Chapter 3: The “Benghazi Handicap”
Many a retreating army has yearned for the night to blind its enemy to its withdrawal. Night had enfolded the 2nd Armoured Division as it stole away from Marsa Brega, planning to confront the enemy on the morning of 1st April with a new line of resistance in the desert farther east; but daylight had returned before the last units moved. The enemy, however, did not pursue.
The Support Group took up a position in sand dunes to cover the main road near the Kilo 840 stone1, about 30 miles from Marsa Brega. A marsh on the right flank afforded some protection against encirclement. The 2nd Armoured Division came into position on the left, the 3rd Hussars, with “B/O” Battery of the 1st Royal Horse Artillery in support, doing “protection rear” during the withdrawal. A desert track to the east of the coast road was covered by the 5th Royal Tank Regiment, which now had only 23 tanks. At El Gtafia this track bifurcated; one arm ran northwards to the west of a line of scarps and low hills to Agedabia, the other – the Trigh el Abd – branched east into the desert, thence north-east – the inland caravan route to Egypt. The 5th Royal Tanks came in to El Gtafia, then moved to a position astride the Agedabia track four miles to the north, while about six miles south-east of El Gtafia the armoured cars of the King’s Dragoon Guards watched for an encircling move on the desert flank.
General Neame came forward to see General Gambier-Parry at his headquarters at Maaten el Baghlia, and later ordered the 2nd Armoured Division to withdraw towards Benghazi. The withdrawal axis for the main body was through Agedabia to Antelat and then to Er Regima by the route at the foot of the escarpment; but after Agedabia the Support Group was to follow the main coast road. Thus, north of Agedabia, the Support Group and the armour were to diverge. If the enemy advanced to Benghazi, the armour’s task would be to harass his right flank and protect the left flank of the 9th Australian Division.
Gambier-Parry began to withdraw his foremost units at once. Early in the afternoon, the 5th Royal Tanks came back to a position astride the track at Bir el Tombia, where Brigadier Rimington had established his headquarters. The 3rd Hussars acted as rearguard. In the evening the 1st King’s Dragoon Guards moved 15 miles north-east to a position overlooking the track coming into Agedabia from Haseiat on the desert flank, and “B” Squadron of the 6th Royal Tank Regiment, with its 13 light tanks, which had remained in contact with the Support Group north-west of Gtafia, was now ordered to rejoin the 3rd Hussars. This it endeavoured to do that night, but could not find them. Meanwhile Neame had ordered the Benghazi garrison to complete the preparation of demolitions and be ready to evacuate at 24 hours’ notice.
It is not easy to recapture the atmosphere of those early days of the war when the British, almost unaided, were pitted against an overwhelmingly powerful alliance. Had not the German Army coursed through Poland, seized Denmark and Norway, subjugated the Netherlands, conquered France and forced the best of the British Army to flee from Dunkirk in little ships without its equipment, and now almost immediately on its first appearance in Africa, taken El Agheila and Marsa Brega? If the British soldiers believed themselves the equal of the enemy, yet the day of meeting him on equal terms seemed indefinitely remote.
Some elements of the Cyrenaican force were undoubtedly prey to the myth that the Germans could not be stopped and might appear anywhere at any moment unexpectedly. How rumours can start in such an atmosphere, notwithstanding all efforts of the higher command to stem them, is well illustrated by an encounter that occurred on this first day of April near Msus, the all-important but ill-protected supply point for the armour in the Antelat pivot plan. Portion of “A” Squadron of the Long Range Desert Group had set out from Barce on 31st March to investigate whether Marada oasis had been occupied by the enemy (with a view to later establishing a base there)2. Next day the remainder of the squadron left Barce for Augila via Tecnis and Msus. The following account of its experiences on 1st April is from a British narrative:–
Going was rough which made progress slow, and at 1700 hrs the squadron was no further than Bir el Melezz, ten miles east of Msus. At this point a party of six trucks, with four or five men in each, was sighted through the mirage. They were approaching in line, but when the squadron turned to meet them they went about at great speed and scattered in an easterly direction. Capt [P. J. D.] McCraith was wounded in the arm by the explosion of a thermos bomb under his truck. ... The squadron halted for the night 25 miles east of Msus. ... On 2 April the squadron moved into Msus where they found a French Motor Company. ... Maj Mitford warned them of the party he had seen the night before, and also informed the Cyrenaican Command, who appeared to think that the trucks in question were our own, which was unlikely.
