18. Agheila Line and Nofilia
18. Agheila Line and Nofilia
We remained halted for nearly a month. Rommel had stopped his retreat on the short and strong line between the Agheila marshes and the sea, at the bottom of the Gulf of Sirte. Twice before, the Axis army had stood at bay there and later emerged to reconquer Cyrenaica and Libya, on the second occasion to carry the war into Egypt and almost to Alexandria. There were pessimists who thought this might happen again. Most of us had no such fears, but our opinion of General Montgomery went up higher still when we saw that there was going to be no rushing of matters, but a thorough administrative build-up before the advance was resumed.
The Australians and South Africans had not taken part in the pursuit. The Australians were about to go home to meet the Japanese menace. The South Africans, whose battalions had been extremely weak in numbers at Alamein, were about to convert themselves into an armoured division. 50, 51, and New Zealand Divisions and the British armour halted in various parts of Cyrenaica and Libya, with light forces watching the Agheila line. The work of opening the ports and the railway and bringing forward supplies went on swiftly, but the tasks were very big and we were already a long way from Egypt and were about to go much farther.
Almost at once I had a very painful choice to make. I was ordered to detail one of my four battalions to return to Maadi and become the motorized battalion for 4 Brigade. It was more than hard to part with any of them and there was no real basis for choice. But the Twenty-second had not been lucky under me: John Russell had been killed and page 247 there had been its unmerited disaster at Ruweisat. The battalion was farthest back, moreover, for it had been halted at Sollum and was busy unloading supplies from tank-landing craft; and so there would not be the pain of seeing it go out from the midst of the Brigade. Small factors, but being a little superstitious, as most soldiers become, I accepted them as decisive and very reluctantly selected the Twenty-second. It was a bad day for me when they went.
Dugleby, who had been Staff Captain since Syria, left to go to the Staff College course at Haifa. When returning to the Division, four months later, he stepped on a mine near Medenine in Tunisia and was killed. I had the choice of Denis Blundell and another officer to take his place. Against the advice of the G.1, who said that Denis had not worked at all hard at Haifa, I chose him. I had known him as a platoon commander in the Nineteenth in the very first fighting in Greece and as Adjutant of the Nineteenth in Crete and in Libya. So I told Ray Queree that Denis would work for me and was quite right.
Practically his first action was to send out parties to scour the country for mess comforts. One party returned with a nice little marquee and Denis then went on to establish a poker school. We played regularly until the end of the campaign in Africa, nominally for fairly high stakes but dividing by ten on settlement, and it was hard to lose more than £5 in a night. We made it a practice to square up before a battle.
Football and training went on busily and we had a very successful brigade sports. One item was a competition in stripping and reassembling a Bren gun, won by a Maori in the amazing time of sixty-six seconds. The average was about two minutes.
Brigadiers were issued with caravans during this period and from then on I campaigned in considerable comfort. I had no objections to sleeping on the ground, but enjoyed getting into pyjamas most nights and sleeping in a bed. I am entirely in favour of waging war in as much comfort as possible. Apart from that it was a very good thing to have a lighted room in which to work and be alone.page 248
The question of whether the Division should return to New Zealand became a live issue once Egypt was saved. General Freyberg got opinions from Brigadiers separately. I do not know what the others thought but my own view was unhesitatingly that we should stay at least until Africa was clear. It was only a small Eighth Army that took Tripoli and, at the least, it would have been difficult without us.
The units all trained and exercised hard, Charlie Bennett in particular walking into the Maoris. There were still no reinforcements from New Zealand but a number of wounded and sick came back. All the battalions were now very fine, hardened, smooth-running machines. Every man had been frequently in action and all the officers and N.G.O.s were experienced in war and often tested under fire. But early in December there was a divisional conference and, on the morning after it, we set off on a 100-mile march to turn the Agheila line. The semi-finals of the football competition were postponed until our arrival in Tripoli.
The general plan was that 51 Division and the armour should make a frontal attack, while New Zealand Division, reinforced by a single regiment of heavy tanks, the Scots Greys, was to come up in one unbroken move, pass south of the marshes on which Rommel's right flank rested, and swing north behind him. A route had been reconnoitred by the Long Range Desert Patrols and British armoured cars, and we had air superiority. The operation was to be covered by what was then regarded in the desert as a fairly heavy bombing offensive—108 sorties per day, averaging 2,750 pounds bomb-load per sortie and 60 sorties per night, averaging 4,000 pounds bomb-load each. It was thought that Rommel would retire; if he delayed too long, he would be bottled up and annihilated.
