Chapter 4: Nofilia
IN the afternoon the GOC issued instructions for the Division to concentrate. Sixth Brigade Group was to join the rest of the Division, a move back of some ten miles, as 5 Brigade Group would take over the lead when movement resumed. The advance, however, was not to commence until early on 17 December.
At first sight it seems a strange manoeuvre, not only to halt, but to withdraw the foremost troops. The only follow-up was from 4 Light Armoured Brigade, its tanks for some 15 miles and the armoured cars to within a few miles of Nofilia. There was no other attempt to hustle the enemy after the excursions of the morning. In Brigadier Kippenberger ‘s words, 5 Brigade and no doubt most of the Division ‘spent that day, 16 December, thinking things over’.1
The German war diaries all remark on the pressure exerted on their units in the early morning. The 15th Panzer Division was shaken by its breakthrough, and went straight to Nofilia, disregarding instructions to make an intermediate stand. But all diaries comment on the lack of pressure during the afternoon. The 15th Panzer says, ‘for some inexplicable reason the main body of the enemy column remained stationary and did not attack’. The 90th Light Division ‘was enabled to hold its present positions until nightfall’, and ‘the enemy did not pursue’. After reading the German accounts, it seems that a quick follow-up would have kept the enemy on the move and driven him out of Nofilia before he had a chance to consolidate; but he was given nearly twenty-four hours to prepare.
It was fully midday, however, before it was known that the whole of the enemy had escaped, and it would have been unwise to move before this knowledge became certain. An enemy tank force at large in the rear of the Division, while it was attenuated and on the move, might have proved more than troublesome. The decision, therefore, was to make haste slowly, revive the troops who were in need of rest and concentrate the Division for an early start on the morrow.
Arrangements for 17 December were, then, that 4 Light Armoured Brigade, with Divisional Cavalry under command, would lead the advance, followed by 5 Brigade Group, Divisional Reserve Group and Divisional Headquarters, 6 Brigade Group and Administrative Group. The head of 4 Light Armoured Brigade – less its armoured cars already out in front – was to pass the starting point at 7 a.m. This point, near Divisional Headquarters, would be indicated by a column of black smoke. In view of the muddled navigation on 15 December, it was made clear that the LRDG patrol would be responsible for leading the column, moving with the route-marking detachment of the Provost Company.
The Air Force had difficulties in the morning of 16 December owing to the confused form of the ground operations, and the uncertainty as to just who was who in the mass of swirling vehicles, but later in the day attacked the enemy round Nofilia. The 7th Armoured Division reached Marble Arch at midday, and armoured cars from the two divisions were in touch with each other in the afternoon. The enemy had left so many mines, booby traps and demolitions that 7 Armoured Division made no contact with his troops on 16 or 17 December. Booby traps were so various in type that Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson has said2 that at this stage the sappers became suspicious of everything, and even if a gold watch had been lying on the desert no one would have touched it.
Behind 7 Armoured Division came 51 ( H) Division clearing the road, again a slow task. By evening it was fully cleared only as far as the junction with the track to Marada, 40 miles behind.
Originally 2 NZ Division was to have been responsible for clearing landing grounds at both Marble Arch and Merduma, and engineers had travelled with 4 Light Armoured Brigade for early reconnaissance, but the course of events had taken the Division farther to the south and west, while 7 Armoured Division had now reached Marble Arch. So 2 NZ Division was made responsible for Merduma, and for Nofilia later. A detachment from 6 Field Company (Major Anderson3), with an escort of anti-tank guns and machine-gunners, started work on Merduma at 3 p.m. on 16 December. The ground had been heavily mined and booby-trapped, but one runway was cleared by 4 p.m. next day, and aircraft were able to land successfully shortly afterwards. The New Zealand party then handed the work over to the Royal Engineers and rejoined the Division.
Sixth Brigade Group duly returned from its forward position and took post towards the rear of the Division, while 5 Infantry Brigade Group assembled and moved two miles north. In the evening the Corps orders for the next day’s move arrived, but contained nothing new except that 7 Armoured Division, after clearing the airfield at Marble Arch and the road west, was ‘to assist 2 NZ Division as required’ in the performance of its engineer tasks. As the armoured division was to concentrate in an area behind Marble Arch, it was clear that 2 NZ Division alone was to carry out the pursuit.
