El Alamein to Tripoli (November-December 1942) - The Memoirs of Field Marshall Montgomery

THE PURSUIT TO AGHEILA

THE PURSUIT proper began on the 5th November with 10th Corps (Lumsden) in the van. I left 30th Corps (Leese) to reorganise to the west of the break-out area. 13th Corps (Horrocks) had the task of cleaning up the battle area of Alamein and of salving all the war material of the enemy and of our own forces. It also had to collect all the Italian prisoners; there were many of them and they surrendered in droves, headed by the generals carrying their suit-cases. My ultimate objective was Tripoli; this had always been considered the objective of the Eighth Army. But unfortunately the operations to get there had become known as the “Benghazi Handicap”. As one officer expressed it to me: “we used to go up to Benghazi for Christmas and return to Egypt early in the New Year.”

I was determined to have done with that sort of thing. Egypt must be made secure for the duration of the war. I had long considered the problem, and when the pursuit began I was clear that the way to achieve this task was as follows:
(a) to capture the Agheila position, and hold securely the approaches to it from the west.
(b) to locate a corps strong in armour in the Jebel about Mekili, trained to operate southwards against any enemy force that managed to break through the Agheila position and make towards Egypt.
(c) to get the A.O.C. to establish the Desert Air Force on the Martuba group of airfields, and also to the south of Benghazi.

The establishment of aircraft on the Martuba group was not just a long-term proposal; it was an immediate requirement since a convoy for Malta was due to leave Alexandria on the 16th November. That island was in dire straits with great shortage of food and fuel; it was vital the convoy should get through and it might fail to do so unless the Desert Air Force could provide fighter cover as it passed in daylight through the narrow area between Crete and Cyrenaica.

By the 15th November the air forces were established in the Martuba airfields, in time to see the convoy safely on its way.

For the development of these operations I agreed the following detailed plan with the A.O.C. Desert Air Force (Coningham). We would use the air arm as the long-range hitting weapon, working in close co-operation with armoured car regiments; fighter squadrons would operate from advanced landing grounds soon after the armoured cars had reported them clear, and well ahead of the main bodies. These tactics would lead to the enemy being shot up and harassed in his withdrawal, while good fighter cover was given to our own forces.

I did not think we would have any serious fighting till we reached Agheila. Rommel would undoubtedly withdraw to that position and would endeavour to stop us there; his supply route would then be shortened while ours would be long, thus reversing the supply situation which had existed at Alamein.

I therefore planned to leave 10th Corps to lead the pursuit as far as the Jebel, and to halt it there with orders to push light forces forward towards Benghazi and Agedabia. I considered Lumsden would handle these operations satisfactorily. I would then pass 30th Corps through to tackle the Agheila position and the movement to Tripoli. I also decided that as soon as 10th Corps was established in the Jebel I would bring Horrocks up to command it and would send Lumsden back to England. I had reached the conclusion that command of a corps in a major battle was above Lumsden’s ceiling. On the other hand, he was a good trainer and as such he would be valuable back in England. I decided to ask for Dempsey to be sent out from England to take over 13th Corps from Horrocks. I would then have three reliable Corps Commanders in Leese, Horrocks and Dempsey; they had all served under me before, and Leese and Dempsey had been students under me at the Staff College. All these moves were agreed by Alexander.

The sketch map will serve to illustrate the development of my plans up to the Agheila position.

I gave precise instructions to Lumsden about the development of operations for the pursuit to Agheila, and kept a firm hand on the battle in order to ensure the master plan was not “mucked about” by subordinate commanders having ideas inconsistent with it. I knew well that, in the past, corps and divisional generals had had their own ideas about operations in the desert, and had not liked a firm grip from above; this was one reason why we had nearly lost Egypt. I made it very clear to Lumsden that this time all would carry out my orders; I had promised the soldiers complete success and I was determined to see they got it.

