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Bardia to Enfidaville

The Halt at Bardia

page 3

The Halt at Bardia

After 21 Battalion's capture of Halfaya Pass 4 Light Armoured Brigade continued the pursuit, and in the afternoon of 11 November came under the direct command of 10 Corps. It was now intended that 7 Armoured Division and 4 Light Armoured Brigade alone should advance into Cyrenaica, with considerable assistance from the air force, which was having great success against the Luftwaffe and the mass of enemy transport on the road west of Bardia.

The New Zealand Division concentrated in the vicinity of Sidi Azeiz, in the desert south-west of Bardia. At first it appeared that it might be moving on almost immediately towards Tobruk, but the same day 10 Corps cancelled this move, and only Divisional Cavalry (Lieutenant-Colonel Sutherland1) went farther to the west. This regiment reached the roadhouse at Gambut by the evening of the 12th, and from there patrolled some ten miles westwards without finding anything of particular interest to report. Divisional Cavalry remained in that area for a week before rejoining the Division.

The units in the Sidi Azeiz area were advised on 13 November that the Division was likely to remain there until the 15th; they were told that day that there would be no move before the 18th, and finally on the 17th that no move was likely in the near future, which as it happened meant not before the first week in December. Difficulties of administration would prevent the assembling of more troops in the forward area until the port of Tobruk was open.

On 12 November the Division was asked to send an infantry battalion to Sollum for port duties. Fifth Brigade was instructed to send 22 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell2), and only a few hours after it had arrived in the Sidi Azeiz area this battalion was on its way back to Sollum, where it arrived early on the 13th. By chance, at the same time the question had arisen of the choice of an infantry battalion to be transferred to the New Zealand armoured brigade (formerly 4 Infantry Brigade) and reorganised as a motor battalion. Fifth Brigade had four battalions—21, 22, 23, and 28 (Maori)—so the unit transferred

1 Lt-Col J. H. Sutherland, MC; Masterton; born Taieri, 10 Dec 1903; stock inspector; CO 2 NZ Div Cav 1942–43.

2 Brig T. C. Campbell, CBE, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Colombo, 20 Dec 1911; farm appraiser; CO 22 Bn Sep 1942–Apr 1944; comd 4 Armd Bde Jan-Dec 1945; Commander, Fiji Military Forces, 1953–56; Commander, Northern Military District, 1958–.

page 4 obviously would have to be one of these. Brigadier Kippenberger,1 the brigade commander, was faced with a difficult choice, but accepted 22 Battalion's move to Sollum as an omen and nominated that unit. The Commander-in-Chief Middle East Forces (General Sir Harold Alexander) and General Freyberg2 visited the 22nd at Sollum on 13 November, and in the course of an address the GOC told the battalion of its new role. The 22nd worked at Sollum until the 17th, when it began its return to Maadi. It took no further part in the campaign in North Africa.

The activities in the HalfayaSollum area attracted several small enemy air attacks on 15 November, which caused a few casualties, including three men wounded in 22 Battalion. As a result 41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery was detached from the Division on the 16th to occupy positions around Halfaya.

Meanwhile 6 Infantry Brigade Group was still at Matruh. On 11 November the Division asked 10 Corps to send the brigade forward, but although certain administrative responsibilities at Matruh were handed over to a British headquarters on the 12th, orders were not issued for the brigade to move, and its commander, Brigadier Gentry,3 began to make arrangements for training in the Matruh area. Gentry has since said4 that after the first few days of minor pillaging of captured stores and of comparative plenty, the troops became restive about remaining there. Apparently the GOC was also restive, for finally Divisional Headquarters, on its own authority, ordered the brigade forward and advised 10 Corps of the action taken. Sixth Brigade left Matruh on 20 November, the greater part of it travelling by an inland route instead of the coastal road, and rejoined the Division two days later.

After their arrival in the Sidi Azeiz area the brigade groups were disbanded and the attached units and sub-units reverted to their own commands, the artillery to Headquarters NZA, the engineers

1 Maj-Gen Sir Howard Kippenberger, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Ladbrooks, 28 Jan 1897; barrister and solicitor; 1 NZEF 1916–17; CO 20 Bn Sep 1939–Apr 1941, Jun–Dec 1941; comd 10 Bde, Crete, May 1941; 5 Bde Jan 1942–Jun 1943, Nov 1943–Feb 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div, 30 Apr–14 May 1943, 9 Feb–2 Mar 1944; comd 2 NZEF Prisoner-of-War Reception Group (UK) Oct 1944–Sep 1945; twice wounded; Editor-in-Chief, NZ War Histories, 1946–57; died Wellington, 5 May 1957.

