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Bardia to Enfidaville

Christmas Interlude

Christmas Interlude

Meanwhile 2 NZ Division was reorganising near Nofilia. At his conference on 19 December, already mentioned, General Freyberg had given some indications about the future: there was to be a pause for at least ten days, depending on the rate of build-up of supplies. The GOC praised the Greys for getting their tanks forward over 320 miles of desert going, and added praise to all drivers of vehicles and maintenance staff. He said that he would have to have more tanks for further operations, and that these had been promised. It appeared that the Division would be employed again on a desert march, and the LRDG would be entirely responsible for navigation. Harder living was to be enforced during the move, and there was to be no promiscuous ‘brewing up’, especially during hours of darkness. The reduction of enemy air activity would allow dispersion in desert formation to be reduced from the existing 150 to 100 yards between vehicles. The GOC concluded by saying that games were to be organised, and that arrangements were being made for Christmas fare.

General Montgomery and General Leese visited the Division on 21 December, and the former addressed formation and unit commanders. He said he was very pleased with the advance which had ‘shaken the Boche’; he explained why it had not been possible to give the Division more tanks, and described its outflanking move as a very fine performance. He then spoke of the future and outlined his plan. To relieve the strain on administration, 2 NZ Division was to move back to Merduma.

Following this conference and the receipt of orders from 30 Corps, divisional orders issued on 22 December foreshadowed the move back, but specified tasks to be carried out in the meantime. These mainly affected 5 Infantry Brigade and Divisional Cavalry, whose responsibility was extended to within five miles of Sultan, including protection of the Sultan landing ground. The Divisional page 81 Engineers were to clear and maintain the road from the Nofilia landing ground westwards to the same limit, in addition to their normal tasks.

The remainder of the Division was to stay in bivouac areas for rest, reorganisation and training, which was to include route marches, musketry, recreational training and sports. Responsibility for the forward area passed to 7 Armoured Division, which thus took over control of 4 Light Armoured Brigade and all activities beyond the limit given to 5 Brigade.

On 23 December, no doubt owing to some slight easing in the administrative position, the move back to Merduma was cancelled, and the Division remained in the Nofilia area.

For the next few days the approach of Christmas dominated all activities. For the men of the first three echelons it was the third Christmas spent overseas, and for many it was the second spent in the desert. A year previously the Division had been at Baggush, after suffering grievous losses in the CRUSADER battles. Now at Christmas 1942 it was different, there had been successes, morale was high, and there were great hopes for the future. They might even all be home for next Christmas.

The administrative services from Egypt forwards excelled themselves. Unit orders, placed months before with NAAFI, arrived in time for distribution; and beer and cigarettes were among the things distributed—but not free! The cost of a bottle of beer and twenty cigarettes was twenty piastres, just over four shillings. The ration included fourteen ounces of pork for each man and a special issue of rum. The field bakery made its first issue of really fresh bread and the postal service delivered Christmas mail, including over 60,000 parcels. On 30 December there was a free issue to each man of a ‘Nat Pat’ parcel, a tin of tobacco, and fifty New Zealand and fourteen South African cigarettes, and more beer was available at cost price. To collect some of this largesse a convoy of thirty-five lorries of Supply Company left on 19 December to go to El Adem—more than 450 miles—and returned to the Division on the 29th.

The Army Commander, in a Christmas message, said that he was anxious that Christmas Day should be kept a day of rest, and that operations, works, and training were to be reduced to a minimum.

The day was fine but cold. Church services in the morning were followed by dinner for other ranks, at which officers waited on the men. Officers had their own dinner in the evening. It was generally agreed throughout the Division that the cooks had excelled them- page 82 selves. Owing to their wide dispersal, all units could not be visited by General Freyberg, but he sent a message on Christmas Eve giving his best wishes to all ranks. Among the units he did visit was Headquarters NZASC, where he thanked the corps for its remarkable work throughout the campaign. The Maoris had a dinner cooked in true Maori fashion, and learnt that monetary gifts had been received from the Maori people in New Zealand, enough to distribute tobacco to the battalion and to give each man £1 next time he went on leave.

Altogether it was a heartening Christmas, and led the GOC to write to General Headquarters, Middle East Forces, thanking the administrative staff and the NAAFI for their efforts, a message much appreciated by a staff who, in their own words, ‘usually get more kicks than bouquets’.