Chapter 3: Left Hook at El Agheila
BY the morning of 12 December Montgomery had come to the conclusion that the offensive against the El Agheila position must start at once if the enemy was not to escape altogether. At 11 a.m. that day 2 NZ Division learnt that all timings were advanced by forty-eight hours, and that it therefore would have to cross the Marada Track (the move to Stage IV) during the night 14–15 December instead of 16–17 December.
This was not surprising, for in common with other commanders General Freyberg had been aware that the enemy was on the move. But while saying that he would make every effort to comply, he had to point out that neither the administrative preparations nor the attachment of units to groups was yet complete, and that there was no spare time to overcome unexpected obstacles.
Needless to say, 12 December was a busy day with the Division. Luckily replenishment with petrol was complete for the first-line vehicles; and those second-line vehicles which still had to fill up would be able to catch up the next day. But there was scant time for all the myriad things that must be done before a long move, and there was considerable bustle. However, the Division was by this time fully battle-worthy and had reserves of knowledge and resource that helped to meet emergencies such as this.
Orders were issued for groups to move as then constituted (i.e., normal groupings) to an area south-west of Chrystal’s Rift – Stage II. In fact, 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 6 Infantry Brigade Group set off the same afternoon (12 December), travelling some 30 miles to a point about 25 miles short of the Rift. The rest of the Division was to follow early on the 13th.
But unfortunately the Greys’ tank crews were still engaged on maintenance and training problems near El Haseiat, and were not ready to leave with their brigade, which thus had to set off without its strongest component.
Eighth Army’s activities on this day convinced Rommel that the offensive had at last begun; and in accordance with what he calls the Duce’s instructions, but which was in fact his own wish not to accept a decisive engagement in the Marsa Brega position,
he issued the codeword which meant that a withdrawal was to commence, but only as far as the area El Agheila village – El Mugtaa Narrows. For the moment the Italian XXI Corps remained at Nofilia.
Across the Rift
Rain fell on 12 and 13 December and laid the dust that might otherwise have betrayed the columns of 2 NZ Division, and low cloud also contributed to the secrecy of the move. In the daytime the temperatures were fresh to cold, and the nights could be quite cold, with even a touch of frost; all in all the desert was a healthy and pleasant place during the winter months.
The Division moved to Chrystal’s Rift in desert formation,1 but while crossing the Rift had to reduce to a narrow front of three vehicles. At one stage the GOC was not satisfied with the progress being made and ‘sent people forward and hustled everyone through’.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, followed by 6 Infantry Brigade Group, led the advance; but by mid-morning Divisional Cavalry caught up and later went into the lead. By the end of the day these leading elements had reached an area some ten to 15 miles beyond the Rift, 6 Infantry Brigade Group having travelled about 56 miles. Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group travelled about 80 miles and reached an area just behind the leading formations. Fifth Infantry Brigade Group halted almost as soon as it had crossed the Rift, but by that time had been travelling for over eight hours.
The divisional operation order for the move, unusually late because of the speeding up of the programme, was issued at 6.15 p.m. on 13 December. It merely confirmed and assembled in one place the results of a series of orders and instructions, both verbal and written, that had been issued during the previous days. The tasks of the Division were defined:
(a) To block the Marada Track south of Sidi Tabet.
(b) To occupy high ground west of the salt marsh area in order to prevent the enemy withdrawing from the El Agheila position.
This high ground (called Dor Lanuf) was at the north-western tip of Sebcha el Chebira, about halfway between the anti-tank ditch at the El Mugtaa Narrows and Marble Arch. It overlooked the coast road (called Via Balbia by the enemy, its correct Italian name) where it emerged from the Narrows, and was an ideal place to block the enemy.
The Division was to move on 14 December to Stage III, just short of the Marada Track, and was to continue during that night along a lighted route to Stage IV, another 25 miles to the northwest. On the 15th it was to reach the final objective, which was given the codename PLUM. The route in the last stage would be along the south-west side of Sebcha el Chebira and between the Sebcha and Chor Scemmer.
The move to Stage III was to be in normal groupings, but on arrival there a flank guard would be formed as follows under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell2 of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment:
one squadron Royals (armoured cars) A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry (Sherman tanks) one battery 4 NZ Field Regiment one battery 7 NZ Anti-Tank Regiment one section 6 NZ Field Company one infantry company to be detailed by 5 Brigade one company 27 (MG) Battalion. light section field ambulance second-line and B Echelon transport of the above
The Division was to form up at Stage III in the order of march: the armoured cars of 4 Light Armoured Brigade well out in front (Divisional Cavalry was to fall back into Reserve Group), followed by the Flank Guard, and then the remainder of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, 6 Brigade Group, Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group, 5 Brigade Group, second-line transport of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, and Administrative Group.
When the advance was under way during the night of 14–15 December, the Flank Guard was to move off at the appropriate moment to a position astride the Marada Track on high ground just south of Sidi Tabet, ‘to prevent the enemy breaking out from the El Agheila position’; it was ordered to hold the position at all costs. Such instructions seem ambitious for a force based on one tank squadron and one infantry company. But the truth was that the GOC’s forces were really not large enough for the various duties that might fall to them, especially when one of these duties might be to resist the full strength of the Axis forces in the area.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to report at the earliest opportunity on 15 December on an intermediate objective, APPLE, 15 miles short of PLUM, and then on PLUM itself; and when 6 Brigade had occupied PLUM, 4 Brigade was to provide flank protection to the west for the Division. In addition to occupying PLUM, 6 Brigade was to assist, with the advice of the RAF liaison officer travelling with the Division, in clearing grounds at Marble Arch and around Bir el Merduma.
Strict wireless silence was to be observed within the Division until contact was made with the enemy, or until 9 a.m. on 15 December, whichever came first.
When General Freyberg conferred with his formation commanders in the evening of 13 December, the Division had reached the most southerly point of its move, and had met only the problems of an ordinary desert march. From now on they would be heading towards the enemy and the prospect of active operations. The GOC, therefore, after discussing timings and details of the next moves, arranged for Divisional Cavalry with its Stuart tanks to join 4 Light Armoured Brigade if the Greys had not caught up. At that moment the Greys had in fact only just crossed Chrystal’s Rift.
