Chapter 7: Before Bardia
Four days before the attack on Sidi Barrani opened General Mackay had been instructed to move his 16th Brigade forward to occupy the box defences at Maaten Bagush, and was warned that the whole division would move into the desert about the end of December. On the 12th, therefore, at first in clear, still weather but later into a wind which whipped up the dust until it was as thick as a fog, the trucks of the 16th Brigade, bearing the leaping-kangaroo sign which the division had adopted, moved out along the desert road. For two days news of the astonishing victory at Sidi Barrani had been coming back. The men were excited, and anxious to be in the battle before it was too late and the armoured division had swept the Italians off the face of the desert. The vehicles arrived at Sidi Haneish on the west face of the Bagush “box” in darkness and thick dust (most of the infantrymen travelled by train) and on the morning of the 13th the men awoke to hear bombs falling nearby.
Before the brigade departed for Maaten Bagush, Mackay had received orders that his division would relieve the 4th Indian on the right flank of the British advance. When he and Colonel Berryman,1 his senior staff officer, arrived at General O’Connor’s Western Desert Force headquarters on 14th December for a conference, which General Wavell also attended, they found both these commanders and also their staffs in a buoyant mood. The suddenness of the Italian collapse at Sidi Barrani and the low price that had been paid for it had persuaded at least some of the staff that in Libya the war was virtually over – a reaction that was perhaps to be expected at a headquarters which had planned and witnessed the first British victory on land in a war which was more than a year old. Intelligence officers had summed up the situation after Sidi Barrani in the words: “There is no doubt that the Italian Army in Libya as an effective force is finished.” Captured documents revealed that the Italians had estimated the forces opposed to them in Egypt at thirteen divisions, including four Australian, whereas there were actually only six divisions (including one complete Australian) in both Egypt and Palestine; the documents also showed that the Italians lacked, or believed they lacked, enough motor transport to carry out their planned offensive beyond Sidi Barrani, and that they had been fearful of a strong British out-flanking attack by two armoured divisions on Bardia and Tobruk. O’Connor’s Intelligence staff considered that there was “every indication” that Bardia would be abandoned.
In view of this possibility Wavell, at that conference, ordered that the 19th Australian Brigade should be warned to be ready to embark at
Alexandria and move to Bardia by sea to occupy the fortress, if abandoned. At the same time he ordered Mackay to move the remainder of his divisional headquarters and the 17th Brigade group forward on 22nd December, the 19th Brigade to follow later if the seaborne move to Bardia became impracticable.
On the following days the westward move of the Australian division continued. On 17th December the 16th Brigade, now directly under O’Connor’s command, was taken in trucks to a point between Sidi Barrani and Buqbuq, passing abandoned Italian camps, still littered with broken tanks and discarded weapons, and with tattered clothing and torn paper tangled in the low camel bush. After two long journeys there was still no sign of the enemy except green and red tracer shells sent up over Bardia against night bombers, but rumours were coming back of the speed at which the armoured division was advancing. However, when the
Australians arrived at Salum on 18th December, they were only five miles from the infantry battalions of the 7th Armoured Division, which, with their right on the sea, were lying about four miles outside the perimeter of Bardia. On the 19th, the 16th Brigade began marching up the Salum escarpment by Halfaya Pass into Cyrenaica, to take a place in a sector of “the front line”, a chain of shallow slit trenches burrowed into the stony desert.
Thus the Australian division was strung out at various points from Alexandria to a few miles east of Bardia. The 17th Brigade was at Sidi Hanish; Mackay’s advanced headquarters at Sidi Barrani. The previous day Mackay had been ordered to take command of all troops in the Salum area at noon on 21st December. At the outset his command would include the 16th British Brigade which was to relieve one battalion of the Support Group of the armoured division, while the 16th Australian Brigade relieved the other. The task of the armoured division was now to prevent enemy reinforcements reaching Gambut and Bardia, the 11th Hussars and the Support Group watching the Bardia-Tobruk road, the 7th Brigade watching the road from El Adem, and the 4th Brigade being in reserve.
For some days O’Connor had hoped that bombardment from the sea and air and by his own artillery might persuade the Bardia garrison to surrender, but there was now no real doubt that the Italians intended to hold Bardia.2 It was estimated at O’Connor’s headquarters on the 20th that most of the 62nd (Marmarica) and 63rd (Cyrene) Divisions and the remnants of the divisions defeated at Sidi Barrani were occupying the perimeter at Bardia – say 18,000 to 20,000 troops all told. When Mackay and Berryman conferred with him, O’Connor suggested that the Australian brigades should make a series of raids covered by artillery bombardments, and that a successful raid might enable them to establish a bridgehead inside the defences. The attack was not to be hurried, yet there was no time to waste, he said. He wished Mackay to deal with the Italians in Bardia – supposedly remnants of a defeated army – with two brigades, the third to be held ready to continue the advance to Tobruk.
