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Bardia to Enfidaville

The Enemy

The Enemy

Unfortunately, after the Tebaga operations information from German sources becomes increasingly thin and unhelpful, and it is difficult to build up any coherent picture of enemy movements. The last previous references to the enemy are made in the passages describing the advance on Enfidaville, where the opponents of 2 NZ Division came from that perpetual rearguard, 90 Light Division. By the middle of April somewhere to the west were bits and pieces—the terms are used deliberately—of all the formations 15 Panzer, 21 Panzer, 164 Light and various Italian divisions.

The only reports available for the period from 13 April onwards are those of Marshal Messe, General Bayerlein, and 90 Light Division. The first-named is of little worth, being written somewhat flamboyantly for home consumption; the second ends on 27 April and the third on 20 April. During the few days about the middle of April there are a few items of interest. The Germans were also preparing to use horses and mules, but because they were short of MT; 90 Light Division's strength report of 3 April shows that it numbered 5700 all ranks, and on at least one occasion in the Enfidaville line it was bombed by its own planes.

About the middle of April there was a movement of troops away to the north and west to join 5 Panzer Army. The 10th Panzer Division departed from the front of Eighth Army for good, as did the armoured elements of 21 Panzer Division, although some unarmoured elements of this division made their appearance later. page 310 The remaining panzer division, the redoubtable 15th, went into reserve about 13 April, north of Ain Hallouf (ten miles north of Enfidaville), and was still there on 19–20 April. About this time Messe reports that there were only thirty tanks, both German and Italian, in his army, drawn from 15 Panzer Division and Centauro Battle Group.1 They played no part in the next battle, and it appears that the armour of 15 Panzer also went over to 5 Panzer Army. Thus 2 NZ Division, though it did not realise it in mid-April, was not to be opposed again in North Africa by enemy armour.

From 12 April onwards the commander of 90 Light Division (Major-General Graf von Sponeck) supported by the commander of 164 Light Division (Major-General von Liebenstein) made strong representations that it was useless to try to hold a line in the level ground round Enfidaville, or indeed anywhere on the flat, and that the thing to do was to go back into the hills, leaving only token forces on the plain. The line von Sponeck advocated started ‘just east of Takrouna’, and then ran to the eastern slopes of Djebels Bir, Cherachir and Froukr – eastern bank of Wadi Krarrouba – southern edge of Sidi Cherif – southern slope of Djebel Mengoub – eastern slope of Djebel et Tebaga – southern edge of Kef Ateya – eastern slopes of Djebel el Matouch – thence east to the southern tip of Sebkra Sidi Kralifa. Apparently von Liebenstein made much the same kind of representation on his sector, which was west of Djebel Garci.

The 90th Light Division's war diary says, ‘Takrouna was the dominating point, flanking the enemy in both directions and must be held as long as possible to keep up our OPs'. An extract from Bayerlein's diary says, ‘1 Italian Army suggested …. that Takrouna be fortified as an advanced strong point not to be evacuated except under heavy pressure. Army Group agreed’. Messe says, ‘I had immediately seen the importance which Takrouna hill could have in the general defensive scheme, though far advanced and almost detached from the main positions. I planned to make it an independent strongpoint whose function would be to break the first impetus of the enemy attack and divert it towards the re-entrants in the coastal and central sectors'.

The enemy's main line of resistance included Djebels Froukr and Cherachir, then turned north-west to run along the northern side of the Zaghouan road. Djebel Bir also was an ‘advanced strongpoint’. It will be seen from the above that the enemy was apparently prepared to lose Takrouna without considering it a fatal blow, for the reason presumably that Takrouna, overlooking the hills to the north, was far less formidable and threatening as when overlooking page 311 the plain to the south. In the allotment of troops to the line Takrouna was given to the Italians, with only one German platoon doubtless intended to protect the German artillery observation post established there, although a Luftwaffe battalion was positioned behind them in second line.

At a conference held on 14 April General von Arnim, commander of Army Group Africa, agreed to a withdrawal into the hills, with the result that 90 Light Division went back to a sector running from Djebel et Tebaga to the sea, with a part of the Young Fascist Division holding a sub-sector. Rearguards of one company per regiment were left in a line running through Enfidaville, and it is these rearguards which had kept the town in German hands.

By 16 April the front was held by 90 Light Division as above, followed on the west by the main part of Young Fascist Division as far as Djebel Bir, but with part of 361 Regiment (of 90 Light) and part of 47 Regiment (from 5 Panzer Army) holding Froukr, Cherachir and Bir. Then came Trieste Division holding as far as Garci exclusive, with German support behind Takrouna. Farther to the west were 164 Light, Centauro, a part of 90 Light, and unarmoured elements of 15 Panzer, but these were all well away from 2 NZ Division.

About this time 15 Panzer Division numbered 6000, 90 Light was reduced to 5700, 164 Light 2500, and Trieste 1000. In numbers alone 1 Italian Army was hopelessly outclassed, but the next battle was to show the enormous value of a naturally strong defensive position.

There is in the records the usual conflict between Messe and Bayerlein regarding their responsibilities, and in many cases they contradict each other flatly. But the impression emerges that Messe on this occasion was really prepared to fight to the last.

1 Which closely approximates the figure given on p. 290. Cf. p. 254.