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Episodes & Studies Volume 2

IV: The ‘Left Hook’ at El Agheila

IV: The ‘Left Hook’ at El Agheila

After his shattering defeat at Alamein at the beginning of November 1942, Rommel withdrew the remnants of his German-Italian. Panzer Army from Egypt and across Cyrenaica to El Agheila, the strongest defensive position in Libya, where twice previously a pursuing British force had been halted and turned back.

The El Agheila position, which blocked the route around the shore of the Gulf of Sirte between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania, was naturally strong: its eastern, southern, and western approaches were protected by salt marshes, soft sand, and broken ground unsuitable for manoeuvre. From Marsa Brega, a small anchorage east of El Agheila, a chain of defended localities, protected and linked together by minefields, extended inland for about forty miles to Maaten Giofer, a well on the track running southwards from El Agheila to the oasis of Marada. The western entrance to the position was a narrow pass, crossed by an anti-tank ditch and mines, between the coast and an extensive salt marsh.

The Marsa Brega-Maaten Giofer line of defended localities was occupied towards the end of November by the Italian 21 Corps (Pistoia, Spezia and Young Fascist Divisions) and a battalion of Germans. The Italians had not been in action and according to their own commander were unaccustomed to heavy artillery fire and air attacks. In a counter-attacking role behind this thinly-held line were the motorised forces of the German Afrika Korps (15 and 21 Panzer Divisions), the German 90 Light Division, and the Italian Ariete battle group. Afrika Korps was reduced to about 15,000 men, of whom 4500 were supply troops, and 90 Light Division had a fighting page 26 strength of less than 3000. The Germans had approximately fifty battleworthy tanks and the Italians about the same number.

Reinforcements could not be expected from Europe because all the Axis troops available were being rushed to Tunisia to contain the Anglo-American invasion forces in French North Africa. There was an acute shortage of petrol, transport, ammunition, and other supplies, largely as the result of the sinking of Axis ships in the Mediterranean; of the 13,000 tons of petrol des patched for the German formations in November, less than 5000 tons had arrived.

Rommel had been ordered by Hitler and Mussolini to defend the Marsa Brega-Maaten Giofer line at all cost, but he was convinced that a decisive battle there could end only in the destruction of his partly immobilised army. He therefore flew to Hitler's headquarters on 28 November and during the next four days obtained permission for the immediate withdrawal of the non-motorised infantry to Buerat, 250 miles west of El Agheila, where a new defence line was to be constructed, and to carry out a fighting withdrawal with his mobile troops if the British attacked with superior forces. Consequently the Italian 21 Corps was relieved on the nights 6–7 and 7–8 December, and the defence of the Marsa Brega-Maaten Giofer line was left to the pre dominantly German motorised formations.

After a heavy artillery bombardment, the British attacked the defended localities south of Marsa Brega on 12 December. Assuming that this was the beginning of the expected offensive, Rommel pulled his German troops out of the line the following night and took up positions in the immediate vicinity of El Agheila and to the west. Unaware that the Germans had gone, the British shelled the abandoned positions next morning. Mines, booby traps, and demolitions impeded the troops of 51 (Highland) Division following up along the Via Balbia (the main road), with the result that they did not reach the El Agheila fort until the evening of 15 December. Farther inland 7 (British) Armoured Division advanced more rapidly and engaged the Ariete battle group in a rearguard position south of the fort on 14 December. The Italians held until nightfall despite the loss of 30 tanks (they claimed 22 British tanks), and earned Rommel's gratitude for ‘their outstandingly gallant action against a much superior enemy force’.

It was at this stage that Rommel, who had been apprehensive of such a threat from the first, received warning that he was in danger of being encircled by an Eighth Army ‘left hook’. Air page 27 reconnaissance in the late afternoon of 14 December revealed a force of at least 1500 vehicles, with tanks, moving westwards and north-westwards in the desert south of Maaten Giofer. The leading formations of the New Zealand Division,1 which had gone far to the south in the hope of avoiding observation, had been discovered, but not identified, while turning the flank of the El Agheila position. Expecting this force to continue the move during the night and to thrust next day through Bir el Merduma (a track junction) either northwards to the Via Balbia or westwards to Nofilia (sixty miles west of El Agheila), Rommel ordered the withdrawal of all troops still east of the anti-tank ditch. While 21 Panzer Division was to hold the defile just west of the ditch, 15 Panzer Division was to occupy a defensive position on hilly ground south-east of Marble Arch, 90 Light Division was directed just west of Wadi Matratin, and the Ariete battle group was sent back to Nofilia. The lack of petrol not only precluded a counter-attack by the armoured divisions against the outflanking force, but made the whole situation of the Panzer Army appear to the German commander to be extraordinarily grave.

During the morning of 15 December the German troops holding the high ground south-east of Marble Arch observed the screen of British armoured cars leading the outflanking force towards Merduma. The German 33rd Reconnaissance Unit, which was patrolling the desert south-east of Merduma, came into contact with these armoured cars and was forced to withdraw its weak outposts; at that stage it was the only unit opposing the advance of the New Zealand Division. A battle group including a few tanks, guns and infantry from 21 Panzer Division, and later the whole of 15 Panzer Division, which had 27 tanks, was despatched to the Merduma area. The battle group, which did not arrive until mid-afternoon, saw the outflanking force passing around to the south-west of Merduma. When 15 Panzer Division reached Merduma in the evening, the outflanking force was already west of that point.