Soon after the pursuit began I was in danger of capture. A reconnaissance party was sent forward to select a site for my headquarters in the Mersa Matruh area; two members of this party were Hugh Mainwaring and my stepson Dick Carver. On approaching Mersa Matruh the party took a road leading down to a place on the shore called Smugglers Cove, just to the east of the town. The enemy were still there; they should all have been rounded up by that time but, as will be seen later on, our forces moving across the desert were halted by heavy rain. The reconnaissance party was captured. I myself with a small escort was moving well forward in rear of the leading elements of the army and was about to take the road leading to Smugglers Cove. But at that moment I ran into a sharp engagement which was going on a few hundred yards in front; we had bumped into an enemy rearguard which was trying to hold us off while they cleared Mersa Matruh. If I had gone down the road to Smugglers Cove, it is possible I would have run into the enemy; if so, I’m pretty clear that I wouldn’t be writing this book today.

The other—and more important—operations developed successfully. Twice Rommel’s forces were saved from complete disaster by heavy rain. The first occasion was on the 6th and 7th November when we had three divisions “bogged” in the desert, unable to move, and it was not possible even to get petrol to them; this setback saved Rommel’s forces from complete encirclement at Mersa Matruh. The second occasion was when very heavy rain on the 15th, 16th and 17th November held up our forces moving across the desert towards Agedabia to cut off the enemy before he could reach the Agheila position. However, I “drove” the Eighth Army hard and the following figures will show how fast we moved:

5th November Pursuit began from Alamein.
11th November Reached Sollum (270 miles).
12th November Reached Tobruk (360 miles).
17th November Reached Msus (560 miles).

It was good going to do 560 miles in 13 days; but the administrative situation quickly began to cause me anxiety. To get full value from having established the air forces in the Cyrenaica bulge about Martuba, they must be able to operate at full blast against Rommel’s supply routes by sea across the Mediterranean, the port of Tripoli, and the enemy communications between Tripoli and Agheila. The air force daily requirements for these tasks were given to me as follows:

By 28th November 400 tons.
By 2nd December 800 tons.
By 9th December 1050 tons.
By 16th December 1400 tons (1000 at Tobruk and 400 at Benghazi).

These were big tonnages for the air forces alone. But if Rommel intended to stand and fight at Agheila, we should also have to build up army resources of supplies, petrol, and ammunition before we could attack. However, from the larger angle, it was clear that the air forces had to have all they wanted; they were the long-hitting weapon and their operations if successful would indirectly make the army task much easier.

On the 12th November, when we had driven the enemy forces out of Egypt, I issued the following message to the Eighth Army:

“1. When we began the Battle of Egypt on 23rd October I said that together we would hit the Germans and Italians for six right out of North Africa. We have made a very good start and today, 12th November, there are no German and Italian soldiers on Egyptian territory except prisoners. In three weeks we have completely smashed the German and Italian Army, and pushed the fleeing remnants out of Egypt, having advanced ourselves nearly 300 miles up to and beyond the frontier.

  1. The following enemy formations have ceased to exist as effective fighting formations:

Panzer Army 20th Italian Corps 15th Panzer Div. Ariete Arm. Div. 21st Panzer Div. Littorio Arm. Div. 90th Light Div. Trieste Div. 164th Light Div. 10th Italian Corps 21st Italian Corps Brescia Div. Trento Div. Pavia Div. Bologna Div. Folgore Div. The prisoners captured number 30,000, including nine Generals. The amount of tanks, artillery, anti-tank guns, transport, aircraft, etc., destroyed or captured is so great that the enemy is completely crippled.

  1. This is a very fine performance and I want, first, to thank you all for the way you responded to my call and rallied to the task. I feel that our great victory was brought about by the good fighting qualities of the soldiers of the Empire rather than by anything I may have been able to do myself.

  2. Secondly, I know you will all realise how greatly we were helped in our task by the R.A.F. We could not have done it without their splendid help and co-operation. I have thanked the R.A.F. warmly on your behalf.

  3. Our task is not finished yet; the Germans are out of Egypt but there are still some left in North Africa. There is some good hunting to be had farther to the West, in Libya; and our leading troops are now in Libya ready to begin. And this time, having reached Benghazi and beyond, we shall not come back.

  4. On with the task, and good hunting to you all. As in all pursuits some have to remain behind to start with; but we shall all be in it before the finish.