One of two long-range patrols sent out by the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade then at El Adem also had an encounter near Msus on 1st April.
Pushing on to Msus the next day, 1st April, they came in along the southern track from Bir Belamed. In the afternoon some vehicles were sighted in the distance. Dorman3 at once thought they were Acworth’s4 patrol and turned to meet them. ... On closer approach, however, first the vehicles and then the men in them appeared strange and the obvious deduction then was that they were Free French. It must be remembered that neither patrol had any news of the start of the Axis offensive nor of the presence of the Africa Corps in Libya5.
Both parties continued to approach each other suspiciously, until it became obvious that the strangers were hostile. As they were in superior numbers (the enemy column included a field gun), Dorman wisely went about rapidly and ordered full speed ahead. Then followed a most exciting, stern chase for thirty miles until darkness
fell, enabling the patrol to make good its escape. The only apparent casualty on either side was one enemy vehicle overturned.
... Dorman pressed on through the night to report his encounter as early as possible to R.H.Q., which he reached at midday on the 2nd: Even at this stage, however, Cyrenaica Command at Derna were sceptical about the Germans being east of Msus. But few can have any doubt now that Dorman’s patrol encountered a German reconnaissance patrol feeling forward in preparation for Rommel’s outflanking move. ... Indeed, the air reported a whole German tank battalion at Msus on the 3rd6. [An erroneous report.]
When Dorman’s patrol reported in, Lieut-Colonel Munro7 of the 2/3rd Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, who was the senior officer with the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade during the temporary absence of Brigadier Vaughan8, sent a squadron of the 18th Cavalry to the area in an endeavour to make contact with the German force; but for three days after its departure no more was heard from this detachment.
At first light on 2nd April, carrier scout platoons of the Tower Hamlets Rifles checked enemy armoured units probing forward about three miles in front of the battalion. The force deployed, German infantry dismounted from trucks and assembled in attack order. At 10.30 a.m. an attack was launched with infantry and 40 tanks9. On orders from Support Group headquarters the battalion withdrew10, but eight German tanks got in behind “B” Company, cutting its withdrawal route. Endeavouring to get back by another route, the company became bogged on treacherous salt pans and was overrun. Meanwhile the scout platoon of another company engaged the enemy tanks, enabling the rest of the battalion to make good its withdrawal; but the scout platoon was lost.
The Support Group then withdrew some 30 miles to a position north of Agedabia, where the infantry again deployed. The 3rd Armoured Brigade conformed and moved to a position east of Agedabia with the 3rd Hussars on the right and the 5th Royal Tanks on the left. “B” Squadron of the 6th Royal Tanks doing protection rear for the 3rd Hussars saw enemy armoured vehicles following for the first three miles or so, but as the withdrawal continued, the enemy lost contact. Just before 1 p.m., however, the 5th Royal Tanks observed that an enemy force of some 40 to 50 vehicles was following them. Meanwhile the Dragoon Guards on the open desert flank reported enemy armoured cars pushing north towards Antelat.
The British tendency to withdraw, which could not be disguised, had been reported to the German commander both by his air force and by ground patrols. Nothing was more likely to induce Rommel to resume the advance; but General Gariboldi, his nominal superior, opposed action
on a large scale until more German forces had arrived. Hence the orders to the 5th Light Division for 2nd April, after an inactive day on the 1st, had been for only a limited reconnaissance towards El Gtafia and Agedabia. This was to be undertaken by the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit. But when the British forces withdrew farther after first contact on the morning of the 2nd, Rommel took the bit in his teeth and ordered a general advance of the division to Agedabia and the little port of Ez Zuetina, farther north. “It was a chance I could not resist,” Rommel wrote afterwards, “and I gave orders for Agedabia to be attacked and taken, in spite of the fact that our instructions were not to undertake any such operation before the end of May11.”
