs, partly because the hands of the air force were being tied over bombing the coast road, and partly because the air staff said – with some justice – that the army did not know what it really wanted. There was definite room for an improvement in the technique of calling for air support, and there is evidence to show that the lesson was taken to heart by all concerned.

As 4th Light Armoured Brigade went forward it reported from time to time in the best manner of a scouting force. It soon became evident that the enemy had forestalled the Division on objective PLUM – 15th Panzer Division was in fact already there – and the light armoured brigade was not equipped to drive him off, for at the time, about midday, the Greys’ tanks were still in the rear of the brigade. So it veered off to the west and by mid-afternoon reached the vicinity of Merduma, with its leading armoured car regiment (Royals) on the right in sight of the road at Bir el Haddadia.

Divisional Cavalry, west of the Royals, also approached the road just west of Bir el Haddadia about 4 p.m., and was met there by fire, reported as coming from dug-in tanks and guns; but it appears unlikely that tanks were in this area, for the enemy troops came from either Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment or one of the reconnaissance units. A battery from the RHA attached to Divisional Cavalry opened fire, scattered transport moving along the road and knocked out a gun. As no contact had been made by nightfall with 6th NZ Infantry Brigade, which had been expected to strike the road in the vicinity, Divisional Cavalry laagered where it was for the night of 15–16 December, and in the outcome was isolated from the rest of the Division.

The bulk of 4th Light Armoured Brigade laagered for the night some four to six miles north-west of Bir el Merduma, and here at last was joined by the Greys. General Freyberg during the evening sent a personal message to the commander 7th Armoured Division apologising for not sending back A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, and saying it would rejoin next day (16 December), which it did.

By the evening of 15 December the Sherman tanks of the Greys and A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, were down to 17. They had started out with 26.

6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group reached the Bir el Merduma area in the afternoon, but passed to the south of the Bir itself, and in fact – although this was not then realised – went on to cross Wadi er Rigel, followed by Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group. This completed a journey of about 50 miles for the day. Without doubt the whole column missed Bir el Merduma by some miles; for there is sufficient detail from German documents to clarify the point. During the day the enemy posted flank guards parallel to the main road and five to ten miles south of it. First 15th Panzer Division was sent to ‘Point 123’ (the objective PLUM) and stayed there until in the late afternoon it was directed on Bir el Merduma – a move some 18 miles farther west – as the first stage of a withdrawal to Nofilia. In the early afternoon a battle group from 21st Panzer Division, including tanks, was sent to Merduma pending the arrival of 15th Panzer Division. Both these forces reported columns of troops advancing north-west at some distance to the south of them. One report at 4.20 p.m. said that enemy troops were ten kilometres south of Merduma, and there are other reports to much the same effect.

It has been seen that 4th Light Armoured Brigade was trending to the west. 6th NZ Infantry Brigade followed, and during the day must have borne off farther to the west, no doubt in the process of selecting good going. There was nothing especially distinctive about Bir el Merduma, for the landing ground was some few miles to the north-east; and although a number of tracks converged at the point, the desert at this time was criss-crossed by tracks, all looking much the same in their vagueness. In addition there was no special tactical virtue in Bir el Merduma, except for the landing ground. It had been chosen merely because it was a feature that appeared on the map, and so might be easily identifiable, and was suitably placed as a point from which to turn north and advance to the road, where it was hoped that part at least of the enemy would be cut off. But the Division’s movements had now assumed a course parallel to the retreating enemy, reducing any hope of interception.

It was fortunate, as it turned out, that the Division did not go to Merduma, for it was subsequently discovered to be heavily mined.

Shortly after halting in the new area Brigadier Gentry, uneasy about locations, visited General Freyberg at his Tactical Headquarters, and was assured that they were at Bir el Merduma. The GOC’s opinion probably was based upon what he believed had been navigation by the LRDG patrol. But the patrol had not been doing the navigation on 15 December; the column had merely followed its nose. When, after dark, Captain Browne took star observations, it was soon discovered that Tactical Headquarters was four miles west of Wadi er Rigel and eight miles west from Bir el Merduma.

During this visit Brigadier Gentry was instructed to move northwards and cut the road. By this time, 5 p.m., it was getting dusk. The brigade began to move, Orders Group 6 leading, and still in desert formation. It was not found possible to arrange for a promised squadron of tanks to be detached from the Greys during the hours of darkness.

During the day (15 December) 51st (Highland) Division, on the coast road, was again greatly impeded by mines. By evening the leading troops had only reached El Agheila. To the south 8th Armoured Brigade crossed the Giofer road south-west of El Agheila, but here was hindered by bad going. Finally, at the antitank ditch in the El Mugtaa Narrows, it discovered the rearguard of 21st Panzer Division. The Desert Air Force had a good day against concentrated Axis transport , destroying several German and Italian vehicles by bombing and strafing to the west and south of Marble Arch, but the doubt over bomblines hampered greater efforts.

During the night of 14–15 December nearly all enemy troops withdrew behind a rearguard formed by 21st Panzer Division, leaving only light forces to oppose the advancing British troops. About midday on 15 December 21st Panzer was behind the Narrows, 90th German Light Division was passing through en route to a new rearguard position west of Wadi Matratin, Ariete Battle Group was on its way back to Nofilia, 33rd Reconnaissance Unit was in touch with the foremost troops of 4th Light Armoured Brigade, Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 580 Reconnaissance Unit were on their way to take up positions on the high ground flanking the road between Marble Arch and Matratin, and 1th5 Panzer Division was on the high ground south-east of Marble Arch (the objective PLUM).

Rommel was fully aware of the danger to be expected from the outflanking move, and had already instructed Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 580 Reconnaissance Unit that they must keep the road open for the withdrawal of Africa Corps. During the afternoon 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, farther south, withdrew gradually before the advance of 2nd NZ Division; and finally Headquarters Africa Corps asked Army Headquarters for permission to withdraw 21st Panzer Division. This application was at first refused ‘on the ground that the petrol situation at the moment would not allow all formations to withdraw to the next position at Nofilia ‘. The operative word here was ‘moment’, for literally the parts of the army were living from hour to hour.

However, as we have seen, a group from 21st Panzer Division and the whole of 15th Panzer were in the end sent to the Merduma area to relieve the strain on 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, which at the time was the only unit in contact with the outflanking force.

Ultimately the danger to the 21st Panzer Division rearguard made it necessary to sanction its withdrawal, initially as far as Marble Arch, and about 10 p.m. to Nofilia. The German narrative says ‘the enemy situation made it impossible to hold the present area on 16 December. Army therefore decided to break contact with the enemy on the night 15–16 December and to withdraw to the Nofilia area. The petrol brought forward during the day was just enough for this limited move.’

Africa Corps was to withdraw to Nofilia forthwith, 21st Panzer along the coast road, 15th Panzer along the inland track Merduma – Nofilia, each division in co-operation with its detached reconnaissance unit; Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment was to disengage separately and go back to Nofilia; 90th German Light Division was to stay as rearguard in a position west of Wadi Matratin. All these moves commenced at nightfall.

But at 8 p.m. 33rd Reconnaissance Unit reported that a strong enemy force, including fifty tanks, had broken through its positions west of Merduma and was advancing on Nofilia. Such was the effect, seen from the enemy side, of the advance of 4th Light Armoured Brigade and 6th NZ Infantry Brigade, with the tanks of the Greys and Divisional Cavalry. The result was to speed up the enemy movements, and to some degree to induce a sauve-qui-peut, in that 33rd Reconnaissance Unit was told to withdraw at once by itself to a point west of Nofilia; and Africa Corps and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment were told to withdraw without further delay. Nevertheless 21st Panzer Division had to wait until 1 a.m. on the 16th before it had enough petrol, and 15th Panzer Division was in an even worse plight.

6 Brigade Advances

6th NZ Brigade Group advanced northwards about 5 p.m., with instructions to block the coast road. When the light began to fail the brigade halted to close up into night formation, while six carriers were sent out on a bearing of 45 degrees to reconnoitre to the road; they had to refuel, so did not get away until 7.15 p.m. Wireless communication with them failed after they had gone about two miles, and Brigade Headquarters lost touch with them. Meanwhile the brigade moved on; the country became more and more difficult to traverse, for it now included a number of small wadis with soft bottoms. Visibility was poor as there was only a half-moon often obscured by clouds.

The carriers actually reached the road close to Wadi Matratin and heard vehicles passing along it. They came back along what they thought was the brigade axis, and in the dark missed the brigade column, which probably had deviated a little from its first course.

The brigade was by this time tangled up in the network of wadis that finally merge into Wadi Matratin. It had been estimated that the road was only four miles away from the point at which the carriers had been detached; but when the brigade had advanced that distance there was still no sign of the road, so a second carrier patrol was sent forward with a special wireless set and instructions to report at the end of each mile. Because of the earlier error in navigation, the brigade, when it turned to the north, was something like ten miles from the road.

At the end of another three miles’ advance the second patrol reported that the road appeared to be about a mile ahead, judging by the sound of traffic, and that a wadi immediately in front of the brigade was impassable to vehicles in the dark. Brigadier Gentry then went forward to reconnoitre, accompanied by the three battalion commanders and the officers commanding 6th Field Regiment and 8th Field Company. They went a little farther than the carrier patrol had gone previously and ran into an enemy post on a ridge. The leading carrier in which the brigade commander was travelling was knocked out by an anti-tank gun at very close range, but he escaped unharmed although the driver was reported killed. Major Reid ,7th of 8 Field Company, was hit in the arm and was evacuated after some difficulty to the advanced dressing station.

The Brigadier got clear and then reported to the GOC by radio that the brigade was in contact with the enemy and about a mile and a half or less from the road. He was given discretion whether or not to attack, and decided to do so. The time was about 11.30 p.m. but the ridge in front was faintly discernible. In the circumstances it was not the place for any elaborate plan. The 24th Battalion (Major Webb) was ordered to attack silently on the left on a bearing of 45 degrees, and 25th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant) on the right on a bearing of 94 degrees. They were to capture the enemy position on the ridge, dig in, and get their anti-tank guns sited before dawn. Each battalion was given a troop of anti-tank guns from 33rd Battery, and a platoon of machine guns from 2nd MG Company. The 8th Field Company was to block the main road and its verges with mines. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine10) was in reserve.

The attack began at 12.30 a.m. on 16 December, each battalion having two companies forward and two in reserve. The 25th advanced 2000 yards, made no contact with the enemy and took up a position which it thought overlooked the road. So far the battalion had had only one casualty, from shellfire. The 24th, on the left, encountered some sporadic shelling, and then, having advanced about 1000 yards and reached the first crest of the ridge, was resisted by a force estimated to be of about three companies. The battalion pressed its attack and the enemy withdrew by transport in some disorder. The battalion had seven casualties, including the CO, who was wounded by mortar fire and evacuated to the advanced dressing station. Major J. Conolly took command. Later in the day, while in an ambulance car on the way back from the advanced to the main dressing station, both Major Reid and Major Webb were captured by the enemy. Major Reid was subsequently found in hospital in Tripoli.

By 2.15 a.m. 24th Battalion was on its objective, but there was a gap between the two units. The location of the battalions was believed to be about Bir el Haddadia, facing north-east, and at 7.30 a.m. this was reported to Divisional Headquarters, which seems to show that there was still some doubt about the point where the turn to the road had been made. Had the turn been round Bir el Merduma, the road would certainly have been struck near Bir el Haddadia; but in fact the battalions were in the vicinity of Saniet Matratin, and were still anything up to two miles short of the road.

Subsequently there was some argument over the ‘mistake in navigation’; but provided the road was cut before the main enemy forces passed along it, the place where it was cut did not much matter. Saniet Matratin was just as good as Bir el Haddadia. From Bir el Merduma to the road at Bir el Haddadia is about nine miles; from the turning point near Wadi er Rigel to the road at Saniet Matratin is about ten or eleven miles, and the country is equally rough in either place.

The mistake in navigation, therefore, mattered little. What mattered more was having to advance all the way to the road in darkness. It would have been better to have operated over this unknown country in daylight. Thus the delay in refuelling the Greys in the morning of 15 December, with the consequential delay to 6 Brigade, was unfortunate. But for this delay, 6 Brigade would have had three or four hours’ more daylight for the advance and for reconnaissance. The final result of an advance to the road in daylight, with an enemy flank guard already in position guarding it, can only be guessed at, for many ‘ifs’ and ‘provideds’ make speculation hopeless; but a few hours’ more daylight, and the support of tanks and artillery thus made available, would have helped.

During the hours of darkness that remained on the night of 15–16 December the forward battalions heard the continuous noise of transport moving westwards along the road – an exasperating sound. The engineers from 8 Field Company had difficulty in starting their move, and it was 4 a.m. before they set off. They laid mines near the area occupied by the battalions, but this was unfortunately some distance from the road. It had to be accepted that the road had not been cut.

By the time Main Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group paused west of Wadi er Rigel it was dark. Reserve Group had become strung out and 5 Brigade fell some way behind; so as darkness was approaching, Brigadier Kippenberger went ahead of his brigade to catch up with the GOC. The first instructions he received were to carry on until he caught up with 6th NZ Brigade, but just before his own brigade arrived (about 7 p.m.) he was told by the GOC not to proceed but to deploy facing east.