Before starting on the campaign, Joe and I checked up on our supplies. Some big consignments of parcels had arrived and our larder was full. We had seven bottles of whisky, three of them sent up by Tom Campbell as a parting gift, eight plum cakes, scores of tins of various foods and dainties, and fifty-eight two-ounce tins of tobacco. With the caravan as well, Joe considered that it was going to be a picnic.page 249
The first part of the move, across Cyrenaica, was made by brigade groups moving independently. We passed south of the old battlefields of Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, south of our old box at El Adem and past the old Free French position at Bir Hacheim. I made detour to look for the last time at Belhamed and the wadi where I had been a prisoner. We went on across the bulge of Cyrenaica, past the relics of many forgotten desert battles, and reassembled near Agedabia. At the old Italian post there was the first gallows I had ever seen. At one drift we saw a clump of trees and some green grass which the whole Division wrote home about.
After a halt for a day or so, we moved again for the final phase. It was known that Rommel had begun his retirement from the Agheila position. So far we had had good going, for many miles perfect, but now there was really difficult country to negotiate. Before long it was impossible to continue in our broad desert formation. We broke down into two or three columns and made good progress, though the column must often have been thirty miles or more in length. The main obstacle was a huge, steep-sided wadi which was crossed at Chrystal's Rift, so called after the King's Dragoon Guards officer who had found this possible crossing-place. This was crossed during the night of 13 December. Our bulldozers did magnificent work—in fact, the move would have been impossible without them. Their drivers always amused me. They wore a curious slouch-hatted rig of their own that could almost be called a uniform, regarded all army ranks with easy contempt, never dreamt of saying ‘Sir’ or taking the drooping cigarette out of their mouths even while having a casual chat with the army commander, affected a cynical and tired expression, and worked superbly.
Next day we crossed the Agheila-Marada track in a thirty-two-mile march. After a few hours' halt we carried on during the night of 14/15 December and covered a difficult twenty-four miles. The speed ordered was four miles in the hour, which proved too high. We observed complete wireless silence, no enemy air or ground reconnaissance appeared, and there was no opposition. Halting again only for breakfast, page 250 we continued at ten miles in the hour and with a hundred yards dispersion, directed at first on high ground south of the road, a few miles east of Marble Arch. The distance we were intended to go was forty-five miles.
The Divisional Cavalry, acting as a screen on the right, became engaged during the afternoon and gradually direction was altered farther to the west and the march lengthened. 6 Brigade, under Gentry, was leading, followed by Main Divisional Headquarters, the reserve group, 5 Brigade, and an immense supply column. The bad going had slackened our speed: at sunset we had covered about sixty miles and the column had stretched out tremendously. Gentry was six or seven miles from the road at Matratin and he carried on slowly. Divisional Headquarters and the reserve group stopped. I went forward to Division—nine miles from the head of 5 Brigade—and left Monty with orders to continue moving until I personally ordered a halt.
Someone at Division told me that Afrika Korps was ‘in the bag’: the rest had gone, but we had Afrika Korps, 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, and 90th Light, the élite of the German Army.
I waited as patiently as I could for the Brigade. About three hours after the halt a heavy rumble was audible to the south. It increased and came steadily nearer. I walked clear of the parked transport and in a few minutes more the Brigade loomed up, moving slowly in the nine columns, only a few yards apart and packed head to tail, all the hundreds of engines thundering in unison. When the head was a chain away I put my hand out like a traffic policeman. In an amazing way the column stopped almost as one truck, and in a few moments there was dead silence.
Monty and the orders group were at the front. I explained the position and said that we would move on until we struck the rear of 6 Brigade and then dig in facing east. It would have been a risky and difficult movement to execute on that dark night. We were about to move again when I saw the General and told him my intention. He considered for a few moments and then told me to get into position where we were. Feeling very disappointed I gave my orders: Brigade page 251 Headquarters to come up to where I was; the battalions, which had their supporting arms with them, to fan out varying distances on different bearings that would put them roughly on a 4,000-yards line, 800 yards to the east, and dig in; all positions to be adjusted to the ground at first light and everyone to expect a terrific fight in the morning. I then went to bed, grumbling violently.
