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Bardia to Enfidaville

Plan of Attack

Plan of Attack

As long as bulk supplies had to be carried forward almost 400 miles from Tobruk, it was not possible for the Eighth Army to advance farther in strength, and there was a limit to the number of troops who could be maintained facing the El Agheila position and beyond it towards Sirte and Buerat. The bulk supplies available at the ports had to maintain not only the army but also the air force, and by mid-December the air force alone would require 1400 tons of stores a day. The offensive of the air force ranked equal with that of the army; and one of the essentials for any advance was that the air force should be able to operate with maximum capacity from advanced landing grounds. The opening up of Benghazi harbour thus became top priority; but at best it would be of little use until the latter half of December. In the meantime the build-up of supplies was dependent upon the long haul from Tobruk.

Montgomery decided, therefore, that the attack on the El Agheila position must be carried out by not more than three divisions, of which one alone would be armoured, and that it could not take place until mid-December. There was a faint hope that the enemy would not pause at all at El Agheila, and Montgomery wondered if a few manoeuvres on the southern flank might not be enough to cause him to abandon the position. But this was only a passing thought, and he soon decided, in his own words, to ‘annihilate the enemy in his defences' or ‘get behind the German forces and capture them’.1

1 Montgomery, El Alamein to the River Sangro, pp. 35–6.

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The general plan was to attack the main position from Marsa Brega to Sidi Tabet with 51 (Highland) and 7 Armoured Divisions, and to send 2 NZ Division, reinforced by 4 Light Armoured Brigade, on an outflanking march to the south, west and north-west with Marble Arch1 as the objective; but reconnaissance was necessary before this outflanking move could be definitely ordered. On 30 November a patrol of the King's Dragoon Guards, under Captain P. D. Chrystal, using three armoured cars and three jeeps, started from El Haseiat and proceeded south of Sebchet Gheizel, thence across the Maaten Giofer – Marada track, and north-westwards to the Marble Arch area, the object being to find out if there was a suitable route for the passage of a large mechanised force.

The reconnaissance party had difficulties that were only to be expected in such broken country, but in the end found a route with going that was always fair, and usually good, for the whole way to the Marble Arch. The only considerable obstacle was a large rift, some eight miles across and with steep or precipitous sides, lying athwart the route. This had to be crossed at right angles at a point about 80 miles from El Haseiat, for there did not appear to be any alternative. The crossing was quite feasible but there would need to be considerable detailed reconnaissance and marking of routes. This obstacle was at once known as Chrystal's Rift.2

The remainder of the route offered no special difficulty. After crossing the Rift it went roughly west until it reached the Marada Track some 25 miles north of Marada (or 30 miles south of Maaten Giofer), thence along the track northwards for some ten miles and then generally north-west to Marble Arch, keeping to the north-eastern edge of Chor Scemmer, which was an impassable marshy ravine. A frontage of several miles could be maintained over most of the route, with the exception of Chrystal's Rift. There were parts, however, especially west of the Marada Track, where low hills and small steep escarpments would make for difficult night driving.

1 Marble Arch (Arae Philaenorum), a tall, narrow arch straddling the Via Balbia about 40 miles west of El Agheila, was built by Mussolini on the spot where, in the fourth century BC, the Philaeni brothers were said to have given their lives to settle a frontier dispute between the Greek colony of Cyrenaica and the Carthaginian Empire to the west. The boundary was to be fixed where two runners from Cyrene met the two brothers, who were to set out simultaneously from Carthage. The Cyrenians, who had gone much less than halfway when they met, accused the Philaeni brothers of having got away to a flying start and suggested that they should return farther west, where the Cyrenians would be buried alive. The Philaeni brothers, however, chose to be buried alive where they were.

2 In many places this is referred to as Chrystal's Drift, and it was generally so known at the time; but the original reconnaissance report refers to it as a ‘rift’, which in fact it was, and it is now accepted that ‘Rift’ is correct.

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Chrystal's reconnaissance was carried out without interference from the enemy, although it seemed certain that it had been seen, as on two occasions enemy aircraft flew overhead, once following the patrol for some miles, and once circling round for twenty minutes.