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Bardia to Enfidaville

The General Situation on Eighth Army's Front

The General Situation on Eighth Army's Front

For some time it was believed that the enemy would make his next stand on the Buerat position, a line running roughly south-westwards from the coast near Buerat. There would be no great difficulty in turning this position, which had an open southern flank, but between Buerat and Tripoli another and much stronger line extended from Homs to Tarhuna.

Buerat was 600 miles from Tobruk, from which, even at the end of December it was still necessary to despatch some hundreds of tons of stores a day to Eighth Army. The distance to Benghazi was 400 miles, and as this was a lesser burden on the supply echelons, every effort was made to speed up the daily rate of unloading there. But no port, other than small anchorages, existed between Benghazi and Tripoli, a distance of 675 miles, too far to maintain the army by road for any length of time. No reasonably sized force could remain in Tripoli, much less advance beyond it, without the use of that port, and the time it would take the navy to make it workable after the enemy's expected demolitions could only be estimated. A period of one or two weeks after capture seemed reasonable. A force advancing on Tripoli would therefore have to carry enough supplies of all kinds—petrol, rations, water and ammunition—to overcome both the Buerat and the HomsTarhuna lines, reach Tripoli and capture it, and maintain itself for a period. Prolonged maintenance from Benghazi was impossible. Moreover the force could make no measured advance to Tripoli, but would have to reach it within a limited time.

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Thus it would have to go right through to Tripoli in one continuous advance of so many days; which after the complicated calculations necessary to solve the problem, was fixed at ten days after the initial attack on the Buerat line. If the advance took longer, the army could not be maintained at Tripoli even until the port was open, and consequently some of its formations would have to be withdrawn and any further advance became doubtful. It was a fascinating problem in logistics, but one of more than academic interest to the Army Commander and his staff.

It was sincerely hoped that the enemy would not move back from Buerat before the attack started, for if he withdrew to the Homs-Tarhuna line, making use of all the skill he had already shown in delaying actions and with mines and demolitions, then again the maintenance of the attacking force would be difficult. All supplies still would have to come forward by the long road haul from Benghazi, and a considerable part of the load of every vehicle would be the petrol for its own consumption on the round trip.

So while administration dictated that Eighth Army should go no farther for the moment, but should pause while supplies were built up as far forward as possible, strategy dictated also that formations should stay where they were so as not to alarm the enemy. There was to be no feeling forward to make contact, followed by probing attacks and preliminary bombardment. The army was to go straight into action from its present locations and would deliberately seek an ‘encounter battle’ for which it would be fully prepared.

So for the present 30 Corps was stretched out from Sirte back to El Agheila, but 4 Light Armoured Brigade alone kept watch on the enemy. It was under command of 2 NZ Division until 22 December and thereafter under 7 Armoured Division.

The Army plan was that 30 Corps should attack with four divisions (50, 51, 7 Armoured, and 2 NZ) and two extra armoured brigades (22 and 23), the number of tanks in all armoured regiments being made up to establishment by drawing on the tanks of 1 Armoured Division, now back near the Egyptian frontier. The 50th and 51st Divisions and 23 Armoured Brigade were to attack along the coast road, while 7 Armoured and 2 NZ Divisions, the latter with the Greys under command, were to sweep round the enemy's flank and cut in behind him. The 22nd Armoured Brigade was to be centrally placed in Army Reserve. Initially the attack by 50 and 51 Divisions was not to be pressed, but as soon as the outflanking movement began to make itself felt, the pressure was to be increased and the attack conducted ruthlessly. The objectives page 77 of the outflanking formations were to be first Sedada and Tmed el Chatua (about 60 miles west of Buerat), and thence as circumstances required—either north-eastwards against the rear of the enemy's line, or northwards to cut off retreating columns, or north-westwards direct on Tripoli.

At the appropriate time Headquarters 10 Corps, brought forward from Tobruk, would take over command of the coastal attack, leaving 30 Corps to command the outflanking move. The army's operations would be covered and supported by the full power of the Desert Air Force; and for this purpose more airfields were to be prepared in the present forward areas. The preparation of advanced landing grounds was an important task of the outflanking formations.

The building up of supply dumps for the advance would take until 14 January 1943, which was fixed as ‘D’ day; but if the enemy remained in the Buerat position in force and had not thinned out, the attack would not commence until 20 January.

This plan suffered a severe setback. A gale that raged from 4 to 6 January wrought havoc in Benghazi harbour, breaching the breakwater and sinking several ships, one with 2000 tons of ammunition, and the intake dropped from 3000 to 1000 tons a day. The army was again forced to use Tobruk. After reviewing the position Montgomery decided to adhere to the date fixed, but to reduce the coastal attack by one division (50 Division) and to use the transport of 10 Corps as a whole to ferry stores from Tobruk. No part of 10 Corps would come forward, and Montgomery was conscious that he was losing correct balance by having his second echelon of formations so far behind; but by that time indications were strong that the enemy contemplated no debouchment eastwards. In the end 50 Division was brought forward to El Agheila. The only real risk was nothing new—that the force might not get to Tripoli in ten days.

As Headquarters 10 Corps would not be available, Montgomery decided to command the coastal thrust himself from his Tactical Headquarters, leaving the outflanking operations to be controlled by 30 Corps. It was admittedly too much to give one Corps Headquarters command of both attacks; but there were mixed opinions at the time whether the army commander should act as corps commander also.