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Bardia to Enfidaville

Across the Rift

Across the Rift

Rain fell on 12 and 13 December and laid the dust that might otherwise have betrayed the columns of 2 NZ Division, and low cloud also contributed to the secrecy of the move. In the daytime the temperatures were fresh to cold, and the nights could be quite cold, with even a touch of frost; all in all the desert was a healthy and pleasant place during the winter months.

The Division moved to Chrystal's Rift in desert formation,1 but while crossing the Rift had to reduce to a narrow front of three vehicles. At one stage the GOC was not satisfied with the progress being made and ‘sent people forward and hustled everyone through’.

The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, followed by 6 Infantry Brigade Group, led the advance; but by mid-morning Divisional Cavalry caught up and later went into the lead. By the end of the day these leading elements had reached an area some ten to 15 miles beyond the Rift, 6 Infantry Brigade Group having travelled about 56 miles. Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group travelled about 80 miles and reached an area just behind the leading formations. Fifth Infantry Brigade Group halted almost as soon as it had crossed the Rift, but by that time had been travelling for over eight hours.

The divisional operation order for the move, unusually late because of the speeding up of the programme, was issued at 6.15 p.m. on 13 December. It merely confirmed and assembled in one place the results of a series of orders and instructions, both verbal and written, that had been issued during the previous days. The tasks of the Division were defined:


To block the Marada Track south of Sidi Tabet.


To occupy high ground west of the salt marsh area in order to prevent the enemy withdrawing from the El Agheila position.

1 In desert formation units usually dispersed with vehicles 100 yards apart; sometimes they were 150 yards (e.g., during the move from Wadi Matratin to Nofilia). With 100 yards' dispersal a brigade group might occupy an area nearly a mile wide and a mile and a half long. The arrangement was not always the same, but one battalion might cover the front and one each flank, thus enclosing brigade headquarters, the field artillery, headquarters of the anti-tank and anti-aircraft artillery, engineers, machine-gun company, and field ambulance. The anti-tank guns (possibly including some 25-pounders in an anti-tank role) and anti-aircraft guns would be deployed around the perimeter, and a screen of Bren carriers might be some distance to the front and each flank. When the group was travelling at night it closed in to visibility distance between vehicles.

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This high ground (called Dor Lanuf) was at the north-western tip of Sebcha el Chebira, about halfway between the anti-tank ditch at the El Mugtaa Narrows and Marble Arch. It overlooked the coast road (called Via Balbia by the enemy, its correct Italian name) where it emerged from the Narrows, and was an ideal place to block the enemy.

The Division was to move on 14 December to Stage III, just short of the Marada Track, and was to continue during that night along a lighted route to Stage IV, another 25 miles to the northwest. On the 15th it was to reach the final objective, which was given the codename PLUM. The route in the last stage would be along the south-west side of Sebcha el Chebira and between the Sebcha and Chor Scemmer.

The move to Stage III was to be in normal groupings, but on arrival there a flank guard would be formed as follows under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Mitchell1 of 7 Anti-Tank Regiment:

one squadron Royals (armoured cars)
A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry (Sherman tanks)
one battery 4 NZ Field Regiment
one battery 7 NZ Anti-Tank Regiment
one section 6 NZ Field Company
one infantry company to be detailed by 5 Brigade
one company 27 (MG) Battalion.
light section field ambulance
second-line and B Echelon transport of the above

The Division was to form up at Stage III in the order of march: the armoured cars of 4 Light Armoured Brigade well out in front (Divisional Cavalry was to fall back into Reserve Group), followed by the Flank Guard, and then the remainder of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, 6 Brigade Group, Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group, 5 Brigade Group, second-line transport of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, and Administrative Group.

When the advance was under way during the night of 14–15 December, the Flank Guard was to move off at the appropriate moment to a position astride the Marada Track on high ground just south of Sidi Tabet, ‘to prevent the enemy breaking out from the El Agheila position’; it was ordered to hold the position at all costs. Such instructions seem ambitious for a force based on one tank squadron and one infantry company. But the truth was that the GOC's forces were really not large enough for the various duties that might fall to them, especially when one of these duties might be to resist the full strength of the Axis forces in the area.

1 Brig J. M. Mitchell, DSO, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Port Chalmers, 29 Jun 1904; public servant; CO 7 A-Tk Regt Dec 1941–Dec 1943, May–Oct 1944; OC NZ Tps in Egypt 1945–46.

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The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to report at the earliest opportunity on 15 December on an intermediate objective, APPLE, 15 miles short of PLUM, and then on PLUM itself; and when 6 Brigade had occupied PLUM, 4 Brigade was to provide flank protection to the west for the Division. In addition to occupying PLUM, 6 Brigade was to assist, with the advice of the RAF liaison officer travelling with the Division, in clearing grounds at Marble Arch and around Bir el Merduma.

Strict wireless silence was to be observed within the Division until contact was made with the enemy, or until 9 a.m. on 15 December, whichever came first.

When General Freyberg conferred with his formation commanders in the evening of 13 December, the Division had reached the most southerly point of its move, and had met only the problems of an ordinary desert march. From now on they would be heading towards the enemy and the prospect of active operations. The GOC, therefore, after discussing timings and details of the next moves, arranged for Divisional Cavalry with its Stuart tanks to join 4 Light Armoured Brigade if the Greys had not caught up. At that moment the Greys had in fact only just crossed Chrystal's Rift.

