A day in the life of 13 Corps – 8 Jan. 42

The text below was meant to be a standard daily entry in the narrative of the Commonwealth side. It shows and analyses events on a daily basis from the Commonwealth perspective.

Having written and researched it however, I had to conclude that life’s too short, and this level of detail is impossible to achieve for daily entries. Between having two small kids and a fairly (and increasingly) demanding day-job, there is no chance that I could manage this level of work, especially when you get into some of the days where multiple units were in contact.

So I have decided that this could go online, since I won’t use it in the book, but still put an awful lot of work into this. It is still of interest I feel, to show the action on a quiet day in the lull between the Axis abandoning Agedabia, and the resumption of major combat operations.

Happy reading, and please keep in mind that the below has not been edited to final publication level!

 

Allied Position [1]

Forward Area

Activity fell into two distinct groups, to the north of and straddling Uadi Faregh the Guards Brigade was occupying and moving beyond Agedabia, and 7 Support Group in the centre of the line continued pushing west. To the east E Force was actively patrolling, and 1 Armoured Division reached Saunnu to the north-east.

The northern advance, directed towards the south-west via Agedabia, was much delayed by mines, which 2 Scots Guards were set to clear throughout the day. At the same time 3 Coldstream Guards were ordered to advance further southwest. Because of the heavy mining and the low visibility caused by a sandstorm, the Coldstreams took until 1500 hours to move past the town and onto the Via Balbia and the Haban (Ridotta el Gtafia) track. They did not encounter opposition in their advance, but lost touch between companies owing to the dark. At dusk No.2 Company engaged enemy rearguards of 90.lei.Afrika-Div. which then withdrew. Somewhat inexplicably however, at 1950 hours 4 Indian Division reported to 13 Corps that Guards Brigade was held up by roadblocks on the Via Balbia and the desert track towards the Ridotta el Gtafia, about 12km south-west of Agedabia.

Further south, the KDG had made contact with 11 Hussars, and reported two armoured cars and one tank at Haban (1 on the map below). Unknown to the KDG, these belonged to the reinforced A.A.33 which covered this area and track. One column of 7 Support Group was reported to be in touch with Axis forces south of el Haselat (3′), about 55km south-south-east of Agedabia where the track to Gialo Oasis crossed the Uadi el Faregh, this was probably CURRY column reporting contact with the other elements of A.A.33.

CURRY also reported the area along the Wadi al Faregh between el Haselat and Maaten Bettafal (4 on the map), 90 km to the south-west of Agedabia and about 40km south of the Via Balbia, free of the enemy, with a radius of 8 miles (13km) around Bettafal showing no major signs of Axis forces. Worryingly though, the advance of all these motorized columns was held up not just by bad going, but also by supply difficulties.  E Force columns and patrols were covering the southeastern flank of the advance, and ordered to continue to do so.

7 Support Group issued a comprehensive operational order on 8 January, which foresaw it keeping contact with and harassing the enemy on a line running from Haban to Maaten Burruei about 70 km to the south-west, and to prepare the ground for a further advance of 1 Armoured Division in this direction.

This included, most importantly, an order to 12 Lancers[2] to push far west with the aim to ascertain enemy presence in the area of Maaten Burruei. They were expected to be in place at their destination at 1200 on 10 January. If no enemy was found at Maaten Burruei, further reconnaissance to the west was to be carried out, and 7 Support Group would follow up to occupy Maaten Burruei on 11 January.

To the north of their patrolling area, the KDG was meant to establish a link to them and thereby the beginnings of a cohesive line, and a cover of the southern flank of the Via Balbia. This was to be achieved by pushing patrols out to Bir es Suera (6), Bir el Ginn (7), and Maaten Belcleibat (5’, about 20km north of Mn. Burruei), while at the same time keeping a link with 11 Hussars further to the north.

The day also saw orders going out to the L.R.D.G. patrols based at Gialo, to push a patrol far north-west with the aim to ascertain enemy presence in the area of Marada Oasis.

Air Operations

Tactical recces and fighter sweeps were carried out over the northern area of the Axis position as well as along the Wadi al Faregh, showing Axis forces in place throughout, and including Maaten Giofer and Maaten Belcleibat. A medium recce on the Marada area was attempted by No. 60 Squadron S.A.A.F., but this failed due to extreme haze up to 18,000 feet, although the crew was treated to a marvelous sunset.[3] The reason for this was probably the very heavy sand storm, which also made any bombing impossible. Five Wellingtons from No. 108 Squadron operating out of Egypt were detailed to raid motor transport at Marsa el Brega, but failed to find the target, and bombed alternative locations instead, with no loss. Seven Marylands of No.21 Squadron S.A.A.F. attacked Marble Arch L.G., but found no planes there, and instead bombed stores and a small vessel at Ras el Garguigh[4].

Naval Operations

A small convoy with petrol and ammunition reached Benghazi, but could not be unloaded due to weather.

Operational Considerations

A signal from 1 Armoured Division to 13 Corps was intercepted by Adv. HQ 8 Army, resulting in a request by Ritchie to Godwin-Austen to not expose the southern advance to an envelopment from the north. This was an early concern about the possibility of an Axis counter-strike, which foresaw the design of the plan implemented by Rommel in his attack on 21 January. The war diary of 7 Support Group also raises the possibility of a counter-attack, which it states should not be dismissed.

