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Bardia to Enfidaville


page 198

IN the early afternoon of 24 March General Freyberg received proposals from the Army Commander, first by message, and then in outline by liaison officer, for a large-scale attack on 25 March to blast a way through Tebaga Gap and allow armour to deploy in the open country beyond. Montgomery's plan included a bombing attack heavier than usual on the enemy on the night 24–25 March, and preliminary low-level attacks for two or three hours to disorganise the defence. This would require maximum assistance with guiding lights for the air force. Zero hour would be about 3 p.m. so that the westering sun would be shining behind the attacking troops. (The enemy on the north-east and Eighth Army on the south-west was something new in desert fighting.) Montgomery asked for an immediate reply as to whether Freyberg agreed in principle, and said that in the meantime he was going ahead with all preparations at his end.

To this Freyberg replied that a night landmark would be arranged and that there would be no difficulty in staging an attack, but he would signal at length on the general situation and would suggest alternative plans. While he was in the course of preparing this full reply Lieutenant-General Horrocks arrived.

The change in command upset General Freyberg. He thought that in every way the correct answer would have been to leave him in command, even if it was necessary to send him a fresh corps headquarters. He was senior to Horrocks.1 But from Montgomery's viewpoint the problem was straightforward. Tenth Corps was the Army Reserve. The Corps was complete with commander and staff, was fully briefed, and one of its divisions and some of the corps troops were to move with it, so that it was obvious that the simplest thing to do was to allow it to absorb the troops already on the spot and proceed with the battle, to which it would give fresh impetus. It will be remembered that NZ Corps had no separate corps headquarters, and it has been suggested that a bare

1 Freyberg: Major-General 24 Aug 1939, temporary Lieutenant-General 1 Mar 1942. Horrocks: Acting Major-General 27 Jun 1941, acting Lieutenant-General 13 Aug 1942.

page 199 divisional headquarters might be tried too hard if suddenly it had to control double its existing force. In fact Horrocks said after his arrival that it was the headquarters staff of 10 Corps that was wanted more than the Corps Commander.

There is some evidence that Montgomery knew that there might be difficulties, and certainly both Horrocks and de Guingand were aware of the prickly nature of the situation. Between them all they did their best to make things easier. Horrocks and de Guingand agreed that all messages sent from Army Headquarters should go to both commanders, and Montgomery was careful in the wording of his various telegrams and letters. But it is small wonder that Horrocks sensed a frigid atmosphere when he arrived. One must have sympathy with him, for he was innocent of any offence. Freyberg was determined to make sure that no newcomer should intrude in the handling of 2 NZ Division, and was grim, firm, and not at all forthcoming.

In his message early on 23 March Montgomery laid down that 10 Corps was to take over when 1 Armoured Division arrived, probably in the afternoon of 25 March. After some discussion between the two commanders, they agreed that Horrocks should assume command at 6 p.m. on 25 March, that Freyberg should be responsible for the detailed planning of the forthcoming operation, and that, to all intents and purposes, Horrocks's command would be effective after the break-in.

There is a difference of opinion between Horrocks and Freyberg over the responsibility for the message later sent to Montgomery, numbered 503, a draft of which was already in existence when Horrocks arrived. It had his concurrence, and it must be assumed that he agreed with it, although it is not difficult to see that the commander on the spot had for the moment the advantage. The message was sent ‘From Generals Freyberg and Horrocks’.

It described the bottleneck at PLUM, and said that hitherto the policy of NZ Corps had been to work along the high ground on the flanks and reduce the enemy's observation over the gap. Alternative courses for future action were then given:


Carry on as we are going until we can force gap and pass 1 Armd Div through. This should be possible in from 5 to 7 days.


Carry on as at present and pass 1 Armd Div round Kebili to attack Hamma from west, thus further stretching enemy. This could probably develop night 27/28.


Carry out blitz attack by daylight with 8 Armd Bde supported by maximum air and five arty regts. This would be very costly but might break through.

In our opinion second course is far the best and is most certain to produce quick results and minimum losses.

page 200

Of these three possibilities, the first would obviously take too long. The second plan has an air of unreality, for it meant a further 60 miles' march for 1 Armoured Division and would interpose an impassable range of mountains between the two wings of the outflanking force, and lose the virtue of concentration and of taking full advantage of a preponderance in tanks, guns, infantry, and air support. Moreover, a fresh line of communications round the west end of Djebel Tebaga could only add to the difficulties of supply, for when 10 Corps did arrive on the Tebaga front it had not completed its administration arrangements and leant heavily on NZ Corps for its first issues of supplies and ammunition. The third course more accorded with the Army Commander's suggestion.

There is difficulty in determining the exact order of the communications which passed at this time, for it appears that Montgomery's next letter was in fact written before he had received message 503, but after the return to Army Headquarters of his liaison officer. These liaison officers were all specially selected by him and formed a corps d'élite. They brought to him the atmosphere they found in the formations they visited as well as battle reports, and in this case it is possible that the liaison officer sensed that there was still a reluctance on NZ Corps' front to thrust with full force. Whether or not that is the case, the fact remains that the letter given below shows that Montgomery was several laps ahead of anyone else in his thinking about the future. The relevant parts of the letter are as follows:

I want to speed up your thrust as much as possible, and I think we can do a great deal to help you by heavy air bombing all night and day. To take full advantage of this you would have to do an afternoon attack with the sun behind you. The plan would be as follows:—


Continuous bombing by Wellingtons and night bombers on night D-1/D.


Intensive artillery shelling for say one hour before zero. Smoke etc on high ground on flanks and/or to cover mine lifting.


Air cover and attacks by fighters on any movement to and from the battle area.