The frontal attack on the Marsa Brega position by 51 (Highland) and 7 Armoured Divisions was much impeded by mines, in the use of which the enemy had been prodigal – a foretaste of the difficulties to be faced throughout the campaign. The enemy had succeeded in slipping away unnoticed during the night of 12–13 December, and next morning the Highland Division carried out intensive shelling against positions that had been vacated. By evening this division was in occupation of Marsa Brega, and 7 Armoured Division had patrolled through Giofer towards El Agheila without making contact with the enemy. By nightfall British troops were in the vicinity of Sidi Hmuda on the Via Balbia. The air forces had had a good day against transport on the road.
At that stage 90 Light Division was a few miles east of El Agheila itself, and Ariete Battle Group some ten miles to the south. Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 580 Reconnaissance Unit, the latter from 21 Panzer Division, were about ten miles farther back, still east of the Narrows. The bulk of Africa Corps was in defensive positions in the Narrows, to the east of 2 NZ Division’s objective PLUM. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit (from 15 Panzer Division), with a few Italians, was away to the west of Marble Arch. A battle group made up of vehicles from the Army Headquarters Protective Unit was some 15 miles south of Marble Arch.
In the enemy’s appreciation for this day there is no mention of the outflanking march of 2 NZ Division, probably because bad weather stopped any German long-range reconnaissance. Thus while Rommel was always conscious of the chance of a flank attack, he did not so far appreciate this danger; moreover, he had been thinking of a flank attack of lesser range. However, he still retained some Italian troops round Nofilia, despite urgings from Superlibia to get them back to Buerat.
The enemy situation was known fairly accurately to 30 Corps; as early as 11.30 a.m. a message was sent to 2 NZ Division giving up-to-date information, which radically changed the situation. For some reason which cannot be elucidated, this message was not received at Divisional Headquarters until 8 p.m. It read: ‘Enemy now evacuated Marada and will be around Zella. Send patrols Zella simulate this deception [sic] while your forward move continues maximum speed. Marsa Brega evacuated. Suera still held. Enemy transport streaming west through El Agheila and north from Giofer. All RAF on this. 15 Panzer Division now 40 miles west Agheila. Good luck and good hunting.’
A 30 Corps intelligence report on the same lines, sent at 11.30 a.m., was not received until 8.35 p.m. About 9 p.m. further situation reports received at Divisional Headquarters showed, among other things, that 8 Armoured Brigade of 7 Armoured Division was approaching the Marada Track in the direction of Maaten Giofer.
The message from 30 Corps reads rather breathlessly. While the main instruction – to push on fast – was of the first importance and was to be carried out, no action seems to have been taken about sending the patrols to Zella. It will be remembered that a party from the King’s Dragoon Guards had set off to Marada and Zella on 7 December, occupied the former on the 9th and reported this to its regimental headquarters. Information on 13 December that Marada was empty therefore appears to be belated. This KDG patrol rejoined its regiment that very evening, having incurred casualties to men and vehicles by running on to an enemy minefield some 20 miles short of Zella. Presumably the GOC thought this information sufficient. In the end Zella was occupied by the LRDG on 20 December; it must have been evacuated by the enemy some days earlier.
The instructions to other formations in 30 Corps on 14 December were that 7 Armoured Division was to clear the road around El Agheila and patrol southwards so as to make contact with 2 NZ Division at Sidi Tabet, and 51 ( H) Division was to pass through 7 Armoured Division and advance to the anti-tank ditch at the Narrows.
The moves prescribed for 7 Armoured Division made it unnecessary for 2 NZ Division to go on with the proposed flank guard, and the GOC cancelled this at once, before the guard had even assembled. It then became an urgent matter to decide just how soon the Division could resume the advance, and how fast it could move once it started. The GSO I (Colonel R. C. Queree3) advised the GOC that to be properly organised for the next stage, the Division would have to remain where it was until daylight. Moreover, at some time on 14 December there would have to be a pause to replenish with petrol, for undoubtedly there had been a miscalculation of the mileage per gallon to be expected from heavily-laden vehicles in rough going. Normally vehicles might have been able to last out until 15 December. The upshot of these factors was, first, that there could be no question of a night march, and secondly, that it would not be possible to go right through to the coast road on 14 December.
In conversations with his brigadiers over the telephone, however, the GOC still conveyed the hope that there might be some movement during the night, and suggested to 4 Light Armoured Brigade that it might move by moonlight – the moon was already well up – perhaps even as far as Stage III. But it then transpired that the Shermans of the Greys were still in 5 Brigade’s area, a long way behind their own brigade. The most that could be hoped for was that everyone would get off at first light, which would be about 7 a.m.
Thus it transpired that by 9 p.m. on 13 December the course of events had made the Division’s plan, issued only a few hours before, already in need of amendment.
Pushing on – 14 December
Before setting off in the morning of 14 December the Division was replenished with two days’ rations and water from a dump built on the western side of Chrystal’s Rift on the 13th by an RASC third-line convoy. It was then decided that there should be an issue of petrol for 100 miles’ travel at 2.30 p.m. at a point at Stage III just east of the Marada Track; and instructions were issued accordingly.
It was now intended that 4 Light Armoured Brigade, still without the Greys, but strengthened by Divisional Cavalry, should get away as soon as possible; and that the rest of the Division, with 6 Brigade
Group leading, should leave early, travel all day, halt in the evening for a meal, and then continue all night. If all went well the Division should cover 100 miles in the twenty-four hours following daybreak on 14 December, and should be approaching the road at PLUM. But the actual objective had now become fluid, as it appeared likely that the enemy would have passed PLUM before the Division reached it. The GOC was still hopeful of getting into position in advance of the retreating enemy, and then carrying out a local ‘left hook’ and cutting off his rearguard at least. The line of advance of the Division was thus to be moved more to the west; and in effect 4 Light Armoured Brigade now had a task of seeking out the enemy. As the enemy was retreating from El Agheila, the GOC decided to dispense with any rearguard, so leaving Administrative Group last in a divisional column that was by now stretching out more and more.
No part of the Division moved before 7 a.m. on the 14th, mainly because of thick fog. Although the broken country made it difficult for groups to maintain desert formation, Stage III was reached in good order.
