Bardia to Enfidaville
Chapter 1: The Pause at Bardia
WHEN Mr Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, addressed the men of the 2nd New Zealand Division outside Tripoli on 4 February 1943, he alluded to the Battle of El Alamein and its sequel. ‘By an immortal victory, the Battle of Egypt,’ he said, ‘the Army of the Axis Powers ... was broken, shattered, shivered, and ever since then, by a march unexampled in all history for the speed and force of the advance, you have driven the remnants of that army before you until now the would-be conqueror of Egypt is endeavouring to pass himself off as the deliverer of Tunisia.’
The march ‘unexampled in all history’ began on 4 November 1942, when General Montgomery’s Eighth Army, after a battle which had lasted eleven days, broke through the German-Italian Panzer Army’s Alamein defences and set off in pursuit of those troops, mostly German, whom Field Marshal Rommel had managed to extricate from the battlefield. The New Zealand Division, which had played a distinguished part in the battle, had joined in this pursuit together with 1 and 7 British Armoured Divisions under the command of 10 Corps.1
The Division at that time had only two infantry brigades, those numbered 5 and 6. Fourth Infantry Brigade had gone back to Maadi Camp some months earlier to recover from the heavy casualties of the fighting in June and July 1942, and then to reorganise completely and train and equip as an armoured brigade; it took no further part in the fighting in North Africa. Thus the Division had to be strengthened by the attachment of formations from the British Army; and when the pursuit began from Alamein these were 4 Light Armoured Brigade, consisting of two armoured car regiments and one armoured regiment, and 9 Armoured Brigade, which had had so many casualties in men and tanks at Alamein that it had been reduced temporarily to one composite regiment.
The pursuit was exhilarating but unfortunately also frustrating. At a critical stage just short of Mersa Matruh, when there might have been an opportunity of encircling the retreating enemy, heavy rain turned the desert into a quagmire. On 7 November this halted the New Zealand Division and other formations travelling across the desert and allowed the enemy to escape by the one road. By the time the advance could be resumed, the enemy had evacuated Matruh, which 6 Infantry Brigade occupied on 9 November as a firm base for 10 Corps. Next day 9 Armoured Brigade dropped out of the pursuit, and the Division carried on towards the Libyan frontier with only 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 5 Infantry Brigade.
Westwards from Matruh the escarpment south of and parallel to the road gradually encroaches on the flat coastal plain until the escarpment and coast converge at Sollum, near the frontier. This compelled the pursuit forces, after they had passed Sidi Barrani, to make increasing use of the road. As a result, the congestion of traffic offered a superb target for the German Air Force, but mercifully the Royal Air Force was in complete control. The 7th Armoured Division, which had made a wide cast to the south earlier in the pursuit, was already on the high ground south of the escarpment, but it was still necessary to find a way up for the New Zealand Division and other troops.
There were only two routes up the escarpment; the enemy had blocked the one near the coast, the Sollum Hill road, by blowing a gap in it, and was holding the other, at Halfaya Pass, about five miles to the south-east, with Italian troops in some strength. The Division was given the task of clearing Halfaya Pass, and in a brief but brilliant assault before dawn on 11 November 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Harding2) stormed the pass, and with the loss of only one man killed and one wounded, killed some sixty or seventy of the enemy and took 600 prisoners. This was the last of the fighting in Egypt.
The Division, using the newly opened Halfaya route, crossed into Libya. It was almost exactly a year since it had entered Libya for the first time at the beginning of the offensive which had led to Sidi Rezegh. In the intervening twelve months the Division had survived the violent ups and downs of the campaign in defence of Egypt and had suffered grievous casualties, but now nobody doubted that a decisive victory had been won; this time there would be no withdrawal.
The Halt at Bardia
After 21 Battalion’s capture of Halfaya Pass 4 Light Armoured Brigade continued the pursuit, and in the afternoon of 11 November came under the direct command of 10 Corps. It was now intended that 7 Armoured Division and 4 Light Armoured Brigade alone should advance into Cyrenaica, with considerable assistance from the air force, which was having great success against the Luftwaffe and the mass of enemy transport on the road west of Bardia.
The New Zealand Division concentrated in the vicinity of Sidi Azeiz, in the desert south-west of Bardia. At first it appeared that it might be moving on almost immediately towards Tobruk, but the same day 10 Corps cancelled this move, and only Divisional Cavalry (Lieutenant-Colonel Sutherland3) went farther to the west. This regiment reached the roadhouse at Gambut by the evening of the 12th, and from there patrolled some ten miles westwards without finding anything of particular interest to report. Divisional Cavalry remained in that area for a week before rejoining the Division.