B. L. Montgomery, General, G.O.C.-in-C, Eighth Army”

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It will be noticed from the signature of this message that I was now a general, having been a lieutenant-general when I arrived in the desert on the 13th August. I was promoted general for “distinguished services in the field” after the Battle of Alamein, and appointed a K.C.B. at the same time.

A curious incident occurred as our light forces were moving forward south of Benghazi. I was right up behind the leading armoured cars, reconnoitring the area; I had a small escort with me. We had outstripped the fighter cover and from time to time enemy aircraft strafed the road; it was not a healthy place and I suppose that I ought not to have been there.

Suddenly I saw a lorry coming up from behind, and on it a large boat; a naval Petty Officer sat with the driver and some sailors were inside.

I stopped the lorry and said to the Petty Officer: “What are you doing here? Do you realise that you are right up with the most forward elements of the Eighth Army, and you and your boat are leading the advance? This is a very dangerous area just at present, and you are unarmed. You must turn round and go back at once.”

He was dreadfully upset. He had been ordered to open up a “petrol point" at a small cove well to the north of Mersa Brega; small naval craft were to land petrol at this point in order that the leading armoured car regiments could refill their tanks; this was the easiest way of getting petrol and oil to them. He explained this to me, looking at me with pleading eyes rather like a spaniel asking to be taken for a walk to hunt rabbits.

He then said: “Don’t send me back, sir. If the armoured cars don’t get their petrol, they will have to halt and you will lose touch with the Germans. Couldn’t I go on with you? I would then be quite safe.”

That Petty Officer was clearly a student of psychology! In point of fact I did not know about these small petrol points for the armoured cars; it was a staff plan and a very good one. I took the naval party forward with me and saw them safely to their cove, where I was their first customer for petrol. I have often thought of that Petty Officer; he was from the Merchant Navy and in the R.N.V.R.; his sense of duty was of the highest order, and Britain will never lose her wars so long as the Royal Navy can count on men like him.

THE BATTLE OF AGHEILA: I3TH TO 17TH DECEMBER 1942

As we approached the Agheila position I sensed a feeling of anxiety in the ranks of the Eighth Army. Many had been there twice already; and twice Rommel had debouched when he was ready and had driven them back. I therefore decided that I must get possession of the Agheila position quickly; morale might decline if we hung about looking at it for too long. It was a difficult position to attack.

I therefore decided to attempt bluff and manœuvre, and to bustle Rommel to such an extent that he might think he would lose his whole force if he stood to fight. He would be anxious too about the morale of his own troops; they had been retreating continuously since they were defeated at Alamein, more than 1.ooo miles away; they had been hustled out of every position on which they had tried to make a stand; they were continuously being “shot up” from the air. All this would tend to make Rommel’s forces dispirited and defensively minded, looking over their shoulders for the next position to which to withdraw—as had been the case in the Eighth Army once upon a time.

In view of the awkward country to the south and the difficulty of a frontal attack, it would obviously be preferable to manœuvre Rommel out of the Agheila position and then attack him in the easier country to the west; in view of the probable decline in morale in his forces, I thought this could be done if I did not delay too long.

30th Corps had now taken over the lead from 10th Corps; I reconnoitred the position with Leese in the last week in November and gave him my orders, leaving all the details in his capable hands. The main feature was to be a movement by Freyberg and his New Zealanders round the enemy south flank to a position north of Marada, and from thence to operate against the rear of Rommel’s forces; this would be synchronised with a frontal attack by 51st (Highland) Division and 7th Armoured Division. I fixed the 15th December as the date on which the operation would begin. The sketch map illustrates the plan. I then decided that I myself would fly back to Cairo to discuss further plans with Alexander; I also wanted to get some more clothes, and generally get cleaned up after nearly four months in the desert. I spent a very pleasant week-end in Cairo, staying at the British Embassy. I did not realise until I got to Cairo that I had suddenly become a somewhat “notorious character”; my appearance at St. George’s Cathedral for the Sunday evening service, where I read the lessons, created quite a stir. It is a strange experience to find oneself famous and it would be ridiculous to deny that it was rather fun.

