Chapter 6: ‘On to Tripoli’
AFTER moving forward during the night 51 (Highland) Division made contact on 15 January with the enemy line and prepared for a night attack. In the southern sector 7 Armoured and 2 NZ Divisions were more mobile. General Freyberg, accompanied by the CRA (Brigadier C. E. Weir), spent the day with Tactical Headquarters, which was shelled at intervals. An officer and three men of the protective troop were wounded.
Divisional Cavalry crossed the start line at 7.15 a.m. and reported its first bound clear twenty-five minutes later. This was a ridge immediately west of the Bu Ngem track. At the same time 7 Armoured Division found that the Dor Umm er Raml ridge on its front was held by anti-tank guns. Thus it was not surprising that when Divisional Cavalry advanced to its second bound, the western edge of Dor Umm er Raml, it encountered an infantry and anti-tank screen, and that A Squadron was held up. B Squadron moved off in an attempt to work round the enemy’s southern flank, and in this was partly successful, destroying a 75-millimetre gun in the process.
By about 9.30 a.m. the enemy was seen to be in strength sufficient to hold up the advance for some hours. His shelling was particularly heavy. Freyberg therefore altered the thrust line 30 degrees to the south to turn the enemy’s flanks and called the Greys forward as a complete regiment to move behind Divisional Cavalry. The 211th Medium Battery and 4 Field Regiment were also brought forward from the Reserve Group.
On this new thrust line Divisional Cavalry gradually worked round the end of the ridge, helped by some good shooting from 34 Anti-Tank Battery and a troop of 26 Field Battery. About midday the GOC ordered the Greys to follow, but on a personal reconnaissance found the going heavy and about 3 p.m. reverted to the original thrust line. By late afternoon Divisional Cavalry and the Greys were round the end of Dor Umm er Raml and had engaged enemy tanks and transport on the western side. Both units
laagered for the night on the southern slopes of the ridge. In the last spurt of enemy shelling at dusk several more casualties were added to the day’s small total.
The rest of the Division advanced slowly without coming into action. Fifth Infantry Brigade Group could not move at all until 2.50 p.m., and was still east of the Bu Ngem track at the end of the day. By nightfall only some eight miles had been gained and, in the words of the GOC, ‘progress was slow’. From his prepared positions the enemy probably had the better of the engagement; but on the whole Freyberg was satisfied, for the pressure played its part in deciding the enemy to draw back. Nevertheless the objectives for 15 January, Sedada and Tmed el Chatua, were still a long way off.
The tanks of 7 Armoured Division were in action during the day and inflicted losses on the enemy, but at some cost to themselves. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade finished the day well to the south-west, with the Royals near El Faschia, which was still in enemy hands.
At the end of the day the GOC learnt that 30 Corps would resume the advance to Sedada at first light next morning.
The Enemy on 15 January
The action of 4 Light Armoured Brigade had been vigorous enough to force 33 Reconnaissance Unit’s southern outposts back towards El Faschia, where there was an Italian garrison. On Dor Umm er Raml 15 Panzer Division, with 3 Reconnaissance Unit on its right, resisted attacks all day and claimed to have inflicted heavy losses on British tanks. The reconnaissance unit reported during the morning that it was in action against a strong enemy force (2 NZ Division) and later that it had fended off an attempt to get round its flank. The German army narrative notes that about midday the Commander-in-Chief (Rommel) ordered a concentration of artillery against the British assembly areas, which no doubt explains the severity of the shelling experienced by 2 NZ Division.
While Rommel thought that the German defence had done well during the day, he was vividly aware of some unpleasant facts. He expected Eighth Army’s attack to be intensified next day; he was outnumbered in men and his own supplies were most inadequate; and he could not offer prolonged resistance. By midday, therefore, he had already issued the codeword MOVEMENT RED, which meant that a retirement was to commence to a line running from Sedada to Bir el Churgia (20 miles north of Gheddahia), starting at 8 p.m. But the remaining Italian troops, except Centauro Battle Group, began withdrawing in the afternoon to the Homs–Tarhuna line.
16 January – across Wadi Zemzem
The Highland Division attacked at 10.30 p.m. and found that resistance gradually declined, and that by daylight on 16 January the enemy was retiring. For the New Zealand Division the next few days had an overall sameness, a steady advance over increasingly difficult country, often through clouds of dust, often with long delays, with only the most advanced troops ever seeing the enemy, and with no general deployment – altogether a rather wearisome and monotonous period. But again the engineers worked unceasingly on mine clearance, removal of booby traps, and finding ways round demolitions.
The Division began the 16th by discovering that Dor Umm er Raml was deserted by the enemy, except for a few members of 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 15 Panzer Division, who appeared to have been forgotten and who were promptly captured. Their morale was good.
The divisional column was led by the screen of Divisional Cavalry and the Greys, with Tactical Headquarters always well forward, ‘leading the field at a cracking pace until pulled up by enemy opposition at 4 p.m.’1 In fact the Greys recorded that the GOC moved at twenty miles an hour and that their heavy tanks could not keep up and had to lag behind. Next after this advanced guard came a gun group of 4 and 6 Field Regiments and 211 Medium Battery. Minefields, both real and dummy, caused delay on Dor Umm er Raml and in Wadi Zemzem, and parties from both 6 and 8 Field Companies were called forward to deal with them. Wadi Zemzem basically was no obstruction. The forward troops were across by 1 p.m. and nearing Wadi el Breg, 12 miles short of Sedada.
After crossing this wadi Divisional Cavalry met heavy and accurate shelling from the direction of Wadi Nfed, on which Sedada was located. The 4th and 6th Field Regiments were both deployed, opened fire about 4 p.m. and continued until dusk. Tactical Headquarters got so far ahead that it outdistanced the Divisional Cavalry screen during this period, and captured three tanks from Centauro Battle Group. The crews, who surrendered to the GOC himself, said they were anti-German and glad to be out of the war.
As daylight faded enemy tanks increased in number, and it was estimated that there were about fifteen German and fifteen Italian. The Greys knocked out two Italian tanks and destroyed many vehicles and guns in an action lasting two hours, but had four
tanks hit and evacuated. They captured some twenty prisoners. The 6th Field Regiment finished the day gloriously by capturing sixteen Germans, all from 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
In the late afternoon there were two attacks from enemy aircraft on the forward troops of both 7 Armoured and 2 NZ Divisions, one by twelve aircraft and one by fifteen, but no damage was done. The 41st Light Anti-Aircraft Battery shot down one raider from the first attack.