There was no sign of Petrol Company’s vehicles at 2 p.m., and indeed the first platoon did not arrive at the Stage III petrol point until 5 p.m., by which time the leading formations of the Division had been waiting four hours. The explanation was that by early afternoon Petrol Company was anything up to 60 miles from the head of the divisional column, and did not receive instructions about the issue until 3 p.m., half an hour after the time set down for the issue at a point some hours’ travel away. Within half an hour of arrival at Stage III the first platoon issued the whole of its 27,800 gallons; but another 20,000 gallons was still wanted, so that the arrival of the next platoon was keenly awaited. But darkness fell, and the second platoon passed right through the delivery area unnoticed; so that it was not until a third platoon reached the petrol point that all demands were satisfied, by which time it was 11 p.m.
In the meantime the Greys, which it will be remembered was the main tank force with the Division, had been stranded without fuel; and as its own second-line transport was many miles behind, General Freyberg instructed Petrol Company to issue high octane petrol4 to the regiment. A figure of 5000 gallons was mentioned, but after drawing 1500 gallons the regiment went on, as it was
becoming increasingly desirable that it should catch up with its brigade. Later in the day Petrol Company made an issue to the King’s Royal Rifle Corps battalion, which had also run short of petrol.
Luckily Divisional Cavalry had been able to replenish with high octane petrol the previous afternoon and was not delayed in joining 4 Light Armoured Brigade.
While the leading elements of the Division were waiting at Stage III for petrol, the rear groups were gradually closing up. When the GOC held a conference at 1 p.m. to examine the situation, it was decided to halt until 4 p.m., move for two hours (leaving petrol-carrying vehicles behind to refill), have a meal, and then close into night formation and travel by moonlight until 11 p.m. The advance was to be resumed at first light on 15 December. At the conference the objective was still given as PLUM; but later in the afternoon the General went forward and instructed 4 Light Armoured Brigade to change the thrust line to one trending farther west and leading to Bir el Merduma.
It was fully appreciated at this conference that if the Division did cut off the enemy, his armour would make a fight of it; and the Greys were still well behind. The leading formation, therefore, had no heavy tanks with it, and when the Greys did catch up, they might have little time to prepare for battle.
The advance was duly resumed from Stage III at 4 p.m. in the same order of march as earlier in the day. A halt for an hour for a meal was made at 5.30 p.m., and the advance then continued until 11.30 p.m. along a lighted route, the Provost Company working well ahead to erect its lights. The total advance for the day (14 December) was almost 90 miles, so that in effect the confusion over the petrol issue had not in the end caused any real disruption and any time lost at Stage III had been made up.
The troops went to bed for the remainder of the night. At this point 4 Light Armoured Brigade was well ahead, on the northern side of Chor Scemmer and some 12 miles west of APPLE, while the head of the New Zealand column was a little short of this bound. Incidentally the original ‘Stage IV’ had been disregarded, and in fact had been passed during the evening march.
Administrative Group was some 40 miles back and having trouble with the going. During the night its vehicles closed in until they were side-by-side and nose-to-tail, at which point a vehicle loaded with petrol caught fire and could be seen for miles. Luckily there were no enemy aircraft about.
The GOC broke wireless silence at 9.50 p.m. to answer a query from 30 Corps about locations. He added that he hoped to reach Bir el Merduma by 11 a.m. on the 15th. There was probably no object in keeping wireless silence any longer, for twice during the afternoon a German reconnaissance plane had flown low over the leading elements of 4 Light Armoured Brigade and undoubtedly had seen them.
A further message from 30 Corps that evening directed that A Squadron, Staffordshire Yeomanry, was to revert to the command of 7 Armoured Division. This was surprising and a reply was sent to the effect that the squadron was committed and its release not practicable.
Meanwhile the advance of 51 (Highland) and 7 Armoured Divisions had continued slowly owing to the large number of carefully laid mines and booby traps. In the evening 8 Armoured Brigade had a sharp engagement ten miles south of El Agheila and claimed to have accounted for nine M13 (Italian) tanks. Its opponent was Ariete Group, whose stout resistance was praised in the German narrative, an uncommon occurrence. By last light the general line of the foremost British posts was still some five to ten miles short of El Agheila village; and the main road had been cleared of mines only about halfway between Marsa Brega and El Agheila. The Desert Air Force was active as usual, and enemy opposition was slight; but visibility was bad.
The enemy troops made no special moves until the afternoon of the 14th, but continued to resist the British advance along and immediately south of the Via Balbia, and were much heartened by the fight put up by Ariete Group. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit patrolled south and south-east from Merduma, but by evening had found nothing. The petrol position, especially for Africa Corps, was bad: units had barely enough to cover the next stage of withdrawal. The ammunition position was also poor, artillery having only a third of its normal issue.
Then, about 4 p.m., a change came over the situation when air reconnaissance revealed the presence of a strong enemy force including tanks (‘probably an armoured division’) advancing west and north-west at a point south of Giofer. In other words the move of 2 NZ Division from Stage III was discovered, although its identity was not known. The enemy expected that this move would be continued during the night with the object of penetrating through Merduma towards Nofilia – a remarkably accurate forecast. The discovery brought immediate action, for at 4.15 p.m. the codeword was issued for all troops to withdraw at once clear of
the El Mugtaa Narrows, and for 33 Reconnaissance Unit to advance south-east towards Bir Scemmer. Rommel considered that if 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions had had enough petrol, there would have been a good chance of a successful counter-attack against the out-flanking force; but such a move was out of the question.
Into the Blue – 15 December
Before the Division moved off on 15 December Freyberg informed 30 Corps that he was altering the divisional axis to run through Bir Scemmer to Bir el Merduma, with the intention of then turning towards the coast road and occupying the high ground west of Marble Arch. He estimated that his forward elements would reach the objective by 11 a.m. if there was no opposition. The message then went on to say that the Division held no maps ‘west of A.00 easting grid’, which meant no maps covering Nofilia and beyond – a surprising revelation, for Nofilia had been prescribed as an objective for the Division as early as 11 December. Whether the deficiency was due to slowness by the Division in asking for maps, or by Corps or Army Headquarters in delivering them, is not known. They were duly dropped by aircraft in the afternoon of 16 December. The message ended by asking that the coast road should be bombed along a stretch running from Marble Arch for some six miles to the south-east.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, again leading, moved off at daybreak with the armoured car regiments in front. By this time the Greys, still augmented by A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, had rejoined; and their services were important now that contact with the enemy was imminent. Unfortunately they were still low in petrol and had to refuel before they could move. This took till mid-morning, and 6 Infantry Brigade Group, which the tanks were to precede tactically, had to mark time until the refuelling was complete. As it turned out, it was a most unfortunate delay. But it is necessary only to quote the Greys’ war diary to discover the reason: ‘regiment had covered 240 miles since leaving El Haseiat on 12 December. Pace and going had played havoc with the tanks which were getting worn out.’