I was up very early and shaved and in a much better humour when I met the General in the first light. He congratulated me on being shaved at that hour and went off to shave himself. Ross then drove me along my front. I found the Twenty-first on the left, slightly agitated. A Mark III tank had driven through their left company just before dawn, firing in all directions and wounding an officer. There had been no other incident and the battalions had got into quite good positions and were fairly well tied up. I drove round making what adjustments occurred to me, highly elated and telling everyone that we had the Afrika Korps in the bag and would have the fight of our lives.
There was a sad anti-climax. At first all seemed to be well, large groups of German transport appeared from the east. Escorting them were parties of tanks, carrying on a running fight with the Scots Greys just like a naval action. Several tanks and some of the transport had been hit and were stopped and burning, and there were other columns of smoke farther east. Our guns opened fire and we braced ourselves for the clash. Nothing more happened. Transport and tanks all veered off to the north, ran out of range among some low hills and poured unmolested through the six-mile gap between 6 Brigade and us. I sent some carriers out and they were just in time to shoot up and capture the last truck—the very last truck!
It was profoundly disappointing, but it was nobody's fault. If 5 and 6 Brigades had been linked up, Afrika Korps would simply have slipped round our southern flank instead of between us, and our supply columns would have suffered. We needed several hours of daylight to get into position and a full armoured brigade to grip and hold with.
6 Brigade had struck opposition near the road, put on a page 252 neat little night attack, and taken a number of prisoners and the rear headquarters of 90th Light; Bill Gentry and his orders group had run into trouble and had several casualties. The wounded officers were being taken back to Division in an ambulance when they were captured by Germans running through the gap.
We spent that day, 16 December, thinking things over. Early next morning we started off again. A strong enemy rearguard was reported at Nofilia and the idea was to cut it off by another ‘left hook’. The advance was led by the Divisional Cavalry, the Scots Greys, and 4 Field Regiment, with General Freyberg and his Tactical Headquarters very well forward. Both armoured regiments and the guns got their B. Echelon vehicles into the column behind them, which was a great nuisance to everyone else. There are very different points of view on such matters. Then followed Main Divisional Headquarters and the reserve group, also with a large number of non-fighting vehicles. 5 Brigade Group came next and 6 Brigade Group and the supply column brought up the rear. The going was fairly good and most of the way we were able to travel in desert formation on a broad front.
About 11 o'clock we could see that the advanced guard, eight or ten miles ahead, was being shelled, and the vehicles ahead of us stopped. We were moving up a narrowing valley, there was a lot of crowding and it took me a long time to get forward to the General. By then quite a brisk fight was in progress, the Scots Greys had attacked and the General was looking with satisfaction at a group of 200 German prisoners. He told me to swing round south of the village, keeping clear of the fight, and get across the road wherever I chose to the west.
I had a wireless set with me and called up the Brigade. Monty had just given permission for everyone to brew up for lunch but he cancelled it and moved promptly. The orders group arrived in about two hours, everyone grumbling about the congestion; the Brigade struggled forward and formed up on a clear patch of desert well south of Nofilia. I waited until it was nearly complete before moving. The whole business page 253 had taken hours longer than it should have. The maps and the going report showed good level desert for many miles but very broken country near the coastal road; so I picked on the map a point some ten miles from Nofilia where it appeared possible to get on to the road easily and directed the move on that.
As most of the advanced guard appeared to have become involved in the fighting still proceeding about Nofilia, I put out the carriers of the Twenty-first as a screen about a mile ahead. We moved in desert formation, 21 Battalion in nine columns with companies abreast on a front of about 1,200 yards in the lead, the Twenty-third on the right flank, the Maoris on the left, each in three columns. Brigade Headquarters, 5 Field Regiment, such machine- and anti-tank guns as had not been allotted to battalions, 7 Field Company, and 5 Field Ambulance travelled in the centre. It was much the same formation as 4 Brigade had used in 1941; we, too, had practised it freely and were very handy in it. My place, when contact with the enemy was likely, was in front of the centre with the orders group. I had been issued with a White scout car, a clumsy, thinly armoured, slow, and under-powered affair which I disliked intensely. It was equipped with wireless, however, so that I could keep in touch with Brigade Headquarters. Monty always remained in the A.C.V., here he was in touch with the units and with Division. On occasions such as this he used to travel with head and shoulders sticking out of a hole in the roof of the old battle wagon, looking like the cherub that sits up aloft. The roof was so high that this gave him a very good view and he never missed anything.
