Bardia to Enfidaville
Into the Blue—15 December
Into the Blue—15 December
Before the Division moved off on 15 December Freyberg informed 30 Corps that he was altering the divisional axis to run through Bir Scemmer to Bir el Merduma, with the intention of then turning towards the coast road and occupying the high ground west of Marble Arch. He estimated that his forward elements would reach the objective by 11 a.m. if there was no opposition. The message then went on to say that the Division held no maps ‘west of A.00 easting grid’, which meant no maps covering Nofilia and beyond—a surprising revelation, for Nofilia had been prescribed as an objective for the Division as early as 11 December. Whether the deficiency was due to slowness by the Division in asking for maps, or by Corps or Army Headquarters in delivering them, is not known. They were duly dropped by aircraft in the afternoon of 16 December. The message ended by asking that the coast road should be bombed along a stretch running from Marble Arch for some six miles to the south-east.
The 4th Light Armoured Brigade, again leading, moved off at daybreak with the armoured car regiments in front. By this time the Greys, still augmented by A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, had rejoined; and their services were important now that contact with the enemy was imminent. Unfortunately they were still low in petrol and had to refuel before they could move. This took till mid-morning, and 6 Infantry Brigade Group, which the tanks were to precede tactically, had to mark time until the refuelling was complete. As it turned out, it was a most unfortunate delay. But it is necessary only to quote the Greys' war diary to discover the reason: ‘regiment had covered 240 miles since leaving El Haseiat on 12 December. Pace and going had played havoc with the tanks which were getting worn out.’
During the morning 4 Light Armoured Brigade was joined by the GOC's Tactical Headquarters, which moved with it until evening, a usual practice of General Freyberg's when any fighting was likely. Wireless silence was lifted throughout the Division at 8 a.m.; but the GOC still hoped to retain some degree of secrecy, for as he went forward to join 4 Light Armoured Brigade he put under arrest men who had lit fires to cook breakfast. However, the number arrested became so great that he had to declare a general amnesty.page 42 page 43
With the probability that friendly forces might soon come near the main road, Air Support Control Headquarters asked the Division at 9.30 a.m. to nominate a bombline for the Desert Air Force. This request was passed to 4 Light Armoured Brigade, which was to reply direct on its tentacle. The brigade asked that there should be no bombing south of an east-west line through Marble Arch and Bir el Merduma or east and west of a line running north and south through Saniet Matratin.1 This curious and complicated prescription meant that there could be no bombing of the coast road anywhere south-east of Saniet Matratin, which meant in turn that there could be no bombing of Marble Arch or of the area immediately south-east and was in conflict with the GOC's request made some two hours earlier for bombing of the coast road. The issue was further confused when 6 Infantry Brigade (which intercepted the message) joined in with a request for an area of some thirty-six square miles where the Group was located to be excluded from bombing—an area which was already covered by 4 Light Armoured Brigade's request. It appears to have been sent to ensure that the 6 Infantry Brigade Group was not itself bombed.
The result of all this at Eighth Army Headquarters was a flare-up between the army and air staffs, partly because the hands of the air force were being tied over bombing the coast road, and partly because the air staff said—with some justice—that the army did not know what it really wanted. There was definite room for an improvement in the technique of calling for air support, and there is evidence to show that the lesson was taken to heart by all concerned.
As 4 Light Armoured Brigade went forward it reported from time to time in the best manner of a scouting force. It soon became evident that the enemy had forestalled the Division on objective PLUM—15 Panzer Division was in fact already there—and the light armoured brigade was not equipped to drive him off, for at the time, about midday, the Greys' tanks were still in the rear of the brigade. So it veered off to the west and by mid-afternoon reached the vicinity of Merduma, with its leading armoured car regiment (Royals) on the right in sight of the road at Bir el Haddadia.
1 Saniet= deep well.
The bulk of 4 Light Armoured Brigade laagered for the night some four to six miles north-west of Bir el Merduma, and here at last was joined by the Greys. General Freyberg during the evening sent a personal message to the commander 7 Armoured Division apologising for not sending back A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, and saying it would rejoin next day (16 December), which it did.
By the evening of 15 December the Sherman tanks of the Greys and A Squadron, Staffs Yeomanry, were down to 17. They had started out with 26.
Sixth Infantry Brigade Group reached the Bir el Merduma area in the afternoon, but passed to the south of the Bir itself, and in fact—although this was not then realised—went on to cross Wadi er Rigel, followed by Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group. This completed a journey of about 50 miles for the day. Without doubt the whole column missed Bir el Merduma by some miles; for there is sufficient detail from German documents to clarify the point. During the day the enemy posted flank guards parallel to the main road and five to ten miles south of it. First 15 Panzer Division was sent to ‘Point 123’ (the objective PLUM) and stayed there until in the late afternoon it was directed on Bir el Merduma—a move some 18 miles farther west—as the first stage of a withdrawal to Nofilia. In the early afternoon a battle group from 21 Panzer Division, including tanks, was sent to Merduma pending the arrival of 15 Panzer Division. Both these forces reported columns of troops advancing north-west at some distance to the south of them. One report at 4.20 p.m. said that enemy troops were ten kilometres south of Merduma, and there are other reports to much the same effect.
