Bardia el Agheila, Nofilia
Our time spent near Bardia was most leisurely. There were parcels and mail, and with the maintenance of both one's own gear and equipment, time was quite idyllic.
We were allowed into Bardia where one could swim and wander around, having places pointed out by the unfortunate ones who had spent time there as guests of the Germans. Although I do believe the Italians had more to do with the prisoners than the Germans. Very interesting to listen to those who did spend time there.
All good things must come to an end, and Steve Weir must have thought we were getting soft or something because he ordered a full Divisional Route march. This was not very well received, but there we were, loaded up with small arms, packs and water bottle and marching around 17 miles. After it was over there was not even a bottle of beer to liven us up. Somehow General Montgomery thought that there was more need for other things in the supply line than beer.
A few reinforcements arrived at the area but 'A' Troop was not given any. So that when we did start to move again we were weaker in manpower than at the beginning of the Alamein offensive. This was not only 'A' Troop but right throughout the Division.
News that the British and Americans had landed in Algeria gave everyone a great lift and the talk was that the end was nigh. Although this did not come as fast as was expected, at least it gave a great fillip to the morale.
The N.Z.E.F. task was a left hook, while I think it was the 51st Division (Scottish) went up the road. So we were travelling through all the old battlegrounds which was of great nostalgia to a great many. There was what was left of Fort Cappuzzo, and so along what we knew as Trigh Cappuzzo past Sidi Rezegh where one could still see the debris of battle, and so on to El Adem. This was all 12 months before, and what a different feeling was felt by all.
The airfield at El Adem was packed with aircraft of all types. A great sight. Once we passed El Adem the columns of vehicles turned inland and drove over smooth desert. Then came the battlefields of Knightsbridge and Bir Hacheim. These were of great interest as we had only heard of them and not seen them before. When one saw the derelict tanks and burnt out vehicles along with the graveyards, one could understand all that had been written about the Tank Battle and the heroic stand of the French.
The route we were taking took us inland and north of Saunna on 8th December. The going started to get rather rough, but all the Artillery managed to reach an area a little north of El Haseiat by 9th December. Here we were to rest a couple of days to do much needed maintenance of guns and vehicles.
'A' Troop had started this offensive with a Monkey Truck short but Lin Rowell had found one somewhere around Hellfire Pass. This was worked on at the stop at Bardia and now we had a Monkey Truck, which was the pride and joy of Lin. Don't know just how the bringing of it on strength was organised, but I do know when I joined the Troop again in Italy this truck was still going strong and doing a great job.
The next move started on llth December and for around 40 miles the sand was very soft, which meant the Gunners were spending more time out of the Quads practicing their winching drill. This had been perfected, and there were very few real hold ups. So it was great to do the final few miles on flat white sand which was quite firm.
The rain came down that night and continued next day, which did not augur too well for the next stage of the journey.
Sappers had been busy with bulldozers and explosives preparing a crossing at a most difficult part of the desert. This was known as Chrystal's Rift and was a succession of rocks and soft sand, and was the part that the Hierarchy had decided so impassable that the enemy would never dream that a Division could outflank them.
The route through the Rift could take three vehicles abreast and turned out not as bad as we were told it would be. In fact the rain had been a bonus as it had hardened the sand. At least put a crust on it and so no tell tale dust to let the enemy know what was going on.
The morning of 14th December started with a thick fog but somehow the progress of the Division was maintained and passed through some Italian defences without actually seeing any enemy.
As it happened, we later learnt that the enemy was in fact withdrawing from the Aghelia position. General Freyberg apparently was anxious to cut off as much of the enemy forces as he could. So advanced the timetable and the Division carried on after dark. This meant travelling along a route marked with hurricane lamps inside petrol tins until midnight when we bedded down.
After breakfast on 15th December we were off again, with the enemy and the New Zealand Division driving parallel northwards, with the enemy just that much ahead.
Somehow through a mistake in navigation the Division ended up further west than intended. After dark the 6th Field Regt pushed on towards the Coast, making for Wadi Matratin when it should have been Bir el Haddadia. When Lt. Col. Walter went forward with the Brigade Commander they came under fire. The ground was too hard to negotiate so the Brigade deployed.
Fifth Brigade also deployed in the dark, but left a gap, through which the enemy made the most of. So after having the Africa Corp with Tanks trapped through a quirk of fate they were allowed to escape.