Meanwhile, during the afternoon of 16 December, the enemy concentrated round Nofilia. The 15th Panzer Division went back in one bound and joined 21 Panzer, which had reached there in good order. It was Rommel’s intention, while work went on in the Buerat position, to hold another rearguard position here, on a line running from the sea north-east of Nofilia, behind the Wadi el Agar, including Nofilia village, and then to the west and northwest towards Point 121. The 21st Panzer Division was to hold the stretch from the sea to Nofilia – the ‘eastern face’ – and 15 Panzer Division from Nofilia to Point 121 – the ‘southern face’. Then, in succession as flank guards to the main road, came 33 Reconnaissance Unit 12 miles west of Nofilia, 580 Reconnaissance Unit 20 miles west, and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment 30 miles west. The 90th Light Division, the rearguard on 16 December, in the end did not leave the area round Matratin until nightfall, and then moved well to the rear to a point about 40 miles west of Nofilia. It took no part in the later fighting in that area.
The New Zealand Division spent a quiet night, and was allowed to light fires to cook breakfast before dawn on 17 December. The Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General (Lieutenant-Colonel Barrington4) remarked sadly that the Division thereby consumed enough petrol to move it for some miles.
Before moving off in the morning of the 17th the Division requested that the approaches to Nofilia and the strongpoint itself should be bombed until 3 p.m., as it proposed to attack from the south-west. It will be noticed that Nofilia was alluded to as a ‘strongpoint’, so that it was expected that it would be strongly held. It must have become apparent during the advance that to, bomb the approaches until 3 p.m. meant that any attack must be
delayed until that hour, for the Division, with only about 30 miles to go, would arrive long before then. The bomblines were therefore changed from time to time until the line ran clear to Nofilia to the west; except that towards evening a request was made for the fort at Nofilia itself to be bombed. Records show some difference of opinion about whether Nofilia was in the end ever bombed at all. The Desert Air Force reported being unable to do any light bombing owing to rain and low cloud, and that its efforts were confined to two tactical reconnaissances. On the other hand, 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported bombs on Nofilia at 9.15 a.m. The weather in the divisional area was patchy, with bright periods; but there could have been rain and low cloud at the airfields.
The advance was resumed at 7 a.m. It took some time for the whole column to deploy into desert formation. Fifth Infantry Brigade Group, second in the order of march, blamed the B Echelon vehicles of 4 Light Armoured Brigade for holding them up, and Divisional Headquarters did not move off until 10 a.m., but the
GOC moved as usual with his Tactical Headquarters well in front. In the early morning it appeared briefly from armoured car reports that Nofilia was clear, but very soon the enemy was located, and the information sent back by 4 Light Armoured Brigade gave a picture that was in fact accurate: a strong rearguard from the sea through Nofilia and then to the west, with a number of tanks estimated at twenty to twenty-five.
The Division carried out the advance without halts, in the hope of capturing the place that day. About midday 4 Light Armoured Brigade closed up in strength to the enemy’s advanced posts, with the Royals to the north-east of Nofilia, and the KDGs moving away to the north-west and west. The guns of 3 RHA were active against the village, and both 4 Field Regiment (from Reserve Group) and the troop from 211 Medium Battery came into action against tanks and guns west of Nofilia.
About midday the Greys (which now had only five Grants and ten Shermans), accompanied by Divisional Cavalry, stormed into the enemy position west of Nofilia village, effected complete surprise, and captured about 250 prisoners from 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 15 Panzer Division. There followed some prolonged and lively exchanges between our tanks and those of the enemy, in which both the Greys and Divisional Cavalry accounted for enemy tanks. Honours in tank losses appear to have been about even. The Greys lost four, of which two were recovered; 15 Panzer reported losing four also, but made a fantastic claim that they had knocked out twenty-one British tanks. In this engagement the commanding officer of the Greys, Lieutenant-Colonel Fiennes, was wounded and evacuated.
Subsequently this break-in on our part led to a special investigation by Africa Corps, with the usual numerous reports and with some censure on one or two people. It might have been some small consolation for 2 NZ Division to have known that an 88-millimetre anti-tank troop was not on the spot owing to a mistake in navigation.
