A brief reference at the outset to the events leading up to the participation
of the New Zealand Division in the campaign in Cyrenaica will serve to give
background material for the report.
Despite the fact that the New Zealand report on which this article is based, is
dated 4 January 1942, it is thought that its value, especially the lessons derived
from the combat experiences of the Division, may be profitably reviewed at this time.
The Division had met with reverses in Greece and Crete. In September 1941, fully
equipped and completely mobile, it had concentrated at Bagush to train for a role
in the second Libyan offensive. There were six weeks in which to train for the
specialized type of fighting in desert warfare.
Training methods were used for the most difficult operation to be undertaken. For
example, an attack on a heavily defended fortress covered by wire and mines served
to present the greatest difficulties. Two dummy fortresses were prepared, wired, and
covered by mine fields. A series of exercises was then carried out to capture them. Each
infantry regiment supported by the full divisional artillery and a "mock-up" of
battalion of "I"* tanks did the attack. Also a night approach march of about 30 miles
was carried out without any vehicle lights. The element of surprise was also sought. The
attacking force deployed by dark and attacked as soon as possible after the artillery had
registered at the first light. Infantry in personnel carriers supported by tanks advanced
under cover of a barrage of high explosive and smoke. A point of entry was secured, engineers
clearing a lane through the mine fields; tanks exploited the breakthrough while infantry, field,
antitank and antiaircraft artillery followed rapidly to consolidate and prepare for the
counterattack. These and other detailed preparations paid dividends later on under
actual battle conditions.
Further measures taken to prepare the Division for combat eventualities are contained in the following extracts.
* * *
While we [the New Zealand Division] were busy with our training plans and
running in our new equipment, detailed preparations for the operations were
being dealt with by Corps and Army Headquarters. By 6 October, plans were
made. The Army Commander held a conference and gave divisional commanders
details of the outline plan. Briefly, Eighth Army were to take Cyrenaica, the
immediate object being the destruction of the enemy's armored forces by our
own armored forces. We were estimated to have a numerical superiority in
tanks of five to four. The plan was that our Armored Division should threaten
the enemy investing Tobruk and force them to fight a decisive battle on terms
that favored us.
Plans for the relief of Tobruk depended on success in the armored encounter. The
Eighth Army was divided into three groups, 30th Corps, 13th Corps, and the
Oasis Group. 30th Corps consisted of the 7th Armored Division with the
22nd Armored Brigade [U.S. regiment] attached and the
22nd Guards Brigade [U.S. regiment] 1st South African Division (less one
regiment), three battalions of artillery and one antitank battalion. Its
role was to defeat the German armored forces as already mentioned and
relieve Tobruk. 13th Corps, which comprised 4th Indian Division, New Zealand Division,
1st Army Tank Brigade, one extra field battalion, and one antitank battalion, was
to advance north and isolate the enemy's forward fortress line and later mop
it up from the west. 13th Corps was not to be committed, however, until the
armored forces came level with it on an east to west axis. 22nd Armored Brigade, detached
from the Armored Division, had a dual role, viz., to protect the left flank of
13th Corps from armored attack and also to intervene if there was a general tank
battle. The Oasis Group was a composite column which was to deceive the enemy by
moving from Biarabub on D-1, fixed as 18 November.
The RAF plan for the period up to the beginning of the offensive was to
restrict enemy reconnaissance and to interfere with the enemy supply
system on land and sea. After the battle started, they employed strong
fighter sweeps to protect advancing columns and escort our bombers in their
role of bombing the enemy supply system and communications as well as
participating directly in support of the land forces.
By the beginning of November, our preparations were as complete as we could
make them. As many officers as possible had been forward to see the country
we were to move and fight across, and a large-scale model of Cyrenaica from
the Egyptian border to Tobruk had been utilized to give all officers as vivid a
picture as possible of the country in which we were likely to operate. Detailed
intelligence reports had been circulated. Air support control exercises had been
carried out. The very difficult problems of supply had been carefully considered. Nothing
appeared to have been left to chance in the preparations for the Second Battle of Cyrenaica.
