Chapter 5: Preparing to Hurry to Tripoli
WHILE the operations at El Agheila and Nofilia were running their course, westwards in Tunisia matters had not been going well for the Allies. Increasing German pressure, mostly from tanks and dive-bombers, gradually forced the British troops back to Medjez el Bab, some 35 miles from Tunis. The Allies still had the equivalent of only two divisions, while the Axis had four (three German and one Italian). This withdrawal caused a delay in the Allied plans for a counter-offensive, which was finally launched on 22 December. The British 5 Corps (6 Armoured and 78 Divisions) commenced attacks on a pronounced feature, Djebel Ahmera – later known as Longstop Hill – near Medjez; and it was intended that both United States and French troops should join in. But there had already been heavy rain, later becoming torrential,1 and this interfered drastically not only with the fighting but with the movement of supplies.
Between 22 and 24 December General Eisenhower toured the forward area, and as a result postponed the offensive indefinitely, ordering his forces to reorganise and settle down for the winter. The line then ran from El Aouana to Medjez el Bab and Bou Arada, with scattered bodies of troops on a line running south to Pichon. Longstop Hill remained in German possession. The gallant attempt to carry Tunis by storm had failed, albeit by very little. The Allied forces, now in a state of some disorganisation as a result of having been sent into battle piecemeal, needed a period of some months before they would be ready for further offensives.
Towards the end of January 1943 the Allied line from north to south was held by the British 5 Corps, now consisting of 46 and 78 Divisions and a composite division known as ‘Y’, the French 19 Corps of two divisions, and 2 United States Corps of two
divisions (but being built up to four). There had been some confusion within the Allied line owing to the intermingling of nationalities and to the reluctance of the French to place their troops under British command; but on 26 January General Eisenhower issued firm orders that Lieutenant-General K. A. N. Anderson, commanding the First Army, would take over tactical command of the whole front. The final arrangement thus gave First Army three corps, 5 British, 19 French and 2 United States. The Axis strength was by that time the equivalent of five German divisions, including two armoured, and one and a half Italian.
So for a period there was stalemate in the north; but in the south the front was more fluid and allowed of some movement. The gradual build-up of United States troops in this area, based on Tebessa, was sufficient even as early as mid-January to make the Axis nervous about an Allied offensive towards Gabes and Sfax; and for this reason 21 Panzer Division was later sent from Tripolitania to that area.
The General Situation on Eighth Army’s Front
For some time it was believed that the enemy would make his next stand on the Buerat position, a line running roughly south-westwards from the coast near Buerat. There would be no great difficulty in turning this position, which had an open southern flank, but between Buerat and Tripoli another and much stronger line extended from Homs to Tarhuna.
Buerat was 600 miles from Tobruk, from which, even at the end of December it was still necessary to despatch some hundreds of tons of stores a day to Eighth Army. The distance to Benghazi was 400 miles, and as this was a lesser burden on the supply echelons, every effort was made to speed up the daily rate of unloading there. But no port, other than small anchorages, existed between Benghazi and Tripoli, a distance of 675 miles, too far to maintain the army by road for any length of time. No reasonably sized force could remain in Tripoli, much less advance beyond it, without the use of that port, and the time it would take the navy to make it workable after the enemy’s expected demolitions could only be estimated. A period of one or two weeks after capture seemed reasonable. A force advancing on Tripoli would therefore have to carry enough supplies of all kinds – petrol, rations, water and ammunition – to overcome both the Buerat and the Homs – Tarhuna lines, reach Tripoli and capture it, and maintain itself for a period. Prolonged maintenance from Benghazi was impossible. Moreover the force could make no measured advance to Tripoli, but would have to reach it within a limited time.
Thus it would have to go right through to Tripoli in one continuous advance of so many days; which after the complicated calculations necessary to solve the problem, was fixed at ten days after the initial attack on the Buerat line. If the advance took longer, the army could not be maintained at Tripoli even until the port was open, and consequently some of its formations would have to be withdrawn and any further advance became doubtful. It was a fascinating problem in logistics, but one of more than academic interest to the Army Commander and his staff.
It was sincerely hoped that the enemy would not move back from Buerat before the attack started, for if he withdrew to the Homs–Tarhuna line, making use of all the skill he had already shown in delaying actions and with mines and demolitions, then again the maintenance of the attacking force would be difficult. All supplies still would have to come forward by the long road haul from Benghazi, and a considerable part of the load of every vehicle would be the petrol for its own consumption on the round trip.
So while administration dictated that Eighth Army should go no farther for the moment, but should pause while supplies were built up as far forward as possible, strategy dictated also that formations should stay where they were so as not to alarm the enemy. There was to be no feeling forward to make contact, followed by probing attacks and preliminary bombardment. The army was to go straight into action from its present locations and would deliberately seek an ‘encounter battle’ for which it would be fully prepared.
So for the present 30 Corps was stretched out from Sirte back to El Agheila, but 4 Light Armoured Brigade alone kept watch on the enemy. It was under command of 2 NZ Division until 22 December and thereafter under 7 Armoured Division.
The Army plan was that 30 Corps should attack with four divisions (50, 51, 7 Armoured, and 2 NZ) and two extra armoured brigades (22 and 23), the number of tanks in all armoured regiments being made up to establishment by drawing on the tanks of 1 Armoured Division, now back near the Egyptian frontier. The 50th and 51st Divisions and 23 Armoured Brigade were to attack along the coast road, while 7 Armoured and 2 NZ Divisions, the latter with the Greys under command, were to sweep round the enemy’s flank and cut in behind him. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was to be centrally placed in Army Reserve. Initially the attack by 50 and 51 Divisions was not to be pressed, but as soon as the outflanking movement began to make itself felt, the pressure was to be increased and the attack conducted ruthlessly. The objectives
of the outflanking formations were to be first Sedada and Tmed el Chatua (about 60 miles west of Buerat), and thence as circumstances required – either north-eastwards against the rear of the enemy’s line, or northwards to cut off retreating columns, or north-westwards direct on Tripoli.