This engagement held the enemy’s attention while the Division passed round the south of Nofilia. The attack caused perturbation in Africa Corps, for at midday 15 Panzer reported that it was being outflanked on its right near Point 121, and that its panzer regiment was being sent there with thirteen runners. About 12.30 p.m. Africa Corps ordered 21 Panzer to send all its tanks and some anti-tank guns to the vicinity of Point 121; and half an hour later ordered the division to move complete to that area to restore the situation, leaving only rearguards on the eastern face. Africa Corps states clearly that it had a hard fight to prevent a
breakthrough. The 15th Panzer Division was so disorganised that the command of the front west of Nofilia had for a while to be given to 21 Panzer Division; and there were one or two minor reorganisations during the afternoon. And running through all this was the persistent cry for petrol. Round about midday Africa Corps could not have retired if it had wanted to, as it had only enough petrol for movements within the battlefield. Driblets of petrol were being sent up throughout the day.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry had thus caused the whole armoured strength of Africa Corps to be committed. The number of enemy tanks involved is not known accurately. On 16 December the Africa Corps had a total of fifty-three, and on 19 December thirty-eight; so perhaps the fighting on 16 and 17 December reduced their strength by anything up to fifteen, although many of these may have been only slightly damaged and were recoverable.
One interesting point of tactics is exemplified by the fighting round Nofilia village. The pressure exerted by 2 NZ Division was against the southern face only. The advance of 7 Armoured Division had been curtailed and it was now out of contact with the enemy. The New Zealand Division was therefore making a left hook without the necessary concomitant of a holding attack against the enemy’s front, the eastern face in this case. This was unavoidable, as the Division did not have sufficient troops to attack all along the enemy’s line. So when the need arose, the enemy thinned out his troops on the eastern face without danger, and moved them to the threatened sector. When referring to another incident in his long retreat from Alamein, but speaking in general terms, Rommel says, ‘there is never any point in attempting an outflanking movement round an enemy force unless it has first been tied down frontally, because the defending force can always use its motorised forces – assuming it has petrol and vehicles – to hold up the outflanking columns while it slips out of the trap.’5
In the early stages of the engagement, the rest of the Division halted; but about 12.45 p.m. the GOC ordered 5 Infantry Brigade Group to advance westwards, watching closely the northern flank, and to be prepared to form a gun line (i.e., a defensive line of battle) facing north. Brigadier Kippenberger went forward immediately, leaving orders for the group to follow below the skyline so that they would not be seen from the road, which here ran on the northern side of a low escarpment about three miles
from the sea. The group moved forward with 23 Battalion leading on a broad front, 28 (Maori) Battalion on the right, and 21 Battalion on the left, with headquarters and attached troops in the centre. At the outset they had difficulty in passing through the mass of transport to the south of Nofilia, and were delayed for some time.
This was the second occasion that day that 5 Brigade had been delayed by transport in front, most of it from B Echelon of 4 Light Armoured Brigade. The cumulative effect of these two delays, according to the British narrative of operations, ‘seriously affected the conduct of operations later in the day’. Whether these words are fully justified or not, it is a fact that the brigade did not turn towards the road until 3 p.m. and that it was dark before full pressure could be achieved. As with 6 Brigade in the afternoon of 15 December, a couple of hours’ more daylight might have made a great deal of difference.
At 2.30 p.m., when the brigade was about ten miles west of Nofilia, General Freyberg ordered Brigadier Kippenberger to swing due northwards immediately, sooner than the brigadier had expected. The group was now approaching the road between Wadi Umm el Ghindel and Wadi en Nizam, some 11 miles west of the Nofilia crossroads. It had already been reported that there were enemy troops in that area, and it was soon confirmed that an enemy flank guard was in position. This was 33 Reconnaissance Unit.
The brigade commander decided that there was no time to delay or to make formal reconnaissance. His orders group was at hand, and he gave instructions at once for a right wheel, for 23 Battalion to push on and cut the road, for 28 Battalion to cover the right flank – the activities west of Nofilia were not so very far away – and for 21 Battalion to advance to the road on the left of 23 Battalion and then swing round facing right to complete the block. Each battalion had under command a machine-gun platoon and an anti-tank troop.
