Bardia to Enfidaville
In the early stages of the engagement, the rest of the Division halted; but about 12.45 p.m. the GOC ordered 5 Infantry Brigade Group to advance westwards, watching closely the northern flank, and to be prepared to form a gun line (i.e., a defensive line of battle) facing north. Brigadier Kippenberger went forward immediately, leaving orders for the group to follow below the skyline so that they would not be seen from the road, which here ran on the northern side of a low escarpment about three miles page 64 from the sea. The group moved forward with 23 Battalion leading on a broad front, 28 (Maori) Battalion on the right, and 21 Battalion on the left, with headquarters and attached troops in the centre. At the outset they had difficulty in passing through the mass of transport to the south of Nofilia, and were delayed for some time.
This was the second occasion that day that 5 Brigade had been delayed by transport in front, most of it from B Echelon of 4 Light Armoured Brigade. The cumulative effect of these two delays, according to the British narrative of operations, ‘seriously affected the conduct of operations later in the day’. Whether these words are fully justified or not, it is a fact that the brigade did not turn towards the road until 3 p.m. and that it was dark before full pressure could be achieved. As with 6 Brigade in the afternoon of 15 December, a couple of hours' more daylight might have made a great deal of difference.
At 2.30 p.m., when the brigade was about ten miles west of Nofilia, General Freyberg ordered Brigadier Kippenberger to swing due northwards immediately, sooner than the brigadier had expected. The group was now approaching the road between Wadi Umm el Ghindel and Wadi en Nizam, some 11 miles west of the Nofilia crossroads. It had already been reported that there were enemy troops in that area, and it was soon confirmed that an enemy flank guard was in position. This was 33 Reconnaissance Unit.
The brigade commander decided that there was no time to delay or to make formal reconnaissance. His orders group was at hand, and he gave instructions at once for a right wheel, for 23 Battalion to push on and cut the road, for 28 Battalion to cover the right flank—the activities west of Nofilia were not so very far away—and for 21 Battalion to advance to the road on the left of 23 Battalion and then swing round facing right to complete the block. Each battalion had under command a machine-gun platoon and an anti-tank troop.
The 23rd Battalion was still in the lead after the turn, and after travelling seven miles slightly east of north, and while still embussed, crossed over the low escarpment and came under artillery fire from both field and anti-tank guns. The road was fully visible three miles away, and along it enemy transport was streaming, well spaced out and moving fast. Between the top of the escarpment and the road was a series of gradually descending ridges and hollows, with ‘going’ of soft sand covered with tussock; and while the sand blanketed the shellbursts and so saved casualties, it slowed down the speed of the transport until it was only a low-gear crawl slower than walking pace. The progress of all vehicles, even that page 65 of the brigade commander in his scout car, had a nightmarish quality in which everyone strained hard to move faster but had leaden weights dragging behind him. So despite Kippenberger's eagerness and his hurry-up messages to units—not that Lieutenant-Colonel Romans needed urging—the advance could not be made any faster; but in due course 23 Battalion reached a patch of covered ground and debussed. The carriers and anti-tank guns pressed forward to silence enemy weapons on a ridge ahead, and infantry followed up smartly and captured the ridge. The road was now only 1600 yards away, but the enemy flank guard could still sting sharply and showed no sign of withdrawing farther. Most unfortunately, it was now about 6 p.m. and becoming dark, an indication of the difficulties in carrying out this advance. The most that had been achieved was that enemy transport appeared to have stopped using the road for the time being. Some observers thought that it had changed to a parallel track along the beach out of sight; but while this is possible, there is no confirmation from German accounts.
The 21st Battalion, on the outside of the big wheel, had a hard struggle through very heavy going to catch up. Under fire from enemy weapons of all kinds, the battalion finally debussed about 5 p.m. and advanced to some 3500 yards from the road, but was unable to continue during daylight.
The 28th Battalion had less trouble, although it too came under fire while still in vehicles. It debussed as soon as it passed the escarpment, went forward on foot and took up a flanking position. Once it was dug in it attracted little attention as the enemy was concentrating on 23 Battalion.
Luckily, owing to the nature of the ground, and probably because of some rather wild shooting by the enemy, casualties throughout were low, even though vehicles had advanced through a hail of shellbursts.