The next day however, this possibility was dismissed by Godwin-Austen, who pointed out that while he took note of the Army Commander’s concerns, he saw “[…]no reason for apprehension at this time.”, and wished to take advantage of the current momentum to push reconnaissance further west before the Axis could establish counter patrols. This was behind the orders to the KDG and the 12 Lancers.

A key aspect of the move of 12 Lancers to Maaten Burruei was also to recce a track which could be taken by 1 Armoured Division. The route through the Wadi el Faregh  itself was deemed unsuitable for a large force. The L.R.D.G. patrol to be sent to Marada was to ascertain if armoured forces were at the oasis[5], since these would be able to participate in a pincer movement against a push of 1 Armoured Division west from Maaten Burruei. Air reconnaissance had not been carried out yet of this area.[6].

Godwin-Austen was probably feeling that confirmation of his view came by way of the plans for the Axis withdrawal which had been captured, and which outlined in detail the plans for the withdrawal to the Marada – Mersa el Brega position, and to which the observed enemy behavior conformed. Furthermore, the 7 Support Group’s Intelligence Assessment No. 12, issued on 7 January, included an analysis of enemy tank strengths that concluded this could not be much more than about 60 – 65, reducing the risk of any counter-strike.

Map of the Agedabia Sector showing key locations, from German intel files.

German map of Agedabia sector

Strategic Considerations

General Auchinleck informed Churchill that the retreat from Agedabia into the line Agheila – Marada, which he considered favourable for defence, was happening. He also pointed out that a further advance required the building up of supplies at Benghazi[7]. This port however had been quite effectively sabotaged, and the other ports were only slowly coming into operation. Tobruk was still only handling 600 tons a day, while the requirement for an advance to Buerat was calculated to be 400 tons of petrol per day alone. Derna could not handle ships with more than 15 feet draught and therefore could not make a meaningful contribution[8]. The consequence of this situation was that 1 Armoured Division had transmitted to its Brigades an order by 13 Corps to restrict petrol consumption on 6 January. On 8 January this was deciphered by German radio reconnaissance and passed to the Ic of Panzergruppe, giving the Axis forces some measure of security about future enemy intentions.

A discussion had also commenced between the Chiefs Of Staff in the UK and Middle East Command on the consequence of a failure to crack the Axis position with this final push. The suggestion from Middle East Command had been to give up the whole of the recently conquered area, including Tobruk, and to retreat to the Libyan/Egyptian frontier, thereby reducing pressure on supplies, and stabilising the front in a defensible position.  C.O.S. in the UK pointed out the consequences of such a retreat regarding the ability to attack the Axis supply into North Africa, and the effect this would have on Malta. This concern appears overdone however, since arguably the situation would not be worse than it was up the start of CRUSADER.

On 8 January also, an analysis of the Hurricane fighter/army co-operation[9] situation was received by the R.A.F. HQ in Cairo, in copy to a message from London to Washington. This outlined in detail the situation with competing requests from the Far East and Russia, and advising that due to the need for tropicalisation, no Spitfires could be expected for another four months, even though 70 were allocated to the Middle East each month. Reliance therefore had to be placed on the Kittyhawk as mainstay of the fighter force. Interestingly, the analysis is treating requirements for Hurricane deliveries in support of Operation GYMNAST, the planned invasion of Sicily following a complete victory in Libya, as a given.[10]

Assessment

The resistance on the Via Balbia itself, together with the absence of Axis forces in the south and the rapid advance enabled by this absence there, led to an increasing risk that the southern forces were exposing themselves to a counter-strike from the north.

This was mitigated to some extent by the known weakness of the Axis forces, and had to be weighed against the possibility to seize ground in locations that negated to some degree the geographical advantage of the Agheila position. Maaten Burruei was a key location in this regard, since it sat right between the two impassable salt lakes and controlled this gap, just about 10km east of the track to Marada which would be the lifeline for any force placed there. The occupation of Burruei therefore opened the possibility to use this gap to push a force into the centre of the emerging Axis position.

The ground reconnaissance of the suitability of the terrain south of the Wadi al Faregh, to be carried out by 12 Lancers on their way to Maaten Burruei, was necessary to ascertain whether a southern envelopment of the Axis position on the Via Balbia, rather than a frontal attack, was possible. 1 Armoured Division had to be able to advance with a secure northern flank into the position between the salt lakes, in order to achieve this.

The next days would therefore be critical in shaping the operational planning of 8 Army’s next attack.


[1]WO 169/4053, WO169/4982 and WO169/4005

[2]Supported by one section of 25-pdr guns from 2 R.H.A. and one battery (minus one troop) of A/Tk guns from 102 (NH) R.H.A.

[3]AIR54/89

[4]AIR54/16 – curiously the war diary of No.21 Squadron instead refers to an attack on Sert (presumably Sirte), with results that were seen as unsatisfactory due to insufficient reconnaissance being provided.

[5]There was a suspicion that the Italian Corpo Armato di Manovra, or rather what was left of it, was placed there.

[6]AIR27/1241

[7] WO201/396 Personal ciphers from General Auchinleck to Prime Minister Churchill

[8]ADM234/334 Battle Summary 52 ‘The Tobruk Run’

[9]Army co-operation squadrons undertook reconnaissance and/or ground support missions. They were directly

[10]AIR20/2109 Personal ciphers Tedder to C.A.S.

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