Bardia to Enfidaville
AT 6 p.m. on 19 March NZ Corps began its advance in desert formation on a nine-vehicle front, the speed prescribed being 8 m.i.h.1 with vehicles at 50 yards' dispersion. Bright moonlight helped to overcome the difficulties of crossing the numerous wadis and sand dunes. The Corps completed its move to the next staging area, a journey of about 30 miles, not long after midnight. Vehicles were at once topped up with petrol, and Petrol Company vehicles then returned to the Field Maintenance Centre at Bir Amir. A troop from 26 Field Battery was detached to join King's Dragoon Guards, the advanced guard for the next day. All other troops bedded down until daylight on 20 March.
BENGHAZI MINUS (the enemy was aware of the move), which had been received during the march, decided the GOC to move off immediately after breakfast and not wait until night. Wireless silence was broken shortly after 2.30 a.m. on 20 March when ‘TRIPOLI 0730’ was sent to Army Headquarters, and it was arranged that full wireless communications could open at 7 a.m. It is not clear on what grounds Montgomery sent BENGHAZI MINUS, and in fact there is a suspicion that it was just one way of asking the Corps to speed up its rate of advance.2
At 6 a.m. 42 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery moved off to cover the crossing of Wadi el Aredj, and at the same time Divisional Cavalry (Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant) crossed the wadi and moved to the right flank as a protective screen. KDG (Lieutenant-Colonel M. J. Lindsay) was now well in advance of the Corps, and by 12.20 p.m. had crossed the road from Bir Soltane to Ksar el Hallouf, having been lightly opposed by elements of 3 Reconnaissance Unit. The French Group pushed ahead on the right flank towards Point 298 (ten miles north of this road) with orders to keep up its advance, and in particular to watch the debouchment of the tracks from page 177 Matmata and Tamezred. It was opposed during the day by 220 Reconnaissance Unit of 164 Light Division. The French Group, KDG and Divisional Cavalry together thus formed a long right-flank guard.
Shortly after midday the tail of the Corps crossed both Wadi el Aredj and Wadi bel Krecheb, despite some difficulties of going. The advance continued steadily, but at 4 p.m. the gun group was bombed by aircraft of the United States Army Corps. There were some casualties and one truck was destroyed. It seemed that the pilots became conscious of their mistake, as the rear flight veered off without pressing home the attack. Later an apology was received for this attack.
By last light NZ Corps was within sight of the entrance to Tebaga Gap, and forward elements were within range of the enemy positions. Indeed, work was started to survey guns in on the permanent grid, but this had to be stopped after dark. Enemy troops were seen withdrawing from the west into the Gap.
Air reconnaissance had reported great activity in the Gap, including digging on a line parallel to PLUM and seven miles north-east. But at last light there was still no sign of any transfer of troops from the Mareth Line itself; indeed there was some movement of troop-carrying vehicles from Matmata south-east to Ksar el Hallouf, which might indicate a strengthening of the line, although it was also possible that this might mean an attack against the line of communication of NZ Corps.
Enemy reports of activities during this day—20 March—show that 3 Reconnaissance Unit was pushed away to the north-west by KDG, and in order to avoid being cut off withdrew to the southern slopes of Djebel Tebaga. Messe reports that at 5.40 p.m. the Saharan Group was ordered ‘to withdraw’, but it appears that the withdrawal was merely from in front of PLUM into the actual defences, which is confirmed by the movement seen by NZ Corps at last light. Bayerlein states that in the evening of 20 March 164 Light Division was ordered to move back to the Matmata–Tamezred area. Pistoia Division then extended to its right, taking over the line previously held by 164. The Germans were still nervous about an advance by Eighth Army from Tamezred eastwards.
1 Miles in the hour, a rate allowing for halts.
2 Montgomery made another interesting decision on this day. Planning for the invasion of Sicily was proceeding concurrently with the final operations in Africa, and on 20 March Montgomery demanded a major change in plan, on the grounds that the forces allotted to him were too weak for his task. His demand was met and the plan was recast.