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

192 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

page 158

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

22 December 1942

The operations foreshadowed in my earlier cables are now over. These resulted in turning the strong enemy position at Agheila and in driving the Axis forces back nearly 200 miles. Our casualties, I am thankful to say, were comparatively light: killed—3 officers and 11 other ranks; wounded—8 officers and 53 other ranks; missing—3 officers and 9 other ranks.

Our role involved a series of desert moves totalling over 600 miles. On 5 December we moved from Bardia across the desert past our November 1941 battlefields and south of the Jebel1 to an assembly position near Agedabia, 350 miles away. At Agedabia we were joined by a British armoured brigade and replenished to be self-contained with food, water, ammunition, and petrol for twelve days, since we could not expect any line of communication until Eighth Army fought its way through on the coast. Full medical arrangements were made. Two full field ambulances, one light field ambulance, and two complete surgical teams were with us, also additional equipment for brain, chest, and abdominal surgery, and a blood transfusion unit with supplies of blood preserved in refrigerators. Invaluable medical comforts and Red Cross supplies were provided by the New Zealand Red Cross.

On 13 December plans were complete, and our several thousand vehicles set out in desert formation on a wide encircling movement of over 250 miles round the southern flank of the Agheila position, to threaten and if possible cut off the Panzer Army. The success of the operation depended on negotiating hitherto uncrossed desert. To obtain surprise, wireless silence was imposed until contact was gained with the enemy. We were also helped by heavy rain which laid the tell-tale dust.

The first stage of soft, bad going was negotiated by day and later stages by night. Then came the last dash to the north of forty miles, starting at dawn on the 15th. By that night the 6th Brigade had almost reached the coast road. This manoEuvre was a complete surprise to the enemy, who had to turn and fight to get out of the forward position or be surrounded. Our force was too small to cover all lines of retreat, and the Panzer Army escaped, but the enemy were severely mauled by our armour, artillery, and infantry as they withdrew, losing tanks and a considerable number of anti-tank guns.

page 159

During the afternoon of the 16th we made preparations for a further move to the west, and at dawn on the 17th we moved thirty miles to outflank the enemy covering the position west of Nofilia. Again the enemy rearguard was surprised by the speed with which our force moved and struck. In the ensuing fighting our armour and 5th Brigade caused the enemy further losses in equipment, capturing 250 prisoners, and the enemy withdrew under cover of darkness. It remains to be seen where they will make the next stand.

The success of the operation was largely due to the skill and efficiency of our drivers and mobile workshops, who have kept our vehicles in serviceable condition notwithstanding the roughness of the desert going.

I have just visited our wounded. In an isolated spot in the Tripolitanian Desert they receive the best surgical treatment in what amounts to a fully equipped field hospital, being carried back by ambulances as soon as the road is clear. The most serious cases are evacuated by air ambulances over many hundreds of miles of desert to our hospital in Egypt.

As usual, your Division maintained that high standard of efficiency and fighting spirit expected of it. The health and spirit of the men are excellent.

Although we are in the forward area we are making the best possible preparations for Christmas Day. Patriotic Fund parcels and some Christmas fare are on the way up. We shall be thinking of you all.