Bardia to Enfidaville
The Enemy escapes—16 December
The Enemy escapes—16 December
At 5.45 a.m. 30 Corps advised, ‘Elements 21 Pz 90 Lt 33 Recce believed 1700 hrs [15 December] still east of Marble Arch. 15 Pz directed Merduma. Take up suitable positions destroy any forces still trapped. 7 Armd Div pressing from the east.’
When received, this message was already twelve hours old and enemy locations might well have changed during the night; but Freyberg made a firmer plan based on the information to date. All formations were warned that there might be up to a hundred tanks still to the east. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was to withdraw Divisional Cavalry for use as a mobile reserve and for reconnaissance; the armoured car regiments were to reconnoitre to the south-east and west; KRRC was to withdraw to the west for rear protection;1 and all the heavy tanks of the Greys and Staffs Yeomanry were to concentrate for battle. Fifth Infantry Brigade was to extend northwards slightly to reduce the gap between the two brigades, with its line facing north-east, east and south-east. The Reserve Group en bloc came under command of 5 Brigade for use in support. Sixth Infantry Brigade was to prepare for all-round defence and take every opportunity to shoot up the road and harry the enemy. The divisional artillery, including a troop of medium guns, was to co-ordinate. It seemed possible that the Division had got right round the Africa Corps, and it thus made ready to seize its opportunity.
These orders were issued before dawn, but not until 8.10 a.m. was it discovered that the gap between 5 and 6 Brigades was greater than had been thought, and was reported to amount to 10 ½ miles, although later the figure was estimated at some six or seven miles.
About 7 a.m. 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported soft-skinned vehicles about 12 miles south of Bir el Merduma, which were probably part of Administrative Group. Shortly afterwards it discovered enemy tanks moving north-westwards from Merduma, and kept contact thereafter. About 8 a.m., after recall to the southwest from its overnight laager, Divisional Cavalry ran into part of the enemy at the crossing of Wadi er Rigel west of Merduma. Both sides were surprised and exchanged fire at close range, but as the enemy column included some seven tanks, which outgunned its own, Divisional Cavalry withdrew westwards until it reached 5 Brigade. It had two officers and three men killed in this brief encounter.
Thereafter events moved swiftly. In the next two hours units of 5 Brigade Group saw and reported enemy vehicles of all natures, well dispersed. Artillery opened fire on tanks and transport at ranges from 5000 to 8000 yards. The three battalions reported almost in succession from south to north that an enemy column was passing across their front, moving rapidly. There were signs that the enemy was making small reconnaissances of the brigade line, and finding opposition, was swinging away to the north-west, which was the course followed by the inland track from Merduma to Nofilia. By the time the enemy was crossing the front of 21 Battalion at the northern end of 5 Brigade's line, enemy tanks came close enough to cause the left-flank company, newly arrived to extend the line northwards, to withdraw some 250 yards. Unfortunately the anti-tank guns, which might have come into action at a reasonable range, had not arrived in time from other positions farther south. The 5th Field Regiment and then 4 Field Regiment opened fire against the column, but the enemy moved out of range very fast. Brigadier Kippenberger hastily organised a mobile column from anti-tank and machine-gun units and from carriers of all three battalions; but though this force pursued the enemy for some hours, it did not get within range.
However, 4 Light Armoured Brigade did intercept some of the enemy column, and in a running battle the Greys knocked out two tanks and a few other vehicles and took twenty prisoners for the loss of one tank and a few vehicles. But the enemy was moving too fast for the Greys and by mid-morning the brigade's armoured cars could only report that the enemy was moving away north-west, that the tail of the column was just to the south of 6 Infantry page 55 Brigade, and that the head of it was already nearly 20 miles away, moving towards Nofilia. The light armoured brigade was then directed towards the road on a wide front, with the object of co-operating with 6 Brigade and shooting up any stray enemy vehicles that might be found.
In a message to 30 Corps at 9.45 a.m., the GOC had said, ‘Gap between 5 and 6 Brigades and many will escape. Will inflict maximum damage we can.’ Thus his message sent in at 12.14 p.m. cannot have been unexpected. ‘Enemy in small columns incl tanks passed through at high speed and wide dispersion. Most difficult to intercept. Majority escaped around our flanks and through gap. Have given hurry-up but little more….’ It was a frank and honest report, albeit bitterly disappointing.
