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On 26 December 7 Armoured Division relieved 5 Infantry Brigade Group of the responsibility of covering the road, and next day the brigade concentrated nearer the beach with Divisional Cavalry again, as normally, under Divisional Headquarters' command. The only unit in the group to carry on its task was 7 Field Company.
This static period at Nofilia was a busy one for the engineers, whose tasks included clearing landing grounds, clearing and improving roads and tracks, and repairing water installations, work which required both skill and cold-blooded courage. The landing-ground task, which was the most urgent, meant lifting mines and clearing booby traps for days at a time. In fact, after five days' work on one field, not all of the mines had been lifted. At another field it was estimated that it would take a week to clear the ground and two weeks to clear surrounding areas. All mine-lifting had to be done by hand with the help of mine-detectors; flail tanks (‘Scorpions’) were tried, but were considered slow and inefficient by the New Zealand Engineers for this type of work.
Mine-lifting was also done on roads and tracks, and on the main coast road west of Nofilia. No track was free of mines, and even the local water supply could not be used until an access track had been cleared. The road itself had not only to be cleared but at various points dispersal areas off it had to be made safe. As well as anti-tank and anti-personnel mines there were booby traps, demolitions and obstacles, in the use of all of which the enemy was expert. It is small wonder that during this ‘rest’ period the engineers lost 13 killed and 25 injured.
For the first few days in the area there was difficulty in obtaining satisfactory supplies of water. Wells in Nofilia village had been both mined and blocked with debris and the water was dirty and page 83 contaminated by dieselene. It took some days to clear them, with assistance from a British well-boring section which later found a good fresh supply in the area.
Rommel's appreciation of how much he owed to his engineers during this campaign is shown in his recommendation on 28 February 1943 that his Chief Engineer (Major-General Buelowius) should be promoted to lieutenant-general. He praises the provision of obstacles on a large scale and the great attention to detail, demolitions in specially reconnoitred locations, laying of mines in extra large quantities in deep thick minefields, often over large sectors away from roads, destruction of landing grounds and ‘adaptation of engineer methods to North African conditions’; and finally he says, ‘It is due in very large measure to the engineers under the Chief Army Engineer that the withdrawals were carried out without heavy losses, and that the Army was able to disengage from the enemy in every case according to plan.’ Our engineers probably would have said that Buelowius well deserved his promotion, which incidentally he did receive.
An indication of the close-knit co-operation which had now developed between Eighth Army and the Desert Air Force was the further clarifying on 26 December of the area of responsibility of the Division, which now included from the Nofilia landing ground westwards to the Sultan landing ground. Within this area was a landing strip at Sidi Azzab, 35 miles due west of Nofilia, which a working party from 6 Infantry Brigade numbering 11 officers and 300 men made fit for operational use in about a week. The rest of the Division carried on with training. Some few reinforcements, recovered wounded and sick, came forward from Maadi.
Immediately on arrival at Nofilia the NZASC was engaged on the task of building up supplies for the next move. The Division had finished the El Agheila–Nofilia operations with petrol for only fifty miles—and with experience enough to lay down that in future five miles to the gallon for each vehicle was to be taken as the basis of issues. By the end of December units held petrol for 350 miles, and thereafter drew only enough to replace daily consumption. During this period the NZASC made petrol dumps on the east side of Wadi Tamet, 100 miles west of Nofilia, for the use of both 2 NZ and 7 Armoured Divisions, and also dumped rations and ammunition at various points to accord with the 30 Corps administrative plan. Included in one petrol dump was a special supply of high octane petrol for the Greys, which was to be under the Division's command. It was steady and unceasing work, but gradually the stocks accumulated to the required quantities.page 84
In the days following Christmas the GOC remarked more than once that the enemy would pull out of Tripoli without a fight, and indeed went so far as to say that it would be evacuated in three or four days, an example of a delightful vein of optimism that sometimes coloured his conversation; but one of his customary reports to the New Zealand Government on 30 December was less optimistic and gave what in the end was a correct forecast—that the enemy would not fight seriously to hold Tripolitania, that Eighth Army would be in Tripoli by January, and that Africa would be cleared of Axis forces in the next few months.1
1 Documents, Vol. II, pp. 159–60.