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Bardia to Enfidaville

2 NZ Division Prepares

page 158

2 NZ Division Prepares

The Army plan, issued on 26 February, prescribed that an enlarged Division, entitled New Zealand Corps, would make a turning movement via Nalut and Ksar Rhilane. Since then, however, 2 NZ Division had moved forward to Medenine and on 10 March was still there.1 The route via Nalut had been prescribed on the assumption that the Division would start from Tripoli and would move along the southern edge of the coastal plain. There was obviously no point now in going back as far as Nalut; but some rearward movement was necessary, for the direct road from Medenine to Foum Tatahouine was likely to be open to enemy ground observation. In addition there was always the possibility that rearward movement would mislead the enemy. It was decided therefore that NZ Corps should go back to Ben Gardane in daylight, and move at night on the road from Ben Gardane to Foum Tatahouine.

On 5 March, the day before the enemy attack at Medenine, a party from 6 Field Company reconnoitred this route and from Foum Tatahouine went south for 30 miles as far as, and indeed beyond, the turn-off to Wilder's Gap. All the roads were found to be suitable for all types of traffic, although needing some repairs. On 8 March detachments from 5 Field Park Company and 6 Field Company began clearing and improving the road from Ben Gardane to Foum Tatahouine and on to Wilder's Gap, and marking a track through the Gap into an assembly area in the Dahar, ten miles north-west of the Gap and 35 miles south-west of Foum Tatahouine. The track was, as usual, marked with the black diamond sign.

The engineers at this time also made a plaster model of the Tebaga Gap area, used by the GOC at many of his conferences, and later by brigade commanders. There were as usual varied opinions about the usefulness of the model, but it appears that it was genuinely helpful during the planning stages, although in no way taking the place of ground reconnaissance.

On 10 March General Freyberg held a conference to discuss the move to the assembly area. At this conference he compared the strength of the future NZ Corps with any enemy forces that might be met, and at this stage he considered only the German Africa Corps2 which, disregarding any Italian forces, could be expected to

1 The New Zealand Minister of Defence was proposing to visit the Division in the middle of March, but as the period was obviously unsuitable, he confined his activities for the time being to NZEF camps and units in Egypt, Syria and Palestine. He visited the Division towards the end of April.

2 Commanded by General Hans Cramer from 13 Feb 1943. Normally 15 and 21 Panzer Divisions were corps troops, but in Tunisia this grouping was more often the exception than the rule.

page 159 oppose an outflanking movement. The 164th Light Division had been identified in the Mareth Line, where the joint operations of 10 and 30 Corps would probably retain it, and 10 Panzer Division was known to be north of Gabes.

The GOC concluded that NZ Corps would be stronger than Africa Corps in troops, about 20,000 (actually 25,600) to 19,300; in field and medium artillery, 112 to 55; in anti-tank guns, 172 to 120, and in tanks, 150 (excluding Divisional Cavalry and ‘L’ Force) to 70. Estimates of enemy strengths prepared after this conference, to 19 March, lifted the number of troops to 21,500, the field and medium artillery to 100 and the tank strength to 120. But whatever discrepancies between the estimated strength and the actual, for which no reliable figures are available, General Freyberg's comment at his conference on the 10th, that the operation was not as rash as might appear when considering the map, seems valid enough.

During the days from 7 March onwards 2 NZ Division stocked up with supplies ready for a move which was to start about 11 March—six days' rations and water, the latter at half a gallon per man per day, and petrol for 300 miles. As a security measure while in the sparsely populated coastal area, fernleaf signs were obliterated from all vehicles, and shoulder titles and hat badges removed. A press release was made that 2 NZ Division was holding part of the Mareth Line. Whether for these or for other reasons the Germans were slow in identifying the Division when operations resumed and reported attacks by formations that were nowhere in the area.

The 8th Armoured Brigade from 7 Armoured Division came under command on 10 March. It consisted of 3 Royal Tanks, Notts Yeomanry, and Staffordshire Yeomanry, all heavy tank regiments, and 1 Buffs, 111 Field Regiment, RA, and ancillary units. The number of tanks held varied a little from day to day, but just before the campaign started their tank state was as follows:

3RTR Notts Yeo Staffs Yeo HQ Total
Shermans 25 23 28 76
Grants 4 4 3 2 13
Crusaders 22 19 19 2 62
Armoured Cars 8 6 7 21

It was normal in the brigade to allocate companies of the Buffs to armoured regiments, so forming ‘Armoured Regimental Groups’.

page 160

‘A’ Company thus moved under command of Notts Yeo, ‘B’ Company under 3 RTR, and ‘C’ Company under Staffs Yeo. Only in a special case, where for instance some sector was to be held as a firm base, did 1 Buffs operate as a battalion.