There were good reasons for this change of plan. The Division was becoming so spread out as to reduce its value as a fighting force. Divisional Cavalry and 4th Light Armoured Brigade were already distributed over the desert, not to say scattered; and at that moment the course of events for 6th NZ Brigade had yet to be determined. To send 5th NZ Brigade farther north on the heels of the 6th NZ Brigade might only lead to confusion in the darkness between the two brigades. The exact location of the enemy was not known, nor yet his intention. And finally there was the imminent arrival in the area south-west of Divisional Headquarters of Administrative Group, an enormous collection of soft-skinned vehicles carrying, among other things, the reserve supply of petrol. Protection of soft-skinned vehicles was always a problem in desert warfare, and both sides had had experience of supply columns being overrun. The smallest of enemy fighting forces could cause carnage among such vehicles; one enemy tank was more than the equal of a legion of trucks. It was therefore most desirable that a fighting force should stand between Administrative Group and any likely enemy line of approach.

If the darkness and the fog of war, the unknown and difficult country at the last stage of a rapid advance by a long, widely dispersed column and the lack of definite information about the enemy are taken into account, it is perhaps no wonder that observers at the time noted that they had never known the GOC so worried. The picture is a striking one, with the various senior officers – Brigadier Kippenberger, Brigadier Harvey, the CRA (Brigadier Weir12), the GSO I (Colonel Queree) – consulting with the GOC either in his caravan or in the darkness outside, while around them there gradually assembled the vehicles of 5 Brigade and of Administrative Group, all travelling without lights, each vehicle guided by the one in front and even then by only a faint light well underneath it illuminating a white patch on the differential. It remains something to wonder at that all these vehicles could move at night for hours over unknown and broken ground, and yet retain some cohesion.

5th NZ Brigade also soon found out the difficulties of night deployment in unknown country; for when the time came to take up dispositions on the ground, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the infantry battalion of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, was found in the area allotted to 23rd Battalion and had to be asked to side-slip off to the right (south) or at least to move away, which it later did after consultation with its own brigade headquarters. The three battalions of 5th NZ Brigade were each given bearings to march on and told to go out for a definite distance, the outcome being that the brigade line ran from north to south in the order of 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Harding), 23rd Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Romans13) and 28th (Maori) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett14). The total frontage was some 9000 yards, about two miles to the east of Divisional Headquarters but still west of Wadi er Rigel. The 7th Field Company had been intended to prolong the line to the south, but after helping 5th Field Regiment with bulldozers to dig in its guns, the company filled a 600-yard gap that was discovered between 23rd and 28th Battalions. The brigade was reinforced during the night and in the early morning by 4th Field Regiment, two anti-tank batteries and two machine-gun companies, all drawn from Reserve Group. Ammunition Company established an ammunition point just west of Divisional Headquarters, and 6th Field Ambulance a Main Dressing Station in the same area.

It was soon learnt that there was a gap between the brigades, although not the extent of it. During the night the GOC considered filling this with an armoured car unit of 4th Light Armoured Brigade, but no effective action was taken before daylight; and in any case armoured cars were not the best answer in an anti-tank gun line. It was not until after daybreak that the extent of the gap – at least six miles – was known.

When, some time before midnight, some information about enemy movements was available, it became clear that even a protective line to the east might not be sufficient to guard Administrative Group, and that it would be better to move it well away. The group was sent ten miles back along the divisional axis, and completed the move just after midnight. And then, later still, 4th Light Armoured Brigade reported that enemy vehicles – not identified – were moving south-west from a point to the east of Bir el Merduma. If correct, this was a threat to Administrative Group in its new area, and it was ordered to retire another ten miles south-east. Owing to time lag the move was not started until 6 a.m. on the 16th but it was completed safely. In retrospect there is a touch of macabre humour about the first retirement of the group, for far from being safer it was getting perilously close to the night laager of 15th Panzer Division near Merduma.

Brigadier Harvey told the GOC that in his opinion enemy columns moving westwards would bump 5th NZ Brigade. The GOC agreed that Divisional Cavalry should withdraw at dawn from its exposed position east of the Division, where some Sherman tanks were to be left. The rest of the Shermans and armoured cars were to concentrate on the right (southern) flank.

The CRA had reconnoitred towards the road early in the night, and on return reported that it would not be possible to register the guns owing to the combination of darkness and uncertainty of location. It thus appeared that the guns would not be fully ready by first light. Those supporting 6th NZ Brigade had at least the general line of the road as a target, but those supporting 5th NZ Brigade were doubly ‘in the dark’.

One way and another the situation of the Division left much to be desired. General Freyberg intimated as much in a situation report sent to 30th Corps at 9 p.m.: ‘Difficult to fix positions after long fast journey and hard to deploy in moonlight. Could not get in in time to register guns. Will make every attempt stop enemy east of us but with the present difficulties cannot guarantee to succeed.’ The message ends with the rueful words, ‘we appear to have our hands full at present.

A belated message from 30th Corps arrived during the evening saying, ‘Delighted your progress. Secure Marble Arch and Merduma. Send light forces Nofilia landing grounds. Clear road eastwards second priority.’ At this stage 30th Corps had decided to carry on the pursuit with 7th Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division only, leaving 51st Highland Division at El Agheila.

It was hoped at Divisional Headquarters at this time, about midnight on 15–16 December, that the enemy, if he fought his way through the cavalry and some supporting Shermans, would then find himself confronted by 6th NZ Brigade astride the road, and by 5th NZ Brigade farther south, with the remaining tanks available to assist where needed. This plan, however, was handicapped by the small number of tanks available and the gap between the brigades, the extent of which was yet unknown.

During the night General Freyberg visited 5th NZ Brigade on foot, and caused some anxiety to his staff, who scoured the desert in all directions looking for him. For in darkness in the desert it was quite possible to walk away from a truck for a short distance and then lose all sense of direction, especially if the stars or moon were obscured.

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Nofilla to Tripoli

Nofilla to Tripoli

The Enemy escapes – 16 December

At 5.45 a.m. 30th Corps advised, ‘Elements 21st Pz 90 Lt 33 Recce believed 1700 hrs [15 December] still east of Marble Arch. 15th Pz directed Merduma. Take up suitable positions destroy any forces still trapped. 7 Armd Div pressing from the east.’

When received, this message was already twelve hours old and enemy locations might well have changed during the night; but Freyberg made a firmer plan based on the information to date. All formations were warned that there might be up to a hundred tanks still to the east. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to withdraw Divisional Cavalry for use as a mobile reserve and for reconnaissance; the armoured car regiments were to reconnoitre to the south-east and west; KRRC was to withdraw to the west for rear protection; and all the heavy tanks of the Greys and Staffs Yeomanry were to concentrate for battle. 5th NZ Infantry Brigade was to extend northwards slightly to reduce the gap between the two brigades, with its line facing north-east, east and south-east. The Reserve Group en bloc came under command of 5th NZ Brigade for use in support. 6th NZ Infantry Brigade was to prepare for all-round defence and take every opportunity to shoot up the road and harry the enemy. The divisional artillery, including a troop of medium guns, was to co-ordinate. It seemed possible that the Division had got right round the Africa Corps, and it thus made ready to seize its opportunity.

These orders were issued before dawn, but not until 8.10 a.m. was it discovered that the gap between 5th and 6th NZ Brigades was greater than had been thought, and was reported to amount to 10 ½ miles, although later the figure was estimated at some six or seven miles.

At this time (8.10 a.m.) enemy troops were still anything but clear of danger. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit was safely back at Nofilia, and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment had retired from its flank-guard position east of Matratin and was also safe. But 21st Panzer Division was still withdrawing along the Via Balbia, and while its head had reached Nofilia its tail was not yet clear of Matratin. The 90th German Light Division was in position at Saniet Matratin as army rearguard. And 15th Panzer Division had not begun its move from Merduma until about 6.30 a.m. It had been waiting for petrol, and for some hours had been vulnerable. Even then it had only enough petrol to get to Nofilia, and was quite aware that it would have to break through to reach safety. It had about twenty-seven tanks, including some from 21 Division.

About 7 a.m. 4th Light Armoured Brigade reported soft-skinned vehicles about 12 miles south of Bir el Merduma, which were probably part of Administrative Group. Shortly afterwards it discovered enemy tanks moving north-westwards from Merduma, and kept contact thereafter. About 8 a.m., after recall to the southwest from its overnight laager, Divisional Cavalry ran into part of the enemy at the crossing of Wadi er Rigel west of Merduma. Both sides were surprised and exchanged fire at close range, but as the enemy column included some seven tanks, which outgunned its own, Divisional Cavalry withdrew westwards until it reached 5th NZ Brigade. It had two officers and three men killed in this brief encounter.

Thereafter events moved swiftly. In the next two hours units of 5th NZ Brigade Group saw and reported enemy vehicles of all natures, well dispersed. Artillery opened fire on tanks and transport at ranges from 5000 to 8000 yards. The three battalions reported almost in succession from south to north that an enemy column was passing across their front, moving rapidly. There were signs that the enemy was making small reconnaissances of the brigade line, and finding opposition, was swinging away to the north-west, which was the course followed by the inland track from Merduma to Nofilia. By the time the enemy was crossing the front of 21st Battalion at the northern end of 5 Brigade’s line, enemy tanks came close enough to cause the left-flank company, newly arrived to extend the line northwards, to withdraw some 250 yards. Unfortunately the anti-tank guns, which might have come into action at a reasonable range, had not arrived in time from other positions farther south. The 5th Field Regiment and then 4 Field Regiment opened fire against the column, but the enemy moved out of range very fast. Brigadier Kippenberger hastily organised a mobile column from anti-tank and machine-gun units and from carriers of all three battalions; but though this force pursued the enemy for some hours, it did not get within range.

However, 4th Light Armoured Brigade did intercept some of the enemy column, and in a running battle the Greys knocked out two German tanks and a few other vehicles and took twenty prisoners for the loss of one tank and a few vehicles. But the enemy was moving too fast for the Greys and by mid-morning the brigade’s armoured cars could only report that the enemy was moving away north-west, that the tail of the column was just to the south of 6th NZ Infantry Brigade, and that the head of it was already nearly 20 miles away, moving towards Nofilia. The light armoured brigade was then directed towards the road on a wide front, with the object of co-operating with 6th NZ Brigade and shooting up any stray enemy vehicles that might be found.

In a message to 30th Corps at 9.45 a.m., the GOC had said, ‘Gap between 5th and 6th NZ Brigades and many will escape. Will inflict maximum damage we can.’ Thus his message sent in at 12.14 p.m. cannot have been unexpected. ‘Enemy in small columns incl tanks passed through at high speed and wide dispersion. Most difficult to intercept. Majority escaped around our flanks and through gap. Have given hurry-up but little more. …’ It was a frank and honest report, albeit bitterly disappointing.

The German narrative says briefly, ‘… 15 Panzer Division, which had been caught between the advance guard and the main body of an enemy force succeeded in breaking through the advance guard from the rear under a protective screen and in storming its way out towards Nofilia ‘; and while the description of the layout of our troops is defective, the ‘storming’ is accurate. Africa Corps’ diary merely notes that 15th Panzer Division reached certain points from time to time, and that at 11.45 a.m. the head of the division was at Nofilia, with British troops following up the rearguard. The 15th Panzer Division accurately reports the encounter with Divisional Cavalry and then says ‘the main body of the enemy stayed south of the division as it moved on, and contented itself with harassing us with shellfire’. Apparently during its withdrawal 15th Panzer Division was not aware of the presence of 6th NZ Brigade to its north. Neither 15th nor 21st Panzer Division had any petrol left when it arrived at Nofilia.

When daylight came that morning, the outlook was not as comforting as 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group would have wished, for as they had rather expected, neither 25th nor 24th Battalion was close to the road. The promised Sherman tanks had not yet arrived, and it was found that 24th Battalion’s view was obscured by a ridge in front, later known to be Point 73 at Saniet Matratin. Both the enemy and our own troops advanced to occupy this ridge at much the same time. The enemy arrived first, but was dislodged by a quick attack by Lieutenant Masefield with part of his platoon from B Company, and the road was then in full view. But before a forward observation officer could get there, the ridge had been lost in a counter-attack. It appeared to our troops that the enemy had tanks; but the war diary of 90th German Light Division explicitly mentions the lack of tank support, and continues that its troops on Point 73 came under terrific fire from ‘enemy heavy weapons, carriers, and tanks in reverse slope positions’. This inclusion of tanks was also incorrect. It was not the first, nor the last time, that other vehicles had been mistaken for tanks – by both sides.

The foremost positions of 25th Battalion were anything up to two miles from the road, and the unit carriers confirmed an earlier report that the enemy was retiring in three columns on and parallel to the road. Both 6th Field Regiment and 2nd Machine-Gun Company opened fire, but the only result was to speed up the enemy withdrawal. It was soon obvious that most of the enemy transport had already passed, and that only the tail was passing now; and by 12.15 p.m. movement on the road east of Wadi Matratin had ceased.