The units in the Sidi Azeiz area were advised on 13 November that the Division was likely to remain there until the 15th; they were told that day that there would be no move before the 18th, and finally on the 17th that no move was likely in the near future, which as it happened meant not before the first week in December. Difficulties of administration would prevent the assembling of more troops in the forward area until the port of Tobruk was open.
On 12 November the Division was asked to send an infantry battalion to Sollum for port duties. Fifth Brigade was instructed to send 22 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell4), and only a few hours after it had arrived in the Sidi Azeiz area this battalion was on its way back to Sollum, where it arrived early on the 13th. By chance, at the same time the question had arisen of the choice of an infantry battalion to be transferred to the New Zealand armoured brigade (formerly 4 Infantry Brigade) and reorganised as a motor battalion. Fifth Brigade had four battalions – 21, 22, 23, and 28 (Maori) – so the unit transferred
obviously would have to be one of these. Brigadier Kippenberger ,5 the brigade commander, was faced with a difficult choice, but accepted 22 Battalion’s move to Sollum as an omen and nominated that unit. The Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces (General Sir Harold Alexander) and General Freyberg6 visited the 22nd at Sollum on 13 November, and in the course of an address the GOC told the battalion of its new role. The 22nd worked at Sollum until the 17th, when it began its return to Maadi. It took no further part in the campaign in North Africa.
The activities in the Halfaya – Sollum area attracted several small enemy air attacks on 15 November, which caused a few casualties, including three men wounded in 22 Battalion. As a result 41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery was detached from the Division on the 16th to occupy positions around Halfaya.
Meanwhile 6 Infantry Brigade Group was still at Matruh. On 11 November the Division asked 10 Corps to send the brigade forward, but although certain administrative responsibilities at Matruh were handed over to a British headquarters on the 12th, orders were not issued for the brigade to move, and its commander, Brigadier Gentry,7 began to make arrangements for training in the Matruh area. Gentry has since said8 that after the first few days of minor pillaging of captured stores and of comparative plenty, the troops became restive about remaining there. Apparently the GOC was also restive, for finally Divisional Headquarters, on its own authority, ordered the brigade forward and advised 10 Corps of the action taken. Sixth Brigade left Matruh on 20 November, the greater part of it travelling by an inland route instead of the coastal road, and rejoined the Division two days later.
After their arrival in the Sidi Azeiz area the brigade groups were disbanded and the attached units and sub-units reverted to their own commands, the artillery to Headquarters NZA, the engineers
to Headquarters NZE, and the machine-gunners to 27 (MG) Battalion. But it seldom seemed possible for the Division to be complete. Already one light anti-aircraft battery had been sent to Halfaya, and on 25 November 42 Battery was detached for duty in the Acroma area, near Tobruk. And then the engineers, those maids of all work, were employed on repairing the water supply installations in the vicinity of Bardia, on improving the roads between Sollum and Bardia, including the cratered Sollum Hill road, and clearing minefields. Parties of infantrymen helped in the road work.
The units were advised on 22 November that they were to hold three days’ reserve rations and three days’ water for each man, plus two days’ rations in unit transport and one day’s rations for consumption the next day. They were also to hold enough petrol, oil and lubricants for 200 miles’ travel. Even though there was a pause in the advance, it was clearly intended that the Division was to be ready if sudden action were called for.
The NZASC and other service units continued their normal work of maintenance; and the usual demands were made on other corps, especially the infantry, for guard duties and working parties. Otherwise the troops were occupied by physical and weapon training, NCO training, route marches, lectures, salvage and repair work, reorganisation, and where possible sea-bathing, this last for cleanliness and recreation. As soon as it was known that there would be a lull in operations, an elaborate sports programme was planned, providing for Rugby and Association football, hockey, basketball, boxing and wrestling. This programme optimistically was drawn up for as far ahead as 15 December, and for some items as far ahead as Christmas Day. Sports gear, provided by the National Patriotic Fund Board, was distributed to units. About the same time two YMCA mobile cinemas began nightly screenings, which were permitted in the open as long as the light reflected from the screen was concealed, an indication of how little anxiety was caused by the activities of the German Air Force.
And so the time passed pleasantly enough. Morale, already high, was further stimulated by the news of the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria early in November and by the prospect that the Axis forces would shortly be assailed from both east and west. Indeed morale had survived the knowledge that the last remaining Australian division in the Middle East (the 9th) was on its way home after playing a notable part in the victory at Alamein.
