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Bardia to Enfidaville

Early Days in Tripoli

page 122

Early Days in Tripoli

THE New Zealand Division was in and around Tripoli for over a month, engaged in a variety of duties, and enjoying a reasonable amount of sport and recreation. Dock labour, control of civilians, guard duties, training, reorganisation and absorption of reinforcements, maintenance, Churchill's visit, and for the officers discussions of the past and planning for the future—all these figured during the period. Many corps, such as the engineers,1 the anti-aircraft artillery, and the ASC were busy with their normal operational duties.

Administrative Group 2, the last of the divisional groups in the advance, did not catch up until 25 January. On that date Divisional Headquarters was assembled near Suani Ben Adem with Divisional Artillery and the Reserve Group, 5 Infantry Brigade Group was in Tripoli, and 6 Infantry Brigade Group in the Bianchi area. Fifth Brigade stayed in Tripoli only three days, however, being relieved on the 26th by a brigade from 51 (H) Division and moving to an area near Castel Benito.

The Division was on three hours' notice for operational employment until 27 January. This was extended to twenty-four hours; but there were indications that in any case the Division would be in its present area until the end of February. Units retained petrol for 100 miles, but for some days there was a shortage which enforced economy. Supplies of petrol, and indeed of everything, depended on the opening up of Tripoli port.

The work of the Navy in clearing the port and making it usable again was a notable factor in maintaining Eighth Army's offensive. To the untutored eye, the devastation in the harbour and the obstructions in the entrance seemed to indicate that the port would be unusable for months. But the first vessel entered the harbour on 3 February, followed by a whole convoy a few days later, and shortly thereafter over 2000 tons a day were being handled. As a

1 The engineers had another four or five casualties during this period.

page 123 temporary measure before 3 February, vessels were unloaded by lighter outside the harbour.1

On 26 January the GOC held a conference of formation commanders and heads of services, and led discussions on past operations, on future operations, and on activities in the month ahead. For the immediate future he prescribed a general ‘sprucing up’, to include weapon training and marching. Leave to Tripoli, games, a sports meeting, and concert parties would provide the necessary element of entertainment.

Leave to Tripoli began on 29 January, a tenth of unit strength going there every day, but the men were disappointed with the city, which could offer no food or normal entertainment. There were strict orders not to buy food from inhabitants, and the general impression was that one visit was enough, despite the fact that it was a real town with an attractive seafront esplanade. Some trouble was caused by over-indulgence in the local wine, soon known as ‘plonk’, which was plentiful and cheap. It was a not unusual sight to see odd unit vehicles scouring the countryside on ‘plonk missions’, or in other words looking for fresh supplies of the local substitute for beer.

Churchill's words about coming into green and fertile lands had good foundation, for the plain of Tripoli was indeed fertile compared with the desert country which was all the Division had seen for many long months. There was ample artesian water to irrigate the innumerable small farms which were the visible sign of the Fascist attempt to colonise Tripolitania; and the results of hard work were seen in fields of maize and other crops, olive and almond groves, and avenues of trees, all a truly pleasing sight, especially when the almonds came into early blossom.

By the beginning of February the whole Division was concentrated in the Suani Ben AdemCastel Benito area. Brigade groups and the Reserve Group were broken up, and all units reverted to their own corps' command. The Greys remained with the Division, but the attached artillery went back to its regiments.

1 The rapid clearing of Tripoli harbour, coming on top of past experience at Tobruk and Benghazi, proved that in fact it was well-nigh impossible to obstruct a harbour for more than a short period, no matter how great the degree of demolition, or the number of sunken vessels or obstructions employed.