On 11 March the additional platoons for Petrol Company, approved while the Division was at Bardia,1 duly joined up, so increasing the company from two to five platoons and increasing the reserves of petrol it was possible to have immediately available.

At midnight on 11–12 March 2 NZ Division passed from the command of 30 Corps to that of NZ Corps, the constitution of the latter being:

2 NZ Division Lieutenant-General Sir Bernard Freyberg
8 Armoured Brigade Brigadier C. B. C. Harvey
King's Dragoon Guards (armoured cars)
64 Medium Regiment, RA
57 Anti-Tank Regiment, RA, less one battery
One battery 53 Light Anti-Aircraft Regiment, RA
‘L’ Force General Leclerc2
FFF Column

At this time ‘L’ Force consisted of the following:

Two troops armoured cars
One squadron self-propelled guns
Eleven other guns of various types
Anti-tank regiment
Anti-aircraft guns
Two reconnaissance companies
Five lorried companies
One Greek squadron

The Free French Flying Column consisted of:

Two armoured car squadrons
One tank company (11 Crusaders and 2 Shermans)
Two platoons infantry

The whole French force numbered about 3500 men and 900 vehicles, and was self-contained for long periods, longer even than 2 NZ Division. A proportion of its supporting artillery was British. The French force joined NZ Corps in situ, remaining in its existing area round Ksar Rhilane.

1 See pp. 78.

2 General Jacques Leclerc (a nom de guerre adopted to protect his family in France) impressed the New Zealanders with whom he came in contact as a keen, alert, and dedicated soldier. He was quick to grasp the import and detail of operations entrusted to him and carried them out aggressively and well. He obviously inspired his small force to staunch effort, and it was not surprising later to learn that he was commanding a French armoured division in Normandy, and led the Allied liberation troops into Paris. After the war Leclerc was accorded the legal use of his nom de guerre and became Vicomte Philippe Francois Marie Leclerc de Hauteclocque. He was killed in an air crash in Algeria in November 1947.

page 161

General Freyberg commanded both the Corps and the Division, and did not form a separate Corps Headquarters nor was there any corps echelon of administrative troops. Strictly speaking, therefore, the force was a much augmented division and not a true corps. On the tactical side, the absence of a separate Corps Headquarters was not queried before the battle, but at a conference held in Tripoli towards the end of February the administrative staff of the Eighth Army expressed some concern at difficulties that might arise owing to the absence of the supply echelon normally interposed between a division and the army roadhead.1 But the administrative staff of 2 NZ Division and the CRASC were confident that they could compete with the task and did not want additional staff. All that was wanted was additional RASC units, and these were duly provided. At no point during the operations was there any administrative restriction or delay.

The initial movement of the Corps, less the French Group, to the assembly area began at a starting point a few miles east of Medenine, and was to be via a staging area about halfway between Ben Gardane and Foum Tatahouine. Here dumps of petrol had been arranged so that units could replenish. Group movements were as follows:

To Staging Area To Assembly Area
6 Infantry Brigade Group 8 a.m., 11 March Night 11–12 March
5 Infantry Brigade Group 8 a.m., 12 March Night 12–13 March
Headquarters 11.30 a.m., 12 March Night 12–13 March
ASC Group Night 13–14 March
Artillery Group 8 a.m., 14 March Night 14–15 March
Reserve Group 10 a.m., 14 March Night 14–15 March
8 Armoured Brigade Group 2 p.m., 14 March Night 15–16 March

The distance from starting point to staging area was about 60 miles, and from there to assembly area about seventy. The move back to Ben Gardane was in daylight, as there was no objection to enemy aircraft spotting an apparent withdrawal; but for most groups the move thence to the staging area was also in daylight, probably on the grounds that this location could have served as an assembly area for troops moving into the Mareth Line. The move forward to the assembly area was by night. Administrative Group, which had been in the Ben Gardane area during the Medenine operations, was to move off at 11 a.m. on 17 March and would thus be last in the column.

1 The terminal supply depot formed by army supply companies. From this depot corps normally established more advanced depots from which divisions drew supplies.

page 162

Tracked vehicles of all groups were to be moved on transporters from the Medenine area, leaving on 15 March for the staging area, and moving on the night 16–17 March to an unloading point south of Foum Tatahouine. Vehicles would be unloaded before daylight and lie camouflaged during 17 March, moving after dark to rejoin their units in the assembly area.

Except in cases of operational necessity, wireless silence was to be observed, all wireless traffic for NZ Corps being routed as for Rear Headquarters ‘L’ Force near the assembly area, through a set manned by Royal Signals operators. After convoys left the staging area no enemy aircraft were to be engaged unless they made a direct attack. Once in the assembly area movement was to be at a speed that would not raise dust, and there were to be no fires or lights during darkness.