The division now taking its place in the battle zone had not yet overcome the galling shortages of equipment that had plagued it during the training period, nor did it possess all its units. Its divisional cavalry regiment (except for one squadron) was 140 miles away harassing the stronghold of Giarabub. It had only two artillery regiments; the third was at sea on its way from England and not due to land at Suez until 22nd December. Of the two artillery regiments only one – the 2/1st – was armed with the new 25-pounder guns and its equipment of twenty-four of these guns had been completed only on 2nd December. The 2/2nd Regiment had twelve 18-pounders and twelve 4.5-inch howitzers of 1914–18 model, brought from Australia. The division’s lack of a machine-gun battalion (which though not part of the establishment of a division was normally attached when it went into battle) was remedied by the presence
in Western Desert Force of the 1/Northumberland Fusiliers, a British regular machine-gun battalion which was placed under Mackay’s command. The division’s anti-tank regiment had been diverted to England, but each infantry brigade had organised an anti-tank company. The recognised establishment of each such company included nine 2-pounder guns, but in fact only the 16th Company had so many; the 17th had two and the 19th none at all. The cavalry squadron then with the division had twenty very worn carriers, though in such a unit there should have been a proportion of light tanks and there were none; each carrier was armed with a Vickers machine-gun or an anti-tank rifle, but this had been ensured only by borrowing some of these weapons from the Mersa Matruh fortress troops. Ammunition for anti-tank rifles was so short that, before the weapons were used in action, each man was allowed to fire only one shot; and, to conserve ammunition, the Vickers guns had fired only one or two shots before battle. The men of some infantry units had not handled a live grenade until they received some at Sidi Haneish. The carrier platoons of the infantry battalions were variously equipped; some when they crossed the frontier had their full equipment, others had none. Most of the battalions lacked their full equipment of mortars.
However, it was the shortage of vehicles rather than weapons which caused most concern to the commander and his staff. As a partial remedy a convoy of 180 trucks was being hurried forward from the camps of the recently-arrived 7th Australian Division in Palestine to the Libyan frontier to reinforce the 16th and 17th Brigades, which had been moved up to the frontier largely in borrowed trucks; Italian vehicles captured at Sidi Barrani were used later.
The anxiety about the shortage of transport will be appreciated if the reader pictures the country which lay ahead. From the frontier to the Gulf of Sidra on which Benghazi lies, Cyrenaica resembles the western desert of Egypt except in the north-west between Derna on the east and the fertile farm lands of Benghazi on the west. In that area rises the Jebel Achdar (Green Highlands), a tableland 150 miles from east to west on whose wooded northern slopes enough rain falls to make farming possible. Between its western edge and the sea is a narrow strip of wheat land. Apart from the highlands the desert is low and arid, receiving only enough rain to support scattered clumps of drought-resistant camel bush. Fierce winds blowing over the dry land, from which man and his animals have removed all but these vestiges of cover, have eroded the desert, and it descends to the sea in a series of low irregular cliffs or escarpments. On the coast, wind and water have carved steep ravines into the cliffs. The floor of the desert is in some parts so smooth and firm that a motor-car can drive over it at high speed without discomfort, in others serrated by small wadis, or covered with stones. There are potholes of soft sand but the continuous sand dunes characteristic of the Libyan desert proper do not, in this part, begin until 100 miles or more from the coast. It was on the shelf between the Great Sand Sea to the south and the Mediterranean on the north that the desert campaigns were fought.
Few tracts of country anywhere presented fewer natural obstacles to the free movement of military vehicles; they could be manoeuvred here as if in a great arena. On the other hand, the rough going caused rapid wear and tear, and winds, drought, dust and extremes of temperature made campaigning uncomfortable even for troops well supplied with vehicles and gear. The wind might blow so strongly that it whipped up the harsh dust until for perhaps a whole day a vehicle five yards away would be invisible. In winter the nights were bitter, yet the days could be uncomfortably hot, and little shelter from cold, heat or wind was to be found. Yet to soldiers the desert offered two advantages: it was dry and free from disease; and the absence of towns and settled people over all the battlefield until Derna was reached meant that there were no refugees and no danger that civilians would be killed or wounded by bombing or gun-fire.
From the Egyptian rail-head at Mersa Matruh to Benghazi and beyond it one metalled road travelled across desert and mountain, although from Sidi Barrani to the frontier this road was paved only with loose metal which the Italians had heaped on it in an interrupted effort to improve the line of communication with their army in Egypt. Elsewhere were merely the tracks which vehicles had cut in the desert floor, and these were generally so worn and potholed that even in still weather the dust billowed high round the wheels of each moving vehicle and rose in a long plume behind it; in wind it became a general fog. At Bardia, Tobruk and other places in these neighbourhoods the Italians had dug for, pumped and reticulated substantial supplies of water which, though somewhat brackish, was drinkable, but elsewhere water would have to be carted.
