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Bardia to Enfidaville

The Enemy in early December

The Enemy in early December

Rommel expected an attack as early as 27 November, in the belief that Montgomery might try to ‘crash’ the El Agheila position. Such an attack held no fears for him; but he realised that as time went on Eighth Army would progressively become stronger, and by the middle of December might be able to attack with two armoured and four infantry divisions, thus greatly outnumbering him. He does not seem to have appreciated the restrictions of administration on the number of troops in the forward area.

page 30

In early December, before any thinning out had started, the enemy troops in the ‘Marsa el Brega’ position were:

By 9 December, when 2 NZ Division was concentrating at El Haseiat, the whole of XXI Corps had been withdrawn and was on its way back to the Buerat position. About the same time the German 164 Light Division, which had been refitting in Tripoli, came forward again as far as Buerat, where it was put in charge of the defence construction work to be done there.

The enemy had identified 7 Armoured and 51 (H) Divisions, but not specifically 2 NZ Division, although on 25 November he had reported it as already moving forward—nine or ten days before it left Bardia. But he knew that there were other formations in the forward area. He even mistakenly identified 9 Australian Division, and on another occasion thought that there were four divisions ready to attack. By 10 December Rommel was sure that the attack would include a ‘wide encircling movement’ round the southern flank; and partly as a counter to this, he slowed down the move of the Italian units towards Buerat and held them for a few days at Nofilia, as he did not want British troops to arrive there and find it undefended. In a report to Superlibia and to Kesselring on 10 December Rommel said, ‘unless the army's petrol situation is improved at the earliest possible moment, the danger cannot be avoided of the Panzer Army being hopelessly stranded between Marsa el Brega and Buerat, and then….being sacrificed to the Eighth Army.’

The El Agheila position was manned from north to south on 11 December by 90 Light Division (including a group from the German Air Force Brigade), the Africa Corps (15 and 21 Panzer Divisions), and the Ariete Group, the limits being from Marsa Brega via Bir es Suera and Maaten Belcleibat to Maaten Giofer. In reserve were Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment, and certain detached portions of the Africa Corps. The 15th Panzer Division had 27 tanks, 21 Panzer Division 26, and Ariete 57, the last all Italian. All units were motorised; but there was petrol for only 20 or 30 miles.

page 31

It is impossible to ascertain the correct strengths of enemy units but it seems probable that the Germans had altogether about 14,000 men in the area. Ariete Group cannot have numbered more than two or three thousand. One can safely conclude that 30 Corps was very much stronger than the total enemy troops it was likely to meet.