The Division had advanced about 40 miles during the day, with 7 Armoured Division keeping level on the right, despite delays on minefields. The leading troops laagered for the night between Wadi el Breg and Wadi Nfed, with 25 Battalion providing perimeter defence for the tanks. The rear of 5 Infantry Brigade was still on Dor Umm er Raml, with the Administrative Group even farther back. And Sedada had not yet been captured, although there were signs that the enemy would go during the night. The opposition had been from 15 Panzer Division and Centauro Battle Group.
The GOC held a conference at 8 p.m., mainly to confirm that the axis for next day would be Sedada–Tmed el Chatua – thence north-west to a point on the Beni Ulid–Bir Dufan road about 18 miles east of Beni Ulid named Obelisco di el Mselleten. The Division had a quiet night except for the comforting noise of aircraft passing overhead to bomb the coastal road and the Bir Dufan landing ground.
The Enemy on 16 January
During the night the enemy withdrew under plan MOVEMENT RED and by 8 a.m. on 16 January was in new positions, 90 Light Division astride the main coast road near Churgia, 3 Reconnaissance Unit filling a long gap between 90 Light and the Sedada area, 15 Panzer Division and Centauro Battle Group south and south-east of Sedada, and 33 Reconnaissance Unit on the western flank falling back to Abiar et Tala, 30 miles west of Sedada. The GAF Brigade was across the coast road 25 miles behind 90 Light Division, and 164 Light and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment were in second-line positions round Beni Ulid.
Enemy reports show that at first it was thought that Eighth Army followed up slowly; but it appears later that the increasing pressure round Sedada was felt, and even created some alarm. Units drew on their last reserve of petrol, and were running short of ammunition. Moreover, the shortage of troops caused a serious gap between 90 Light Division and the units at Sedada. Rommel came to the conclusion that he could not resist another day on
the same line, and so ordered a withdrawal (MOVEMENT BLUE) to the general line Beni Ulid–Bir Dufan–Tauorga, to be commenced at nightfall.
The unit in real trouble was 33 Reconnaissance Unit, which was trying to withdraw north-west through Abiar et Tala to Beni Ulid, through very difficult country. It was both short of petrol and much harried by 4 Light Armoured Brigade. To break clear it had in the end to sacrifice many of its wheeled vehicles, and by nightfall was still many miles from Beni Ulid with only enough petrol to take its armoured vehicles 25 kilometres.
17 January – across Wadi Sofeggin
In the evening of 16 January Montgomery cancelled the caveat he had imposed and ordered the advance to proceed with great resolution and the utmost speed, for he was already a little concerned with the rate of progress. Despite 7 Armoured and 2 NZ Divisions’ efforts the total advance in two days was not more than 50 miles, which was not enough. Montgomery now wanted to intensify the threat to Tripoli from the flanking column to cause the enemy to thin out in the Homs area, where demolitions along the road promised to be a serious deterrent to the advance there. He then intended to drive hard from his eastern flank once the enemy had drawn away.
During 17 January 51 (H) Division made fairly good progress northwards along the main road and reached Gioda, with little opposition from troops but much from mines, craters and demolished bridges. The Army Reserve, 22 Armoured Brigade, moved forward to about halfway between Tauorga and Sedada.
A landing ground at Wadi el Breg was completed during the day by 7 Armoured Division and was occupied almost at once by the Desert Air Force. The endless stream of transport aircraft bringing supplies reminded some of the veterans in 2 NZ Division of the similar – but how different – picture of German aircraft streaming on to the airfield at Maleme in Crete. Times had changed. The RAF column which had been moving with 2 NZ Division went to this landing ground, which presumably replaced the one intended for Sedada. One heavy and one light anti-aircraft battery were detached from the Division for protective duties there, and rejoined it in the morning of the 18th.
The Division advanced again about 7.30 a.m. and Sedada was soon reported clear; but the advance of the main column was delayed by minefields in Wadi Nfed, both real and dummy, which obstructed the only good track. Engineers from 7 and 8 Field Companies cleared the mines and improved an alternative track;
but even then the going was rough and dusty, and movement was in single column. The engineers had their inevitable casualties from mines, but got some satisfaction from destroying a little stock of captured enemy tanks and guns. There were signs at Sedada of a hasty withdrawal, for several small minefields had not been finished, with mines still lying alongside the holes dug for them.
During the day 7 Armoured Division converged on to 2 NZ Division’s line of advance, owing to the bottleneck across Wadi Nfed. Once during the morning the GOC adjusted the axis to give 7 Armoured Division more space; but shortly after 1 p.m. 7 Armoured Division cut across the Division’s axis and separated the leading groups from the rest. The break came in the 6 Brigade column just south of Sedada, with the result that only 24 Battalion was in touch with the armour and artillery. The mix-up was referred to 30 Corps, which ruled that 7 Armoured Division must have priority. The rear portion of 6 Brigade Group and all groups behind it therefore had to halt until the armour passed through, for at the best there were only three good tracks. This caused 2 NZ Division to fall behind 7 Armoured Division, a position it could not retrieve for several days.
The advance of the leading groups continued steadily past Tmed el Chatua, across Wadi Sofeggin and on towards Wadi el Merdum. Odd prisoners were collected, including a party of three Italians who came out of hiding and surrendered. In the late afternoon enemy aircraft again made several attacks, causing casualties in Divisional Cavalry and in the artillery numbering six killed and eight wounded.
At Wadi el Merdum the axis of advance turned westwards towards Beni Ulid. By 5.30 p.m. leading patrols had passed Bir Gebira, and when a halt was called the day’s advance was between 40 and 50 miles. Divisional Cavalry and the Greys laagered just west of Bir Gebira, with 24 Battalion, the only infantry unit available, providing protection. The rest of 6 Brigade did not arrive until almost 10 p.m.
A special plan had to be made to bring the remaining groups forward. Provost Company used 400 lamps to light the route for 40 miles. The three groups concerned, Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group, and 5 Infantry Brigade, set off about 7 p.m. and did not complete the move until after midnight.
On the left of 2 NZ Division patrols of 4 Light Armoured Brigade were ten miles south of Beni Ulid. On the right 8 Armoured Brigade of 7 Armoured Division crossed the Bir Dufan – Beni Ulid road and advanced another ten miles to the west, a notable penetration.
The Enemy on 17 January
The 90th Light Division continued its withdrawal along the line of the main road back towards Misurata. The 164th Light Division, Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and Centauro Battle Group were in and around Beni Ulid. The intention was that 164 Light should act as rearguard after 15 Panzer and the reconnaissance units had passed through, for Beni Ulid was a bottleneck. This left a large gap in the German line, which GAF Brigade filled by moving across from the main road to Bir Dufan. A further gap still remained between that place and Beni Ulid and it was through this that 8 Armoured Brigade had penetrated. In front of 2 NZ Division 3 Reconnaissance Unit covered the retirement of 15 Panzer Division to Beni Ulid, and at last light was still to the east of that village. After a bad day 33 Reconnaissance Unit had escaped 4 Light Armoured Brigade only by the barest margin with the help of a few tanks from 15 Panzer Division.
