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Bardia to Enfidaville

Action at Azizia, 22 January

Action at Azizia, 22 January

The Desert Air Force had subdued the Luftwaffe, now forced to use airfields well west of Tripoli. The last attack on Castel Benito was made on 21 January, mainly to stop the ploughing up of the field, and three ploughs were destroyed, a strange conclusion to an air attack.

On the coastal road 22 Armoured Brigade passed through 51 (H) Division and by the afternoon was a mere 15 miles from Tripoli, where it was held up by rearguards and demolitions. Only one company of infantry was with it, as traffic jams had made it impossible to reinforce by wheeled transport. So Montgomery sent forward a battalion from 51 Division riding on Valentine tanks, with orders to attack on arrival, which meant a night attack with the armour following through by moonlight.

The 7th Armoured Division cleared the defile west of Tarhuna during the night of 21–22 January, moved down to the plain, and by nightfall was only a few miles short of Castel Benito, with one patrol from 11 Hussars a few miles to the north-east of the airfield. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade was well across the Azizia - Bir el Ghnem road 20 miles south-west of Azizia.

It was anticipated that the enemy would make a stand, even if only a short one, across the two roads leading into Tripoli from the south; and from experience it was known that the enemy was most skilful in the way in which he covered a withdrawal or a demolition with a combination of single tanks, single 88-millimetre guns and small parties of infantry.

Divisional Cavalry resumed the advance at dawn on 22 January and by 11 a.m. had established that the enemy was holding the high ground south and south-west of Azizia. His guns and tanks held up any further advance. The 4th Field Regiment and 211 Medium Battery then deployed and engaged the enemy positions, tanks and transport, and under this cover the Greys moved closer to Azizia parallel to the road. Scattered shots were exchanged with page 113 enemy tanks, but the ground was broken and the enemy well established. Daylight ended with both sides exchanging fire from hull-down positions. This was the Greys' last action in the advance. As an indication of what might be expected in such an operation over heavy going, the regiment started with twenty-six Shermans and four Grants but ended with only fourteen heavy tanks, the loss of sixteen being due almost entirely to engine trouble or other mechanical failure.

Fifth Infantry Brigade Group, now rejoined by 5 Field Regiment, began to advance at 10 a.m., keeping off the road. The leading battalion (28) moved up behind 4 Field Regiment, halted briefly, and then at 11.30 a.m. moved on again, followed by the rest of the column. Progress was slow with frequent stops, and at 2.15 p.m. the column encountered enemy shellfire. Brigadier Kippenberger now gave orders that the brigade was to go straight to Tripoli, but might have to fight for it. It would advance in three columns, with 28 Battalion as advanced guard, 21 Battalion off the road to the right, 23 to the left, and the remainder of the group astride the road.

In this order the advance resumed at 3.30 p.m., and half an hour later 28 Battalion was about eight miles south of Azizia. Here the group halted while the brigadier discussed the situation with the GOC, for an intercepted enemy message had now reached Divisional Headquarters that the troops at Azizia were to hold out until 7 p.m., and a deduction had been made that they would then withdraw. It thus appeared that an attack would not be needed and unnecessary casualties could be avoided.

In the calmer atmosphere today, it appears that in fact a wrong deduction was made. The message reads: ‘From Intelligence channels. 15 [Panzer Division] defends Azizia. Ramcke defends 15 kilos south Castel Benito ordered hold out till 1900 hrs'. The full-stop after ‘Azizia’ conveys the meaning that the holding-out period applied only to Ramcke (the German Air Force Brigade), but this was not realised at the time. The enemy certainly had no idea of moving 15 Panzer Division as early as 7 p.m. In fact it did not receive orders to retire until after 8 p.m. and did not start moving until after midnight. But while this error affected the plans for 5 Brigade, it had no effect on the final result of the operations, the capture of Tripoli next morning.

It was now decided that 5 Brigade would advance after dark in column, with 28 Battalion in the lead, and with the hope that the way to Tripoli would be found clear. B Company of 28 Battalion would be advanced guard, proceeding by bounds and giving various page 114 coloured flares as success signals at each bound. Engineers with mine detectors, and two anti-tank guns, went with this advanced guard.

At 8 p.m. the brigade moved forward slowly, Brigade Tactical Headquarters with 28 Battalion. Five kilometres from Azizia B Company met opposition, debussed and went forward on foot. The rest of the battalion followed up at a crawl until it reached the two kilometre peg, and it appeared that Azizia was indeed clear. At that moment, however, a flare went up from a hill east of the road, followed by a dozen others on both sides and then by defensive fire which criss-crossed on fixed lines over the front. The advance naturally stopped. Shortly afterwards the enemy opened up with mortar and artillery fire on the road, and vehicles were hastily dispersed.

Brigadier Kippenberger judged the opposition too strong for him to put in an impromptu attack. Moreover, the brigade transport would be in danger at dawn if the enemy remained, for it would certainly be under direct observation. So the advanced guard was recalled and the brigade withdrew some six or seven miles. Divisional Cavalry and the Greys were now the forward troops, the former being some six miles south of Azizia.

An examination of the enemy position later confirmed that it had been well organised and strongly held.

About 9 p.m. 4 Light Armoured Brigade reported that enemy transport was moving along the road towards Azizia from Bir el Ghnem, and some ten miles short of Azizia. This was probably part of the German Reconnaissance Group retiring northwards. Two sections of carriers and two six-pounder anti-tank guns from 23 Battalion were sent out westwards to deal with this, but it could not be located.

The remainder of 2 NZ Division—-Divisional Headquarters, Reserve Group, 6 Infantry Brigade Group and Administrative Group—advanced during the day without incident, and the whole Division debouched out of the hills and on to the plain.