It will be recalled that to defend Cyrenaica against invasion the Italians had fortified the two easternmost towns along the coast – Bardia, fifteen miles across the frontier, and Tobruk, sixty miles farther west. At great expense of labour, steel and concrete, they had dug a defensive line in the form of an arc eighteen miles in length round the little harbour and garrison town of Bardia. Plans of these defences captured at Sidi Barrani showed that they consisted of an almost continuous anti-tank ditch and behind it a double line of underground posts, the front line being linked by rows of barbed wire. The posts in the forward line were generally about 800 yards apart and each was protected by its own anti-tank trench (later found to be concealed by a roof of thin boards). They were armed with one or two 47-mm guns and from two to four machine-guns. The guns were fired from concrete-sided pits connected by trenches with a deep underground shelter which occupied most of the area of the post. This shelter offered almost complete protection against any but the heaviest of shells, but they were not good places to fight from, there being no overhead cover for the men in the gun and machine-gun posts, and no fire-step in the connecting trenches. Four hundred yards behind the forward line lay a second arc of posts, similar but lacking an anti-tank trench and sometimes without wire. The posts were numbered consecutively from south to north, odd numbers for the outer posts and even numbers for the inner, and the
numbers were marked on the maps and on the posts themselves – a convenience for an attacker because it helped him to discover exactly where he was. Within this perimeter aerial photography revealed a considerable array of artillery, estimated at 110 guns, and some long stone breastworks. Each flank of the line lay on the inner bank of one of the steep-sided wadis carved into the cliffs forming the coast from Salum northwards, but elsewhere the posts were in flat, almost featureless ground offering little cover to an attacker, and few landmarks. Water was supplied to the garrison by wells from which 200 tons a day were pumped and distributed in pipes to points within the perimeter and also, in normal conditions, to Fort Capuzzo. Part of the little town lay at the top of a cliff overlooking the northern shore of the bay forming the harbour and part below the cliff, on the shore of the harbour itself.
When we took our leave of the leading troops of the 6th Division on 19th December the 16th Brigade was moving forward to take a place on the flank of the armoured division which was patrolling around the Italian fortress.3 A little before midnight on the 19th–20th the column reached the frontier wire and before dawn the 2/2nd Battalion had taken over positions astride the Capuzzo-Bardia road held by the 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps, one of the two motorised battalions of the armoured division. When dawn came they found themselves deployed on a wide flat dusty plain. Bardia lay ahead over the straight horizon. A bitterly cold wind blew and the infantrymen wore every garment they possessed. The ground was so stony that it was difficult to find places where trenches could be dug even with crowbars; soon the men learnt to look for places where the desert rats had dug their holes because the soil was likely to be softer and with fewer stones. On the night of the 20th December the 2/3rd Battalion went into position on the left of the 2/2nd. The 16th British Brigade was deployed on the right of the 16th Australian.
The Australian battalions were on the southern slope of a slight ridge about 5,000 to 7,000 yards from the Italian line, and consequently were invisible to the enemy, whose field of fire generally extended about 1,000 yards from his posts. Brigadier Allen was reluctant to place his front line on the exposed forward slopes, but maintained observation posts on them by day and patrolled them by night. A substantial force of artillery, including three field regiments and two batteries of medium guns and howitzers had now been hauled up the escarpment. With Allen’s brigade was the 2/2nd Field Regiment which, when it arrived in the Capuzzo area on the 20th, found that it had been allotted positions out of range of the Italian posts, because General O’Connor’s staff did not know that it was armed with obsolescent 18-pounders and 4.5 howitzers. At length the batteries went into position astride the road, practically in line with the infantry, where they came under sharp shell-fire. Consequently, on the
21st, five guns in each troop were moved back 500 yards leaving one forward to attract the Italian fire.
Allen and his battalion commanders had trained their junior leaders and men assiduously in night patrolling of the aggressive and skilful kind that Australians had prided themselves on in France in 1918. On the night of the 21st–22nd each of the newly-arrived battalions sent forward a patrol to find and measure the anti-tank ditch and the wire, and discover whether the posts were occupied by Italians or Libyans. The patrol from the 2/2nd on the right consisted of a platoon led by Warrant-Officer Lovett.4 They steered their way past the Bir Sleiman and moving quietly, their boots muffled with sandbags, reached a position about thirty yards from the dimly-seen ditch beyond which they could make out the barbed wire obstacle. As Lovett and Private Honeywell5 were preparing to cross the ditch a party of Italians appeared, talking and laughing, and established itself in the ditch. Lovett and his men withdrew without having been detected.
The 2/3rd Battalion’s patrol, consisting of a platoon under Lieutenant Dennis Williams,6 set out on a similar mission at 8 p.m. Dressed in greatcoats, they steered with the aid of the only oil compass their company possessed, and, gauging the distance by counting their paces, marched their 7,000 yards and reached the anti-tank ditch at 11 p.m. The crescent moon had risen and they could see the wire beyond the ditch. They measured the ditch and found it fifteen feet wide but only two to three feet in depth with a two-foot parapet of spoil. Thence they moved to the wire which they found to be a “double-apron”, that is to say a fence with a sloping face on each side, and about twelve feet wide. They moved along a track like a cattle pad between the main fence and another lighter fence until, from a few yards away an – evidently – Italian sentry shouted “Chi va la?” The Australians promptly went to ground. With much chattering and shouting the Italians threw grenades, fired first with rifles, then with machine-guns from a post about 150 yards away, and finally also with artillery at such close range that the noise was stunning and the crack of gun and of bursting shell were almost simultaneous. All the fire – probably part of a pre-arranged defensive fire plan – fell beyond the ditch. The patrol had done its task and, after five minutes, Williams gave the order to withdraw to the cover of the ditch and the men moved stealthily back, without a casualty. After about twenty minutes the firing died and the patrol returned the way it had come.