The 23rd Battalion was still in the lead after the turn, and after travelling seven miles slightly east of north, and while still embussed, crossed over the low escarpment and came under artillery fire from both field and anti-tank guns. The road was fully visible three miles away, and along it enemy transport was streaming, well spaced out and moving fast. Between the top of the escarpment and the road was a series of gradually descending ridges and hollows, with ‘going’ of soft sand covered with tussock; and while the sand blanketed the shellbursts and so saved casualties, it slowed down the speed of the transport until it was only a low-gear crawl slower than walking pace. The progress of all vehicles, even that
of the brigade commander in his scout car, had a nightmarish quality in which everyone strained hard to move faster but had leaden weights dragging behind him. So despite Kippenberger ‘s eagerness and his hurry-up messages to units – not that Lieutenant-Colonel Romans needed urging – the advance could not be made any faster; but in due course 23 Battalion reached a patch of covered ground and debussed. The carriers and anti-tank guns pressed forward to silence enemy weapons on a ridge ahead, and infantry followed up smartly and captured the ridge. The road was now only 1600 yards away, but the enemy flank guard could still sting sharply and showed no sign of withdrawing farther. Most unfortunately, it was now about 6 p.m. and becoming dark, an indication of the difficulties in carrying out this advance. The most that had been achieved was that enemy transport appeared to have stopped using the road for the time being. Some observers thought that it had changed to a parallel track along the beach out of sight; but while this is possible, there is no confirmation from German accounts.
The 21st Battalion, on the outside of the big wheel, had a hard struggle through very heavy going to catch up. Under fire from enemy weapons of all kinds, the battalion finally debussed about 5 p.m. and advanced to some 3500 yards from the road, but was unable to continue during daylight.
The 28th Battalion had less trouble, although it too came under fire while still in vehicles. It debussed as soon as it passed the escarpment, went forward on foot and took up a flanking position. Once it was dug in it attracted little attention as the enemy was concentrating on 23 Battalion.
Luckily, owing to the nature of the ground, and probably because of some rather wild shooting by the enemy, casualties throughout were low, even though vehicles had advanced through a hail of shellbursts.
The 5th Field Regiment sent observers forward with all three battalions and went into action against enemy transport on the road and the enemy flank-guard position. Brigade Headquarters asked for more artillery support at 4.45 p.m., and observers from 4 Field Regiment and B Troop, 211 Medium Battery, came forward, and also 34 Anti-Tank Battery, the first two opening fire against the road. But it was a difficult target, being only a fine line at right angles to the line of fire. In addition, it was late in the afternoon and the light soon failed. Only one firm hit was claimed.
Artillery units report that among other targets was the covering force of ‘enemy guns and tanks’; and there was a general belief among the infantry that they were opposed by armour. Judging
from enemy reports, it is doubtful if tanks were in that particular area at that time, for the imbroglio between Nofilia and Point 121 had not been cleared up when the 5 Brigade attack started; and 15 Panzer Division, the first to withdraw, did not start thinning out from the southern face until about 5 p.m., with the clear intention of retiring well back without delay.
Thus the road had not been reached by dark, but the threat there and round Point 121 compelled the enemy to withdraw, and at 4.30 p.m. 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported that enemy troops, including tanks, were moving away to the north.
Two aspects of 5 Brigade’s attack merit some attention. When General Freyberg told Brigadier Kippenberger to turn north the brigade commander was slightly taken aback, as he had intended to go some miles farther west. This view was shared by the enemy, for an intelligence report compiled later by 15 Panzer Division, referring to the Nofilia operation, says ‘again the enemy had apparently committed the error of allowing himself to be involved in an attack instead of making a bold wide outflanking move’. Nevertheless, if 5 Brigade had gone a short distance farther west before turning north, it would have bumped another flank guard ( 580 Reconnaissance Unit) and would have been little better off, or not at all, especially as there would have been even less daylight left; and 2 NZ Division could not attempt a ‘bold wide outflanking move’ with its existing resources.
Secondly, when one considers the results of the brigade attack, it is somewhat surprising that a brigade of three battalions, with progressively increasing artillery support, could not dislodge a reconnaissance unit and elements of an infantry battalion.6 But it must be taken into account that 33 Reconnaissance Unit arrived in its position about 9 a.m. on 16 December and so had thirty hours to prepare, during which time pits were dug, mortar and anti-tank positions prepared, and the unit in every way made ready. The exceptionally bad going reduced 5 Brigade’s advance to a crawl, and the enemy could watch it all and oppose it with everything he had. By the time a full brigade attack with artillery support could be properly organised, it was dark. The thought that somewhere not far away were enemy tanks, while the brigade had no armour with it, probably caused some justifiable caution. Fifth Brigade’s attack came one or two hours too late.
While 5 Infantry Brigade was engaged, the uncommitted groups of the Division south of Nofilia village continued to advance westwards and north-westwards. Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group halted at 4 p.m. some nine miles west of Nofilia,
while 6 Infantry Brigade Group took up positions nearer the village to act, if needed, in support of 4 Light Armoured Brigade in keeping pressure on the garrison. The Administrative Group stopped about seven miles to the south of Headquarters; but General Freyberg later ordered it to move back. It retired 16 miles along the divisional axis, and remained there for the night of 17–18 December.