During the morning 4 Light Armoured Brigade was joined by the GOC’s Tactical Headquarters, which moved with it until evening, a usual practice of General Freyberg ‘s when any fighting was likely. Wireless silence was lifted throughout the Division at 8 a.m.; but the GOC still hoped to retain some degree of secrecy, for as he went forward to join 4 Light Armoured Brigade he put under arrest men who had lit fires to cook breakfast. However, the number arrested became so great that he had to declare a general amnesty.
With the probability that friendly forces might soon come near the main road, Air Support Control Headquarters asked the Division at 9.30 a.m. to nominate a bombline for the Desert Air Force. This request was passed to 4 Light Armoured Brigade, which was to reply direct on its tentacle. The brigade asked that there should be no bombing south of an east-west line through Marble Arch and Bir el Merduma or east and west of a line running north and south through Saniet Matratin.5 This curious and complicated prescription meant that there could be no bombing of the coast road anywhere south-east of Saniet Matratin, which meant in turn that there could be no bombing of Marble Arch or of the area immediately south-east and was in conflict with the GOC’s request made some two hours earlier for bombing of the coast road. The issue was further confused when 6 Infantry Brigade (which intercepted the message) joined in with a request for an area of some thirty-six square miles where the Group was located to be excluded from bombing – an area which was already covered by 4 Light Armoured Brigade’s request. It appears to have been sent to ensure that the 6 Infantry Brigade Group was not itself bombed.
The result of all this at Eighth Army Headquarters was a flare-up between the army and air staffs, partly because the hands of the air force were being tied over bombing the coast road, and partly because the air staff said – with some justice – that the army did not know what it really wanted. There was definite room for an improvement in the technique of calling for air support, and there is evidence to show that the lesson was taken to heart by all concerned.
As 4 Light Armoured Brigade went forward it reported from time to time in the best manner of a scouting force. It soon became evident that the enemy had forestalled the Division on objective PLUM – 15 Panzer Division was in fact already there – and the light armoured brigade was not equipped to drive him off, for at the time, about midday, the Greys’ tanks were still in the rear of the brigade. So it veered off to the west and by mid-afternoon reached the vicinity of Merduma, with its leading armoured car regiment (Royals) on the right in sight of the road at Bir el Haddadia.
Divisional Cavalry, west of the Royals, also approached the road just west of Bir el Haddadia about 4 p.m., and was met there by fire, reported as coming from dug-in tanks and guns; but it appears unlikely that tanks were in this area, for the enemy troops came from either Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment or one of the reconnaissance units. A battery from the RHA attached to Divisional
Cavalry opened fire, scattered transport moving along the road and knocked out a gun. As no contact had been made by nightfall with 6 Infantry Brigade, which had been expected to strike the road in the vicinity, Divisional Cavalry laagered where it was for the night of 15–16 December, and in the outcome was isolated from the rest of the Division.
The bulk of 4 Light Armoured Brigade laagered for the night some four to six miles north-west of Bir el Merduma, and here at last was joined by the Greys. General Freyberg during the evening sent a personal message to the commander 7 Armoured Division apologising for not sending back A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, and saying it would rejoin next day (16 December), which it did.
By the evening of 15 December the Sherman tanks of the Greys and A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, were down to 17. They had started out with 26.
Sixth Infantry Brigade Group reached the Bir el Merduma area in the afternoon, but passed to the south of the Bir itself, and in fact – although this was not then realised – went on to cross Wadi er Rigel, followed by Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group. This completed a journey of about 50 miles for the day. Without doubt the whole column missed Bir el Merduma by some miles; for there is sufficient detail from German documents to clarify the point. During the day the enemy posted flank guards parallel to the main road and five to ten miles south of it. First 15 Panzer Division was sent to ‘Point 123’ (the objective PLUM) and stayed there until in the late afternoon it was directed on Bir el Merduma – a move some 18 miles farther west – as the first stage of a withdrawal to Nofilia. In the early afternoon a battle group from 21 Panzer Division, including tanks, was sent to Merduma pending the arrival of 15 Panzer Division. Both these forces reported columns of troops advancing north-west at some distance to the south of them. One report at 4.20 p.m. said that enemy troops were ten kilometres south of Merduma, and there are other reports to much the same effect.
It has been seen that 4 Light Armoured Brigade was trending to the west. Sixth Infantry Brigade followed, and during the day must have borne off farther to the west, no doubt in the process of selecting good going. There was nothing especially distinctive about Bir el Merduma, for the landing ground was some few miles to the north-east; and although a number of tracks converged at the point, the desert at this time was criss-crossed by tracks, all looking much the same in their vagueness. In addition there was no special tactical virtue in Bir el Merduma, except for the landing ground. It had been chosen merely because it was a feature that
appeared on the map, and so might be easily identifiable, and was suitably placed as a point from which to turn north and advance to the road, where it was hoped that part at least of the enemy would be cut off. But the Division’s movements had now assumed a course parallel to the retreating enemy, reducing any hope of interception.
It was fortunate, as it turned out, that the Division did not go to Merduma, for it was subsequently discovered to be heavily mined.
Shortly after halting in the new area Brigadier Gentry, uneasy about locations, visited General Freyberg at his Tactical Headquarters, and was assured that they were at Bir el Merduma. The GOC’s opinion probably was based upon what he believed had been navigation by the LRDG patrol. But the patrol had not been doing the navigation on 15 December; the column had merely followed its nose. When, after dark, Captain Browne took star observations, it was soon discovered that Tactical Headquarters was four miles west of Wadi er Rigel and eight miles west from Bir el Merduma.
During this visit Brigadier Gentry was instructed to move northwards and cut the road. By this time, 5 p.m., it was getting dusk. The brigade began to move, Orders Group6 leading, and still in desert formation. It was not found possible to arrange for a promised squadron of tanks to be detached from the Greys during the hours of darkness.