It has been seen that 4 Light Armoured Brigade was trending to the west. Sixth Infantry Brigade followed, and during the day must have borne off farther to the west, no doubt in the process of selecting good going. There was nothing especially distinctive about Bir el Merduma, for the landing ground was some few miles to the north-east; and although a number of tracks converged at the point, the desert at this time was criss-crossed by tracks, all looking much the same in their vagueness. In addition there was no special tactical virtue in Bir el Merduma, except for the landing ground. It had been chosen merely because it was a feature that page 45 appeared on the map, and so might be easily identifiable, and was suitably placed as a point from which to turn north and advance to the road, where it was hoped that part at least of the enemy would be cut off. But the Division's movements had now assumed a course parallel to the retreating enemy, reducing any hope of interception.
It was fortunate, as it turned out, that the Division did not go to Merduma, for it was subsequently discovered to be heavily mined.
Shortly after halting in the new area Brigadier Gentry, uneasy about locations, visited General Freyberg at his Tactical Headquarters, and was assured that they were at Bir el Merduma. The GOC's opinion probably was based upon what he believed had been navigation by the LRDG patrol. But the patrol had not been doing the navigation on 15 December; the column had merely followed its nose. When, after dark, Captain Browne took star observations, it was soon discovered that Tactical Headquarters was four miles west of Wadi er Rigel and eight miles west from Bir el Merduma.
During this visit Brigadier Gentry was instructed to move northwards and cut the road. By this time, 5 p.m., it was getting dusk. The brigade began to move, Orders Group1 leading, and still in desert formation. It was not found possible to arrange for a promised squadron of tanks to be detached from the Greys during the hours of darkness.
During the day (15 December) 51 (Highland) Division, on the coast road, was again greatly impeded by mines. By evening the leading troops had only reached El Agheila. To the south 8 Armoured Brigade crossed the Giofer road south-west of El Agheila, but here was hindered by bad going. Finally, at the antitank ditch in the El Mugtaa Narrows, it discovered the rearguard of 21 Panzer Division. The Desert Air Force had a good day against concentrated transport to the west and south of Marble Arch, but the doubt over bomblines hampered greater efforts.
1 The Orders Group included the commanders of the units in the brigade group (which might include the three battalions, a field regiment, and sometimes a regiment or squadron of armour) and of the supporting arms (anti-tank battery, anti-aircraft battery, field company, machine-gun company); it might also include staff officers from Brigade Headquarters.
Rommel was fully aware of the danger to be expected from the outflanking move, and had already instructed Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment and 580 Reconnaissance Unit that they must keep the road open for the withdrawal of Africa Corps. During the afternoon 33 Reconnaissance Unit, farther south, withdrew gradually before the advance of 2 NZ Division; and finally Headquarters Africa Corps asked Army Headquarters for permission to withdraw 21 Panzer Division. This application was at first refused ‘on the ground that the petrol situation at the moment would not allow all formations to withdraw to the next position at Nofilia’. The operative word here was ‘moment’, for literally the parts of the army were living from hour to hour.
However, as we have seen, a group from 21 Panzer Division and the whole of 15 Panzer were in the end sent to the Merduma area to relieve the strain on 33 Reconnaissance Unit, which at the time was the only unit in contact with the outflanking force.
Ultimately the danger to the 21 Panzer Division rearguard made it necessary to sanction its withdrawal, initially as far as Marble Arch, and about 10 p.m. to Nofilia. The German narrative says ‘the enemy situation made it impossible to hold the present area on 16 December. Army therefore decided to break contact with the enemy on the night 15–16 December and to withdraw to the Nofilia area. The petrol brought forward during the day was just enough for this limited move.’
Africa Corps was to withdraw to Nofilia forthwith, 21 Panzer along the coast road, 15 Panzer along the inland track Merduma—Nofilia, each division in co-operation with its detached reconnaissance unit; Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment was to disengage separately and go back to Nofilia; 90 Light Division was to stay as rearguard in a position west of Wadi Matratin. All these moves commenced at nightfall.
But at 8 p.m. 33 Reconnaissance Unit reported that a strong enemy force, including fifty tanks, had broken through its positions west of Merduma and was advancing on Nofilia. Such was the effect, seen from the enemy side, of the advance of 4 Light Armoured Brigade and 6 Infantry Brigade, with the tanks of the Greys and Divisional Cavalry. The result was to speed up the enemy movements, and to some degree to induce a sauve-qui-peut, page 47 in that 33 Reconnaissance Unit was told to withdraw at once by itself to a point west of Nofilia; and Africa Corps and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment were told to withdraw without further delay. Nevertheless 21 Panzer Division had to wait until 1 a.m. on the 16th before it had enough petrol, and 15 Panzer Division was in an even worse plight.