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Bardia to Enfidaville


page 32

BY the morning of 12 December Montgomery had come to the conclusion that the offensive against the El Agheila position must start at once if the enemy was not to escape altogether. At 11 a.m. that day 2 NZ Division learnt that all timings were advanced by forty-eight hours, and that it therefore would have to cross the Marada Track (the move to Stage IV) during the night 14–15 December instead of 16–17 December.

This was not surprising, for in common with other commanders General Freyberg had been aware that the enemy was on the move. But while saying that he would make every effort to comply, he had to point out that neither the administrative preparations nor the attachment of units to groups was yet complete, and that there was no spare time to overcome unexpected obstacles.

Needless to say, 12 December was a busy day with the Division. Luckily replenishment with petrol was complete for the first-line vehicles; and those second-line vehicles which still had to fill up would be able to catch up the next day. But there was scant time for all the myriad things that must be done before a long move, and there was considerable bustle. However, the Division was by this time fully battle-worthy and had reserves of knowledge and resource that helped to meet emergencies such as this.

Orders were issued for groups to move as then constituted (i.e., normal groupings) to an area south-west of Chrystal's Rift—Stage II. In fact, 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 6 Infantry Brigade Group set off the same afternoon (12 December), travelling some 30 miles to a point about 25 miles short of the Rift. The rest of the Division was to follow early on the 13th.

But unfortunately the Greys' tank crews were still engaged on maintenance and training problems near El Haseiat, and were not ready to leave with their brigade, which thus had to set off without its strongest component.

Eighth Army's activities on this day convinced Rommel that the offensive had at last begun; and in accordance with what he calls the Duce's instructions, but which was in fact his own wish not to accept a decisive engagement in the Marsa Brega position, page 33 he issued the codeword which meant that a withdrawal was to commence, but only as far as the area El Agheila village — El Mugtaa Narrows. For the moment the Italian XXI Corps remained at Nofilia.