Bardia to Enfidaville
23 January—Tripoli Captured
23 January—Tripoli Captured
During the night of 22–23 January 30 Corps allotted areas in and around Tripoli to be taken up after its capture. The 7th Armoured Division would occupy the west and south-west of the town and keep touch with the enemy; part of 2 NZ Division would be in Tripoli and part in Castel Benito. The detailed subdivision of the town remained as earlier laid down, but modification seemed likely.
The armoured division reported during the night that the enemy had left Castel Benito. Patrols from 11 Hussars entered Tripoli first, their leading patrol at 5 a.m., followed an hour later by troops of 51 (H) Division. It was exactly three months since the opening of the Battle of Alamein, and Eighth Army had advanced 1400 miles; and as a climax had captured Tripoli within the ten-day limit prescribed by Montgomery, to his very great satisfaction.
It seems that a party from 1 Company, 27 (MG) Battalion, were the first New Zealanders to enter Tripoli. When the 5 Brigade attack was abandoned the previous evening, the machine-gunners' truck had broken down, so they bivouacked for the night. At dawn they could find nobody and, with their vehicle repaired, drove off through Azizia, passed the Divisional Cavalry patrols, and reached Tripoli at 10.30 a.m. as a reward for their initiative.
Early morning patrols confirmed that Azizia had been evacuated, and Divisional Cavalry, followed by the Greys and the GOC's Tactical Headquarters, resumed the advance. Suani Ben Adem was reached about 11 a.m. and was found already occupied by 8 Armoured Brigade, which (acting under 30 Corps' orders) was on its way to the south-west of Tripoli and so could not avoid cutting across 2 NZ Division's line of advance.
Fifth Infantry Brigade Group moved at 11 a.m. and, after passing Azizia, formed up in one column on the road. Just after page 116 midday the GOC instructed the brigade to push right through to Tripoli. Brigadier Kippenberger went ahead to the Azizia Gate of the town and in the main square met Major-General Wimberley, GOC 51 (H) Division. The leading unit of 5 Brigade (28 Battalion) reached the gate at 1.30 p.m.
Fifth Brigade had been prepared to arrange for the subdivision of the town, but troops from 51 Division were already there. Kippenberger and Wimberley discussed a re-arrangement, and ‘everyone acted sensibly and it was made without difficulty’.1 Fifth Brigade went to the southern part of the town with 21 Battalion in the western sub-sector, 23 the central and 28 the eastern. The 5th Field Regiment had remained at Suani Ben Adem. Guards were posted on vital points, and the occupation was completed without incident. Civilians gave no trouble.
Divisional Cavalry bivouacked four miles south of the city, Divisional Headquarters and the Reserve Group between Suani Ben Adem and Bianchi, and Divisional Artillery concentrated in an area south of Suani Ben Adem. Sixth Infantry Brigade Group remained south-east of Azizia, pending a move next day to the Bianchi area.
Bianchi was reported clear by 30 Corps, and so the GOC, accompanied by his ADC (Captain Griffiths2), Brigadier Gentry and his staff captain (Captain Cook3) and Brigadier N. W. McD. Weir4 (on attachment from New Zealand), set off about 2.30 p.m. to examine its possibilities as a bivouac area. But Bianchi was still occupied by rearguards of 15 Panzer Division, and the party ran into rifle and machine-gun fire at very close range, followed shortly by mortar fire. Captain Griffiths returned the fire with a Tommy gun. The party went to ground, but the GOC's driver (Lance-Corporal Norris5) went back to his car, which was under fire, turned it, picked up the GOC and his ADC and drove off at full speed to get assistance. Brigadier Gentry's driver received a fatal wound, three other men were wounded, and Captain Cook's car was destroyed. The party took shelter in a nearby farmhouse.
4 Maj-Gen Sir Norman Weir, KBE, CB, m.i.d., Legion of Merit (US); born Christchurch, 6 Jul 1893; Regular soldier; Auck Regt (Lt) 1914–17; GOC 4 Div (in NZ) 1942; comd NZ Tps in Egypt, 1943–44; QMG, Army HQ, 1945; Chief of General Staff 1946–49; died Hamilton, 11 Jul 1961.
In a letter1 describing the incident General Freyberg said in a postscript, ‘I will be more careful in future’. It was apparent to all that had the Protective Troop accompanied the party an awkward predicament might have been avoided, but as the GOC had been assured that Bianchi was clear, his indignation later in the day when speaking to the Corps Commander was understandable.
The incident became known in conversation throughout the Division as the ‘Battle of Bianchi’. The Panzer Army's narrative for the day speaks of ‘strong enemy reconnaissance parties thrusting forward’, and perhaps the GOC's journey was one of these.
1 Letter to the author at the time.