Bardia to Enfidaville
From the Enemy's Side
From the Enemy's Side
The many arguments over the withdrawal from the El Agheila positions to Buerat were now to be repeated with even greater force, but in the end Rommel was able very largely to get his own way. The last Italian overseas possession was now slipping from page 78 Mussolini's grasp. It is small wonder that he was desperately trying to stave off what was now rapidly becoming the inevitable. Moreover, there were still bitter thoughts about the way in which the Italians had been sacrificed when Rommel withdrew from Alamein, and a grim determination—if the adjective ‘grim’ is applicable in such a state of indecision—that there should be no repetition. These two factors were in conflict, for if there was to be a desperate resistance to hold the remnant of the Italian empire, it was surely not fitting that the Italians should be sent away first.
Rommel had never regarded the Buerat line as more than a temporary one, and much preferred the Homs-Tarhuna line, although in his opinion any position on the way back to the Gabes Gap could be only temporary. During the fighting at El Agheila and Nofilia, however, all troops except the motorised units of Africa Corps and several other small German units were at work improving the Buerat line, which Mussolini (Comando Supremo) had instructed Rommel to hold at all costs. Rommel's immediate superior, Marshal Bastico (Superlibia), was in sympathy with his views, but to put it bluntly was frightened of the Duce. On 17 December they sent a combined appreciation to Rome and sought permission at least to thin out on the Buerat line. The answer to this was ‘Resist to the uttermost I repeat resist to the uttermost with all troops of the German-Italian Army in the Buerat position’.
This was completely unrealistic, and Rommel asked what he should do if Eighth Army merely outflanked him to the south and did not attack frontally. Moreover, he expected continued pressure from Eighth Army and an attack about 20 December and was surprised at the unexpected lull. Throughout he maintained that he could not guarantee to hold the enemy off, and that his forces had to retire into Tunisia and the Gabes line.
A series of conferences followed between Rommel, Kesselring and Bastico, with the outcome that permission was given to commence withdrawing the non-motorised troops, mainly Italians, to the Homs-Tarhuna line. Bastico said, doubtless with emphasis, that on no account were the Italians ever to be left behind, to which Rommel replied that he could either save them by withdrawing them forthwith, or lose them by remaining, and asked which should he do. He also wanted to withdraw the garrison of Bu Ngem, 60 miles south of Buerat, but for the moment this was refused. On 24 December one of many messages he sent to Superlibia pointed out that daily requirements of petrol during static periods were 200 cubic metres, and during active operations 400, but during December he had received only 100. Ammunition stocks were between one-third and one-half of requirements. Rommel's page 79 messages at this time must have been a source of constant trepidation to his superiors. Tripoli, however, was now very little use to the Axis, owing partly to bombing and partly to the rate of sinkings of vessels destined for that port. A high proportion of Rommel's supplies were coming from Tunisian ports, and thence by a combination of an indifferent railway and a long road haul.
Finally Rommel obtained a slight relaxation of his rigid orders, and on 29 December withdrew the Bu Ngem garrison to El Faschia, 45 miles north-west. Then on 31 December came a change of plan. The Fuehrer and the Duce agreed that the main front would be in Tunisia, that the Libyan front would be subsidiary, and that Rommel's plan for gradual retirement was accepted; but although he wanted to go back to the Gabes Gap, his superiors were firm that he should hold the Mareth Line. Further, fixed periods of delay were to be imposed on the enemy, three weeks before reaching the Homs–Tarhuna line, and another three weeks before giving up Tripoli. Rommel responded that he must commence moving the Italians back from Buerat at once, as with the transport available it would take ten days, and secondly, he could give no guarantee of holding the enemy for any fixed period, as that depended on the weight of attack. The withdrawal of the Italian XX and XXI Corps began on 3 January; and at the same time 164 Light Division, hitherto not fully motorised, was made so with vehicles gleaned from other German formations.
Thereafter Rommel was told—the words sound like a plea—that he was to do the best he could to delay the enemy in front of Tripoli; but that he must impose two months' delay before reaching the Mareth Line. Rommel reiterated that his speed of withdrawal was in the last resort dependent on the weight of British pressure. It was in fact over two months before Eighth Army attacked at Mareth; but it may be argued that the delay was due more to Montgomery's careful preparations than to Rommel's delaying tactics.
Bastico then had the unusual experience that Rommel, having agreed with one of his requests, went even beyond what was asked of him. Sfax, a small port in southern Tunisia, was held to be in danger of attack from United States forces in the west, and on 11 January Bastico asked that 164 Light Division be sent to strengthen the garrison there. Rommel had a high opinion of the potentialities of the Gabes Gap position, and moreover was dependent on supplies coming through Sfax and was therefore willing to further tighten his belt now in the hope that he could loosen it later. For various reasons he preferred to send 21 Panzer Division, with 580 Reconnaissance Unit, rather than 164 Light page 80 Division, which was reorganising. Thus, on 13 January, 21 Panzer left for Sfax. On the same day Rommel detached a small staff, headed by his army artillery commander, to inspect the Mareth defences and start work on improvements.
Actually 21 Panzer Division had travelled no farther than Tarhuna when it was ordered to leave all tanks and tank crews behind to be absorbed into 15 Panzer Division and to re-equip in Tunisia. There was not enough petrol, however, at that time to take the tanks forward again to 15 Panzer Division, some 40 miles south-west of Buerat.