The 5th Field Regiment sent observers forward with all three battalions and went into action against enemy transport on the road and the enemy flank-guard position. Brigade Headquarters asked for more artillery support at 4.45 p.m., and observers from 4 Field Regiment and B Troop, 211 Medium Battery, came forward, and also 34 Anti-Tank Battery, the first two opening fire against the road. But it was a difficult target, being only a fine line at right angles to the line of fire. In addition, it was late in the afternoon and the light soon failed. Only one firm hit was claimed.
Artillery units report that among other targets was the covering force of ‘enemy guns and tanks’; and there was a general belief among the infantry that they were opposed by armour. Judging page 66 from enemy reports, it is doubtful if tanks were in that particular area at that time, for the imbroglio between Nofilia and Point 121 had not been cleared up when the 5 Brigade attack started; and 15 Panzer Division, the first to withdraw, did not start thinning out from the southern face until about 5 p.m., with the clear intention of retiring well back without delay.
Thus the road had not been reached by dark, but the threat there and round Point 121 compelled the enemy to withdraw, and at 4.30 p.m. 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported that enemy troops, including tanks, were moving away to the north.
Two aspects of 5 Brigade's attack merit some attention. When General Freyberg told Brigadier Kippenberger to turn north the brigade commander was slightly taken aback, as he had intended to go some miles farther west. This view was shared by the enemy, for an intelligence report compiled later by 15 Panzer Division, referring to the Nofilia operation, says ‘again the enemy had apparently committed the error of allowing himself to be involved in an attack instead of making a bold wide outflanking move’. Nevertheless, if 5 Brigade had gone a short distance farther west before turning north, it would have bumped another flank guard (580 Reconnaissance Unit) and would have been little better off, or not at all, especially as there would have been even less daylight left; and 2 NZ Division could not attempt a ‘bold wide outflanking move’ with its existing resources.
Secondly, when one considers the results of the brigade attack, it is somewhat surprising that a brigade of three battalions, with progressively increasing artillery support, could not dislodge a reconnaissance unit and elements of an infantry battalion.1 But it must be taken into account that 33 Reconnaissance Unit arrived in its position about 9 a.m. on 16 December and so had thirty hours to prepare, during which time pits were dug, mortar and anti-tank positions prepared, and the unit in every way made ready. The exceptionally bad going reduced 5 Brigade's advance to a crawl, and the enemy could watch it all and oppose it with everything he had. By the time a full brigade attack with artillery support could be properly organised, it was dark. The thought that somewhere not far away were enemy tanks, while the brigade had no armour with it, probably caused some justifiable caution. Fifth Brigade's attack came one or two hours too late.
While 5 Infantry Brigade was engaged, the uncommitted groups of the Division south of Nofilia village continued to advance westwards and north-westwards. Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group halted at 4 p.m. some nine miles west of Nofilia, page 67 while 6 Infantry Brigade Group took up positions nearer the village to act, if needed, in support of 4 Light Armoured Brigade in keeping pressure on the garrison. The Administrative Group stopped about seven miles to the south of Headquarters; but General Freyberg later ordered it to move back. It retired 16 miles along the divisional axis, and remained there for the night of 17–18 December.
The enemy fared not too well during the afternoon, as a result of 15 Panzer Division's reverses in the fighting between Nofilia and Point 121. While the tanks of 21 Panzer Division, and later the whole division, less a rearguard, were moving towards 15 Panzer, there came a cry for help from 33 Reconnaissance Unit, which reported that it was being heavily attacked. (This was 5 NZ Brigade's attack.) So 21 Panzer, minus its armour, was diverted farther west and moved behind 15 Panzer Division and 33 Reconnaissance Unit to extend the latter's line to the west. Unarmoured elements of 21 Panzer (from 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment) co-operated with 33 Reconnaissance Unit and checked 21 NZ Battalion in its initial attack. The reports of Africa Corps and the panzer divisions make no mention of tanks being used in this area; all the evidence indicates that they remained between Nofilia and Point 121.
In the broader picture Panzer Army Headquarters had already decided that the army would have to move back at once into the Buerat position. The plan in general was for 15 Panzer Division to disengage and move back, followed by 21 Panzer Division, while 33 Reconnaissance Unit and 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment formed the rearguard until the whole of Africa Corps was clear. The enemy at this stage feared another attack on the road still farther west, and warned 580 Reconnaissance Unit to be on its guard.
1 Part of 104 Panzer Grenadier Regiment was sent round to help.