During the day (15 December) 51 (Highland) Division, on the coast road, was again greatly impeded by mines. By evening the leading troops had only reached El Agheila. To the south 8 Armoured Brigade crossed the Giofer road south-west of El Agheila, but here was hindered by bad going. Finally, at the antitank ditch in the El Mugtaa Narrows, it discovered the rearguard of 21 Panzer Division. The Desert Air Force had a good day against concentrated transport to the west and south of Marble Arch, but the doubt over bomblines hampered greater efforts.
During the night of 14–15 December nearly all enemy troops withdrew behind a rearguard formed by 21 Panzer Division, leaving only light forces to oppose the advancing British troops. About midday on 15 December 21 Panzer was behind the Narrows, 90 Light was passing through en route to a new rearguard position west of Wadi Matratin, Ariete Battle Group was on its way back
to Nofilia, 33 Reconnaissance Unit was in touch with the foremost troops of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 580 Reconnaissance Unit were on their way to take up positions on the high ground flanking the road between Marble Arch and Matratin, and 15 Panzer Division was on the high ground south-east of Marble Arch (the objective PLUM).
Rommel was fully aware of the danger to be expected from the outflanking move, and had already instructed Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 580 Reconnaissance Unit that they must keep the road open for the withdrawal of Africa Corps. During the afternoon 33 Reconnaissance Unit, farther south, withdrew gradually before the advance of 2 NZ Division; and finally Headquarters Africa Corps asked Army Headquarters for permission to withdraw 21 Panzer Division. This application was at first refused ‘on the ground that the petrol situation at the moment would not allow all formations to withdraw to the next position at Nofilia ‘. The operative word here was ‘moment’, for literally the parts of the army were living from hour to hour.
However, as we have seen, a group from 21 Panzer Division and the whole of 15 Panzer were in the end sent to the Merduma area to relieve the strain on 33 Reconnaissance Unit, which at the time was the only unit in contact with the outflanking force.
Ultimately the danger to the 21 Panzer Division rearguard made it necessary to sanction its withdrawal, initially as far as Marble Arch, and about 10 p.m. to Nofilia. The German narrative says ‘the enemy situation made it impossible to hold the present area on 16 December. Army therefore decided to break contact with the enemy on the night 15–16 December and to withdraw to the Nofilia area. The petrol brought forward during the day was just enough for this limited move.’
Africa Corps was to withdraw to Nofilia forthwith, 21 Panzer along the coast road, 15 Panzer along the inland track Merduma – Nofilia, each division in co-operation with its detached reconnaissance unit; Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment was to disengage separately and go back to Nofilia; 90 Light Division was to stay as rearguard in a position west of Wadi Matratin. All these moves commenced at nightfall.
But at 8 p.m. 33 Reconnaissance Unit reported that a strong enemy force, including fifty tanks, had broken through its positions west of Merduma and was advancing on Nofilia. Such was the effect, seen from the enemy side, of the advance of 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 6 Infantry Brigade, with the tanks of the Greys and Divisional Cavalry. The result was to speed up the enemy movements, and to some degree to induce a sauve-qui-peut,
in that 33 Reconnaissance Unit was told to withdraw at once by itself to a point west of Nofilia; and Africa Corps and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment were told to withdraw without further delay. Nevertheless 21 Panzer Division had to wait until 1 a.m. on the 16th before it had enough petrol, and 15 Panzer Division was in an even worse plight.
6 Brigade Advances
Sixth Brigade Group advanced northwards about 5 p.m., with instructions to block the coast road. When the light began to fail the brigade halted to close up into night formation, while six carriers were sent out on a bearing of 45 degrees to reconnoitre to the road; they had to refuel, so did not get away until 7.15 p.m. Wireless communication with them failed after they had gone about two miles, and Brigade Headquarters lost touch with them. Meanwhile the brigade moved on; the country became more and more difficult to traverse, for it now included a number of small wadis with soft bottoms. Visibility was poor as there was only a half-moon often obscured by clouds.
The carriers actually reached the road close to Wadi Matratin and heard vehicles passing along it. They came back along what they thought was the brigade axis, and in the dark missed the brigade column, which probably had deviated a little from its first course.
The brigade was by this time tangled up in the network of wadis that finally merge into Wadi Matratin. It had been estimated that the road was only four miles away from the point at which the carriers had been detached; but when the brigade had advanced that distance there was still no sign of the road, so a second carrier patrol was sent forward with a special wireless set and instructions to report at the end of each mile. Because of the earlier error in navigation, the brigade, when it turned to the north, was something like ten miles from the road.
At the end of another three miles’ advance the second patrol reported that the road appeared to be about a mile ahead, judging by the sound of traffic, and that a wadi immediately in front of the brigade was impassable to vehicles in the dark. Brigadier Gentry then went forward to reconnoitre, accompanied by the three battalion commanders and the officers commanding 6 Field Regiment and 8 Field Company. They went a little farther than the carrier patrol had gone previously and ran into an enemy post on a ridge. The leading carrier in which the brigade commander was travelling was knocked out by an anti-tank gun at very close range, but he escaped
unharmed although the driver was reported killed. Major Reid ,7 of 8 Field Company, was hit in the arm and was evacuated after some difficulty to the advanced dressing station.
The Brigadier got clear and then reported to the GOC by radio that the brigade was in contact with the enemy and about a mile and a half or less from the road. He was given discretion whether or not to attack, and decided to do so. The time was about 11.30 p.m. but the ridge in front was faintly discernible. In the circumstances it was not the place for any elaborate plan. The 24th Battalion (Major Webb8) was ordered to attack silently on the left on a bearing of 45 degrees, and 25 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant9) on the right on a bearing of 94 degrees. They were to capture the enemy position on the ridge, dig in, and get their anti-tank guns sited before dawn. Each battalion was given a troop of anti-tank guns from 33 Battery, and a platoon of machine guns from 2 MG Company. The 8th Field Company was to block the main road and its verges with mines. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine10) was in reserve.
