Bardia to Enfidaville
On 17 March, an unpleasantly windy day with dust lifting freely, the GOC held a conference of commanding officers. The notes of this conference show very clearly the nature of the task ahead, and the manner in which it was proposed to accomplish it:
‘… The force is divided into several groups…. We have a striking force composed of a recce element of two cavalry regts under the comd of the Force Commander. We have an armd bde. We have a strong gun group which starts off with a regt of arty under the 8th Armd Bde Commander, plus a fd arty regt and the medium arty of the 64 Med Regt. Whenever the arty are brought into operation we can count on having two fd regts and a med regt. When the situation allows we can group the two fd regts with the 2 Inf Bde groups. We have a very strong striking force of armour and guns. In addition we have two inf bde groups, not strong in striking power, but very strong indeed in defence, particularly against tank attack. Our Bde Group is capable of putting out a gun line of between 10 and 15 thousand yards, or even more if necessary … either by day or by night, and they are capable of strong infantry offensive action with the bayonet. There is also Gen Le Clerc's force which, for the start, is guarding our L of C and later in the defence North of Gabes of our left flank …. Lastly we have the Adm[inistrative] group, the importance of which I will go into later.page 168
‘There are one or two points of tactics. We endeavour to effect a tactical surprise on the battlefield. To do so we have to move fast across country on a very narrow front, with a very deep flank, sometimes as long as 14 miles. The protection of that flank must not weigh too heavily and people must not get preoccupied with their flanks. We must strike quickly and strike hard. That does not, of course, absolve Group Comds from protecting their exposed flanks, but they must have confidence in the 6-pr gun…. We endeavour to occupy an area which is vital to him, where he must oppose us. We achieve this first by surprise and then by speed and blitz tatics. To do so we have to take risks. In this particular operation we are at some disadvantage owing to bottlenecks. Where country is open we can pin him to the ground and out-manoeuvre him. Where there are bottlenecks we may have to resort to ordinary bombardment tactics and attack by night with the bayonet. We can only avoid that by moving fast and adopting blitz tactics…. We know the strength of his mobile force … he can only oppose us with his DAK. We know that in striking and defensive power we are stronger than he is. Further, by striking fast we hope to divide the DAK into two parts, dividing the armour from the guns. Our job is to force him to oppose us with his tanks, leaving his guns to join up afterwards … that is a posn from which any further advance by us would threaten to cut off his main Army. If the situation developed in that way we would bring up our gun group and turn the medium arty on him. They don't like the heavy aimed shell. We can destroy him while he is in the open with our mass of arty. We must be able to deploy our powerful gun group quickly, and for that reason it is well to the front in the order of march.
‘I want to say a word about the gun line technique. Having pinned the enemy we want to put out a gun line to restore to the armour its power of manoeuvre. If, when you manoeuvre your armour the enemy moves off your front, you can then push the line forward. The gun line can be put out by the motor bn of the armd bde, but it may have to be put out by an inf bde group. If the latter course is necessary economy of force should be considered. I do not think large bns of infantry are needed in the front line. I think you can retain in reserve a large proportion of your bayonet men, as your gun line in daytime wants machine-guns, a percentage of Brens, and the strong A-Tk element. That enables you to rest the bayonet men for possible operations at night.
‘I want to say a word or two about tank tactics. We must not rush into an enemy gun line for it is tank suicide. The tactic is to pin him and seek for a flank. If there are no flanks the tactic will be to attack with inf under the concentrated arty of the whole force.page 169
‘We have a very strong bombardment group, and one of our main objects is to bring as many of the enemy as we can within range of that arty. If we can bring five fd regts on to his force we have gone a long way to breaking his morale … the arty is going to play the biggest part in this operation. We have only 200 rounds of medium and 360 rounds of 25-pr amn [per gun]. To achieve our object we must in the first place keep our L of C open and we have taken a good deal of care to ensure that there is a quick flow of medium and field arty amn ….’
