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Bardia to Enfidaville

18 and 19 January—Bottleneck at Beni Ulid

18 and 19 January—Bottleneck at Beni Ulid

On 18 January the Eighth Army plan was to continue the advance all along the front. On the right flank 51 Division passed Misurata and Garibaldi and approached Zliten, while 22 Armoured Brigade reached a point 12 miles south of Zliten. The enemy's withdrawal speeded up, but artificial obstructions nullified any advantage gained from this. The Desert Air Force maintained pressure and on the previous night struck hard at Castel Benito airfield, ten miles south of Tripoli, causing widespread damage and leaving some thirty fires.

page 103

Instructions from 30 Corps to the inland column for the 18th were to continue to press the enemy back, with precedence to 7 Armoured Division in case of any conflict over the going. Among the tasks given 2 NZ Division was the clearing and marking of the track from Sedada to Beni Ulid and the road from Beni Ulid to Tarhuna.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade drove the enemy rearguard out of Beni Ulid in the morning and continued towards Tarhuna. The New Zealand Division, following up, found many tanks, guns and vehicles abandoned but saw nothing of the enemy apart from one slight brush with a reconnaissance unit.

The axis of advance was now westwards from Bir Gebira to Beni Ulid and along the road to Tarhuna; but the going proved very bad, and by evening the leading troops were still east of Beni Ulid. Small changes in the axis proved useless as the country was more difficult than any yet encountered, especially for wheels. It seemed that further movement would have to be by road.

The rather tedious existence of the Administrative Group at the rear of the column changed this day by misadventure. After crossing Wadi Nfed at Sedada it took a wrong turning and followed 7 Armoured Division's axis along the north side of Wadi el Merdum, then across the Bir Dufan road and for some miles to the north. The Flash Spotting Troop ended up about ten miles north-east of Beni Ulid. In addition the vehicles of several NZASC units tangled with 7 Armoured Division columns, which was very easy to do in a mass of vehicles and clouds of dust and a network of parallel wadis. It was all duly sorted out next morning.

The 7th Armoured Division had a reasonably good day, as the going progressively improved, although it was still difficult. The division met little opposition and by 8 p.m. was over 30 miles beyond Beni Ulid, east of the Beni UlidTarhuna road.

The New Zealand Division advanced only 20 miles on 18 January. It was then instructed to pass through Beni Ulid and advance by road towards Tarhuna. It was hoped that once clear of Beni Ulid it would be able to widen its frontage, for movement through the village was limited to a single column. General Freyberg decided to push 6 Infantry Brigade Group through on 19 January, augmented by a squadron of Divisional Cavalry and a few tanks, to concentrate all engineer activities under the CRE, and to halt the rest of the Division for a day's rest and maintenance.

Writing after the war Montgomery says that on 18 January he was not happy about the advance, which ‘was becoming sticky, and I was experiencing the first real anxiety I had suffered since assuming command of the Eighth Army…. I was determined, page 104 therefore, to accelerate the pace of operations, and to give battle by night as well as by day…. I ordered attacks on both axes to be put in by moonlight. I issued very strong instructions regarding the quickening of our efforts…. On 19 January progress greatly improved…’.1

Eighth Army Intelligence had noted the switch of the German Air Force Brigade from the coastal area to Tarhuna, and Montgomery planned accordingly to strike hard on the right flank.