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When I got back to my headquarters just east of Benghazi, I found preparations for facing up to the Agheila position were well advanced. It seemed clear that the enemy was becoming nervous about our preparations, and had begun to ferry back his immobile Italian troops to the Buerat position—the next good defensive position to the rear. I therefore decided to advance the proposed timing by two days.

Everything went well. The enemy began to withdraw the moment our frontal attack developed; but the New Zealanders had got in behind them by the 15th December, and at one time we had the whole of Rommel’s Panzer Army in between the New Zealand Division and 7th Armoured Division, which was advancing strongly. The Germans broke into small groups and burst their way through gaps in the strung-out New Zealand positions; fighting was intense and confused all day on the 16th December, and prisoners were captured and recaptured on both sides. The Panzer Army finally got through to the west, but it was severely mauled by the New Zealanders and also suffered heavily from air attack. I ordered the New Zealand Division to halt and reorganise at Nofilia, and followed up Rommel’s army with light forces, making contact with them in the Buerat position which they were holding strongly.

The Battle of Agheila was now over; that position was firmly in our hands. I had 10 Corps (Horrocks), strong in armour, in the Jebel about Mekili. The Desert Air Force was vigorously supporting our operations from Martuba airfields and from airfields south of Benghazi about Agedabia. We had in fact achieved our purpose. I moved my advanced Tactical Headquarters forward to Marble Arch, near the Merduma airfields, close to H.Q. 30 Corps. From this area I was to be well placed to direct the reconnaissance of the Buerat position and to draw up the plan for the advance to Tripoli.

CHRISTMAS I942 IN THE DESERT

We were now well into Tripolitania, and over 1200 miles from Alamein where we had started. Rommel and his Axis forces had been decisively defeated. Egypt was safe for the duration of the war.

I decided that the Eighth Army needed a halt during which it could pull itself together and get ready for the final “jump” to Tripoli. Indeed, officers and men deserved a rest and I was determined they should have it. I ordered that we would halt where we stood, that no offensive operations would take place until after Christmas, and we would all spend that day in the happiest way that conditions in the desert allowed. It was very cold. Turkeys, plum puddings, beer, were all ordered up from Egypt and the staff concentrated on ensuring that it all arrived in time: and it did. I issued the following message to the Eighth Army:

“1. The Eighth Army has turned the enemy out of the famous Agheila position and is now advancing into Tripolitania. It is wonderful what has been achieved since the 23rd October, when we started the Battle of Alamein. Before the battle began I sent you a message in which I said:

Let us pray that’ the Lord mighty in battle ‘will give us the victory. He has done so, and I know you will agree with me when I say that we must not forget to thank Him for His great mercies.

  1. It is now Christmas time and we are all thinking about our families and friends in the home country. I want to send you all my very best wishes, and my hope that 1943 will be a very happy year for each one of you.

  2. I have received a Christmas Greeting from Hull, in Yorkshire. It is quite the nicest that I have ever received; my only regret is that I cannot answer it, as the writer gave no address. But I shall treasure it all my life. It is intended for you as well as for me, and is as follows: “Dear Sir, To wish you and our lads of the EIGHTH ARMY a very happy Christmas. Good health. Good luck. And by the Grace of God VICTORY IN 1943.
    Keep ‘em on the run, Monty. Best wishes from a Yorkshire lass with a lad in the Eighth Army.

  3. What better Christmas greeting can I send on to you than the one from the Yorkshire lass? I would like to tell her, from us all, that we will do our best to ‘keep’ em on the run.’

  4. Good luck to you! And in the words of Tiny Tim, in Dickens’s Christmas Carol: ‘God bless us all, each one of us.’“ I realised later that I had misquoted Tiny Tim. But the misquotation did the trick!

I enjoyed that Christmas in the desert; I think we all did. We had a feeling that we had achieved something. The Agheila bogey had been laid and we were leaguering as an Army beyond that once-dreaded position, where hitherto only our advanced patrols had penetrated. We had made the grade; and morale was high.

