2nd New Zealand Divisional Artillery
The Second Left Hook: To Nofilia
The Second Left Hook: To Nofilia
So as to allow an early start on 17 December, the Division was allowed to light breakfast fires before dawn. To gunners used to pinpoint aiming lights only by night and an occasional furtive cigarette, it looked like the lights of a great city and was a reassuring sign of the dominance of the RAF. This time, after the armour, 5 Brigade led the way, but with its normal allotment of guns plus 34 Battery, the remainder reverting to Divisional reserve. It was thought that some 30 tanks and 5000 infantry might be holding a position on the coast at Nofilia, under 40 miles away in a straight line, but considerably farther by the proposed desert route. Nofilia itself was an old fort and a few other buildings some miles south of the road and had no particular significance. The object of the move was to get behind the enemy rearguard and cut off its retreat along the road.
It took some time to get the thousands of vehicles marshalled for the advance; but once they got well under way the leading ones soon made contact with the enemy. At 11 a.m. the 4th Field, travelling behind Divisional Headquarters, could see shellbursts ahead and Lieutenant-Colonel Stewart went forward, met the CRA, and was ordered to deploy the regiment.10 At the same time Brigadier Weir called forward 211 Battery of the 64th Medium. It was not until the afternoon, however, that the 5th Field went into action. OPs went forward with 21, 23 and 28 (Maori) Battalions as the 5 Brigade infantry pushed northwards to cut off the enemy rearguard. They engaged transport on the coast road with uncertain results, for observation was difficult in the extreme. The sand was soft and deep and shells bursting in the many hollows near the road could not page 446 be seen. Each battalion had with it a troop of 32 Battery and all three troops came under considerable fire and had fleeting engagements. G Troop fired 30 rounds and drove off three tanks, two 88s, and a staff car, and H Troop fought a dangerous duel with an 88. The 6th Field provided a screen for the rear of the 6 Brigade columns and carried out some shooting in the early evening. As night approached the enemy seemed still firmly in possession of the Nofilia position and the guns, firing in bad light at long ranges, could do little to dislodge him. Major Bevan of 26 Battery of the 4th Field was, as usual, well forward and became the only gunner casualty of the action when he was wounded. B Troop of 211 Medium Battery is recorded as having fired tasks of two rounds gun fire on the road at 10 page 447 and 11 p.m., but the results could not be assessed. Apart from this the night was quiet.
Infantry had seized ground overlooking the road after dark and tried to cross the road. In the morning it seemed certain that the strong gun group would dominate the enemy's escape route. Since the enemy known to be still in the Nofilia area was estimated to consist of 20 tanks and 4000 infantry there was a confident expectation of lively action after dawn. But the enemy drove along a track between the road and the sea and in the morning there was not a sign of him. The 4th Field fired for a time at a German lorry, but it had already been abandoned. The action at Nofilia was thus even more disappointing than that at the Wadi Matratin.11
By this time the Division had travelled about 500 miles by map distance from Bardia and well over 600 according to the instruments on most vehicles.12 All of this had been crosscountry and much of it pretty rough—by far the longest advance of its kind on record. At first the intention was to continue the pursuit; but, when the army situation—particularly regarding supplies—was reassessed, it was decided to leave the New Zealand Division at Nofilia for two or three weeks. Drivers, mechanics and artificers were therefore able to carry out urgently needed maintenance.
Within a day or two the regiments were disposed in areas within 10 miles of Nofilia. The gunners were told they would not move on until after the New Year and they soon turned their thoughts to rest and recreation. The whole area formerly occupied by the enemy was profusely mined, as were the verges of the roadside for many miles westwards. Schu-mines which, after being activated by trip wires, exploded in the air and scattered steel balls in deadly fashion were a particular menace. Beach parties had to keep strictly to routes that had been cleared.
At Nofilia, as an anti-tank gunner put it, ‘football was a big thing’. Almost every unit constructed its own football field. The anti-tankers did so by first clearing the scrub with picks and shovels, then driving portées backwards and forwards over the cleared ground, each portée dragging behind it a ‘sand channel’ with two or three men on it to provide the necessary page 448 weight—a kind of makeshift grader. The posts of a 4th Field football ground were the masts of a German ship bombed and wrecked off shore.
10 Stewart travelled in a Honey tank with RSM Rex Bartley as the 37-mm. gunner and in the late morning they fired a few rounds against retreating tanks.