At the appropriate time Headquarters 10 Corps, brought forward from Tobruk, would take over command of the coastal attack, leaving 30 Corps to command the outflanking move. The army’s operations would be covered and supported by the full power of the Desert Air Force; and for this purpose more airfields were to be prepared in the present forward areas. The preparation of advanced landing grounds was an important task of the outflanking formations.
The building up of supply dumps for the advance would take until 14 January 1943, which was fixed as ‘D’ day; but if the enemy remained in the Buerat position in force and had not thinned out, the attack would not commence until 20 January.
This plan suffered a severe setback. A gale that raged from 4 to 6 January wrought havoc in Benghazi harbour, breaching the breakwater and sinking several ships, one with 2000 tons of ammunition, and the intake dropped from 3000 to 1000 tons a day. The army was again forced to use Tobruk. After reviewing the position Montgomery decided to adhere to the date fixed, but to reduce the coastal attack by one division (50 Division) and to use the transport of 10 Corps as a whole to ferry stores from Tobruk. No part of 10 Corps would come forward, and Montgomery was conscious that he was losing correct balance by having his second echelon of formations so far behind; but by that time indications were strong that the enemy contemplated no debouchment eastwards. In the end 50 Division was brought forward to El Agheila. The only real risk was nothing new – that the force might not get to Tripoli in ten days.
As Headquarters 10 Corps would not be available, Montgomery decided to command the coastal thrust himself from his Tactical Headquarters, leaving the outflanking operations to be controlled by 30 Corps. It was admittedly too much to give one Corps Headquarters command of both attacks; but there were mixed opinions at the time whether the army commander should act as corps commander also.
From the Enemy’s Side
The many arguments over the withdrawal from the El Agheila positions to Buerat were now to be repeated with even greater force, but in the end Rommel was able very largely to get his own way. The last Italian overseas possession was now slipping from
Mussolini ‘s grasp. It is small wonder that he was desperately trying to stave off what was now rapidly becoming the inevitable. Moreover, there were still bitter thoughts about the way in which the Italians had been sacrificed when Rommel withdrew from Alamein, and a grim determination – if the adjective ‘grim’ is applicable in such a state of indecision – that there should be no repetition. These two factors were in conflict, for if there was to be a desperate resistance to hold the remnant of the Italian empire, it was surely not fitting that the Italians should be sent away first.
Rommel had never regarded the Buerat line as more than a temporary one, and much preferred the Homs–Tarhuna line, although in his opinion any position on the way back to the Gabes Gap could be only temporary. During the fighting at El Agheila and Nofilia, however, all troops except the motorised units of Africa Corps and several other small German units were at work improving the Buerat line, which Mussolini (Comando Supremo) had instructed Rommel to hold at all costs. Rommel’s immediate superior, Marshal Bastico (Superlibia), was in sympathy with his views, but to put it bluntly was frightened of the Duce. On 17 December they sent a combined appreciation to Rome and sought permission at least to thin out on the Buerat line. The answer to this was ‘Resist to the uttermost I repeat resist to the uttermost with all troops of the German-Italian Army in the Buerat position’.
This was completely unrealistic, and Rommel asked what he should do if Eighth Army merely outflanked him to the south and did not attack frontally. Moreover, he expected continued pressure from Eighth Army and an attack about 20 December and was surprised at the unexpected lull. Throughout he maintained that he could not guarantee to hold the enemy off, and that his forces had to retire into Tunisia and the Gabes line.
A series of conferences followed between Rommel, Kesselring and Bastico, with the outcome that permission was given to commence withdrawing the non-motorised troops, mainly Italians, to the Homs–Tarhuna line. Bastico said, doubtless with emphasis, that on no account were the Italians ever to be left behind, to which Rommel replied that he could either save them by withdrawing them forthwith, or lose them by remaining, and asked which should he do. He also wanted to withdraw the garrison of Bu Ngem, 60 miles south of Buerat, but for the moment this was refused. On 24 December one of many messages he sent to Superlibia pointed out that daily requirements of petrol during static periods were 200 cubic metres, and during active operations 400, but during December he had received only 100. Ammunition stocks were between one-third and one-half of requirements. Rommel’s
messages at this time must have been a source of constant trepidation to his superiors. Tripoli, however, was now very little use to the Axis, owing partly to bombing and partly to the rate of sinkings of vessels destined for that port. A high proportion of Rommel’s supplies were coming from Tunisian ports, and thence by a combination of an indifferent railway and a long road haul.
Finally Rommel obtained a slight relaxation of his rigid orders, and on 29 December withdrew the Bu Ngem garrison to El Faschia, 45 miles north-west. Then on 31 December came a change of plan. The Fuehrer and the Duce agreed that the main front would be in Tunisia, that the Libyan front would be subsidiary, and that Rommel’s plan for gradual retirement was accepted; but although he wanted to go back to the Gabes Gap, his superiors were firm that he should hold the Mareth Line. Further, fixed periods of delay were to be imposed on the enemy, three weeks before reaching the Homs–Tarhuna line, and another three weeks before giving up Tripoli. Rommel responded that he must commence moving the Italians back from Buerat at once, as with the transport available it would take ten days, and secondly, he could give no guarantee of holding the enemy for any fixed period, as that depended on the weight of attack. The withdrawal of the Italian XX and XXI Corps began on 3 January; and at the same time 164 Light Division, hitherto not fully motorised, was made so with vehicles gleaned from other German formations.
