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Bardia to Enfidaville

20 January—into the Gebel

page 107

20 January—into the Gebel

During the night of 19–20 January and next day the Desert Air Force continued its bombing and had good targets even at night, for it was the period of full moon. Tripoli was under a pall of smoke, but some of this and some of the fires seen undoubtedly came from the enemy's demolitions.

The Highland Division continued its advance and reached Corradini, but was held up there by rearguards. The 22nd Armoured Brigade closed up to Homs. The Army Commander was himself well forward directing this coastal thrust and, in the words of his Chief of Staff, was ‘cracking the whip’.1

Bad visibility caused by ground mist stopped 7 Armoured Division from closing Tarhuna until 10.30 a.m., when it was found that the enemy had gone. The advance then continued along the road towards Castel Benito, but the division was soon held up by rearguards in a defile about ten miles to the west. The going was almost impossible off the road, for they were now on the northern slopes of the Gebel.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, making good progress northwestwards from Beni Ulid, at nightfall was about 13 miles southwest of Tazzoli and 20 miles east of Garian, and was searching for a way down the escarpment and out on to the Tripoli plain. The brigade was attacked by twelve Stukas three times during the day, visible evidence again of the enemy's touchiness about his right flank, but casualties were light.

General Freyberg held his usual conference in the morning and decided to go forward and gain touch with 7 Armoured Division, for it was expected that 2 NZ Division would have to join in an attack on Tarhuna. The advance continued, therefore, until Divisional Cavalry, in the lead, reached a point about 17 miles south of Tarhuna, where it was learnt from 7 Armoured Division that the town was clear.

The GOC decided at once to swing to the left, although reports from 4 Light Armoured Brigade showed that the going was ‘bad’. Divisional Cavalry, directed on Tazzoli, where the first Italian civilians were seen, reported it clear by 2 p.m. But a route to the village from the Tarhuna road, suitable for all types of traffic, was not discovered until after dark.

Meanwhile the remainder of the Division moved forward along the road from Beni Ulid and then essayed the bad going towards Tazzoli. By last light 5 Brigade Group, in the lead, was about five miles south-east of that village, where it remained for the page 108 night. It took the usual precautions against surprise, as some scattered shelling had been seen on the hills to the north, probably the enemy rearguard opposing 7 Armoured Division. The Division stretched back along the axis to where 6 Infantry Brigade Group was located about 20 miles south of Tarhuna.

It was urgent now to find a good route down the Gebel to the plain. The GOC, already impatient about this, decided to send the CRE off in the dark with the task of finding a route, although he had been urged by his staff to wait until dawn. Colonel Hanson already had selected a provisional route from the map, but his task was not easy, for it was supremely difficult country, with precipitous slopes finishing with a drop of anything up to 1000 feet in a few miles. He found a route, however, and ordered 8 Field Company to be on the spot at first light to open a track through a defile.

That evening (20 January) Brigadier Kippenberger gave final orders for 5 Brigade Group to move to Tripoli and for the occupation of the town. In the outcome these orders had to be considerably modified.

1 De Guingand, Operation Victory, p. 229.