During the morning the enemy west of 6th NZ Brigade, on high ground overlooking many of the brigade vehicles, caused some trouble by opening fire with anti-tank guns, mortars, and small arms. C Company, 26 Battalion (Captain Sinclair), with supporting fire from a troop of 25-pounders, two-pounders, mortars, and Vickers guns (including one Captain Moore19 had mounted in the back of a jeep), attacked a hill from which the enemy fled, leaving two scared German to be captureds, five anti-tank guns and some other equipment.

This flurry was the last engagement of the morning, and not long afterwards the enemy withdrew. The 90th German Light Division reported that it started its withdrawal at 2 p.m. and that it was not pursued.

6th NZ Infantry Brigade during the night and morning captured some 34 prisoners, eight 50-millimetre guns, 25 machine guns, seven small cars, and other odd vehicles. The prisoners were from 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 90th German Light Division. One odd, and to the enemy surprising capture, was the American Field Service driver of the ambulance car in which Majors Webb and Reid were taken prisoner.

The New Zealand Division’s total casualties were 11 killed, 29 wounded, and 8 prisoners.

General Freyberg visited 6 Brigade at 3 p.m. and discussed the next moves. Later in the afternoon he reported to the Corps Commander in a personal message: ‘Just returned from the vicinity of main rd [road]. Country even in single file by daylight most difficult. Neither tanks nor armd Cs [armoured cars] could get through last night. Inf on foot did after midnight but were counter attacked. Unable to harass rd until after daylight this morning. Enemy still in position and contesting ground overlooking road. Traffic being shot up by guns and forced from desert tracks to rd. Armd Cs and Div Cav harassing rd further west. Enemy in strength and morale of PWs high.’

So ended the first phase of the new campaign. The high hopes of cutting off even some of the retreating enemy had come to nothing, partly because greater speed was possible along the road than across the desert, partly because the enemy was well seasoned and adopted the orthodox safeguards of flank and rear guards, and partly because of the difficulties of deploying by night in unknown country at the end of a long and tiring move.

Nevertheless the Division had moved far and fast, certainly faster than the enemy had expected. The enemy was on the alert, started his withdrawal sooner than anticipated, and had such an effective scheme of minefields, booby traps and demolitions that he could withdraw his troops at his own speed and had removed many of them before 2nd NZ Division appeared on the scene. It was an achievement, however, to have tipped the enemy out of the El Agheila position in a matter of three or four days, and to hustle and even rattle him in the process. As long as air reconnaissance was available to the defender, complete surprise could not be achieved by an outflanking force. The enemy soon became aware of the Division’s march, but was deceived by its speed.

To have succeeded, the Division would have needed more tanks, which could have been provided only at the expense of 7th Armoured Division and would have necessitated a greatly enlarged administrative group. It is probable, however, that tanks operating with 2nd NZ Division would have achieved more than with 7th Armoured Division, where the ground and the enemy’s delaying measures made any advance a slow one.

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Tidying Up

IN the afternoon the GOC issued instructions for the Division to concentrate. 6th NZ Brigade Group was to join the rest of the Division, a move back of some ten miles, as 5th NZ Brigade Group would take over the lead when movement resumed. The advance, however, was not to commence until early on 17 December.

At first sight it seems a strange manoeuvre, not only to halt, but to withdraw the foremost troops. The only follow-up was from 4th Light Armoured Brigade, its tanks for some 15 miles and the armoured cars to within a few miles of Nofilia. There was no other attempt to hustle the enemy after the excursions of the morning. In Brigadier Kippenberger’s words, 5th Brigade and no doubt most of the Division ‘spent that day, 16 December, thinking things over’.

The German war diaries all remark on the pressure exerted on their units in the early morning. The 15th Panzer Division was shaken by its breakthrough, and went straight to Nofilia, disregarding instructions to make an intermediate stand. But all diaries comment on the lack of pressure during the afternoon. The 15th Panzer Division says, ‘for some inexplicable reason the main body of the enemy column remained stationary and did not attack’. The 90th German Light Division ‘was enabled to hold its present positions until nightfall’, and ‘the enemy did not pursue’. After reading the German accounts, it seems that a quick follow-up would have kept the enemy on the move and driven him out of Nofilia before he had a chance to consolidate; but he was given nearly twenty-four hours to prepare.

It was fully midday, however, before it was known that the whole of the enemy had escaped, and it would have been unwise to move before this knowledge became certain. An enemy tank force at large in the rear of the Division, while it was attenuated and on the move, might have proved more than troublesome. The decision, therefore, was to make haste slowly, revive the troops who were in need of rest and concentrate the Division for an early start on the morrow.

Arrangements for 17 December were, then, that 4th Light Armoured Brigade, with Divisional Cavalry under command, would lead the advance, followed by 5th NZ Brigade Group, Divisional Reserve Group and Divisional Headquarters, 6th NZ Brigade Group and Administrative Group. The head of 4th Light Armoured Brigade—less its armoured cars already out in front—was to pass the starting point at 7 a.m. This point, near Divisional Headquarters, would be indicated by a column of black smoke. In view of the muddled navigation on 15 December, it was made clear that the LRDG patrol would be responsible for leading the column, moving with the route-marking detachment of the Provost Company.

The Air Force had difficulties in the morning of 16 December owing to the confused form of the ground operations, and the uncertainty as to just who was who in the mass of swirling vehicles, but later in the day attacked the enemy round Nofilia. The 7th Armoured Division reached Marble Arch at midday, and armoured cars from the two divisions were in touch with each other in the afternoon. The enemy had left so many mines, booby traps and demolitions that 7th Armoured Division made no contact with his troops on 16 or 17 December. Booby traps were so various in type that Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson has said1 that at this stage the sappers became suspicious of everything, and even if a gold watch had been lying on the desert no one would have touched it.

Behind 7th Armoured Division came 51st (Highland Division clearing the road, again a slow task. By evening it was fully cleared only as far as the junction with the track to Marada, 40 miles behind.

Originally 2nd NZ Division was to have been responsible for clearing landing grounds at both Marble Arch and Merduma, and engineers had travelled with 4th Light Armoured Brigade for early reconnaissance, but the course of events had taken the Division farther to the south and west, while 7th Armoured Division had now reached Marble Arch. So 2nd NZ Division was made responsible for Merduma, and for Nofilia later. A detachment from 6th Field Company (Major Anderson), with an escort of anti-tank guns and machine-gunners, started work on Merduma at 3 p.m. on 16 December. The ground had been heavily mined and booby-trapped, but one runway was cleared by 4 p.m. next day, and aircraft were able to land successfully shortly afterwards. The New Zealand party then handed the work over to the Royal Engineers and rejoined the Division.

6th NZ Brigade Group duly returned from its forward position and took post towards the rear of the Division, while 5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group assembled and moved two miles north. In the evening the Corps orders for the next day’s move arrived, but contained nothing new except that 7th Armoured Division, after clearing the airfield at Marble Arch and the road west, was ‘to assist 2nd NZ Division as required’ in the performance of its engineer tasks. As the armoured division was to concentrate in an area behind Marble Arch, it was clear that 2nd NZ Division alone was to carry out the pursuit.

Meanwhile, during the afternoon of 16 December, the enemy concentrated round Nofilia. The 15th Panzer Division went back in one bound and joined 21st Panzer, which had reached there in good order. It was Rommel’s intention, while work went on in the Buerat position, to hold another rearguard position here, on a line running from the sea north-east of Nofilia, behind the Wadi el Agar, including Nofilia village, and then to the west and northwest towards Point 121. The 21st Panzer Division was to hold the stretch from the sea to Nofilia—the ‘eastern face’—and 15th Panzer Division from Nofilia to Point 121—the ‘southern face’. Then, in succession as flank guards to the main road, came 33rd Reconnaissance Unit 12 miles west of Nofilia, 580 Reconnaissance Unit 20 miles west, and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment 30 miles west. The 90th German Light Division, the rearguard on 16 December, in the end did not leave the area round Matratin until nightfall, and then moved well to the rear to a point about 40 miles west of Nofilia. It took no part in the later fighting in that area.

The New Zealand Division spent a quiet night, and was allowed to light fires to cook breakfast before dawn on 17 December. The Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General (Lieutenant-Colonel Barrington1) remarked sadly that the Division thereby consumed enough petrol to move it for some miles.

Attacking Nofilia

Before moving off in the morning of the 17th November , the Division requested that the approaches to Nofilia and the strongpoint itself should be bombed until 3 p.m., as it proposed to attack from the south-west. It will be noticed that Nofilia was alluded to as a ‘strongpoint’, so that it was expected that it would be strongly held. It must have become apparent during the advance that to, bomb the approaches until 3 p.m. meant that any attack must be delayed until that hour, for the Division, with only about 30 miles to go, would arrive long before then. The bomblines were therefore changed from time to time until the line ran clear to Nofilia to the west; except that towards evening a request was made for the fort at Nofilia itself to be bombed. Records show some difference of opinion about whether Nofilia was in the end ever bombed at all. The Desert Air Force reported being unable to do any light bombing owing to rain and low cloud, and that its efforts were confined to two tactical reconnaissances. On the other hand, 4th Light Armoured Brigade reported bombs on Nofilia at 9.15 a.m. The weather in the divisional area was patchy, with bright periods; but there could have been rain and low cloud at the airfields.

Map Nofilia region


Outflanking Nofilia, 17–18 december

The advance was resumed at 7 a.m. It took some time for the whole column to deploy into desert formation. Fifth Infantry Brigade Group, second in the order of march, blamed the B Echelon vehicles of 4th Light Armoured Brigade for holding them up, and Divisional Headquarters did not move off until 10 a.m., but the GOC moved as usual with his Tactical Headquarters well in front. In the early morning it appeared briefly from armoured car reports that Nofilia was clear, but very soon the enemy was located, and the information sent back by 4th Light Armoured Brigade gave a picture that was in fact accurate: a strong rearguard from the sea through Nofilia and then to the west, with a number of tanks estimated at twenty to twenty-five.

The Division carried out the advance without halts, in the hope of capturing the place that day. About midday 4th Light Armoured Brigade closed up in strength to the enemy’s advanced posts, with the Royals to the north-east of Nofilia, and the KDGs (King’s Dragoon Guards) moving away to the north-west and west. The guns of 3 RHA (Royal Horse Artillery) were active against the village, and both 4th Field Regiment (from Reserve Group) and the troop from 211th Medium Battery came into action against tanks and guns west of Nofilia.

About midday the Greys (which now had only five Grants and ten Shermans), accompanied by Divisional Cavalry, stormed into the enemy position west of Nofilia village, effected complete surprise, and captured about 250 prisoners from 115th Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 15th Panzer Division. There followed some prolonged and lively exchanges between our tanks and those of the enemy, in which both the Greys and Divisional Cavalry accounted for five enemy tanks. Honours in tank losses appear to have been about even. The Greys lost four, of which two were recovered; 15th Panzer reported losing five also, but made a fantastic claim that they had knocked out twenty-one British tanks. In this engagement the commanding officer of the Greys, Lieutenant-Colonel Fiennes, was wounded and evacuated.

Subsequently this break-in on our part led to a special investigation by Africa Corps, with the usual numerous reports and with some censure on one or two people. It might have been some small consolation for 2nd NZ Division to have known that an 88-millimetre anti-tank troop was not on the spot owing to a mistake in navigation.

This engagement held the enemy’s attention while the Division passed round the south of Nofilia. The attack caused perturbation in Africa Corps, for at midday 15th Panzer reported that it was being outflanked on its right near Point 121, and that its panzer regiment was being sent there with thirteen running tanks. About 12.30 p.m. Africa Corps ordered 21st Panzer to send all its tanks and some anti-tank guns to the vicinity of Point 121; and half an hour later ordered the division to move complete to that area to restore the situation, leaving only rearguards on the eastern face. Africa Corps states clearly that it had a hard fight to prevent a breakthrough. The 15th Panzer Division was so disorganised that the command of the front west of Nofilia had for a while to be given to 21 Panzer Division; and there were one or two minor reorganisations during the afternoon. And running through all this was the persistent cry for petrol. Round about midday Africa Corps could not have retired if it had wanted to, as it had only enough petrol for movements within the battlefield. Driblets of petrol were being sent up throughout the day.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry had thus caused the whole armoured strength of Africa Corps to be committed. The number of enemy tanks involved is not known accurately. On 16 December the Africa Corps had a total of fifty-three, and on 19 December thirty-eight; so perhaps the fighting on 16 and 17 December reduced their strength by anything up to fifteen, although many of these may have been only slightly damaged and were recoverable.

One interesting point of tactics is exemplified by the fighting round Nofilia village. The pressure exerted by 2nd NZ Division was against the southern face only. The advance of 7th Armoured Division had been curtailed and it was now out of contact with the enemy. The New Zealand Division was therefore making a left hook without the necessary concomitant of a holding attack against the enemy’s front, the eastern face in this case. This was unavoidable, as the Division did not have sufficient troops to attack all along the enemy’s line. So when the need arose, the enemy thinned out his troops on the eastern face without danger, and moved them to the threatened sector. When referring to another incident in his long retreat from Alamein, but speaking in general terms, Rommel says, ‘there is never any point in attempting an outflanking movement round an enemy force unless it has first been tied down frontally, because the defending force can always use its motorised forces—assuming it has petrol and vehicles—to hold up the outflanking columns while it slips out of the trap.

