Operation Battle of El Agheila

The 'Battle of El Agheila' was a short engagement toward the end of the 'Western Desert Campaign' between General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s British-led 8th Army and Generalfeldmarschll Erwin Rommel’s Axis forces of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee (11/18 December 1942).

The battle occurred in the course of the long Axis withdrawal from El Alamein to Tunis, and ended with the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee resuming its westward retreat toward Tunisia, where the 'Tunisia Campaign' had begun with 'Torch' (8/16 November 1942).

On 4 November 1942, Rommel decided to end the '2nd Battle of El Alamein' and withdraw his battered forces westward toward Libya, in the process defying the 'Stand to the last' order of Adolf Hitler in order to save the remainder of his force. General Wilhelm Ritter von Thoma’s (from 13 November 1942 General Gustav Fehn’s) Deutsches Afrika Korps reached the village of Fuka on the following next day. Italian forces had arrived earlier, having withdrawn from El Alamein on 3/4 November and formed a defensive line. The Italians resumed their withdrawal on the same day after an Allied attack, and the Germans followed. Montgomery rested some of his formations after their efforts at El Alamein, leading the 'Guillotine' pursuit with Brigadier M. G. Roddick’s 4th Light Armoured Brigade. Rain during the afternoon of 6 November impeded the British pursuit as the Axis forces continued their withdrawal and a new defence line was established at Mersa Matruh on the following day, some 110 miles (180 km) to the west of El Alamein. Rommel received a warning from Hitler that of an Allied amphibious landing was to be expected in his rear between Tobruk and Benghazi, but on 8 November Rommel learned that this was wrong as the Anglo-US landings were effected in Morocco and Algeria as 'Torch'. The Eastern Task Force, aimed at Algiers, landed 20,000 troops and began moving to the east toward Rommel’s forces. Facing the prospect of a large Allied force in his rear, Rommel decided to withdraw in one bound to El Agheila in the south-eastern corner of the Gulf of Sirte.

The Axis forces retired from Sidi Barrani on 9 November and the Halfaya Pass, on the Libyan/Egyptian border and the last Axis position in Egypt, on 11 November. Cyrenaica was abandoned without serious resistance. Rommel wanted to save 8,930 tons of equipment and supplies in Tobruk, but this port fell to the British on 13 November. An attempt by Montgomery to trap the Tobruk garrison by an encirclement toward Acroma, lying to the west of Tobruk, failed and the garrison retreated along the Via Balbia toward Benghazi with few losses. Derna and the airfield at Martuba were captured on 15 November, and the Royal Air Force rapidly occupied the airfield to provide air cover for a Malta convoy on 18 November.

The Axis forces had withdrawn 400 miles (645 km) in 10 days. Despite its importance as a port through which to supply the Axis forces, Rommel abandoned Benghazi to avoid a repeat of the disastrous entrapment suffered by the Italians in the 'Battle of Beda Fomm' (February 1941). Rommel ordered the demolition of port facilities and supplies in Benghazi, writing afterwards that '…in Benghazi, we destroyed the port facilities and platforms and the chaos overwhelmed the civilians in this miserable town'.

The British occupied Benghazi on 20 November, and three days later the Axis forces retreated from Agedabia and fell back to Mersa Brega. During their withdrawal to Mersa Brega, Axis forces faced many difficulties, including British air superiority. The Desert Air Force attacked Axis columns crowded on the coast road and short of fuel. To delay the British advance, Axis sappers laid mines in the Mersa Brega area.

