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Bardia to Enfidaville

6 Brigade Advances

6 Brigade Advances

Sixth Brigade Group advanced northwards about 5 p.m., with instructions to block the coast road. When the light began to fail the brigade halted to close up into night formation, while six carriers were sent out on a bearing of 45 degrees to reconnoitre to the road; they had to refuel, so did not get away until 7.15 p.m. Wireless communication with them failed after they had gone about two miles, and Brigade Headquarters lost touch with them. Meanwhile the brigade moved on; the country became more and more difficult to traverse, for it now included a number of small wadis with soft bottoms. Visibility was poor as there was only a half-moon often obscured by clouds.

The carriers actually reached the road close to Wadi Matratin and heard vehicles passing along it. They came back along what they thought was the brigade axis, and in the dark missed the brigade column, which probably had deviated a little from its first course.

The brigade was by this time tangled up in the network of wadis that finally merge into Wadi Matratin. It had been estimated that the road was only four miles away from the point at which the carriers had been detached; but when the brigade had advanced that distance there was still no sign of the road, so a second carrier patrol was sent forward with a special wireless set and instructions to report at the end of each mile. Because of the earlier error in navigation, the brigade, when it turned to the north, was something like ten miles from the road.

At the end of another three miles' advance the second patrol reported that the road appeared to be about a mile ahead, judging by the sound of traffic, and that a wadi immediately in front of the brigade was impassable to vehicles in the dark. Brigadier Gentry then went forward to reconnoitre, accompanied by the three battalion commanders and the officers commanding 6 Field Regiment and 8 Field Company. They went a little farther than the carrier patrol had gone previously and ran into an enemy post on a ridge. The leading carrier in which the brigade commander was travelling was knocked out by an anti-tank gun at very close range, but he escaped page 48 unharmed although the driver was reported killed. Major Reid,1 of 8 Field Company, was hit in the arm and was evacuated after some difficulty to the advanced dressing station.

The Brigadier got clear and then reported to the GOC by radio that the brigade was in contact with the enemy and about a mile and a half or less from the road. He was given discretion whether or not to attack, and decided to do so. The time was about 11.30 p.m. but the ridge in front was faintly discernible. In the circumstances it was not the place for any elaborate plan. The 24th Battalion (Major Webb2) was ordered to attack silently on the left on a bearing of 45 degrees, and 25 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Bonifant3) on the right on a bearing of 94 degrees. They were to capture the enemy position on the ridge, dig in, and get their anti-tank guns sited before dawn. Each battalion was given a troop of anti-tank guns from 33 Battery, and a platoon of machine guns from 2 MG Company. The 8th Field Company was to block the main road and its verges with mines. The 26th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Fountaine4) was in reserve.

The attack began at 12.30 a.m. on 16 December, each battalion having two companies forward and two in reserve. The 25th advanced 2000 yards, made no contact with the enemy and took up a position which it thought overlooked the road. So far the battalion had had only one casualty, from shellfire. The 24th, on the left, encountered some sporadic shelling, and then, having advanced about 1000 yards and reached the first crest of the ridge, was resisted by a force estimated to be of about three companies. The battalion pressed its attack and the enemy withdrew by transport in some disorder. The battalion had seven casualties, including the CO, who was wounded by mortar fire and evacuated to the advanced dressing station. Major J. Conolly5 took command. Later in the day, while in an ambulance car on the way back from the advanced to the main dressing station, both Major Reid and Major Webb were captured by the enemy. Major Reid was subsequently found in hospital in Tripoli.

1 Lt-Col H. M. Reid, MC and bar, m.i.d.; Christchurch; born Auckland, 21 Mar 1904; civil engineer; OC 6 Fd Coy Jun–Aug 1942; 8 Fd Coy Aug–Dec 1942; comd NZ Forestry Group (UK) Jul–Oct 1943; attached Air Ministry Dec 1943–Feb 1944; twice wounded; wounded and p.w. 16 Dec 1942; released, Tripoli, 23 Jan 1943.

2 Lt-Col R. G. Webb, ED, m.i.d.; Pukehou; born Stratford, 5 Aug 1906; schoolmaster; CO 24 Bn 22 Nov–16 Dec 1942; wounded and p.w. 16 Dec 1942; headmaster, Te Aute College.

3 Brig I. L. Bonifant, DSO and bar, ED, m.i.d.; Adelaide; born Ashburton, 3 Mar 1912; stock agent; CO 25 Bn Sep 1942–Jan 1943; Div Cav Jan 1943–Apr 1944; comd 6 Bde 3–27 Mar 1944; 5 Bde Jan–May 1945; 6 Bde Jun–Oct 1945.

4 Col D. J. Fountaine, DSO, MC, m.i.d.; Westport; born Westport, 4 Jul 1914; company secretary; CO 20 Bn Jul–Aug 1942; 26 Bn Sep 1942–Dec 1943, Jun–Oct 1944; comd NZ Adv Base Oct 1944–Sep 1945; wounded 26 Nov 1941.