The attack began at 12.30 a.m. on 16 December, each battalion having two companies forward and two in reserve. The 25th advanced 2000 yards, made no contact with the enemy and took up a position which it thought overlooked the road. So far the battalion had had only one casualty, from shellfire. The 24th, on the left, encountered some sporadic shelling, and then, having advanced about 1000 yards and reached the first crest of the ridge, was resisted by a force estimated to be of about three companies. The battalion pressed its attack and the enemy withdrew by transport in some disorder. The battalion had seven casualties, including the CO, who was wounded by mortar fire and evacuated to the advanced dressing station. Major J. Conolly11 took command. Later in the day, while in an ambulance car on the way back from the advanced to the main dressing station, both Major Reid and Major Webb were captured by the enemy. Major Reid was subsequently found in hospital in Tripoli.
By 2.15 a.m. 24 Battalion was on its objective, but there was a gap between the two units. The location of the battalions was believed to be about Bir el Haddadia, facing north-east, and at 7.30 a.m. this was reported to Divisional Headquarters, which seems to show that there was still some doubt about the point where the turn to the road had been made. Had the turn been round Bir el Merduma, the road would certainly have been struck near Bir el Haddadia; but in fact the battalions were in the vicinity of Saniet Matratin, and were still anything up to two miles short of the road.
Subsequently there was some argument over the ‘mistake in navigation’; but provided the road was cut before the main enemy forces passed along it, the place where it was cut did not much matter. Saniet Matratin was just as good as Bir el Haddadia. From Bir el Merduma to the road at Bir el Haddadia is about nine miles; from the turning point near Wadi er Rigel to the road at Saniet Matratin is about ten or eleven miles, and the country is equally rough in either place.
The mistake in navigation, therefore, mattered little. What mattered more was having to advance all the way to the road in darkness. It would have been better to have operated over this unknown country in daylight. Thus the delay in refuelling the Greys in the morning of 15 December, with the consequential delay to 6 Brigade, was unfortunate. But for this delay, 6 Brigade would have had three or four hours’ more daylight for the advance and for reconnaissance. The final result of an advance to the road in daylight, with an enemy flank guard already in position guarding it, can only be guessed at, for many ‘ifs’ and ‘provideds’ make speculation hopeless; but a few hours’ more daylight, and the support of tanks and artillery thus made available, would have helped.
During the hours of darkness that remained on the night of 15–16 December the forward battalions heard the continuous noise of transport moving westwards along the road – an exasperating sound. The engineers from 8 Field Company had difficulty in starting their move, and it was 4 a.m. before they set off. They laid mines near the area occupied by the battalions, but this was unfortunately some distance from the road. It had to be accepted that the road had not been cut.
By the time Main Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group paused west of Wadi er Rigel it was dark. Reserve Group had become strung out and 5 Brigade fell some way behind; so as darkness was approaching, Brigadier Kippenberger went ahead of his brigade to catch up with the GOC. The first instructions he
received were to carry on until he caught up with 6 Brigade, but just before his own brigade arrived (about 7 p.m.) he was told by the GOC not to proceed but to deploy facing east.
There were good reasons for this change of plan. The Division was becoming so spread out as to reduce its value as a fighting force. Divisional Cavalry and 4 Light Armoured Brigade were already distributed over the desert, not to say scattered; and at that moment the course of events for 6 Brigade had yet to be determined. To send 5 Brigade farther north on the heels of the 6th might only lead to confusion in the darkness between the two brigades. The exact location of the enemy was not known, nor yet his intention. And finally there was the imminent arrival in the area south-west of Divisional Headquarters of Administrative Group, an enormous collection of soft-skinned vehicles carrying, among other things, the reserve supply of petrol. Protection of soft-skinned vehicles was always a problem in desert warfare, and both sides had had experience of supply columns being overrun. The smallest of enemy fighting forces could cause carnage among such vehicles; one enemy tank was more than the equal of a legion of trucks. It was therefore most desirable that a fighting force should stand between Administrative Group and any likely enemy line of approach.
If the darkness and the fog of war, the unknown and difficult country at the last stage of a rapid advance by a long, widely dispersed column and the lack of definite information about the enemy are taken into account, it is perhaps no wonder that observers at the time noted that they had never known the GOC so worried. The picture is a striking one, with the various senior officers – Brigadier Kippenberger, Brigadier Harvey, the CRA (Brigadier Weir12), the GSO I (Colonel Queree) – consulting with the GOC either in his caravan or in the darkness outside, while around them there gradually assembled the vehicles of 5 Brigade and of Administrative Group, all travelling without lights, each vehicle guided by the one in front and even then by only a faint light well underneath it illuminating a white patch on the differential. It remains something to wonder at that all these vehicles could move at night for hours over unknown and broken ground, and yet retain some cohesion.
Fifth Brigade also soon found out the difficulties of night deployment in unknown country; for when the time came to take up dispositions on the ground, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the infantry battalion of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, was found in the area allotted to 23 Battalion and had to be asked to side-slip off to the right (south) or at least to move away, which it later did after consultation with its own brigade headquarters. The three battalions of 5 Brigade were each given bearings to march on and told to go out for a definite distance, the outcome being that the brigade line ran from north to south in the order of 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Harding), 23 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Romans13) and 28 (Maori) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett14). The total frontage was some 9000 yards, about two miles to the east of Divisional Headquarters but still west of Wadi er Rigel. The 7th Field Company had been intended to prolong the line to the south, but after helping 5 Field Regiment with bulldozers to dig in its guns, the company filled a 600-yard gap that was discovered between 23 and 28 Battalions. The brigade was reinforced during the night and in the early morning by 4 Field Regiment, two anti-tank batteries and two machine-gun companies, all drawn from Reserve Group. Ammunition Company established an ammunition point just west of Divisional Headquarters, and 6 Field Ambulance a Main Dressing Station in the same area.
It was soon learnt that there was a gap between the brigades, although not the extent of it. During the night the GOC considered filling this with an armoured car unit of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, but no effective action was taken before daylight; and in any case armoured cars were not the best answer in an anti-tank gun line. It was not until after daybreak that the extent of the gap – at least six miles – was known.
