Bardia to Enfidaville
Before moving off in the morning of the 17th the Division requested that the approaches to Nofilia and the strongpoint itself should be bombed until 3 p.m., as it proposed to attack from the south-west. It will be noticed that Nofilia was alluded to as a ‘strongpoint’, so that it was expected that it would be strongly held. It must have become apparent during the advance that to, bomb the approaches until 3 p.m. meant that any attack must be page 61 delayed until that hour, for the Division, with only about 30 miles to go, would arrive long before then. The bomblines were therefore changed from time to time until the line ran clear to Nofilia to the west; except that towards evening a request was made for the fort at Nofilia itself to be bombed. Records show some difference of opinion about whether Nofilia was in the end ever bombed at all. The Desert Air Force reported being unable to do any light bombing owing to rain and low cloud, and that its efforts were confined to two tactical reconnaissances. On the other hand, 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported bombs on Nofilia at 9.15 a.m. The weather in the divisional area was patchy, with bright periods; but there could have been rain and low cloud at the airfields.
The advance was resumed at 7 a.m. It took some time for the whole column to deploy into desert formation. Fifth Infantry Brigade Group, second in the order of march, blamed the B Echelon vehicles of 4 Light Armoured Brigade for holding them up, and Divisional Headquarters did not move off until 10 a.m., but the page 62 GOC moved as usual with his Tactical Headquarters well in front. In the early morning it appeared briefly from armoured car reports that Nofilia was clear, but very soon the enemy was located, and the information sent back by 4 Light Armoured Brigade gave a picture that was in fact accurate: a strong rearguard from the sea through Nofilia and then to the west, with a number of tanks estimated at twenty to twenty-five.
The Division carried out the advance without halts, in the hope of capturing the place that day. About midday 4 Light Armoured Brigade closed up in strength to the enemy's advanced posts, with the Royals to the north-east of Nofilia, and the KDGs moving away to the north-west and west. The guns of 3 RHA were active against the village, and both 4 Field Regiment (from Reserve Group) and the troop from 211 Medium Battery came into action against tanks and guns west of Nofilia.
About midday the Greys (which now had only five Grants and ten Shermans), accompanied by Divisional Cavalry, stormed into the enemy position west of Nofilia village, effected complete surprise, and captured about 250 prisoners from 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment of 15 Panzer Division. There followed some prolonged and lively exchanges between our tanks and those of the enemy, in which both the Greys and Divisional Cavalry accounted for enemy tanks. Honours in tank losses appear to have been about even. The Greys lost four, of which two were recovered; 15 Panzer reported losing four also, but made a fantastic claim that they had knocked out twenty-one British tanks. In this engagement the commanding officer of the Greys, Lieutenant-Colonel Fiennes, was wounded and evacuated.
Subsequently this break-in on our part led to a special investigation by Africa Corps, with the usual numerous reports and with some censure on one or two people. It might have been some small consolation for 2 NZ Division to have known that an 88-millimetre anti-tank troop was not on the spot owing to a mistake in navigation.
This engagement held the enemy's attention while the Division passed round the south of Nofilia. The attack caused perturbation in Africa Corps, for at midday 15 Panzer reported that it was being outflanked on its right near Point 121, and that its panzer regiment was being sent there with thirteen runners. About 12.30 p.m. Africa Corps ordered 21 Panzer to send all its tanks and some anti-tank guns to the vicinity of Point 121; and half an hour later ordered the division to move complete to that area to restore the situation, leaving only rearguards on the eastern face. Africa Corps states clearly that it had a hard fight to prevent a page 63 breakthrough. The 15th Panzer Division was so disorganised that the command of the front west of Nofilia had for a while to be given to 21 Panzer Division; and there were one or two minor reorganisations during the afternoon. And running through all this was the persistent cry for petrol. Round about midday Africa Corps could not have retired if it had wanted to, as it had only enough petrol for movements within the battlefield. Driblets of petrol were being sent up throughout the day.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry had thus caused the whole armoured strength of Africa Corps to be committed. The number of enemy tanks involved is not known accurately. On 16 December the Africa Corps had a total of fifty-three, and on 19 December thirty-eight; so perhaps the fighting on 16 and 17 December reduced their strength by anything up to fifteen, although many of these may have been only slightly damaged and were recoverable.
One interesting point of tactics is exemplified by the fighting round Nofilia village. The pressure exerted by 2 NZ Division was against the southern face only. The advance of 7 Armoured Division had been curtailed and it was now out of contact with the enemy. The New Zealand Division was therefore making a left hook without the necessary concomitant of a holding attack against the enemy's front, the eastern face in this case. This was unavoidable, as the Division did not have sufficient troops to attack all along the enemy's line. So when the need arose, the enemy thinned out his troops on the eastern face without danger, and moved them to the threatened sector. When referring to another incident in his long retreat from Alamein, but speaking in general terms, Rommel says, ‘there is never any point in attempting an outflanking movement round an enemy force unless it has first been tied down frontally, because the defending force can always use its motorised forces—assuming it has petrol and vehicles—to hold up the outflanking columns while it slips out of the trap.’1
1 Rommel Papers, p. 345