5 Lt-Col J. Conolly, DSO, m.i.d.; Auckland; born Waihi, 15 Aug 1908; school teacher; CO 24 Bn Dec 1942–Apr 1944; wounded 21 Jul 1942.

page 49

By 2.15 a.m. 24 Battalion was on its objective, but there was a gap between the two units. The location of the battalions was believed to be about Bir el Haddadia, facing north-east, and at 7.30 a.m. this was reported to Divisional Headquarters, which seems to show that there was still some doubt about the point where the turn to the road had been made. Had the turn been round Bir el Merduma, the road would certainly have been struck near Bir el Haddadia; but in fact the battalions were in the vicinity of Saniet Matratin, and were still anything up to two miles short of the road.

Subsequently there was some argument over the ‘mistake in navigation’; but provided the road was cut before the main enemy forces passed along it, the place where it was cut did not much matter. Saniet Matratin was just as good as Bir el Haddadia. From Bir el Merduma to the road at Bir el Haddadia is about nine miles; from the turning point near Wadi er Rigel to the road at Saniet Matratin is about ten or eleven miles, and the country is equally rough in either place.

The mistake in navigation, therefore, mattered little. What mattered more was having to advance all the way to the road in darkness. It would have been better to have operated over this unknown country in daylight. Thus the delay in refuelling the Greys in the morning of 15 December, with the consequential delay to 6 Brigade, was unfortunate. But for this delay, 6 Brigade would have had three or four hours' more daylight for the advance and for reconnaissance. The final result of an advance to the road in daylight, with an enemy flank guard already in position guarding it, can only be guessed at, for many ‘ifs’ and ‘provideds’ make speculation hopeless; but a few hours' more daylight, and the support of tanks and artillery thus made available, would have helped.

During the hours of darkness that remained on the night of 15–16 December the forward battalions heard the continuous noise of transport moving westwards along the road—an exasperating sound. The engineers from 8 Field Company had difficulty in starting their move, and it was 4 a.m. before they set off. They laid mines near the area occupied by the battalions, but this was unfortunately some distance from the road. It had to be accepted that the road had not been cut.

By the time Main Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group paused west of Wadi er Rigel it was dark. Reserve Group had become strung out and 5 Brigade fell some way behind; so as darkness was approaching, Brigadier Kippenberger went ahead of his brigade to catch up with the GOC. The first instructions he page 50 received were to carry on until he caught up with 6 Brigade, but just before his own brigade arrived (about 7 p.m.) he was told by the GOC not to proceed but to deploy facing east.

There were good reasons for this change of plan. The Division was becoming so spread out as to reduce its value as a fighting force. Divisional Cavalry and 4 Light Armoured Brigade were already distributed over the desert, not to say scattered; and at that moment the course of events for 6 Brigade had yet to be determined. To send 5 Brigade farther north on the heels of the 6th might only lead to confusion in the darkness between the two brigades. The exact location of the enemy was not known, nor yet his intention. And finally there was the imminent arrival in the area south-west of Divisional Headquarters of Administrative Group, an enormous collection of soft-skinned vehicles carrying, among other things, the reserve supply of petrol. Protection of soft-skinned vehicles was always a problem in desert warfare, and both sides had had experience of supply columns being overrun. The smallest of enemy fighting forces could cause carnage among such vehicles; one enemy tank was more than the equal of a legion of trucks. It was therefore most desirable that a fighting force should stand between Administrative Group and any likely enemy line of approach.

If the darkness and the fog of war, the unknown and difficult country at the last stage of a rapid advance by a long, widely dispersed column and the lack of definite information about the enemy are taken into account, it is perhaps no wonder that observers at the time noted that they had never known the GOC so worried. The picture is a striking one, with the various senior officers—Brigadier Kippenberger, Brigadier Harvey, the CRA (Brigadier Weir1), the GSO I (Colonel Queree)—consulting with the GOC either in his caravan or in the darkness outside, while around them there gradually assembled the vehicles of 5 Brigade and of Administrative Group, all travelling without lights, each vehicle guided by the one in front and even then by only a faint light well underneath it illuminating a white patch on the differential. It remains something to wonder at that all these vehicles could move at night for hours over unknown and broken ground, and yet retain some cohesion.