The German narrative says briefly, ‘… 15 Panzer Division, which had been caught between the advance guard and the main body of an enemy force succeeded in breaking through the advance guard from the rear under a protective screen and in storming its way out towards Nofilia’; and while the description of the layout of our troops is defective, the ‘storming’ is accurate.1 Africa Corps’ diary merely notes that 15 Panzer Division reached certain points from time to time, and that at 11.45 a.m. the head of the division was at Nofilia, with British troops following up the rearguard. The 15th Panzer Division accurately reports the encounter with Divisional Cavalry and then says ‘the main body of the enemy stayed south of the division as it moved on, and contented itself with harassing us with shellfire’. Apparently during its withdrawal 15 Panzer Division was not aware of the presence of 6 Brigade to its north. Neither 15 nor 21 Panzer Division had any petrol left when it arrived at Nofilia.
1 In a letter to the author the late Sir Howard Kippenberger referred to the escape of the enemy: ‘They were pretty wary, didn't mean to get caught and got out in time. Monty [Fairbrother] and I both remember an intercept we heard of at the time—it isn't in any records we have. Panzer-Gruppe Afrika [Rommel's H.Q.] told either 15 or 21 Pz Divs that N.Z. Div was moving round and threatening the road. We were pleased with his reply—“That's allright. We've got our petrol, the chaps are in good heart and we'll get away all right”. Which is our recollection of the translation of the intercept.’
The commander of 15 Panzer Division, Major-General Borowietz, was distinguished by his élan in the field and his skilful handling of armour. In a post-war publication Marshal Messe, who later had Borowietz under his command, expresses a high opinion of him.
The foremost positions of 25 Battalion were anything up to two miles from the road, and the unit carriers confirmed an earlier report that the enemy was retiring in three columns on and parallel to the road. Both 6 Field Regiment and 2 Machine-Gun Company opened fire, but the only result was to speed up the enemy withdrawal. It was soon obvious that most of the enemy transport had already passed, and that only the tail was passing now; and by 12.15 p.m. movement on the road east of Wadi Matratin had ceased.
During the morning the enemy west of 6 Brigade, on high ground overlooking many of the brigade vehicles, caused some trouble by opening fire with anti-tank guns, mortars, and small arms. C Company, 26 Battalion (Captain Sinclair2), with supporting fire from a troop of 25-pounders, two-pounders, mortars, and Vickers guns (including one Captain Moore3 had mounted in the back of a jeep), attacked a hill from which the enemy fled, leaving two scared Germans, five anti-tank guns and some other equipment.
This flurry was the last engagement of the morning, and not long afterwards the enemy withdrew. The 90th Light Division reported that it started its withdrawal at 2 p.m. and that it was not pursued.
The New Zealand Division's total casualties were 11 killed, 29 wounded, and 8 prisoners.
General Freyberg visited 6 Brigade at 3 p.m. and discussed the next moves. Later in the afternoon he reported to the Corps Commander in a personal message: ‘Just returned from the vicinity of main rd [road]. Country even in single file by daylight most difficult. Neither tanks nor armd Cs [armoured cars] could get through last night. Inf on foot did after midnight but were counter attacked. Unable to harass rd until after daylight this morning. Enemy still in position and contesting ground overlooking road. Traffic being shot up by guns and forced from desert tracks to rd. Armd Cs and Div Cav harassing rd further west. Enemy in strength and morale of PWs high.’
So ended the first phase of the new campaign. The high hopes of cutting off even some of the retreating enemy had come to nothing, partly because greater speed was possible along the road than across the desert, partly because the enemy was well seasoned and adopted the orthodox safeguards of flank and rear guards, and partly because of the difficulties of deploying by night in unknown country at the end of a long and tiring move.
Nevertheless the Division had moved far and fast, certainly faster than the enemy had expected. The enemy was on the alert, started his withdrawal sooner than anticipated, and had such an effective scheme of minefields, booby traps and demolitions that he could withdraw his troops at his own speed and had removed many of them before 2 NZ Division appeared on the scene. It was an achievement, however, to have tipped the enemy out of the El Agheila position in a matter of three or four days, and to hustle and even rattle him in the process. As long as air reconnaissance was available to the defender, complete surprise could not be achieved by an outflanking force. The enemy soon became aware of the Division's march, but was deceived by its speed.
To have succeeded, the Division would have needed more tanks, which could have been provided only at the expense of 7 Armoured Division and would have necessitated a greatly enlarged administrative group. It is probable, however, that tanks operating with 2 NZ Division would have achieved more than with 7 Armoured Division, where the ground and the enemy's delaying measures made any advance a slow one.