I do not believe that any enemy could stand up to such treatment, and you would, after it, burst through the defile quite easily and get to El Hamma and Gabes.

I believe it would be another SUPERCHARGE which would do the trick like we did it with SUPERCHARGE at Alamein. The army and air staffs are working it out and we can lay it on if you agree you will accept it. Date: the earlier the better. I would like D day to be tomorrow 25 March, 1 Armoured Division to be up by then, ready to exploit success on 26 March.

I think you would get surprise, as the enemy thinks we always attack at night…. The RAF will play 100%. Let us call it SUPERCHARGE, and give me a date for D Day.

page 201

Enclosed with this letter was one from de Guingand, written after a conference with the AOC. After saying that the night strafe was to be intensified, he went on:

(b)The Kittybombers will now carry out an intensive bombing and strafing period for about two hours before your attack goes in and will also operate during the attack itself dealing with any movement in the battle area and on the roads leading to the battle area.

(c)By keeping quiet in the morning we have a better chance of obtaining surprise and if we do not start the Kittybombers sooner than zero minus two hours the enemy should not have time to withdraw his air forces from the central Tunisia front. We would be grateful if you would let us have the most complete picture of the enemy defensive lay-out as you see it, and any details of your plan, start line etc.

When message 503 did reach Montgomery, he cannot have found it at all helpful, and must have been confirmed in his view that he must take a firm grip1 of the forthcoming battle himself. In the event the outline plan was his alone, although the detailed planning of the break-in was Freyberg's, a situation which does not support Freyberg's later view that Montgomery went into too much detail and interfered with the freedom of action of his subordinates.

Generals Freyberg and Horrocks then replied, first, that they were considering SUPERCHARGE, but that it could not be carried out before 26 March as 1 Armoured Division would not be ready until then; and then later that SUPERCHARGE would definitely take place on 26 March. Air communication and adequate signal arrangements enabled all these messages and letters to pass during the afternoon of 24 March. Montgomery's acknowledgment to this last telegram from Freyberg and Horrocks is the first to be dated 25 March. In it he expressed his delight at the news and, inter alia, said that he did not like their second course as it would split the outflanking force.

This exchange of telegrams and letters was in effect summarised in a letter sent by de Guingand on 25 March. It reads in part:

My Dear Generals,

(I feel as if I am writing to the old combination Hindenburg and Ludendorff!) This letter gives you the Army Commander's views as to future operations.


Supercharge is virtually your course No. 12 with stronger and more intimate air support than we have ever tried before.

1 Montgomery, Memoirs, pp. 81–2: ‘To succeed, a C.-in-C. must ensure from the beginning a very firm grip on his military machine; only in this way will his force maintain balance and cohesion and thus develop its full fighting potential. This firm grip does not mean interference, or cramping the initiative of subordinates; indeed, it is by the initiative of subordinates that the battle is finally won. The firm grip is essential in order that the master plan will not be undermined by the independent ideas of individual subordinate commanders at particular moments in the battle. Operations must develop within a predetermined pattern of action.’

2 The resemblance between ‘Course No. 1’ and SUPERCHARGE is in reality very faint.

page 202

The Army Commander wants you to go 100% for Supercharge and produce a simple cut and dried plan and we will give you the maximum air support possible.


The Army Commander stresses the need to keep your joint resources concentrated and not dispersed; that is why he did not like the Kebili project as it placed a mountain range between the two divisions.


He feels sure that if we break into this front facing you, you can take considerable risks and, by pushing on deep, the enemy will be forced to pull back from the hills.


{Omitted—estimate of enemy morale, believed low.}


{Omitted—estimate of enemy morale, believed low.}


We are sending over Darwin…. to help you tie up the air support for Supercharge. The RAF have ordered an armoured car to report to NZ HQ and it is proposed that Darwin should be located ‘cheek by jowl’ with comd 8 Armd Bde or whoever else is in a position to get the latest information as to how the air support is working. It is important that he should be able to see the battle area from a good OP, and he will then be able to give the pilots the low-down as to how they are doing. It is important of course that he does keep in the closest touch with one of our commanders as he must have an up-to-date picture. Sitting back here it would look as if 8 Armd Bde is the right location.


Omitted—list of Spitfire and Kittyhawk squadrons.


The length of time they can operate over area continuously depends on the Spitfire Sqns. These can operate continuously for two hours. Therefore you can expect continuous Kitty-bomber attacks throughout this two-hours period at the density of two squadrons.


The important thing will be to decide on the correct timing. We feel that it might be best to start this intensive air effort about zero minus 30 minutes. This should thoroughly disorganise the defence at the psychological moment and allow the fighter bombers to continue supporting the attack during the most difficult period. You may, however, feel you would like a longer preparation beforehand but it is probable that your artillery will be able to deal with this.


It will be most important to give the air force as soon as possible the maximum information as to your plan of attack and the areas and centre of enemy resistance guns etc that you wish to be attacked.


The Air Force are going flat out on this low strafing. It may be very expensive owing to flak and enemy opposition, but they have agreed to cooperate wholeheartedly because the Army Commander has told them it is the big thing in this stage of the campaign. They will not be able to stage such an intensive effort two days running.

It will be seen from the above that the air forces intended to make an all-out effort for a low-flying blitz, something new to Eighth Army. The risks were great, but the results might be immense.

Years later de Guingand pointed out that although Broadhurst had willingly taken on the assignment, there were those, some of high rank, who did not agree that he had been correct in doing so. The accepted doctrine was that the primary task of the page 203 Air Force was to defeat the enemy air force, and that too close co-operation with the ground forces would impede this task, particularly if risk of losses was high.1