Even after it had become clear that the Axis forces had resumed their advance, General Neame sought to keep the withdrawal under his personal control. “Do not commit the 3rd Armoured Brigade to counter-attack,” he signalled Gambier-Parry just before midday, “without reference to me.” Neame’s message directed that the Support Group was to block the road to Benghazi as long as possible but without risking being overrun; if the enemy continued to advance towards Benghazi, the armoured brigade would continue to withdraw, keeping below and west of the escarpment as far north as the pass at Esc Sceleidima, or even farther north if routes could be found by which it could retire at any time up the escarpment. In essentials this direction accorded with Wavell’s instructions of 19th March, but involved withdrawal of the division in two groups not within supporting distance of each other, one near the coast and one near the escarpment.
Gambier-Parry’s acknowledgment, which took almost two hours to transmit, arrived in mid-afternoon. He said that he understood that the armoured brigade should not be committed at the present stage but pointed out that an opportunity to counter-attack later from the escarpment might be fleeting. Gambier-Parry “urged seriously” that whether the armour should be committed was a matter for his discretion. He also advised Neame that he might have to evacuate Agedabia that night. In that event he thought it preferable to avoid a course of action that involved splitting his force and so risking defeat in detail, even though keeping the Support Group and armoured brigade together might result in uncovering the coast road to Benghazi. He said that the strength of the armoured brigade was now down to 22 cruisers and 25 light tanks and that he anticipated further losses through mechanical failure at a rate of approximately one tank per ten miles.
At 4 p.m. the armoured units of the 2nd Armoured Division were still moving back towards the new line of resistance north and east of Agedabia. The speed of withdrawal of the 5th Royal Tanks had been reduced by the need to conform with that of “A/E” Battery of the 1st RHA, which could only cover seven miles in each hour. The 6th Royal Tanks (less “A” and “B” Squadrons but with “B” Squadron of the 3rd Hussars), which had been standing by at Beda Fomm since the German advance
began and was equipped with about 40 Italian M13 tanks, was now ordered to move to Antelat.
At 4.30 p.m. the 5th Royal Tanks (Lieut-Colonel Drew12) met two of its petrol lorries and halted to refuel. Just then radio contact was established with brigade headquarters, who began passing orders to the regiment. Meanwhile nine tanks doing protection rear observed 30 to 40 enemy vehicles approaching from the south-west. Brigade had just reported that the 3rd Hussars were involved with the enemy and needed assistance. Drew sent four tanks to their aid. The nine tanks now took up hull-down positions behind a ridge. About the same time, farther west, the enemy prepared to advance with tanks on the delaying position taken up by the Tower Hamlets. The British artillery engaged, forcing the enemy to deploy, whereupon the infantry withdrew, this time with little loss. Some enemy tanks turned in towards them and a few broke through the gun area of the 104th RHA, but they did not follow up the British withdrawal.
At 5.30 p.m. the enemy force in front of the 5th Royal Tanks, which included between 40 and 60 tanks and some field guns, advanced from the direction of the setting sun. Though thought to be Italian, they were in fact the II/5th Armoured Battalion. The British regiment, with only 14 of its 18 tanks and without artillery support, gave battle. A brisk engagement followed in which the Germans lost three tanks and the British five, with one more damaged. Colonel Drew ordered his rear squadron to withdraw to the next ridge. This was accomplished. The enemy failed to follow up, missing an opportunity to cripple in one blow almost the entire British medium-tank force.