It was considered certain that Rommel would fight for Tobruk but there was
considerable doubt as to where he would fight. There were two courses open
to the enemy. Withdrawal from the fortress line Bardia-Halfaya-Sidi Omar to
a strong position based on El Adem covering Tobruk; or, to decide to hold the
fortress line on the preparation of which so much care had been lavished, concentrating
their armored forces behind for a counterattack. Rommel was not, of course, an
unknown quantity. Every bit of information about his record had been studied and
we were quite ready for a war of rapid movement and bold tactics. Summing up
the situation on 10 November there was still little evidence of any intention
to withdraw from the frontier.
* * *
The lessons themselves as derived from the operations of the New Zealand Division
are given special emphasis in the report of this campaign. There are the general
lessons which will apply to any fighting against the Germans, lessons which prove
and give added force to well-known principles of war. Some of the lessons apply
particularly to desert warfare. The effect that topography has on tactics should
not be overlooked. As the report says, "Our next campaign may lie in closer
country, where our methods will be different and where the infantry soldier
and the field gunner will have more important roles than has been the case
in the desert fighting. We must not become obsessed with desert warfare."
Some of the outstanding lessons of the Libyan campaign are
contained in the following portions taken from the New Zealand Division
* * *
a. Fitness, Efficiency and the Will to Win
The degree of success a unit or formation achieves in battle depends
above all else upon the will to win. There is a time in all battles
when the men on both sides are exhausted. It is the man who can hold
on longest and who fights with the greatest determination who will
win. The will to win requires constant attention. It is made up of
many factors, two of the most important being physical fitness and
confidence in the arms we use. In both of these we are superior at
present to the German infantry.
Physical fitness is difficult to achieve. I can see no substitute for
long marches and digging. Motorization is the enemy of physical fitness
and the more we become motorized the more need there is for march
training. Personnel must be trained to the standard we have always
set of 40 miles in 24 hours.
During the recent operations the rifle and machine gun were relegated to a
secondary role by the gun and the tank [at el Alamein they exercised a
considerable influence on the course of the battle]. In our next campaign
we may be fighting in mountainous or close country; the rifle and the
machine gun as well as the field artillery, will then have added importance.
Wherever we may be destined to fight our training should be
based on these two fundamental principles:
PHYSICAL FITNESS OF ALL PERSONNEL;
PROFICIENCY AND CONFIDENCE IN THE USE OF WEAPONS.
b. Surprise and Training
Surprise is still the outstanding factor in achieving success. This
fact was proved on many occasions during the operations.
In Libya we started the campaign well aware of the maneuverability of a
mobile division and knowing that we could move 35 miles in the dark without
lights, hit a given spot, deploy, shoot in our field guns, and two and a
half hours after first light, stage a coordinated attack with "I" tanks
under a full artillery plan.
In Crete we had already learned by experience that provided there were no wire
entanglements, the enemy could be turned out of any position at night by
attacking with the bayonet.
This knowledge that we could move long distances and fight at night
proved to be of the greatest assistance in all our planning and gave
us a great feeling of confidence when carrying out our operations.
In the move north to cut off the fortress line and in the battles
around Tobruk, wherever we used our pace, combined with movement at
night, we always caught the enemy unprepared. Success was immediate
and casualties often extremely light.
As surprise is the most important element of success, we must consider
how it is to be obtained in all our training schemes. There are many
well-tried methods of achieving surprise. Night attacks and night
advances often offer the best chances. It is also true that night
operations require most careful training.
TRAINING, THEREFORE, IS THE FIRST STEP TO ACHIEVING SURPRISE.
