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

193 — General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

General Freyberg to the Minister of Defence

30 December 1942

In my appreciation dated 3 December (No. 190) I discounted the effect of the Tunisian operations on the campaign here because, from all accounts, progress was not relatively as good as was hoped. Strong German resistance was unexpected, transport difficulties were great, and the Allied striking force available was small. Although the Allied forces in Tunisia are not a direct threat to the Axis in Tripoli, the enemy has been forced to fight on two fronts. Detached operations of this nature are contrary to all German military teaching. Notwithstanding the check in Tunisia, I feel that the whole situation is shaping well for the Allies, and that the Axis commitments in North Africa will become an increasingly heavy drain on enemy air, land, and sea resources as we progress westwards, and will eventually lead to a severe Axis defeat.

page 160

The position on the front in Tripolitania is as follows: the enemy has been forced to retreat at high speed over 200 miles from the stronghold at Agheila. As he went he demolished bridges and wells, ploughed aerodromes, and sowed mines with the object of imposing the maximum delay. Although hustled and mauled west of Agheila, the main Axis force was not brought to battle, and Rommel is estimated to have a force of 40,000 Germans, 25,000 Italians, and an uncertain number of tanks. Further advance westwards must consequently be by strong forces. At present we are delayed by maintenance difficulties due to the length of our line of communication, enemy demolitions, and the limited supply facilities at Benghazi. The enemy position, however, is insecure. Owing to our submarine and air attacks, Tripoli is almost unusable and enemy shipping losses in the Mediterranean are very heavy. The evidence indicates that Rommel is so deficient in equipment and warlike stores that he may not be able to risk a large-scale battle. Further, his shortages in mechanical transport and petrol make it impossible for him to move his whole force except by staging. His policy therefore appears to be to fight for time to ferry out his immobile troops, with rearguards covering natural tank obstacles formed by deep wadis, and by carrying out demolitions and laying mines.

I feel that it is rash to make a forecast, but on the evidence at present available I feel that Rommel will not fight seriously to hold Tripolitania. My opinion, for what it is worth, is that the enemy will be forced back in the next week or so, that we shall be in Tripoli by January,1 and that it is possible that Africa will be cleared of Axis forces in the next few months.2

1 British and New Zealand units entered Tripoli on 23 Jan 1943.

2 The Axis forces in North Africa surrendered on 13 May 1943.