For much of the pursuit to El Agheila, the British were uncertain of Rommel’s intentions, for they had been misled in earlier parts of the campaign by an opponent who had drawn them onto ground of his own choosing and then counterattacked. Montgomery had intended to build the morale of the 8th Army by banishing the habit of defeat and subsequent retreat, and Major General R. Briggs’s British 1st Armoured Division and Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division were held at Bardia, resting and providing a defence. Despite Rommel’s concerns of entrapment by a rapid Allied advance across the Cyrenaica bulge, Montgomery was aware that an extended and isolated force could also be vulnerable, as had been the case early in 1941 and early in 1942. When a reconnaissance force of armoured cars was sent across country, it was delayed by waterlogged ground. Signals intelligence revealed to the 8th Army that the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee had been left virtually immobile by lack of fuel, prompting Montgomery to order a stronger force to be sent across country. Having heard of the presence of the reconnaissance force, Rommel brought forward his retirement from Benghazi and was able to brush the armoured cars aside, untroubled by the stronger force which had yet to arrive.

During the 18 days between the evacuation of Agedabia on 23 November and the beginning of the 'Battle of El Agheila' on 11 December, Rommel described disagreements with his political and military superiors as he engaged in fruitless bitter arguments with Hitler, Reichsmarschall Hermann Göring, Generalfeldmarschall Albert Kesselring (the Oberbefehlshaber 'Süd'), Maresciallo d’Italia Ugo Ugo Cavallero (the Italian chief-of-staff at Comando Supremo) and Maresciallo d’Italia Ettore Bastico (the governor of Libya). Rommel wished to withdraw to Tunis as soon as possible, bit the others wanted him to make a stand on the El Agheila/Mersa Brega line. Benito Mussolini, the Italian dictator, ordered Rommel to stand on the El Agheila line in order to defend Tripolitania, and this point of view was supported by Hitler, who ordered that El Agheila should be held 'in all circumstances'.

Although the El Agheila position was naturally strong, being surrounded by salt marshes, soft sand or broken ground, restricting the ability of vehicles to manoeuvre, Rommel’s assessment was that he would be able to hold the position only if he received artillery and tank replacements, if the Luftwaffe was strengthened and if his fuel and ammunition supplies were restored. By this time, all available Axis troops and equipment were being diverted to Tunis in 'Braun' (ii), following the Allied 'Torch' landings, to prevent Tunisia falling to an Allied advance from Algeria. By the time Rommel visited Berlin at the beginning of December, Mussolini and Hitler had accepted the reality of the situation and agreed for preparations to be made for a withdrawal to Buerat, some 250 miles (400 km) farther to the west on the Libyan coast, and by 3 December the non-mechanised Italian infantry had begun a retirement.

The British now had to supply their forces from Egypt to Agedabia. Supplies could be moved 440 miles (710 km) from Alexandria to Tobruk by rail. The distance of 390 miles (630 km) from Tobruk to Agedabia was slightly shorter, but supplies had to go by road on the Via Balbia or by sea to Benghazi and then by road to Agedabia. On 26 November, Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s X Corps was withdrawn into reserve and Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps became the 8th Army’s spearhead formation with Major General A. F. Harding’s 7th Armoured Division, Major General D. N. Wimberley’s 51st Division, and Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division. At the end of November, Montgomery planned for the New Zealand 2nd Division, with the 4th Light Armoured Brigade under command, to undertake a wide outflanking movement on 13 December. The manoeuvre was to be masked by bombardments and infantry raids on the forward positions of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee from the night of 11/12 December in order to divert the attention of the German and Italian forces. A frontal attack by the 51st Division on the coast and the 7th Armoured Division inland on the left would begin on the night of 16/17 December, once the New Zealanders were in position behind the Axis position.

Rommel’s supply position had not improved: Tunisia was still being prioritised for the delivery of men and supplies, and of the ships which were sent to Tripoli to supply the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee during November, three-quarters had been destroyed. Rommel was thus short of men and equipment, and very short of fuel and ammunition. His stated intention therefore was to hold out as long as possible but to retire in the face of strong pressure. When the preliminary attacks began on 11 December, Rommel took this to be the start of 8th Army’s main attack and started to withdraw. By the middle of the morning on 12 December, Allied patrols had detected that the Axis positions were starting to thin. In response Montgomery ordered the New Zealand 2nd Division to move immediately and brought forward the main assault to the night of 14/15 December. By the evening of 12 December, the Axis withdrawal was under way, except for a number of units which were covering the extrication.