1 Maj-Gen Sir Stephen Weir, KBE, CB, DSO and bar, m.i.d.; Bangkok; born NZ 5 Oct 1905; Regular soldier; CO 6 Fd Regt Sep 1939–Dec 1941; CRA 2 NZ Div Dec 1941–Jun 1944; GOC 2 NZ Div 4 Sep–17 Oct 1944; 46 (Brit) Div Nov 1944–Sep 1946; Commander, Southern Military District, 1948–49; QMG, Army HQ, 1951–55; Chief of General Staff 1955–60; Military Adviser to NZ Govt, 1960–61; NZ Ambassador to Thailand, Oct 1961–.

page 51

Fifth Brigade also soon found out the difficulties of night deployment in unknown country; for when the time came to take up dispositions on the ground, the King's Royal Rifle Corps, the infantry battalion of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, was found in the area allotted to 23 Battalion and had to be asked to side-slip off to the right (south) or at least to move away, which it later did after consultation with its own brigade headquarters. The three battalions of 5 Brigade were each given bearings to march on and told to go out for a definite distance, the outcome being that the brigade line ran from north to south in the order of 21 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Harding), 23 Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Romans1) and 28 (Maori) Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel Bennett2). The total frontage was some 9000 yards, about two miles to the east of Divisional Headquarters but still west of Wadi er Rigel. The 7th Field Company had been intended to prolong the line to the south, but after helping 5 Field Regiment with bulldozers to dig in its guns, the company filled a 600-yard gap that was discovered between 23 and 28 Battalions. The brigade was reinforced during the night and in the early morning by 4 Field Regiment, two anti-tank batteries and two machine-gun companies, all drawn from Reserve Group. Ammunition Company established an ammunition point just west of Divisional Headquarters, and 6 Field Ambulance a Main Dressing Station in the same area.

It was soon learnt that there was a gap between the brigades, although not the extent of it. During the night the GOC considered filling this with an armoured car unit of 4 Light Armoured Brigade, but no effective action was taken before daylight; and in any case armoured cars were not the best answer in an anti-tank gun line. It was not until after daybreak that the extent of the gap—at least six miles—was known.

When, some time before midnight, some information about enemy movements was available, it became clear that even a protective line to the east might not be sufficient to guard Administrative Group, and that it would be better to move it well away. The group was sent ten miles back along the divisional axis, and completed the move just after midnight. And then, later still, 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported that enemy vehicles—not identified—were moving south-west from a point to the east of Bir el Merduma. If correct, this was a threat to Administrative

1 Lt-Col R. E. Romans, DSO, m.i.d.; born Arrowtown, 10 Sep 1909; business manager; CO 23 Bn Jul 1942–Apr 1943, Aug–Dec 1943; twice wounded; died of wounds 19 Dec 1943.

2 Lt-Col C. M. Bennett, DSO; Kuala Lumpur; born Rotorua, 27 Jul 1913; radio announcer; CO 28 (Maori) Bn Nov 1942–Apr 1943; wounded 20 Apr 1943; High Commissioner for NZ in Malaya.

page 52 Group in its new area, and it was ordered to retire another ten miles south-east. Owing to time lag the move was not started until 6 a.m. on the 16th but it was completed safely. In retrospect there is a touch of macabre humour about the first retirement of the group, for far from being safer it was getting perilously close to the night laager of 15 Panzer Division near Merduma.

Brigadier Harvey told the GOC that in his opinion enemy columns moving westwards would bump 5 Brigade. The GOC agreed that Divisional Cavalry should withdraw at dawn from its exposed position east of the Division, where some Sherman tanks were to be left. The rest of the Shermans and armoured cars were to concentrate on the right (southern) flank.

The CRA had reconnoitred towards the road early in the night, and on return reported that it would not be possible to register the guns owing to the combination of darkness and uncertainty of location. It thus appeared that the guns would not be fully ready by first light. Those supporting 6 Brigade had at least the general line of the road as a target, but those supporting 5 Brigade were doubly ‘in the dark’.

One way and another the situation of the Division left much to be desired. General Freyberg intimated as much in a situation report sent to 30 Corps at 9 p.m.: ‘Difficult to fix positions after long fast journey and hard to deploy in moonlight. Could not get in in time to register guns. Will make every attempt stop enemy east of us but with the present difficulties cannot guarantee to succeed.’ The message ends with the rueful words, ‘we appear to have our hands full at present.’

A belated message from 30 Corps arrived during the evening saying, ‘Delighted your progress. Secure Marble Arch and Merduma. Send light forces Nofilia landing grounds. Clear road eastwards second priority.’ At this stage 30 Corps had decided to carry on the pursuit with 7 Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division only, leaving 51 Division at El Agheila.

It was hoped at Divisional Headquarters at this time, about midnight on 15–16 December, that the enemy, if he fought his way through the cavalry and some supporting Shermans, would then find himself confronted by 6 Brigade astride the road, and by 5 Brigade farther south, with the remaining tanks available to assist where needed. This plan, however, was handicapped by the small number of tanks available and the gap between the brigades, the extent of which was yet unknown.

During the night General Freyberg visited 5 Brigade on foot, and caused some anxiety to his staff, who scoured the desert in all directions looking for him. For in darkness in the desert it page break page 53 was quite possible to walk away from a truck for a short distance and then lose all sense of direction, especially if the stars or moon were obscured.