Although it was completely unknown to the New Zealand Division at the time, its own fate was trembling in the balance
on the political level. From the middle of November until the beginning of December, coinciding almost exactly with the time the Division spent near Bardia, the New Zealand Government was seriously considering requesting its return to New Zealand for redeployment in the Pacific and was in continuous communication with the United Kingdom Government on the subject. The decision, taken on 4 December, was to leave the Division to finish the campaign in North Africa.9
By this time the New Zealanders’ relations with the British troops of Eighth Army, armoured and others, were happier than they had been earlier in the year. In particular they admired and appreciated the contribution 9 Armoured Brigade had made while under the Division’s command during the Alamein offensive. The bitter feelings engendered by Ruweisat and other disasters of the ‘hard summer’ of 1942 were passing into history.
Reinforcements were brought forward from Maadi Camp and absorbed into the Division, but their numbers were few because no reinforcement draft had arrived from New Zealand for over a year as a result of Japan ‘s entry into the war. The strength of the Division at this time showed a deficiency of about 3600 in an establishment of 16,000, the corps most affected being the infantry, artillery and engineers. Five battalions (21, 23, 24, 25, and 26) were on the average some 250 below their establishment of 735, while the Maori Battalion was fifty short. Nevertheless the Division was probably in a better position than the majority of the British divisions and certainly was much stronger proportionately than any enemy formation. The long-term prospects for reinforcements were bright, however, for the Government was about to despatch a draft about 5500 strong (the 8th Reinforcements), and this was expected to arrive in Egypt in January 1943.
Advantage was taken of the lull in operations to make various changes in organisation, for which purpose the GOC held a series of conferences with the heads of corps and leading administrative officers of 2 NZEF.10 As can be seen from the order of battle,11 the Division was an assemblage of units drawn from fourteen different corps: cavalry, artillery, engineers, infantry, machine-gunners, signals, army service corps, medical, dental, provost, postal, pay, ordnance, and electrical and mechanical
engineers.12 A history which attempted to cover at all stages the activities of all these corps would become an indigestible mass of words. There must be a high degree of selectivity.
Lord Wavell once said, when referring to military planning, ‘Sooner or later the time will come when Private Snodgrass must advance straight to his front.’ In other words, the culminating point of all planning, even though begun on the inter-governmental level, is the advance of the infantry. That is the yardstick by which success or failure is measured. Thus it may often appear that what is recorded here is not so much the history of the Division as a whole as that of the infantry, but it must not be forgotten that although the infantry were invariably in the spearhead, behind them was a shaft which gave both weight and direction to the thrust. Much work by many hands in a diversity of units made it possible for the infantry to be where they were.
Apart from the infantry this volume is concerned chiefly with those units which came into close contact with the enemy – the cavalry, armour, machine-gunners, and engineers. The artillery is referred to in sufficient detail to show the effect of its fire; the provost occasionally figure in the battle area, either on traffic control or on marking the axis of advance. The remainder of the Division carried out faithfully their normal duties, which generally cannot be described for any particular operation, but a few words must be said about those upon whom was thrown an extra burden.
The success of the campaign turned primarily on movement and supply, which broadly were the functions of the army service corps, ordnance, and electrical and mechanical engineers. The NZASC at this stage comprised one ammunition company, one petrol company, one supply company, and two reserve mechanical transport companies, each with its own workshops. Each platoon in any of these companies consisted of thirty 3-ton lorries and a few administrative vehicles, and could carry the marching infantry of one battalion when not being used for its normal duties. But despite their distinctive titles the NZASC companies together were a large pool of vehicles and formed one comprehensive transport organisation of great flexibility. Nevertheless certain weaknesses had been seen during the previous months, so it was decided to add a second ammunition company and to enlarge the petrol company from its
existing two platoons to five. The second ammunition company did not join the Division until after the end of the campaign in North Africa, but the additional petrol platoons arrived in March 1943, in time to play their part in the last few weeks.
The carrying capacity of the transport of the Division, therefore, was of unfixed limit. The Division carried with it rations, water and petrol for anything up to ten days and 400 miles’ travel, and enough ammunition to attack or resist the enemy at the end of a move. Difficulties of supply did not impede any operation. On only one occasion during the campaign, and even then for only one unit in unusual circumstances, was there a miscalculation sufficient to cause delay.
The transport in which the Division set out from Alamein already had survived much wear and tear; indeed some of the cars and lorries were veterans of the 1941 Libyan campaign. Despite the excessive strain imposed on the skill and ingenuity of the workshops staffs in keeping such worn-out or nearly worn-out vehicles in running order, the Division, throughout the many hundreds of miles of desert motoring that lay ahead, maintained a proud record of not abandoning transport on the march.
