Bardia to Enfidaville
During the previous evening the tasks for 18 December had been received: 2 NZ Division was to maintain contact with the enemy, secure and clear the Nofilia airfield, and clear the main road eastwards until meeting 7 Armoured Division which was working westwards. The instructions also gave traffic priorities on the road forward of El Agheila for two days ahead, indicating that administration would restrict the forces in any immediate further page 71 advance. It is of interest that first priority was given to an RAF convoy to Marble Arch.
The GOC suggested that 2 NZ Division should advance direct from Nofilia across the desert, where the LRDG reported that the going was the best in North Africa. General Freyberg had in mind a flanking attack on Tamet airfield; but he would want a full regiment of heavy tanks with an additional squadron. The plan was accepted provisionally, and a regiment from 8 Armoured Brigade was nominated to come under command. Orders were prepared for movement that day (18 December) to Bir el Magedubia, and for a further advance on following days.
However, other plans were in view. At 1 p.m. the corps commander (Lieutenant-General Sir Oliver Leese) met the GOC by arrangement some three miles east of Nofilia, after sappers working in the area had prevented General Freyberg's party from running into a minefield nearby. As a result of this conference the move was cancelled and it now seemed likely that the Division would remain in the Nofilia area until after Christmas. The GOC was very pleased with words of praise that had come from both army and corps commanders. He had pointed out, doubtless taking a legitimate advantage of the receptive atmosphere, that if there were to be any more operations of a similar nature he must have more tanks—‘two full regiments’.
As a last measure 5 Infantry Brigade established blocks on the road and coastal track to prevent the withdrawal of any stray parties of Germans. By the next day fourteen prisoners had been taken in this way.
The Division now took steps to maintain contact with the enemy and to dispose remaining troops in depth. Fifth Infantry Brigade remained north-west of Nofilia; and on 19 December a special force was formed, of C Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, one troop from 5 Field Regiment, one troop from 34 Anti-Tank Battery and a detachment from 7 Field Company. This force, under the command of 5 Brigade, moved out to patrol a general line running south-eastwards for some 18 miles from Sultan, to watch for any enemy advance from the west, protect the engineer detachment while it cleared the road from Nofilia, and report on the condition of the airfields at Sultan. B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, took up a linking position some 25 miles farther back, and a link was also maintained with 4 Light Armoured Brigade round Sirte. This little force cleared the airfield at Sultan but saw nothing of the enemy. Sub-units were relieved from time to time, and the force remained out until after Christmas, when 2 NZ Division was relieved of operational duties.page 72
During the next two or three days the Division settled down into semi-permanent bivouacs alongside the road north of Nofilia, with 5 Brigade Group the farthest to the west. One armoured car regiment remained on constant patrol in the Sirte area; the engineers continued clearing the road both east and west, and the main airfield and other landing grounds near Nofilia. Junction was made with the engineers of 7 Armoured Division on 20 December at a point ten miles east of the crossroads. It will be noticed that frequently while much of the Division was, comparatively speaking, at rest, the engineers went steadily on with work that required courage and steady nerves, without the excitement of battle to exalt them.
For the time being there was no offensive action in sight, and some thought could be given both to the past and the future, coloured always by the approach of Christmas. On 19 December General Freyberg held a conference and discussed plans for the future, but there was also some soul-searching about the immediate past. Referring to the possibility of another outflanking move, he said: ‘…if we do it quickly enough and differently from the way we have carried out the last two, that is with greater punch, we may be able to bottle a certain number of his troops. We have missed two chances of bottling him as our technique was imperfect…. there was uncertainty as to our position…. A brigade commander must have a battalion of heavy tanks to push in so that the blow goes in hard and goes right home…. The four hours' delay due to lack of petrol in the first movement allowed the whole of the Panzer Armee to escape. The enemy could move faster along the road and he was able to put a gun line and infantry positions and tanks on the escarpment to hold off our attack to command the road.’
Mistakes in navigation and shortage of tanks were not to trouble the Division in the future, so something had been gained from the experience of El Agheila and Nofilia. It was something of an error to blame the late refuelling on 14 December for lack of progress on the evening of the 15th, which was due more to the delay in refuelling the Greys in the morning of that day.
The enemy nevertheless had handled his troops skilfully and had effected his withdrawal without serious loss, but he was forced to retire and was definitely on the defensive. The New Zealand Division had played its part, but there was a natural measure of disappointment at the enemy's escape. Later reflection, however, assesses the Division's part quite highly, for the fighting at Nofilia, in the eyes of the post-war Battle Nomenclature Committee, merited classification as a ‘separate engagement’, and was held to be the page 73 sharpest action of the whole El Agheila operation. The Division's casualties were 7 killed and 35 wounded, nearly all of them in 5 Brigade.
The casualty list for the fighting on 16, 17 and 18 December was mercifully a small one. The Division had 18 killed, 64 wounded and eight taken prisoner. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade had 13 killed, 17 wounded and two missing. Enemy material captured was not great, although any captures were good for morale. It amounted to about 15 vehicles, 14 guns, mostly 50-millimetre, and 33 machine guns. Four tanks were knocked out by anti-tank guns. This does not include the tank losses of the enemy in the action west of Nofilia on 17 December, where the losses on both sides were about the same, four or five.