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Bardia to Enfidaville

Preparations on 25 March

Preparations on 25 March

March the 25th was a day of conferences both formal and informal, and of planning on every level. The first formal conference was held with brigadiers and heads of services at 7.30 a.m., with General Horrocks present. All the details which later appeared in the operation orders were discussed, but two decisions were made for activities preceding the main attack. First, 5 Infantry Brigade was to capture Point 184 that evening (25 March), as the feature overlooked the lying-up area for the infantry; and secondly, all rearrangements of the existing front, including 5 Infantry Brigade's taking over a sector of the front, were to be completed during the forthcoming hours of darkness. The troops were then to dig in and lie up in concealment all day on 26 March until zero hour. The tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade were also to lie up on that day, concealed in low ground running across the Gap behind the Roman Wall.

There was considerable discussion on the most suitable time for zero hour, which was chosen at the request of General Horrocks and of Major-General Briggs, commander of 1 Armoured Division. It was the latest hour possible which would give 1 Armoured Division time to pass through the forward troops before dark and reach an area in which to lie up until the moon rose, at 11 p.m. The timings for the whole operation were fixed with the intention of obtaining the maximum benefit from the sun, which would greatly limit enemy observation, consistent with the estimated times for the NZ Corps break-in and the move of 1 Armoured Division. Zero hour for NZ Corps was settled for 4 p.m., and the final objective was to be reached two hours later. At this point, 6 p.m., 1 Armoured Division would begin to move up through the battlefield, and by last light, about 7.30 p.m., would be in its lying-up area some five miles from the start line. Here it would laager until the moon rose and then continue on to El Hamma.

General Freyberg thought at the time that 1 Armoured Division fixed a late timing for its moonlight move, and events were to lend some support to this view, but there were difficulties in moving across country at night over unknown going, and an earlier start might have led to a general mix-up in the dark. On the whole it is probable that Horrocks and Briggs were right in deciding to wait until the moon rose.

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Following this conference Kippenberger, together with the COs of 23 and 28 Battalions and their intelligence officers, made a reconnaissance from the high ground between Hir Benia and Zemlet el Madjel, and had what the brigadier later described as ‘the best view of an enemy position I have ever had’. The usefulness of the hills flanking the gap for observation was thus shared by both sides, although the enemy had the advantage in this respect.

In the afternoon of 25 March Freyberg held another conference attended by COs and above, by heads of services, by RAF liaison officers and by Generals Horrocks and Briggs, at which he reviewed the whole position and explained the details of the NZ Corps plan, which was the first stage of the full plan for the attack on and disruption of the enemy lines at Tebaga and beyond. New Zealand Corps would make the gap, 1 Armoured Division would then go through, and as soon as NZ Corps could clear its flanks it would follow to El Hamma and Gabes. It was firmly intended that, provided the NZ Corps attack was not a complete debacle, 1 Armoured Division would go through. General Horrocks has since said that General Freyberg was most insistent in asking for assurances that the tanks would go through, to which he replied, ‘They will go through and I am going with them’.1

The combined plan was sent to Army Headquarters by liaison officer in the afternoon, with Freyberg's concurrence that the air-support programme should start half an hour before zero hour. The plan received unstinted approbation from the Army Commander, who signalled to both generals on the 25th that the plan was first class and, on 26 March, wrote to General Horrocks as follows:

Have seen your LO with plan. It is very simple and first class. The weather forecast is not too good. But dust and smoke and sun in his eyes will make it quite impossible for the enemy to see anything.

The more dust the better—provided that the RAF can see the battle area from the sky.

Am sending you and Bernard one bottle of brandy each. Good luck to you and the whole party. My very special regards to Bernard.

1 Letter to author, 3 Sep 1958.