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Bardia to Enfidaville

Dealing with the El Hamma Bottleneck

Dealing with the El Hamma Bottleneck

During the day 1 Armoured Division had sustained a check at El Hamma, although it had approached to within two miles of the place. The Germans had produced their usual quick defence. Before first light the GOC 164 Light Division had stopped all retreating forces in the area, and was organising a delaying position there; panzer grenadier regiments were drawn from 15 Panzer Division and 90 Light Division—the latter from north-west of Gabes; and Messe sent anti-aircraft artillery, both heavy and light, from Mareth. It has been estimated that 1 Armoured Division was just one hour page 236 too late, which supports General Freyberg's early view that it should have set off before moonrise.

The going was harder than 1 Armoured Division expected, and the night move was correspondingly slower. On several occasions it had to reduce to a narrow front to cross wadis. Small actions took place with odd German groups of vehicles, and progressively as the night wore on more and more enemy tanks attacked the rear of the division, for after all 1 Armoured Division had passed right through the German lines. The division closed up to El Hamma village in daylight, and as it moved down the forward slope the enemy defences, particularly strong in anti-tank guns, proceeded to take toll. El Hamma was in a bottleneck between Djebel Tebaga on the west and Djebel Halouga on the east, both dominating heights, and there was little or no freedom of manoeuvre for an attacking force. Horrocks soon decided that it was too much for 1 Armoured Division to tackle alone, and informed Eighth Army that El Hamma could not be taken until NZ Corps caught up, which meant that an attack could not take place until midnight.

Shortly after 4.30 p.m. Freyberg received orders to move by moonlight to join 1 Armoured Division. Included in other details were fresh recognition signals for Allied ground forces, which in all the circumstances were badly wanted. Shortly afterwards a second message was received from Horrocks asking if Freyberg would be prepared to launch a second SUPERCHARGE against El Hamma with timing intervals similar to the first. Meanwhile NZ Corps, less 5 Infantry Brigade Group and ‘L’ Force, was to close up to within a few miles.

At 6 p.m. General Freyberg replied with counter-proposals representing strongly that NZ Corps should branch off about ten miles short of El Hamma, and head east and north to Gabes, passing round the southern end of Djebel Halouga. The Corps would advance on a broad front, and Freyberg was clearly relying on the ability of his troops, including 8 Armoured Brigade, to move rapidly over broken country. Freyberg much preferred this course to going straight for El Hamma, where the enemy was in a position to contain both formations for perhaps a day or more. His proposal was in fact a reversion to the alternative plan (SIDEWINDOWS) which had appeared in NZ Corps' Operation Order No. 1 on 16 March for action after the capture of PLUM,1 and it avoided the inevitable infantry losses of set-piece action.

Horrocks was prepared to agree with this proposal, but had doubts about the capacity of the Corps to cross the difficult ground page 237 on the direct route to Gabes. While the proposal was still under consideration General Freyberg arrived unexpectedly at General Horrocks's Reconnaissance Headquarters, which was located close to Tactical Headquarters 1 Armoured Division. He had come forward in the darkness—it was then 2 a.m. on 28 March—for discussions. He seems to have done this entirely on his own initiative, as it was unknown to the staff of NZ Corps at the time, and no record of it appears in any New Zealand war diary. The discussion took place alongside the tank in which Horrocks was travelling, and cleared up all doubts. Horrocks agreed with Freyberg's proposal as being the better arrangement, but said that he did not think Montgomery would like it as he had definitely made El Hamma the first objective and Gabes the second, and did not want any pockets of resistance remaining on the line of communication. The instructions to Horrocks had been to keep his force collected and well-balanced.

There is no doubt that General Freyberg's wish to go direct to Gabes instead of piling up in column of formations in front of El Hamma was correct, and showed tactical sense combined with an understanding of what NZ Corps could do in the way of crosscountry travel. The alternative of following behind 1 Armoured Division with the prospect of another major attack was in no way appealing, and there was everything to be said for bypassing the El Hamma bottleneck, even on an inner flank.

Formal approval to Freyberg's proposal was sent from 10 Corps at 4 a.m., but was not received at NZ Corps until after 6 a.m. In this message Horrocks repeated his qualms about Montgomery's reactions, and asked Freyberg to convince Montgomery that the action was in accord with the Army plans. But communications' between NZ Corps and Eighth Army were very poor at this time, and there is no evidence that Freyberg took any such action. In addition, at 5.10 a.m. on 28 March, Horrocks signalled Montgomery saying that Freyberg and he had met, and went on: ‘Plan at 0500 hrs. NZ Corps to move east at first light objective Gabes by centre line track Oglat MertebaGabes. 1 Armoured Division follow and turn south as in original plan. Wished obtain army commander's approval but signal delays prevented. Reason for change strength of El Hamma bottleneck which prevents deployment. Request air cover for NZ move’.

To this Montgomery replied at 9.15 a.m.: ‘Do not repeat not direct 1 Armoured Division south from Gabes. Position your whole force about Gabes and to west and prevent northward movement. Recce from Gabes towards Mareth with armd cars. 30 Corps ordered to advance but not clear how completely enemy have evacu- page 238 ated Mareth position.’ From which it may be taken that Montgomery had tacitly accepted the change in plan for NZ Corps. Later in the day Horrocks flew to Army Headquarters for a brief visit, and presumably all plans were then co-ordinated.

1 See p. 165.