We proceeded in this way until about seven miles west of Nofilia, when I saw the General standing on a small knoll some distance to the north. I ran across alone and told him where we were heading. He said that the enemy were pulling out fast and told me to turn north and go direct for the road. With some difficulty I overtook the Brigade and we halted and turned to the right. This made the Twenty-third the leading battalion, with the Twenty-first on the left and the Maoris coming round on to the right flank. The carriers of page 254 the Twenty-third went ahead to form the screen and we moved off at a good speed. After travelling about three miles, the carriers came under shellfire. They went on and disappeared. I halted the Brigade and went forward, to see a most interesting sight.
We were on a perfectly level plain, on the top of an escarpment. From the edge the ground fell away in a series of small ridges and hollows to the road three miles away. Beyond the road there was low ground to the sea, blue and sparkling in the bright sun. A stream of German transport was travelling west on the road, well spaced out and moving very fast. The carriers were below me and half a mile ahead, obviously in bad going and under fire from about a dozen guns. I could see the flashes of some and what looked like an 88 being unlimbered near the road. Two carriers had stopped and their Brens were firing hard. Two thousand yards to the east, on the edge of the escarpment, there was a bald rounded knoll, and standing in full view on this a group of German officers, looking through their glasses at the Brigade. Long afterwards I met a German officer prisoner who told me he had been in this group.
I decided to attack at once with the object of getting astride the road and without waiting for reconnaissance or giving any time for preparation, which is against all the rules and is usually wrong. The orders group was waiting near by and I gave orders in a very few minutes: the Twenty-third were to advance and get astride the road, the Maoris to cover their right flank, the Twenty-first to cross the road and swing round to carry the line to the sea—all three battalions to go as far and fast as possible in their trucks and continue on foot when the fire got too hot or the going too heavy. Keith Glasgow had not waited for me and already had his O.P.s forward and his guns coming into action. I would have given a lot for a squadron of tanks.
The C.O.s raced back to their battalions. I waited with extreme patience for a timed ten minutes and then drove back and asked Reg if he was ready. He smiled in reply, stood up with head and shoulders out of the top of his car and gave the forward signal with his arm. As the line of page 255 trucks passed me I noticed Peter Norris standing in the front of his truck. He saluted and smiled and I thought how handsome and debonair he looked.
The Twenty-third disappeared over the edge of the escarpment. I followed them and stopped on the top to watch. The trucks were lurching and plunging forward, the men inside being thrown from side to side and shells raining down among them. In the heavy sand only a direct hit would do any damage. Out to right and left I could see the other battalions pouring down the slope and a ripple of flashes page 256 showed where our guns were opening fire. It must have been an alarming sight to the German gunners but they stood to their guns and fired over open sights into the brown. Next day I counted 120 empty shell-cases round one abandoned 88. I did not know whether to hope that the heavy ground continued to the road so that the shell-fire would be ineffective, or that we would soon strike hard ground which would make some speed possible.
After a few minutes, when I could see Brigade Headquarters approaching with Monty's head sticking out of the top of the A.C.V., I followed the Twenty-third. We went down a very steep bank and with maddening slowness up a long sandy slope. Near the top I looked back and saw the A.C.V. charging down the bank and wondered why it did not capsize. Ahead the Twenty-third was forging on, three or four shells at a time bursting among them and one truck burning from a direct hit. On the road German transport was still streaming west, travelling at top speed and running through the spouting geysers of our shells apparently unhurt. We crawled on, Twigden and I, sweating and swearing. I wanted to overtake the Twenty-third and tell Reg to debus and assault on foot, but it was hopeless. However slowly they went, the White was slower still. I got out and walked on, but after a hundred yards saw that the trucks ahead had stopped and the men were jumping out. Reg was clearly visible, standing erect out in front signalling the advance with his arm.
That was satisfactory. I watched the companies shake out into extended lines and settled down to a steady advance. The anti-tank guns continued to struggle forward. The road was still nearly two miles away but I thought the infantry would get there and drove slowly back a little way to where Brigade Headquarters had halted. The signallers were already taking the line forward to the Twenty-third and it was nearly dark.
The telephone got through to the Twenty-third and Dick Connolly spoke to me. He said that they had met heavy opposition, infantry and tanks, and were making no headway and, with grief in his voice, that Peter Norris had just been killed. I replied that the battalion was to press on and at least bring the road under small-arms fire. We could still see German transport streaming past, and fire as they might the gunners could not stop them, though they knocked out four field guns with direct hits.