As on the two previous nights, Rommel decided that he could not stand, particularly as his line had been breached by 8 Armoured Brigade. At 7 p.m. he gave orders for all main bodies to retire to the Tarhuna – Homs line and for the Italian non-motorised troops already there to go back to the close defences of Tripoli. These ran in an irregular line on an arc about 15 miles from the town, were by no means strong, and presented no real obstacle.
Rommel also indicated to Superlibia that not even the motorised formations could make an effective stand on the Tarhuna – Homs line, but would also have to move back to Tripoli, which would be threatened by 20 or 21 January. His main reason for these conclusions was the shortage of all supplies, for he considered that with better maintenance he could hold the Tarhuna – Homs line for some time. The going to the south-west, where an outflanking attack might be made, was known to be very bad – as 2 NZ Division was to discover.
18 and 19 January – Bottleneck at Beni Ulid
On 18 January the Eighth Army plan was to continue the advance all along the front. On the right flank 51 Division passed Misurata and Garibaldi and approached Zliten, while 22 Armoured Brigade reached a point 12 miles south of Zliten. The enemy’s withdrawal speeded up, but artificial obstructions nullified any advantage gained from this. The Desert Air Force maintained pressure and on the previous night struck hard at Castel Benito airfield, ten miles south of Tripoli, causing widespread damage and leaving some thirty fires.
Instructions from 30 Corps to the inland column for the 18th were to continue to press the enemy back, with precedence to 7 Armoured Division in case of any conflict over the going. Among the tasks given 2 NZ Division was the clearing and marking of the track from Sedada to Beni Ulid and the road from Beni Ulid to Tarhuna.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade drove the enemy rearguard out of Beni Ulid in the morning and continued towards Tarhuna. The New Zealand Division, following up, found many tanks, guns and vehicles abandoned but saw nothing of the enemy apart from one slight brush with a reconnaissance unit.
The axis of advance was now westwards from Bir Gebira to Beni Ulid and along the road to Tarhuna; but the going proved very bad, and by evening the leading troops were still east of Beni Ulid. Small changes in the axis proved useless as the country was more difficult than any yet encountered, especially for wheels. It seemed that further movement would have to be by road.
The rather tedious existence of the Administrative Group at the rear of the column changed this day by misadventure. After crossing Wadi Nfed at Sedada it took a wrong turning and followed 7 Armoured Division’s axis along the north side of Wadi el Merdum, then across the Bir Dufan road and for some miles to the north. The Flash Spotting Troop ended up about ten miles north-east of Beni Ulid. In addition the vehicles of several NZASC units tangled with 7 Armoured Division columns, which was very easy to do in a mass of vehicles and clouds of dust and a network of parallel wadis. It was all duly sorted out next morning.
The 7th Armoured Division had a reasonably good day, as the going progressively improved, although it was still difficult. The division met little opposition and by 8 p.m. was over 30 miles beyond Beni Ulid, east of the Beni Ulid – Tarhuna road.
The New Zealand Division advanced only 20 miles on 18 January. It was then instructed to pass through Beni Ulid and advance by road towards Tarhuna. It was hoped that once clear of Beni Ulid it would be able to widen its frontage, for movement through the village was limited to a single column. General Freyberg decided to push 6 Infantry Brigade Group through on 19 January, augmented by a squadron of Divisional Cavalry and a few tanks, to concentrate all engineer activities under the CRE, and to halt the rest of the Division for a day’s rest and maintenance.
Writing after the war Montgomery says that on 18 January he was not happy about the advance, which ‘was becoming sticky, and I was experiencing the first real anxiety I had suffered since assuming command of the Eighth Army. ... I was determined,
therefore, to accelerate the pace of operations, and to give battle by night as well as by day. ... I ordered attacks on both axes to be put in by moonlight. I issued very strong instructions regarding the quickening of our efforts. ... On 19 January progress greatly improved ...’2
Eighth Army Intelligence had noted the switch of the German Air Force Brigade from the coastal area to Tarhuna, and Montgomery planned accordingly to strike hard on the right flank.
The Enemy on 18 January
Meanwhile Rommel hoped for a short breathing space as he expected our advance to slow down in the broken country southwest and south of Tarhuna. Nevertheless he was nervous about his western flank, and gradually strengthened the troops about Tarhuna at the expense of the coastal group. Defending Tarhuna from west to east were 164 Light Division, a third of the Young Fascists, Centauro Battle Group (which had lost heavily in the last few days), 15 Panzer Division, and the GAF Brigade. The rest of the Young Fascists were still south of Tarhuna, but moved fast into the Tripoli defences. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit also was south of Tarhuna, and 3 and Nizza Reconnaissance Units were the link between Tarhuna and the coastal forces, with Nizza apparently never where it was wanted. In the Cussabat–Homs area was XXI Corps, with Trieste Division and two-thirds of Pistoia Division, but with 90 Light Division in reserve in the Corradini area, for again it was Rommel’s intention to get the Italians back to Tripoli.
The reconnaissance reports which Rommel received from Superlibia held that the Homs – Tarhuna line could not be outflanked to the west by any large force. There is no evidence that he counted on this, and he later records without surprise that British forces were moving towards Garian; but the report showed that the Italian views on what was and was not possible did not coincide with ours.
19 January at Beni Ulid
The Desert Air Force was very active during the night of 18–19 January and next day, particularly against Castel Benito airfield and transport on the roads. Fighter wings operated from landing grounds in the Bir Dufan area. But in the opinion of dispassionate army observers, confirmed by checks of the various roads after reaching Tripoli, the damage done to enemy columns was slight and not commensurate with the number of planes engaged. The technique of this time did not produce the results that reasonably
might have been expected from the excellence of the targets. Bombing was carried out from normal bombing heights, for up to that time the air force had not been strong enough to take undue risks. After the capture of Tripoli and a general relaxation of the somewhat rigid orders of past years, the new commander of the Desert Air Force (Air Vice-Marshal Broadhurst) set to work to improve techniques, including training in low-flying cannon attacks. The results were seen at Mareth and thereafter.
During 19 January 51 (H) Division made better progress and next night entered Homs. The 7th Armoured Division was much delayed by mines and bad going, and by nightfall was still eight miles south of Tarhuna opposed by enemy rearguards. In the course of the fighting the GOC of this division (Major-General Harding) was wounded by shellfire and evacuated. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade patrolled towards Garian, but made slow progress over the difficult country of the Gebel. Air raids on the brigade caused casualties numbering seven killed and twenty-one wounded, indicating that penetration so far west touched the enemy on a tender spot.
