Coningham’s fighters and fighter-bombers were much in evidence when Operation FIRE-EATER began on 15 January 1943. Montgomery’s plan to capture Tripoli and rest of Libya , called for two widely separated thrusts, the first one being launched by 30th Corps commanded by General Leese at 0715 as an outflanking movement south of the enemy position. This attack was delivered by 2nd New Zealand Division with 4th Light Armoured Brigade on its left and the bulk of 7th Armoured Division on its right. The attackers encountered strong resistance from 15th Panzer but by evening had destroyed fifteen German tanks, were across the Wadi Zem Zem, and had in fact turned Rommel’s defences.
Meanwhile at 2230, 51st Highland Division attacked down the Via Balbia. Remembering how his control of events after Alamein had been thwarted by poor communications, and considering that the distance between the separate thrusts was too great to allow them to be controlled by one Corps Commander, Montgomery took personal charge of this advance. 51st Highland Division encountered deep minefields and since the Highlanders had suffered heavy casualties at and after Alamein, Montgomery ordered that they proceed with caution – at first. Nonetheless Wimberley’s steady advance, coupled with the threat of being outflanked, was enough to ensure Rommel’s retirement. By dawn on the 16th, the whole Buerat position was in Eighth Army’s hands.
Now that the fixed defences had been passed it was vital that Eighth Army should reach Horns and Tarhuna before its enemies could prepare adequate defences there. Montgomery promptly cancelled all orders for caution, calling instead for ‘great resolution and determination’. Despite the mines, demolitions and booby traps on the coast road and the appalling going facing Leese’s advance, the men of Eighth Army met the challenge. By the evening of the 17th, Leese had captured Beni Ulid, south-east of Tarhuna and due south of Horns, while 51st Highland Division had advanced to within some twelve miles of Misurata.
That night the Desert Air Force’s light bombers effectively hit the main Axis air base at Castel Benito, just south of Tripoli, an operation which they repeated on the night of the 18th/19th. During the intervening daylight hours, the Allied fighters and fighter-bombers were also out in strength, playing their part in the capture of Misurata by 51st Highland Division, followed in the late evening by that of Zliten, midway between Misurata and Horns, by 22nd Armoured Brigade. The enemy fell back to Horns and Tarhuna, and the crisis of the battle was at hand.
Montgomery was well aware of this. During the night he summoned Wimberley to his Tactical Headquarters which was now with 22nd Armoured, and warned him of ‘the need for speed now on the coastal route’ in view of the serious shortage of supplies and the consequent need to take Tripoli within ten days of the start of the offensive. Over the next forty-eight hours, Montgomery would continue to badger his unfortunate subordinate, his rebukes showing little consideration for the Highlanders’ very real problems but being justified perhaps by the urgency of the situation.
On 19 January, Wimberley closed up to the Horns defences, while away on Eighth Army’s left flank, 7th Armoured Division was attacking the pass at Tarhuna – a narrow defile between two high ridges – and 2nd New Zealand Division and 4th Light Armoured Brigade were pushing south of Tarhuna towards Garian. Unhappily during the attack on Tarhuna, Harding, who was standing on top of a Grant tank directing operations, was blown off it and badly wounded in the left arm and leg by a bursting shell. His senior staff officer, the future Field Marshal Carver, was able to arrange for Harding’s hasty removal to hospital in a light aeroplane and, on Harding’s own previous recommendation, his place at the head of 7th Armoured was taken by Roberts. He, however, could only arrive next day and in the meantime progress on the Tarhuna front came to a halt.
In practice this did not matter greatly, for Rommel, alarmed by Harding’s pressure, had already transferred 15th Panzer Division , 164th German Light Division, the Ramcke Brigade and his Reconnaissance Units to Tarhuna, leaving only 90th Light to hold Horns. Thereupon Montgomery, as at Alamein, switched the direction of his main thrust, reinforcing 51st Highland Division with 22nd Armoured Brigade and sternly commanding Wimberley to attack day and night until victory had been achieved. The Scots certainly did their best. Horns was taken on the afternoon of the 20th, and Corradini 12 miles to the west, despite bitter resistance by 90th Light, fell next day. On the 21st also, a detachment of the 1/7th Queens Royal Regiment from 131st Brigade under Major William Griffiths was able to move round to the west of Tarhuna, and that night, concerned over the threat this development posed and appreciating that it was in any case no longer possible to halt Montgomery’s coastal thrust, Rommel abandoned the Tarhuna pass to fall back towards Tripoli.
On the 22nd therefore, all the Allied forces continued their advance. That of 51st Highland Division and 22nd Armoured Brigade along the coast road was delayed temporarily during the afternoon by demolitions guarded by rearguards from 90th Light, but Wimberley, as ordered, renewed his pressure successfully during the hours of darkness. Meanwhile on the left flank, 2nd New Zealand Division and 4th Light Armoured Brigade captured Azizia to the south-west of Tripoli, while 7th Armoured Division struck out towards Castel Benito, where on the previous day the Kittyhawks of Nos. 250 and 260 Squadrons had performed the unusual but important task of destroying tractors which were attempting to plough up the airfield so as to prevent its future use by the Allies. South of Castel Benito, the enemy checked this pursuit for a time from behind a double anti-tank ditch, but a night attack by 1/6th Queens, led by Lieutenant Colonel Roy Kaulback, took the position by storm. Eighth Army’s twin thrusts were closing in on Tripoli and despite the protests of Cavallero, Rommel decided it was pointless to try to hold the city a moment longer.
‘In the swaying battle of the desert,’ declares Alan Moorehead, ‘Tripoli had for two and a half years appeared as a mirage that grew strong and now faded away again, and was for ever just beyond the Eighth Army’s reach.’ He compares its capture to that of Paris by the Germans and Singapore by the Japanese and the re-entry into Stalingrad by the Russians. Yet none of these had had to wait so long for their moment of triumph. ‘So many had died,’ says Moorehead, ‘or been withdrawn through wounds at a time when the struggle looked futile and endless. So many had recovered hope only to lose it again. So many had aged and grown sick and weak.’
Now at last it had all proved worthwhile. At 0530 on 23 January 1943, the 11th Hussars from 7th Armoured Division thrusting north from Castel Benito entered the capital of Libya, just ahead of the 50th Battalion of the Royal Tank Regiment from 23rd Armoured Brigade pushing westward along the Via Balbia with the men of the 1st Gordon Highlanders riding on its Valentines. Montgomery and Leese met and shook hands and, just three months from the start of the great offensive at El Alamein, the soldiers of Eighth Army were able to stand in the main square and gaze with delight at the plumes of white water from the fountains of Tripoli.