Outflanking Nofilia

In the early stages of the engagement, the rest of the Division halted; but about 12.45 p.m. the GOC ordered 5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group to advance westwards, watching closely the northern flank, and to be prepared to form a gun line (i.e., a defensive line of battle) facing north. Brigadier Kippenberger went forward immediately, leaving orders for the group to follow below the skyline so that they would not be seen from the road, which here ran on the northern side of a low escarpment about three miles from the sea. The group moved forward with 23rd Battalion leading on a broad front, 28th (Maori) Battalion on the right, and 21st Battalion on the left, with headquarters and attached troops in the centre. At the outset they had difficulty in passing through the mass of transport to the south of Nofilia, and were delayed for some time.

This was the second occasion that day that 5th NZ Brigade had been delayed by transport in front, most of it from B Echelon of 4th Light Armoured Brigade. The cumulative effect of these two delays, according to the British narrative of operations, ‘seriously affected the conduct of operations later in the day’. Whether these words are fully justified or not, it is a fact that the brigade did not turn towards the road until 3 p.m. and that it was dark before full pressure could be achieved. As with 6th NZ Brigade in the afternoon of 15 December, a couple of hours’ more daylight might have made a great deal of difference.

At 2.30 p.m., when the brigade was about ten miles west of Nofilia, General Freyberg ordered Brigadier Kippenberger to swing due northwards immediately, sooner than the brigadier had expected. The group was now approaching the road between Wadi Umm el Ghindel and Wadi en Nizam, some 11 miles west of the Nofilia crossroads. It had already been reported that there were enemy troops in that area, and it was soon confirmed that an enemy flank guard was in position. This was 33rd Reconnaissance Unit.

The brigade commander decided that there was no time to delay or to make formal reconnaissance. His orders group was at hand, and he gave instructions at once for a right wheel, for 23rd Battalion to push on and cut the road, for 28th Battalion to cover the right flank—the activities west of Nofilia were not so very far away—and for 21st Battalion to advance to the road on the left of 23rd Battalion and then swing round facing right to complete the block. Each battalion had under command a machine-gun platoon and an anti-tank troop.

The 23rd Battalion was still in the lead after the turn, and after travelling seven miles slightly east of north, and while still embussed, crossed over the low escarpment and came under artillery fire from both field and anti-tank guns. The road was fully visible three miles away, and along it enemy transport was streaming, well spaced out and moving fast. Between the top of the escarpment and the road was a series of gradually descending ridges and hollows, with ‘going’ of soft sand covered with tussock; and while the sand blanketed the shellbursts and so saved casualties, it slowed down the speed of the transport until it was only a low-gear crawl slower than walking pace. The progress of all vehicles, even that of the brigade commander in his scout car, had a nightmarish quality in which everyone strained hard to move faster but had leaden weights dragging behind him. So despite Kippenberger’s eagerness and his hurry-up messages to units—not that Lieutenant-Colonel Romans needed urging—the advance could not be made any faster; but in due course 23rd Battalion reached a patch of covered ground and debussed. The carriers and anti-tank guns pressed forward to silence enemy weapons on a ridge ahead, and infantry followed up smartly and captured the ridge. The road was now only 1600 yards away, but the enemy flank guard could still sting sharply and showed no sign of withdrawing farther. Most unfortunately, it was now about 6 p.m. and becoming dark, an indication of the difficulties in carrying out this advance. The most that had been achieved was that enemy transport appeared to have stopped using the road for the time being. Some observers thought that it had changed to a parallel track along the beach out of sight; but while this is possible, there is no confirmation from German accounts.

The 21st Battalion, on the outside of the big wheel, had a hard struggle through very heavy going to catch up. Under fire from enemy weapons of all kinds, the battalion finally debussed about 5 p.m. and advanced to some 3500 yards from the road, but was unable to continue during daylight.

The 28th Battalion had less trouble, although it too came under fire while still in vehicles. It debussed as soon as it passed the escarpment, went forward on foot and took up a flanking position. Once it was dug in it attracted little attention as the enemy was concentrating on 23rd Battalion.

Luckily, owing to the nature of the ground, and probably because of some rather wild shooting by the enemy, casualties throughout were low, even though vehicles had advanced through a hail of shellbursts.

The 5th Field Regiment sent observers forward with all three battalions and went into action against enemy transport on the road and the enemy flank-guard position. Brigade Headquarters asked for more artillery support at 4.45 p.m., and observers from 4th Field Regiment and B Troop, 211st Medium Battery, came forward, and also 34th Anti-Tank Battery, the first two opening fire against the road. But it was a difficult target, being only a fine line at right angles to the line of fire. In addition, it was late in the afternoon and the light soon failed. Only one firm hit was claimed.

Artillery units report that among other targets was the covering force of ‘enemy guns and tanks’; and there was a general belief among the infantry that they were opposed by armour. Judging from enemy reports, it is doubtful if tanks were in that particular area at that time, for the imbroglio between Nofilia and Point 121 had not been cleared up when the 5th NZ Brigade attack started; and 15th Panzer Division, the first to withdraw, did not start thinning out from the southern face until about 5 p.m., with the clear intention of retiring well back without delay.

Thus the road had not been reached by dark, but the threat there and round Point 121 compelled the enemy to withdraw, and at 4.30 p.m. 4th Light Armoured Brigade reported that enemy troops, including tanks, were moving away to the north.

Two aspects of 5th NZ Brigade’s attack merit some attention. When General Freyberg told Brigadier Kippenberger to turn north the brigade commander was slightly taken aback, as he had intended to go some miles farther west. This view was shared by the enemy, for an intelligence report compiled later by 15tjh Panzer Division, referring to the Nofilia operation, says ‘again the enemy had apparently committed the error of allowing himself to be involved in an attack instead of making a bold wide outflanking move’. Nevertheless, if 5th NZ Brigade had gone a short distance farther west before turning north, it would have bumped another flank guard (580 Reconnaissance Unit) and would have been little better off, or not at all, especially as there would have been even less daylight left; and 2nd NZ Division could not attempt a ‘bold wide outflanking move’ with its existing resources.

Secondly, when one considers the results of the brigade attack, it is somewhat surprising that a brigade of three battalions, with progressively increasing artillery support, could not dislodge a reconnaissance unit and elements of an infantry battalion. But it must be taken into account that 33rd Reconnaissance Unit arrived in its position about 9 a.m. on 16 December and so had thirty hours to prepare, during which time pits were dug, mortar and anti-tank positions prepared, and the unit in every way made ready. The exceptionally bad going reduced 5th NZ Brigade’s advance to a crawl, and the enemy could watch it all and oppose it with everything he had. By the time a full brigade attack with artillery support could be properly organised, it was dark. The thought that somewhere not far away were enemy tanks, while the brigade had no armour with it, probably caused some justifiable caution. Fifth Brigade’s attack came one or two hours too late.

While 5th NZ Infantry Brigade was engaged, the uncommitted groups of the Division south of Nofilia village continued to advance westwards and north-westwards. Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group halted at 4 p.m. some nine miles west of Nofilia, while 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group took up positions nearer the village to act, if needed, in support of 4th Light Armoured Brigade in keeping pressure on the garrison. The Administrative Group stopped about seven miles to the south of Headquarters; but General Freyberg later ordered it to move back. It retired 16 miles along the divisional axis, and remained there for the night of 17–18 December.

The enemy fared not too well during the afternoon, as a result of 15th Panzer Division’s reverses in the fighting between Nofilia and Point 121. While the tanks of 21st Panzer Division, and later the whole division, less a rearguard, were moving towards 15th Panzer, there came a cry for help from 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, which reported that it was being heavily attacked. (This was 5th NZ Brigade’s attack.) So 21st Panzer Div., minus its armour, was diverted farther west and moved behind 15th Panzer Division and 33 Reconnaissance Unit to extend the latter’s line to the west. Unarmoured elements of 21st Panzer (from 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment) co-operated with 33rd Reconnaissance Unit and checked 21st NZ Battalion in its initial attack. The reports of Africa Corps and the panzer divisions make no mention of tanks being used in this area; all the evidence indicates that they remained between Nofilia and Point 121.

In the broader picture Panzer Army Headquarters had already decided that the army would have to move back at once into the Buerat position. The plan in general was for 15th Panzer Division to disengage and move back, followed by 21st Panzer Division, while 33rd Reconnaissance Unit and 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment formed the rearguard until the whole of Africa Corps was clear. The enemy at this stage feared another attack on the road still farther west, and warned 580 Reconnaissance Unit to be on its guard.

Night Operations

During the late afternoon 4th Light Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry observed enemy movement in and around Nofilia, until at 5.20 p.m. the GOC ordered the brigade to clear the village; but by that time the light was going, and Brigadier Harvey did not consider that the attack was feasible, particularly as it was more than probable that the place was still strongly held. As darkness fell most of 4th Light Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry laagered to the west of Nofilia, while still watching the place closely; but the KDGs had patrols as far west as Wadi el Ahmar, 30 miles from Nofilia, and found the road there well guarded. Sixth Infantry Brigade Group was some six miles south-west of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, and units of 5 Brigade Group were from 1600 to 3500 yards from the road some ten to twelve miles north-west of Nofilia.

During the evening there were reports of movement out of Nofilia, and also the sound of transport in the village; but in view of what we know today, the belief that there was ‘considerable transport’ there, together with tanks, was incorrect. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was finally given the specific task of hampering any attempt of the garrison in Nofilia to break out through the Division, i.e., across the desert instead of along the road. This task meant in effect that 4 Light Armoured Brigade was to fill the gap between 5th and 6th NZ Brigades. The chance of the enemy trying to escape in this way was not great owing to his petrol shortage, a deficiency that was only vaguely known to 2nd NZ Division.

5th NZ Brigade took full precautions against an attempt to break out from Nofilia through the brigade, although it was obvious that the going immediately south of the road was bad. Battalions sited their anti-tank guns accordingly. From the forward posts could be heard the exasperating sound of transport moving along the road.

At 7 p.m. 21st Battalion, held up 3500 yards from the road, noted that it was opposed by tanks and 88–millimetre guns, but it is most unlikely that there were tanks in that area. At that time 21st Panzer Division, which had temporarily lost its tanks, located them not far from Point 121, halted and almost out of petrol. The 15th Panzer Division was to precede it in the retirement, but had only one idea, to get clear without delay. There was certainly no thought of placing tanks in a defensive position.

Communication between Headquarters 5th NZ Brigade and 21st Battalion was not established until 8.30 p.m. because telephone lines were cut by vehicles crossing them and the unit wireless set had been put out of action by shellfire. The battalion was then ordered to try to reach the road so as to have it under small-arms fire in the morning. It advanced without artillery support, and shortly after midnight, when within 1000 yards of the road, was held up by machine-gun and mortar fire, some of the former again believed to come from tanks. The report of 21st Panzer Division mentions only 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment as being in this area; but about midnight some petrol arrived for the stranded tank group, and it soon moved back along the road. As it reports being fired on, it may have returned the fire. The battalion commander realised that he could not reach his objective, a ridge overlooking the road, and his present position being untenable, he withdrew. This attack was really rather venturesome and might have led to heavy casualties if the battalion had reached the road. It does not seem to have registered with the enemy, for there is no special mention of it. To him it apparently merely formed part of the attempts against the road, although it is likely that it helped in keeping him on the move.

This was 5th NZ Brigade’s last attempt to get one of its battalions to the road; but an effort was made before dawn on 18 December to obstruct it with mines, and for this purpose two detachments were sent out by 7th Field Company, each of a sub-section (about ten men), one escorted by C Company from 23rd Battalion and the other by D Company of 28th Battalion. The 23rd Battalion company (Captain F. S. R. Thomson) fought its way north to within 400 yards of the road despite enemy opposition, and brought the road under machine-gun fire. Under its protection New Zealand engineers succeeded in laying 160 mines on and alongside the road. It was then between 4 and 5 a.m. During all this activity the company knocked out various Axis vehicles and returned safely with no casualties.

The 28th Battalion company (Major Logan) advanced some seven miles north-east from the battalion area, and after evading various enemy vehicles, reached the road without interference at a point where a concrete bridge crossed the Wadi Umm el Ghindel. Owing to the rough going the mine-carrying vehicles did not arrive until 3.30 a.m., and the engineers had time to lay only forty mines, all at the Nofilia end of the bridge. D Company had no casualties, but two engineers were killed by the explosion of an enemy booby trap in the centre of the road. No enemy transport was seen during the time the company was there—the enemy had already gone.

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Gone Away

During the night patrols heard the noises of activity in Nofilia village and to the west; and at first light it was believed that the enemy was still there, and 30th Corps was so advised at 7 a.m. This was followed by a personal message from the GOC saying that Nofilia was still strongly held and should be bombed, and asking that A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, be sent to the Division again to augment the low number of effective tanks with the Greys. 6th NZ Infantry Brigade Group made ready to send out a mobile column to attack the village from the west, and 4th Light Armoured Brigade prepared to sweep widely round 5th NZ Brigade and then back along the road towards Nofilia.

