Bardia to Enfidaville
Pushing on—14 December
Pushing on—14 December
Before setting off in the morning of 14 December the Division was replenished with two days' rations and water from a dump built on the western side of Chrystal's Rift on the 13th by an RASC third-line convoy. It was then decided that there should be an issue of petrol for 100 miles' travel at 2.30 p.m. at a point at Stage III just east of the Marada Track; and instructions were issued accordingly.
It was now intended that 4 Light Armoured Brigade, still without the Greys, but strengthened by Divisional Cavalry, should get away as soon as possible; and that the rest of the Division, with 6 Brigade page 38 Group leading, should leave early, travel all day, halt in the evening for a meal, and then continue all night. If all went well the Division should cover 100 miles in the twenty-four hours following daybreak on 14 December, and should be approaching the road at PLUM. But the actual objective had now become fluid, as it appeared likely that the enemy would have passed PLUM before the Division reached it. The GOC was still hopeful of getting into position in advance of the retreating enemy, and then carrying out a local ‘left hook’ and cutting off his rearguard at least. The line of advance of the Division was thus to be moved more to the west; and in effect 4 Light Armoured Brigade now had a task of seeking out the enemy. As the enemy was retreating from El Agheila, the GOC decided to dispense with any rearguard, so leaving Administrative Group last in a divisional column that was by now stretching out more and more.
No part of the Division moved before 7 a.m. on the 14th, mainly because of thick fog. Although the broken country made it difficult for groups to maintain desert formation, Stage III was reached in good order.
There was no sign of Petrol Company's vehicles at 2 p.m., and indeed the first platoon did not arrive at the Stage III petrol point until 5 p.m., by which time the leading formations of the Division had been waiting four hours. The explanation was that by early afternoon Petrol Company was anything up to 60 miles from the head of the divisional column, and did not receive instructions about the issue until 3 p.m., half an hour after the time set down for the issue at a point some hours' travel away. Within half an hour of arrival at Stage III the first platoon issued the whole of its 27,800 gallons; but another 20,000 gallons was still wanted, so that the arrival of the next platoon was keenly awaited. But darkness fell, and the second platoon passed right through the delivery area unnoticed; so that it was not until a third platoon reached the petrol point that all demands were satisfied, by which time it was 11 p.m.
In the meantime the Greys, which it will be remembered was the main tank force with the Division, had been stranded without fuel; and as its own second-line transport was many miles behind, General Freyberg instructed Petrol Company to issue high octane petrol1 to the regiment. A figure of 5000 gallons was mentioned, but after drawing 1500 gallons the regiment went on, as it was page 39 becoming increasingly desirable that it should catch up with its brigade. Later in the day Petrol Company made an issue to the King's Royal Rifle Corps battalion, which had also run short of petrol.
Luckily Divisional Cavalry had been able to replenish with high octane petrol the previous afternoon and was not delayed in joining 4 Light Armoured Brigade.
While the leading elements of the Division were waiting at Stage III for petrol, the rear groups were gradually closing up. When the GOC held a conference at 1 p.m. to examine the situation, it was decided to halt until 4 p.m., move for two hours (leaving petrol-carrying vehicles behind to refill), have a meal, and then close into night formation and travel by moonlight until 11 p.m. The advance was to be resumed at first light on 15 December. At the conference the objective was still given as PLUM; but later in the afternoon the General went forward and instructed 4 Light Armoured Brigade to change the thrust line to one trending farther west and leading to Bir el Merduma.
It was fully appreciated at this conference that if the Division did cut off the enemy, his armour would make a fight of it; and the Greys were still well behind. The leading formation, therefore, had no heavy tanks with it, and when the Greys did catch up, they might have little time to prepare for battle.
The advance was duly resumed from Stage III at 4 p.m. in the same order of march as earlier in the day. A halt for an hour for a meal was made at 5.30 p.m., and the advance then continued until 11.30 p.m. along a lighted route, the Provost Company working well ahead to erect its lights. The total advance for the day (14 December) was almost 90 miles, so that in effect the confusion over the petrol issue had not in the end caused any real disruption and any time lost at Stage III had been made up.
The troops went to bed for the remainder of the night. At this point 4 Light Armoured Brigade was well ahead, on the northern side of Chor Scemmer and some 12 miles west of APPLE, while the head of the New Zealand column was a little short of this bound. Incidentally the original ‘Stage IV’ had been disregarded, and in fact had been passed during the evening march.
Administrative Group was some 40 miles back and having trouble with the going. During the night its vehicles closed in until they were side-by-side and nose-to-tail, at which point a vehicle loaded with petrol caught fire and could be seen for miles. Luckily there were no enemy aircraft about.page 40
The GOC broke wireless silence at 9.50 p.m. to answer a query from 30 Corps about locations. He added that he hoped to reach Bir el Merduma by 11 a.m. on the 15th. There was probably no object in keeping wireless silence any longer, for twice during the afternoon a German reconnaissance plane had flown low over the leading elements of 4 Light Armoured Brigade and undoubtedly had seen them.
A further message from 30 Corps that evening directed that A Squadron, Staffordshire Yeomanry, was to revert to the command of 7 Armoured Division. This was surprising and a reply was sent to the effect that the squadron was committed and its release not practicable.
Meanwhile the advance of 51 (Highland) and 7 Armoured Divisions had continued slowly owing to the large number of carefully laid mines and booby traps. In the evening 8 Armoured Brigade had a sharp engagement ten miles south of El Agheila and claimed to have accounted for nine M13 (Italian) tanks. Its opponent was Ariete Group, whose stout resistance was praised in the German narrative, an uncommon occurrence. By last light the general line of the foremost British posts was still some five to ten miles short of El Agheila village; and the main road had been cleared of mines only about halfway between Marsa Brega and El Agheila. The Desert Air Force was active as usual, and enemy opposition was slight; but visibility was bad.
1 Special arrangements had always to be made to carry supplies of high octane petrol for use by armoured units.