The same night Captain Embrey’s7 company of the 2/1st (which was in reserve on the left) drove forward six miles across the desert in trucks,
whence patrols marched three miles to within 400 yards of the enemy’s lines between Posts 37 and 39.8
In the following week patrols went forward each night and, unnoticed by the Italians, continued to measure the ditch and wire at various points along the western side of the enemy’s line, or else were detected and drew a deafening fire from the posts. When this occurred the men merely lay still, sometimes for two hours, until the fusillade ceased and then made their way back to their company’s area, perhaps 6,000 yards away. Eventually men who went out on patrol wore sandshoes rather than muffled boots and, because they might have to lie motionless for hours at a time, dressed warmly, with sweaters over their jackets, balaclavas under steel helmets, mittens, scarves and long woollen underpants if they had them. From 22nd December onwards two or three engineers would generally accompany each infantry patrol to search for and disarm land mines and to reconnoitre the ditch and wire through which they would have to make a passage for the infantry when the attack was made.
On the night of the 23rd–24th occurred one of the few clashes in which shots were exchanged at close range. A patrol of sixteen men of the 2/1st Battalion under Lieutenant MacPherson9 reached the ditch, whence MacPherson and two privates, Webb10 and Kneen,11 crawled 200 yards further to measure the wire. MacPherson then crawled under the wire. He had just done so when three Italians appeared. MacPherson shot one and possibly another. While Webb fired on the third MacPherson and Kneen crawled away and finally Webb followed.
Until the 24th December the patrols had examined the ditch and wire only southwards from Post 41. On the 24th Lieutenant Cann12 and three engineers, with a party of the 2/1st Battalion, examined the ditch near Post 45, a mile farther north; the following night a company of the 2/1st under Captain Moriarty.13 patrolled along the western side of the ditch for a mile and a half opposite Posts 45 and 47. In addition, as mentioned above, the battalions established on the higher part of the ground small standing patrols whose task was to remain all day within a mile or two of the Italian line, report the enemy’s movements, and return at dusk.
On the night of the 27th a patrol of the 2/2nd, commanded by Lieutenant Burrows,14 was given a more aggressive task – not only to measure a section of the ditch and wire but to “harass the enemy and make the presence of the patrol felt.” Consequently, having found a large Italian working party where men were singing and talking and had no
sentries posted, Burrows put down his patrol 250 yards from the ditch and they fired two magazines from each of their three Bren guns. There was no answering fire, and after ten minutes the patrol withdrew.
This scouting brought in information which, although it enabled Intelligence officers to fill in on their maps more and more detail about the wire and the ditch, was not as accurate as they desired; an error of one or two degrees in navigation across the wide plain could bring a patrol opposite the wrong post, and patrols were seldom quite sure where they had been. On the other hand the patrols had revealed that the Italian scouts and sentries, in the western sector at least, seldom ventured beyond their own ditch, and were disinclined actively to investigate suspicious sounds along their front. In addition, these nightly enterprises were enabling young leaders to put to the test the patrol tactics in which they had been rigorously trained in Palestine; after a week there were few men and hardly a subaltern or sergeant in the rifle companies who had not listened to and seen tracer bullets hissing over his head or shells bursting behind him.
Although the Italians spent much ammunition, there was not a casualty among the patrols, nor was the hostile artillery fire effective. The only casualties had been caused by the intermittent bombing of Salum harbour, of the roads leading from it, and of concentrations of vehicles. Up to Christmas Day some twenty men had been killed by bomb fragments; for example, an attack by about twenty bombers on the 2/3rd Battalion’s positions on the 22nd killed three men and destroyed six vehicles. The Italian air force added to the discomfort of the headquarters and the services at Bardia by dropping “thermos bombs” behind the Australian lines. These bombs, which resembled a small thermos flask, were dropped in dozens. The shock of hitting the ground made the firing mechanism sensitive so that the four pounds of explosive would explode next time the bomb was touched. Units were advised to explode them by carefully looping round them a rope 100 yards long and towing them with a truck. If this failed they were towed into a heap and exploded by the engineers. They caused very few casualties.
Indeed, the discomforts the desert imposed were greater than those inflicted by the enemy. In that stony area it was a laborious task to dig even shallow ditches to give protection against artillery fire, bombs, wind and dust. The men roofed these holes with mottled green and brown Italian groundsheets or with iron and timber, and so gained some sleep by day in preparation for the bustle of activity which began when night fell. The water ration was half a gallon a man a day for all purposes; in practice this generally meant one bottle of unpleasantly saline water much of which was being brought by ships to Salum and stored in the wells at Capuzzo for drinking and washing. If a man shaved he could not wash his body. In still desert weather this would have been no great hardship, but for the first ten days outside Bardia the west wind blew and the dust was often dense. This dust, fine as talcum, would penetrate everything that was not tightly wrapped. The faces of men who had been working
or sleeping in it would be powdered yellow-grey. It would sift into packs and food and choke the mechanism of weapons.15 It could form so thick a fog that it sometimes brought traffic to a standstill.