But soon patrols approached the village, reported that they could see no movement, and then at 8.43 a.m. that it was clear. It had to be accepted that the enemy had got away intact. The 21st Battalion, the unit farthest to the west, reported that there had been spasmodic enemy fire until just before dawn; but at full daylight the ground between the battalion and the road was found to be empty. The newly laid mines were lifted later in the morning.

The enemy plan for this successful withdrawal was a simple one: 33rd Reconnaissance Unit and 104th Panzer Grenadier Regiment were to stay in position until Africa Corps was clear, and then in turn retire through Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which was the final rearguard. In fact the only hitch came from lack of petrol which, amazing though it may seem, was literally being issued a few hundred gallons at a time. There were occasions during the night when units reported that they had come to a stop until more petrol was received. The 15th Panzer Division disengaged from the area round Nofilia shortly after 8 p.m. and had travelled 30 miles along the good tarmac road by first light. The segments of 21 stPanzer Division followed, and then 33rd Reconnaissance Unit and its supporter.

In the morning of 18 December patrols from 4th Light Armoured Brigade reported enemy transport immediately east of Sultan, where there was a steady stream of vehicles moving west. The KDGs (King’s Gragoon Guards) armored vehicles kept contact as far as Sirte, and the rest of the brigade accompanied by Divisional Cavalry moved out on the 18th for some 25 miles westwards across the desert to the vicinity of Bir el Magedubia. For the moment contact with the enemy had been broken except for the armoured car patrols.

So for a second time the enemy had merely been hustled; he had withdrawn from Nofilia itself despite the nearness of our troops. But, as Rommel has recorded, it is extremely difficult to surround a retiring force. Previously the New Zealand Division had withdrawn from Sidi Rezegh and from Minqar Qaim in 1942 summer, so escaping what at times had looked like certain encirclement. The German-Italian forces had avoided encirclement at Fuka, Tobruk, Benghazi and Agedabia, and were to repeat the performance. It was not until the end in North Africa, against overwhelming superiority and with the sea at his back, that the enemy was captured complete. Battles like Cannae or Sedan are rare.

After Nofilia

During the previous evening the tasks for 18 December had been received: 2nd NZ Division was to maintain contact with the enemy, secure and clear the Nofilia airfield, and clear the main road eastwards until meeting 7th Armoured Division which was working westwards. The instructions also gave traffic priorities on the road forward of El Agheila for two days ahead, indicating that administration would restrict the forces in any immediate further advance. It is of interest that first priority was given to an RAF convoy to Marble Arch.

The GOC suggested that 2nd NZ Division should advance direct from Nofilia across the desert, where the LRDG reported that the going was the best in North Africa. General Freyberg had in mind a flanking attack on Tamet airfield; but he would want a full regiment of heavy tanks with an additional squadron. The plan was accepted provisionally, and a regiment from 8th Armoured Brigade was nominated to come under command. Orders were prepared for movement that day (18 December) to Bir el Magedubia, and for a further advance on following days.

However, other plans were in view. At 1 p.m. the corps commander (Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese) met the GOC by arrangement some three miles east of Nofilia, after sappers working in the area had prevented General Freyberg’s party from running into a minefield nearby. As a result of this conference the move was cancelled and it now seemed likely that the Division would remain in the Nofilia area until after Christmas. The GOC was very pleased with words of praise that had come from both army and corps commanders. He had pointed out, doubtless taking a legitimate advantage of the receptive atmosphere, that if there were to be any more operations of a similar nature he must have more tanks—‘two full regiments’.

As a last measure 5th NZ Infantry Brigade established blocks on the road and coastal track to prevent the withdrawal of any stray parties of Germans. By the next day fourteen prisoners had been taken in this way.

The Division now took steps to maintain contact with the enemy and to dispose remaining troops in depth. Fifth Infantry Brigade remained north-west of Nofilia; and on 19 December a special force was formed, of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, one troop from 5th Field Regiment, one troop from 34th Anti-Tank Battery and a detachment from 7th Field Company. This force, under the command of 5th NZ Brigade, moved out to patrol a general line running south-eastwards for some 18 miles from Sultan, to watch for any enemy advance from the west, protect the engineer detachment while it cleared the road from Nofilia, and report on the condition of the airfields at Sultan. B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, took up a linking position some 25 miles farther back, and a link was also maintained with 4th Light Armoured Brigade round Sirte. This little force cleared the airfield at Sultan but saw nothing of the enemy. Sub-units were relieved from time to time, and the force remained out until after Christmas, when 2nd NZ Division was relieved of operational duties.

During the next two or three days the Division settled down into semi-permanent bivouacs alongside the road north of Nofilia, with 5th NZ Brigade Group the farthest to the west. One armoured car regiment remained on constant patrol in the Sirte area; the engineers continued clearing the road both east and west, and the main airfield and other landing grounds near Nofilia. Junction was made with the engineers of 7th Armoured Division on 20 December at a point ten miles east of the crossroads. It will be noticed that frequently while much of the Division was, comparatively speaking, at rest, the engineers went steadily on with work that required courage and steady nerves, without the excitement of battle to exalt them.

For the time being there was no offensive action in sight, and some thought could be given both to the past and the future, coloured always by the approach of Christmas. On 19 December General Freyberg held a conference and discussed plans for the future, but there was also some soul-searching about the immediate past. Referring to the possibility of another outflanking move, he said: ‘…if we do it quickly enough and differently from the way we have carried out the last two, that is with greater punch, we may be able to bottle a certain number of his troops. We have missed two chances of bottling him as our technique was imperfect…. there was uncertainty as to our position…. A brigade commander must have a battalion of heavy tanks to push in so that the blow goes in hard and goes right home…. The four hours’ delay due to lack of petrol in the first movement allowed the whole of the Panzer Armee to escape. The enemy could move faster along the road and he was able to put a gun line and infantry positions and tanks on the escarpment to hold off our attack to command the road.’

Mistakes in navigation and shortage of tanks were not to trouble the Division in the future, so something had been gained from the experience of El Agheila and Nofilia. It was something of an error to blame the late refuelling on 14 December for lack of progress on the evening of the 15th, which was due more to the delay in refuelling the Greys in the morning of that day.

The enemy nevertheless had handled his troops skilfully and had effected his withdrawal without serious loss, but he was forced to retire hastily and was definitely on the defensive. The New Zealand Division had played its part, but there was a natural measure of disappointment at the enemy’s escape. Later reflection, however, assesses the Division’s part quite highly, for the fighting at Nofilia, in the eyes of the post-war Battle Nomenclature Committee, merited classification as a ‘separate engagement’, and was held to be the sharpest action of the whole El Agheila operation. The Division’s casualties were 7 killed and 35 wounded, nearly all of them in 5th NZ Brigade.

The casualty list fof 2nd New Zealand Division or the fighting on 16, 17 and 18 December was mercifully a small one. The Division had 18 killed, 64 wounded and eight taken prisoner. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade had 13 killed, 17 wounded and two missing. Enemy material captured was not great, although any captures were good for morale. It amounted to about 15 vehicles, 14 guns, mostly 50-millimetre, and 33 machine guns. Four German tanks were knocked out by anti-tank guns. This does not include the tank losses of the enemy in the action west of Nofilia on 17 December, where the losses on both sides were about the same, four or five. In total S. O. Playfair, the British official historian gave an estimate of 460 Axis prisoners (mostly Germans from 15th Panzer and 90th Light Divisions) were captured, 25 German guns and 18 Geman tanks destroyed from 13 to 17 December.

‘Things are going badly in Cyrenaica, where the British have forced us into a disorderly retreat, making us fight under the worst tactical and logistic conditions’, wrote Count Ciano, Mussolini’s son-in-law, in his diary on 16 December.

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Chapter 5: Preparing to Hurry to Tripoli

Tunisian Front

WHILE the operations at El Agheila and Nofilia were running their course, westwards in Tunisia matters had not been going well for the Allies. Increasing German pressure, mostly from tanks and dive-bombers, gradually forced the British troops back to Medjez el Bab, some 35 miles from Tunis. The Allies still had the equivalent of only two divisions, while the Axis had four (three German and one Italian). This withdrawal caused a delay in the Allied plans for a counter-offensive, which was finally launched on 22 December. The British 5th Corps (6th Armoured and 78th Infantry Divisions) commenced attacks on a pronounced feature, Djebel Ahmera – later known as Longstop Hill – near Medjez; and it was intended that both United States and French troops should join in. But there had already been heavy rain, later becoming torrential, and this interfered drastically not only with the fighting but with the movement of supplies.

Between 22 and 24 December General Eisenhower toured the forward area, and as a result postponed the offensive indefinitely, ordering his forces to reorganise and settle down for the winter. The line then ran from El Aouana to Medjez el Bab and Bou Arada, with scattered bodies of troops on a line running south to Pichon. Longstop Hill remained in German possession. The gallant attempt to carry Tunis by storm had failed, albeit by very little. The Allied forces, now in a state of some disorganisation as a result of having been sent into battle piecemeal, needed a period of some months before they would be ready for further offensives.

Towards the end of January 1943 the Allied line from north to south was held by the British 5th Corps, now consisting of 46th and 78th British Infantry Divisions and a composite division known as ‘Y’, the French 19th Corps of two divisions, and 2nd United States Corps of two divisions (but being built up to four). There had been some confusion within the Allied line owing to the intermingling of nationalities and to the reluctance of the French to place their troops under British command; but on 26 January General Eisenhower issued firm orders that Lieutenant-General K. A. N. Anderson, commanding the First Army, would take over tactical command of the whole front. The final arrangement thus gave First Army three corps, 5th British, 19 thFrench and 2nd United States. The Axis strength was by that time the equivalent of five German divisions, including two armoured, and one and a half Italian.

So for a period there was stalemate in the north; but in the south the front was more fluid and allowed of some movement. The gradual build-up of United States troops in this area, based on Tebessa, was sufficient even as early as mid-January to make the Axis nervous about an Allied offensive towards Gabes and Sfax; and for this reason 21st Panzer Division was later sent from Tripolitania to that area.

The General Situation on Eighth Army’s Front

For some time it was believed that the enemy would make his next stand on the Buerat position, a line running roughly south-westwards from the coast near Buerat. There would be no great difficulty in turning this position, which had an open southern flank, but between Buerat and Tripoli another and much stronger line extended from Homs to Tarhuna.

Buerat was 600 miles from Tobruk, from which, even at the end of December it was still necessary to despatch some hundreds of tons of stores a day to Eighth Army. The distance to Benghazi was 400 miles, and as this was a lesser burden on the supply echelons, every effort was made to speed up the daily rate of unloading there. But no port, other than small anchorages, existed between Benghazi and Tripoli, a distance of 675 miles, too far to maintain the army by road for any length of time. No reasonably sized force could remain in Tripoli, much less advance beyond it, without the use of that port, and the time it would take the navy to make it workable after the enemy’s expected demolitions could only be estimated. A period of one or two weeks after capture seemed reasonable. A force advancing on Tripoli would therefore have to carry enough supplies of all kinds – petrol, rations, water and ammunition – to overcome both the Buerat and the Homs – Tarhuna lines, reach Tripoli and capture it, and maintain itself for a period. Prolonged maintenance from Benghazi was impossible. Moreover the force could make no measured advance to Tripoli, but would have to reach it within a limited time.

Thus it would have to go right through to Tripoli in one continuous advance of so many days; which after the complicated calculations necessary to solve the problem, was fixed at ten days after the initial attack on the Buerat line. If the advance took longer, the army could not be maintained at Tripoli even until the port was open, and consequently some of its formations would have to be withdrawn and any further advance became doubtful. It was a fascinating problem in logistics, but one of more than academic interest to the Army Commander and his staff.

It was sincerely hoped that the enemy would not move back from Buerat before the attack started, for if he withdrew to the Homs–Tarhuna line, making use of all the skill he had already shown in delaying actions and with mines and demolitions, then again the maintenance of the attacking force would be difficult. All supplies still would have to come forward by the long road haul from Benghazi, and a considerable part of the load of every vehicle would be the petrol for its own consumption on the round trip.

So while administration dictated that Eighth Army should go no farther for the moment, but should pause while supplies were built up as far forward as possible, strategy dictated also that formations should stay where they were so as not to alarm the enemy. There was to be no feeling forward to make contact, followed by probing attacks and preliminary bombardment. The army was to go straight into action from its present locations and would deliberately seek an ‘encounter battle’ for which it would be fully prepared.

So for the present 30th Corps was stretched out from Sirte back to El Agheila, but 4th Light Armoured Brigade alone kept watch on the enemy. It was under command of 2nd NZ Division until 22 December and thereafter under 7th Armoured Division.

The Army plan was that 30th Corps should attack with four divisions (50th, 51th, 7th Armoured, and 2nd NZ) and two extra armoured brigades (22nd and 23rd), the number of tanks in all armoured regiments being made up to establishment by drawing on the tanks of 1st Armoured Division, now back near the Egyptian frontier. The 50th and 51st Divisions and 23rd Armoured Brigade were to attack along the coast road, while 7th Armoured and 2nd New Zealand Divisions, the latter with the Greys under command, were to sweep round the enemy’s flank and cut in behind him. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was to be centrally placed in Army Reserve. Initially the attack by 50th and 51st Highland Divisions was not to be pressed, but as soon as the outflanking movement began to make itself felt, the pressure was to be increased and the attack conducted ruthlessly. The objectives of the outflanking formations were to be first Sedada and Tmed el Chatua (about 60 miles west of Buerat), and thence as circumstances required – either north-eastwards against the rear of the enemy’s line, or northwards to cut off retreating columns, or north-westwards direct on Tripoli.

