CHAPTER 7 — El Agheila
LeavingMersa Matruh on 20 November, 6 Brigade moved west by long stages and came to Sidi Azeiz beyond the Libyan frontier on the night of the 22nd. Here, some ten miles south-west of Bardia, the Division was assembled and here it remained for the next twelve days. As on previous occasions the troops showed a remarkable aptitude for making themselves at home in fresh surroundings, though well aware that their stay could only be a short one. The idea of a brigade football tournament, conceived just before the departure from Mersa Matruh, was put into execution at Sidi Azeiz, and inter-unit matches were played. The 24th Battalion's A team beat 7 Anti-Tank Regiment by nine points to nil, and then received a tremendous drubbing at the hands of the Divisional Petrol Company.
It was at this time that Colonel Gwilliam contracted pneumonia and retired to hospital, his place being taken by Major Webb.1
On 4 December the Division again moved westwards. On the first day 6 Brigade passed close to the Sidi Rezegh blockhouse and halted for the night south of El Adem airfield. Of survivors able to recognise old landmarks few remained, but there was a profound satisfaction in moving thus rapidly, and with complete impunity, over ground so recently held by hostile armies. Continuing its westward course and averaging some eighty miles a day, 6 Brigade reached the vicinity of Msus on the 7th, turned south next day, and arrived on the 8th at El Haseiat, 20 miles south-east of Agedabia.
Pursued by our armour along the North African coastline, the enemy had been given no respite. Tobruk, Derna, Benghazi, and Agedabia had fallen in rapid succession during the month of November. By the beginning of December Rommel's army stood at bay before El Agheila, in the Gulf of Sirte, from page 141 which position our forces had twice previously had to retire. At first General Montgomery had hoped to bluff the enemy into further retreat by a threat to his flank, but when it became apparent that he intended to stand and fight there remained no choice but to displace him by force. The position of El Agheila was naturally strong by reason of its difficulty of approach. From Marsa Brega, lying on the coast 30 miles to the east, a salt marsh, impassable in wet weather, extended south as far as Bir es Suera. South of this again the Wadi Faregh, running east and west, was a formidable obstacle surrounded by country unsuitable for manoeuvre which bordered upon yet another extensive salt marsh. All approaches leading through this difficult terrain were known to be heavily mined. A frontal assault might prove unduly expensive; casualties had been heavy and reinforcements were in short supply; but a frontal assault combined with a threat to the only line of retreat along the coastal road to Tripoli might achieve results at a lesser price. In order to make this threat, a wide cast to the south over soft and treacherous going would have to be made by the outflanking formations.
The 51st Division and 7 Armoured Division had already begun to probe the enemy's defences when 30 Corps, in which 2 NZ Division was once again included, issued orders for Operation Guillotine, directing 51 Division to attack along the coastal road while 7 Armoured Division advanced south of the salt marsh abutting on Marsa Brega, via Bir es Suera. The task of turning the enemy's flank and cutting off his retreat fell to the New Zealand Division, which would swing out wide to the south, cross the Agheila-Marada track, and then move north-west to block the enemy's escape line along the coastal road to Tripoli.
With 4 Light Armoured Brigade under command, 2 NZ Division left El Haseiat on 11 December and moved 40 miles due south. It was suspected that the enemy was beginning to withdraw, and plans for attack were hastened on lest he should succeed in escaping unharmed. Rain had hardened the desert's surface and laid its dust as the Division approached the toughest obstacle of its march on 13 December, with 4 Light Armoured Brigade in the lead followed by 6 Brigade. page 142 Chrystal's Rift was a sea of soft undulating sand several miles wide, to negotiate which the units diminished their front to a width of three columns. Having passed safely through it with no great delay, the Division turned due west for the first time, and halted in the desert with El Agheila lying 70 miles to the north-west. On this same day the enemy withdrew from Marsa Brega and Bir es Suera, while 51 and 7 Armoured Divisions closed in towards El Agheila.
Starting off in a thick fog which cleared later, 6 Brigade travelled on through the morning of 14 December, turning north-west and halting at midday a few miles on the hither side of the Agheila-Marada track, while 4 Light Armoured Brigade was astride the track itself. El Agheila now lay due north. The enemy's withdrawal appeared to be continuing, but for the moment his movements were somewhat obscure. To the right of the New Zealanders' present line of advance and west of the Marada track, a vast salt marsh, Sebcha el Chebira, extended to within a few miles of the coastline almost thirty miles west of El Agheila. The New Zealand Division was making for the high ground bordering the north-western page 143 tip of this marsh, from where it would be able to overlook the enemy's withdrawal along the coastal road. Sixth Brigade moved on again in the afternoon. Having covered a distance of 40 miles by 11 p.m., its vehicles were dispersed and the troops bedded down for the night. From their halting place the coast was little more than twenty miles off.