Thereafter Rommel was told – the words sound like a plea – that he was to do the best he could to delay the enemy in front of Tripoli; but that he must impose two months’ delay before reaching the Mareth Line. Rommel reiterated that his speed of withdrawal was in the last resort dependent on the weight of British pressure. It was in fact over two months before Eighth Army attacked at Mareth; but it may be argued that the delay was due more to Montgomery’s careful preparations than to Rommel’s delaying tactics.
Bastico then had the unusual experience that Rommel, having agreed with one of his requests, went even beyond what was asked of him. Sfax, a small port in southern Tunisia, was held to be in danger of attack from United States forces in the west, and on 11 January Bastico asked that 164 Light Division be sent to strengthen the garrison there. Rommel had a high opinion of the potentialities of the Gabes Gap position, and moreover was dependent on supplies coming through Sfax and was therefore willing to further tighten his belt now in the hope that he could loosen it later. For various reasons he preferred to send 21 Panzer Division, with 580 Reconnaissance Unit, rather than
164 Light Division, which was reorganising. Thus, on 13 January, 21 Panzer left for Sfax. On the same day Rommel detached a small staff, headed by his army artillery commander, to inspect the Mareth defences and start work on improvements.
Actually 21 Panzer Division had travelled no farther than Tarhuna when it was ordered to leave all tanks and tank crews behind to be absorbed into 15 Panzer Division and to re-equip in Tunisia. There was not enough petrol, however, at that time to take the tanks forward again to 15 Panzer Division, some 40 miles south-west of Buerat.
Meanwhile 2 NZ Division was reorganising near Nofilia. At his conference on 19 December, already mentioned, General Freyberg had given some indications about the future: there was to be a pause for at least ten days, depending on the rate of build-up of supplies. The GOC praised the Greys for getting their tanks forward over 320 miles of desert going, and added praise to all drivers of vehicles and maintenance staff. He said that he would have to have more tanks for further operations, and that these had been promised. It appeared that the Division would be employed again on a desert march, and the LRDG would be entirely responsible for navigation. Harder living was to be enforced during the move, and there was to be no promiscuous ‘brewing up’, especially during hours of darkness. The reduction of enemy air activity would allow dispersion in desert formation to be reduced from the existing 150 to 100 yards between vehicles. The GOC concluded by saying that games were to be organised, and that arrangements were being made for Christmas fare.
General Montgomery and General Leese visited the Division on 21 December, and the former addressed formation and unit commanders. He said he was very pleased with the advance which had ‘shaken the Boche’; he explained why it had not been possible to give the Division more tanks, and described its outflanking move as a very fine performance. He then spoke of the future and outlined his plan. To relieve the strain on administration, 2 NZ Division was to move back to Merduma.
Following this conference and the receipt of orders from 30 Corps, divisional orders issued on 22 December foreshadowed the move back, but specified tasks to be carried out in the meantime. These mainly affected 5 Infantry Brigade and Divisional Cavalry, whose responsibility was extended to within five miles of Sultan, including protection of the Sultan landing ground. The Divisional
Engineers were to clear and maintain the road from the Nofilia landing ground westwards to the same limit, in addition to their normal tasks.
The remainder of the Division was to stay in bivouac areas for rest, reorganisation and training, which was to include route marches, musketry, recreational training and sports. Responsibility for the forward area passed to 7 Armoured Division, which thus took over control of 4 Light Armoured Brigade and all activities beyond the limit given to 5 Brigade.
On 23 December, no doubt owing to some slight easing in the administrative position, the move back to Merduma was cancelled, and the Division remained in the Nofilia area.
For the next few days the approach of Christmas dominated all activities. For the men of the first three echelons it was the third Christmas spent overseas, and for many it was the second spent in the desert. A year previously the Division had been at Baggush, after suffering grievous losses in the CRUSADER battles. Now at Christmas 1942 it was different, there had been successes, morale was high, and there were great hopes for the future. They might even all be home for next Christmas.
The administrative services from Egypt forwards excelled themselves. Unit orders, placed months before with NAAFI, arrived in time for distribution; and beer and cigarettes were among the things distributed – but not free! The cost of a bottle of beer and twenty cigarettes was twenty piastres, just over four shillings. The ration included fourteen ounces of pork for each man and a special issue of rum. The field bakery made its first issue of really fresh bread and the postal service delivered Christmas mail, including over 60,000 parcels. On 30 December there was a free issue to each man of a ‘Nat Pat’ parcel, a tin of tobacco, and fifty New Zealand and fourteen South African cigarettes, and more beer was available at cost price. To collect some of this largesse a convoy of thirty-five lorries of Supply Company left on 19 December to go to El Adem – more than 450 miles – and returned to the Division on the 29th.
The Army Commander, in a Christmas message, said that he was anxious that Christmas Day should be kept a day of rest, and that operations, works, and training were to be reduced to a minimum.
The day was fine but cold. Church services in the morning were followed by dinner for other ranks, at which officers waited on the men. Officers had their own dinner in the evening. It was generally agreed throughout the Division that the cooks had excelled
themselves. Owing to their wide dispersal, all units could not be visited by General Freyberg, but he sent a message on Christmas Eve giving his best wishes to all ranks. Among the units he did visit was Headquarters NZASC, where he thanked the corps for its remarkable work throughout the campaign. The Maoris had a dinner cooked in true Maori fashion, and learnt that monetary gifts had been received from the Maori people in New Zealand, enough to distribute tobacco to the battalion and to give each man £1 next time he went on leave.
Altogether it was a heartening Christmas, and led the GOC to write to General Headquarters, Middle East Forces, thanking the administrative staff and the NAAFI for their efforts, a message much appreciated by a staff who, in their own words, ‘usually get more kicks than bouquets’.
