Bardia to Enfidaville
The Division moves Forward
The Division moves Forward
Divisional Headquarters and Divisional Cavalry moved some ten miles south from Nofilia to new positions on 3 January, and shortly after midday next day the battalions of 6 Brigade marched past General Montgomery and continued on foot to their destination. The brigade then dispersed into desert formation, leaving gaps for 6 Field Regiment and 8 Field Company which were away, the artillery calibrating and the engineers engaged on their special tasks. It was a windy day with flying sand, and conditions were unpleasant, as indeed they also were for 5 Infantry Brigade Group working on the airfield, and doubtless for the enemy working on the Buerat line.page 89
Montgomery then visited the Greys. After lunch at Divisional Headquarters he addressed an assemblage of officers on the Battle of Alamein, the future of the North African campaign, and the situation on other fronts, before visiting 6 Brigade Group to do likewise. The GOC gave a dinner for him in the evening, about which it is recorded that Montgomery retired to bed quite early and the GOC a little later, but that the party then carried on.
The GOC held a planning conference on 5 January on a forthcoming training exercise, and on the two following days went on a reconnaissance of the forward area across Wadi Tamet, visiting Headquarters 30 Corps (which was west of Sirte), Headquarters 7 Armoured Division, and 5 Infantry Brigade.
Divisional orders appeared on 7 January, directing the first of a series of marches towards a bivouac area just east of Wadi Tamet. The Division was to carry out a training exercise en route. As 5 Infantry Brigade Group was still employed on the airfield, it could take no part, but the brigade commander and commanding officers and staff were to attend. To maintain some element of secrecy no fires were to be lit between 6 p.m. and 7 a.m., and except during the exercise, there was to be wireless silence. The object was to practise ‘forming a gun line’, or in other words establishing infantry units quickly in defensive positions within well-knit antitank gun defences, supported by artillery and prepared to resist an enemy tank attack.
In the administrative field, after replenishment on 14 January, units would have sufficient rations and water to last until midnight on 22–23 January, and petrol for at least 350 miles for all vehicles. Replenishment thereafter would occur as opportunity offered.
The Division moved westwards at 8.30 a.m. on 9 January in very cold weather. Divisional Cavalry sent back reports of an imaginary enemy, and at 9.40 a.m. Freyberg gave verbal orders for a gun line to be formed to meet an unexpected attack from the north. Three hours' hard work by 6 Brigade produced well-dug gunpits and slit trenches with effective camouflage, all of which met with the General's approval; but he would have liked the time to repeat the exercise. Later on he discussed the lessons with Brigadiers Kippenberger and Gentry and Colonel Queree, and arrived at an agreed drill for laying out a gun line. The only unsolved point was what to do with transport, for everyone was well aware that transport left ‘behind the line’ was not necessarily safe.
After a meal the Division continued to advance west in desert formation, until about 40 miles had been covered. It then bivouacked for the night.page 90
The Greys, less one squadron destined to join 5 Brigade Group, had come under command of 6 Brigade on 8 January, and elements of the regiment accompanied the brigade during the exercise; but all tracked vehicles—the tanks of the Greys, of Divisional Cavalry and of the Protective Troop, and all carriers—were between 8 and 11 January loaded on transporters at Nofilia and ferried by road to a staging area near Tamet airfield. Thus no tracked vehicles of any kind took part in the exercise.
The ‘tracked’ column had a narrow escape during the 11th, for just after the transporters had moved clear of the staging area twenty enemy aircraft attacked. Luckily there was no damage. The tanks and carriers remained there for the next few days and then rejoined the Division.
On 10 January the advance was over good going to a bivouac area on the eastern side of Wadi Tamet, a further 50–odd miles. Full anti-aircraft precautions were taken, including facing all vehicles to the north so that windscreens would not reflect the sun. Camouflage nets were freely used, slit trenches dug, and light anti-aircraft batteries deployed throughout the area.
At Headquarters 30 Corps the Army Commander addressed all formation and unit commanders. Subordinate officers were to be told the details of the plan forthwith. General Freyberg therefore visited both brigades on 11 January and spoke to unit officers. After his visit 5 Brigade Group moved off from its location near Tamet airfield and travelled the 20 miles south to join the Division.
In view of the mass of vehicles now accompanying the Division, Administrative Group was arranged in two parts. Part 1 comprised those units ‘wanted on the voyage’, for example the ASC companies and 5 Field Park Company. Part 2 was not wanted for the moment—Field Cash Office and YMCA Headquarters for instance—and these were to stay with an Administrative Post set up near Bir el Magedubia.
The next stage of the Division's advance took it across Wadi Tamet on 12 January in daylight, a march of about 25 miles. The crossing was carried out by ‘blocks’, each of the normal groups crossing at hourly intervals to avoid congestion, for the point had now been reached where enemy interference or at least discovery from the air was possible. The Desert Air Force had been asked to provide air cover during the crossing; two light anti-aircraft batteries were in positions on the escarpments, and units took full internal precautions. Complete wireless silence could not be observed, however, because a change of frequencies during the move necessitated some testing. It was another windy, dusty day, and some of the going, especially west of the wadi, was rough, page 91 but the stage was completed in the early afternoon without incident, although it was later realised that the Division was in fact eight miles short of its intended location. The reason for this ‘short haul’ is not known, but it was not of major importance.
The following stage was to be a night move, so 13 January was a day of rest. The weather continued cold and unpleasant; but rations, water and petrol were topped up during the morning, and in the afternoon information about the forthcoming operations was passed on to all the troops.