The following are some of the lessons of the attack in desert warfare:
(1) Once again it was shown that the attack against a properly organized
resistance must have either the cover of darkness or an adequate artillery
support. This applies whether tanks are used or not. In every case where
tanks or infantry were committed in daylight without sufficient covering
fire, they had very heavy casualties. On the other hand the moonlight
attacks on Belhamed, Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda were all successful against
superior enemy forces. The daylight attack in the area between Belhamed
and Sidi Rezegh was also successful as it was possible to cover the attack
with 25-pounder and machine gun concentrations fired ahead of the leading tanks.
(2) In an attack where an enemy counterattack with tanks may be
expected our antitank guns must be brought well forward, manhandled
if necessary, to protect our tanks during all stages of the attack. The
Germans were skillful at this.
(3) Full use must be made of smoke to blind the enemy antitank guns in depth.
(4) On at least one occasion the Germans attacked with tanks on a different
axis from their infantry. Although this type of attack is more difficult to stage
and is therefore somewhat deprecated in the textbooks, it is much more difficult
for the defenders to deal with and is worth studying.
(5) Motorized infantry can and should use the speed of their
vehicles to the full in attack to gain surprise. An extreme
example occurred on the Gazala Front against Italians where
our infantry came up to within a hundred yards of the strong
enemy position and captured it with slight casualties.
One of the lessons of our battles was that where the holding of
ground was not important the best defense was undoubtedly to
attack. Being tied to the ground in a fortress seems to have a
paralysing effect upon the occupants. In Bardia and Halfaya 14,000 of
the enemy were kept upon the defensive for a fortnight by three
battalions of infantry and two batteries of artillery. Mobility
and the power to attack are the best form of defense.
The Libyan Campaign was our first experience of air and armored support on an
adequate scale. With the former we need not concern ourselves here except to
note that the impressive superiority of the RAF in Libya must be borne in
mind when considering the lessons of the campaign. Our understanding of
air support has, as a result of the experiences in Libya, advanced considerably
and improvements in communications will enable air support to be speeded up.
The tank is the German Army's primary weapon. With it the Germans are
formidable, without it they are lost. In the recent fighting it was
only by clever handling of their tanks that they escaped complete defeat. We
must study methods of overcoming their tanks. We have much to learn from the
Germans in handling tanks in battle and also from the German methods of
coordination of tanks with artillery, antitank guns and infantry. Depending
as they do on the tank, their policy aims at producing the largest number of
effective tanks at the decisive moment in a campaign. They have produced a
satisfactory tank from the mechanical point of view and they understand
the value of gunpower. They have a most efficient organization for
maintenance and quick recovery of tank casualties. Finally, they
appear to avoid action unless the conditions are favorable, thus
keeping their casualties much lower than ours.
We had many examples of the German use of tanks. They will not attack
without close support of artillery, antitank guns, machine guns and
infantry. In both attack and defense they have a very high proportion
of antitank guns, around which the tanks maneuver. Even 88-mm antitank
guns are brought forward by tractors with tanks. The whole tempo of the
German tank attack is slow, the tanks moving from one hull-down position
to another. The difficulties of our gunners were further added to by the
direction of attack which was almost always with the sun behind the
tanks. The enemy also took advantage of smoke and dust raised by artillery
bombardments. In some cases antitank guns and machine guns were taken forward
with the first wave to give close support. We can use these German tactics in
our training. The following are some of the points which have arisen
from our experience:
(1) We must always give the maximum supporting fire to armored fighting vehicles in attack.
(2) If, during an attack, antitank fire is very heavy the tanks should if
possible occupy hull-down positions and the infantry should be prepared to
go through the tanks to shoot up the antitank guns.
(3) In the desert tanks can and should be used in attacks at night, especially
during moonlit nights. They were used most successfully in the moonlight
attack on Ed Duda. The commander who loses tanks by bad tank tactics may
capture the objective, but lose the whole battle for want of tanks later
to repel enemy counter attacks.
(4) It will often be necessary to give active cover to the tank recovery personnel on the battlefield.
(5) New Zealand Division was very inexperienced in the actual capabilities and
handling of the army tanks as we had not been able to get tanks during the training
exercises. Before any further operations are carried out tanks and infantry should train together.
