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Bardia to Enfidaville

The Enemy Retirement into the Agheila Position

The Enemy Retirement into the Agheila Position

While 2 NZ Division was resting near Bardia, Eighth Army's pursuit of the enemy continued across Cyrenaica, employing mainly 7 Armoured Division with 4 Light Armoured Brigade as the spearhead, supported throughout by the Desert Air Force. Tobruk was entered on 13 November, after an abortive attempt to cut off the garrison by an outflanking attack towards Acroma. The garrison got away almost complete, and the enemy continued his withdrawal towards Benghazi.

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At this point the most urgent task was to obtain possession of the airfields in the Martuba area without delay. A convoy, the first for seven months, was to leave Alexandria for Malta on 16 November, and would have to get through if the defence of the island was to be maintained and the population kept from starvation. To provide air cover for the latter stages of the journey it was essential to have the use of the Martuba airfields; and the critical day was 18 November. The landing grounds were in the end brought into use on the 16th, the passage of the Malta convoy duly covered and Malta in effect relieved.

Meanwhile the enemy continued his withdrawal, making use only of the main coast road through Gebel Akhdar and round the Cyrenaican bulge. There was a temptation to repeat the strategy of sending a force direct across the arc of the bulge to cut the enemy off around Agedabia. But two previous ventures of this nature, in early 1941 and early 1942, had led to disaster from a swift enemy counter-attack against advanced forces; so this time only light reconnaissance forces went by this route initially, and they were held up by waterlogged ground. It then became known, however, that the enemy's shortage of petrol might well lead to a standstill in his transport. So a second and stronger column was sent across the bulge; but the enemy fought off this threat and retired into the El Agheila position. Meanwhile Benghazi was occupied on 20 November for the third—and last—time.

Part of the comparative slowness—and the qualifying word ‘comparative’ must be emphasised—of our advance was due to the administrative position. At Agedabia the troops were more than 350 miles by road from Tobruk, the nearest port functioning, and until Benghazi was in working order again it was manifestly unwise to push too great a force in advance of that port.

At one stage two squadrons of Hurricanes operated well inland from a safe airstrip in advance of our forward troops and were maintained entirely by air. Then, in the few days following the enemy retirement to El Agheila (24 November onwards), the Luftwaffe became unexpectedly aggressive and made a number of attacks on advanced units of 7 Armoured Division. These attacks were all the more noticeable, and the more talked about, because for some time the RAF had had almost complete control of the air. But in a day or two the Desert Air Force had restored the position and stopped most attacks, or greatly minimised their intensity.

For the moment the enemy's intentions were not clear. The morale of the German troops was apparently still high; but it must have been clear to them that this time they had been hustled page 15 back into the El Agheila position, whereas on the two previous occasions they had retired there of their own volition with the intention of resuming the offensive—a case of reculer pour mieux sauter. But whatever the enemy's intention, Montgomery was determined that the British forces should not be caught again; and not for the first nor the last time he used the word ‘balance’, meaning that formations were to be so placed as to be ready for any eventuality, especially an enemy counter-offensive. Thus, while 7 Armoured Division was pursuing the enemy, 1 Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division, under command of 10 Corps, were based in the area between Derna and Bardia, with plans prepared for defence should the enemy launch a major counter-attack. The New Zealand Division's part in this plan was to occupy a position in the Acroma-Knightsbridge area.

Towards the end of November, 51 (Highland) Division, which had remained at Alamein, was brought forward to a position behind 7 Armoured Division, so strengthening the first line of defence; and steps were taken to move 50 Division forward from Egypt to take its place. At the same time Headquarters 30 Corps took over responsibility for operations beyond Agedabia, leaving 10 Corps responsible only for the second line of defence.

As the days went on it became clear that the enemy had no thought of counter-attack and that the immediate tactical problem was to eject him from the El Agheila position and then resume the advance to the west. But before discussing this problem and the part played in its solution by 2 NZ Division, it is proposed to say a few words about the opposing commanders, Montgomery and Rommel, and about the enemy.