Other formats

    TEI XML file   ePub eBook file  


    mail icontwitter iconBlogspot iconrss icon

Bardia to Enfidaville

The Terrain

The Terrain

The Buerat line ran from Maaten Giaber on the coast, 15 miles north-west of Buerat, to the south-west in front of Gheddahia, an important track junction and also the junction of Wadi Umm er Raml from the south and Wadi Zemzem from the south-west. The line then ran southwards on the western side of the track to Bu Ngem and the Wadi Umm er Raml, and made good use of the long ridge Dor Umm er Raml.2 But while the northern flank was reasonably secured by salt marshes north of the road, which here turned inland, the southern end of Dor Umm er Raml could easily be outflanked. In the circumstances the detached post at Bu Ngem was in a dangerous position, and it is small wonder that Rommel had it removed. Air reconnaissance and the LRDG both reported that the enemy had recently strengthened his line; but the defences seemed to consist of unconnected weapon pits and an unfinished anti-tank ditch, and had little real depth. They were strongest nearest the road, where it was already known that the enemy could fight his most effective delaying action. Any defence south of Dor Umm er Raml could be by mobile forces only. It was of course appreciated in Eighth Army that the enemy knew well the weakness of his line, so that a prolonged resistance was not expected.

Between Nofilia and the Buerat line the going was good away from the coastline, and the only obstacles of importance were Wadi Tamet and Wadi Bei el Chebir; but even here the upper or southern reaches were reasonably shallow with sloping sides. Crossing would not be difficult; but the wadis formed bottlenecks, as they could not be crossed on a broad front.

West and north-west of the enemy's line was a wide stretch of desert where adequate going was interspersed with numerous wadi systems running across the line of advance. Of these wadis,

2 Dor= group of hills.

page 85 or wadi systems, the most important were Wadi Zemzem, Wadi Nfed, and Wadi Sofeggin. The first could be easily crossed, but the other two were difficult, the only good area being near their junction at Sedada and Tmed el Chatua, or alternatively near the main road.

Beyond these wadis the ground rose gradually to the north-west, for the line of advance in that direction in reality ascended the southern slope of a range of hills known as Gebel Garian and still farther west as Gebel Nefusa. This southern face was gentle in slope and gave the appearance of a plateau, although the word plateau is relative, for the ground was anything but smooth. Where the line of advance crossed the line HomsTarhunaGarian, the land was anything from 1400 to 2500 feet above sea-level, with a steady rise in height from north-east to south-west, the trend of the crestline.

From there to the north the level fell very rapidly and the escarpment presented a precipitous face, and indeed from the north looked like a mountain range. Moreover the northern face was a formidable obstacle, deeply incised by long and steep wadis, with grotesque re-entrants and projecting bastions. So deeply cut is this escarpment, and so abrupt its fall, that movement north or south is impossible, except on roads and tracks. Movement east or west on the top of the escarpment, at least for large formations, is almost impossible for some miles back from the northern edge, so deep and so steep are the wadis.

From the foot of the escarpment into Tripoli, a distance of 30 to 40 miles, the going was not difficult except for sand dunes. There was fairly intensive cultivation across this strip, which was well watered with springs.

All this was known from pre-war reports; but more detail was needed and the invaluable LRDG was called on to send out patrols to provide it. Captain Browne, leading a patrol in a jeep, was blown up on a mine at El Machina. A South African officer was killed and Browne wounded, and the patrol returned to Nofilia. On 25 December it set out again, led by Second-Lieutenant McLauchlan,1 and reconnoitred to the Bu NgemGheddahia track. In spite of an ambush in which several men were lost, it completed its task and returned to report that the going to Bu Ngem was not passable by night nor in desert formation by day, but that there was good going between Pilastrino and Fortino. Another patrol, which included no New Zealanders, also left on 25 December, travelling as far as the line Homs – Beni

1 Capt K. F. McLauchlan, MM, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Winton, 20 Jun 1912; civil engineer.

page 86 Ulid. It reported that the area bounded on the north and east by the coast road, and on the south-west by a line Bu NgemEl FaschiaSedadaTmed el ChatuaBir GebiraBeni Ulid was suitable for a force of all arms. The upper reaches of Wadi Sofeggin and Wadi Nfed were impassable, but the lower reaches were scarcely perceptible. The terrain would provide no cover from air observation for a force of any size, but there were reasonably good water supplies. Towards the end of December a more detailed reconnaissance of limited range was made by a party of New Zealand engineers headed by the CRE, and directed as far as the crossing of Wadi Tamet and the area immediately west and south-west. The result was to select a divisional thrust line towards Pilastrino and Fortino, as the going farther south was impossible.