In desert warfare the demand to hold all the ground considered necessary for the
security of a force frequently extends that force to the utmost, but one of the
lessons of our fighting in the Sidi Rezegh-Belhamed area is that a commander
must maintain an adequate reserve even at the expense of giving up ground
which it is thought desirable to hold. During the critical days of that
fighting the only divisional reserve was one squadron of army tanks and
one squadron of divisional cavalry.
During training prior to the campaign the question of dispersion was discussed. Against
air attack dispersion to 200 yards between vehicles was laid down as normal. Such a
degree of dispersion produces a frontage in desert formation which cannot be adequately
protected against tank attack. The two conflicting requirements of dispersion against
air attack and concentration against tank attack must therefore be weighed up at all
times, the decision depending upon the relative danger from each type of attack. During
the approach march to the frontier a dispersion of 200 yards was maintained although no
air attacks actually took place. Once the frontier was crossed distance was reduced
to 100 yards as the enemy air force had been inactive and there was a possibility of
tank attack. This degree of dispersion proved in part to be satisfactory against the only air
bombing attack which took place.
While in defense in the Sidi Rezegh-Belhamed area distances between vehicles were still
further reduced owing to the small amount of cover available and it was found that vehicles
at 50 to 60 yards interval did not suffer undue casualties during artillery bombardment. No
enemy air attacks took place during that period.
i. Night Moves
The three night moves during the approach to the frontier were all successfully
carried out, using green lights at intervals of about 1,000 yards. Lights were
placed by Provost Company in daylight, the line being reconnoitered and fixed
by a small sapper party. It was found during the later operational moves that
navigation by compass at night was carried out very accurately without vehicle
lights of any description even when there were two or three changes of direction
as in the move of 20th and 21st Battalions and Divisional Headquarters to Bir Chleta
and the last move of the Division of over 40 miles to Bir Gibni. It is advisable, however, for
the leader to have a light at the back of his car which can be seen.
j. Antitank Rifle
Although the antitank rifle still has its uses, it is no longer effective for the
purpose for which it was designed and no case occurred of an antitank bullet
putting out of action a German tank. It is essential that infantry should
have a weapon of their own capable of penetrating modern tank armor at some
distance (at least 500 yards). The weapon must be both mobile and inconspicuous
and should be included in the battalion. No reduction should be made in the number of
guns in the antitank regiment. The number of infantry antitank guns required will
depend to some extent on the performance of the weapon produced, but it is considered
that a minimum of eight is required in each battalion.
k. The 25-Pounder (88-mm)
The 25-pounder is an excellent weapon and much superior in shell power to the
German and Italian field guns encountered during the campaign. On occasions
when troops were attacked by small groups of tanks, fire was withheld down to
ranges of 800 to 1200 and very good results were achieved. Until we are provided
with proper antitank guns we must speed up ammunition supply to our field regiments.
Within the Division the flow of information both upwards and downwards has greatly improved and
it was found satisfactory, even under the worst conditions. However, during the battle
period information regarding troops on our flanks was only satisfactory on the rare
occasions when we were actually in touch with them.
The very elaborate and unwieldy code system, produced before the campaign, broke
down partly under its own weight and partly because it was frequently compromised
by capture. The two essentials appear to be the time code and the map reference
code and the latter could be simplified by using only the daily adder.** Apart
from these two codes it is considered that messages within the Division should
be either in cipher or in clear.
"To sum up: This campaign has shown again that the well-established principles of war
still apply. Of all the factors which contribute towards success, surprise is still
the most important. To achieve surprise we must be highly trained. We must train to
reach the highest standard of efficiency in movement, in the use of weapons, and in
cooperation with other arms. Training now is more necessary than ever. Success depends
on the will to win of a fully-trained force at the highest degree of physical fitness."
*Infantry tanks--slow-moving, 16-ton "Valentines" and 26-ton "Matildas."
**The meaning is not known exactly. Probably in U.S. usage it means daily additive"--a prearranged code number-change.