The sun went down and in a few minutes it was dark. The ridge in front of the Twenty-third was alive with tracer, some of it plainly from tank guns. I ordered the Maoris to halt and take up a position facing east and covering the right of the Twenty-third, as there was a message that enemy tanks retreating from Nofilia were approaching south of the road. One of the L.O.s went over to Ralf Harding with an order for the Twenty-first to make a night attack on the left of the Twenty-third and reach the road. The Twenty-third reported that it was definitely held up. I told Reg to keep the pressure up, feeling sure that the enemy flank-guard must be very anxious to go and that there must be a gap or a weakness somewhere.
We could then only wait and hope that the Twenty-first had better luck. I found Charlie Bennett and told him to send a company wide to the east to reach and mine the road. This was an unfortunate order: the Germans had thickly mined the road and then gone, and Logan's company lost several men on mines. Firing continued briskly in front of the Twenty-third, and about 10 o'clock blazed up furiously in the direction of the Twenty-first. An hour later Ralf reported: he had struck a very strongly held infantry position, with tanks in among the infantry; it was too strong for him to assault; and, after being pinned down for a while, the battalion had been lucky to withdraw with only a few page 258 casualties. I gave up hope of reaching the road and went to bed. Long before daylight the enemy withdrew to their waiting trucks and got away, leaving a few dead but no prisoners or wounded. In the following days we looked over the long ridge where we had been held up. We found lately occupied positions that showed that we had been opposed by not less than a battalion which had had several hours to dig in; and there were numerous tank tracks. There were about a dozen used gun-pits, four 75 mm., one 88 mm., and one 50 mm. had been abandoned, and one small car only had been stopped by our shelling.
Our own casualties were extremely light in the circumstances, about forty. Peter Norris was sadly missed. McElroy, back from his head wound at Alamein, had got another severe head wound. A sergeant in the Twenty-third who had just rejoined us after an adventurous escape from Crete, where he had been wandering in the hills since the evacuation, was killed. But though the heavy sand, treacherous because covered with the desert grass which made it look firm, had taken all the sting out of our attack it had also saved us from heavy loss. There was an extraordinary amount of firing in this little action and a great deal of it must have been very wild. We were all very disappointed; but it was ill luck that we ran against the only flank-guard of which we found any trace.
Next day we were told that we would stay where we were until after New Year, so we selected good areas in the vicinity and made ourselves comfortable. The Twenty-third stayed where it had fought, the Maoris went back on to the escarpment and the Twenty-first crossed the road so as to be near the sea. We got hold of some German prisoners who worked zealously and soon had Brigade Headquarters very well dug in. The marquee was erected and there was a severe outbreak of poker. Everyone paid social calls throughout the Division and for once training was relaxed.
There was no holiday for the sappers. All the way from Agheila to Sirte the road had been mined and booby-trapped and they lost many men in clearing it. We had one nasty incident. A truck cut a corner when turning off the road to page 259 go into the Twenty-first, struck a mine, and the driver was badly hurt. Two sergeants, both fine old hands, ran to help, stepped on other mines, and were killed. A psychiatrist, sent out by the War Office to study the psychology of veterans, spent a few days with us. He told me he saw an immense difference between the Twenty-first from Auckland and the South Islanders of the Twenty-third. One of the questions he asked the men was what enemy weapon they most disliked. The mortar was easily the most unpopular; my own pet aversion was machine-gun fire.
We were now 1,200 miles from Cairo, but great efforts were made by the supply people and for Christmas Day we feasted on turkey and roast pork, fresh vegetables, plum puddings, sweets, and two bottles of beer per man. It was a happy day, good wishes and good fellowship everywhere, much visiting, but a good deal of homesickness. The General called on brigades and many units, and some of us lunched with him. I attended church with the Twenty-third, a few yards from the graves of Peter Norris and the other lads killed a week before.
In the afternoon I came across three American war correspondents and their British conducting officer spending a lonely day in the Beau Geste fort at Nofilia. I asked them for dinner and they arrived bringing an astonishing amount of liquor. We had a very merry evening and heard some remarkable stories.
After recovering we did a certain amount of training and, of course, started football again. New Year 1943 was another day of feasting and celebration and I was touched when most of the officers in the Brigade came round to serenade me at midnight. Then we got back to war again.