Just before dawn next morning the men of 24 Battalion, much to their surprise, saw numerous camp fires burning along the line of advance to their front. Since every effort was being made to conceal the outflanking march, this lighting of fires was scarcely a wise proceeding, apart from the fact that it was strictly forbidden. About this time General Freyberg himself arrived upon the scene and asked Lieutenant-Colonel Webb whether the fires were those of his men. Webb replied in the negative and the General hurried off in a mood that promised trouble for the offenders. The fires proved to be those of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, which led the column and was supposed to move at 8 a.m., but when that time arrived it was found that the Royal Scots Greys' tanks were out of petrol. Two valuable hours were wasted before they could be refuelled, during which time 6 Brigade perforce waited idly by. Eventually a start was made, and an armoured reconnaissance revealed that the high country west of the Sebcha el Chebira salt marsh which 6 Brigade proposed to occupy was held by the enemy. Since the object was to encircle rather than to fight Rommel's men on ground of their own choosing, the Division swung away a few points to the west, changing the line of its advance towards Bir el Merduma. The 51st Division now occupied El Agheila and 7 Armoured Division was in action at the anti-tank ditch west of the town.
Having eventually started off at 10.15 a.m., 6 Brigade pressed on throughout the day, passed to the left of Merduma late in the afternoon, crossed Wadi er Rigel and halted some miles beyond it about four o'clock. Orders now arrived from Division directing 6 Brigade to advance to the coastal road and attempt to cut off the enemy's retreat, while 5 Brigade remained in reserve. The Royals of 4 Light Armoured Brigade were already close to Bir el Haddadia overlooking the coastal road, along which they saw little movement though a number page 144 of enemy vehicles were descried, stationary but facing west.
Sixth Brigade inclined north-east to encounter going that grew progressively worse. As dusk fell six carriers of 24 Battalion, under Second-Lieutenant Lewis,2 were sent ahead to reconnoitre the coastal road. Meanwhile the main column went very slowly forward. Almost nose to tail in the pitch darkness, the trucks moved in low gear with engines roaring, sometimes diving suddenly into a dry watercourse and rearing page 145 up over the further bank, sometimes clinging precariously to steep hillsides or bucking violently over hummocks. Under such circumstances navigation was not easy, and a mistake was made which took the brigade towards the east off its right course. Eventually the error was discovered and the column swung left to regain its proper direction. Meanwhile Lewis's carriers had advanced north-west of Wadi Matratin to a point near the coastal road, along which the rumble of vehicles could be heard clearly. Having accomplished his purpose Lewis set off to return along the brigade axis of advance, but it was at this time that the column had deviated from its course. As a result Lewis passed it by in the darkness and continued on for five more miles before making quite certain that something was wrong. He then swung about and made haste to rejoin, but in the meantime a second carrier patrol had been sent out with instructions to report back by wireless at the end of every mile.
When the column halted to take stock of the position and get its bearings, it was in a somewhat disordered state. ‘Of my A Coy trucks’, writes Captain Aked, ‘I had only 4—2 troop carriers, ammo truck, and my Pick-up. Companies were mixed up with MG trucks, and even 25-Pounders of 6 Fd Regt were up with the leading elements of Bde Group.’ Brigadier Gentry now went forward with his unit commanders in three carriers to reconnoitre, but when they had advanced a few hundred yards they were fired on by an anti-tank gun which put one of the carriers out of action and compelled the party to return. Gentry then reported to the GOC that he was in contact with the enemy about one and a half miles from the coastal road. On being told to use his own discretion as to whether to attack, he decided to do so at once. The time was now nearly half past eleven.
If the orders for attack were somewhat vague, the enemy's position and strength were also both obscure. Moreover, there was little time for preparation. On the brigade's left, 24 Battalion was to attack the position from which Gentry's patrol had been fired upon, with 25 Battalion on the right and the 26th in reserve. With C and B Companies on the right and left respectively and A following in reserve, the Aucklanders page 146 began their advance three-quarters of an hour after midnight. Men who took part in that strange invisible battle still recall the smell of night-scented stocks that grew in profusion along the sides of Wadi Matratin, but their minds were soon diverted to other things when, almost at the beginning of the advance, enemy mortars opened fire, most of the shells dropping between A Company and Battalion Headquarters following on in rear. In the darkness the leading companies lost contact. Advancing through the gap opening out between them, A Company bumped into the German strongpoint which had fired upon Gentry's patrol, wiping out the crews of several spandaus and also that of the 50-millimetre gun which had recently put one of our carriers out of action. The carrier itself was found only twelve paces from the gun's muzzle. A Company came up in line with B, but neither was in touch with C on the right. Arriving on the crest of a ridge some 1000 yards from the start line, the attacking waves came under machine-gun fire, while mortar shells fell close to Battalion Headquarters, wounding Colonel Webb in the face. As the assaulting troops advanced the enemy's fire grew wild, and before our men could come to grips with them the Germans made off in trucks, most of which were well shot up as they departed.