The New Zealand Division spent the day clearing the road through Beni Ulid, which was situated among ravine-like wadis with steep sides. The only route through was the road, which had been mined and badly cratered. Almost the full complement of the divisional engineers spent the day lifting mines, filling craters, and making improvements. Bulldozer drivers took great risks from the ever-present danger of mines. The GOC, who was anxious to get on, spent much time on the scene. Meanwhile, farther back, 6 Field Company cleared mines from the track in advance of Sedada, and in some three days on this task lost four killed and seven wounded.
It was plain that the Division would have to pass through Beni Ulid in single column and would have to continue along the Tarhuna road in the same way. The exit from the village was all the more difficult in that it was a steep hill. Luckily there was no air activity.
Two days’ rations and water, and petrol for 100 miles, were issued to units in the morning of 19 January, the first replenishment since 14 January. Gradually the Division filtered through Beni Ulid, A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry in the morning, followed by one squadron of the Greys, 24 Battalion and 6 Field Regiment in the early afternoon, all these units moving at least 20 miles clear of the village. Engineers all this time continued clearing the road and marking dispersal areas.
The rest of Divisional Cavalry followed, and then, as it was becoming progressively easier to pass through the village, Freyberg decided to press on during the night along a lighted route. The remainder of 6 Brigade Group began to move through about 7 p.m. and three or four hours later joined 24 Battalion some 18 to 20 miles north. Fifth Brigade Group, having been warned at 4.15 p.m. that it was to pass through 6 Brigade and take the lead, moved off at 7 p.m. from its location east of the Bir Dufan road, and at 9 p.m. began to pass through Beni Ulid. From 4 a.m. onwards on the 20th the group approached the Divisional Cavalry area 25 miles north of Beni Ulid, and there moved off the road and dispersed. Divisional Headquarters and Reserve Group followed 5 Brigade and dispersed just behind it. The whole Division, less Administrative Group, was clear of Beni Ulid at first light on the 20th, which speaks volumes for the engineers who had cleared the route, for the Provost Company who had marked it and controlled the traffic, and for all the drivers.
The Enemy on 19–20 January
Rommel’s comment about this time was that ‘the British commander was now conducting his operations far more energetically than he had done in the past.’3 He was impressed by the increased momentum, including 2 NZ Division’s night advance, which was duly noted, although the formation was not identified. While he was satisfied with the resistance that his troops had made to a direct assault on the Tarhuna area (by 7 Armoured Division), he was becoming nervous about the outflanking move, which was more obvious every day. The advance of 4 Light Armoured Brigade towards Garian had been magnified into an attack by a full armoured division, and Rommel came to the conclusion that if his forces were to avoid being cut off he must move away to the west without delay – to the west and not to Tripoli. The first sign that the fall of Tripoli was inevitable shows in the orders issued to the Axis forces on the evening of 19 January. The 164th Light Division and the GAF Brigade were to block the Tarhuna – Castel Benito road until the evening of the 20th; the reconnaissance group ( 3, 33, and Nizza units) were to deploy south, south-east and south-west of Azizia and 15 Panzer was in army reserve thereabouts. The whole of the Italian XXI Corps was to evacuate the Homs position at once, part moving to the Tripoli defences and part back to Zauia, west of Tripoli. The XXth Corps, comprising the Young Fascists and Centauro Battle Group, was also to go to Zauia, and 90 Light Division was left to carry out a fighting withdrawal along the coastal road.
20 January – into the Gebel
During the night of 19–20 January and next day the Desert Air Force continued its bombing and had good targets even at night, for it was the period of full moon. Tripoli was under a pall of smoke, but some of this and some of the fires seen undoubtedly came from the enemy’s demolitions.
The Highland Division continued its advance and reached Corradini, but was held up there by rearguards. The 22nd Armoured Brigade closed up to Homs. The Army Commander was himself well forward directing this coastal thrust and, in the words of his Chief of Staff, was ‘cracking the whip’.4
Bad visibility caused by ground mist stopped 7 Armoured Division from closing Tarhuna until 10.30 a.m., when it was found that the enemy had gone. The advance then continued along the road towards Castel Benito, but the division was soon held up by rearguards in a defile about ten miles to the west. The going was almost impossible off the road, for they were now on the northern slopes of the Gebel.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, making good progress north-westwards from Beni Ulid, at nightfall was about 13 miles southwest of Tazzoli and 20 miles east of Garian, and was searching for a way down the escarpment and out on to the Tripoli plain. The brigade was attacked by twelve Stukas three times during the day, visible evidence again of the enemy’s touchiness about his right flank, but casualties were light.
General Freyberg held his usual conference in the morning and decided to go forward and gain touch with 7 Armoured Division, for it was expected that 2 NZ Division would have to join in an attack on Tarhuna. The advance continued, therefore, until Divisional Cavalry, in the lead, reached a point about 17 miles south of Tarhuna, where it was learnt from 7 Armoured Division that the town was clear.
The GOC decided at once to swing to the left, although reports from 4 Light Armoured Brigade showed that the going was ‘bad’. Divisional Cavalry, directed on Tazzoli, where the first Italian civilians were seen, reported it clear by 2 p.m. But a route to the village from the Tarhuna road, suitable for all types of traffic, was not discovered until after dark.
Meanwhile the remainder of the Division moved forward along the road from Beni Ulid and then essayed the bad going towards Tazzoli. By last light 5 Brigade Group, in the lead, was about five miles south-east of that village, where it remained for the
night. It took the usual precautions against surprise, as some scattered shelling had been seen on the hills to the north, probably the enemy rearguard opposing 7 Armoured Division. The Division stretched back along the axis to where 6 Infantry Brigade Group was located about 20 miles south of Tarhuna.
It was urgent now to find a good route down the Gebel to the plain. The GOC, already impatient about this, decided to send the CRE off in the dark with the task of finding a route, although he had been urged by his staff to wait until dawn. Colonel Hanson already had selected a provisional route from the map, but his task was not easy, for it was supremely difficult country, with precipitous slopes finishing with a drop of anything up to 1000 feet in a few miles. He found a route, however, and ordered 8 Field Company to be on the spot at first light to open a track through a defile.
That evening (20 January) Brigadier Kippenberger gave final orders for 5 Brigade Group to move to Tripoli and for the occupation of the town. In the outcome these orders had to be considerably modified.