The staffs shared some discomforts of the forward troops. Until the 26th December Mackay’s headquarters were in dugouts roofed with canvas, the general himself living in a hole dug into a small mound and covered with a tent-fly. Next day his offices were moved into one of the ancient cisterns that survive in the Libyan plateau – large excavations (this one sixty feet long) high enough to walk in without stooping, and entered through a small hole in the crust of the desert. The men usually had one hot meal a day, but on Christmas Day most dinners consisted of cold bully beef; during that day, however, each man in and out of the line received from the Australian Comforts Fund a parcel containing plum pudding and tinned cream, cake, fruit and cheese.16
It will be recalled that at the outset Mackay’s command consisted of two brigades – the 16th British (less one battalion) on the eastern side of the Capuzzo road and the 16th Australian on the left. On the 27th, however, Savige’s 17th Australian Brigade arrived and that night began to take the places of the two British battalions, the 2/2nd Battalion, and part of the 2/3rd. The British brigade went back to Buqbuq to rest in reserve, and the 2/2nd also marched to a rest area. The positions which Savige’s right battalion (2/6th) took over from the 2/Queens, were about 4,000 yards from the left of the Italian line where it lay along the northern lip of the Wadi Muatered, a cleft 100 to 150 feet deep and 100 yards wide, with almost precipitous sides. The southern side of the Muatered was broken by tributary wadis so that the incoming troops faced country in which it was possible to find covered approaches to within a few hundred yards of the enemy’s posts – an entirely different terrain to the almost flat area across which the neighbouring brigade faced the Italians. The batteries of the artillery regiment (the 2/2nd) now in support of the 17th Brigade were in position on the relatively level ground south of the tangle of wadis.17
On the 28th Savige instructed Colonel Godfrey18 of the 2/6th to move considerably farther forward to the far bank of the Wadi Ramla, a short gully entering the sea 1,000 yards south of the mouth of the Muatered; he was also to occupy Point 125 (a survey point 125 metres above sea level on the far bank of the Wadi Ramla), to examine the Muatered itself and, that night and next, to reconnoitre Post 9.
These orders led to a series of patrols to which the enemy reacted more briskly than on the western face of the perimeter. That night (the 28th–29th)
three platoons were sent out, with two days’ rations. On the right Lieutenant Sherlock19 during the night reached the north bank of the Wadi Ramla (it formed the Egyptian-Libyan boundary there), discovered the frontier posts in that neighbourhood abandoned, found a good artillery observation post, remained in the wadi all that day and returned on the next. In the centre Lieutenant Paterson20 and seven men patrolled to the south bank of the Muatered opposite Post 7, one of their tasks being to find an artillery observation post which could be defended by an infantry detachment, but, after they had returned to the rest of the platoon, which had been left 500 yards south of the wadi, they encountered an Italian outpost. The patrol’s only Bren gun refused to fire. A Corporal Goble21 moved to the right with his rifle and some grenades to outflank the Italians but ran into another post and was seen to have been hit by a grenade and believed to have been killed. The platoon, being now under mortar fire and greatly outnumbered, withdrew. On the left a platoon commanded by Lieutenant Dexter22 set out at 9 p.m. on a long march to the source of the Muatered. After moving 1,500 yards along it and investigating a series of sangars, all of which proved to be empty, Dexter went forward with three men along the bed of the wadi, evidently below Posts 11 and 9, without encountering an Italian.
As an outcome of these experiences Godfrey ordered his three forward companies to advance that night (the 29th–30th). By dawn they were extended along a 7,000-yard front from the south bank of the Wadi Ramla
on the right to a position occupied by Captain Little’s23 company at the source of “Little” Wadi (a tributary of the Muatered) on the left. Late in the afternoon a party of Italians, about a company strong, emerged from Little Wadi and moved towards the gun positions of the 2/2nd Field Regiment. Little’s company held its fire until the Italians were at close range. About seventeen enemy dead were left on the field and two prisoners (of the 63rd Division) were taken. The Italians made no further attacks, but abandoned Point 172 after it had been heavily shelled. Lieut-Colonel Cremor24 of the 2/2nd Field Regiment interpreted this Italian sortie as meaning that the enemy did not know that the infantry had moved so far forward, and the troops Little had stopped were setting out to raid his left battery which was little more than a mile from the scene of this action. As a precaution, it was withdrawn farther south.
The probing of the Italian defences by the infantry and engineers, added to the information gained from captured maps and documents, was providing a progressively clearer picture of those defences and the habits of the garrison, and enabling the commanders to plan an attack with increasing confidence. An outline plan of attack had been suggested by O’Connor. “It seemed to me,” wrote O’Connor afterwards,25 “that some plan would have to be made which would ensure that the few remaining ‘I’ tanks succeeded in getting safely across the anti-tank ditch and the minefields, and that this could only be done by an infantry attack on a narrow front against the enemy front line preceding the advance of the tanks. If successful, a bridge could then be made over the anti-tank trench and a path through the minefields cleared. I instructed him (Mackay) to think out something on these lines.” This was on 24th December. Mackay decided that the capture of the fortress would require “operations
approaching those in France during 1916–18”, and reported this to O’Connor, who promised maximum support by field and medium artillery, with 500 rounds a gun, and the use of the 7th Royal Tanks.26
Mackay and Berryman decided that surprise was essential; and, having achieved a break-through, they must exploit it rapidly. Prisoners and captured papers had now disclosed that the garrison of Bardia contained more formations than the Intelligence staffs had hitherto placed there – a total, indeed, of four divisions, the 62nd, 63rd, 64th and the 1st Blackshirt, though the first two were believed to be 30 per cent below strength and the 64th 80 per cent below. In spite of this Intelligence officers still were “doubtful if the fighting strength exceeded 20,000–23,000 with 110 guns”. It was emphasised that the divisions each contained only seven battalions and each was organised on an establishment of only 8,500. When a prisoner informed his interrogators that he had seen six medium and seventy light tanks, the Intelligence staff commented that these figures seemed high. By the end of the month it was thought certain that the 62nd and 63rd Divisions were south of the Tobruk road, that the 1st Blackshirt occupied the western part of the perimeter, and the depleted 2nd Blackshirt was being held in reserve north of the Tobruk road.
