New Zealand Medical Services in Middle East and Italy
New Zealand Division's Part
New Zealand Division's Part
On 11 November the New Zealand Division left Baggush to take up a battle position west of the Egypt–Libyan frontier. Advancing at night without lights in stages of 25–30 miles and unobserved by the enemy, the Division crossed the frontier about 50 miles south of the Mediterranean coast on 18 November. A field ambulance company was attached to each brigade group in readiness to form advanced dressing stations during the coming action.
The Division moved 14 miles to the north on the 19th and on 21 November was ordered to advance and carry out its part in the plan. Led by the Divisional Cavalry, the Division advanced northwards that night. The Divisional Cavalry captured Sidi Azeiz and established a position on the escarpment overlooking the Tobruk–Bardia road. Fifth Brigade, following immediately behind, occupied Sidi Azeiz and captured Capuzzo by dawn on the 22nd. Later in the page 255 day 5 Brigade occupied Musaid. Fourth Brigade followed through and cut the Tobruk–Bardia road in the Menastir area, and early on the 23rd the Sollum barracks were attacked and occupied by 28 Battalion. The Division had now successfully established itself to carry out its task of isolating the enemy forces in the Bardia–Sollum sector of the frontier defences.
In the meantime the fortunes of the armoured battles had fluctuated and had developed into a running fight for the mastery of the key position of Sidi Rezegh. On the 21st 6 Brigade was directed to move westward to assist 7 Armoured Division at Sidi Rezegh and came under the command of 30 Corps. The brigade pushed on westwards and, after a hard-fought battle, drove the enemy back from Point 175 on the 23rd. On the same day General Freyberg was ordered to leave the minimum forces to mask the Bardia–Sollum sector and to proceed westwards and link up with 6 Brigade. The Division, less 5 Brigade which was left to carry out the Division's task on the frontier, was now committed to capturing the features dominating the routes round Tobruk via Ed Duda. After hard fighting Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh were captured and on the night 26–27 November a junction was effected with the Tobruk garrison at Ed Duda.
Meanwhile, Rommel had collected his armoured forces and counter-attacked towards the Egyptian frontier. Crossing the frontier on 24 November, part of these armoured forces linked up with the garrisons at Halfaya and later joined forces with those which had already reached Bardia. Many of our rearward installations were overrun, including an Indian MDS west of the frontier, and this forced those medical units staged out on the 30 Corps axis to withdraw. Between the 24th and the 27th enemy columns appeared at unexpected places, upsetting the lines of supply and causing great confusion among isolated units and formations. Many of the New Zealand medical units and detachments fell into enemy hands as a result.
On the 27th these enemy forces began streaming back from the frontier to re-enter the battle raging at Sidi Rezegh and around Tobruk. Fifth Brigade Headquarters group at Sidi Azeiz which stood in their path was overwhelmed, but at Bir el Chleta the British armour firmly blocked the route westwards and inflicted serious losses on 15 Panzer Division later in the day. By the 28th enemy armoured formations had begun to arrive in the Sidi Rezegh area. On their way back from the frontier they had been harassed and attacked by formations of 7 Armoured Division, which was also protecting the southern flank and rear of the New Zealand Division. On the evening of the 28th an armoured battle developed south of page 256 the New Zealand Division's position and moved away to the south-west. During the temporary absence of armoured protection enemy lorried infantry moved northwards and captured the New Zealand combined medical dressing station, which was to remain in enemy hands till 6 December.
The enemy's intention was to annihilate the New Zealand Division and sever the corridor into Tobruk. During the next three days the Division bore the brunt of the attack of the enemy armour, and, after successively losing the key points of Point 175, Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed, withdrew from the battle during the night 1–2 December. But these battles had also exhausted the enemy, and with the increasing pressure brought to bear on his supply lines he began to withdraw on 5 December to a line based on Gazala.
Thirteenth Corps was given the task of pursuing the enemy, and 4 Indian Division and 5 NZ Brigade were brought from the frontier area to join with other units of that formation from Tobruk. Fifth Brigade was in action in the Gazala area from 11 to 16 December. On the 16th the enemy began to withdraw to a new line at El Agheila and 5 Brigade later rejoined the Division at Baggush. The Divisional Cavalry and the Mobile Surgical Unit were the only units of the Division that remained in the forward area. Bardia was finally captured on 2 January 1942 and about 800 New Zealanders held captive there were released.