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Documents Relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War 1939–45: Volume II

111 — General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

General Freyberg to the Prime Minister

7 December 1941

Further to my telegram of 3 December (No. 109) from the battlefield, I beg to report on the operations of the New Zealand Division in the Libyan campaign up to the present phase marked by the withdrawal from the Tobruk sector of the 4th and 6th Brigades for rest and refit. They have reached Baggush. The 5th Brigade remains under the command of the 4th Indian Division near Bardia.

I am still unable to give the casualty figures, but every effort is being made to ascertain the position and you will be advised the approximate figures, followed by a detailed return at the earliest possible moment.

The general plan of campaign has already been explained by Colonel Stewart.1 I can only add that it was made with the greatest care for the safety of the Division as well as the other troops involved. I was not, of course, aware of what was in the Army Commander's mind as to the conduct of the battle. In my opinion the degree of success would depend upon the relative air strengths and the result of the armoured battle. In the air the RAF established complete mastery similar to the Luftwaffe's in Greece. The methods now employed are really effective and with more practice will be a great factor in our ultimate success. Optimistic hopes of quick victory were doomed to disappointment because the armoured battle was not conclusive. The enemy's resources were probably greater than was estimated and his repair organisation was good. However, our tank resources are growing. With the experience gained I am confident that the German armoured forces in Libya will be neutralised.

1 Colonel K. L. Stewart returned to New Zealand in October to assume the appointment of Deputy Chief of the General Staff.

page 81

As a result of the first armoured encounters the German armoured columns retired to the north-west, permitting the rest of the plan to be put into operation. The first objective of encircling and cutting off the enemy fortress line at Bardia - Halfaya - Sidi Omar was brilliantly carried out by the New Zealand Division. The relief of Tobruk, although nearly achieved, remains to be carried out. Operations are continuing at present.

Operations for the New Zealand Division started with a long approach march of about 200 miles from Baggush to the frontier by night and day moves. To our south the Armoured Division and the 1st South African Division advanced on an even longer axis.

On the night of 18 November we crossed into Libya and remained dispersed in a position of defence. The Army Commander would not commit the Division until he considered the enemy armoured force disposed of. All commanders had studied a relief model of the area and everybody knew the scheme thoroughly. We were complete in every detail of equipment, including anti-tank and antiaircraft artillery and a battalion of ‘I’ tanks distributed among our brigade groups, every care being taken not to expose vulnerable columns to the German armoured divisions.

On 19 November the entire Division moved forward in desert formation covered by the Divisional Cavalry. The speed and manœuvrability of the mass of over 3000 vehicles was remarkable. The Divisional Cavalry rushed Sidi Azeiz at dusk, capturing many prisoners. Brigadier Hargest continued on during darkness and the 23rd Battalion carried out a successful attack on Fort Capuzzo, achieving complete surprise. Many prisoners were taken and the water pipeline to Halfaya fortress and the supply line to Sidi Omar cut. Meanwhile Brigadier Inglis led the 4th Brigade forward by night to capture the escarpment north-west of Bardia, cutting the Bardia-Tobruk road. The 4th Brigade was attacked by tanks, artillery, and infantry but the 20th Battalion and ‘I’ tanks counterattacked successfully, destroyed the enemy, and took 370 prisoners, two armoured cars, and some guns. In these operations we suffered only slight casualties. The 6th Brigade Group, under Brigadier Barrowclough, moved to Trigh Capuzzo into Divisional Reserve.

On the following night the Maori Battalion took Musaid and the Sollum Barracks, prisoners, guns, and equipment being captured, including the newest German radio direction-finding set. The German fortress line was thus severed from its supply base at Bardia.

The 6th Brigade Group was ordered to move towards Tobruk under 30th Corps and was detached temporarily from my command. They moved off complete in every detail, including a squadron of ‘I’ tanks. At a later stage Brigadier Barrowclough received orders page 82 to advance with all speed to occupy Point 175 and protect a flank of the Support Group heavily engaged at Sidi Rezegh. Fighting their way forward they found Point 175 strongly held. In a bloody encounter it was taken, but 13 of 15 tanks and 50 per cent of the 25th Battalion were casualties. The 26th Battalion was sent farther west to support the 5th South African Brigade on Sidi Rezegh, where they were attacked by a Panzer division. The South Africans were overrun by tanks. The 26th Battalion held its ground completely isolated and knocked out more than 20 tanks, later being withdrawn into the 6th Brigade lines.

The rest of the Division remained in position near Bardia until orders were given to take all the troops that could be spared from the Bardia front to join the 6th Brigade and move on Tobruk, with the object of cutting the by-pass road and establishing a corridor into the fortress.

The 4th Infantry Brigade was disengaged and moved to Gambut, capturing the aerodrome, 130 prisoners, and a considerable quantity of material. Divisional Headquarters, together with the 20th and 21st Battalions, followed, the 20th Battalion cleaning up enemy positions en route.