At the appropriate time Headquarters 10th Corps, brought forward from Tobruk, would take over command of the coastal attack, leaving 30th Corps to command the outflanking move. The army’s operations would be covered and supported by the full power of the Desert Air Force; and for this purpose more airfields were to be prepared in the present forward areas. The preparation of advanced landing grounds was an important task of the outflanking formations.

The building up of supply dumps for the advance would take until 14 January 1943, which was fixed as ‘D’ day; but if the enemy remained in the Buerat position in force and had not thinned out, the attack would not commence until 20 January.

This plan suffered a severe setback. A gale that raged from 4 to 6 January wrought havoc in Benghazi harbour, breaching the breakwater and sinking several ships, one with 2000 tons of ammunition, and the intake dropped from 3000 to 1000 tons a day. The army was again forced to use Tobruk. After reviewing the position Montgomery decided to adhere to the date fixed, but to reduce the coastal attack by one division (50th Division) and to use the transport of 10th Corps as a whole to ferry stores from Tobruk. No part of 10th Corps would come forward, and Montgomery was conscious that he was losing correct balance by having his second echelon of formations so far behind; but by that time indications were strong that the enemy contemplated no debouchment eastwards. In the end 50th Division was brought forward to El Agheila. The only real risk was nothing new – that the force might not get to Tripoli in ten days.

As Headquarters 10th Corps would not be available, Montgomery decided to command the coastal thrust himself from his Tactical Headquarters, leaving the outflanking operations to be controlled by 30th Corps. It was admittedly too much to give one Corps Headquarters command of both attacks; but there were mixed opinions at the time whether the army commander should act as corps commander also.

From the Enemy’s Side

The many arguments over the withdrawal from the El Agheila positions to Buerat were now to be repeated with even greater force, but in the end Rommel was able very largely to get his own way. The last Italian overseas possession was now slipping from Mussolini ‘s grasp. It is small wonder that he was desperately trying to stave off what was now rapidly becoming the inevitable. Moreover, there were still bitter thoughts about the way in which the Italians had been sacrificed when Rommel withdrew from Alamein, and a grim determination – if the adjective ‘grim’ is applicable in such a state of indecision – that there should be no repetition. These two factors were in conflict, for if there was to be a desperate resistance to hold the remnant of the Italian empire, it was surely not fitting that the Italians should be sent away first.


Rommel had never regarded the Buerat line as more than a temporary one, and much preferred the Homs–Tarhuna line, although in his opinion any position on the way back to the Gabes Gap could be only temporary. During the fighting at El Agheila and Nofilia, however, all troops except the motorised units of Africa Corps and several other small German units were at work improving the Buerat line, which Mussolini (Comando Supremo) had instructed Rommel to hold at all costs. Rommel’s immediate superior, Marshal Bastico (Superlibia), was in sympathy with his views, but to put it bluntly was frightened of the Duce. On 17 December they sent a combined appreciation to Rome and sought permission at least to thin out on the Buerat line. The answer to this was ‘Resist to the uttermost I repeat resist to the uttermost with all troops of the German-Italian Army in the Buerat position’.

This was completely unrealistic, and Rommel asked what he should do if Eighth Army merely outflanked him to the south and did not attack frontally. Moreover, he expected continued pressure from Eighth Army and an attack about 20 December and was surprised at the unexpected lull. Throughout he maintained that he could not guarantee to hold the enemy off, and that his forces had to retire into Tunisia and the Gabes line.

A series of conferences followed between Rommel, Kesselring and Bastico, with the outcome that permission was given to commence withdrawing the non-motorised troops, mainly Italians, to the Homs–Tarhuna line. Bastico said, doubtless with emphasis, that on no account were the Italians ever to be left behind, to which Rommel replied that he could either save them by withdrawing them forthwith, or lose them by remaining, and asked which should he do. He also wanted to withdraw the garrison of Bu Ngem, 60 miles south of Buerat, but for the moment this was refused. On 24th December one of many messages he sent to Superlibia pointed out that daily requirements of petrol during static periods were 200 cubic metres, and during active operations 400, but during December he had received only 100. Ammunition stocks were between one-third and one-half of requirements. Rommel’s messages at this time must have been a source of constant trepidation to his superiors. Tripoli, however, was now very little use to the Axis, owing partly to RAF bombing and partly to the rate of sinkings of vessels destined for that port. A high proportion of Rommel’s supplies were coming from Tunisian ports, and thence by a combination of an indifferent railway and a long road haul.

Finally Rommel obtained a slight relaxation of his rigid orders, and on 29 December withdrew the Bu Ngem garrison to El Faschia, 45 miles north-west. Then on 31 December came a change of plan. The Fuehrer and the Duce agreed that the main front would be in Tunisia, that the Libyan front would be subsidiary, and that Rommel’s plan for gradual retirement was accepted; but although he wanted to go back to the Gabes Gap, his superiors were firm that he should hold the Mareth Line. Further, fixed periods of delay were to be imposed on the enemy, three weeks before reaching the Homs–Tarhuna line, and another three weeks before giving up Tripoli. Rommel responded that he must commence moving the Italians back from Buerat at once, as with the transport available it would take ten days, and secondly, he could give no guarantee of holding the enemy for any fixed period, as that depended on the weight of attack. The withdrawal of the Italian 20th and 21st Corps began on 3 January; and at the same time 164th German Light Division, hitherto not fully motorised, was made so with vehicles gleaned from other German formations.

Thereafter Rommel was told – the words sound like a plea – that he was to do the best he could to delay the enemy in front of Tripoli; but that he must impose two months’ delay before reaching the Mareth Line. Rommel reiterated that his speed of withdrawal was in the last resort dependent on the weight of British pressure. It was in fact over two months before Eighth Army attacked at Mareth; but it may be argued that the delay was due more to Montgomery’s careful preparations than to Rommel’s delaying tactics.

Bastico then had the unusual experience that Rommel, having agreed with one of his requests, went even beyond what was asked of him. Sfax, a small port in southern Tunisia, was held to be in danger of attack from United States forces in the west, and on 11 January Bastico asked that 164th German Light Division be sent to strengthen the garrison there. Rommel had a high opinion of the potentialities of the Gabes Gap position, and moreover was dependent on supplies coming through Sfax and was therefore willing to further tighten his belt now in the hope that he could loosen it later. For various reasons he preferred to send 21st Panzer Division, with 580 Reconnaissance Unit, rather than
164th German Light Division, which was reorganising. Thus, on 13 January, 21st Panzer left for Sfax. On the same day Rommel detached a small staff, headed by his army artillery commander, to inspect the Mareth defences and start work on improvements.

Actually 21st Panzer Division had travelled no farther than Tarhuna when it was ordered to leave all tanks and tank crews behind to be absorbed into 15th Panzer Division and to re-equip in Tunisia. There was not enough petrol, however, at that time to take the tanks forward again to 15th Panzer Division, some 40 miles south-west of Buerat.

Christmas Interlude

Meanwhile 2nd NZ Division was reorganising near Nofilia. At his conference on 19 December, already mentioned, General Freyberg had given some indications about the future: there was to be a pause for at least ten days, depending on the rate of build-up of supplies. The GOC praised the Greys for getting their tanks forward over 320 miles of desert going, and added praise to all drivers of vehicles and maintenance staff. He said that he would have to have more tanks for further operations, and that these had been promised. It appeared that the Division would be employed again on a desert march, and the LRDG would be entirely responsible for navigation. Harder living was to be enforced during the move, and there was to be no promiscuous ‘brewing up’, especially during hours of darkness. The reduction of enemy air activity would allow dispersion in desert formation to be reduced from the existing 150 to 100 yards between vehicles. The GOC concluded by saying that games were to be organised, and that arrangements were being made for Christmas fare.

General Montgomery and General Leese visited the Division on 21 December, and the former addressed formation and unit commanders. He said he was very pleased with the advance which had ‘shaken the Boche’; he explained why it had not been possible to give the Division more tanks, and described its outflanking move as a very fine performance. He then spoke of the future and outlined his plan. To relieve the strain on administration, 2nd NZ Division was to move back to Merduma.

Following this conference and the receipt of orders from 30th Corps, divisional orders issued on 22 December foreshadowed the move back, but specified tasks to be carried out in the meantime. These mainly affected 5th NZ Infantry Brigade and Divisional Cavalry, whose responsibility was extended to within five miles of Sultan, including protection of the Sultan landing ground. The Divisional Engineers were to clear and maintain the road from the Nofilia landing ground westwards to the same limit, in addition to their normal tasks.

The remainder of the Division was to stay in bivouac areas for rest, reorganisation and training, which was to include route marches, musketry, recreational training and sports. Responsibility for the forward area passed to 7th Armoured Division, which thus took over control of 4th Light Armoured Brigade and all activities beyond the limit given to 5th NZ Brigade.

On 23 December, no doubt owing to some slight easing in the administrative position, the move back to Merduma was cancelled, and the Division remained in the Nofilia area.

For the next few days the approach of Christmas dominated all activities. For the men of the first three echelons it was the third Christmas spent overseas, and for many it was the second spent in the desert. A year previously the Division had been at Baggush, after suffering grievous losses in the CRUSADER battles. Now at Christmas 1942 it was different, there had been successes, morale was high, and there were great hopes for the future. They might even all be home for next Christmas.

The administrative services from Egypt forwards excelled themselves. Unit orders, placed months before with NAAFI, arrived in time for distribution; and beer and cigarettes were among the things distributed – but not free! The cost of a bottle of beer and twenty cigarettes was twenty piastres, just over four shillings. The ration included fourteen ounces of pork for each man and a special issue of rum. The field bakery made its first issue of really fresh bread and the postal service delivered Christmas mail, including over 60,000 parcels. On 30 December there was a free issue to each man of a ‘Nat Pat’ parcel, a tin of tobacco, and fifty New Zealand and fourteen South African cigarettes, and more beer was available at cost price. To collect some of this largesse a convoy of thirty-five lorries of Supply Company left on 19 December to go to El Adem – more than 450 miles – and returned to the Division on the 29th.

The Army Commander, in a Christmas message, said that he was anxious that Christmas Day should be kept a day of rest, and that operations, works, and training were to be reduced to a minimum.

The day was fine but cold. Church services in the morning were followed by dinner for other ranks, at which officers waited on the men. Officers had their own dinner in the evening. It was generally agreed throughout the Division that the cooks had excelled themselves. Owing to their wide dispersal, all units could not be visited by General Freyberg, but he sent a message on Christmas Eve giving his best wishes to all ranks. Among the units he did visit was Headquarters NZASC, where he thanked the corps for its remarkable work throughout the campaign. The Maoris had a dinner cooked in true Maori fashion, and learnt that monetary gifts had been received from the Maori people in New Zealand, enough to distribute tobacco to the battalion and to give each man £1 next time he went on leave.

Altogether it was a heartening Christmas, and led the GOC to write to General Headquarters, Middle East Forces, thanking the administrative staff and the NAAFI for their efforts, a message much appreciated by a staff who, in their own words, ‘usually get more kicks than bouquets’.

Back to Business

On 26 December 7th Armoured Division relieved 5th Infantry Brigade Group of the responsibility of covering the road, and next day the brigade concentrated nearer the beach with Divisional Cavalry again, as normally, under Divisional Headquarters ‘ command. The only unit in the group to carry on its task was 7th Field Company.

This static period at Nofilia was a busy one for the engineers, whose tasks included clearing landing grounds, clearing and improving roads and tracks, and repairing water installations, work which required both skill and cold-blooded courage. The landing-ground task, which was the most urgent, meant lifting mines and clearing booby traps for days at a time. In fact, after five days’ work on one field, not all of the mines had been lifted. At another field it was estimated that it would take a week to clear the ground and two weeks to clear surrounding areas. All mine-lifting had to be done by hand with the help of mine-detectors; flail tanks (‘Scorpions’) were tried, but were considered slow and inefficient by the New Zealand Engineers for this type of work.

Mine-lifting was also done on roads and tracks, and on the main coast road west of Nofilia. No track was free of mines, and even the local water supply could not be used until an access track had been cleared. The road itself had not only to be cleared but at various points dispersal areas off it had to be made safe. As well as anti-tank and anti-personnel mines there were booby traps, demolitions and obstacles, in the use of all of which the enemy was expert. It is small wonder that during this ‘rest’ period the engineers lost 13 killed and 25 injured.

For the first few days in the area there was difficulty in obtaining satisfactory supplies of water. Wells in Nofilia village had been both mined and blocked with debris and the water was dirty and contaminated by dieselene. It took some days to clear them, with assistance from a British well-boring section which later found a good fresh supply in the area.