After this action Gambier-Parry ordered the whole of the 2nd Armoured Division to withdraw to Antelat. The coast road to Benghazi was thus uncovered but Cyrenaica Command headquarters was not informed of this.
At 7 p.m. the 5th Royal Tanks resumed their slow withdrawal, continuing until 2 a.m., when a halt for sleep was taken by the roadside. Battle casualties and mechanical failures had together reduced the battalion to a strength of 12 tanks. In the early evening, most of the remainder of the armoured division had reached Antelat where they spent a peaceful night. On the desert flank the King’s Dragoon Guards, making a wide detour to the east, executed a trying march across rough country in pitch darkness. They arrived at Antelat about 9 a.m. next morning.
The situation at nightfall on 2nd April was serious, but in hand. Indeed, except that the coast road was now unblocked, the execution of the withdrawal had conformed well to the plan. Some battle losses had been suffered but were not substantial. On the other hand the tank strength had continued to dwindle as a result of mechanical failures.
In the 9th Australian Division, the only reliable news of the German advance was the scanty information in official situation reports, which had been enlarged upon and distorted by rumour. Exactly what had happened, nobody knew; but none doubted that the division would soon face the enemy. The test might be severe and on unequal terms: the men may have
been apprehensive but they were ready and anxious to try conclusions.
They were as yet unshocked by battle. And were they not volunteers?
The 26th Brigade, which had been assigned the task of defending the lower escarpment from Tolmeta to Tocra (on the right-hand sector of the division’s front), had had only one battalion available, the 2/24th, when the German advance had begun. Transport had now been provided to move up most of the 2/48th Battalion from Ain el Gazala. The battalion (less one company, which remained at Derna) embussed at dawn on 2nd April and arrived at Baracca at 5.30 p.m. Next morning it occupied a front of 10 miles to the south of the Tocra pass, with forward outposts on the escarpment. Positions were taken up for the most part in dense scrub adjoining the cultivated fields of an Italian settlement.
Wavell had watched the development of the German advance with anxiety. Reporting it to London, he told the Chiefs of Staff that the mechanical condition of the armoured brigade was causing Neame much concern and that he had directed Neame to keep his armoured units in being, even if this involved a withdrawal from Benghazi. The mere mention of withdrawal was enough to anger the British Prime Minister. He replied on 2nd April, in a message through which there ran a vein of irony, that a rebuff to the Germans would be of far-reaching importance for prestige. He continued:–
It would be all right to give up ground for the purposes of manoeuvre, but any serious withdrawal from Benghazi would appear most melancholy. I cannot understand how the enemy can have developed any considerable force at the end of this long, waterless coast-road, and I cannot feel that there is at this moment a persistent weight behind this attack in Cyrenaica. If this blob which has come forward against you could be cut off you might have a prolonged easement. Of course, if they succeed in wandering onwards they will gradually destroy the effect of your victories. Have you got a man like O’Connor or Creagh dealing with this frontier problem?
These were acid words, but it was typical of Wavell that, rather than be discouraged, he distilled the good sense of the message from its corrosive medium. As his colleague of those days, Admiral Cunningham, afterwards wrote of him:–
He was cool and imperturbable when things went wrong, and steadfastly refused to be riled by the prodding messages to which he, like myself, was at times subjected from the authorities at home, and which were, it must be confessed, singularly unhelpful and irritating at times of stress.
Wavell flew up to the front to see the situation for himself. He arrived at Cyrenaica Command headquarters at Barce just after Neame had received the message in which Gambier-Parry sought permission to uncover the road to Benghazi in order to avoid splitting the armoured division. Neame was disposed to accede; but Wavell intervened, insisting that the coast road be blocked. It will be recalled that his previous instructions had provided that a small mixed force should delay any advance by this route. Now that Gambier-Parry’s force was too small to split, Wavell ordered the whole division to withdraw by this route. Perhaps he thought
that if (as Gambier-Parry stated) the armoured division was likely to lose one tank out of its small force in each ten miles of movement, little advantage was to be gained by expending it in long withdrawals out of contact; that, if something positive were not done to oppose the enemy, the Germans might indeed, in Churchill’s phrase, “succeed in wandering onwards”.
