Bardia to Enfidaville
In the El Haseiat Area
In the El Haseiat Area
The GOC held a conference on 9 December in the El Haseiat area. The domestic situation was good and presented no difficulties. The main doubt remaining was over ‘going’, and the CRE (Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson1) was therefore to co-operate with 11 Hussars (an armoured car regiment from 7 Armoured Division) and with Captain L. H. Browne2 of the Long Range Desert Group in selecting a detailed route for the advance, especially at the crossing of Chrystal's Rift. The GOC then reviewed alternative courses of action for the Division in case the enemy got away before the advance began, although he did not think this would happen.
In the flurry of conferences and discussions that took place from 9 December onwards, it took two or three days to determine the actual dates for the moves of the Division. On 11 December, under page 27 arrangements made with Headquarters 30 Corps—there do not appear to have been any formal orders—the Division moved some 30 or 40 miles to the south of El Haseiat to an area designated as ‘Stage I’. It was then intended that on 14 December it should move across Chrystal's Rift to ‘Stage II’, on 15–16 December to ‘Stage III’, a point on the Marada Track, and on 16–17 December northwestwards to ‘Stage IV’, some ten miles west of the Marada Track.
On 11 December 30 Corps issued orders for the period beyond Stage IV, when 2 NZ Division was to seize Marble Arch and Merduma, clear landing grounds at both places, and then reorganise and prepare to move to Nofilia. The first part of this operation—the seizing of Marble Arch and Merduma—was to take place in daylight on the 17th.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade (Brigadier C. B. Harvey, DSO) came under the command of the New Zealand Division on 9 December, but had not then joined the Division, which was still at El Haseiat. At that time the brigade consisted of the following units:
King's Dragoon Guards (KDG)
Royal Dragoons (Royals)
Royal Scots Greys (Greys)
3 Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery (3 RHA)
one troop 211 Battery, 64 Medium Regiment, Royal Artillery (211 Med Bty)
one troop 41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery, Royal Artillery
1 Battalion, King's Royal Rifle Corps (1 KRRC)
one troop 21 Field Squadron, Royal Engineers
In addition there were various service units such as RASC and RAMC. Armoured brigades had what can only be called a lavish establishment of vehicles. Their large B Echelon—the vehicles not used for fighting—was divided into B1 and B2, and like all units they found it necessary to have their transport near them. The result often was that between the armoured brigade fighting vehicles leading an advance and the next following combatant group—guns or infantry—would come a long tail, either delaying the troops behind or else ‘cluttering up some one else's area’, as a participant observed, a problem that was never satisfactorily solved.page 28
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade had moved forward to ‘Stage I’ on 9 December, and was already in that area when 2 NZ Division arrived two days later. The one exception was the Greys, which remained at El Haseiat. Only a few days previously this regiment had taken over a fresh issue of tanks, which required servicing and calibrating. These included seventeen Shermans, the first that the regiment had ever had. Consequently the Greys were entering a new campaign with a proportion of fighting vehicles of which the crews had had no previous operational experience. The delay at El Haseiat was of greater importance than was realised at the time, and caused certain difficulties later on.
The Greys' total strength in tanks on 12 December was 36–17 Shermans, 4 Grants, and 15 Stuarts (the last also known as Honeys). This was regarded as inadequate by General Freyberg, and had been the subject of much discussion at Division, Corps and Army Headquarters. Freyberg had made his view clear, that if there was to be any rounding up of the enemy, the outflanking force would need more armour. But for administrative reasons Montgomery decided that he could not allot a much stronger force of tanks to 2 NZ Division, although he partially met the request by allotting A Squadron, Staffordshire Yeomanry (with nine Shermans) to 4 Light Armoured Brigade. This squadron joined the Greys on 12 December. It was a case of robbing Peter to pay Paul, for Staffordshire Yeomanry was part of 7 Armoured Division, which was then so much the weaker.
When reviewing the events of a few days later, it should be remembered that from the outset no one thought that there were enough tanks with the Division. It was doubly unfortunate that some of the tanks available should start off with the handicap of inexperienced crews and that last-minute training should cause delay.
Between 9 and 12 December the CRE and his party, including detachments from 6 Field Company with bulldozers, prepared a crossing over Chrystal's Rift. At frequent intervals in this depression were rocky island mounds impassable to vehicles, and between them the sand often was soft, almost as fine as flour and also impassable. The route selected therefore wound about a great deal, adding to the length of the crossing. It required some work with explosives in addition to bulldozing, but was sufficiently good for transport to cross on a three-vehicle front at six miles in the hour.
Desert warfare had something in common with naval warfare because of the extensive area of featureless ground and the ease of movement in all directions. As a result it often was necessary to navigate by nautical methods, that is by celestial observations. page 29 The Long Range Desert Group was expert in this for its raids, reconnaissances and approach marches to lying-up grounds behind the enemy lines were often across hundreds of miles of unmapped and almost featureless desert. The GOC decided to ask that Captain Browne, a New Zealand LRDG officer skilled in desert navigation, should be made available as navigator for the forthcoming march, and on 12 December part of R1 (New Zealand) Patrol of the LRDG, two officers and 18 men under Browne, joined the Division. The patrol, however, was still operating under orders of Eighth Army, and was given several other tasks, including reconnaissance in the Buerat area, a long way ahead at the time, as well as that of navigating for the New Zealand Division.
During this time the Division was steadily accumulating supplies for the move. The NZASC issued enough petrol for 300 miles in unit vehicles, and held enough for another 100 miles in ASC vehicles. Filling unit transport to this scale meant the issue of 180,000 gallons. Rations and water for six days were held in unit vehicles, and rations for another three days and water for another four days in the ASC vehicles.
There was thus great activity, both mental and physical: planning by commanders and staff, discussions of details with subordinates, issues of all kinds of supplies, maintenance and overhaul of vehicles and weapons, movement of supply vehicles back and forth over the desert—all combined with a degree of exhilaration that came from the knowledge that the next move was something new over new country, with the intention of driving the enemy farther back than ever before.
On 9 December the first signs were noticed that the enemy was beginning to thin out. On three successive nights (9–10, 10–11 and 11–12 December) patrols from 51 (H) Division advanced some 4000 yards from their forward localities and penetrated the enemy's forward positions without meeting other than slight opposition. Air reconnaissance on 10 December showed a clear movement rearwards of transport, and the signs of a general withdrawal were becoming steadily clearer.
1 Brig F. M. H. Hanson, DSO and bar, OBE, MM, ED, m.i.d.; Wellington; born Levin, 1896; resident engineer, Main Highways Board; Wellington Regt in 1914–18 War; OC 7 Fd Coy Jan 1940–Aug 1941; CRE 2 NZ Div 1941–46; Chief Engineer, 2 NZEF, 1943–46; three times wounded; Commissioner of Works.