The contribution of the Divisional Signals should not be ignored, although its work was normally of a routine nature. Almost every activity of the Division involved some form of signal communication, and in effect the corps of signals was the glue that kept the manifold segments of the Division from falling apart.
Two small items of reorganisation may also be mentioned. First, the formation of a mobile field bakery, which joined the Division after about a month and baked fresh bread for the troops. Secondly, the departure of the artillery survey troop from the Division to join 36 Survey Battery at Maadi, where a more comprehensive artillery survey unit was being formed. Parts of this reorganised 36 Survey Battery joined the Division from time to time in the months that followed.13
In this campaign movements of the Division were carried out almost entirely with ‘brigade groups’, of which 5 and 6 Infantry Brigades were the nuclei. Under brigade command there normally would be a field artillery regiment, an anti-tank battery, an antiaircraft battery, a field company of engineers, a machine-gun company, and a field ambulance advanced dressing station. (A brigade signals section and a brigade workshops were integral parts of an infantry brigade.) At times, depending on tactical
requirements, other units or sub-units might be added, such as a squadron of divisional cavalry, extra artillery, extra machine guns, and so on.
It was the custom to affiliate certain units to each brigade, so that the normal constitution was as follows:
5 Infantry Brigade Group
Headquarters 5 Infantry Brigade
28 (Maori) Battalion
5 Field Regiment
32 Anti-Tank Battery
42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery
7 Field Company
1 Machine-Gun Company
company 5 Field Ambulance
troop-carrying transport of 4 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company
6 Infantry Brigade Group
Headquarters 6 Infantry Brigade
6 Field Regiment
33 Anti-Tank Battery
43 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery
8 Field Company
2 Machine-Gun Company
company 6 Field Ambulance
troop-carrying transport of 6 Reserve Mechanical Transport Company
This continued affiliation had obvious advantages. The remaining units of the Division were organised into a Divisional Headquarters Group, a Divisional Reserve Group, and an Administrative Group. The Headquarters Group usually consisted of Headquarters 2 New Zealand Division, the headquarters of the Divisional Artillery, Divisional Engineers and Divisional Signals. The Reserve Group included 4 Field Regiment, 5 Field Park Company, 6 Field Company, 36 Survey Battery, and the headquarters and unattached sub-units of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment, 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, and 27 (Machine-Gun) Battalion.
Sometimes, again depending on the tactical situation, a gun group, consisting of the field artillery units not under brigade command (for example, 4 Field Regiment) and any attached Royal Artillery units, would be formed separately under the CRA.
The Administrative Group consisted of all the units of the Division not otherwise allocated: Headquarters Command NZASC, 1 Ammunition Company, 1 Petrol Company, 1 Supply Company, 4 and 6 RMT Companies less troop-carrying transport, 4 Field
Ambulance, 5 and 6 Field Ambulances each less a company, 4 Field Hygiene Section, Mobile Dental Section, Divisional Workshops, Divisional Ordnance Field Park, Postal Unit, and so on. This group moved under orders issued by the Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General of the Division. Sometimes the group was divided in two, the rear part consisting of those units not likely to be required for some days.
The Divisional Cavalry was usually reconnoitring under the direct command of Divisional Headquarters and so leading the advance. But if a light armoured brigade was attached, the cavalry acted in concert with the armoured car regiments of that brigade.
During active operations, and certainly in a pursuit, the GOC generally moved well forward with a small Tactical Headquarters consisting of himself, a ‘G’ staff officer, an ADC and the Protective Troop of tanks. Normally Tactical Headquarters moved near the headquarters of the reconnoitring force.
None of the above arrangements was invariable; but an organisation of infantry brigade groups and Divisional Reserve Group persisted throughout the campaign.
It was the custom to issue few formal written orders. Conversations, discussions, exchanges of information and conferences went on continually and provided the background necessary for a clear understanding of any impending move or operation. The divisional conferences under the direction of General Freyberg were an essential part of this procedure; the form they took was no doubt peculiar to the Division, for the General had his own ideas of how to get the best out of his subordinates.
Before any major operation or move it was necessary to issue a written order stating all the main points; but this was only the culmination of the interchange of ideas during the preceding few days or even weeks. Experience had shown, however, that an operation order for a course of events extending over several days often proved inadequate to cope with the vagaries of fortune, and orders for the later stages had to be altered; so there was a tendency to issue the formal order for the first phase only and leave remaining phases to be controlled by the usual conference, verbal order or signal.
The pause at Bardia was a welcome one, for pursuit is fatiguing both to the nerves and physically. The Division was able to collect and rest itself before approaching the next hurdle. Nevertheless, for commanders and staff, planning went on without a break.