Chapter 33: 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 10 Corps’ available forces was certain, but at this time Freyberg was not fully aware of 7 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 7 Armoured Division for his diary carries the comment, ‘Kippenberger thinks they will have gone from Halfaya tomorrow morning as 7 Armd Div are due behind them tomorrow. If not, difficult to get up the defile road.’1 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 21 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 5 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 9 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 2 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 7 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, 90 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 164 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, 90 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 164 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 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 7 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 4 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
1 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 5 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 10 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,2 the small column of C Company under Major N. B. Smith3 and A Company under Captain Roach4 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 21 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 23 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 steep-sided 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’s5 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 Kelly6 and Jennings,7 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,8 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 Ellery9 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 trucks in good order, 10 machine guns, two anti-tank guns, and some 50 prisoners.
Just before daybreak a troop of 4 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 21 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 500 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 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 21 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 21 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 21 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.
While the Halfaya Pass engagement was being waged, 90 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 4 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 7 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 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 4 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, 4 Light Armoured Brigade received orders from 10 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 7 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 6 Field Company took over the task of clearing the Sollum route and, working in shifts with the help of 5 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 5 Brigade managed to get up the pass during the morning of the 11th 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 23 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 5 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.10
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.11
This of course was the policy agreed with Leese when the Division set off on the pursuit under the command of 30 Corps, and perhaps it had not been fully understood by 10 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 9 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.
It is clear that Lumsden and the 10 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 9 Armoured Brigade and 6 Brigade, and to organise replenishment. His request for 6 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 10 Corps Headquarters, possibly on the grounds of the supply problems. As for 9 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 4 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 8 Armoured Brigade (of 10 Armoured Division), but then either Corps or Army Headquarters insisted that the whole of 9 Armoured Brigade be sent back to re-form under 10 Armoured Division. The Warwickshire Yeomanry therefore handed over its few surviving tanks to the light armoured brigade and prepared, with the rest of 9 Armoured Brigade, to join 10 Armoured Division in the Matruh area.
These arrangements were settled by the evening of 11 November and, having been given an estimate of three days before 8 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’,12 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’.13 This comment was followed by the short sentence ‘Lumsden understood’,14 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 8 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 10 Corps might wish to detach the Cavalry to join the forces encircling Tobruk for he took some trouble to ensure that Lieutenant-Colonel Sutherland,15 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, 10 Corps finally told Freyberg on 16 November that his force would stay in the Bardia area for organisation and training for an indefinite period. This period in fact lasted until 4 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.16
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 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.
(Signed) B. L. MONTGOMERY
General, G.O.C.-in-C., Eighth Army
Middle East, December 1942