Back to Business
On 26 December 7 Armoured Division relieved 5 Infantry Brigade Group of the responsibility of covering the road, and next day the brigade concentrated nearer the beach with Divisional Cavalry again, as normally, under Divisional Headquarters ‘ command. The only unit in the group to carry on its task was 7 Field Company.
This static period at Nofilia was a busy one for the engineers, whose tasks included clearing landing grounds, clearing and improving roads and tracks, and repairing water installations, work which required both skill and cold-blooded courage. The landing-ground task, which was the most urgent, meant lifting mines and clearing booby traps for days at a time. In fact, after five days’ work on one field, not all of the mines had been lifted. At another field it was estimated that it would take a week to clear the ground and two weeks to clear surrounding areas. All mine-lifting had to be done by hand with the help of mine-detectors; flail tanks (‘Scorpions’) were tried, but were considered slow and inefficient by the New Zealand Engineers for this type of work.
Mine-lifting was also done on roads and tracks, and on the main coast road west of Nofilia. No track was free of mines, and even the local water supply could not be used until an access track had been cleared. The road itself had not only to be cleared but at various points dispersal areas off it had to be made safe. As well as anti-tank and anti-personnel mines there were booby traps, demolitions and obstacles, in the use of all of which the enemy was expert. It is small wonder that during this ‘rest’ period the engineers lost 13 killed and 25 injured.
For the first few days in the area there was difficulty in obtaining satisfactory supplies of water. Wells in Nofilia village had been both mined and blocked with debris and the water was dirty and
contaminated by dieselene. It took some days to clear them, with assistance from a British well-boring section which later found a good fresh supply in the area.
Rommel’s appreciation of how much he owed to his engineers during this campaign is shown in his recommendation on 28 February 1943 that his Chief Engineer (Major-General Buelowius) should be promoted to lieutenant-general. He praises the provision of obstacles on a large scale and the great attention to detail, demolitions in specially reconnoitred locations, laying of mines in extra large quantities in deep thick minefields, often over large sectors away from roads, destruction of landing grounds and ‘adaptation of engineer methods to North African conditions’; and finally he says, ‘It is due in very large measure to the engineers under the Chief Army Engineer that the withdrawals were carried out without heavy losses, and that the Army was able to disengage from the enemy in every case according to plan.’ Our engineers probably would have said that Buelowius well deserved his promotion, which incidentally he did receive.
An indication of the close-knit co-operation which had now developed between Eighth Army and the Desert Air Force was the further clarifying on 26 December of the area of responsibility of the Division, which now included from the Nofilia landing ground westwards to the Sultan landing ground. Within this area was a landing strip at Sidi Azzab, 35 miles due west of Nofilia, which a working party from 6 Infantry Brigade numbering 11 officers and 300 men made fit for operational use in about a week. The rest of the Division carried on with training. Some few reinforcements, recovered wounded and sick, came forward from Maadi.
Immediately on arrival at Nofilia the NZASC was engaged on the task of building up supplies for the next move. The Division had finished the El Agheila – Nofilia operations with petrol for only fifty miles – and with experience enough to lay down that in future five miles to the gallon for each vehicle was to be taken as the basis of issues. By the end of December units held petrol for 350 miles, and thereafter drew only enough to replace daily consumption. During this period the NZASC made petrol dumps on the east side of Wadi Tamet, 100 miles west of Nofilia, for the use of both 2 NZ and 7 Armoured Divisions, and also dumped rations and ammunition at various points to accord with the 30 Corps administrative plan. Included in one petrol dump was a special supply of high octane petrol for the Greys, which was to be under the Division’s command. It was steady and unceasing work, but gradually the stocks accumulated to the required quantities.
In the days following Christmas the GOC remarked more than once that the enemy would pull out of Tripoli without a fight, and indeed went so far as to say that it would be evacuated in three or four days, an example of a delightful vein of optimism that sometimes coloured his conversation; but one of his customary reports to the New Zealand Government on 30 December was less optimistic and gave what in the end was a correct forecast – that the enemy would not fight seriously to hold Tripolitania, that Eighth Army would be in Tripoli by January, and that Africa would be cleared of Axis forces in the next few months.2
The Buerat line ran from Maaten Giaber on the coast, 15 miles north-west of Buerat, to the south-west in front of Gheddahia, an important track junction and also the junction of Wadi Umm er Raml from the south and Wadi Zemzem from the south-west. The line then ran southwards on the western side of the track to Bu Ngem and the Wadi Umm er Raml, and made good use of the long ridge Dor Umm er Raml.3 But while the northern flank was reasonably secured by salt marshes north of the road, which here turned inland, the southern end of Dor Umm er Raml could easily be outflanked. In the circumstances the detached post at Bu Ngem was in a dangerous position, and it is small wonder that Rommel had it removed. Air reconnaissance and the LRDG both reported that the enemy had recently strengthened his line; but the defences seemed to consist of unconnected weapon pits and an unfinished anti-tank ditch, and had little real depth. They were strongest nearest the road, where it was already known that the enemy could fight his most effective delaying action. Any defence south of Dor Umm er Raml could be by mobile forces only. It was of course appreciated in Eighth Army that the enemy knew well the weakness of his line, so that a prolonged resistance was not expected.
Between Nofilia and the Buerat line the going was good away from the coastline, and the only obstacles of importance were Wadi Tamet and Wadi Bei el Chebir; but even here the upper or southern reaches were reasonably shallow with sloping sides. Crossing would not be difficult; but the wadis formed bottlenecks, as they could not be crossed on a broad front.
West and north-west of the enemy’s line was a wide stretch of desert where adequate going was interspersed with numerous wadi systems running across the line of advance. Of these wadis,
or wadi systems, the most important were Wadi Zemzem, Wadi Nfed, and Wadi Sofeggin. The first could be easily crossed, but the other two were difficult, the only good area being near their junction at Sedada and Tmed el Chatua, or alternatively near the main road.