Mackay, though he had only six of his nine infantry battalions, the 19th Brigade still being in the Delta area, had now been allotted a formidable assortment of artillery. In addition to his own two regiments, 2/1st and 2/2nd, each with twenty-four guns, he commanded the 104th Royal Horse Artillery (sixteen 25-pounders), “F” Battery, RHA (twelve 25-pounders), the 51st Field Regiment (twenty-four 25-pounders) and the 7th Medium Regiment (eighteen guns and howitzers), making 118 guns, not including his few anti-tank and anti-aircraft weapons.27 He could count on having under command the 7th Royal Tank, now with twenty-five tanks in running order. The armoured division, however, was to play a relatively passive part in the attack, lest it waste its more vulnerable tanks, of which, on 30th December, only 70 cruisers and 120 light tanks were in action, by using them against the Italian artillery. The armoured division was O’Connor’s trump card and not to be used to take this trick. For the present it was to prevent the escape of the garrison from Bardia or the arrival of reinforcements from Tobruk, to assist the attack by demonstrations at the northern end of the perimeter and, finally, to advance on El Adem and isolate the Tobruk garrison as soon as Bardia had fallen. O’Connor instructed Mackay to have a brigade ready to advance on
Tobruk with the 7th Armoured Division on the third day of the battle. Such planning was made more practical when, at Mackay’s urgent request, the 19th Brigade arrived in the forward area on 1st January.28
As the point of attack Berryman recommended to Mackay Posts 45 and 47. He contended that an advance there would lead to high ground overlooking the Italian positions; that the Italian commander would not expect a thrust to the left of the line then held by his enemy; and that a blow at the junction of two sectors (as the captured maps showed these posts to be) would be likely to lead to the enemy commander in the early stages receiving reports which would mislead him into imagining the assault to be on a wider front.29 Berryman also stressed other advantages. When the leading brigade – Allen’s 16th – reached the line of the Wadi Scemmas it would be difficult for the enemy to hit back with his tanks through that steep gully; at the same time the British tanks could attack downhill to the south over gently rolling ground, where their chief limitation would be their meagre capacity for carrying ammunition. Colonel Jerram30 who commanded them guaranteed their ability to fight their way four and a half miles at most. One battalion of the 17th Brigade was to hold the right flank and the other two to continue the attack of the 16th Brigade. The 19th Brigade would be in reserve. To gain surprise, the artillery would be moved to the left flank only twenty-four hours before the attack and the fire based on survey methods and prediction.
On 28th December, at a conference at Mackay’s headquarters attended by Allen, Herring and Jerram (but not Savige), the plan of attack was outlined. If enough artillery ammunition could be brought forward in time31 Bardia would be attacked on 2nd January. Preceded by a party of engineers one battalion of Allen’s brigade would attack before dawn from a starting-line 1,000 yards from and parallel to the defences opposite Posts 45, 46 and 47. When the engineers had broken down the anti-tank ditch in six places and cut six gaps in the wire the battalion would take several posts farther north and a battery which lay to the east of them. A second battalion, accompanied by three troops of tanks, would advance through the breach, turn south-east and “mop up” the posts along the perimeter
until it reached a line along the main road running north into Bardia. A third battalion would advance to a line lying from Point 178 to a point 2,700 yards east of it. The plan for the second phase would be decided later.
Two days later a further conference was held at Mackay’s headquarters, this time attended also by Savige whose battalions were now patrolling the southern sector. It was followed by a second conference on the 31st. Zero hour was fixed at 5.30 a.m., the role of Allen’s battalions was discussed and the role of Savige’s brigade briefly outlined. In general terms (for, as will be seen later, there was question as to the details of the 17th Brigade’s role) the task of part of this brigade was to be to follow the 16th into the perimeter, wheel right and advance from the Bardia-Capuzzo road against the right of the Switch Line, a chain of posts which cut off the southern end of the fortress and created there what amounted to an independent redoubt measuring 5,000 yards by 4,000 at its widest parts. Colonel Jerram estimated that not fewer than six tanks would be available to support this attack. Another part of the 17th Brigade – the 2/6th Battalion – would exert pressure on the southern face of this subsidiary fortress. Within the southern area positions for at least four regiments of artillery had been identified, including the medium guns (collectively
known as “Bardia Bill”) which used to shell Salum, and just north of the Switch Line and between it and the Bardia-Capuzzo road were positions for an even stronger concentration of guns. Indeed, the majority of the Italian gun positions that had been located were in this southern corner, where also the enemy infantry had proved themselves to be more enterprising than those in the western sector. Savige, who had had experience of interpretation of air photographs in 1916–17, considered that the gun positions south of the Bardia road were occupied, but Herring and his staff were convinced that most were empty.
