Bardia to Enfidaville
During the late afternoon 4 Light Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry observed enemy movement in and around Nofilia, until at 5.20 p.m. the GOC ordered the brigade to clear the village; but by that time the light was going, and Brigadier Harvey did not consider that the attack was feasible, particularly as it was more than probable that the place was still strongly held. As darkness fell most of 4 Light Armoured Brigade and Divisional Cavalry laagered to the west of Nofilia, while still watching the place closely; but the KDGs had patrols as far west as Wadi el Ahmar, 30 miles from Nofilia, and found the road there well guarded. Sixth Infantry Brigade Group was some six miles south-west of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, and units of 5 Brigade Group were from 1600 to 3500 yards from the road some ten to twelve miles north-west of Nofilia.page 68
During the evening there were reports of movement out of Nofilia, and also the sound of transport in the village; but in view of what we know today, the belief that there was ‘considerable transport’ there, together with tanks, was incorrect. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was finally given the specific task of hampering any attempt of the garrison in Nofilia to break out through the Division, i.e., across the desert instead of along the road. This task meant in effect that 4 Light Armoured Brigade was to fill the gap between 5 and 6 Brigades. The chance of the enemy trying to escape in this way was not great owing to his petrol shortage, a deficiency that was only vaguely known to 2 NZ Division.
Fifth Brigade took full precautions against an attempt to break out from Nofilia through the brigade, although it was obvious that the going immediately south of the road was bad. Battalions sited their anti-tank guns accordingly. From the forward posts could be heard the exasperating sound of transport moving along the road.
At 7 p.m. 21 Battalion, held up 3500 yards from the road, noted that it was opposed by tanks and 88–millimetre guns, but it is most unlikely that there were tanks in that area. At that time 21 Panzer Division, which had temporarily lost its tanks, located them not far from Point 121, halted and almost out of petrol. The 15th Panzer Division was to precede it in the retirement, but had only one idea, to get clear without delay. There was certainly no thought of placing tanks in a defensive position.
Communication between Headquarters 5 Brigade and 21 Battalion was not established until 8.30 p.m. because telephone lines were cut by vehicles crossing them and the unit wireless set had been put out of action by shellfire. The battalion was then ordered to try to reach the road so as to have it under small-arms fire in the morning. It advanced without artillery support, and shortly after midnight, when within 1000 yards of the road, was held up by machine-gun and mortar fire, some of the former again believed to come from tanks. The report of 21 Panzer Division mentions only 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment as being in this area; but about midnight some petrol arrived for the stranded tank group, and it soon moved back along the road. As it reports being fired on, it may have returned the fire. The battalion commander realised that he could not reach his objective, a ridge overlooking the road, and his present position being untenable, he withdrew. This attack was really rather venturesome and might have led to heavy casualties if the battalion had reached the road. It does not seem to have registered with the enemy, for there is no special mention of it. To him it apparently merely formed part of the attempts against the road, although it is likely that it helped in keeping him on the move.page 69
This was 5 Brigade's last attempt to get one of its battalions to the road; but an effort was made before dawn on 18 December to obstruct it with mines, and for this purpose two detachments were sent out by 7 Field Company, each of a sub-section (about ten men), one escorted by C Company from 23 Battalion and the other by D Company of 28 Battalion. The 23 Battalion company (Captain F. S. R. Thomson1) fought its way north to within 400 yards of the road despite enemy opposition, and brought the road under machine-gun fire. Under its protection the engineers succeeded in laying 160 mines on and alongside the road. It was then between 4 and 5 a.m. During all this activity the company knocked out various vehicles and returned safely with no casualties.
The 28 Battalion company (Major Logan2) advanced some seven miles north-east from the battalion area, and after evading various enemy vehicles, reached the road without interference at a point where a concrete bridge crossed the Wadi Umm el Ghindel. Owing to the rough going the mine-carrying vehicles did not arrive until 3.30 a.m., and the engineers had time to lay only forty mines, all at the Nofilia end of the bridge. D Company had no casualties, but two engineers were killed by the explosion of an enemy booby trap in the centre of the road. No enemy transport was seen during the time the company was there—the enemy had already gone.