The Enemy on 20 January
The enemy assumed his new dispositions, moving the Italians into the Tripoli defences or to points west of Tripoli. With the exception that 90 Light Division moved back a few miles under pressure, the troops that were in rearguard positions, including those west of Tarhuna, managed to stand their ground. The advance of ‘strong forces’ north-west through Beni Ulid was duly noted, but the German narrative records that these made slow progress during 20 January, ‘obviously because of difficult going’.5 Undoubtedly this slow advance of 2 NZ Division helped Rommel to decide to stay in his existing positions on 21 January. He relied on 15 Panzer Division and the Reconnaissance Group around Azizia to break up any debouchment from the escarpment by British forces ‘going large’ to the west.
Rommel would not forget 20 January easily, however. A message arrived from Marshal Cavallero (Italian Chief of Staff) saying, ‘The Duce is not in favour of the steps at present being taken, because they are not in accordance with his instructions to hold the Tarhuna – Homs positions at least three weeks. He does not believe the threat from the south to be very pressing and considers the orders that have been given unjustified and over-hasty. The Duce is of the opinion that the withdrawal will
certainly develop into a break-through if all the moves are speeded up, as Army [i.e., Rommel] intends to do. The Duce insists on the line laid down by him being held.’6 And salt was rubbed into the wound when Marshal Bastico (Superlibia) stated that in his opinion the threat of encirclement was not so imminent and serious, and requested that orders should be reviewed to prevent the withdrawal from degenerating into a catastrophic flight.
In Rommel’s own words, ‘We gasped when we received this signal. A position which has been broken through or outflanked is valueless unless there are mobile forces available to throw back the enemy outflanking column. The best strategic plan is useless if it cannot be executed tactically.’7
That same afternoon a conference took place at which one could wish to have been present, between Rommel, Bastico, Kesselring and Cavallero. Rommel says the discussion was stormy. He maintained that he could not be expected to obey silly orders about time limits, which, he pointed out, he had not accepted when they were first laid down. He asked finally whether he was to stay and fight and so lose the army, or move off to Tunisia more or less intact. Cavallero promised that a decision would be given promptly. During this conference word was received that the British had sunk ten out of fourteen petrol barges west of Tripoli, which cannot have added to the gaiety of the meeting.
In Count Ciano’s diary of early January appears this extract: ‘He [Mussolini ] realizes that the loss of Tripoli will cut deeply into the morale of the people. He would like a desperate house-to-house defence like that in Stalingrad. He knows that this is impossible. ... He has harsh words for Cavallero and for “that madman Rommel, who thinks of nothing but retreating in Tunisia.” ‘8 Times had changed from those when Rommel stood on the fringe of the Nile Delta.
21 January – the Plains of Tripoli
By the evening of 21 January 51 (Highland) Division had forced the enemy back from Corradini, and Tripoli was less than 50 miles ahead. Despite this the Army Commander was uneasy at the lack of speed, for he noted that demolitions on the road had been skilfully related to the ground, so that it was often impossible for even tracked vehicles to get past.9 His Chief of Staff, Brigadier
de Guingand, writes, ‘demolitions had caused great congestion. ... it looked a ghastly picture, and one wondered whether it could ever be sorted out in time.’10
In the evening Montgomery decided on his final thrust. The object was to get to Tripoli without delay, forgoing any idea of rounding up the enemy, and taking advantage of the fact that the enemy had weakened his coastal forces to counter the inland column. He decided, therefore, to order his Army Reserve, 22 Armoured Brigade, to pass through 51 (H) Division on 22 January and force its way into Tripoli along the coastal road.
The 7th Armoured Division made little progress on 21 January and at last light still faced the defile ten miles west of Tarhuna. But a first success had been gained towards outflanking the enemy, for 11 Hussars from the division reached the flat country below the escarpment and patrolled up to 25 miles west of Tarhuna towards Azizia.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade moved its main body down from the Gebel during the night of 20–21 January, and patrolled towards Garian and Azizia, one patrol going as far as Bir el Ghnem. Tanks were located round Azizia, and new defences blocking the road south of Castel Benito. Late on the 21st the brigade reported that it was in excellent country for tanks and that there was a good opportunity of cutting through to the coast; but General Freyberg, to whom the suggestion was made, would not agree to release the Greys, and his refusal was confirmed by 30 Corps. The suggestion was rather venturesome.
At dawn 8 Field Company began work on the track through the defile, which occupied it all day and into the night. It was a cold morning, and the troops found ice on their groundsheets. Divisional Cavalry was off early, followed by Tactical Headquarters and using the track from Tazzoli to Garian for about 13 miles, then turning due north into the defile over which RAF fighters and guns from 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment provided protection. To counter ground opposition, a gun group of 4 Field Regiment, 211 Medium Battery, and later 5 Field Regiment, moved immediately behind Divisional Cavalry. At 1 p.m. there was a raid by twelve aircraft, but no damage was done.
After advancing more than 25 miles along the divisional axis and reaching a point about eight miles south-east of Azizia, Divisional Cavalry came under shellfire and reported the enemy in position westwards from Point 193 – ten miles east of Azizia. The 4th Field Regiment and 211 Medium Battery opened fire and compelled the enemy artillery to retire, leaving behind a gun and a
truck. By that time it was dark, and the Cavalry laagered 15 miles south-east of Azizia, with Tactical Headquarters and the Greys close by.
Fifth Infantry Brigade Group did not move from south of Tarhuna until late morning, when 28 (Maori) Battalion led the advance in single column. By evening the battalion was out in the plain making contact with the rear of Divisional Cavalry. Brigadier Kippenberger, who had spent the day forward, gave the Maoris the task of protecting the Greys’ laager. The remainder of 5 Brigade Group halted about 10 p.m. not far behind Divisional Cavalry.
Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group did not pass through the defile until after dark, and halted when just clear. The rest of the Division was still to the east of Tazzoli and farther back along the road to Beni Ulid.
The Enemy on 21 January
During 21 January the enemy maintained his existing positions, 90 Light Division opposing 51 (H) Division astride the road west of Corradini and 164 Light holding up 7 Armoured Division just west of Tarhuna. The GAF Brigade was south of Castel Benito, with Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment behind it, and the Reconnaissance Group south of Azizia, with 15 Panzer Division to its north. The Italians were either withdrawing into the Tripoli defences or were on the way to Zauia.
Rommel had decided not to attempt to make a further stand, as the weight of the attack on his western flank was increasing. He would save his army and abandon Tripoli, while Montgomery wanted Tripoli and looked on the capture of the German army as less urgent. For once the intentions of the opposing commanders were complementary.
So 90 Light Division was ordered to break off contact during the night of 21–22 January, withdraw through Tripoli to west of Sorman and take up a position facing south and east. The XXIst Corps, with oddments of Italian divisions and a rearguard from 90 Light, was to stay in the Tripoli defences at least until the evening of the 22nd, for there was just a chance that the advancing British might not reach Tripoli by 23 January. The 164th Light Division would withdraw to the area south of Zauia, and GAF Brigade was to take over rearguard duties south of Castel Benito. The Reconnaissance Group was to withdraw when under pressure to the south-west of Bianchi; and 15 Panzer would stay at Azizia.
Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment apparently withdrew to the west, for it disappears from the order of battle for the next few days.
Early on 21 January Rommel received his answer from Marshal Cavallero saying, ‘the Duce’s directions are unchanged. The destruction of the army must be avoided, but as much time as possible must be gained.’11 Ignoring the great discrepancy between this and the previous order, it is difficult to quarrel with this latest directive.
Action at Azizia, 22 January
The Desert Air Force had subdued the Luftwaffe, now forced to use airfields well west of Tripoli. The last attack on Castel Benito was made on 21 January, mainly to stop the ploughing up of the field, and three ploughs were destroyed, a strange conclusion to an air attack.
On the coastal road 22 Armoured Brigade passed through 51 (H) Division and by the afternoon was a mere 15 miles from Tripoli, where it was held up by rearguards and demolitions. Only one company of infantry was with it, as traffic jams had made it impossible to reinforce by wheeled transport. So Montgomery sent forward a battalion from 51 Division riding on Valentine tanks, with orders to attack on arrival, which meant a night attack with the armour following through by moonlight.
The 7th Armoured Division cleared the defile west of Tarhuna during the night of 21–22 January, moved down to the plain, and by nightfall was only a few miles short of Castel Benito, with one patrol from 11 Hussars a few miles to the north-east of the airfield. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was well across the Azizia - Bir el Ghnem road 20 miles south-west of Azizia.
It was anticipated that the enemy would make a stand, even if only a short one, across the two roads leading into Tripoli from the south; and from experience it was known that the enemy was most skilful in the way in which he covered a withdrawal or a demolition with a combination of single tanks, single 88-millimetre guns and small parties of infantry.
Divisional Cavalry resumed the advance at dawn on 22 January and by 11 a.m. had established that the enemy was holding the high ground south and south-west of Azizia. His guns and tanks held up any further advance. The 4th Field Regiment and 211 Medium Battery then deployed and engaged the enemy positions, tanks and transport, and under this cover the Greys moved closer to Azizia parallel to the road. Scattered shots were exchanged with
enemy tanks, but the ground was broken and the enemy well established. Daylight ended with both sides exchanging fire from hull-down positions. This was the Greys’ last action in the advance. As an indication of what might be expected in such an operation over heavy going, the regiment started with twenty-six Shermans and four Grants but ended with only fourteen heavy tanks, the loss of sixteen being due almost entirely to engine trouble or other mechanical failure.
Fifth Infantry Brigade Group, now rejoined by 5 Field Regiment, began to advance at 10 a.m., keeping off the road. The leading battalion (28) moved up behind 4 Field Regiment, halted briefly, and then at 11.30 a.m. moved on again, followed by the rest of the column. Progress was slow with frequent stops, and at 2.15 p.m. the column encountered enemy shellfire. Brigadier Kippenberger now gave orders that the brigade was to go straight to Tripoli, but might have to fight for it. It would advance in three columns, with 28 Battalion as advanced guard, 21 Battalion off the road to the right, 23 to the left, and the remainder of the group astride the road.
In this order the advance resumed at 3.30 p.m., and half an hour later 28 Battalion was about eight miles south of Azizia. Here the group halted while the brigadier discussed the situation with the GOC, for an intercepted enemy message had now reached Divisional Headquarters that the troops at Azizia were to hold out until 7 p.m., and a deduction had been made that they would then withdraw. It thus appeared that an attack would not be needed and unnecessary casualties could be avoided.
In the calmer atmosphere today, it appears that in fact a wrong deduction was made. The message reads: ‘From Intelligence channels. 15 [Panzer Division] defends Azizia. Ramcke defends 15 kilos south Castel Benito ordered hold out till 1900 hrs’. The full-stop after ‘Azizia’ conveys the meaning that the holding-out period applied only to Ramcke (the German Air Force Brigade), but this was not realised at the time. The enemy certainly had no idea of moving 15 Panzer Division as early as 7 p.m. In fact it did not receive orders to retire until after 8 p.m. and did not start moving until after midnight. But while this error affected the plans for 5 Brigade, it had no effect on the final result of the operations, the capture of Tripoli next morning.
It was now decided that 5 Brigade would advance after dark in column, with 28 Battalion in the lead, and with the hope that the way to Tripoli would be found clear. B Company of 28 Battalion would be advanced guard, proceeding by bounds and giving various
coloured flares as success signals at each bound. Engineers with mine detectors, and two anti-tank guns, went with this advanced guard.
At 8 p.m. the brigade moved forward slowly, Brigade Tactical Headquarters with 28 Battalion. Five kilometres from Azizia B Company met opposition, debussed and went forward on foot. The rest of the battalion followed up at a crawl until it reached the two kilometre peg, and it appeared that Azizia was indeed clear. At that moment, however, a flare went up from a hill east of the road, followed by a dozen others on both sides and then by defensive fire which criss-crossed on fixed lines over the front. The advance naturally stopped. Shortly afterwards the enemy opened up with mortar and artillery fire on the road, and vehicles were hastily dispersed.
Brigadier Kippenberger judged the opposition too strong for him to put in an impromptu attack. Moreover, the brigade transport would be in danger at dawn if the enemy remained, for it would certainly be under direct observation. So the advanced guard was recalled and the brigade withdrew some six or seven miles. Divisional Cavalry and the Greys were now the forward troops, the former being some six miles south of Azizia.
An examination of the enemy position later confirmed that it had been well organised and strongly held.
About 9 p.m. 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported that enemy transport was moving along the road towards Azizia from Bir el Ghnem, and some ten miles short of Azizia. This was probably part of the German Reconnaissance Group retiring northwards. Two sections of carriers and two six-pounder anti-tank guns from 23 Battalion were sent out westwards to deal with this, but it could not be located.
The remainder of 2 NZ Division – Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group, 6 Infantry Brigade Group and Administrative Group – advanced during the day without incident, and the whole Division debouched out of the hills and on to the plain.
The Enemy on 22 January
The enemy’s efforts were now directed to leaving Tripoli without being rushed. He continued to be more concerned about his southern flank than elsewhere, and kept 15 Panzer Division and the GAF Brigade across the two main lines of approach from that direction, those via Azizia and Castel Benito. He comments on the probing attacks of 2 NZ Division (but without identifying the formation) and did not fail to notice that the troops pulled back slightly during the evening.