Wavell’s next action was to send for General O’Connor and inform G.H.Q. that O’Connor would immediately take over the Cyrenaican command from General Neame. One cannot be sure exactly when Wavell received Churchill’s message, but the coincidence between Churchill’s suggestions and Wavell’s decisions is remarkable.
Just before 9 p.m. orders were sent to Gambier-Parry from headquarters Cyrenaica Command to the effect that the task of the division was to impose the maximum delay on any advance by the enemy along the main coast road. The whole armoured division was to operate together, withdrawing by bounds to Magrun. Beyond Magrun the Support Group accompanied by a squadron of tanks and a squadron of armoured cars would continue northwards by the coast route, while the remainder of the division was to withdraw east up the escarpment at Esc Sceleidima, thus covering the left flank of the 9th Australian Division.
Neame had no tactical headquarters close to the forward formations. With his main headquarters located more than 100 miles from the scene of the day’s fighting, he could have exercised effective control only if detailed and timely reports of the situation had reached him promptly and his signals network had operated efficiently. Neither condition pertained. Gambier-Parry did not receive Neame’s signalled orders till 2.25 a.m.
Gambier-Parry replied that to attempt to block the road to Benghazi was beyond the capability of his force. He was committed by force of circumstances to withdraw by Esc Sceleidima to El Abiar, where he would reorganise, “an essential preliminary to further action”. The Tower Hamlets, which had already been committed three times, was now reduced to half its strength. He described the depleted state of the 3rd Armoured Brigade and said that its headquarters were out of touch with the 5th Royal Tanks and had “only just got hold of” the 6th Royal Tanks.
Gambier-Parry’s signal left no alternative to Wavell and Neame but to accept his proposal. What they were not told, however, was that the Benghazi road had already been unblocked. Yet it was fortunate that the coast route was not taken as Wavell desired, for the supply dump at Magrun had been destroyed on the preceding day by the 2/3rd Australian Field Company. The circumstances leading to this action were later investigated by Brigadier Kisch13, the Chief Engineer of Cyrenaica Command, who reported on 4th April that he was satisfied that the decision had been correctly taken.
At 7.30 a.m. Neame ordered that the demolition program in Benghazi and elsewhere should be put in hand immediately and that the city should be evacuated. The main burden of the demolitions at Benghazi fell on
the 295th Company, RE, a section of the 2/3rd Field Company, some men of the 2/7th Field Company and two companies of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. The 2/3rd had already carried out a demolition program in the area south and east of the escarpment, as far south as the line Magrun–Soluch–Sidi Brahim. At the Er Regima pass the 2/7th, with the assistance of a section of the 2/3rd, fired demolitions in the railway cutting. When, as expected, these exploded the adjacent minefield by sympathetic detonation, the engineers re-mined the pass with 600 antitank mines The 2/13th Field Company was engaged on similar tasks in the 26th Brigade area.
About 10 a.m. on 3rd April Cyrenaica Command issued instructions authorising Gambier-Parry to take the action he had proposed and laying down that his tasks were now to deny the enemy access to the escarpment from the Esc Sceleidima pass to the Wadi Gattara inclusive and to cover the left flank of the 9th Australian Division. Early in the morning Generals Wavell and Neame visited the 9th Division and informed General Morshead that General O’Connor would soon arrive to take over command from General Neame14.
O’Connor, bringing with him Brigadier J. F. B. Combe, who had commanded the 11th Hussars in the first desert offensive, had left Cairo at 7.45 a.m. by air. When he arrived at El Adem, O’Connor warned the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade to be prepared to send two of its regiments to Mechili as flank protection for the British forces.
No forward move appears to have been made by the Axis forces on the morning of 3rd April. On 2nd April Gariboldi had sent Rommel a message:
From information I have received I deduce that your advance continues. This is contrary to my orders. I ask you to wait for me before continuing the advance.
