Episodes & Studies Volume 1
The Eighth Army Advance
The Eighth Army Advance
FOLLOWING THE DEFEAT early in September 1942 of Rommel’s final attempt to break through the Alamein Line, Eighth Army proceeded with its preparations for an offensive. As Faiyum would cease to be a suitable base for the LRDG when the advance started, the whole unit was concentrated at Kufra. The battle began on 23 October and in ten days the shattered remnants of the Axis army were in full retreat to the west. At the request of General Staff Intelligence, the LRDG re-established a watch on the Tripoli-Benghazi road, again near Marble Arch. During the first spell of watching, carried out by Y1 patrol from 30 October to 8 November, less than a hundred vehicles passed both ways daily. By 10 November, when R1 had relieved Y1, the results of Eighth Army’s victory were apparent: enemy traffic streamed westwards at the rate of 3500 vehicles a day, and the evacuation of Italian civilians with their furniture, as well as many thousands of troops, confirmed that Rommel did not intend to return.
** Troopers Ellis, L. R. B. Johnstone, and J. L. Reid, and Privates C. A. Dornbush and J. M. Simonsen. Reid walked for a week before he was captured, and later escaped from a prisoner-of-war camp in Italy.
Long before Eighth Army began the advance from Alamein, the Intelligence branch of General Headquarters, Middle East, had secret agents operating in Tripolitania. LRDG patrols were required to carry these men, with their stores and their wireless sets, to a place from which they could complete their journey by camel or on foot. In August, R1 patrol, under Captain A. I. Guild,30 took the first party of three men from Kufra to Bir Tala, about 120 miles to the south-east of Tripoli. Three months later the same patrol, led by Captain L. H. Browne,31 repeated the 2000-mile trip to deliver fresh stores and to relieve the wireless operator, who was ill.
On the way northwards on 17 November, R1 exchanged fire with an enemy patrol between Marada and Zella, and put two enemy vehicles out of action without loss to themselves. Next day, when attacked at Wadi Tamet by at least fourteen enemy aircraft, they took cover in the wadi banks and fought back with all their weapons. An officer of the Arab Legion attached to the patrol and the New Zealand navigator (Lance-Corporal N. O’Malley32 were killed, another New Zealander (Private M. F. Fogden33 was wounded, and two trucks were damaged beyond repair. Browne sent a party back to Kufra with the wounded man and, although wounded himself, carried on to Bir Tala with two trucks to complete his task.
When Rommel withdrew in December from his defensive positions at El Agheila, his retreat was hastened by a ‘left hook’ by the New Zealand Division around his southern flank. This outflanking move involved crossing the Marada-El Agheila track, through country that had become well known to the LRDG during the road watch. Guided by Browne’s R1 patrol, the column reached the Bir el Merduma area, to the west of Marble Arch, in the evening of 15 December, but was unable to prevent Rommel’s Afrika Korps from breaking out to the west. R1 then led the Division in another outflanking movement at Nofilia on 17 December, but again the enemy escaped.
R1 patrol’s next assignment was to reconnoitre the country beyond Wadi Tamet. Browne was injured and a South African survey officer was killed on 22 December when their jeep struck a mine on a landing ground near the wadi. Browne, who had served the LRDG with distinction since the formation of the unit, was awarded the MC. With Second-Lieutenant K. F. McLauchlan34 in command, the patrol continued the reconnaissance until ambushed by two German armoured cars near the Gheddahia-Bu Ngem track on 27 December. The wireless truck, containing three New Zealanders* and an Englishman, and a jeep carrying a South African officer and his driver, were captured, but the rest of the patrol skilfully evaded the enemy.
While Eighth Army was driving into Tripolitania from the east, General Leclerc’s Fighting French Forces of Chad Province moved into the Fezzan from the south. This form of Anglo-French co-operation had been planned a year earlier, when R2 patrol, led by Second-Lieutenant C. H. B. Croucher,35 had been despatched to a French outpost in the Tibesti Mountains to act as a wireless link between the Allies. Rommel’s counter-offensive in Cyrenaica, however, had necessitated the postponement of the French advance and the recall of R2 patrol.
