Battle of El Agheila
The Battle of El Agheila was a minor engagement in North Africa during the Second World War. It took place in December 1942 between Allied forces (the British 8th Army) led by Bernard Law Montgomery and the Axis forces (German-Italian Panzer Army) led by Erwin Rommel, during the Axis' long withdrawal from El Alamein to Tunis. It ended with a full Axis retreat into Tunisia.
On 4 November 1942, Rommel decided to end Second Battle of El Alamein and withdraw west toward Libya. In doing so, he defied the "Stand to the last" orders of Adolf Hitler, in order to save the remainder of his force. Rommel's forces reached the village of Fuka the 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 Italian forces had arrived earlier, having withdrawn from El Alamein on 3–4 November and formed a defensive line.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 suit. Montgomery rested some of his formations after their efforts at El Alamein and pursued mainly with the 7th Armoured Division and 4th Light Armoured Brigade.
Rain on the afternoon of 6 November impeded the British pursuit as the Axis forces continued their withdrawal and a new defence line was established at Marsa Matruh (also known as Mersa Matruh) the following day, some 110 mi (180 km) west of El Alamein. Rommel received a warning from Hitler of an expected Allied landing between Tobruk and Benghazi but on 8 November he discovered that this was wrong. Instead, there were Anglo-American landings in Morocco and Algeria (Operation Torch). The Eastern Task Force—aimed at Algiers—landed with 20,000 troops and began moving east towards Rommel. Facing the prospect of a large Allied force to his rear, he decided to withdraw in one bound to El Agheila.
Axis forces fled Sidi Barrani on 9 November and Halfaya Pass (on the Libyan–Egyptian border) on 11 November, thereby abandoning Egypt. The whole of Cyrenaica was abandoned without serious resistance. Nonetheless, Rommel wanted to retain Tobruk for as long as possible, to save 10,000 short tons (9,100 t) of equipment but it fell to the British on 13 November. An attempt by Montgomery to trap the Tobruk garrison by an enciclement toward Acroma—west of Tobruk—failed and the garrison evacuated toward Benghazi, almost intact. Derna and its airfield Martuba, were captured on 15 November. Martuba's capture was particularly welcome to the British as they were thus able to provide air cover for an essential Malta convoy on 18 November. Axis forces had now withdrawn 400 mi (640 km) in 10 days.
Despite the importance of the Port of Benghazi to the Axis supply chain, Rommel had to flee the town in order to avoid the possibility of a repeat of the disastrous entrapment suffered by the Italians at the Battle of Beda Fomm in February 1941. Regretfully, Rommel ordered the destruction of the port facilities and materiel in Benghazi, writing afterward:
"...in Benghazi, we destroyed the port facilities and platforms and the chaos overwhelmed the civilians in this miserable town."
During their withdrawal to Brega, the Axis forces faced many difficulties, including British air superiority which allowed them to target the Axis supply columns, the crowding of the Axis forces on the coastal road and a shortage of fuel. In order to delay the British advance at any cost, Axis sappers laid mines in the Brega area. To delay clearance, steel helmets were also laid to mislead British mine detectors.
For a substantial part of the pursuit to El Agheila, the British commanders were uncertain of Rommel's intentions. They had been caught out in earlier campaigns by an enemy that had drawn them on and then counter-attacked. Montgomery had intended to build his army's morale by banishing the habit of defeat and retreat and, to this end, two divisions[note 2] were held at Bardia, resting and providing a defence line in case of need. 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 demonstrated in early 1941 and early 1942. When a reconnaissance force of armoured cars was sent across country, it became delayed by water-logged ground. Signals intelligence revealed to Eighth Army that the Panzer Army was virtually immobilised by lack of fuel prompting Montgomery to order a stronger force to be sent across country. However, having heard of the presence of the reconnaissance force, Rommel brought forward his flight from Benghazi and was able to brush the armoured cars aside untroubled by the stronger force which had yet to arrive.
No important actions took place during the eighteen days between the evacuation of Ajdabiya on 23 November and the beginning of the Battle of El Agheila on 11 December and, consequently, historians have paid little attention to this period. However, Rommel described it in detail in his memoirs. There were disagreements with his political and military superiors and he engaged in fruitless bitter arguments with Hitler, Göring, General Kesselring (German commander of the Mediterranean theatre), Ugo Cavallero (the Italian chief of staff), and Ettore Bastico (the Governor of Libya). Rommel's idea was to withdraw to Tunis as soon as possible, while the others wanted to make a stand at the El Agheila - Brega line. Mussolini ordered Rommel to stand on the Agheila line to defend Tripolitania and this was supported by Hitler who ordered that Agheila should be held "in all circumstances".
