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Bardia to Enfidaville

Lull before the Storm

page 144

Lull before the Storm

General Freyberg held a conference of all formation and unit commanders in the afternoon of 3 March to review the position and to tie up the loose ends that were inevitable after such a fast move. He discussed the positions of 30 Corps as a whole, pointing out that all three divisions had an unusually large number of anti-tank guns and extra field artillery, and that 51 (H) Division had an armoured brigade (23 Brigade) in support. The role of 2 NZ Division was to form a solid base round Medenine, and also to operate southwards against any penetration by the enemy towards Ben Gardane. Thirtieth Corps had 300 heavy tanks (as against the enemy's maximum of 150), and 467 six-pounder anti-tank guns. The New Zealand Division had 112 anti-tank guns, with 50 heavy tanks of Staffs Yeomanry under command and another 16 with the FFF Column. He made it clear that no attempt would be made to pursue the enemy after he had been repulsed. The timings already set down for PUGILIST would be observed.

Complete wireless silence was maintained by the Division; and to keep secret that New Zealanders were in the area a set manned by British operators from 4 Light Armoured Brigade worked from Divisional Headquarters, the difference in accent between British and New Zealand voices being enough for the purpose.1 Similarly a British operator was lent to work the RAF tentacle set.

As usual, landing grounds were of particular importance. In the area round 2 NZ Division there were three, one of them west of Medenine and now in the front line. Another was at Hazbub and the third ten miles to the south. Precautions were taken to ensure that no transport drove over these grounds except in cases of operational necessity. New Zealand engineers and working parties from 5 Brigade spent about two days improving the Hazbub ground, which it was intended to use. Nine enemy aircraft raided this ground on the evening of 4 March, but no damage was done, and the RAF destroyed three aircraft.

On 3 March there was still uncertainty about the enemy's intentions. In the evening parties of enemy infantry attacked the carrier screen of 51 (H) Division, but were quickly driven off. It is possible that this somewhat limp attack was a form of reconnaissance for an advance down the coast, in which case it cannot have given the enemy much information. There was a little air activity but all in all the enemy was very quiet, and carrier patrols operating some miles in front of the FDLs on 4 March had nothing to report.

page 145

Tactical air reconnaissance on 4 March disclosed much movement of tanks between Matmata and Kreddache, but there was no clear indication whether the enemy would attack in the north or the south; but the point had now been reached when it did not much matter, for our defensive line was ready.

The morning of 5 March was still quiet, and the day uneventful, except for the activities of a long-range enemy gun, which spasmodically shelled the Medenine area, and particularly the Hazbub landing ground. It succeeded in denying the use of the ground to our aircraft from time to time, and its activities were most irritating. Despite flash-spotting and sound-ranging locations and air reconnaissance, the gun was never definitely located, far less dealt with, during the time 2 NZ Division was in the Medenine area, and the CRA described it laconically as ‘very troublesome’. The 4th Indian Division overran the gun position in the main Mareth attack later in the month; and it was then found that there had been a troop of two 17-centimetre guns, well out of range of the guns of Eighth Army. One of the guns was then presented to 2 NZ Divisional Artillery, and, manned by 14 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, was in action until the end in North Africa.

Carrier patrols from 5 Infantry Brigade went out as far as the hills on 5 March, with authority to break wireless silence if necessary; but although they saw small parties of infantry, mechanical transport and armoured cars, the enemy showed no desire to engage. He covered his real intentions with considerable skill. There was even a school of thought that his plan was not to initiate an attack, but to counter-attack from the south-west when Eighth Army attacked the Mareth Line, and it is indeed true that Rommel asked for such a plan to be prepared. However, expectations generally were for an early attack from three panzer divisions, their exact location not being known.

It was clear to everyone, from Montgomery downwards, that the brief crisis had passed. Fast movement and efficiency in establishing a strong defensive line had put Eighth Army in such a position that it would be able to resist any attack that 1 Italian Army could mount against it.

1 But before the battle the enemy had identified 2 NZ Division in the Medenine area.