Beyond these wadis the ground rose gradually to the north-west, for the line of advance in that direction in reality ascended the southern slope of a range of hills known as Gebel Garian and still farther west as Gebel Nefusa. This southern face was gentle in slope and gave the appearance of a plateau, although the word plateau is relative, for the ground was anything but smooth. Where the line of advance crossed the line Homs–Tarhuna–Garian, the land was anything from 1400 to 2500 feet above sea-level, with a steady rise in height from north-east to south-west, the trend of the crestline.
From there to the north the level fell very rapidly and the escarpment presented a precipitous face, and indeed from the north looked like a mountain range. Moreover the northern face was a formidable obstacle, deeply incised by long and steep wadis, with grotesque re-entrants and projecting bastions. So deeply cut is this escarpment, and so abrupt its fall, that movement north or south is impossible, except on roads and tracks. Movement east or west on the top of the escarpment, at least for large formations, is almost impossible for some miles back from the northern edge, so deep and so steep are the wadis.
From the foot of the escarpment into Tripoli, a distance of 30 to 40 miles, the going was not difficult except for sand dunes. There was fairly intensive cultivation across this strip, which was well watered with springs.
All this was known from pre-war reports; but more detail was needed and the invaluable LRDG was called on to send out patrols to provide it. Captain Browne, leading a patrol in a jeep, was blown up on a mine at El Machina. A South African officer was killed and Browne wounded, and the patrol returned to Nofilia. On 25 December it set out again, led by Second-Lieutenant McLauchlan ,4 and reconnoitred to the Bu Ngem–Gheddahia track. In spite of an ambush in which several men were lost, it completed its task and returned to report that the going to Bu Ngem was not passable by night nor in desert formation by day, but that there was good going between Pilastrino and Fortino. Another patrol, which included no New Zealanders, also left on 25 December, travelling as far as the line Homs–Beni
Ulid. It reported that the area bounded on the north and east by the coast road, and on the south-west by a line Bu Ngem–El Faschia–Sedada–Tmed el Chatua–Bir Gebira–Beni Ulid was suitable for a force of all arms. The upper reaches of Wadi Sofeggin and Wadi Nfed were impassable, but the lower reaches were scarcely perceptible. The terrain would provide no cover from air observation for a force of any size, but there were reasonably good water supplies. Towards the end of December a more detailed reconnaissance of limited range was made by a party of New Zealand engineers headed by the CRE, and directed as far as the crossing of Wadi Tamet and the area immediately west and south-west. The result was to select a divisional thrust line towards Pilastrino and Fortino, as the going farther south was impossible.
Concurrently with these reconnaissances, work started on making and marking tracks forward from Nofilia, and again the field companies and the Provost Company were kept busy. These tracks were to be used by all formations of the army, the road being reserved for transporters, RAF transport, maintenance convoys and staff cars. The New Zealand Division was responsible in part for four parallel tracks, two as far as Wadi Bei el Chebir, and two directly south of Sirte, where 7 Armoured Division took over. The Division finished its task by 12 January.
The Desert Air Force still required further airfields in the forward areas; but to avoid attracting enemy attention, minimum use was to be made of transport and machinery. Thus on 30 December 5 Infantry Brigade Group was given the task of clearing a landing ground some 30 miles south-west of Sirte and east of Wadi Tamet. The group commenced its 100-mile move on 1 January, 23 and 28 Battalions marching for two days on foot, while the remainder moved in transport the whole way. The group was fully assembled by 6 January after the artillery had completed calibration.
The airfield site, some 1200 yards square, had first to be bulldozed level, and the men then picked up by hand thousands of stones, loaded them into trucks and removed them. The work started on 2 January under the protection of 42 Light AA Battery. At the earliest possible date, 6 January, Spitfires operated from landing strips, with pilots waiting in their seats and radar in use. But on the 5th eight Messerschmitts raided the airfield, killing nine New Zealanders and wounding twenty-six. There were further raids during the next three days, when two more were killed and three wounded,5 and in addition four British soldiers
were killed and twenty wounded. The light anti-aircraft battery and the Spitfires did good work and gradually wore the enemy down; but the warning of a raid was always short, and naturally the only slit trenches were off the airfield. Most of the time a strong cold wind raised much dust, so that Brigadier Kippenberger had good cause for saying that it was ‘one of the most unpleasant jobs 5 Brigade ever had to do’.6 In this test of discipline the group stood up manfully. It remained in the area until 11 January, when it rejoined the rest of the Division, which had moved forward from Nofilia and was now close by.
Plans for Operation fire-eater
On 28 December Montgomery issued his plans for FIRE-EATER, the operation to capture Tripoli. The object was ‘to destroy the enemy now opposing Eighth Army in the Buerat position, and to ensure the port of Tripoli as a base for further operations’. Different tactical plans were prepared in case the enemy should evacuate the position before Eighth Army reached it (codename GAME), or in case he thinned out and left only rearguards (SET), or in case he stood and fought (MATCH).
Thirtieth Corps issued a series of operation instructions for the offensive, of which the first dealt with the approach march to Wadi Bei el Chebir. Orders were issued on 5 January for the action to be taken in the event of GAME, SET, or MATCH; and when it was known that the enemy was indeed thinning out, slightly more detailed orders were issued on the 7th for SET only. These said that 2 NZ Division would have under command:
Royal Scots Greys (Lieutenant-Colonel A. G. J. Readman), with 25 Shermans, 4 Grants and 20 Stuarts
211 Medium Battery, RA
One battery 42 Light AA Regt, RA
94 Heavy AA Regt, RA
One troop of Scorpions (which in the outcome were not accepted and not taken)
Before ‘D’ day the divisions would move forward, prepared to go straight into battle without any pause to square up or reorganise. The start line and bounds were the same for 2 NZ and 7 Armoured Divisions. The former depended on the distance which 7 Armoured Division had advanced its patrol line (4 Light Armoured Brigade) before the operation commenced, and in the event was roughly the line of the road from Gheddahia to Bu Ngem. The corps axis of advance was Sedada–Beni Ulid–Tarhuna–Tripoli, with bounds at the crossing of Wadi Zemzem and at each of the above places.
