Bardia to Enfidaville
The Buerat line ran from Maaten Giaber on the coast, 15 miles north-west of Buerat, to the south-west in front of Gheddahia, an important track junction and also the junction of Wadi Umm er Raml from the south and Wadi Zemzem from the south-west. The line then ran southwards on the western side of the track to Bu Ngem and the Wadi Umm er Raml, and made good use of the long ridge Dor Umm er Raml.2 But while the northern flank was reasonably secured by salt marshes north of the road, which here turned inland, the southern end of Dor Umm er Raml could easily be outflanked. In the circumstances the detached post at Bu Ngem was in a dangerous position, and it is small wonder that Rommel had it removed. Air reconnaissance and the LRDG both reported that the enemy had recently strengthened his line; but the defences seemed to consist of unconnected weapon pits and an unfinished anti-tank ditch, and had little real depth. They were strongest nearest the road, where it was already known that the enemy could fight his most effective delaying action. Any defence south of Dor Umm er Raml could be by mobile forces only. It was of course appreciated in Eighth Army that the enemy knew well the weakness of his line, so that a prolonged resistance was not expected.
Between Nofilia and the Buerat line the going was good away from the coastline, and the only obstacles of importance were Wadi Tamet and Wadi Bei el Chebir; but even here the upper or southern reaches were reasonably shallow with sloping sides. Crossing would not be difficult; but the wadis formed bottlenecks, as they could not be crossed on a broad front.
2 Dor= group of hills.
Beyond these wadis the ground rose gradually to the north-west, for the line of advance in that direction in reality ascended the southern slope of a range of hills known as Gebel Garian and still farther west as Gebel Nefusa. This southern face was gentle in slope and gave the appearance of a plateau, although the word plateau is relative, for the ground was anything but smooth. Where the line of advance crossed the line Homs–Tarhuna–Garian, the land was anything from 1400 to 2500 feet above sea-level, with a steady rise in height from north-east to south-west, the trend of the crestline.
From there to the north the level fell very rapidly and the escarpment presented a precipitous face, and indeed from the north looked like a mountain range. Moreover the northern face was a formidable obstacle, deeply incised by long and steep wadis, with grotesque re-entrants and projecting bastions. So deeply cut is this escarpment, and so abrupt its fall, that movement north or south is impossible, except on roads and tracks. Movement east or west on the top of the escarpment, at least for large formations, is almost impossible for some miles back from the northern edge, so deep and so steep are the wadis.
From the foot of the escarpment into Tripoli, a distance of 30 to 40 miles, the going was not difficult except for sand dunes. There was fairly intensive cultivation across this strip, which was well watered with springs.
Concurrently with these reconnaissances, work started on making and marking tracks forward from Nofilia, and again the field companies and the Provost Company were kept busy. These tracks were to be used by all formations of the army, the road being reserved for transporters, RAF transport, maintenance convoys and staff cars. The New Zealand Division was responsible in part for four parallel tracks, two as far as Wadi Bei el Chebir, and two directly south of Sirte, where 7 Armoured Division took over. The Division finished its task by 12 January.
The Desert Air Force still required further airfields in the forward areas; but to avoid attracting enemy attention, minimum use was to be made of transport and machinery. Thus on 30 December 5 Infantry Brigade Group was given the task of clearing a landing ground some 30 miles south-west of Sirte and east of Wadi Tamet. The group commenced its 100-mile move on 1 January, 23 and 28 Battalions marching for two days on foot, while the remainder moved in transport the whole way. The group was fully assembled by 6 January after the artillery had completed calibration.
1 During the period 18 Dec 1942–8 Jan 1943 the Division's total casualties, mostly among 5 Brigade, the engineers and NZASC, were 31 killed and 77 wounded, more than were sustained in the engagements at Wadi Matratin and Nofilia.
The left hook at El Agheila. The New Zealand Division on its outflanking move
New Zealand Vickers guns in position near Wadi Matratin
From left: Col S. H. Crump (Commander NZASC), —, Lt-Col A. W. White (Divisional Reserve Group), Brig W. G. Gentry (6 Brigade), Brig H. K. Kippenberger (5 Brigade), Brig C. E. Weir (CRA), Col R. C. Queree (G1), Lt-Col I. L. Bonifant (Divisional Cavalry), —, Lt-Col B. Barrington (AA & QMG), Maj E. W. Hayton (Divisional Provost), Lt-Col F. M. H. Hanson (CRE), Lt-Col A. H. Andrews (CREME), Lt-Col G. L. Agar (Divisional Signals)
An enemy shell bursts among advancing transport to the south of Buerat
A British armoured car near Tarhuna
A New Zealand column approaches Tarhuna
On the road to Azizia
New Zealand sappers make friends with an Italian family on the way to Tripoli