Concurrently with these reconnaissances, work started on making and marking tracks forward from Nofilia, and again the field companies and the Provost Company were kept busy. These tracks were to be used by all formations of the army, the road being reserved for transporters, RAF transport, maintenance convoys and staff cars. The New Zealand Division was responsible in part for four parallel tracks, two as far as Wadi Bei el Chebir, and two directly south of Sirte, where 7 Armoured Division took over. The Division finished its task by 12 January.

The Desert Air Force still required further airfields in the forward areas; but to avoid attracting enemy attention, minimum use was to be made of transport and machinery. Thus on 30 December 5 Infantry Brigade Group was given the task of clearing a landing ground some 30 miles south-west of Sirte and east of Wadi Tamet. The group commenced its 100-mile move on 1 January, 23 and 28 Battalions marching for two days on foot, while the remainder moved in transport the whole way. The group was fully assembled by 6 January after the artillery had completed calibration.

The airfield site, some 1200 yards square, had first to be bulldozed level, and the men then picked up by hand thousands of stones, loaded them into trucks and removed them. The work started on 2 January under the protection of 42 Light AA Battery. At the earliest possible date, 6 January, Spitfires operated from landing strips, with pilots waiting in their seats and radar in use. But on the 5th eight Messerschmitts raided the airfield, killing nine New Zealanders and wounding twenty-six. There were further raids during the next three days, when two more were killed and three wounded,1 and in addition four British soldiers

1 During the period 18 Dec 1942–8 Jan 1943 the Division's total casualties, mostly among 5 Brigade, the engineers and NZASC, were 31 killed and 77 wounded, more than were sustained in the engagements at Wadi Matratin and Nofilia.

page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page break page 87 were killed and twenty wounded. The light anti-aircraft battery and the Spitfires did good work and gradually wore the enemy down; but the warning of a raid was always short, and naturally the only slit trenches were off the airfield. Most of the time a strong cold wind raised much dust, so that Brigadier Kippenberger had good cause for saying that it was ‘one of the most unpleasant jobs 5 Brigade ever had to do’.1 In this test of discipline the group stood up manfully. It remained in the area until 11 January, when it rejoined the rest of the Division, which had moved forward from Nofilia and was now close by.
trucks crossing desert

The left hook at El Agheila. The New Zealand Division on its outflanking move

heavy gun on desert

A 25-pounder and its limber are winched up a rise

Vickers gun in desert position

New Zealand Vickers guns in position near Wadi Matratin

General addressing troops

General Freyberg confers with his O Group near Nofilia

From left: Col S. H. Crump (Commander NZASC), —, Lt-Col A. W. White (Divisional Reserve Group), Brig W. G. Gentry (6 Brigade), Brig H. K. Kippenberger (5 Brigade), Brig C. E. Weir (CRA), Col R. C. Queree (G1), Lt-Col I. L. Bonifant (Divisional Cavalry), —, Lt-Col B. Barrington (AA & QMG), Maj E. W. Hayton (Divisional Provost), Lt-Col F. M. H. Hanson (CRE), Lt-Col A. H. Andrews (CREME), Lt-Col G. L. Agar (Divisional Signals)

trucks crossing desert

Bypassing a demolished bridge on the Via Balbia near Sirte. The white tape indicates the path cleared of mines

soldiers sweep for mines

Engineers search the roadside for mines

soldier removing mine

A sapper removes an S-mine from a landing field

shell explodes in desert

An enemy shell bursts among advancing transport to the south of Buerat

army crossing desert

The Division, in desert formation, advances from Wadi Zemzem towards Beni Ulid

painting of Beni Ulid

Beni Ulid—from a painting by R. L. Kay

soldiers working in desert

New Zealand engineers clear a track on the route between Beni Ulid and Azizia

armoured car in desert

A British armoured car near Tarhuna

army column on road

A New Zealand column approaches Tarhuna

armoured column

On the road to Azizia

soldiers and civilians

New Zealand sappers make friends with an Italian family on the way to Tripoli