No inter-divisional boundary was laid down between 7 Armoured and 2 NZ Divisions, but they were to move on the right and left respectively of the corps axis of advance and cross the start line at dawn on 15 January; thereafter the speed of advance was to be as great as possible, with 2 NZ Division proceeding straight to Sedada and capturing it. The armoured division would then pass through and seize Tarhuna, while 2 NZ Division cleared the route from Sedada to Beni Ulid. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to cover the corps front but had considerable freedom of movement. If strong enemy forces were met, it was to swing to the west and make for Tripoli by any way it could.
A detachment from 239 Wing, RAF, using some 175 vehicles, would move with 2 NZ Division; in conjunction with a reconnaissance party accompanying 7 Armoured Division, it was to establish fighter landing grounds at Sedada and Bir Dufan, 30 miles farther north, in order to keep fighter cover in step with the advance, for by the time formations reached Sedada and beyond they would be out of range of the fighters operating from existing landing grounds. The New Zealand Division was allotted three wireless tentacles for communication with the air force, one of whose tasks it was to maintain air supremacy over the flanking column and give close support if required.
For the action to be taken on reaching Tripoli special instructions were issued. Naturally these made broad assumptions about the actual arrival at the gates of Tripoli, and one of these was that the leading infantry brigade would come from 2 NZ Division. This brigade was to determine sectors, allot each sector to a unit, establish guards on vital points, maintain law and order and so on. Sufficient copies of this particular corps order were distributed for each brigade, battalion and armoured regiment commander, so that all were aware of the general scheme.
The Division moves Forward
Divisional Headquarters and Divisional Cavalry moved some ten miles south from Nofilia to new positions on 3 January, and shortly after midday next day the battalions of 6 Brigade marched past General Montgomery and continued on foot to their destination. The brigade then dispersed into desert formation, leaving gaps for 6 Field Regiment and 8 Field Company which were away, the artillery calibrating and the engineers engaged on their special tasks. It was a windy day with flying sand, and conditions were unpleasant, as indeed they also were for 5 Infantry Brigade Group working on the airfield, and doubtless for the enemy working on the Buerat line.
Montgomery then visited the Greys. After lunch at Divisional Headquarters he addressed an assemblage of officers on the Battle of Alamein, the future of the North African campaign, and the situation on other fronts, before visiting 6 Brigade Group to do likewise. The GOC gave a dinner for him in the evening, about which it is recorded that Montgomery retired to bed quite early and the GOC a little later, but that the party then carried on.
The GOC held a planning conference on 5 January on a forthcoming training exercise, and on the two following days went on a reconnaissance of the forward area across Wadi Tamet, visiting Headquarters 30 Corps (which was west of Sirte), Headquarters 7 Armoured Division, and 5 Infantry Brigade.
Divisional orders appeared on 7 January, directing the first of a series of marches towards a bivouac area just east of Wadi Tamet. The Division was to carry out a training exercise en route. As 5 Infantry Brigade Group was still employed on the airfield, it could take no part, but the brigade commander and commanding officers and staff were to attend. To maintain some element of secrecy no fires were to be lit between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., and except during the exercise, there was to be wireless silence. The object was to practise ‘forming a gun line’, or in other words establishing infantry units quickly in defensive positions within well-knit antitank gun defences, supported by artillery and prepared to resist an enemy tank attack.
In the administrative field, after replenishment on 14 January, units would have sufficient rations and water to last until midnight on 22–23 January, and petrol for at least 350 miles for all vehicles. Replenishment thereafter would occur as opportunity offered.
The Division moved westwards at 8.30 a.m. on 9 January in very cold weather. Divisional Cavalry sent back reports of an imaginary enemy, and at 9.40 a.m. Freyberg gave verbal orders for a gun line to be formed to meet an unexpected attack from the north. Three hours’ hard work by 6 Brigade produced well-dug gunpits and slit trenches with effective camouflage, all of which met with the General’s approval; but he would have liked the time to repeat the exercise. Later on he discussed the lessons with Brigadiers Kippenberger and Gentry and Colonel Queree, and arrived at an agreed drill for laying out a gun line. The only unsolved point was what to do with transport, for everyone was well aware that transport left ‘behind the line’ was not necessarily safe.
After a meal the Division continued to advance west in desert formation, until about 40 miles had been covered. It then bivouacked for the night.
The Greys, less one squadron destined to join 5 Brigade Group, had come under command of 6 Brigade on 8 January, and elements of the regiment accompanied the brigade during the exercise; but all tracked vehicles – the tanks of the Greys, of Divisional Cavalry and of the Protective Troop, and all carriers – were between 8 and 11 January loaded on transporters at Nofilia and ferried by road to a staging area near Tamet airfield. Thus no tracked vehicles of any kind took part in the exercise.
The ‘tracked’ column had a narrow escape during the 11th, for just after the transporters had moved clear of the staging area twenty enemy aircraft attacked. Luckily there was no damage. The tanks and carriers remained there for the next few days and then rejoined the Division.
On 10 January the advance was over good going to a bivouac area on the eastern side of Wadi Tamet, a further 50–odd miles. Full anti-aircraft precautions were taken, including facing all vehicles to the north so that windscreens would not reflect the sun. Camouflage nets were freely used, slit trenches dug, and light anti-aircraft batteries deployed throughout the area.