De Guingand was not with me. He had borne a tremendous burden since we had met at the road junction outside Alexandria on the early morning of the 13th August, and he collapsed during the preparations for the Battle of Agheila. I sent him back to Cairo for a rest; he had become engaged to be married and I said he should get married before he returned—which he did. I borrowed Bobbie Erskine (now General Sir George Erskine) who was Chief of Staff to Leese in 30 Corps, and he acted as my Chief of Staff till de Guingand returned.

Duncan Sandys, son-in-law to the Prime Minister, had been visiting me and when he returned to Cairo he sent us a bottle of port for Christmas. John Poston, my A.D.C, told the mess corporal to take the chill off it before putting the bottle on the table. The corporal wanted to make certain there would be no mistake; so he boiled the port; steam came from the bottle when it was placed before me at dinner on Christmas night!

I recall particularly one incident about which I heard shortly afterwards. It took place in the Sergeants’ Mess of a certain unit on Christmas night. Toasts were being drunk. Some of the younger sergeants reckoned we would soon be in Tripoli and they were drinking to that day and to the end of our labours. To many who had served in the desert, Tripoli was the end of the road; once we got there, we should have done our share and could sit back. An old and seasoned sergeant-major, a veteran of many battles, watched the fun and the drinking and then got up to make a speech. He was much respected and there was instant silence when he rose. He spoke very quietly, outlining what had been achieved and what still remained to be done. He finished with these words:

“Some of you think that when we have got to Tripoli, it will be the end of our labours. That is not the case. We went to war in 1939 to defeat Hitler and everything for which he stands. A long struggle lies ahead; when we have cleared the Axis Powers from Africa we shall have to carry the war into Europe, and finally into Germany. Only when we have defeated Germany in Europe, will we be able to return to our families honourable men.”

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It will be remembered that the First Army (Anderson) had landed in Algeria on the 8th November and was developing operations towards Bizerta and Tunis.

Having secured these places, it was to be directed on Tripoli. There was considerable speculation in high places which Army would get to Tripoli first: the Eighth Army or the First Army. The idea that any army except ourselves should capture Tripoli infuriated officers and men of the Eighth Army. For three years it had been the target; they weren’t going to miss it this time.

I wrote the following in my diary on Christmas Eve, the 24th December, 1942. “And so ends the first phase of this remarkable campaign. We have driven the enemy from Egypt, from Cyrenaica, and across the border into Tripolitania. The next stage may be the most difficult.

The war in Africa is not now so clear cut as it was in October and November; we are away in Tripolitania and are 1200 miles from where we started. Our war, and the Tunisian war, are now getting close to each other and require co-ordination. Vested interests are beginning to creep in. We want some very clear thinking; the object must be defined clearly and pursued ruthlessly; we must not be led away on ventures that do not help in achieving the object. We really want unified command; you cannot conduct operations in a theatre of war with a committee. My own view is that the surest way of getting to Tripoli quickly is for the Eighth Army, with its accompanying Air Force, to ‘drive’ forward and that everything should be done to make this possible.”

The operations of the First Army made our task easier, without any doubt. But it was the relentless forward move of the Eighth Army which was eventually to save the First Army from serious disaster.

Shortly after Christmas I received the following letter from a soldier in the Eighth Army. That letter, from an ordinary soldier, made me feel very happy.

S/13056697, Pte. Glaister G., “A” Branch, Rear H.Q.
8th Army
23 Dec. 42

“To: General Sir Bernard L. Montgomery, K.C.B., D.S.O.General Officer Commanding Eighth Army.

Sir, For a private soldier to write a personal letter to an Army Commander is perhaps most unusual, even if the Regulations don’t wholly forbid it. But this isn’t really a personal letter—it is written on behalf of thousands of men in the Eighth Army. On October 21st 1942, I had been in the Services for two and a half years without feeling very concerned about it. I felt the successful running of the Army was more the business of its officers, not much being expected from its privates.

