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New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy

The Advance to Tripoli

The Advance to Tripoli

The enemy in Africa was now facing the Allies on two fronts. In Tunisia the Anglo-American forces were closing in, but the Germans had heavily reinforced the garrison there and it was clear that Allied progress would be slow until supplies could be built up for a full-scale offensive. Similarly, Eighth Army had to be supplied from a badly battered port at Benghazi and by road from Tobruk. It was not known whether Rommel intended to fight hard for Tripolitania or whether he would go straight back to Tunisia. No risks could be taken as the enemy was still strong, and Rommel could be depended upon to hit back if the opportunity offered.

The enemy's defensive position at Buerat was covered by steepsided wadis which were deep and very difficult to cross, especially on anything like a broad front. Reconnaissance patrols, however, had again found places where an outflanking force could get through with the help of bulldozers. The Division, again with a page 411 regiment of Sherman tanks (the Royal Scots Greys) under command, was given an outflanking role. Eighth Army's advance was to be on a three-division front, with 51 (Highland) Division on the coastal sector, and 7 British Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division following the inland route on the open left flank. These three divisions formed 30 Corps. Behind this force 22 Armoured Brigade was in reserve under the command of the Army Commander, General Montgomery. It was an army, therefore, of three divisions and a brigade which had the task of capturing Tripoli.

Early in January 1943 preparations by 2 NZ Division for another left hook were completed on the same basis as for the Agheila operation, vehicles being loaded with water, petrol, ammunition, and food for eleven days. On 3 January the Division concentrated in the desert south of Nofilia and grouped for the next advance, while 5 Brigade moved up near to Wadi Tamet to prepare a new landing ground for the Desert Air Force. Here, on 5 January an enemy air raid resulted in ten being killed and twenty-seven wounded. The casualties were treated by B Company 5 Field Ambulance as ADS to the brigade, surgery being performed by 2 Field Surgical Unit attached to 151 Light Field Ambulance, 2 miles away. When the page 412 Desert Air Force moved up to the landing ground a few days later, enemy dive-bombers and fighters, which had been dominating the forward area, were soon driven back by Spitfire squadrons.

plan showing medical support for military operation

Nofilia to Tripoli showing Medical Units, 2 January – 21 February 1943

Then on 12 January the Division moved forward to Wadi Tamet to lie up in broken country with all vehicles camouflaged. At dawn on 15 January 2 NZ Division, as well as 7 Armoured Division and 51 (Highland) Division to the north, was in contact with the enemy. The enemy position was strong, so orders were given to 2 NZ Division to carry out an outflanking attack. By nightfall the Division threatened the enemy flank and was in a strong position to complete the ‘hook’ in the morning. The enemy was also aware of this and withdrew from the Buerat position.

For the next stage in the advance 51 (Highland) Division continued along the coast clearing mines and bypassing demolitions, while 7 Armoured Division and 2 NZ Division cut across the desert in a wide outflanking drive.

During the next seven days the advance continued without any important engagements. From Buerat to Azizia the route lay over stony desert, cut by deep and difficult cross wadis, with occasional patches of soft sand. Beyond Tarhuna, as the road was destroyed, the Gebel was crossed by a mountain pass, after which a difficult patch of sand had to be overcome to reach the main road. Movement was slowed down, not so much by the enemy as by the broken nature of the country, which became progressively worse as the columns approached the Gebel Garian range between the desert hinterland and the plain of Tripoli. On 21 January the Division began to cross this range by a winding road. By moving all night the Division was able to debouch into the plains on 22 January. Enemy rearguards were still guarding the approaches to Tripoli. Eighth Army advanced guards, moving on their different routes, were almost equidistant from Tripoli. Still delayed by demolitions and mines, 51 Division was completing its advance along the coast road, 7 Armoured Division near Tarhuna was directed on Castel Benito airfield, and the New Zealanders were closing in from the south. In face of these combined threats the enemy withdrew from Azizia on the night of 22–23 January, and on the 23rd an endless stream of vehicles began to roll into Tripoli.