At Headquarters 30 Corps the Army Commander addressed all formation and unit commanders. Subordinate officers were to be told the details of the plan forthwith. General Freyberg therefore visited both brigades on 11 January and spoke to unit officers. After his visit 5 Brigade Group moved off from its location near Tamet airfield and travelled the 20 miles south to join the Division.
In view of the mass of vehicles now accompanying the Division, Administrative Group was arranged in two parts. Part 1 comprised those units ‘wanted on the voyage’, for example the ASC companies and 5 Field Park Company. Part 2 was not wanted for the moment – Field Cash Office and YMCA Headquarters for instance – and these were to stay with an Administrative Post set up near Bir el Magedubia.
The next stage of the Division’s advance took it across Wadi Tamet on 12 January in daylight, a march of about 25 miles. The crossing was carried out by ‘blocks’, each of the normal groups crossing at hourly intervals to avoid congestion, for the point had now been reached where enemy interference or at least discovery from the air was possible. The Desert Air Force had been asked to provide air cover during the crossing; two light anti-aircraft batteries were in positions on the escarpments, and units took full internal precautions. Complete wireless silence could not be observed, however, because a change of frequencies during the move necessitated some testing. It was another windy, dusty day, and some of the going, especially west of the wadi, was rough,
but the stage was completed in the early afternoon without incident, although it was later realised that the Division was in fact eight miles short of its intended location. The reason for this ‘short haul’ is not known, but it was not of major importance.
The following stage was to be a night move, so 13 January was a day of rest. The weather continued cold and unpleasant; but rations, water and petrol were topped up during the morning, and in the afternoon information about the forthcoming operations was passed on to all the troops.
Divisional Orders for the Advance
In the formal operation order for the advance, issued on 12 January, the ‘Intention’ paragraph read: ‘2 NZ Division will capture Tripoli, destroying any enemy forces encountered’. This could not be criticised for any lack of thrust. The advance was to be in three stages. Stage I would commence at 7 p.m. on 14 January from a start line just short of Wadi Bei el Chebir and end when near Wadi Umm er Raml, opposite Fortino. As this was a night move it was important to ensure that space between the groups was available at dawn for a dispersal of 100 yards between vehicles. To achieve this groups would move so many miles past a distinctively lit sign on the axis of advance and then halt. These were calculated as nine miles for Divisional Cavalry in the lead, six and a half for 6 Infantry Brigade Group, two and a half for Headquarters and Reserve Group, and nil for 5 Infantry Brigade Group. Administrative Group 1 would move in daylight on 15 January.
Stage II would commence at 7.15 a.m. on the 15th, at which time Divisional Cavalry would cross the Gheddahia–Bu Ngem track, named as the start line. All other groups would await verbal orders, but would close up to ensure a cohesive column. The axis of advance, Fortino–Tueil el Ase–Sedada–Tmed el Chatua, would be marked with black diamonds, already so well known.
Stage III, for which few details were yet prescribed, was to be the advance on Tripoli by the best route on the general line Beni Ulid–Tarhuna.
Various tasks were laid down for the specialist arms. The artillery was directed to provide anti-aircraft protection at the crossings of Wadi Zemzem and other defiles. The engineers were to clear the road Sedada–Beni Ulid of mines and develop water supplies. Divisional Cavalry was to operate seven miles to the front and flank, especially to the west and south, and was to keep touch with 11 Hussars of 7 Armoured Division on the right. The regiment was given a series of bounds with codenames, on which
it was to report, and was to reconnoitre Wadi Zemzem and Wadi Sofeggin, where there might be opposition from the enemy in addition to the normal difficulties of passing through a bottleneck.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade would operate as the most advanced scouting force, and the Royals would be on 2 NZ Division’s front.
On the morning of 13 January, while the Division rested, Freyberg held a conference to give the latest information about the enemy, elaborate on the order, and give details of the movements of 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 7 Armoured Division. He expected that the crossing of Wadi Zemzem would be contested, and that fighting might occur at other points, perhaps against a panzer division. His Tactical Headquarters would remain near Divisional Cavalry, and the headquarters of the leading brigade would move there also, so that quick adjustments could be made to the divisional axis. As far as Beni Ulid 6 Brigade Group would lead, but at that point 5 Brigade Group would pass through. He was pleased with the presence of 94 Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment and said that its guns could be used as anti-tank and close-support weapons also. He probably had in mind the value the Germans obtained in that way from their 88-millimetre guns. He ended by saying that while strategical surprise could not be expected – in other words, while the outflanking move could not be hidden – it was still possible to obtain tactical surprise by night moves, wireless silence and other deception measures.
After the conference the GOC reported briefly to the New Zealand Government, saying that the Division was adequately trained and equipped for its mobile role.7
Information about the enemy on the whole was accurate. It was known that he did not intend to fight on the Buerat line and that one panzer division had been withdrawn, although the reason for this was obscure. It was also known that all units, both German and Italian, were much below strength, but it is unlikely that actual numbers were known, for post-war information reveals that strengths were very low indeed. It was believed that by 15 January all the Italian troops had been withdrawn to Homs – Tarhuna, if not farther; but this was not correct.
On 15 January, when the attack started, enemy dispositions from north to south were:
Between Maaten Giaber and Bir Umm er Raml: (a) remnants of Pistoia Division with the German 19 Anti-Aircraft Regiment
(fighting as infantry) to strengthen it, (b) German Air Force Brigade, (c) elements of Spezia and Young Fascist Divisions, (d) 164 Light Division (only 3500 strong).
From Bir Umm er Raml to the southern end of Dor Umm er Raml: ( a) Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment, (b) Ariete Battle Group (now renamed Centauro Battle Group and with Nizza Reconnaissance Unit under command) – 57 tanks, (c) 15 Panzer Division (with 3 Reconnaissance Unit) – 35 tanks.