When, some time before midnight, some information about enemy movements was available, it became clear that even a protective line to the east might not be sufficient to guard Administrative Group, and that it would be better to move it well away. The group was sent ten miles back along the divisional axis, and completed the move just after midnight. And then, later still, 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported that enemy vehicles – not identified – were moving south-west from a point to the east of Bir el Merduma. If correct, this was a threat to Administrative
Group in its new area, and it was ordered to retire another ten miles south-east. Owing to time lag the move was not started until 6 a.m. on the 16th but it was completed safely. In retrospect there is a touch of macabre humour about the first retirement of the group, for far from being safer it was getting perilously close to the night laager of 15 Panzer Division near Merduma.
Brigadier Harvey told the GOC that in his opinion enemy columns moving westwards would bump 5 Brigade. The GOC agreed that Divisional Cavalry should withdraw at dawn from its exposed position east of the Division, where some Sherman tanks were to be left. The rest of the Shermans and armoured cars were to concentrate on the right (southern) flank.
The CRA had reconnoitred towards the road early in the night, and on return reported that it would not be possible to register the guns owing to the combination of darkness and uncertainty of location. It thus appeared that the guns would not be fully ready by first light. Those supporting 6 Brigade had at least the general line of the road as a target, but those supporting 5 Brigade were doubly ‘in the dark’.
One way and another the situation of the Division left much to be desired. General Freyberg intimated as much in a situation report sent to 30 Corps at 9 p.m.: ‘Difficult to fix positions after long fast journey and hard to deploy in moonlight. Could not get in in time to register guns. Will make every attempt stop enemy east of us but with the present difficulties cannot guarantee to succeed.’ The message ends with the rueful words, ‘we appear to have our hands full at present.’
A belated message from 30 Corps arrived during the evening saying, ‘Delighted your progress. Secure Marble Arch and Merduma. Send light forces Nofilia landing grounds. Clear road eastwards second priority.’ At this stage 30 Corps had decided to carry on the pursuit with 7 Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division only, leaving 51 Division at El Agheila.
It was hoped at Divisional Headquarters at this time, about midnight on 15–16 December, that the enemy, if he fought his way through the cavalry and some supporting Shermans, would then find himself confronted by 6 Brigade astride the road, and by 5 Brigade farther south, with the remaining tanks available to assist where needed. This plan, however, was handicapped by the small number of tanks available and the gap between the brigades, the extent of which was yet unknown.
During the night General Freyberg visited 5 Brigade on foot, and caused some anxiety to his staff, who scoured the desert in all directions looking for him. For in darkness in the desert it
was quite possible to walk away from a truck for a short distance and then lose all sense of direction, especially if the stars or moon were obscured.
The Enemy escapes – 16 December
At 5.45 a.m. 30 Corps advised, ‘Elements 21 Pz 90 Lt 33 Recce believed 1700 hrs [15 December] still east of Marble Arch. 15 Pz directed Merduma. Take up suitable positions destroy any forces still trapped. 7 Armd Div pressing from the east.’
When received, this message was already twelve hours old and enemy locations might well have changed during the night; but Freyberg made a firmer plan based on the information to date. All formations were warned that there might be up to a hundred tanks still to the east. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to withdraw Divisional Cavalry for use as a mobile reserve and for reconnaissance; the armoured car regiments were to reconnoitre to the south-east and west; KRRC was to withdraw to the west for rear protection;15 and all the heavy tanks of the Greys and Staffs Yeomanry were to concentrate for battle. Fifth Infantry Brigade was to extend northwards slightly to reduce the gap between the two brigades, with its line facing north-east, east and south-east. The Reserve Group en bloc came under command of 5 Brigade for use in support. Sixth Infantry Brigade was to prepare for all-round defence and take every opportunity to shoot up the road and harry the enemy. The divisional artillery, including a troop of medium guns, was to co-ordinate. It seemed possible that the Division had got right round the Africa Corps, and it thus made ready to seize its opportunity.
These orders were issued before dawn, but not until 8.10 a.m. was it discovered that the gap between 5 and 6 Brigades was greater than had been thought, and was reported to amount to 10 ½ miles, although later the figure was estimated at some six or seven miles.
At this time (8.10 a.m.) enemy troops were still anything but clear of danger. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit was safely back at Nofilia, and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment had retired from its flank-guard position east of Matratin and was also safe. But 21 Panzer Division was still withdrawing along the Via Balbia, and while its head had reached Nofilia its tail was not yet clear of Matratin. The 90th Light Division was in position at Saniet Matratin as army rearguard. And 15 Panzer Division had not begun its move from Merduma until about 6.30 a.m. It had been waiting for petrol, and for some hours had been vulnerable. Even then it
had only enough petrol to get to Nofilia, and was quite aware that it would have to break through to reach safety. It had about twenty-seven tanks, including some from 21 Division.
About 7 a.m. 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported soft-skinned vehicles about 12 miles south of Bir el Merduma, which were probably part of Administrative Group. Shortly afterwards it discovered enemy tanks moving north-westwards from Merduma, and kept contact thereafter. About 8 a.m., after recall to the southwest from its overnight laager, Divisional Cavalry ran into part of the enemy at the crossing of Wadi er Rigel west of Merduma. Both sides were surprised and exchanged fire at close range, but as the enemy column included some seven tanks, which outgunned its own, Divisional Cavalry withdrew westwards until it reached 5 Brigade. It had two officers and three men killed in this brief encounter.
Thereafter events moved swiftly. In the next two hours units of 5 Brigade Group saw and reported enemy vehicles of all natures, well dispersed. Artillery opened fire on tanks and transport at ranges from 5000 to 8000 yards. The three battalions reported almost in succession from south to north that an enemy column was passing across their front, moving rapidly. There were signs that the enemy was making small reconnaissances of the brigade line, and finding opposition, was swinging away to the north-west, which was the course followed by the inland track from Merduma to Nofilia. By the time the enemy was crossing the front of 21 Battalion at the northern end of 5 Brigade’s line, enemy tanks came close enough to cause the left-flank company, newly arrived to extend the line northwards, to withdraw some 250 yards. Unfortunately the anti-tank guns, which might have come into action at a reasonable range, had not arrived in time from other positions farther south. The 5th Field Regiment and then 4 Field Regiment opened fire against the column, but the enemy moved out of range very fast. Brigadier Kippenberger hastily organised a mobile column from anti-tank and machine-gun units and from carriers of all three battalions; but though this force pursued the enemy for some hours, it did not get within range.