This may have influenced Rommel’s temporary pause. But air reports of continued British withdrawal were soon to stir him to action.
The relative inactivity of the Axis forces and their failure to keep contact on 3rd April provided the 2nd Armoured Division with a needed opportunity to reorganise. By the end of the day, however, it had become much more disorganised as a result, not of enemy action, but of failures in the mechanism of communications and command.
At 5.30 a.m., the 3rd Armoured Brigade was ordered to move to just south of the pass at Esc Sceleidima with a view to ascending the escarpment at this point, for beyond Esc Sceleidima the scarp becomes rugged and can nowhere be easily ascended until the pass at Er Regima is reached. The first unit to move (at first light) was the 6th Royal Tanks; but it set off from Antelat in a south-westerly direction, not towards Esc Sceleidima. This was in accordance with orders received about 1 a.m.; the latest instruction had not reached the regiment. Three hours later, having seen neither friend nor foe, they came to the conclusion that something was amiss and returned to Antelat, found that place abandoned
and pushed on towards Esc Sceleidima, making but five miles in the hour because their Italian tanks were continually overheating.
From 8 a.m. onwards the rest of the armoured division withdrew to Esc Sceleidima, the Support Group preceding the armoured brigade while “A” Squadron of the King’s Dragoon Guards pushed out armoured car patrols to the south. Shallow wadis, which had to be crossed, broke up the traffic flow of armoured units moving close to the escarpment. “Columns crossed and re-crossed,” wrote a diarist, “and tanks, armoured cars, antiaircraft and field guns and other vehicles were all mixed up together15.” The historian of the King’s Dragoon Guards wrote:–
There is a series of wide tracks running from Antelat to Sceleidima, parallel with and west of the escarpment, and it was on joining these tracks that the Regiment saw a huge cavalcade of vehicles all streaming north, and creating an immense sand cloud as it went. The whole desert was alive with vehicles. ... The Luftwaffe seemed to take no great interest ... although a few Stuka attacks had left their trail. ...16
The division arrived at Esc Sceleidima shortly before midday, whereupon commanders were called by Gambier-Parry to a conference. Orders were given that the division should deny the escarpment north from Esc Sceleidima to the enemy; the Support Group was to defend from the Wadi Gattara (on the left flank of the 2/13th Battalion) to Sidi Brahim, the armoured brigade from Sidi Brahim south to Esc Sceleidima. Just as this conference was breaking up, and after the armoured brigade and Support Group representatives had left, a report was received from the RAF that an enemy reconnaissance column was approaching Msus from Antelat: other columns were said to be advancing north from Agedabia, both by the coast road to Benghazi and by the inland route to Antelat by which the division had just travelled. Divisional headquarters reported this to Cyrenaica Command, who, however, inferred from the message as received that the enemy were already in Msus. In fact the King’s Dragoon Guards were patrolling in the Antelat area and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment, returning from its fruitless journey, was laboriously coming along from Antelat to Msus. Soon afterwards the 5th Royal Tanks were ordered to engage and destroy eight enemy tanks approaching Esc Sceleidima from the south. These proved to be the 6th Royal Tanks.
The 2nd Armoured Division then issued new orders that the Support Group (less the company of French marines) and the 6th Royal Tanks should hold the escarpment while the armoured brigade (less the 6th Royal Tanks) and the French marines should proceed to Msus to deal with the enemy column. Some units heard of the earlier orders, some of the later. Subordinate formations issued orders and counter-orders with bewildering rapidity.