The enemy fared not too well during the afternoon, as a result of 15 Panzer Division’s reverses in the fighting between Nofilia and Point 121. While the tanks of 21 Panzer Division, and later the whole division, less a rearguard, were moving towards 15 Panzer, there came a cry for help from 33 Reconnaissance Unit, which reported that it was being heavily attacked. (This was 5 NZ Brigade’s attack.) So 21 Panzer, minus its armour, was diverted farther west and moved behind 15 Panzer Division and 33 Reconnaissance Unit to extend the latter’s line to the west. Unarmoured elements of 21 Panzer (from 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment) co-operated with 33 Reconnaissance Unit and checked 21 NZ Battalion in its initial attack. The reports of Africa Corps and the panzer divisions make no mention of tanks being used in this area; all the evidence indicates that they remained between Nofilia and Point 121.
In the broader picture Panzer Army Headquarters had already decided that the army would have to move back at once into the Buerat position. The plan in general was for 15 Panzer Division to disengage and move back, followed by 21 Panzer Division, while 33 Reconnaissance Unit and 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment formed the rearguard until the whole of Africa Corps was clear. The enemy at this stage feared another attack on the road still farther west, and warned 580 Reconnaissance Unit to be on its guard.
During the late afternoon 4 Light Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry observed enemy movement in and around Nofilia, until at 5.20 p.m. the GOC ordered the brigade to clear the village; but by that time the light was going, and Brigadier Harvey did not consider that the attack was feasible, particularly as it was more than probable that the place was still strongly held. As darkness fell most of 4 Light Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry laagered to the west of Nofilia, while still watching the place closely; but the KDGs had patrols as far west as Wadi el Ahmar, 30 miles from Nofilia, and found the road there well guarded. Sixth Infantry Brigade Group was some six miles south-west of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, and units of 5 Brigade Group were from 1600 to 3500 yards from the road some ten to twelve miles north-west of Nofilia.
During the evening there were reports of movement out of Nofilia, and also the sound of transport in the village; but in view of what we know today, the belief that there was ‘considerable transport’ there, together with tanks, was incorrect. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was finally given the specific task of hampering any attempt of the garrison in Nofilia to break out through the Division, i.e., across the desert instead of along the road. This task meant in effect that 4 Light Armoured Brigade was to fill the gap between 5 and 6 Brigades. The chance of the enemy trying to escape in this way was not great owing to his petrol shortage, a deficiency that was only vaguely known to 2 NZ Division.
Fifth Brigade took full precautions against an attempt to break out from Nofilia through the brigade, although it was obvious that the going immediately south of the road was bad. Battalions sited their anti-tank guns accordingly. From the forward posts could be heard the exasperating sound of transport moving along the road.
At 7 p.m. 21 Battalion, held up 3500 yards from the road, noted that it was opposed by tanks and 88–millimetre guns, but it is most unlikely that there were tanks in that area. At that time 21 Panzer Division, which had temporarily lost its tanks, located them not far from Point 121, halted and almost out of petrol. The 15th Panzer Division was to precede it in the retirement, but had only one idea, to get clear without delay. There was certainly no thought of placing tanks in a defensive position.
Communication between Headquarters 5 Brigade and 21 Battalion was not established until 8.30 p.m. because telephone lines were cut by vehicles crossing them and the unit wireless set had been put out of action by shellfire. The battalion was then ordered to try to reach the road so as to have it under small-arms fire in the morning. It advanced without artillery support, and shortly after midnight, when within 1000 yards of the road, was held up by machine-gun and mortar fire, some of the former again believed to come from tanks. The report of 21 Panzer Division mentions only 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment as being in this area; but about midnight some petrol arrived for the stranded tank group, and it soon moved back along the road. As it reports being fired on, it may have returned the fire. The battalion commander realised that he could not reach his objective, a ridge overlooking the road, and his present position being untenable, he withdrew. This attack was really rather venturesome and might have led to heavy casualties if the battalion had reached the road. It does not seem to have registered with the enemy, for there is no special mention of it. To him it apparently merely formed part of the attempts against the road, although it is likely that it helped in keeping him on the move.