* Lance-Bombardier C. O. Grimsey, Private K. C. J. Ineson, and Trooper R. D. Hayes.
Eighth Army entered Tripoli on 23 January 1943. This advance of 1400 miles in three months had made it necessary for the LRDG to move its base from Kufra 600 miles north-westwards to Zella, and later another 150 miles to Hon. The unit’s Heavy Section, equipped with 6-ton and 3-ton lorries, moved the base from one place to the next in a single journey. The heavy transport was usually employed in ferrying supplies to forward dumps, or from the nearest depot to the LRDG base—from Wadi Halfa to Kufra, from Mersa Matruh to Siwa, from Msus to Gialo, from Nofilia to Zella, and from Misurata or Tripoli to Hon. Transporting rations, petrol, ammunition, and equipment over such great distances, created special problems for the quartermaster, Captain D. Barrett,36 who received the MBE in recognition of his efficiency and capacity for hard work.
* An Indian Long Range Squadron of four patrols came under the command of the LRDG in October 1942.
Reconnaissance in Tunisia
Some weeks before the fall of Tripoli, General Sir Bernard Montgomery explained to the commanding officer of the LRDG (Lieutenant-Colonel G. L. Prendergast37) that the patrols would be required to reconnoitre the country in southern Tunisia through which a column outflanking the Mareth Line would have to pass. To enable the patrols to operate so far from their base at Hon, dumps were established near the Tunisian frontier and arrangements made with Allied Headquarters at Algiers for supplies to be available at Tozeur, about a hundred miles to the west of Gabes.
In January and February 1943 the LRDG and the Indian LRS explored the territory to the south and west of the range of hills extending southwards from Matmata. They reported daily by wireless about the going, obstacles, cover, water supply, and sites for landing grounds, and on their return the patrol leaders conferred with Captain Browne at Headquarters New Zealand Division, where a model was made to demonstrate possible lines of advance.
Crossing the frontier on 12 January, T1 patrol, under Captain Wilder, were the first troops of Eighth Army to enter Tunisia. About thirty miles to the south-west of Foum Tatahouine, they found the pass through the hills that became known to Eighth Army as Wilder’s Gap; this was on the route followed by the New Zealand Corps two months later. Other patrols explored the country farther to the west, T2 in the area to the south of Djebel Tebaga, between Matmata and Chott Djerid, a huge salt marsh, and G2 in the area between the Chott and the Grand Erg Oriental, an impassable sand sea extending into southern Algeria.
T2 patrol, under Lieutenant Tinker, and accompanied by a party of ‘Popski’s Private Army’ (Peniakoff’s Demolition Squadron), established a base camp in a wadi about twenty miles to the south of Ksar Rhilane. Tinker and Peniakoff, each with two jeeps, then went north towards Djebel Tebaga, through country that was found to be suitable for the passage of a force of all arms.page 13
RAID ON BARCE
A SAND DUNE typical of the country through which the raiding force passed on the way to Gebel Akhdar
IN THE ÆGEAN
THE TURKISH PORT OF BODRUM Here an escape organisation assisted the evacuation of troops from Leros
THE ROWING BOAT in which Lieutenant R. F. White’s party reached Turkey
A natural corridor extended between Djebel Tebaga and the Matmata Hills towards the coast at Gabes; this was the Tebaga Gap through which the outflanking of the Mareth Line was to be accomplished. After avoiding German troops preparing defences near Matmata, Tinker and Peniakoff parted to continue with their separate tasks, Peniakoff to carry out demolitions in the Matmata area and Tinker to examine the country in the direction of Chott Djerid. On the way back to the base camp, Tinker rejoined Peniakoff at Ksar Rhilane and learned that the camp had been shot up by enemy aircraft. All the vehicles had been destroyed and two New Zealanders (Lance-Corporals R. A. Ramsay38 and R. C. Davies39) had been wounded.
Everybody except Sergeant Garven, a French officer and two Arabs of the PPA, who remained to keep a rendezvous with S2 patrol, had moved from the base camp to Ksar Rhilane, where there was a mixed gathering of thirty-seven men: sixteen of the LRDG, thirteen of the PPA, six French parachutists, and two SAS parachutists. The French had been following the route taken by Stirling’s SAS troops when one of their jeeps had broken down, and Stirling had left the other two men because of vehicle trouble. Not long afterwards Stirling and his party were captured near Gabes.