Portions of the Support Group began moving north in conformity with the divisional orders, which had reached Lalham in good time, but had not yet reached Rimington. Other units (including the 1st RHA),
unable to obtain any orders, followed the general movement. Part of the Tower Hamlets (with their supporting artillery and anti-tank gunners) laboriously took up positions on the escarpment in the area from Sidi Brahim to about one mile farther south. Not until about 4 p.m. did the altered orders reach the 3rd Armoured Brigade, which then issued warning orders to the 5th Royal Tanks and 3rd Hussars but was unable to contact the 1st RHA and other units intended to form the column for Msus. Most of these had in fact begun to move independently northwards below the escarpment. Meanwhile the 6th Royal Tanks, which was to join the Support Group, having been given neither the location of the Support Group headquarters nor its wireless frequency, had elected to remain at Esc Sceleidima.
While the 3rd Armoured Brigade was waiting at Esc Sceleidima and striving to assemble the units allotted to it, the headquarters of the 2nd Armoured Division was reporting to Cyrenaica Command headquarters that it was impossible to establish troops along the escarpment between Esc Sceleidima and the Wadi Gattara since there was no route by which supplies could be brought up to them from the rear. Accordingly Command headquarters (at which Wavell was still present and O’Connor had now arrived) authorised a general withdrawal of the division through Er Regima.
The report that an enemy force was advancing towards Msus appears to have been erroneous. Headquarters had discounted similar reports on earlier days and indeed had just passed an order to the Long Range Desert Group to make its base at Msus; but confusion concerning the whereabouts of all units had now become so great that to sift truth from rumour had become impossible. There is evidence that the body reported by the air force as an enemy force moving towards Msus may have been the recovery section of the armoured brigade; it is also possible that the RAF had mistaken one of its own columns, which was the last British unit reported passing through Msus.
The garrison at Msus was a company of the French Motorised Brigade and some Senussi soldiers. It was subject to the directions of an English liaison officer, Captain Hore-Ruthven17, whose orders were to ensure at all costs that the dump there did not fall into the hands of the enemy. On receiving the report that the enemy column was approaching, Hore-Ruthven ordered the destruction of the dump so laboriously built up as a first-priority task in the previous fortnight. He then withdrew the garrison. Other reports of unidentified vehicles from patrols of the Long Range Desert Group and King’s Dragoon Guards operating nearby supported the belief that the enemy was close. Meanwhile Command headquarters had sought confirmation from the RAF, which now reported that there were 40 to 50 enemy vehicles, probably tanks, at Msus. Such was the state of affairs when at 5 p.m. Wavell departed to return to Cairo. Wavell
left Neame in command but arranged that O’Connor should remain to assist and advise Neame.
When the 2nd Armoured Division received the air reconnaissance report that the enemy was at Msus in strength, Gambier-Parry ordered the armoured brigade to follow the rest of the division to Er Regima18. Most of the division’s wheeled vehicles were already on the move north, travelling at the foot of the escarpment. Gambier-Parry’s headquarters had crossed the Wadi Gattara in the late afternoon. Shortly afterwards an aircraft dropped a message from Cyrenaica Command headquarters on the northward moving column Timed 10 a.m., it stated, “You must get east of escarpment before you reach Wadi Gattara to avoid own minefield,” and added instructions about a guide. This was interpreted as meaning that the Er Regima pass had been closed.
As the message passed up the moving column, it became distorted; to some units it was reported that the minefield through the pass had been primed and the demolitions blown. The mass of vehicles travelling northwards in the gathering dusk now reversed and moved southwards, turned up the rugged Wadi Gattara and sought in the darkness to find a way up the escarpment on to the plateau. Here most of the wheeled portion of the division became blocked in a conglomerate mass, scarcely diminishing as small groups laboriously filtered through the bottleneck throughout the night.
The rumour about the closing of the pass had not reached some of the foremost elements of the Support Group in the van of the withdrawal. These retired in some confusion during the night through the 2/13th Australian Infantry Battalion holding the pass; other vehicles retired through the 26th Brigade at Tocra.