On the coastal road the remaining Italians were to go first and 90 Light Division was to be the rearguard, moving back through the town and away to the west. Rearguard duties west of Tripoli were to be taken up by the GAF Brigade around Oliveti. The 15th Panzer Division was to withdraw at dawn on the 23rd, leaving strong rearguards at Sabotinia to carry out a fighting withdrawal to Maamura and there to link up with the GAF Brigade. Other detailed moves need not be recorded; but the result would be a defensive line running from Zanzur, in front of Bianchi and then westwards. The nearness to the sea, where landing barges could unload, had in the last few days improved the petrol position, and units now had enough for at least 250 kilometres.
23 January – Tripoli Captured
During the night of 22–23 January 30 Corps allotted areas in and around Tripoli to be taken up after its capture. The 7th Armoured Division would occupy the west and south-west of the town and keep touch with the enemy; part of 2 NZ Division would be in Tripoli and part in Castel Benito. The detailed subdivision of the town remained as earlier laid down, but modification seemed likely.
The armoured division reported during the night that the enemy had left Castel Benito. Patrols from 11 Hussars entered Tripoli first, their leading patrol at 5 a.m., followed an hour later by troops of 51 (H) Division. It was exactly three months since the opening of the Battle of Alamein, and Eighth Army had advanced 1400 miles; and as a climax had captured Tripoli within the ten-day limit prescribed by Montgomery, to his very great satisfaction.
It seems that a party from 1 Company, 27 (MG) Battalion, were the first New Zealanders to enter Tripoli. When the 5 Brigade attack was abandoned the previous evening, the machine-gunners’ truck had broken down, so they bivouacked for the night. At dawn they could find nobody and, with their vehicle repaired, drove off through Azizia, passed the Divisional Cavalry patrols, and reached Tripoli at 10.30 a.m. as a reward for their initiative.
Early morning patrols confirmed that Azizia had been evacuated, and Divisional Cavalry, followed by the Greys and the GOC’s Tactical Headquarters, resumed the advance. Suani Ben Adem was reached about 11 a.m. and was found already occupied by 8 Armoured Brigade, which (acting under 30 Corps ‘ orders) was on its way to the south-west of Tripoli and so could not avoid cutting across 2 NZ Division’s line of advance.
Fifth Infantry Brigade Group moved at 11 a.m. and, after passing Azizia, formed up in one column on the road. Just after
midday the GOC instructed the brigade to push right through to Tripoli. Brigadier Kippenberger went ahead to the Azizia Gate of the town and in the main square met Major-General Wimberley, GOC 51 (H) Division. The leading unit of 5 Brigade (28 Battalion) reached the gate at 1.30 p.m.
Fifth Brigade had been prepared to arrange for the subdivision of the town, but troops from 51 Division were already there. Kippenberger and Wimberley discussed a re-arrangement, and ‘everyone acted sensibly and it was made without difficulty’.12 Fifth Brigade went to the southern part of the town with 21 Battalion in the western sub-sector, 23 the central and 28 the eastern. The 5th Field Regiment had remained at Suani Ben Adem. Guards were posted on vital points, and the occupation was completed without incident. Civilians gave no trouble.
Divisional Cavalry bivouacked four miles south of the city, Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group between Suani Ben Adem and Bianchi, and Divisional Artillery concentrated in an area south of Suani Ben Adem. Sixth Infantry Brigade Group remained south-east of Azizia, pending a move next day to the Bianchi area.
Bianchi was reported clear by 30 Corps, and so the GOC, accompanied by his ADC (Captain Griffiths13), Brigadier Gentry and his staff captain (Captain Cook14) and Brigadier N. W. McD. Weir15 (on attachment from New Zealand), set off about 2.30 p.m. to examine its possibilities as a bivouac area. But Bianchi was still occupied by rearguards of 15 Panzer Division, and the party ran into rifle and machine-gun fire at very close range, followed shortly by mortar fire. Captain Griffiths returned the fire with a Tommy gun. The party went to ground, but the GOC’s driver (Lance-Corporal Norris16) went back to his car, which was under fire, turned it, picked up the GOC and his ADC and drove off at full speed to get assistance. Brigadier Gentry’s driver received a fatal wound, three other men were wounded, and Captain Cook’s car was destroyed. The party took shelter in a nearby farmhouse.
The GOC soon found some machine-gunners of 3 MG Company and led them back to the scene of the ambush, but as no one could be seen, he thought that the brigadiers and the others had been
captured. Two tanks of Protective Troop now arrived and were sent in pursuit, but although they chased two armoured cars, could not overhaul them. The party was then found in the farmhouse, having had no further losses.
In a letter17 describing the incident General Freyberg said in a postscript, ‘I will be more careful in future’. It was apparent to all that had the Protective Troop accompanied the party an awkward predicament might have been avoided, but as the GOC had been assured that Bianchi was clear, his indignation later in the day when speaking to the Corps Commander was understandable.
The incident became known in conversation throughout the Division as the ‘Battle of Bianchi ‘. The Panzer Army’s narrative for the day speaks of ‘strong enemy reconnaissance parties thrusting forward’, and perhaps the GOC’s journey was one of these.
The Enemy on 23 January
The enemy withdrew with the same orderliness in which he had conducted the retirement throughout. On the coast road the final rearguard left its position east of the city at 11 p.m. The GAF Brigade had difficulties fending off attacks from 7 Armoured Division and speeded up its timings to commence withdrawing at 9 p.m. on 22 January instead of at midnight. The 15th Panzer Division withdrew from Azizia between 1 a.m. and first light, leaving rearguards in front of Bianchi. In the morning of the 23rd 7 Armoured Division was checked south-east of Zanzur. There was thus no rapid retreat, and while air reconnaissance showed steady movement to the west, there was nothing resembling a flight. The enemy was apprehensive about the possibility of a wide outflanking movement along the foot of the Gebel westwards to Medenine in Tunisia, but his general plan was now to retire to the Mareth Line in any case, sending all the Italians first and leapfrogging the German formations along the coastal road. By the evening of 23 January the enemy rearguards were west of Zauia, and thereafter they withdrew steadily towards the Tunisian frontier.
The advance to Tripoli involved 2 NZ Division in very little fighting. Indeed, for the most part, action was restricted to the Divisional Cavalry and the Greys, with some assistance from the artillery. The engineers were frequently called on for mine clearing and track making, and the supply echelons, of course, concerned themselves constantly with the maintenance of the Division. But for the infantry, accustomed as they had become to action and to
setting hardship at defiance, the journey from Nofilia to Tripoli was an easy one. It was mostly very much a matter of sitting patiently in their lorries, enduring the jolting, the dust and the delays until their arrival in what had become a common term for Tripoli – the promised land.