The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit was patrolling as far south as Bu Ngem and back to El Faschia. The 90th Light Division was in the main in second-line positions behind Spezia and Young Fascist Divisions, but was also patrolling out in front of these divisions.
The Italian XX Corps comprised the Italian troops in the above line. The XXI Corps was at this time at work on the Homs–Tarhuna line and on the close defences of Tripoli. It comprised the bulk of Spezia, Pistoia and Young Fascist Divisions, together with Trieste Division.
The petrol position had improved comparatively, for units had enough for about 125 miles; but the reserves in the area were only sufficient for another 35 miles, and there was no sign of further supplies.
The enemy information about our troops was exaggerated. He identified the divisions actually assembled, but added 10 Corps comprising 1 Armoured Division, 50 Division and 4 Indian Division, and moreover included 10 Armoured Division and 44 Division. Part of this confusion could have been the consequence of his having heard of Montgomery’s intention to bring forward 10 Corps but not of the cancellation. Also, one of the armoured brigades now with 7 Armoured Division had originally been with 10 Armoured Division, and other rearrangements of brigades may have confused him. Whatever the reason, Rommel expected to be attacked by stronger forces than were actually present.
2 NZ Division Closes up for the Attack
The Desert Air Force was very active in the week preceding the offensive. Fighters destroyed about twelve enemy aircraft in the air and four were shot down by anti-aircraft fire. Two Spitfires were lost, but the pilots were saved. There were 152 fighter sorties on 14 January.8 Bombing of enemy positions and landing grounds both by day and night, was stepped up as ‘D’ day approached, with increasing attention to advanced landing grounds. Here the enemy resisted strongly, and there were many engagements between enemy fighters and our fighter escorts; but our attacks fulfilled their purpose, for on ‘D’ day few enemy planes were seen.
On 13 January 2 NZ Division rested after crossing Wadi Tamet, and prepared for the night move to Wadi Bei el Chebir. This was to start at 7 p.m., but in order to compensate for the ‘short haul’ of the previous day, and because the going proved rougher than had been expected, an afternoon move of about 17 miles was begun at 3.30 p.m. and took about two hours. Towards the end vehicles closed up to twenty yards’ distance to maintain visibility between them after dark. The night march, now only 16 miles, was made with the advantages of a half-moon and freedom from wind. Sixth Brigade Group reached its destination near Pilastrino between 9 and 10 p.m., and about the same time Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group halted near Wadi Umm er Rtem, with 5 Brigade Group a few miles behind.
In the evening of 13 January there was still no sign of a general enemy withdrawal, so 30 Corps was impelled to inform both 7 Armoured and 2 NZ Divisions that the enemy might make a stand at Gheddahia, in which case the ‘inland column’ would wheel round the enemy’s southern flank, directed on the main road some 20 miles north of Gheddahia with 4 Light Armoured Brigade making for Tauorga. This message was not received by the GOC until the early hours of 14 January. He met the corps commander and the Commander of 7 Armoured Division (Major-General Harding) early next morning and discussed this new possibility; but later air reconnaissance showed that there was a steady movement of enemy transport to the north-west, while that in the forward area had lessened. The need for this new left hook thus diminished.
The armoured fighting vehicles, including the Greys, rejoined the Division during the 14th from a laager near Wadi Tamet airfield, and 150 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, RA, and the Flash Spotting Troop of 36 Survey Battery also joined, completing the troops under command.
In view of the nature of the going and because of the congestion of vehicles, the GOC again decided to carry out part of the next advance (Stage I of the operation order) by daylight. Divisional Cavalry, starting therefore at 3 p.m. instead of 7 p.m., moved as far as Bir ez Ziden (just west of Wadi Bei el Chebir), halted there for the evening meal, moved again at 6 p.m. (by which time it was dark), and finally laagered on the divisional axis four miles east of the Bu Ngem track. Other formations ‘followed at first in open order, but closed up at nightfall into night order for the last part of the move. Stage I, a distance of about 20 miles, thus had been completed without incident. The Division now extended from the Divisional Cavalry laager as far back as Bir ez Ziden, in the order of Divisional Cavalry, 6 Infantry Brigade Group,
Headquarters 2 NZ Division, Reserve Group, 5 Infantry Brigade Group, and Administrative Group.
By this evening (14 January) all formations of Eighth Army were in position: 51 (H) Division with its three brigades between Wadi Bei el Chebir and Wadi el Uesc-ca and 7 Armoured Division (4 Light Armoured Brigade, 8 Armoured Brigade, 131 Infantry Brigade) in the area immediately north of 2 NZ Division. The Army Commander’s final instructions for the operation imposed a measure of caution on the outflanking column, as he wished to avoid casualties to tanks, in the belief that the enemy still had some 200 anti-tank guns and twenty-five of the hated 88-millimetre guns. On 12 January he issued a personal message to all troops:
1. The leading units of Eighth Army are now only about 200 miles from Tripoli. The enemy is between us and that port, hoping to hold us off.
2. THE EIGHTH ARMY IS GOING TO TRIPOLI.
3. Tripoli is the only town in the Italian Empire overseas still remaining in their possession. Therefore we will take it from them; they will then have no overseas Empire.
The enemy will try to stop us. But if each one of us whether front-line soldier, or officer or man whose duty is performed in some other sphere, puts his whole heart and soul into this next contest – then nothing can stop us.
Nothing has stopped us since the battle of Egypt began on 23rd October 1942. Nothing will stop us now.
Some must stay back to begin with, but we will all be in the hunt eventually.
4. ON TO TRIPOLI!
Our families and friends in the home country will be thrilled when they hear we have captured that place.
B. L. Montgomery, General GOC-in-C, Eighth Army