Bardia to Enfidaville
WHEN Mr Winston Churchill, the British Prime Minister, addressed the men of the 2nd New Zealand Division outside Tripoli on 4 February 1943, he alluded to the Battle of El Alamein and its sequel. ‘By an immortal victory, the Battle of Egypt,’ he said, ‘the Army of the Axis Powers … was broken, shattered, shivered, and ever since then, by a march unexampled in all history for the speed and force of the advance, you have driven the remnants of that army before you until now the would-be conqueror of Egypt is endeavouring to pass himself off as the deliverer of Tunisia.’
The march ‘unexampled in all history’ began on 4 November 1942, when General Montgomery's Eighth Army, after a battle which had lasted eleven days, broke through the German-Italian Panzer Army's Alamein defences and set off in pursuit of those troops, mostly German, whom Field Marshal Rommel had managed to extricate from the battlefield. The New Zealand Division, which had played a distinguished part in the battle, had joined in this pursuit together with 1 and 7 British Armoured Divisions under the command of 10 Corps.1
The Division at that time had only two infantry brigades, those numbered 5 and 6. Fourth Infantry Brigade had gone back to Maadi Camp some months earlier to recover from the heavy casualties of the fighting in June and July 1942, and then to reorganise completely and train and equip as an armoured brigade; it took no further part in the fighting in North Africa. Thus the Division had to be strengthened by the attachment of formations from the British Army; and when the pursuit began from Alamein these were 4 Light Armoured Brigade, consisting of two armoured car regiments and one armoured regiment, and 9 Armoured Brigade, which had had so many casualties in men and tanks at Alamein that it had been reduced temporarily to one composite regiment.page 2
The pursuit was exhilarating but unfortunately also frustrating. At a critical stage just short of Mersa Matruh, when there might have been an opportunity of encircling the retreating enemy, heavy rain turned the desert into a quagmire. On 7 November this halted the New Zealand Division and other formations travelling across the desert and allowed the enemy to escape by the one road. By the time the advance could be resumed, the enemy had evacuated Matruh, which 6 Infantry Brigade occupied on 9 November as a firm base for 10 Corps. Next day 9 Armoured Brigade dropped out of the pursuit, and the Division carried on towards the Libyan frontier with only 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 5 Infantry Brigade.
Westwards from Matruh the escarpment south of and parallel to the road gradually encroaches on the flat coastal plain until the escarpment and coast converge at Sollum, near the frontier. This compelled the pursuit forces, after they had passed Sidi Barrani, to make increasing use of the road. As a result, the congestion of traffic offered a superb target for the German Air Force, but mercifully the Royal Air Force was in complete control. The 7th Armoured Division, which had made a wide cast to the south earlier in the pursuit, was already on the high ground south of the escarpment, but it was still necessary to find a way up for the New Zealand Division and other troops.
There were only two routes up the escarpment; the enemy had blocked the one near the coast, the Sollum Hill road, by blowing a gap in it, and was holding the other, at Halfaya Pass, about five miles to the south-east, with Italian troops in some strength. The Division was given the task of clearing Halfaya Pass, and in a brief but brilliant assault before dawn on 11 November 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Harding1) stormed the pass, and with the loss of only one man killed and one wounded, killed some sixty or seventy of the enemy and took 600 prisoners. This was the last of the fighting in Egypt.
The Division, using the newly opened Halfaya route, crossed into Libya. It was almost exactly a year since it had entered Libya for the first time at the beginning of the offensive which had led to Sidi Rezegh. In the intervening twelve months the Division had survived the violent ups and downs of the campaign in defence of Egypt and had suffered grievous casualties, but now nobody doubted that a decisive victory had been won; this time there would be no withdrawal.