Operation Fire Eater (i)

This was a British attack by General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s 8th Army on the Axis defensive positions of Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee at Buerat and then on the line linking Homs and Tarhuna during the British pursuit of the retiring Axis forces after the 2nd Battle of El Alamein (15/19 January 1943).

Montgomery’s plan to break the Buerat line, which extended to the south-west from Buerat on the coast toward the Wadi um er Rami, was that Lieutenant General Sir Oliver Leese’s XXX Corps should attack and then advance on two widely separated axes with Major General J. S. Nichols’s 50th Division and Major General D. H. Wimberley’s 51st Division moving along the main road and thus near the coast, and Major General A. F. Harding’s 7th Armoured Division and Lieutenant General Sir Bernard Freyberg’s New Zealand 2nd Division along the axis from Beni Ulid to Tarhuna, and thus well inland in order to turn the southern flank of the Axis defence. The advance on the coastal road was to be deliberate, aiming to contain the Axis forces and also to clear the road for the continued movement of supply columns. Brigadier G. P. B. Roberts’s 22nd Armoured Brigade, of the 8th Army’s reserves, was to provide the link between the coastal and inland axes. The XXX Corps had Brigadier G. W. Richards’s 23rd Armoured Brigade with Valentine infantry tanks, but these tanks were obsolescent as well as elderly, and therefore considered capable of only one more major action.

On 3/4 January a storm at Benghazi, where the already damaged harbour was further affected, threatened the British logistical preparations, but Montgomery altered his plan only to the extent of withdrawing the 50th Division and instructing the XXX Corps not to press its coastal attack too hard if the Axis forces mounted a strong resistance. Montgomery opted not to bring up Lieutenant General M. C. Dempsey’s XIII Corps.

The objective allocated to the XXX Corps was the capture of Tripoli, the capital of Italian Libya. Within this overall objective the 51st Division was to commit a deliberate infantry attack and then clear the main coastal road for the forward movement of supplies, while the 7th Armoured Division and New Zealand 2nd Division, abreast of each other, were to head for Tripoli as far as they could along the inland route via Sedada, Beni Ulid and Tarhuna.

The plan’s success depended wholly on the efficiency of the logistical backing with which it could be supported, and here the decisive factors were firstly the lack of suitable ports between Benghazi and Tripoli, and secondly the basic impracticality of cross-beach supply efforts. It is 675 miles (1085 km) by land between Benghazi and Tripoli, and the 8th Army lacked the motor transport to ensure a steady flow of the supplies it needed as it moved farther forward from Benghazi.

By the end of December 1942 it was the British objective to deliver some 2,380 tons per day by sea into Benghazi, and about 2,200 tons per day by rail into Tobruk, mostly for onward transport to Benghazi by sea. To the west of Benghazi, roadheads were to be set up at El Agheila, Nofilia and Misurata, and the carriage of the required tonnage was facilitated by the construction of two desert tracks from Agheila to Nofilia, and from there four tracks to the Wadi Bei el Chebir.

On 3 January 1943 the storm which further damaged Benghazi harbour also sank five merchant ships and three landing craft, severely damaged three more merchant ships, and other merchant ships as well as harbour craft were less badly damaged. One ship was lost outside the harbour while another two, running for shelter at Tobruk, were sunk by a submarine. On 4/5 January nothing was landed at Benghazi, on the following day only 860 tons were landed and on 8 January the tonnage increased to 2,000.

Even though most of the damage had been repaired, the port of Benghazi was now clearly vulnerable to the weather, further storms arose on 13/16 January, and landings fell to some 1,800 tons per day. The solution adopted to solve the requirement to deliver the supplies needed by the front-line formations was the greater use of motor transport, and this was one of the reasons for Montgomery’s decision not to bring up the X Corps, much of whose motor transport was therefore available for basic transport purposes.

The arrival of supplies for the front-line formations was as important as tactical considerations in the scheduling of ‘Fire Eater’ (i), and it was decided that 15 January was the earliest date on which the operation could be launched.

Three days before this, Air Vice Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s Western Desert Air Force began its operations paving the way for the land campaign. By day Douglas Boston and Martin Baltimore bombers of the RAF and Martin B-26 Mitchell bombers of the USAAF attacked the Axis forces’ forward landing grounds, strongpoints and transport, and despite the provision for strong fighter escort the bombers’ losses were heavy as the German and Italian air forces made a major effort at this time.

By night the Boston bombers attacked the landing grounds at Tauorga and Bir Dufan, and the Vickers Wellington medium bombers of the RAF’s No. 205 Group, supported by flare-dropping Fairey Albacore biplanes, bombed roads and traffic near Churgia, Tauorga and Gheddahia. A few RAF and USAAF Consolidated Liberator heavy bombers also attacked Tripoli and Sousse.