But on October 21st, the D.A.Q.M.G. gathered us informally together, and read your message to us. There can never have been such a message read to troops before, with the trust and confidence it placed in them. This message was a bond, and for the first time in my Army life I felt I belonged to something—to some live force that had a job to do, a job so hard that even my work as a clerk had a place in a gigantic scheme. I know from talking to men in this and other units, that your speech—a man to man speech, had a tremendous effect on their spirits.

You achieved far more by your human, personal message than any Order of the Day could have done. For myself, thank you, Sir, for this new feeling.

You have made us proud to belong to the 8th Army. And now you have sent us a Christmas message which, by its friendliness and references to his home, must have gone to the heart of each one of us.

Because circumstances more or less compel troops as a whole to be inarticulate, I again on behalf of thousands of us here in Libya—on behalf of this great brotherhood, thank you sincerely. In closing, may I wish you a very happy Christmas and a brilliant and successful 1943. God Bless you, Sir, and guide you at all times. Yours obediently and humbly, Geoffrey Glaister. Pte.”

THE ADVANCE ON TRIPOLI: I5TH TO 23RD JANUARY I943

When the enemy withdrew from the Agheila area he went back to the Buerat position and began to prepare that line for defence. The basis of my plan for dealing with that position was twofold:

(a) I did not want the enemy to withdraw; I wanted him to stand there and fight. If he did this, he could probably be destroyed, since the position could be outflanked to the south. I would therefore hold main bodies of attacking divisions at least 100 miles behind the front, while we built up our administrative arrangements. The opening phases of the advance would then take the form of an encounter battle.

(b) When I attacked the Buerat position my plan must be such that we could go right through to Tripoli, without allowing the enemy to delay us or stop our movement.

The essence of the whole operation must be speed, for the crux of the problem of getting to Tripoli was administration. I calculated that I must have enough petrol, ammunition, supplies, etc., for 10 days’ fighting. My forces were based on Benghazi and Tobruk, and it was a long haul by road from them. A pause was now necessary to build up the administrative resources we needed; my staff told me the necessary dumping could be completed by the 14th January. I decided to attack on the 15th January. I well knew that if we did not reach Tripoli in 10 days I might have to withdraw—for lack of supplies. On arrival at Tripoli it would be vital to get the port open and working at full capacity very quickly; the enemy must not be allowed time to damage the port facilities unduly.

My plan then was to complete dumping by the 14th January, to leap on the enemy in strength on the early morning of the 15th January, and to “crash” right through to Tripoli within 10 days. Administratively, it was a considerable risk.

On the 4th January very heavy gales began to rage in the Mediterranean and these created havoc and destruction at Benghazi. Ships broke loose and charged about the harbour; heavy seas broke up the breakwater and smashed into the inner harbour; much damage was done to tugs, lighters and landing places. The capacity of the port, which had been brought up to 3000 tons a day, dropped at once to 1000 tons a day. The storms looked like continuing and all ships had to leave the harbour; Benghazi was practically “out” as a base port and indeed by the 12th January its capacity had fallen to 400 tons a day.

Here was a “pretty how-de-do”! We were at once thrown back on Tobruk; which place was 1000 miles by road from Tripoli. And having got to Tripoli we would have to build up good dumps there for use in the operations beyond.

G.H.Q. in Cairo got anxious and asked if I would now have to change my dates and thus put everything back.

I decided there was only one thing to do—to “crash” on to Tripoli with no change in the timing. To do this I decided to “ground” the three divisions of 10th Corps which were in the Jebel about Mekili, and use all their transport to lift forward from Tobruk and Benghazi the supplies needed by the 14th January. 10 Corps must become Eighth Army’s “Carter Paterson.”

I sent for Horrocks and put him in charge of the whole business; he entered into it with the greatest enthusiasm and organised a first class transportation service. We kept our dates.

I issued the following message to the Army on the 12th January.

“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.

  1. THE EIGHTH ARMY IS GOING TO TRIPOLI.

  2. 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 Alamein began on 23 rd October 1942. Nothing will stop us now. Some must stay back to begin with, but we will all be in the hunt eventually.

  3. ON TO TRIPOLI!

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

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I once stumpled over this interesting interview with Montgomery
https://youtu.be/H1dz3pqbRaw
What an exciting power a general held

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