Rommel’s appreciation of how much he owed to his engineers during this campaign is shown in his recommendation on 28 February 1943 that his Chief Engineer (Major-General Buelowius) should be promoted to lieutenant-general. He praises the provision of obstacles on a large scale and the great attention to detail, demolitions in specially reconnoitred locations, laying of mines in extra large quantities in deep thick minefields, often over large sectors away from roads, destruction of landing grounds and ‘adaptation of engineer methods to North African conditions’; and finally he says, ‘It is due in very large measure to the engineers under the Chief Army Engineer that the withdrawals were carried out without heavy losses, and that the Army was able to disengage from the enemy in every case according to plan.’ Our engineers probably would have said that Buelowius well deserved his promotion, which incidentally he did receive.

An indication of the close-knit co-operation which had now developed between Eighth Army and the Desert Air Force was the further clarifying on 26 December of the area of responsibility of the Division, which now included from the Nofilia landing ground westwards to the Sultan landing ground. Within this area was a landing strip at Sidi Azzab, 35 miles due west of Nofilia, which a working party from 6th NZ Infantry Brigade numbering 11 officers and 300 men made fit for operational use in about a week. The rest of the Division carried on with training. Some few reinforcements, recovered wounded and sick, came forward from Maadi.

Immediately on arrival at Nofilia the NZASC was engaged on the task of building up supplies for the next move. The Division had finished the El Agheila – Nofilia operations with petrol for only fifty miles – and with experience enough to lay down that in future five miles to the gallon for each vehicle was to be taken as the basis of issues. By the end of December units held petrol for 350 miles, and thereafter drew only enough to replace daily consumption. During this period the NZASC made petrol dumps on the east side of Wadi Tamet, 100 miles west of Nofilia, for the use of both 2nd NZ and 7th Armoured Divisions, and also dumped rations and ammunition at various points to accord with the 30th Corps administrative plan. Included in one petrol dump was a special supply of high octane petrol for the Greys, which was to be under the Division’s command. It was steady and unceasing work, but gradually the stocks accumulated to the required quantities.

In the days following Christmas the GOC remarked more than once that the enemy would pull out of Tripoli without a fight, and indeed went so far as to say that it would be evacuated in three or four days, an example of a delightful vein of optimism that sometimes coloured his conversation; but one of his customary reports to the New Zealand Government on 30 December was less optimistic and gave what in the end was a correct forecast – that the enemy would not fight seriously to hold Tripolitania, that Eighth Army would be in Tripoli by January, and that Africa would be cleared of Axis forces in the next few months.

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The Terrain

The Buerat line ran from Maaten Giaber on the coast, 15 miles north-west of Buerat, to the south-west in front of Gheddahia, an important track junction and also the junction of Wadi Umm er Raml from the south and Wadi Zemzem from the south-west. The line then ran southwards on the western side of the track to Bu Ngem and the Wadi Umm er Raml, and made good use of the long ridge Dor Umm er Raml. But while the northern flank was reasonably secured by salt marshes north of the road, which here turned inland, the southern end of Dor Umm er Raml could easily be outflanked. In the circumstances the detached post at Bu Ngem was in a dangerous position, and it is small wonder that Rommel had it removed. Air reconnaissance and the LRDG both reported that the enemy had recently strengthened his line; but the defences seemed to consist of unconnected weapon pits and an unfinished anti-tank ditch, and had little real depth. They were strongest nearest the road, where it was already known that the enemy could fight his most effective delaying action. Any defence south of Dor Umm er Raml could be by mobile forces only. It was of course appreciated in Eighth Army that the enemy knew well the weakness of his line, so that a prolonged resistance was not expected.

Between Nofilia and the Buerat line the going was good away from the coastline, and the only obstacles of importance were Wadi Tamet and Wadi Bei el Chebir; but even here the upper or southern reaches were reasonably shallow with sloping sides. Crossing would not be difficult; but the wadis formed bottlenecks, as they could not be crossed on a broad front.

West and north-west of the enemy’s line was a wide stretch of desert where adequate going was interspersed with numerous wadi systems running across the line of advance. Of these wadis,
or wadi systems, the most important were Wadi Zemzem, Wadi Nfed, and Wadi Sofeggin. The first could be easily crossed, but the other two were difficult, the only good area being near their junction at Sedada and Tmed el Chatua, or alternatively near the main road.

Beyond these wadis the ground rose gradually to the north-west, for the line of advance in that direction in reality ascended the southern slope of a range of hills known as Gebel Garian and still farther west as Gebel Nefusa. This southern face was gentle in slope and gave the appearance of a plateau, although the word plateau is relative, for the ground was anything but smooth. Where the line of advance crossed the line Homs–Tarhuna–Garian, the land was anything from 1400 to 2500 feet above sea-level, with a steady rise in height from north-east to south-west, the trend of the crestline.

From there to the north the level fell very rapidly and the escarpment presented a precipitous face, and indeed from the north looked like a mountain range. Moreover the northern face was a formidable obstacle, deeply incised by long and steep wadis, with grotesque re-entrants and projecting bastions. So deeply cut is this escarpment, and so abrupt its fall, that movement north or south is impossible, except on roads and tracks. Movement east or west on the top of the escarpment, at least for large formations, is almost impossible for some miles back from the northern edge, so deep and so steep are the wadis.

From the foot of the escarpment into Tripoli, a distance of 30 to 40 miles, the going was not difficult except for sand dunes. There was fairly intensive cultivation across this strip, which was well watered with springs.

All this was known from pre-war reports; but more detail was needed and the invaluable LRDG was called on to send out patrols to provide it. Captain Browne, leading a patrol in a jeep, was blown up on a mine at El Machina. A South African officer was killed and Browne wounded, and the patrol returned to Nofilia. On 25 December it set out again, led by Second-Lieutenant McLauchlan , and reconnoitred to the Bu Ngem–Gheddahia track. In spite of an ambush in which several men were lost, it completed its task and returned to report that the going to Bu Ngem was not passable by night nor in desert formation by day, but that there was good going between Pilastrino and Fortino. Another patrol, which included no New Zealanders, also left on 25 December, travelling as far as the line Homs–Beni Ulid. It reported that the area bounded on the north and east by the coast road, and on the south-west by a line Bu Ngem–El Faschia–Sedada–Tmed el Chatua–Bir Gebira–Beni Ulid was suitable for a force of all arms. The upper reaches of Wadi Sofeggin and Wadi Nfed were impassable, but the lower reaches were scarcely perceptible. The terrain would provide no cover from air observation for a force of any size, but there were reasonably good water supplies. Towards the end of December a more detailed reconnaissance of limited range was made by a party of New Zealand engineers headed by the CRE, and directed as far as the crossing of Wadi Tamet and the area immediately west and south-west. The result was to select a divisional thrust line towards Pilastrino and Fortino, as the going farther south was impossible.

Concurrently with these reconnaissances, work started on making and marking tracks forward from Nofilia, and again the field companies and the Provost Company were kept busy. These tracks were to be used by all formations of the army, the road being reserved for transporters, RAF transport, maintenance convoys and staff cars. The New Zealand Division was responsible in part for four parallel tracks, two as far as Wadi Bei el Chebir, and two directly south of Sirte, where 7th Armoured Division took over. The Division finished its task by 12 January.

The Desert Air Force still required further airfields in the forward areas; but to avoid attracting enemy attention, minimum use was to be made of transport and machinery. Thus on 30 December 5 Infantry Brigade Group was given the task of clearing a landing ground some 30 miles south-west of Sirte and east of Wadi Tamet. The group commenced its 100-mile move on 1 January, 23rd and 28th Battalions marching for two days on foot, while the remainder moved in transport the whole way. The group was fully assembled by 6 January after the artillery had completed calibration.

The airfield site, some 1200 yards square, had first to be bulldozed level, and the men then picked up by hand thousands of stones, loaded them into trucks and removed them. The work started on 2 January under the protection of 42 Light AA Battery. At the earliest possible date, 6 January, Spitfires operated from landing strips, with pilots waiting in their seats and radar in use. But on the 5th eight Messerschmitts raided the airfield, killing nine New Zealanders and wounding twenty-six. There were further raids during the next three days, when two more were killed and three wounded,5 and in addition four British soldiers were killed and twenty wounded. The light anti-aircraft battery and the Spitfires did good work and gradually wore the enemy down; but the warning of a raid was always short, and naturally the only slit trenches were off the airfield. Most of the time a strong cold wind raised much dust, so that Brigadier Kippenberger had good cause for saying that it was ‘one of the most unpleasant jobs 5th NZBrigade ever had to do’. In this test of discipline the group stood up manfully. It remained in the area until 11 January, when it rejoined the rest of the Division, which had moved forward from Nofilia and was now close by.

Plans for Operation fire-eater

On 28 December Montgomery issued his plans for FIRE-EATER, the operation to capture Tripoli. The object was ‘to destroy the enemy now opposing Eighth Army in the Buerat position, and to ensure the port of Tripoli as a base for further operations’. Different tactical plans were prepared in case the enemy should evacuate the position before Eighth Army reached it (codename GAME), or in case he thinned out and left only rearguards (SET), or in case he stood and fought (MATCH).

13th Corps issued a series of operation instructions for the offensive, of which the first dealt with the approach march to Wadi Bei el Chebir. Orders were issued on 5 January for the action to be taken in the event of GAME, SET, or MATCH; and when it was known that the enemy was indeed thinning out, slightly more detailed orders were issued on the 7th for SET only. These said that 2nd NZ Division would have under command:

Royal Scots Greys (Lieutenant-Colonel A. G. J. Readman), with 25 Shermans, 4 Grants and 20 Stuarts

211 Medium Battery, RA

One battery 42 Light AA Regt, RA

94 Heavy AA Regt, RA

One troop of Scorpions (which in the outcome were not accepted and not taken)

Before ‘D’ day the divisions would move forward, prepared to go straight into battle without any pause to square up or reorganise. The start line and bounds were the same for 2nd NZ and 7th Armoured Divisions. The former depended on the distance which 7 Armoured Division had advanced its patrol line (4th Light Armoured Brigade) before the operation commenced, and in the event was roughly the line of the road from Gheddahia to Bu Ngem. The corps axis of advance was Sedada–Beni Ulid–Tarhuna–Tripoli, with bounds at the crossing of Wadi Zemzem and at each of the above places.

No inter-divisional boundary was laid down between 7th Armoured and 2nd NZ Divisions, but they were to move on the right and left respectively of the corps axis of advance and cross the start line at dawn on 15 January; thereafter the speed of advance was to be as great as possible, with 2nd NZ Division proceeding straight to Sedada and capturing it. The armoured division would then pass through and seize Tarhuna, while 2nd NZ Division cleared the route from Sedada to Beni Ulid. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to cover the corps front but had considerable freedom of movement. If strong enemy forces were met, it was to swing to the west and make for Tripoli by any way it could.

A detachment from 239 Wing, RAF, using some 175 vehicles, would move with 2nd NZ Division; in conjunction with a reconnaissance party accompanying 7th Armoured Division, it was to establish fighter landing grounds at Sedada and Bir Dufan, 30 miles farther north, in order to keep fighter cover in step with the advance, for by the time formations reached Sedada and beyond they would be out of range of the fighters operating from existing landing grounds. The New Zealand Division was allotted three wireless tentacles for communication with the air force, one of whose tasks it was to maintain air supremacy over the flanking column and give close support if required.

For the action to be taken on reaching Tripoli special instructions were issued. Naturally these made broad assumptions about the actual arrival at the gates of Tripoli, and one of these was that the leading infantry brigade would come from 2nd NZ Division. This brigade was to determine sectors, allot each sector to a unit, establish guards on vital points, maintain law and order and so on. Sufficient copies of this particular corps order were distributed for each brigade, battalion and armoured regiment commander, so that all were aware of the general scheme.

The Division moves Forward

Divisional Headquarters and Divisional Cavalry moved some ten miles south from Nofilia to new positions on 3 January, and shortly after midday next day the battalions of 6 Brigade marched past General Montgomery and continued on foot to their destination. The brigade then dispersed into desert formation, leaving gaps for 6th Field Regiment and 8th Field Company which were away, the artillery calibrating and the engineers engaged on their special tasks. It was a windy day with flying sand, and conditions were unpleasant, as indeed they also were for 5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group working on the airfield, and doubtless for the enemy working on the Buerat line.

Montgomery then visited the Greys. After lunch at Divisional Headquarters he addressed an assemblage of officers on the Battle of Alamein, the future of the North African campaign, and the situation on other fronts, before visiting 6th NZ Brigade Group to do likewise. The GOC gave a dinner for him in the evening, about which it is recorded that Montgomery retired to bed quite early and the GOC a little later, but that the party then carried on.

The GOC held a planning conference on 5 January on a forthcoming training exercise, and on the two following days went on a reconnaissance of the forward area across Wadi Tamet, visiting Headquarters 30 Corps (which was west of Sirte), Headquarters 7th Armoured Division, and 5th NZ Infantry Brigade.

Divisional orders appeared on 7 January, directing the first of a series of marches towards a bivouac area just east of Wadi Tamet. The Division was to carry out a training exercise en route. As 5th NZ Infantry Brigade Group was still employed on the airfield, it could take no part, but the brigade commander and commanding officers and staff were to attend. To maintain some element of secrecy no fires were to be lit between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., and except during the exercise, there was to be wireless silence. The object was to practise ‘forming a gun line’, or in other words establishing infantry units quickly in defensive positions within well-knit antitank gun defences, supported by artillery and prepared to resist an enemy tank attack.