2 Lt-Gen Lord Freyberg, VC, GCMG, KCB, KBE, DSO and 3 bars, m.i.d., Order of Valour and MC (Gk); born Richmond, Surrey, 21 Mar 1889; CO Hood Bn 1914–16; comd 173 Bde, 58 Div, and 88 Bde, 29 Div, 1917–18; GOC 2 NZEF Nov 1939–Nov 1945; twice wounded; Governor-General of New Zealand Jun 1946–Aug 1952.

3 Maj-Gen Sir William Gentry, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d., MC (Gk), Bronze Star (US); Lower Hutt; born London, 20 Feb 1899; Regular soldier; served North-West Frontier 1920–22; GSO II NZ Div 1939–40; AA & QMG 1940–41; GSO I May 1941, Oct 1941–Sep 1942; comd 6 Bde Sep 1942–Apr 1943; Deputy Chief of General Staff 1943–44; comd 9 Bde (Italy) 1945; Deputy Chief of General Staff, 1946–47; Adjutant-General, 1949–52; Chief of General Staff, 1952–55.

4 Letter to the author, 19 Aug 1957.

page 5 to Headquarters NZE, and the machine-gunners to 27 (MG) Battalion. But it seldom seemed possible for the Division to be complete. Already one light anti-aircraft battery had been sent to Halfaya, and on 25 November 42 Battery was detached for duty in the Acroma area, near Tobruk. And then the engineers, those maids of all work, were employed on repairing the water supply installations in the vicinity of Bardia, on improving the roads between Sollum and Bardia, including the cratered Sollum Hill road, and clearing minefields. Parties of infantrymen helped in the road work.

The units were advised on 22 November that they were to hold three days' reserve rations and three days' water for each man, plus two days' rations in unit transport and one day's rations for consumption the next day. They were also to hold enough petrol, oil and lubricants for 200 miles' travel. Even though there was a pause in the advance, it was clearly intended that the Division was to be ready if sudden action were called for.

The NZASC and other service units continued their normal work of maintenance; and the usual demands were made on other corps, especially the infantry, for guard duties and working parties. Otherwise the troops were occupied by physical and weapon training, NCO training, route marches, lectures, salvage and repair work, reorganisation, and where possible sea-bathing, this last for cleanliness and recreation. As soon as it was known that there would be a lull in operations, an elaborate sports programme was planned, providing for Rugby and Association football, hockey, basketball, boxing and wrestling. This programme optimistically was drawn up for as far ahead as 15 December, and for some items as far ahead as Christmas Day. Sports gear, provided by the National Patriotic Fund Board, was distributed to units. About the same time two YMCA mobile cinemas began nightly screenings, which were permitted in the open as long as the light reflected from the screen was concealed, an indication of how little anxiety was caused by the activities of the German Air Force.

And so the time passed pleasantly enough. Morale, already high, was further stimulated by the news of the Allied landings in Morocco and Algeria early in November and by the prospect that the Axis forces would shortly be assailed from both east and west. Indeed morale had survived the knowledge that the last remaining Australian division in the Middle East (the 9th) was on its way home after playing a notable part in the victory at Alamein.

Although it was completely unknown to the New Zealand Division at the time, its own fate was trembling in the balance page 6 on the political level. From the middle of November until the beginning of December, coinciding almost exactly with the time the Division spent near Bardia, the New Zealand Government was seriously considering requesting its return to New Zealand for redeployment in the Pacific and was in continuous communication with the United Kingdom Government on the subject. The decision, taken on 4 December, was to leave the Division to finish the campaign in North Africa.1

By this time the New Zealanders' relations with the British troops of Eighth Army, armoured and others, were happier than they had been earlier in the year. In particular they admired and appreciated the contribution 9 Armoured Brigade had made while under the Division's command during the Alamein offensive. The bitter feelings engendered by Ruweisat and other disasters of the ‘hard summer’ of 1942 were passing into history.

1 Documents relating to New Zealand's Participation in the Second World War, Vol. II, p. 141 ff.