In this 72-hour period the RAF and USAAF flew 650 and 120 sorties respectively, the British losing 18 aircraft and the Americans two. The Axis air losses were nine German and two Italian aircraft.

The advance of the XXX Corps began on 15 January. Under the protection of fighters and with the support of fighter-bombers, the New Zealand 2nd Division crossed the Wadi um er Raml at a point well inland near Fortino, and Brigadier E. C. N. Custance’s 8th Armoured Brigade also crossed, in this instance 5 miles (8 km) farther to the north. The Royal Dragoons of Brigadier C. B. C. Harvey’s 4th Armoured Brigade passed south round the New Zealand 2nd Division and approached Faschia.

The 51st Division was scheduled to begin its forward movement during the night of 15/16 January, but this was exactly the time at which Rommel expected Montgomery to start a major offensive and, given his formations’ lack of fuel and other necessities, Rommel pulled his forces back to a temporary line extending between Sedada and the point at which the Gheddahia road met the Via Balbia. Rommel’s overall plan was to check the British advance with rearguard actions on a broad front, and as a result the attack of the 51st Division encountered nothing more than a wide minefield. The British pressed their advance only slowly, and even so were greatly impeded by mines and demolitions along the coastal road and by the adverse terrain farther inland.

On the night of 17/18 January Montgomery instructed the Wimberley to increase the speed of his division’s progress, a task made very difficult by the paucity of his transport allocation and the fuel for it. Montgomery also decided that the advance would continue by day as well as by night, a change in thinking which Wimberley had already adopted for his leading unit, Brigadier G. Murray’s 152nd Brigade.

Rommel had meanwhile pulled his forces back to the defensive position between Homs on the coast and Tarhuna farther inland, but by 12.00 on 18 January had become concerned that the 8th Army’s inland advance would outflank this position.

On 19 January the 51st Division entered Homs, but the 7th Armoured Division was not yet at Tarhuna.

On the same evening information supplied by the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee’s intelligence branch suggested to Rommel that Montgomery was planning an advance from Garian, some 20 miles (32 km) to the south-west of Tarhuna, toward Zauia on the coast to the west of Tripoli, a main attack at Tarhuna, and a secondary attack along the Via Balbia. He therefore decided that it was time to fall back from the defence line between Homs and Tarhuna and to start the destruction of the port facilities of Tripoli. Generalleutnant Theodor Graf von Sponeck’s 90th Afrikadivision was to undertake a fighting retreat to the west along the Via Balbia, and the Deutsches Afrikakorps (under the temporary command of Generalmajor Kurt Freiherr von Liebenstein) was to serve as the rearguard just to the west of Tarhuna and prevent the 8th Army from reaching the road inland for Tripoli to Castel Benito, site of the major airfield now occupied by what was left of the Axis air power left in Libya and the object of major air attacks in the following days. These rearguard operations would, Rommel hoped, buy the time for the rest of the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee to fall back through Tripoli farther to the west. As this would surrender the last of Libya, the Italian Comando Supremo was extremely angry, for it had ordered the Deutsch-Italienische Panzerarmee to hold its ground.

Montgomery now did exactly the opposite of what Rommel expected and switched the weight of the 8th Army’s main thrust from the inland axis to the coastal axis, where the 51st Division and 22nd Armoured Brigade were the main strength. The 7th Armoured Division was directed toward Tarhuna, Castel Benito and Tripoli. Despite its tiredness and its poverty in terms of transport and fuel, as well as the tactically astute opposition of the 90th Afrikadivision, the 51st Division pressed forward. During the night of 20/21 January and the morning of 21 January, five of the division’s battalions had a sharp encounter with the 90th Afrikadivision near Corradini, and took both prisoners and guns.

All along the coastal axis mines and demolitions were also a major problem which severely limited the British formation’s rate of advance. Early in the morning of 21 January the 4th Armoured Brigade emerged from a tangle of hills on to the coastal plain some 15 miles (24 km) to the south-east of Azizia, but the rest of the 7th Armoured Division on another route was still being checked by Axis rearguards.

On 22 January the 51st Division’s leading troops entered Castel Verde, about halfway between Corradini and Tripoli, and the 22nd Armoured Brigade was moving up as rapidly as it could to head the continued advance. By that evening the New Zealand 2nd Division had emerged from the hills via Ras Mnebba and advanced on Tripoli from the south, with the 7th Armoured Division holding the Allied western flank against any Axis attempt to intervene in this quarter from the direction of Azizia.

Rommel decided to abandon Tripoli during the night of 22/23 January with Axis rearguards covering the evacuation. Early on 23 January, the leading British troops entered Tripoli without encountering any opposition. The most important matter now was the reopening of Tripoli’s port facilities to feed the 8th Army with all its requirements for a resumption of its pursuit of Rommel’s forces westward into Tunisia.