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Bardia to Enfidaville



On the front of 6 Infantry Brigade it was not possible to start patrolling until the night of 17–18 April, as it was only then that the brigade was in firm occupation of its new sector, but a good deal of information was obtained from air reports and from local inhabitants, especially concerning an anti-tank ditch which ran west from Enfidaville. Good air photographs were not available until 17 April, and a study of these led Brigadier Gentry to decide that in the forthcoming attack he would need two battalions instead of the one hitherto considered adequate. The photos showed that Wadi el Brek, running across the brigade sector, was unexpectedly deep, and might cause trouble.

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On 5 Brigade front patrolling commenced on the night 15–16 April, continued right up to the night 18th–19th, with patrols going out both by day and night from all three battalions. Several patrol reports mention that the alarm was given in the enemy position by dogs. There is no evidence that the enemy had any special ‘dog force’, and the probability is that the dogs were the usual strays found in all native areas.

Despite a period of good weather with bright sunny days, overprint maps embracing the information available from ground and air reconnaissance were not available until the afternoon of 19 April, not long before zero hour, which was to be 11 p.m. In the light of subsequent knowledge these maps contained little helpful information, and added little to the patrol reports. The reports brought back by the patrols were not very conclusive, and often they were contradictory. Because a patrol on the night 16–17 April found a number of empty trenches which seemed to have been occupied by German troops, the belief grew that enemy positions south of Takrouna had been abandoned. A daylight patrol seemed to confirm this, and a section was briefed to occupy the top of Takrouna should there be little opposition. But enemy troops were found, and the project was not pursued. On the night of the 18th further patrols found definite evidence that the enemy had not gone.

This lack of certainty, combined with the prevailing spirit of optimism, had an undoubted influence on both the scope of the forthcoming operation and on the plans. There was an atmosphere readily understood by those who experienced it, but difficult to describe in the aftermath. Perhaps it would be going some distance towards the truth to say that, although few had the least appreciation of the difficulties ahead, and though the most favourable interpretation was invariably put on the patrol reports, there was at the back of everybody's mind the thought that there might be unexpected difficulties. Only the sobering experience of the operation itself crystallised these thoughts.

To say this is not to say that plans were carelessly made or lightly entered into, for that would be contrary to fact. The planning was meticulously carried out, and within the scope of the operation there were no loose ends. Indeed, as the date of the attack came closer, but after all the plans had been finalised, General Freyberg said at a conference that it would be unwise to underestimate the difficulties ahead, for there might be considerable opposition. Brigadier Kippenberger said that the operation would be the most difficult since the attack on Miteiriya Ridge.1 But in spite of these opinions, upon which it is easier to place emphasis now that the page 299 difficulties are known, the general feeling remained, as one of the battalion commanders explained to his officers, that the whole thing was ‘a piece of cake’.

Perhaps the reason for this, apart from the altogether commendable spirit of invincibility, was the miscalculation concerning the enemy positions. The plans themselves make this clear, and it was emphasised at the final conferences when Generals Freyberg, Horrocks and Montgomery all referred to 10 Corps' objectives as covering positions for a main line of resistance farther back. Thus the eyes of the planners were not focussed on Takrouna, or even on Djebel Garci, but on Djebel Froukr and on Djebel Mdeker. But because it was admitted that maps were poor, that there was limited information from reconnaissance, and that, generally speaking, information was inadequate, there was an element of experiment in the plans. Adhering to his principle of maintaining balance and poise, General Montgomery insisted that the further development of the operation, a hook eastwards along the ridges from Mdeker, would depend entirely on the degree of resistance met during the first phase. Horrocks went no farther than to claim that all they could be certain of were the first and second objectives. But even this was too much.

1 At the opening of the Battle of El Alamein, 23–24 Oct 1942.