General Freyberg then went on to describe the problems that were to be overcome during the approach to PLUM. Of these the most formidable was the crossing of Wadi el Aredj, where it was thought that eight hours' preparation by the engineers would be necessary to construct a nine-lane passage. To avoid delay, for a two-hour delay might be decisive, vehicles were to rush through the lanes and then open out again on the other side. At PLUM itself, the planned operation was described in the following words:
‘The armd group will get up to some posn which [in the first place] is a firm base from which the Divisional Cavalry and Tac HQ can operate. Div Cav will recce as wide as possible to the left flank. They will then try to get round on to the high ground [Djebel Tebaga] and by light signal will direct the heavy tanks through. It is essential that that high ground should be taken because it commands the roads and approaches to … [El Hamma]. The object is to get that manoeuvre over by dark. If that operation fails the battlegroup will cover the deployment of the gun group. The latter will deploy after daylight and will proceed with systematic registration of the enemy position. We shall then carry out an infantry and tank attack under arty bombardment with the object of clearing a way for the force to move on. We shall have, therefore, either an immediate attack or a deliberate attack. The latter would take about three hours to lay on and would be launched about 0900. All the time it is being mounted the air will pay attention to that gap and the roads and approaches along which 15 Pz and the Matmata Garrison [164 Light Division] would come. Our aim is to get into a posn and force him to bring up the 15 Pz and then bring in our gun group and hammer him, at the same time push out a gun line and then moving our armour round to cut the enemy off. With regard to the Adm situation we are able to operate in that area indefinitely. Gen Le Clerc is forming a firm base to which we are bringing up our Adm Group. He will run a shuttle service and convoy things through.’page 170
Considerable thought had been given to the timing of the advance of NZ Corps from the assembly area. At the conference Captain Costello,1 the Intelligence Officer, explained that as 164 Light Division had been withdrawing on Matmata from Kreddache and Hallouf, Eighth Army Intelligence had a theory that the enemy intention might be to retire from the Mareth Line without offering prolonged resistance. General Freyberg then went on to say that he did not agree with this, but, with all preparations to be completed by dawn on 18 March, it might be necessary to move that evening, instead of at dusk on the 19th as in the original plan. He would see General Montgomery on the afternoon of the 18th, and a decision would be made. There was, too, the matter of detection of the assembly area by enemy reconnaissance, for obviously if the Corps was clearly discovered there was no purpose in making difficult night moves. If his reconnaissance aircraft seen on the 16th had definitely picked up the assembly area, the GOC thought that he would have returned at night-time with flares to detect a further move. But the movement of his reconnaissance aircraft, which the Desert Air Force was trying to keep grounded by blitzing the enemy landing grounds, should make this point clear and the timetable could be adjusted. The important point was that NZ Corps should get a good start on 21 Panzer Division, the reserve for the Mareth Line.
Entering Tripoli. Four Maori soldiers share a tin of bully beef; (below) Maori anti-tank gunners drive through an avenue of bluegums
A New Zealand battalion approaches the saluting base on an Eighth Army church parade in Tripoli
Mr Churchill takes the salute. Behind him (from left) are Generals
Soft sand on the route to the Tebaga Gap
Operation SUPPERCHARGE: an aerial mosaic of the Tebaga Gap
A 1 Armoured Division tank moves past a New Zealand medical unit on its way to the Tebaga Gap
The breakthrough at Tebaga. British tanks assemble for the advance to El Hamma as enemy prisoners are marched away
Before leaving Montgomery's headquarters the arrangement was made that codewords would be used as signals to provide information helpful in making the decision as to the start time for NZ Corps. BENGHAZI MINUS would mean that Eighth Army had intelligence that the enemy was aware of the outflanking movement, but that there was no reaction. BENGHAZI PLUS would indicate awareness and a violent reaction, and TRIPOLI, followed by a time, would be an order to move at that time. General Freyberg could also send TRIPOLI and a time of his own choosing. Maximum air cover for the wadi crossings would be provided in either case, and Freyberg was assured that supplies for one brigade could be dropped by parachute and that this could be repeated.
This concluded the planning, and NZ Corps was standing ready. All New Zealand shoulder titles, badges and vehicle signs had been replaced on 18 March, and all units were probably better briefed for the forthcoming operation than ever before.
The attack of the French forces on the El Outid feature was advanced from the night 20–21 March to that of 18–19 March, to ensure that the enemy had no observation on the crossings over Wadi el Aredj and Wadi bel Krecheb, which appeared to be bottlenecks. In the end the feature was occupied during the night 18th–19th without serious opposition, as the enemy had withdrawn to the north. The French sought him with patrols for some distance, and also patrolled to the north-east, but no contact was made. With the French went 6 Field Company with two bulldozers to prepare crossings over the wadis. Mines were found at Wadi el page 172 Aredj, in soft sand. The engineers1 worked throughout the night 18–19 March until the moon set at 5.30 a.m., and continued after daylight. By 2 p.m. on 19 March they had prepared nine tracks across the wadi. They then went on to Wadi bel Krecheb and by 7 p.m. had prepared one lane 150 yards wide. It was a good day's work.
It was fine on 19 March. After a short conference in the morning, the GOC decided early in the afternoon to adhere to the official timings and commence the march after dark. This meant that there would be marches on two successive nights, and that following on the second night the Corps would close in on PLUM. At the conference Brigadier Harvey entered a mild caveat about the strain on tank crews in having to drive for so long in the dark, over difficult wadis; but he went on to say that the brigade would get there nevertheless.
1 On 19 March a slight change in the nomenclature of engineer units, to be effective on 3 April, was notified. Companies had hitherto been subdivided into sections, and the latter into subsections. By this order, sections became platoons, and subsections became sections.