The advances by day and night along the Trigh Capuzzo of the 4th and 6th Brigades and 21st Battalion were brilliantly carried out. Both sides had decided on simultaneous bold strokes. While we moved on Tobruk, General Rommel moved his armoured force, together with the Italian Ariete Division, in an effort to recapture the Bardia-Sidi Omar fortress line. He took all his tanks and 3000 motor vehicles to just south of Sidi Omar. It is a fair assumption that but for strong pressure at Tobruk the full force of the German motorised infantry formations would have moved on Bardia to relieve the encircled garrisons. If he had succeeded our offensive would have failed.

Our advance upon Tobruk developed into a fiercely fought battle. For the most part we attacked at night with the bayonet to disorganise heavily defended localities. The taking of Sidi Rezegh spur by the 24th and 26th Battalions was a very fierce battle. It was strongly held by German infantry and the 6th Italian Bersaglieri Regiment, dug in and supported by large numbers of anti-tank guns. Heavy casualties were inflicted on both sides. We also took several hundred prisoners and material. At the same time 18th and 20th Battalions carried out a very fine night attack upon Belhamed spur, overrunning three enemy positions, killing the majority, and taking 150 prisoners. Carefully co-ordinated attacks by infantry, cavalry, and tanks on the next day and night, including an advance by the 19th Battalion of 10,000 yards, resulted in our joining hands with the page 83 Tobruk garrison at Ed Duda. In these attacks many anti-tank and field guns were destroyed and about 1000 prisoners taken. These attacks largely destroyed the German units opposite us, and had we had reserves available then we could have taken the next ridge, dominated the sector, and cleared the way into Tobruk. As it was, General Rommel, seeing the threat to the whole forward position, concentrated all his available resources and attacked us from every side. We expected the 1st South African Brigade to arrive on the night of 30 November—1 December to support the 6th Brigade Group on the southern flank. Our own 5th Brigade Group was to come as soon as it could be relieved by the 4th Indian Division, but the relief never took place. Although the South African Brigade came, it arrived too late to influence the situation.

Heavy attacks by tanks and infantry against the depleted 6th Brigade forced us off Point 175 on the 29th and off Sidi Rezegh on the 30th, when two battalions were overrun. On the morning of 1 December attacks round both flanks of the 6th Brigade converged with 51 tanks on Belhamed. Eleven tanks were destroyed, but the already depleted 20th Battalion was overrun and a wedge was driven between our battalions on Ed Duda and the rest of the force. Both Divisional Headquarters and the 6th Brigade Headquarters narrowly escaped destruction or capture. Attacks continued unsuccessfully against the remainder of the 4th Brigade Group until dusk when the whole force, other than the 18th and part of the 19th Battalions which remained with the Tobruk Force, disengaged with its transport and moved south-west to junction with our armoured forces, by whom our further movement to the south was covered.1

We have been fighting almost entirely against Germans in Libya—Panzer divisions and motorised infantry. At the start of the operations their morale was noticeably high and they were commanded with determination and dash. In the attack to open the corridor, however, it is significant that over a thousand Germans were taken by the Tobruk garrison and ourselves without much resistance. The fighting was fierce and losses on both sides were heavy. The general situation, owing to the very long distances covered in our advance, was confused. Our long lines of communication were open to raids, and supply columns frequently changed hands according to the progress of the armoured battles in the central desert area. In one raid Headquarters 5th Brigade was captured with Brigadier Hargest. At another stage 6th Brigade captured General von Ravenstein, Divisional Commander of the 21st Panzer Division, complete with most valuable documents. Convoys of wounded were captured and

1 In a telegram to the Minister of Defence on 15 Dec General Freyberg advised that the units left in Tobruk had arrived at Baggush that day.

page 84 recaptured and Dressing Stations dealt with friend and foe alike. In one case General Rommel visited one of our Advanced Dressing Stations. I regret to report that a large Main Dressing Station outside Tobruk was captured by the enemy during the last days of the fighting, with a loss of 700 wounded and about 500 medical personnel, but it is hoped it will be recaptured.

Our losses are great, especially to the 6th Brigade Group who were detached from the Division during the early days of the offensive. Losses to the 4th Brigade and 21st Battalion were also heavy. We have also lost many senior officers.1

The results achieved by the offensive in which we took such an active part are considerable. The enemy fortress line is cut off and its loss will cripple the whole German plan in North Africa and deprive him of a great amount of warlike stores and equipment. All German units have been thrown into the battle, in the course of which we have severely handled many, capturing a large number of prisoners and destroying much equipment.

One result of our operations was that the 4th Indian Division was given time to capture Sidi and Libyan Omars while the Armoured Division has been enabled to refit after its encounters. It must be realised that this is not a battle where the capture of ground or positions are of the greatest consequence. It is a battle to destroy the German elements in Libya, the Italians being of small consequence. It is fair to claim that the part played by the Division to date has destroyed a large portion of the German force, together with a great deal of their equipment and material, and it will prove a great contribution in the main Libyan campaign which still proceeds.

1 New Zealand casualties in the 2nd Libyan Campaign (Nov 1941 – Feb 1942) were:

Died of wounds208
Died on active service (includes deaths through sickness, accident, &c.)202
Prisoners of war (includes 201 wounded and prisoners of war and 5 died of wounds while prisoners of war)2042