On 13 December, Axis reconnaissance aircraft discovered some 300 vehicles of the New Zealand column to the north of Marada oasis, 75 miles (120 km) to the south of El Agheila, which obviously represented a threat that the Axis forces faced the danger of being outflanked. Rommel wished to launch his remaining armour at this outflanking force but was prevented by lack of fuel and ordered the withdrawal to continue. An attack by the 7th Armoured Division was repulsed in a rearguard action by the Italian Tactical Group Ariete. In his diary, Rommel wrote:

Late in the morning, a superior Allied force launched an attack on the tactical group of Generale di Divisione Francesco Antonio Arena’s 132a Divisione corazzata 'Ariete', which comprised the remnants of the parent division as well as those of the 101a Divisione motorizzata 'Trieste' and the 133a Divisione corazzata 'Littorio' and was currently located to the south-west of El Agheila, with its right flank resting on the Sebcha Chebira and its left linking with Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s 90th Afrikadivision. Bitter fighting ensued against 80 British tanks and lasted for nearly 10 hours. The Italians put up a magnificent fight, for which they deserved the utmost credit. Finally, in the evening, the British were thrown back by a counterattack of the armoured regiment of the 131a Divisione corazzata 'Centauro', leaving 22 tanks and two armoured cars burned out or damaged on the battlefield. The British intention of cutting off the 90th Afrikadivision had been foiled.

The 8th Army’s change of plan had come too late, and when the New Zealand 2nd Division completed its left hook on 15 December, it was dispersed after a difficult journey across harsh terrain, which left the New Zealanders with only 17 serviceable tanks. The division found Oberst (soon Generalmajor) Willibald Borowitz’s 15th Panzerdivision on the escarpment guarding the coast road, and Brigadier W. G. Gentry’s New Zealand 6th Brigade, farther to the west, was ordered to form a block on the coast road while Brigadier H. K. Kippenberger’s New Zealand 5th Brigade protected the divisional supply and transport vehicles. During the night of 15/16 December, most of the remaining elements of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee were able to withdraw towards Nofilia, moving in small fast columns through the gaps in the dispersed New Zealand units, under cover of dark. The fighting at Nofilia brought the 'Battle of El Agheila' to an end.

The British official history gives an estimate of 450 Axis prisoners, as well as 25 pieces of artillery and 18 tanks destroyed, for the period between 13 and 17 December, while the New Zealand official history records the New Zealand 2nd Division’s casualties as 11 men killed, 29 wounded and eight taken prisoner.

Rommel planned to defend the Gabès 'gap' in Tunisia, to the east of the pre-war French 'Ligne Mareth', by holding the port of Buerat, while Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim’s 5th Panzerarmee, already in Tunisia, confronted Lieutenant General K. A. N. Anderson’s Allied 1st Army as it advanced to the east from its 'Torch' landings. The front was now 400 miles (640 km) from Tobruk, and facing increasingly taxing supply problems the 8th Army was unable to use all its formations and units. Buerat was not strongly defended and, despite intelligence of the abject state of the Axis forces, Montgomery paused until 16 January 1943, when the 8th Army had a 4/1 superiority in infantry and a 7.5/1 advantage in tanks. Bombing began on 12 January and the XXX Corps attacked on 15 January, picking its way along the coast road, through minefields, demolitions and booby traps. The New Zealand 2nd Division and 7th Armoured Division swung inland via Tarhuna, supply being provided by the Royal Army Service Corps and the New Zealand Army Service Corps, the operation being dependent on the quick capture of the port. Rommel withdrew on 15 January, and by 19 January had retired from Tripoli after destroying the port. The Axis troops then conducted delaying actions into Tunisia. The 7th Armoured Division entered Tripoli on the night of 22/23 January and the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee reached the 'Ligne Mareth', another 200 miles (320 km) to the west, on 23 January.