The LRDG had two jeeps, the PPA two, and the French one, but there was not sufficient petrol to take all five a hundred miles. With three jeeps, the wounded men, and petrol for 150 miles, Tinker set out for Sabria, an oasis near Chott Djerid, while the remainder of the men followed on foot, with their supplies in the other two jeeps. Tinker was to send back relief for the walkers, but if Sabria was not held by the Fighting French, he would have to go to Tozeur.
Sabria was in the hands of the Germans. An Arab guided Tinker’s party, without being detected, past the oasis to Sidi Mazouq, where the natives cared for them. At this stage they had travelled sixty miles and were still over a hundred from Tozeur. As there was not sufficient petrol to complete the journey around the shore of Chott Djerid, Tinker decided to cross the salt marshes by a camel track to Nefta, a village about sixteen miles from Tozeur. Where the surface was firm it was possible to drive at top speed, but where water seepage formed a quagmire the jeeps lurched through muddy pools on to hard lumps of coagulated salt and sand. They were the first vehicles ever to cross the Chott.
At Nefta, Tinker arranged by telephone for the French to supply petrol from Tozeur. He refuelled two of his jeeps and sent them back to meet the walking party—they did not attempt to recross the Chott—while he went to Gafsa, about sixty miles to the north-east of Tozeur, to obtain transport from the United States Army and to report by wireless to Eighth Army. The Americans at Gafsa, unable to help, told him to go to Tebessa, a hundred miles to the north-west, in Algeria. Although not wholly convinced by Tinker’s story, the Americans at Tebessa lent him two jeeps and allowed him to report to Eighth Army.
Tinker then went back to meet the walking party, whom he found near Sidi Mazouq and took to Tozeur. The two jeeps sent from Nefta had missed the walkers, but they arrived at Tozeur a day later, accompanied by an officer from S2 patrol. The Rhodesians had kept the rendezvous with Garven’s party. Tinker returned the borrowed jeeps to the Americans, who had a message from Eighth Army requesting his return by air. Leaving his patrol and attached troops in the hands of the British First Army, the United States 2nd Corps, and the Fighting French, he flew from Tebessa to Algiers, and from there to Tripoli, where he reported at Eighth Army to assist in the preparations for the ‘left hook’ around Mareth. Tinker’s courageous leadership won him the MC.page 22
The last task assigned to the LRDG by Eighth Army was the navigation of the New Zealand Corps during the outflanking of the Mareth Line. Appropriately, the task was performed by New Zealanders, Captain Tinker and three men from T2 patrol, in two jeeps.
The New Zealand Corps passed through Wilder’s Gap and remained at an assembly area while the route was plotted to the north-west. A wadi with steep, rocky escarpments presented a very difficult obstacle, but Tinker, accompanied by an officer* of the New Zealand Engineers, found a place where tracks could be made by machinery to get the Corps transport across. Meanwhile, the T2 navigator (Corporal Bassett) guided a New Zealand Provost party marking the ‘Diamond track’ along the line of advance. The Corps left the assembly area on 19 March, the day before Eighth Army launched its frontal attack on the Mareth Line, advanced to Tebaga along the route reconnoitred by the LRDG, and made contact with the enemy on the 21st.
Reacting to this threat to his right flank, the enemy attempted to hold the Tebaga Gap with 21 Panzer and two other divisions. General Montgomery despatched 1 Armoured Division to reinforce the New Zealand Corps. With powerful support from the RAF, this force broke through the gap on 26 March and left the enemy with no option but to abandon the Mareth Line. The New Zealanders entered Gabes three days later. When the Axis forces were driven back into a corner of Tunisia, there was no further scope for the LRDG, which therefore was released from Eighth Army and returned to Egypt to rest and reorganise.
The war in North Africa ended with the Axis surrender on 13 May 1943. During the two and a half years that the armies had advanced and retreated along the coast, the patrols of the LRDG, operating behind the enemy lines, had dominated the vast inner desert. Their next undertaking was in a different theatre of war, the Aegean Sea.
* Captain J. A. Goodsir