In the morning the 5 Field did find a few targets, mostly well dispersed vehicles and at long range. 47 Bty fired around 40 rounds at transport and E Troop managed to fire a few rounds at some vehicles moving north. The enemy departed in a hurry, and by 1030 hrs there was nothing left to fire at! A most disappointing outcome to what had promised to be an exciting encounter.
On the morning of 17th December the Division was allowed to light breakfast fires before dawn to allow for an early start. So imagine what the area looked like after only being able to have a little light from a Bicycle lamp as the means of laying the guns. So to see this great flare up gave everyone great heart and the feeling at last we were definitely on top.
The general thought or talk was that the Germans had Tanks and Infantry in strength at a place called Nofilia. It was the object of the Division to get behind this rearguard and cut off its retreat.
It took some time to get the thousands of vehicles on the way but once on the way it did not take long for the leading units to make contact. The 4 Field went into action right away, but it was not until the afternoon that the 5 Field deployed. Our ops went forward with the 21st, 23rd and 28 (Maori) Battalions to try and cut off the enemy.
The engagement of transport on the road was not a great success as the sand being soft made observation very difficult. As night approached the enemy was still firmly entrenched. Tom Bevan, who had sailed with the 5 Field and was now a Bty Commander in 4 Field, was well forward and was badly wounded. When this became known in the 5 Field it set up a bit of gloom, as Tom was a most popular officer in our Regt.
After dark the Infantry had seized the ground overlooking the road and with the strong Gun Group in support, it was thought we had the enemy trapped. The enemy at this stage was estimated at something like 20 Tanks and 4,000 Infantry. But at dawn it was realised the enemy had escaped along a track between the road and the sea. So the action at Nofilia was more disappointing than the one at Wadi Matratin.
By this time the Division had travelled something like 600 miles since leaving Badia. As this was over rather rough country, it became the longest advance of its kind on record.
It was intended to continue the pursuit but after assessing the situation in regards to supplies, it was decided to leave the Division at Nofilia for a week or two to do urgently needed maintenance.
The Regiment ended up in an area some 10 miles from Nofilia and as we were told there would be no more before New Year, thoughts soon turned to a little rest and recreation, and of course being New Zealanders this was Rugby.
As the whole area had been planted in mines it was very careful drivers who followed the cleared routes to the beach.
One of 28 Bty Bombadiers had had a little excitement of his own. One Sid Gauntlett had a Gasket blow on Q5 on 13th December, and with a couple of Gnrs and a little Kiwi ingenuity finally managed to get the truck going and rejoined the Bty on Christmas Eve. A pity Sid has passed on, as I would have loved to have him write of his experiences during those 12 days. For those remembering Sid would know what a colourful story it would be.
The stay at Nofilia was not as pleasant as it could have been what with the cold and sandstorms. Still the cooks did a good job on Christmas Day and we all managed a good feed. No beer still, the excuse this time being that a ship had been sunk with the Naafi stores aboard. Nevertheless, we did get parcels from home and the odd game of rugby, time went all too quickly and before we knew it we were getting ready to move again.
First off there was the Calibration of the Guns. For this I think they did an absolute Calibration of a Gun from the 4 Field then all the other Regt did a Comparative Calibration.
Well remember the morning our Troop pulled out for the Calibration. One George Stewart was a driver and for weeks he had been telling reinforcement about all the hard times he could expect. This particular morning it was dark and cold as it could be and George got in his Quad and as he took off he ran into a slit trench. Unfortunately this lad George had been giving the hard time to be in the hole. So you can imagine what he was like squealing like mad while George revved the Quad out. That was the finish of the war for that lad.
Then it was off clearing ground for the airfield. Here the Stukas and Dorniers came over fairly regularly. The drill being that the warning would be given and everyone would drop what they were doing, jump on a truck and take off until the raid was over. This was all taken in good part until one lay Doug Wiggins and I missed out on the truck. So there we were feeling quite naked out in the middle of the field, hiding behind a heap of rocks. Then the Stukas came in and dropped their bombs. Not a nice feeling looking at a bomb skipping towards you then stopping and not going off. Our many thanks to whomever sabotaged that bomb.
It was at Nofilia the stonk was perfected. This was conceived by Steve Weir and cut down the time to get rounds on the ground in a very short time, and was to prove very effective for the rest of the war.
Around 9th January the Division less 5 Brigade started to form up and moved westwards. This was to be the move to take Tripoli and it was expected that we should be in that city by the end of January.
Once again, the Division was given the task of moving out in the rough stuff and the going was not like driving up the road. Still we were moving in the right direction and morale was really good after the rest at Nofilia.
This article first appeared in a 5 Fd Regt Newsletter.