In the administrative field, after replenishment on 14 January, units would have sufficient rations and water to last until midnight on 22–23 January, and petrol for at least 350 miles for all vehicles. Replenishment thereafter would occur as opportunity offered.

The Division moved westwards at 8.30 a.m. on 9 January in very cold weather. Divisional Cavalry sent back reports of an imaginary enemy, and at 9.40 a.m. Freyberg gave verbal orders for a gun line to be formed to meet an unexpected attack from the north. Three hours’ hard work by 6th NZ Brigade produced well-dug gunpits and slit trenches with effective camouflage, all of which met with the General’s approval; but he would have liked the time to repeat the exercise. Later on he discussed the lessons with Brigadiers Kippenberger and Gentry and Colonel Queree, and arrived at an agreed drill for laying out a gun line. The only unsolved point was what to do with transport, for everyone was well aware that transport left ‘behind the line’ was not necessarily safe.

After a meal the Division continued to advance west in desert formation, until about 40 miles had been covered. It then bivouacked for the night.

The Greys, less one squadron destined to join 5th NZ Brigade Group, had come under command of 6 Brigade on 8 January, and elements of the regiment accompanied the brigade during the exercise; but all tracked vehicles – the tanks of the Greys, of Divisional Cavalry and of the Protective Troop, and all carriers – were between 8 and 11 January loaded on transporters at Nofilia and ferried by road to a staging area near Tamet airfield. Thus no tracked vehicles of any kind took part in the exercise.

The ‘tracked’ column had a narrow escape during the 11th, for just after the transporters had moved clear of the staging area twenty enemy aircraft attacked. Luckily there was no damage. The tanks and carriers remained there for the next few days and then rejoined the Division.

On 10 January the advance was over good going to a bivouac area on the eastern side of Wadi Tamet, a further 50–odd miles. Full anti-aircraft precautions were taken, including facing all vehicles to the north so that windscreens would not reflect the sun. Camouflage nets were freely used, slit trenches dug, and light anti-aircraft batteries deployed throughout the area.

At Headquarters 30th Corps the Army Commander addressed all formation and unit commanders. Subordinate officers were to be told the details of the plan forthwith. General Freyberg therefore visited both brigades on 11 January and spoke to unit officers. After his visit 5th NZ Brigade Group moved off from its location near Tamet airfield and travelled the 20 miles south to join the Division.

In view of the mass of vehicles now accompanying the Division, Administrative Group was arranged in two parts. Part 1 comprised those units ‘wanted on the voyage’, for example the ASC companies and 5 Field Park Company. Part 2 was not wanted for the moment – Field Cash Office and YMCA Headquarters for instance – and these were to stay with an Administrative Post set up near Bir el Magedubia.

The next stage of the Division’s advance took it across Wadi Tamet on 12 January in daylight, a march of about 25 miles. The crossing was carried out by ‘blocks’, each of the normal groups crossing at hourly intervals to avoid congestion, for the point had now been reached where enemy interference or at least discovery from the air was possible. The Desert Air Force had been asked to provide air cover during the crossing; two light anti-aircraft batteries were in positions on the escarpments, and units took full internal precautions. Complete wireless silence could not be observed, however, because a change of frequencies during the move necessitated some testing. It was another windy, dusty day, and some of the going, especially west of the wadi, was rough, but the stage was completed in the early afternoon without incident, although it was later realised that the Division was in fact eight miles short of its intended location. The reason for this ‘short haul’ is not known, but it was not of major importance.

The following stage was to be a night move, so 13 January was a day of rest. The weather continued cold and unpleasant; but rations, water and petrol were topped up during the morning, and in the afternoon information about the forthcoming operations was passed on to all the troops.

Divisional Orders for the Advance

In the formal operation order for the advance, issued on 12 January, the ‘Intention’ paragraph read: ‘2nd NZ Division will capture Tripoli, destroying any enemy forces encountered’. This could not be criticised for any lack of thrust. The advance was to be in three stages. Stage I would commence at 7 p.m. on 14 January from a start line just short of Wadi Bei el Chebir and end when near Wadi Umm er Raml, opposite Fortino. As this was a night move it was important to ensure that space between the groups was available at dawn for a dispersal of 100 yards between vehicles. To achieve this groups would move so many miles past a distinctively lit sign on the axis of advance and then halt. These were calculated as nine miles for Divisional Cavalry in the lead, six and a half for 6 Infantry Brigade Group, two and a half for Headquarters and Reserve Group, and nil for 5 Infantry Brigade Group. Administrative Group 1 would move in daylight on 15 January.

Stage II would commence at 7.15 a.m. on the 15th, at which time Divisional Cavalry would cross the Gheddahia–Bu Ngem track, named as the start line. All other groups would await verbal orders, but would close up to ensure a cohesive column. The axis of advance, Fortino–Tueil el Ase–Sedada–Tmed el Chatua, would be marked with black diamonds, already so well known.

Stage III, for which few details were yet prescribed, was to be the advance on Tripoli by the best route on the general line Beni Ulid–Tarhuna.

Various tasks were laid down for the specialist arms. The artillery was directed to provide anti-aircraft protection at the crossings of Wadi Zemzem and other defiles. The engineers were to clear the road Sedada–Beni Ulid of mines and develop water supplies. Divisional Cavalry was to operate seven miles to the front and flank, especially to the west and south, and was to keep touch with 11th Hussars of 7th Armoured Division on the right. The regiment was given a series of bounds with codenames, on which
it was to report, and was to reconnoitre Wadi Zemzem and Wadi Sofeggin, where there might be opposition from the enemy in addition to the normal difficulties of passing through a bottleneck.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade would operate as the most advanced scouting force, and the Royals would be on 2nd NZ Division’s front.

On the morning of 13 January, while the Division rested, Freyberg held a conference to give the latest information about the enemy, elaborate on the order, and give details of the movements of 4th Light Armoured Brigade and 7th Armoured Division. He expected that the crossing of Wadi Zemzem would be contested, and that fighting might occur at other points, perhaps against a panzer division. His Tactical Headquarters would remain near Divisional Cavalry, and the headquarters of the leading brigade would move there also, so that quick adjustments could be made to the divisional axis. As far as Beni Ulid 6th NZ Brigade Group would lead, but at that point 5th NZ Brigade Group would pass through. He was pleased with the presence of 94th Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment and said that its guns could be used as anti-tank and close-support weapons also. He probably had in mind the value the Germans obtained in that way from their 88-millimetre guns. He ended by saying that while strategical surprise could not be expected – in other words, while the outflanking move could not be hidden – it was still possible to obtain tactical surprise by night moves, wireless silence and other deception measures.

After the conference the GOC reported briefly to the New Zealand Government, saying that the Division was adequately trained and equipped for its mobile role.

The Enemy

Information about the enemy on the whole was accurate. It was known that he did not intend to fight on the Buerat line and that one panzer division had been withdrawn, although the reason for this was obscure. It was also known that all units, both German and Italian, were much below strength, but it is unlikely that actual numbers were known, for post-war information reveals that strengths were very low indeed. It was believed that by 15 January all the Italian troops had been withdrawn to Homs – Tarhuna, if not farther; but this was not correct.

On 15 January, when the attack started, enemy dispositions from north to south were:

Between Maaten Giaber and Bir Umm er Raml: (a) remnants of Pistoia Division with the German 19th Anti-Aircraft Regiment (fighting as infantry) to strengthen it, (b) German Air Force Brigade, (c) elements of Spezia and Young Fascist Divisions, (d) 164 Light Division (only 3500 strong).

From Bir Umm er Raml to the southern end of Dor Umm er Raml: ( a) Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment, (b) Ariete Battle Group (now renamed Centauro Battle Group and with Nizza Reconnaissance Unit under command) – 57 tanks, (c) 15 Panzer Division (with 3 Reconnaissance Unit) – 35 tanks.

The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit was patrolling as far south as Bu Ngem and back to El Faschia. The 90th Light Division was in the main in second-line positions behind Spezia and Young Fascist Divisions, but was also patrolling out in front of these divisions.

The Italian 20th Corps comprised the Italian troops in the above line. The 21st Corps was at this time at work on the Homs–Tarhuna line and on the close defences of Tripoli. It comprised the bulk of Spezia, Pistoia and Young Fascist Divisions, together with Trieste Division.

The petrol position had improved comparatively, for units had enough for about 125 miles; but the reserves in the area were only sufficient for another 35 miles, and there was no sign of further supplies.

The enemy information about our troops was exaggerated. He identified the divisions actually assembled, but added 10th Corps comprising 1st Armoured Division, 50th Infantry Division and 4th Indian Division, and moreover included 10th Armoured Division and 44th Division. Part of this confusion could have been the consequence of his having heard of Montgomery’s intention to bring forward 10th Corps but not of the cancellation. Also, one of the armoured brigades now with 7th Armoured Division had originally been with 10th Armoured Division, and other rearrangements of brigades may have confused him. Whatever the reason, Rommel expected to be attacked by stronger forces than were actually present.

2 NZ Division Closes up for the Attack

The Desert Air Force was very active in the week preceding the offensive. Fighters destroyed about twelve enemy aircraft in the air and four were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Two Spitfires were lost, but the pilots were saved. There were 152 fighter sorties on 14 January. Bombing of enemy positions and landing grounds both by day and night, was stepped up as ‘D’ day approached, with increasing attention to advanced landing grounds. Here the enemy resisted strongly, and there were many engagements between enemy fighters and our fighter escorts; but our attacks fulfilled their purpose, for on ‘D’ day few enemy planes were seen.

On 13 January 2nd NZ Division rested after crossing Wadi Tamet, and prepared for the night move to Wadi Bei el Chebir. This was to start at 7 p.m., but in order to compensate for the ‘short haul’ of the previous day, and because the going proved rougher than had been expected, an afternoon move of about 17 miles was begun at 3.30 p.m. and took about two hours. Towards the end vehicles closed up to twenty yards’ distance to maintain visibility between them after dark. The night march, now only 16 miles, was made with the advantages of a half-moon and freedom from wind. Sixth Brigade Group reached its destination near Pilastrino between 9 and 10 p.m., and about the same time Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group halted near Wadi Umm er Rtem, with 5 Brigade Group a few miles behind.

In the evening of 13 January there was still no sign of a general enemy withdrawal, so 30th Corps was impelled to inform both 7th Armoured and 2nd NZ Divisions that the enemy might make a stand at Gheddahia, in which case the ‘inland column’ would wheel round the enemy’s southern flank, directed on the main road some 20 miles north of Gheddahia with 4th Light Armoured Brigade making for Tauorga. This message was not received by the GOC until the early hours of 14 January. He met the corps commander and the Commander of 7th Armoured Division (Major-General Harding) early next morning and discussed this new possibility; but later air reconnaissance showed that there was a steady movement of enemy transport to the north-west, while that in the forward area had lessened. The need for this new left hook thus diminished.

The armoured fighting vehicles, including the Greys, rejoined the Division during the 14th from a laager near Wadi Tamet airfield, and 150 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA, and the Flash Spotting Troop of 36th Survey Battery also joined, completing the troops under command.

In view of the nature of the going and because of the congestion of vehicles, the GOC again decided to carry out part of the next advance (Stage I of the operation order) by daylight. Divisional Cavalry, starting therefore at 3 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., moved as far as Bir ez Ziden (just west of Wadi Bei el Chebir), halted there for the evening meal, moved again at 6 p.m. (by which time it was dark), and finally laagered on the divisional axis four miles east of the Bu Ngem track. Other formations ‘followed at first in open order, but closed up at nightfall into night order for the last part of the move. Stage I, a distance of about 20 miles, thus had been completed without incident. The Division now extended from the Divisional Cavalry laager as far back as Bir ez Ziden, in the order of Divisional Cavalry, 6 Infantry Brigade Group, Headquarters 2 NZ Division, Reserve Group, 5 Infantry Brigade Group, and Administrative Group.

By this evening (14 January) all formations of Eighth Army were in position: 51st Highland Division with its three brigades between Wadi Bei el Chebir and Wadi el Uesc-ca and 7 Armoured Division (4th Light Armoured Brigade, 8th Armoured Brigade, 131st Infantry Brigade) in the area immediately north of 2nd NZ Division. The Army Commander’s final instructions for the operation imposed a measure of caution on the outflanking column, as he wished to avoid casualties to tanks, in the belief that the enemy still had some 200 anti-tank guns and twenty-five of the hated 88-millimetre guns. On 12 January he issued a personal message to all troops:

1. The leading units of Eighth Army are now only about 200 miles from Tripoli. The enemy is between us and that port, hoping to hold us off.


3. Tripoli is the only town in the Italian Empire overseas still remaining in their possession. Therefore we will take it from them; they will then have no overseas Empire.

The enemy will try to stop us. But if each one of us whether front-line soldier, or officer or man whose duty is performed in some other sphere, puts his whole heart and soul into this next contest – then nothing can stop us.

Nothing has stopped us since the battle of Egypt began on 23rd October 1942. Nothing will stop us now.

Some must stay back to begin with, but we will all be in the hunt eventually.


Our families and friends in the home country will be thrilled when they hear we have captured that place.

B. L. Montgomery, General GOC-in-C, Eighth Army