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The El Agheila Position
The El Agheila Position
The El Agheila position marked in effect the indeterminate division between Cyrenaica and Tripolitania (the two northern subdivisions of Libya), and when occupied by troops could well be a barrier to the passage from the one to the other. Its strength lay in the fact that its eastern, southern, and south-western approaches are covered with salt marshes, soft sand, or exceptionally broken ground unsuitable for manoeuvre, the only clear approach being the narrow strip along the coast road.
The British forces knew it as either the ‘Agheila’ or the ‘El Agheila’ position; but actually the enemy's line of defences ran from the coast at Marsa Brega to the south and then to the west, and the Germans always referred to it as the ‘Marsa el Brega’ line. The defences round El Agheila itself, some 25 miles behind Marsa Brega, formed a second position to the main line.1
Whatever its name, the position was known to be strong. From the coast near Marsa Brega the line ran behind (i.e., south-west of) the salt marsh Sebcha es Seghira as far as Bir es Suera, thence south to Bu Mdeues on Wadi el Faregh (which also was an obstacle), then turned to the west along the wadi to Maaten Giofer, and then south again along the Marada Track to Sidi Tabet, with a detached strongpoint at Marada. Minefields were laid at various points in front of the main defended localities.
Nature and the works of man had combined to make venturesome any direct assault on the position, but both sides knew that it could be outflanked. It was also known that the outflanking page 22 force would need to make a long cast to the south before turning west and north, and that careful reconnaissance would be necessary to find a practicable line of advance.
The defences of El Agheila village itself included a chain of minefields at about four kilometres radius, touching the coast on both east and west. Some 17 miles to the west of El Agheila there was an anti-tank ditch protected by minefields, running from the sea to the tip of Sebcha el Chebira, another salt marsh. The narrow gap between sea and marsh, known to the Germans as ‘El Mugtaa Narrows’, made this point a bottleneck.
Cognisance had to be taken in planning of the fact that the defences anywhere near the coast—at Marsa Brega, at El Agheila, and at El Mugtaa Narrows—were strong and therefore it would be advisable to avoid a frontal attack. The more quickly the enemy could be turned out of the position the better, as he would otherwise have time to improve his defences, always assuming that he intended to stay and fight.