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Bardia to Enfidaville

19 January at Beni Ulid

19 January at Beni Ulid

The Desert Air Force was very active during the night of 18–19 January and next day, particularly against Castel Benito airfield and transport on the roads. Fighter wings operated from landing grounds in the Bir Dufan area. But in the opinion of dispassionate army observers, confirmed by checks of the various roads after reaching Tripoli, the damage done to enemy columns was slight and not commensurate with the number of planes engaged. The technique of this time did not produce the results that reasonably page 105 might have been expected from the excellence of the targets. Bombing was carried out from normal bombing heights, for up to that time the air force had not been strong enough to take undue risks. After the capture of Tripoli and a general relaxation of the somewhat rigid orders of past years, the new commander of the Desert Air Force (Air Vice-Marshal Broadhurst) set to work to improve techniques, including training in low-flying cannon attacks. The results were seen at Mareth and thereafter.

During 19 January 51 (H) Division made better progress and next night entered Homs. The 7th Armoured Division was much delayed by mines and bad going, and by nightfall was still eight miles south of Tarhuna opposed by enemy rearguards. In the course of the fighting the GOC of this division (Major-General Harding) was wounded by shellfire and evacuated. The 4th Light Armoured Brigade patrolled towards Garian, but made slow progress over the difficult country of the Gebel. Air raids on the brigade caused casualties numbering seven killed and twenty-one wounded, indicating that penetration so far west touched the enemy on a tender spot.

The New Zealand Division spent the day clearing the road through Beni Ulid, which was situated among ravine-like wadis with steep sides. The only route through was the road, which had been mined and badly cratered. Almost the full complement of the divisional engineers spent the day lifting mines, filling craters, and making improvements. Bulldozer drivers took great risks from the ever-present danger of mines. The GOC, who was anxious to get on, spent much time on the scene. Meanwhile, farther back, 6 Field Company cleared mines from the track in advance of Sedada, and in some three days on this task lost four killed and seven wounded.

It was plain that the Division would have to pass through Beni Ulid in single column and would have to continue along the Tarhuna road in the same way. The exit from the village was all the more difficult in that it was a steep hill. Luckily there was no air activity.

Two days' rations and water, and petrol for 100 miles, were issued to units in the morning of 19 January, the first replenishment since 14 January. Gradually the Division filtered through Beni Ulid, A Squadron of Divisional Cavalry in the morning, followed by one squadron of the Greys, 24 Battalion and 6 Field Regiment in the early afternoon, all these units moving at least 20 miles clear of the village. Engineers all this time continued clearing the road and marking dispersal areas.

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The rest of Divisional Cavalry followed, and then, as it was becoming progressively easier to pass through the village, Freyberg decided to press on during the night along a lighted route. The remainder of 6 Brigade Group began to move through about 7 p.m. and three or four hours later joined 24 Battalion some 18 to 20 miles north. Fifth Brigade Group, having been warned at 4.15 p.m. that it was to pass through 6 Brigade and take the lead, moved off at 7 p.m. from its location east of the Bir Dufan road, and at 9 p.m. began to pass through Beni Ulid. From 4 a.m. onwards on the 20th the group approached the Divisional Cavalry area 25 miles north of Beni Ulid, and there moved off the road and dispersed. Divisional Headquarters and Reserve Group followed 5 Brigade and dispersed just behind it. The whole Division, less Administrative Group, was clear of Beni Ulid at first light on the 20th, which speaks volumes for the engineers who had cleared the route, for the Provost Company who had marked it and controlled the traffic, and for all the drivers.