The frontal attack on the Marsa Brega position by 51 (Highland) and 7 Armoured Divisions was much impeded by mines, in the use of which the enemy had been prodigal—a foretaste of the difficulties to be faced throughout the campaign. The enemy had succeeded in slipping away unnoticed during the night of 12–13 December, and next morning the Highland Division carried out intensive shelling against positions that had been vacated. By evening this division was in occupation of Marsa Brega, and 7 Armoured Division had patrolled through Giofer towards El Agheila without making contact with the enemy. By nightfall British troops were in the vicinity of Sidi Hmuda on the Via Balbia. The air forces had had a good day against transport on the road.

At that stage 90 Light Division was a few miles east of El Agheila itself, and Ariete Battle Group some ten miles to the south. Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 580 Reconnaissance Unit, the latter from 21 Panzer Division, were about ten miles farther back, still east of the Narrows. The bulk of Africa Corps was in defensive positions in the Narrows, to the east of 2 NZ Division's objective PLUM. The 33rd Reconnaissance Unit (from 15 Panzer Division), with a few Italians, was away to the west of Marble Arch. A battle group made up of vehicles from the Army Headquarters Protective Unit was some 15 miles south of Marble Arch.

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In the enemy's appreciation for this day there is no mention of the outflanking march of 2 NZ Division, probably because bad weather stopped any German long-range reconnaissance. Thus while Rommel was always conscious of the chance of a flank attack, he did not so far appreciate this danger; moreover, he had been thinking of a flank attack of lesser range. However, he still retained some Italian troops round Nofilia, despite urgings from Superlibia to get them back to Buerat.

The enemy situation was known fairly accurately to 30 Corps; as early as 11.30 a.m. a message was sent to 2 NZ Division giving up-to-date information, which radically changed the situation. For some reason which cannot be elucidated, this message was not received at Divisional Headquarters until 8 p.m. It read: ‘Enemy now evacuated Marada and will be around Zella. Send patrols Zella simulate this deception [sic] while your forward move continues maximum speed. Marsa Brega evacuated. Suera still held. Enemy transport streaming west through El Agheila and north from Giofer. All RAF on this. 15 Panzer Division now 40 miles west Agheila. Good luck and good hunting.’

A 30 Corps intelligence report on the same lines, sent at 11.30 a.m., was not received until 8.35 p.m. About 9 p.m. further situation reports received at Divisional Headquarters showed, among other things, that 8 Armoured Brigade of 7 Armoured Division was approaching the Marada Track in the direction of Maaten Giofer.

The message from 30 Corps reads rather breathlessly. While the main instruction—to push on fast—was of the first importance and was to be carried out, no action seems to have been taken about sending the patrols to Zella. It will be remembered that a party from the King's Dragoon Guards had set off to Marada and Zella on 7 December, occupied the former on the 9th and reported this to its regimental headquarters. Information on 13 December that Marada was empty therefore appears to be belated. This KDG patrol rejoined its regiment that very evening, having incurred casualties to men and vehicles by running on to an enemy minefield some 20 miles short of Zella. Presumably the GOC thought this information sufficient. In the end Zella was occupied by the LRDG on 20 December; it must have been evacuated by the enemy some days earlier.

The instructions to other formations in 30 Corps on 14 December were that 7 Armoured Division was to clear the road around El Agheila and patrol southwards so as to make contact with 2 NZ Division at Sidi Tabet, and 51 (H) Division was to pass through 7 Armoured Division and advance to the anti-tank ditch at the Narrows.

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The moves prescribed for 7 Armoured Division made it unnecessary for 2 NZ Division to go on with the proposed flank guard, and the GOC cancelled this at once, before the guard had even assembled. It then became an urgent matter to decide just how soon the Division could resume the advance, and how fast it could move once it started. The GSO I (Colonel R. C. Queree1) advised the GOC that to be properly organised for the next stage, the Division would have to remain where it was until daylight. Moreover, at some time on 14 December there would have to be a pause to replenish with petrol, for undoubtedly there had been a miscalculation of the mileage per gallon to be expected from heavily-laden vehicles in rough going. Normally vehicles might have been able to last out until 15 December. The upshot of these factors was, first, that there could be no question of a night march, and secondly, that it would not be possible to go right through to the coast road on 14 December.

In conversations with his brigadiers over the telephone, however, the GOC still conveyed the hope that there might be some movement during the night, and suggested to 4 Light Armoured Brigade that it might move by moonlight—the moon was already well up—perhaps even as far as Stage III. But it then transpired that the Shermans of the Greys were still in 5 Brigade's area, a long way behind their own brigade. The most that could be hoped for was that everyone would get off at first light, which would be about 7 a.m.

Thus it transpired that by 9 p.m. on 13 December the course of events had made the Division's plan, issued only a few hours before, already in need of amendment.

1 Brig R. C. Queree, CBE, DSO, m.i.d.; London; born Christchurch, 28 Jun 1909; Regular soldier; Brigade Major, NZ Arty, Oct 1940–Jun 1941; GSO II 2 NZ Div Jun–Aug 1941, Jan–Jun 1942; GSO I 2 NZ Div Sep 1942–Jun 1944; BGS NZ Corps 9 Feb–27 Mar 1944; CO 5 Fd Regt Jun–Aug 1944; CRA 2 NZ Div, Aug 1944–Jun 1945; QMG, Army HQ, 1948–50; Adjutant-General 1954–56; Vice-Chief of General Staff 1956–60; Senior Army Liaison Officer, London.