This was 5 Brigade’s last attempt to get one of its battalions to the road; but an effort was made before dawn on 18 December to obstruct it with mines, and for this purpose two detachments were sent out by 7 Field Company, each of a sub-section (about ten men), one escorted by C Company from 23 Battalion and the other by D Company of 28 Battalion. The 23 Battalion company (Captain F. S. R. Thomson7) fought its way north to within 400 yards of the road despite enemy opposition, and brought the road under machine-gun fire. Under its protection the engineers succeeded in laying 160 mines on and alongside the road. It was then between 4 and 5 a.m. During all this activity the company knocked out various vehicles and returned safely with no casualties.
The 28 Battalion company (Major Logan8) advanced some seven miles north-east from the battalion area, and after evading various enemy vehicles, reached the road without interference at a point where a concrete bridge crossed the Wadi Umm el Ghindel. Owing to the rough going the mine-carrying vehicles did not arrive until 3.30 a.m., and the engineers had time to lay only forty mines, all at the Nofilia end of the bridge. D Company had no casualties, but two engineers were killed by the explosion of an enemy booby trap in the centre of the road. No enemy transport was seen during the time the company was there – the enemy had already gone.
During the night patrols heard the noises of activity in Nofilia village and to the west; and at first light it was believed that the enemy was still there, and 30 Corps was so advised at 7 a.m. This was followed by a personal message from the GOC saying that Nofilia was still strongly held and should be bombed, and asking that A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, be sent to the Division again to augment the low number of effective tanks with the Greys. Sixth Infantry Brigade Group made ready to send out a mobile column to attack the village from the west, and 4 Light Armoured Brigade prepared to sweep widely round 5 Brigade and then back along the road towards Nofilia.
But soon patrols approached the village, reported that they could see no movement, and then at 8.43 a.m. that it was clear. It had to be accepted that the enemy had got away intact. The 21st Battalion, the unit farthest to the west, reported that there had been spasmodic enemy fire until just before dawn; but at full
daylight the ground between the battalion and the road was found to be empty. The newly laid mines were lifted later in the morning.
The enemy plan for this successful withdrawal was a simple one: 33 Reconnaissance Unit and 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment were to stay in position until Africa Corps was clear, and then in turn retire through Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment, which was the final rearguard. In fact the only hitch came from lack of petrol which, amazing though it may seem, was literally being issued a few hundred gallons at a time. There were occasions during the night when units reported that they had come to a stop until more petrol was received. The 15th Panzer Division disengaged from the area round Nofilia shortly after 8 p.m. and had travelled 30 miles along the good tarmac road by first light. The segments of 21 Panzer Division followed, and then 33 Reconnaissance Unit and its supporter.
In the morning of 18 December patrols from 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported enemy transport immediately east of Sultan, where there was a steady stream of vehicles moving west. The KDGs kept contact as far as Sirte, and the rest of the brigade accompanied by Divisional Cavalry moved out on the 18th for some 25 miles westwards across the desert to the vicinity of Bir el Magedubia. For the moment contact with the enemy had been broken except for the armoured car patrols.
So for a second time the enemy had merely been hustled; he had withdrawn from Nofilia itself despite the nearness of our troops. But, as Rommel has recorded, it is extremely difficult to surround a retiring force. Previously the New Zealand Division had withdrawn from Sidi Rezegh and from Minqar Qaim, so escaping what at times had looked like certain encirclement. The German-Italian forces had avoided encirclement at Fuka, Tobruk, Benghazi and Agedabia, and were to repeat the performance. It was not until the end in North Africa, against overwhelming superiority and with the sea at his back, that the enemy was captured complete. Battles like Cannae or Sedan are rare.
During the previous evening the tasks for 18 December had been received: 2 NZ Division was to maintain contact with the enemy, secure and clear the Nofilia airfield, and clear the main road eastwards until meeting 7 Armoured Division which was working westwards. The instructions also gave traffic priorities on the road forward of El Agheila for two days ahead, indicating that administration would restrict the forces in any immediate further
advance. It is of interest that first priority was given to an RAF convoy to Marble Arch.
The GOC suggested that 2 NZ Division should advance direct from Nofilia across the desert, where the LRDG reported that the going was the best in North Africa. General Freyberg had in mind a flanking attack on Tamet airfield; but he would want a full regiment of heavy tanks with an additional squadron. The plan was accepted provisionally, and a regiment from 8 Armoured Brigade was nominated to come under command. Orders were prepared for movement that day (18 December) to Bir el Magedubia, and for a further advance on following days.