However, 4 Light Armoured Brigade did intercept some of the enemy column, and in a running battle the Greys knocked out two tanks and a few other vehicles and took twenty prisoners for the loss of one tank and a few vehicles. But the enemy was moving too fast for the Greys and by mid-morning the brigade’s armoured cars could only report that the enemy was moving away north-west, that the tail of the column was just to the south of 6 Infantry
Brigade, and that the head of it was already nearly 20 miles away, moving towards Nofilia. The light armoured brigade was then directed towards the road on a wide front, with the object of co-operating with 6 Brigade and shooting up any stray enemy vehicles that might be found.
In a message to 30 Corps at 9.45 a.m., the GOC had said, ‘Gap between 5 and 6 Brigades and many will escape. Will inflict maximum damage we can.’ Thus his message sent in at 12.14 p.m. cannot have been unexpected. ‘Enemy in small columns incl tanks passed through at high speed and wide dispersion. Most difficult to intercept. Majority escaped around our flanks and through gap. Have given hurry-up but little more. ...’ It was a frank and honest report, albeit bitterly disappointing.
The German narrative says briefly, ‘... 15 Panzer Division, which had been caught between the advance guard and the main body of an enemy force succeeded in breaking through the advance guard from the rear under a protective screen and in storming its way out towards Nofilia ‘; and while the description of the layout of our troops is defective, the ‘storming’ is accurate.16 Africa Corps’ diary merely notes that 15 Panzer Division reached certain points from time to time, and that at 11.45 a.m. the head of the division was at Nofilia, with British troops following up the rearguard. The 15th Panzer Division accurately reports the encounter with Divisional Cavalry and then says ‘the main body of the enemy stayed south of the division as it moved on, and contented itself with harassing us with shellfire’. Apparently during its withdrawal 15 Panzer Division was not aware of the presence of 6 Brigade to its north. Neither 15 nor 21 Panzer Division had any petrol left when it arrived at Nofilia.
When daylight came that morning, the outlook was not as comforting as 6 Infantry Brigade Group would have wished, for as they had rather expected, neither 25 nor 24 Battalion was close to the road. The promised Sherman tanks had not yet arrived, and it was found that 24 Battalion’s view was obscured by a ridge in front, later known to be Point 73 at Saniet Matratin. Both the enemy and our own troops advanced to occupy this ridge at much
the same time. The enemy arrived first, but was dislodged by a quick attack by Lieutenant Masefield17 with part of his platoon from B Company, and the road was then in full view. But before a forward observation officer could get there, the ridge had been lost in a counter-attack. It appeared to our troops that the enemy had tanks; but the war diary of 90 Light Division explicitly mentions the lack of tank support, and continues that its troops on Point 73 came under terrific fire from ‘enemy heavy weapons, carriers, and tanks in reverse slope positions’. This inclusion of tanks was also incorrect. It was not the first, nor the last time, that other vehicles had been mistaken for tanks – by both sides.
The foremost positions of 25 Battalion were anything up to two miles from the road, and the unit carriers confirmed an earlier report that the enemy was retiring in three columns on and parallel to the road. Both 6 Field Regiment and 2 Machine-Gun Company opened fire, but the only result was to speed up the enemy withdrawal. It was soon obvious that most of the enemy transport had already passed, and that only the tail was passing now; and by 12.15 p.m. movement on the road east of Wadi Matratin had ceased.
During the morning the enemy west of 6 Brigade, on high ground overlooking many of the brigade vehicles, caused some trouble by opening fire with anti-tank guns, mortars, and small arms. C Company, 26 Battalion (Captain Sinclair18), with supporting fire from a troop of 25-pounders, two-pounders, mortars, and Vickers guns (including one Captain Moore19 had mounted in the back of a jeep), attacked a hill from which the enemy fled, leaving two scared Germans, five anti-tank guns and some other equipment.
This flurry was the last engagement of the morning, and not long afterwards the enemy withdrew. The 90th Light Division reported that it started its withdrawal at 2 p.m. and that it was not pursued.
Sixth Infantry Brigade during the night and morning captured some 34 prisoners, eight 50-millimetre guns, 25 machine guns, seven small cars, and other odd vehicles. The prisoners were from 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 90 Light; but all of them either escaped in the darkness or were recaptured by the retreating 15 Panzer Division , which claimed to have knocked out or captured
various vehicles. One odd, and to the enemy surprising capture, was the American Field Service driver of the ambulance car in which Majors Webb and Reid were taken prisoner.
The New Zealand Division’s total casualties were 11 killed, 29 wounded, and 8 prisoners.
General Freyberg visited 6 Brigade at 3 p.m. and discussed the next moves. Later in the afternoon he reported to the Corps Commander in a personal message: ‘Just returned from the vicinity of main rd [road]. Country even in single file by daylight most difficult. Neither tanks nor armd Cs [armoured cars] could get through last night. Inf on foot did after midnight but were counter attacked. Unable to harass rd until after daylight this morning. Enemy still in position and contesting ground overlooking road. Traffic being shot up by guns and forced from desert tracks to rd. Armd Cs and Div Cav harassing rd further west. Enemy in strength and morale of PWs high.’
So ended the first phase of the new campaign. The high hopes of cutting off even some of the retreating enemy had come to nothing, partly because greater speed was possible along the road than across the desert, partly because the enemy was well seasoned and adopted the orthodox safeguards of flank and rear guards, and partly because of the difficulties of deploying by night in unknown country at the end of a long and tiring move.
Nevertheless the Division had moved far and fast, certainly faster than the enemy had expected. The enemy was on the alert, started his withdrawal sooner than anticipated, and had such an effective scheme of minefields, booby traps and demolitions that he could withdraw his troops at his own speed and had removed many of them before 2 NZ Division appeared on the scene. It was an achievement, however, to have tipped the enemy out of the El Agheila position in a matter of three or four days, and to hustle and even rattle him in the process. As long as air reconnaissance was available to the defender, complete surprise could not be achieved by an outflanking force. The enemy soon became aware of the Division’s march, but was deceived by its speed.
To have succeeded, the Division would have needed more tanks, which could have been provided only at the expense of 7 Armoured Division and would have necessitated a greatly enlarged administrative group. It is probable, however, that tanks operating with 2 NZ Division would have achieved more than with 7 Armoured Division, where the ground and the enemy’s delaying measures made any advance a slow one.