Although the Agheila position was naturally a very strong one 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 his fuel and ammunition supplies were restored. This was not to happen because by this time following the Allied Operation Torch landings, all available fresh men and equipment were being diverted to Tunis to prevent Tunisia falling to an Allied advance from Algeria. By the time of Rommel's visit to 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 Beurat some 250 miles (400 km) to the west and by 3 December the unmechanised Italian infantry were on the move.
Meanwhile, the British had their own difficulties. They had to supply their own forces over a long distance from Egypt to Ajdabiya. Supplies could be moved the 440 mi (710 km) distance from Alexandria to Tobruk by rail. The distance from Tobruk to Agedabia (390 mi (630 km)) was slightly shorter but supplies had to by road on the Via Balbia or by sea to Benghazi and then by road to Ajdabiya. On 26 November, X Corps was taken into reserve and XXX Corps under Oliver Leese took over the Eighth Army's front line to include 7th Armoured Division, 51st (Highland) Division and the 2nd New Zealand Infantry Division. Montgomery's plan, issued at the end of November, was for the New Zealand Division (Bernard Freyberg) with the 4th Light Armoured Brigade under command, to commence a wide outflanking movement on 13 December masked by bombardment and infantry raids on the Panzer Army's forward positions commencing on the night of 11/12 December to distract their attention from their flank. The main frontal attack by the 51st (Highland) Division on the coast and 7th Armoured Division inland on their left would begin on the night of 16/17 December once the New Zealanders were in position to the rear of the Axis position.
Rommel's supply position had not improved: Tunisia was still being prioritised for supplies and of the ships which were sent to Tripoli to supply the Panzer Army in November, three quarters had been destroyed. Rommel was 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 Eighth Army's attack and started to withdraw. By mid morning on 12 December patrols detected that the Axis positions were starting to thin out. In response Montgomery ordered the New Zealand 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 underway, except for some units who were covering the extrication.
On 13 December, Axis reconnaissance aircraft discovered some 300 vehicles north of Marada oasis (75 mi (121 km) south of El Agheila), (in fact the New Zealand column) which meant for the Axis forces the danger of being outflanked. Rommel wished to launch his remaining armour at this outflanking force but could not because of lack of fuel. He ordered the withdrawal to continue. Meanwhile, an attack by 7th Armoured Division was beaten off by a pugnacious rearguard action by the Italian Ariete Combat Group. In his diary, Rommel wrote:
"Late in the morning, a superior enemy force launched an attack on Combat Group Ariete, which was located south-west of El Agheila, with its right flank resting on the Sebcha Chebira and its left linking up with 90th Light Division. Bitter fighting ensued against 80 British tanks and lasted for nearly ten 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 counter attack of the Centauro's armoured regiment, leaving 22 tanks and 2 amoured cars burnt out or damaged on the battlefield. The British intention of cutting off the 90th Light Division had been foiled".
Eighth Army's change of plan had come too late. When the New Zealand Division completed their "left hook" on 15 December they were dispersed after a difficult journey across tough terrain and had only 17 serviceable tanks. They found 15th Panzer Division on the escarpment guarding the coast road. 6th New Zealand Brigade who were further west were ordered to form a block on the coast road while 5th Brigade protected the division's supply and soft transport vehicles. During the night of 15-16 December most of the remaining elements of the Panzer Army were able to withdraw towards Nofilia making good their escape in small fast columns passing through the gaps in the dispersed New Zealand units under cover of darkness. The trap was now empty and Eighth Army's total 'bag' between 13 and 17 December was estimated at 450 prisoners, 25 guns and 18 tanks.
Rommel was later to comment that Montgomery's experience should have told him that there was a good chance that "...we should not accept battle. He should not therefore have started bombarding our strong points and attacking our line until his outflanking force had completed its move and was in a position to advance on the coast road in timed co-ordination with the frontal attack"
Rommel planned to defend the Gabes Gap in Tunisia, east of the French pre-war Mareth line, by holding the port of while Army Group Africa (Generaloberst Hans-Jürgen von Arnim) already in Tunisia confronted the Allied First Army. The front was 400 mi (640 km) from Tobruk and with such difficulties of supply the Eighth Army was unable to use all its units. Buerat was not strongly defended and despite intelligence of the state of the Axis forces, Montgomery paused until 16 January 1943, when the Eighth Army had a 4:1 superiority in infantry and a 7.5:1 superiority in tanks. Bombing began on 12 January and XXX Corps attacked on 15 January, picking its way along the coast road, through minefields, demolitions and booby-traps. The New Zealand and 7th Armoured divisions swung inland via Tarhuna, supply being provided by the RASC and the New Zealand Army Service Corps and dependent on the quick capture of the port. Rommel withdrew on 15 January and by 19 January, retired from Tripoli after destroying the port and conducted delaying actions into Tunisia. The 7th Armoured Division entered Tripoli on the night of 22/23 January and the Panzerarmee reached the Mareth line, another 320 kilometres (200 mi) west, on 23 January.
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