At this conference Savige raised the question of a raid (which the divisional staff had proposed) by a company of the 2/6th Battalion on the day before the attack opened. He said that he believed he had fulfilled his initial role of misleading the enemy concerning the point where the main blow would fall, and that such a raid, in such rough country, against alert troops strongly supported by artillery was bound to fail. It was agreed that the raid would not take place.
In Allen’s brigade the detailed orders provided that, after twenty-five minutes of artillery bombardment, the leading battalion (the 2/1st) and the engineers should, in the darkness, break their way through the Italian barbed wire and take four Italian posts. The battalion was given twenty-five minutes to move from start-line to the first two posts and another twenty-five minutes to take them. At 6.50 a.m., when it was light enough for their crews to see, four troops of tanks were to pass over crossings which the engineers had made in the anti-tank ditch and the minefields. One of these troops would join the 2/1st and, with it, advance north and north-east enlarging the bridgehead. The remaining tanks with the 2/2nd Battalion were to move south along the perimeter posts and the Italian batteries immediately behind them. The 2/3rd Battalion would then advance east through the gap to the edge of the first series of escarpments, followed by the squadron of the 6th Cavalry in its carriers, which would deploy and form a link between the 2/2nd Battalion on the right and the 2/3rd. Thus the 16th Brigade was to occupy a semi-circular area some 8,000 yards long and up to 3,000 yards deep. The advance of the 16th Brigade and the tanks was to be shielded by artillery fire.32 From 5.30 to 5.55, ninety-six guns and howitzers were to fire on the front-line posts from 43 to 49 and the second-line posts from 42 to 46. Thus the fire of these guns, varying in calibre from 25-pounders to 60-pounder guns and 6-inch howitzers, would be concentrated on precise targets in an area 2,500 yards wide by 500 deep. At 5.55 a.m., when the infantry would attack Posts 45 and 47, the barrage would begin to move forward and out-
wards so as to fall on posts farther to the right and left and on Italian batteries some 1,500 yards behind the wire on the high ground between the posts and the escarpment. The aim of the fire plan was to smother the enemy’s fire within 1,500 yards of the attacking infantry – the effective range of medium machine-guns. From 11.30 the guns of the 2/1st Field Regiment were to lift to Posts 20–24 east of the Bardia road, and to Italian batteries behind these posts in Little Italy and left and right of it, thus covering, it was hoped, the advance of the 2/5th and companies of the 2/7th Battalions along the perimeter and to the Switch Line.
The instructions given to Savige lacked the simplicity of those describing the role of the 16th Brigade. After the conferences mentioned above, the brigadiers returned to their various headquarters to prepare detailed orders from their notes, but, when the divisional order reached Savige, he found that it was in conflict with his own orders to his battalions in two respects. Whereas the divisional order33 (for the details of which Berryman was responsible) provided that the 2/6th Battalion on the extreme right should “stage a demonstration against the south-west corner of the southern sector of the perimeter”, Savige’s orders to Godfrey of the 2/6th were to occupy the Wadi Muatered from Post 8 to Post 11, and they warned Godfrey that his further role might be to advance to the line of the road from Post 3 to Post 10 and beyond. And, whereas
the divisional order provided that the 2/7th would pick up the advance round the perimeter where the 2/2nd left off and, “as the attack of the 2/5th or the 7th Royal Tanks progresses”, should advance along the perimeter, with Posts 11 and 9 as the final objective, Savige’s order left the 2/7th, less one company, in reserve. The remaining company of the 2/7th was to come under command of the 2/5th Battalion which was to play the leading part in the second phase of the attack by advancing southeast to a line through Little Italy and near Post 16 where the Switch Line began. For this advance, which was to begin at 11.30 a.m., the 2/5th Battalion plus the attached company was to have the support of the same tanks that would have taken part with the 16th Brigade in the earlier phase of the battle.
