Bardia to Enfidaville
At first light KDG, Divisional Cavalry and 8 Armoured Brigade moved off again. Notts Yeomanry and 3 Royal Tanks went to the high ground towards Chebket en Nouiges, and there forestalled enemy tanks on the feature, the defenders again being 15 Panzer Division and part of 21 Panzer. There were in fact still some enemy troops, including tanks, to the south of Chebket en Nouiges, and the troop of artillery with KDG had some good shooting, destroying one tank and forcing others to withdraw. But the enemy screen of page 271 tanks combined with anti-tank guns proved quite effective, as so often before, and slowed down the advance of 8 Armoured Brigade. It was not until the afternoon that there were signs that the enemy was again thinning out, for tanks and transport were moving north, probably hastened a little by the pressure of 1 Armoured Division against Mezzouna farther west. Here a reconnaissance group of 3, 33 and Nizza Reconnaissance Units was trying to fill the gap left by the disintegration of the Italians.
Both Divisional Cavalry and KDG had an exhilarating time, the roving movements of the latter giving great scope to their supporting troop of artillery, which finished the day in a position on the railway line well in advance of Chebket en Nouiges.
There was enough enemy resistance for the gun group to be brought into action by 11.30 a.m. from positions behind the Chebket, and here a 17-pounder was used by the Division for the second and last time against tanks in North Africa. A weapon of this special nature with such great hitting power had been long and eagerly awaited by Eighth Army, but it had come so late that it was hardly used or needed.
Meanwhile 23 Battalion extricated itself from the marshes—helped by tanks from 8 Armoured Brigade—and by 6.45 a.m. at last reached the road near Rir er Rebaia. Even at this late stage there was still enemy transport about, and hostile action of various kinds by everyone from the CO downwards resulted in eight vehicles being destroyed and in vehicles and equipment being captured. These came from 10 Panzer Division, lately opposite Maknassy.
The remainder of 5 Infantry Brigade started to move forward at 8 a.m. but found the going difficult. It was halted some three miles south-east of the Rir er Rebaia crossroads, and stayed there during the early part of the afternoon awaiting a move that night. At 2 p.m. its main headquarters and 21 Battalion were attacked by five enemy fighters, and one man was killed and eight wounded, but Bofors shot down one fighter and Spitfires got another.
As all the indications were that the enemy was continuing his withdrawal, Lieutenant-General Horrocks decided to push ahead after dark on an axis running due north. The New Zealand Division would be the spearhead, but 1 Armoured Division and ‘L’ Force still farther west would conform. By late afternoon the enemy had begun to withdraw to a line some 20 miles farther north. The rearguards of 1 Italian Army, namely 90 Light, 164 Light, and 15 Panzer Divisions (the last-named reinforced by part of 21 Panzer Division) now covered a stretch of country—it cannot be called a line—running inland from the coast for about 25 miles. To their page 272 west there was still the reconnaissance group, but now both 10 and 21 Panzer Divisions had joined and were in the area north-east of Maknassy.
It becomes increasingly difficult to pin-point further the various enemy formations and units. Enemy material at divisional level ceases to exist after the end of March, and the war diaries of either Army or Army Group Headquarters are of little assistance in filling in detail. This will serve to explain why sometimes in the days that follow it is not possible to be certain which formation was opposing 2 NZ Division.
However, the general conclusion about the enemy situation at the end of 8 April was that, while there was a fairly continuous line on 1 Italian Army's front, farther west there were large gaps.
To return to 2 NZ Division—with the object of carrying out a night advance, 8 Armoured Brigade was withdrawn early in the afternoon for a few hours' rest, while arrangements were made to form a special battle group of 8 Armoured Brigade, KDG, Divisional Cavalry and 5 Brigade Group. The remainder of the Division was to remain at its last-light locations, all south of Chebket en Nouiges. Although progress had not been rapid, more than 500 prisoners had been captured, including the GOC Saharan Group, General Mannerini, and his staff. This last capture gave some excitement to 28 (Maori) Battalion, through the hands of which the prisoners were passed. It compensated for a day in which the battalion had ‘led the brigade column in an advance that was mostly halts.’1
At 5.45 p.m. the battle group moved off with 8 Armoured Brigade leading, followed by 28 Battalion (under command 8 Armoured Brigade), Divisional Cavalry, 5 Brigade, and with KDG for once bringing up the rear. The advance was uneventful, and by 11 p.m. the leading tanks of 8 Armoured Brigade had reached the forward slopes of Toual ech Cheikh, over 20 miles due north from Chebket en Nouiges. The Maori Battalion mounted flank guards on both sides of the axis, and the rest of the column bedded down a few miles farther south—except that, as usual for sappers, part of 7 Field Company spent most of the night working on crossings over watercourses.
1 J. F. Cody, 28 (Maori) Battalion, p. 285.