However, other plans were in view. At 1 p.m. the corps commander (Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese) met the GOC by arrangement some three miles east of Nofilia, after sappers working in the area had prevented General Freyberg ‘s party from running into a minefield nearby. As a result of this conference the move was cancelled and it now seemed likely that the Division would remain in the Nofilia area until after Christmas. The GOC was very pleased with words of praise that had come from both army and corps commanders. He had pointed out, doubtless taking a legitimate advantage of the receptive atmosphere, that if there were to be any more operations of a similar nature he must have more tanks – ‘two full regiments’.
As a last measure 5 Infantry Brigade established blocks on the road and coastal track to prevent the withdrawal of any stray parties of Germans. By the next day fourteen prisoners had been taken in this way.
The Division now took steps to maintain contact with the enemy and to dispose remaining troops in depth. Fifth Infantry Brigade remained north-west of Nofilia; and on 19 December a special force was formed, of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, one troop from 5 Field Regiment, one troop from 34 Anti-Tank Battery and a detachment from 7 Field Company. This force, under the command of 5 Brigade, moved out to patrol a general line running south-eastwards for some 18 miles from Sultan, to watch for any enemy advance from the west, protect the engineer detachment while it cleared the road from Nofilia, and report on the condition of the airfields at Sultan. B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, took up a linking position some 25 miles farther back, and a link was also maintained with 4 Light Armoured Brigade round Sirte. This little force cleared the airfield at Sultan but saw nothing of the enemy. Sub-units were relieved from time to time, and the force remained out until after Christmas, when 2 NZ Division was relieved of operational duties.
During the next two or three days the Division settled down into semi-permanent bivouacs alongside the road north of Nofilia, with 5 Brigade Group the farthest to the west. One armoured car regiment remained on constant patrol in the Sirte area; the engineers continued clearing the road both east and west, and the main airfield and other landing grounds near Nofilia. Junction was made with the engineers of 7 Armoured Division on 20 December at a point ten miles east of the crossroads. It will be noticed that frequently while much of the Division was, comparatively speaking, at rest, the engineers went steadily on with work that required courage and steady nerves, without the excitement of battle to exalt them.
For the time being there was no offensive action in sight, and some thought could be given both to the past and the future, coloured always by the approach of Christmas. On 19 December General Freyberg held a conference and discussed plans for the future, but there was also some soul-searching about the immediate past. Referring to the possibility of another outflanking move, he said: ‘... if we do it quickly enough and differently from the way we have carried out the last two, that is with greater punch, we may be able to bottle a certain number of his troops. We have missed two chances of bottling him as our technique was imperfect. ... there was uncertainty as to our position. ... A brigade commander must have a battalion of heavy tanks to push in so that the blow goes in hard and goes right home. ... The four hours’ delay due to lack of petrol in the first movement allowed the whole of the Panzer Armee to escape. The enemy could move faster along the road and he was able to put a gun line and infantry positions and tanks on the escarpment to hold off our attack to command the road.’
Mistakes in navigation and shortage of tanks were not to trouble the Division in the future, so something had been gained from the experience of El Agheila and Nofilia. It was something of an error to blame the late refuelling on 14 December for lack of progress on the evening of the 15th, which was due more to the delay in refuelling the Greys in the morning of that day.
The enemy nevertheless had handled his troops skilfully and had effected his withdrawal without serious loss, but he was forced to retire and was definitely on the defensive. The New Zealand Division had played its part, but there was a natural measure of disappointment at the enemy’s escape. Later reflection, however, assesses the Division’s part quite highly, for the fighting at Nofilia, in the eyes of the post-war Battle Nomenclature Committee, merited classification as a ‘separate engagement’, and was held to be the
sharpest action of the whole El Agheila operation. The Division’s casualties were 7 killed and 35 wounded, nearly all of them in 5 Brigade.
The casualty list for the fighting on 16, 17 and 18 December was mercifully a small one. The Division had 18 killed, 64 wounded and eight taken prisoner. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade had 13 killed, 17 wounded and two missing. Enemy material captured was not great, although any captures were good for morale. It amounted to about 15 vehicles, 14 guns, mostly 50-millimetre, and 33 machine guns. Four tanks were knocked out by anti-tank guns. This does not include the tank losses of the enemy in the action west of Nofilia on 17 December, where the losses on both sides were about the same, four or five.