When Savige received the divisional orders late on the night of 1st January he wrote asking that Berryman read his (Savige’s) order, which, he said, represented “the only practical way to deal with the situation”, and added that the 2/6th would be at least on the north face of the Wadi Muatered soon after the battle opened. He contended that the 2/7th should not be asked to make a long march across the enemy’s front under the fire of “massed batteries in the south-east corner”, and with a danger in the final stages of the 2/6th and 2/7th firing at one another as they pressed towards the same posts from opposite directions. He asked Berryman to submit the question to the general. This Berryman did at 7 o’clock on the morning of the 2nd and, as a result, Mackay issued an instruction to Savige repeating that the 2/6th would stage a demonstration, but adding that Savige might use his discretion about occupying the Wadi Muatered from Post 5 to 11; and making a second company of the 2/7th available to the commanding officer of the 2/5th. This instruction left the 2/7th (though now less two companies) in reserve as in Savige’s orders. Savige then amended his orders to Godfrey by instructing him that at zero hour he would “demonstrate by fire” but not attack in the Wadi Muatered; that, at his discretion he might gain the north bank of the wadi, but he was not to move “north of the main wadi” until the tanks gained Post 10. However, Godfrey’s orders to his company commanders opened with the words: “Intention: 2/6th Battalion will capture the enemy positions on the Wadi Muatered from Post 3 to Post 11.”34
The divisional orders for the battle were afterwards criticised on the grounds that they were too detailed, in that, for example, they contained instructions for individual battalions, although the giving of such instructions is the responsibility of the brigade commander and, in fact, they had been given to the battalions by the brigade commanders before the divisional order was received. Savige’s brigade had certainly been given a very complicated role, especially for inexperienced though well-trained troops. While one of his battalions demonstrated on the extreme right wing, another, reinforced by part of a third, was to pass through a neighbouring
brigade at various points; at what might be a critical stage, one of his battalions would be facing north, parts of another entering the fight from the west and the third advancing south. On the other hand the fact that O’Connor wished the attack against a fortress of great physical strength to be carried through with only two brigades which were facing the enemy on a front of 20,000 yards presented the divisional commander with a very difficult problem which could not be solved without risk. Mackay’s answer to the situation created by a conflict of orders was to give the benefit of the doubt to the brigade commander – the man who would have the actual handling of the troops in the coming battle.
With the object of concealing from the enemy where the attack would fall, no artillery concentrations had been fired and no offensive patrolling undertaken north of Post 39, and movement north of the Sidi Azeiz road had been reduced as far as possible. On the two nights before the eve of the attack, most of the batteries that were to support the break-through were moved northward to their new positions. The moves were begun as soon as possible after the completion of “the evening tasks” but it was ordered that the gun tractors should not go forward to haul the guns out before 6.15 p.m., when it would be dark enough to conceal them. So as to give no hint of the movement to enemy artillery observers and scouting aircraft, the tractors returned to their original positions after having placed the guns in their new positions. To conceal the move of the 2/1st Field Regiment its camouflage nets were left in position and, during the 2nd, single guns of the 2/2nd were distributed throughout the old gun pits and in the remaining pits abandoned Italian guns and dummies made from old wheels, stove pipes and pieces of timber were placed. The guns maintained a desultory fire on the 2/1st’s previous targets and Italian grenades were burst at the muzzles of the dummies.
Before the staff conferences ended, the bombardment of the Bardia defences from the sea and air had begun. On 2nd January the monitor Terror and gunboats Aphis and Ladybird shelled targets from daylight until 2 p.m. Air force squadrons bombed the fortress area intermittently from 31st December onwards. On the night of the 1st, 20,000 pounds of bombs were dropped and on the night of the 2nd, 30,000 pounds.
Behind the lines, the administrative staff of the division, and particularly the ordnance corps, under Lieut-Colonel Pulver, the DADOS or deputy assistant director ordnance services, were making vigorous efforts to equip the division for the coming battle. “This is a ‘Q’ war,” said Colonel Vasey, who had a taste for summing up a situation or a campaign in a single phrase. It was true that success depended on finding means of supplying a force 150 miles beyond its rail-head (Qasaba near Mersa Matruh) in almost waterless desert, especially as that force lacked equipment in the degree mentioned below.
The preliminary operation orders issued on 30th December included instructions to Pulver to explore the captured area for Italian vehicles and stores, and discover whether the division could not to some extent “live on
the country”. On that day the division was critically short of vehicles and their spare parts, oil, parts for Bren guns, and even clothing; the daily water ration of half a gallon did not enable a man to wash himself, much less his clothes. The nearest depot was at El Daba, seventy-five miles east of Mersa Matruh, and this was recently formed and had limited supplies. Because vehicles were so few, O’Connor had ordered that they be used to bring forward only rations, ammunition, petrol and spare parts for motor vehicles. In the last few days ninety-five additional vehicles were obtained from various sources as far afield as Palestine, and, of these, eighty were allotted to the task of carrying ammunition forward, all others available being sent to El Daba and Alexandria to pick up supplies. Arrangements were made to ferry stores from the Australian depot at the Citadel in Cairo to Ikingi Maryut.
On 1st January, when the preliminary moves before the battle were already being made, 11,500 sleeveless leather jerkins, a protection against cold and barbed wire, arrived and were distributed; two lorry-loads of springs and tyres arrived; ten carriers were repaired and distributed among the battalions, bringing their strength in these to about 70 per cent of their “war establishment”. The next day 350 wire cutters, captured from the Italians, arrived and were distributed to the battalions that would attack next morning. The 17th Brigade received 3-inch mortars but they lacked sights. An officer raced to Cairo, collected sights and arrived back at Bardia just before the battalions began to move forward. At 7 p.m. on the 2nd there reached divisional headquarters 10,000 yards of tape to mark the ground over which the troops would attack, and 300 pairs of gloves to protect the hands of men cutting wire; the gloves were delivered to units that were already moving up to their assembly areas, but the tape did not reach the 16th Brigade in time and four-inch by two-inch rifle-cleaning flannelette torn into narrow strips was used instead.35