The increasing threat to the southern flank during the morning had caused Afrika Korps to seek permission to withdraw 21 Panzer Division from its rearguard position near the anti- tank ditch, but Rommel had refused this request on the ground that his petrol supply at the time would not allow him to withdraw all his formations to Nofilia, where he intended to make his next stand. Pressure against the rearguard became strong in the afternoon, when 7 Armoured Division attacked with tanks and infantry. Six British tanks penetrated a company position and captured twenty Germans and some vehicles, but the line was held until evening when 21 Panzer Division was allowed to withdraw to the high ground near Marble Arch. The Germans claimed they had knocked out ten tanks and three guns for certain.

To avoid the threatened encirclement, Rommel decided to break contact on the night of 15–16 December and retire to Nofilia, a limited move for which just enough petrol had been brought forward by evening. He ordered Afrika Korps to withdraw 15 Panzer Division along the desert track from Merduma and 21 Panzer Division along the Via Balbia, and directed 90 Light Division to stay in the Wadi Matratin area as the rearguard after Afrika Korps had passed through. With the British outflanking force already heading towards the road, it remained to be seen whether the German formations could get away during the night.

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Towards midnight 90 Light Division, which was occupying hilly ground south of the Via Balbia at Wadi Matratin and had been ordered to ‘prevent the enemy from operating against the road under all circumstances’, heard tracked vehicles (Bren carriers leading 6 NZ Brigade Group) approaching from the south. Two or three hours later an attack (by 24 Battalion) penetrated the German positions on a hill overlooking the road, overran a battalion of 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment, took some prisoners, and captured five anti-tank guns.2 The Germans counter-attacked and reoccupied the height for a time, but came under such heavy fire from reverse slope positions that they had to withdraw again. With the help of their artillery, however, they prevented the New Zealanders from establishing themselves firmly in a position commanding the road, along which 21 Panzer Division was retreating. Later in the morning a small German group on a hill overlooking the New Zealanders from the west was dislodged (by C Company 26 Battalion) and abandoned four anti-tank guns when it retired. Because pressure on the rearguard appeared to be increasing and 21 Panzer Division had passed through, 90 Light Division withdrew 200 Panzer Grenadier Regiment to a position astride the road ten miles west of Wadi Matratin.

Meanwhile the situation farther inland, where fifty British tanks and some transport columns had been reported in the rear of 15 Panzer Division, had caused Afrika Korps much anxiety. Although it had been ordered to withdraw immediately to Nofilia, 15 Panzer Division had waited all night in the Merduma area for a convoy to bring sufficient petrol to take it to its objective. The corps had sent a message after midnight that ‘it is absolutely essential that you push through to Nofilia with all possible speed, whatever happens’, and at the approach of daylight had ordered the division to ‘move off forthwith with what petrol you have. Petrol columns are under way… get going. Full speed.’ The petrol convoy had arrived in time for 15 Panzer Division, followed by the battle group from 21 Panzer Division, to leave shortly after daybreak.

After going about five miles this force met a unit of light tanks (New Zealand Divisional Cavalry), which withdrew westwards after exchanging a few shots. About an hour later the Germans became engaged with some tanks of 4 British Light Armoured Brigade and a large column of transport (5 NZ Brigade Group), with artillery, to the south. Although shelled by the artillery and pursued by the tanks, they passed rapidly across the front of this force and succeeded in getting away to the north-west. In this encounter 15 Panzer Division claimed it had destroyed three tanks, two armoured cars, four guns, a tractor, and fourteen vehicles, and admitted the loss of one heavy tank,3 a tractor, and ten trucks.

The pursuing British armour made 15 Panzer Division give up its intention of holding a delaying position about fifteen miles south-east of Nofilia; it withdrew in one bound to the village, leaving 90 Light Division with an exposed right flank in its rearguard position west of Wadi Matratin. Rommel therefore ordered the latter division to make a fighting withdrawal along the Via Balbia if attacked by a superior force. As it was not threatened during the remainder page 29 of the day, however, 90 Light Division did not withdraw until nightfall, by which time Afrika Korps had settled into new defensive positions at Nofilia.

The New Zealand Division had succeeded in the evening of 15 December in getting behind the whole of the German Afrika Korps; but it had to deploy in the darkness on unknown ground, with the result that 6 Brigade, which had been sent north to block the road, had become separated from the rest of the division by a gap of about six miles. While 90 Light Division had prevented 6 Brigade from reaching the road, along which 21 Panzer Division had retreated without interference, 15 Panzer Division had escaped through the six-mile gap between 6 Brigade and the rest of the New Zealand Division.

‘Things are going badly in Cyrenaica, where the British have forced us into a disorderly retreat, making us fight under the worst tactical and logistic conditions’, wrote Count Ciano, Mussolini's son-in-law, in his diary on 16 December. Nevertheless Rommel had succeeded in extricating all his formations, with surprisingly few casualties, from an exceptionally difficult situation.

Sources: Campaign Narrative of the German-Italian Panzer Army in North Africa.
War diaries of Afrika Korps, 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions, and 90 Light Division.

1 For this operation 2 NZ Division comprised 4 (British) Light Armoured Brigade and 5 and 6 NZ Infantry Brigade Groups, with a total of about 3000 vehicles, and was completely self-contained in supplies. In the course of the outflanking manoeuvre the division travelled nearly 350 miles over trackless desert.

2 New Zealand diaries credit 24 Battalion with 34 prisoners (some of whom were recaptured later), eight 50-millimetre anti-tank guns, 25 spandau machine guns, seven cars, four trucks, and some other material. The battalion's casualties were 14 wounded.

3 British diaries say that two German tanks were destroyed and that the Royal Scots Greys lost one. About 20 prisoners were taken from 115 Panzer Grenadier Regiment.