Bardia to Enfidaville
The Enemy on 20 January
The Enemy on 20 January
The enemy assumed his new dispositions, moving the Italians into the Tripoli defences or to points west of Tripoli. With the exception that 90 Light Division moved back a few miles under pressure, the troops that were in rearguard positions, including those west of Tarhuna, managed to stand their ground. The advance of ‘strong forces’ north-west through Beni Ulid was duly noted, but the German narrative records that these made slow progress during 20 January, ‘obviously because of difficult going’.1 Undoubtedly this slow advance of 2 NZ Division helped Rommel to decide to stay in his existing positions on 21 January. He relied on 15 Panzer Division and the Reconnaissance Group around Azizia to break up any debouchment from the escarpment by British forces ‘going large’ to the west.
In Rommel's own words, ‘We gasped when we received this signal. A position which has been broken through or outflanked is valueless unless there are mobile forces available to throw back the enemy outflanking column. The best strategic plan is useless if it cannot be executed tactically.’2
That same afternoon a conference took place at which one could wish to have been present, between Rommel, Bastico, Kesselring and Cavallero. Rommel says the discussion was stormy. He maintained that he could not be expected to obey silly orders about time limits, which, he pointed out, he had not accepted when they were first laid down. He asked finally whether he was to stay and fight and so lose the army, or move off to Tunisia more or less intact. Cavallero promised that a decision would be given promptly. During this conference word was received that the British had sunk ten out of fourteen petrol barges west of Tripoli, which cannot have added to the gaiety of the meeting.
In Count Ciano's diary of early January appears this extract: ‘He [Mussolini] realizes that the loss of Tripoli will cut deeply into the morale of the people. He would like a desperate house-to-house defence like that in Stalingrad. He knows that this is impossible…. He has harsh words for Cavallero and for “that madman Rommel, who thinks of nothing but retreating in Tunisia”.’3 Times had changed from those when Rommel stood on the fringe of the Nile Delta.
2 Rommel Papers, pp. 388–9.
3 Ciano's Diary, 1939–1943, p. 543.