It was after 2 a.m. when 24 Battalion's companies had consolidated their position. B was now in touch with C, but C had no contact with 25 Battalion, which appeared to have diverged to the right. The rumble of motor transport moving along the coastal road could be heard clearly. Patrols were sent out to the north, and it soon became evident that the road was farther away than had previously been imagined. Colonel Webb went back to the RAP, expecting to return within an hour, but his wound proved more serious on examination and he was sent down the line. The ambulance which took him away was captured by the enemy and he was made prisoner. His place was taken by Major Conolly.
It seemed fairly certain that the best part of three German divisions—90 Light, 15 and 21 Panzer—were still east of 6 Brigade's position. Our armour was pressing on their rear and the New Zealand Division made ready to intercept their retreat. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade concentrated its page 147 heavy tanks west of Bir el Merduma. Fifth Brigade extended its forces some distance north to lessen the gap between it and 6 Brigade, which stood facing east, north-east, and south-east. Without doubt the trapped enemy would make desperate efforts to break out; by which route only daylight would disclose.
In the darkness Conolly had imagined that his battalion was in a position to overlook the road, but dawn revealed another ridge, higher than the one his men occupied, between them and the sea. Taking Captain Aked and Lieutenant Masefield3 with him, Conolly walked forward to the intervening ridge and saw enemy transport moving westward in three columns both on and off the highway. And not only this. To ensure against flank attack, enemy infantry followed by tanks were advancing to occupy the very ridge on which he and his officers were standing. He at once ordered Masefield to occupy and hold the forward ridge with his platoon, at the same time telling Aked to bring up his company.
Masefield lost no time in getting to work, but the enemy, having started first, beat him to the ridge crest by about twenty yards. In spite of this he coped successfully with the German infantry until four tanks and three 20-millimetre anti-tank guns arrived on the scene. Masefield behaved with great gallantry, calling on his men to stand fast and fire at the slits of the tanks, but he himself was badly wounded in the hand and his platoon forced to retire. An artillery Forward Observation Officer came up to Battalion Headquarters, but all observation over the road was lost for the time being. Though asked for, armoured support was not forthcoming. Enemy tanks and anti-tank guns now came into action on the forward ridge, but were driven off by the fire of our own anti-tank guns. About ten o'clock an attack under cover of smoke developed on C Company's front. Two platoons of A Company took position in support in case the enemy should break through, but the forward troops were well able to deal with the situation. This proved to be the enemy's last aggressive attempt. It was found soon afterwards that the forward ridge was no longer occupied, and when 24 Battalion moved page 148 up to take possession and looked down over the coastal road it was only to discover that the birds had flown. All movement to the west had ceased. The carriers went forward to investigate and found the Wadi Matratin bridge blown, but it was possible for motor transport to cross on either side of it.
Though a portion of the trapped divisions had escaped along the main road, another force had broken out through the gap between 5 and 6 Brigades. The enemy had probed westward, withdrawing whenever he encountered opposition, and then probing again in a fresh place, till at length he came upon a hole in the encircling line. But he had not gone unscathed. Since the start of the El Agheila operation twenty of his tanks had been destroyed or captured, and about 500 prisoners remained in Eighth Army's hands, of which 13 were taken by 24 Battalion from 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment.
At 5 p.m. 6 Brigade moved off towards Merduma and camped for the night. Its casualties had not been severe. The 24th Battalion, the unit most heavily engaged, had had two officers and twelve other ranks wounded. Next morning (17 December), for the first time since Operation Guillotine began, fires were allowed for cooking breakfast, and before dawn the darkness was lit up by countless flares. Moving on westwards, 4 Light Armoured Brigade led the pursuit, with 6 Brigade bringing up the rear. During the afternoon our armour attacked the enemy outside Nofilia, while 6 Brigade passed south of the town and took up a position in reserve to the south-west. Fifth Brigade went farther on and tried to cross the coastal road, but was checked after sharp fighting and forced to remain on its southern side. As darkness fell the armour lay close outside Nofilia itself, on the western side, to contain the enemy rearguard which, however, in spite of these precautions, broke away during the night.
Syrians watching a distribution of flour to their men by 24 Battalion from American Red Cross supplies
El Mreir Depression
A group in the Western Desert
Back row (from left to right): Maj R. G. Stringer, Maj J. Conolly, Capt R. J. H. Seal, Lt J. F. Coleman, two unnamed. Front row: 2 Lt I. S. Walters, Capt T. G. Santon, Maj E. R. Andrews, Capt E. W. Aked, Lt R. L. Pratt, and Lt G. V. Turnbull
Training with tanks near Wadi Natrun
A Crusader tank passing 24 Battalion positions at Alamein
For the present no more was required of 24 Battalion, which remained in its position west of Nofilia performing the usual feats of recuperation that necessarily form the aftermath of every battle.
|Prisoners of war (includes 1 officer wounded and p.w.)||1||2|
1 Promoted temporary lieutenant-colonel as from 22 Nov 1942.