The Division’s casualties since beginning the march from near Nofilia on 9 January were 21 killed and 56 wounded, of whom one killed and ten wounded were from infantry units. The total casualties since leaving the Bardia area early in December were 69 killed, 197 wounded and 8 prisoners of war, who were distributed as follows:
|5 Infantry Brigade||22||59|
|6 Infantry Brigade||4||22||5|
Mr Churchill ‘s Visit
During the time spent in and around Tripoli the troops derived some pleasure from living among greenness and cultivation, with an occasional (or perhaps only one) visit to a large town; but the real culmination to the advance on Tripoli came on 4 February, when the Division paraded for Mr Churchill – one of the most memorable occasions in its history.
Instructions issued on 30 January concerned a review by the Army Commander. Then it became known that the parade was to be in honour of a ‘Mr Bullfinch’, who was soon identified by rumour as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom.
Two or three days were devoted to preparations, and leave to Tripoli was cancelled. The Division was organised into five groups:
Divisional Troops (comprising Greys, Divisional Cavalry, Divisional Engineers, Divisional Signals, 27 (MG) Battalion, and Headquarters)
5 Infantry Brigade
6 Infantry Brigade
Services (NZASC, NZMC, NZOC, NZEME)
The review took place on a stretch of open green country surrounded by bluegums, not without its resemblance to that homeland so far away. Before lunch there was a full rehearsal, at which the GOC found himself at the point where he had to call for ‘Three
cheers for ...’, and at that very moment realised that he had not prepared an alternative name for the Unknown Guest, and so after a fractional pause plunged deeply and went on ‘... the Prime Minister’, thus confirming or confounding all rumours.
The whole force paraded before 2 p.m. to await the official party. Mr Churchill, dressed in the uniform of an Air Commodore, arrived standing up in an open car with General Montgomery seated beside him. In the cars that followed were General Sir Alan Brooke (Chief of the Imperial General Staff), General Sir Harold Alexander and other senior officers. An escort of armoured cars swept into line beside the saluting base, and as the Prime Minister’s car halted, General Freyberg ordered a general salute. The GOC was greeted warmly and invited into the car and, with Mr Churchill still standing, they drove along the lines of the massed troops.
After returning to the saluting base the Prime Minister addressed the Division, speaking at first in the well-known grumbling tone, with rather a monotonous delivery:
General Freyberg, officers and men of the New Zealand Division and the Royal Scots Greys and other units attached thereto – when I last saw your General, Bernard Freyberg, my old friend of so many years of war and peace, the Salamander, as he may be called, of the British Empire, it was on those bluff and rocky slopes to the south of Alamein where you were then preparing to receive what was then expected to be a most dangerous and deadly thrust by the hitherto victorious Rommel. At that time also we had had great doubts and anxieties as to the position in Russia and what would happen in the Caucasus and in all approaches to the great oilfields without which the plight of Germany is hard.
(And then his tone changed and he electrified his audience, bursting out triumphantly.)
But what a change has taken place since then. By an immortal victory, the Battle of Egypt, the Army of the Axis Powers which had fondly hoped and loudly boasted it would take Egypt and the Nile Valley, was broken, shattered, shivered, and ever since then, by a march unexampled in all history for the speed and force of the advance, you have driven the remnants of that army before you until now the would-be conqueror of Egypt is endeavouring to pass himself off as the deliverer of Tunisia. These great feats of arms entitle the Army of the Desert to feel the sure deep-founded sense of comfort and pride based on the footing of valiant duty faithfully done. Now I come and find you here, 1500 miles from where I saw you last, and you may well feel that in that period a great change has taken place in the whole position of the war, and that we now have a right to say that a term will be fixed to the intense exertions to which so many well disposed and good-hearted people have been compelled by the brutal attacks which have been made upon them. Now a turn and a change has come upon the scene, just in the same way as after all these hundreds and hundreds of miles of desert you suddenly came again into green and fertile lands. So there has been a movement of the whole world cause with its 29 United
Nations, a movement towards a far surer hope and a far nearer conclusion than anything that was possible before. You will march into fairer lands, you will march into the lands where the grim and severe conditions of the desert lie behind; but having endured those conditions, the military qualities, the grand fighting qualities you have displayed will only shine the brighter and be turned to greater advantage. Far away in your homes at the other side of the world all hearts are swelling with pride in the deeds of the New Zealand Division. Throughout the Motherland – our little islands, which stood alone for a year surrounded only by children from overseas, against dire odds; far away in New Zealand, throughout the Motherland, all men are filled with admiration for the Desert Army, and we of the British Isles, our hearts go out in gratitude to the people of New Zealand who have sent this splendid Division to win glory across the oceans and who, unanimously, by their Parliament in secret session, accorded to you what is, I am sure, your wish to see this particular job through to the end. The enemy has been driven out of Egypt, out of Cyrenaica, out of Tripolitania. He is now coming towards the end of his means of retreat and in the corner of Tunisia a decisive battle has soon to be fought. Other great forces coming in from the west – the First British Army, the powerful armies of the United States, a French army coming back to its duty after having been first defeated and them shamefully misled. All these forces are closing in and all these operations are combined, but in them, I am sure, the Desert Army and the New Zealand Division will bear a most recognisable and honourable part. What I would say to you is that the sun has begun to shine. The good cause will not be trampled down. There will be more justice and mercy among men – there will be more freedom – there will be more chances for all as a result of this great world movement in which all the most powerful communities not locked in the Nazi or Fascist heresy will take their part, and in this struggle those whom I speak to now and see before me in their massive array have already taken a glorious part but have still before them the opportunity of increasing the debt which all free nations of the world owe, and I give to you on behalf of His Majesty’s Government, on behalf of all the people of the Homeland – I give you our expression of earnest and warm-hearted thanks. We cherish the memory and the tale of all you have done. We wish you God Speed and God’s assistance in your further efforts and we feel that as duty will not fail so success will be achieved.
When the speech concluded General Freyberg called for three cheers for the Prime Minister, which were hearty indeed. Then in order of groups the Division marched past the saluting base to the music of the massed pipe bands of 51 (Highland) Division, with the troops nine abreast, an unorthodox formation but most suitable and impressive. The armoured and artillery units marched to their nearby vehicle parks, where they mounted their tanks, carriers and guns, and in column of six vehicles abreast were again reviewed.
So for half an hour an almost unbroken line of men, tanks, guns and vehicles passed in salute to the great leader of the Commonwealth cause. General Freyberg described it as ‘the most impressive and moving parade of my career’.
Mr Churchill ‘s reference to General Freyberg as the ‘Salamander of the British Empire’ puzzled many people, though they all knew it to be high praise of some kind. The salamander is a lizard-like animal to which the superstition once attached that it could live in fire, from which characteristic the parallel of General Freyberg ‘s career, involving battle after battle and wound after wound and surviving still, was an easy one. Today the arms of Baron Freyberg include as supporters ‘on either side a Salamander Proper’.