Bardia to Enfidaville
IN the afternoon the GOC issued instructions for the Division to concentrate. Sixth Brigade Group was to join the rest of the Division, a move back of some ten miles, as 5 Brigade Group would take over the lead when movement resumed. The advance, however, was not to commence until early on 17 December.
At first sight it seems a strange manoeuvre, not only to halt, but to withdraw the foremost troops. The only follow-up was from 4 Light Armoured Brigade, its tanks for some 15 miles and the armoured cars to within a few miles of Nofilia. There was no other attempt to hustle the enemy after the excursions of the morning. In Brigadier Kippenberger's words, 5 Brigade and no doubt most of the Division ‘spent that day, 16 December, thinking things over’.1
The German war diaries all remark on the pressure exerted on their units in the early morning. The 15th Panzer Division was shaken by its breakthrough, and went straight to Nofilia, disregarding instructions to make an intermediate stand. But all diaries comment on the lack of pressure during the afternoon. The 15th Panzer says, ‘for some inexplicable reason the main body of the enemy column remained stationary and did not attack’. The 90th Light Division ‘was enabled to hold its present positions until nightfall’, and ‘the enemy did not pursue’. After reading the German accounts, it seems that a quick follow-up would have kept the enemy on the move and driven him out of Nofilia before he had a chance to consolidate; but he was given nearly twenty-four hours to prepare.
It was fully midday, however, before it was known that the whole of the enemy had escaped, and it would have been unwise to move before this knowledge became certain. An enemy tank force at large in the rear of the Division, while it was attenuated and on the move, might have proved more than troublesome. The decision, therefore, was to make haste slowly, revive the troops who were in need of rest and concentrate the Division for an early start on the morrow.page 59
Arrangements for 17 December were, then, that 4 Light Armoured Brigade, with Divisional Cavalry under command, would lead the advance, followed by 5 Brigade Group, Divisional Reserve Group and Divisional Headquarters, 6 Brigade Group and Administrative Group. The head of 4 Light Armoured Brigade—less its armoured cars already out in front—was to pass the starting point at 7 a.m. This point, near Divisional Headquarters, would be indicated by a column of black smoke. In view of the muddled navigation on 15 December, it was made clear that the LRDG patrol would be responsible for leading the column, moving with the route-marking detachment of the Provost Company.
The Air Force had difficulties in the morning of 16 December owing to the confused form of the ground operations, and the uncertainty as to just who was who in the mass of swirling vehicles, but later in the day attacked the enemy round Nofilia. The 7th Armoured Division reached Marble Arch at midday, and armoured cars from the two divisions were in touch with each other in the afternoon. The enemy had left so many mines, booby traps and demolitions that 7 Armoured Division made no contact with his troops on 16 or 17 December. Booby traps were so various in type that Lieutenant-Colonel Hanson has said1 that at this stage the sappers became suspicious of everything, and even if a gold watch had been lying on the desert no one would have touched it.
Behind 7 Armoured Division came 51 (H) Division clearing the road, again a slow task. By evening it was fully cleared only as far as the junction with the track to Marada, 40 miles behind.
Originally 2 NZ Division was to have been responsible for clearing landing grounds at both Marble Arch and Merduma, and engineers had travelled with 4 Light Armoured Brigade for early reconnaissance, but the course of events had taken the Division farther to the south and west, while 7 Armoured Division had now reached Marble Arch. So 2 NZ Division was made responsible for Merduma, and for Nofilia later. A detachment from 6 Field Company (Major Anderson2), with an escort of anti-tank guns and machine-gunners, started work on Merduma at 3 p.m. on 16 December. The ground had been heavily mined and booby-trapped, but one runway was cleared by 4 p.m. next day, and aircraft were able to land successfully shortly afterwards. The New Zealand party then handed the work over to the Royal Engineers and rejoined the Division.
2 Lt-Col J. N. Anderson, DSO, m.i.d.; Te Awamutu; born Okaihau, 15 Apr 1894; civil engineer; OC 5 Fd Pk Coy Sep 1941–Oct 1942; 6 Fd Coy Oct 1942–Aug 1943; CRE 2 NZ Div Apr–Nov 1944; OC Engr Trg Depot 1945.
Sixth Brigade Group duly returned from its forward position and took post towards the rear of the Division, while 5 Infantry Brigade Group assembled and moved two miles north. In the evening the Corps orders for the next day's move arrived, but contained nothing new except that 7 Armoured Division, after clearing the airfield at Marble Arch and the road west, was ‘to assist 2 NZ Division as required’ in the performance of its engineer tasks. As the armoured division was to concentrate in an area behind Marble Arch, it was clear that 2 NZ Division alone was to carry out the pursuit.
Meanwhile, during the afternoon of 16 December, the enemy concentrated round Nofilia. The 15th Panzer Division went back in one bound and joined 21 Panzer, which had reached there in good order. It was Rommel's intention, while work went on in the Buerat position, to hold another rearguard position here, on a line running from the sea north-east of Nofilia, behind the Wadi el Agar, including Nofilia village, and then to the west and northwest towards Point 121. The 21st Panzer Division was to hold the stretch from the sea to Nofilia—the ‘eastern face’—and 15 Panzer Division from Nofilia to Point 121—the ‘southern face’. Then, in succession as flank guards to the main road, came 33 Reconnaissance Unit 12 miles west of Nofilia, 580 Reconnaissance Unit 20 miles west, and Africa Panzer Grenadier Regiment 30 miles west. The 90th Light Division, the rearguard on 16 December, in the end did not leave the area round Matratin until nightfall, and then moved well to the rear to a point about 40 miles west of Nofilia. It took no part in the later fighting in that area.
The New Zealand Division spent a quiet night, and was allowed to light fires to cook breakfast before dawn on 17 December. The Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster-General (Lieutenant-Colonel Barrington1) remarked sadly that the Division thereby consumed enough petrol to move it for some miles.