On hearing that the Er Regima pass had been closed, Rimington, still at Esc Sceleidima, cancelled the orders to his brigade to move by this route. His communications with Gambier-Parry having broken down, he decided to remain at Esc Sceleidima and to hold the pass there until they were restored. He directed that the 3rd Hussars were to guard the eastern entrance to the pass and the 5th and 6th Royal Tanks the western end. Soon enemy were reported approaching from the east and the four light tanks of “A” Squadron 6th Royal Tanks with the 3rd Hussars were ordered to engage them. The “enemy”, however, proved to be a returning patrol of the King’s Dragoon Guards.
Rimington’s orders cancelling the northward move do not appear to have reached the 3rd Hussars, for at approximately 8 p.m. they began moving towards Er Regima, believing themselves the vanguard of the brigade. After a few miles, however, on making their first halt, they contacted brigade headquarters and were ordered back. Rimington, having failed to re-establish contact with divisional headquarters, had meanwhile decided on his own initiative to collect together all the forces near Esc
Sceleidima, advance at first light on Msus next morning, and, if the reported enemy occupation proved correct, engage the enemy force. During the night he was joined at Sceleidima by the headquarters and most of what remained of the Tower Hamlets Rifles (which was unable to establish satisfactory communications with the Support Group headquarters) and by the two squadrons of the King’s Dragoon Guards that had been patrolling that day south and west of Esc Sceleidima. Earlier in the evening the regimental headquarters and the remaining squadron of the King’s Dragoon Guards had begun to withdraw to Er Regima but had returned to Esc Sceleidima on hearing that Er Regima pass was blocked. They intended to proceed independently to El Abiar on the morrow, leaving the other two squadrons to accompany Rimington to Msus.
Soon after Wavell departed, Cyrenaica Command decided, having regard to the supposed enemy occupation of Msus, to close down the headquarters at Barce and move back to Maraua. At 6 p.m. a staff conference was called at headquarters, to which Colonel Lloyd was summoned as the 9th Division’s representative. On arriving there about one hour later, Lloyd found an atmosphere of uncertainty. Communications with the 2nd Armoured Division had broken down. Nobody knew where it was; it was feared that it had been overwhelmed. The number of enemy vehicles supposed to be in Msus had now risen to 100, though a liaison officer of the armoured division’s artillery averred to Lloyd that the force at Msus was the 3rd Armoured Brigade.
After some discussion it was decided to execute a general withdrawal to a line running from the Wadi Derna to Mechili, thus yielding almost the entire Jebel Achdar massif to the enemy. The 3rd Indian Motor Brigade (still at El Adem) was to occupy Mechili, into which the 2nd Armoured Division (or so much of it as remained) would withdraw “with all possible speed” to provide field and anti-tank guns, which the Indian brigade lacked. (One squadron of the motor brigade – Major Rajendrasinhji’s19 “B” Squadron of the 2nd Royal Lancers – was already there, having moved out that morning to provide protection to some engineers preparing demolitions.) The 9th Australian Division was to establish two battalions forthwith on the second escarpment east of Barce, using all available transport. These were to be placed at the head of the two passes through which the two roads that traverse Cyrenaica mount the second escarpment from the intermediate plateau. The 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps, a motor battalion from the 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group, which had arrived at Barce in the early afternoon – pursuant to Wavell’s promise of reinforcements – was placed under Morshead’s command to protect his division’s left flank by taking up positions astride the tracks coming in from the south.
The securing of the second escarpment was to be the first stage in a general withdrawal. The 9th Division’s confirmatory orders, issued at 2 a.m. on the 4th, stated that its intention was to move to the Derna area by stages. Such were the orders that concluded a day’s operations
during which it is doubtful whether the Axis ground forces had fired a single shot.
Morshead directed that the required moves to the second escarpment were to take place forthwith. The 26th Brigade was ordered to move the 2/48th Battalion (which only that day had occupied the position west of Baracca, on the lower escarpment) to the northern pass at Maddalena; the 20th Brigade to move the 2/15th Battalion (then in reserve) to the southern pass, due east of Barce.
The 1/Royal Northumberland Fusiliers had been placed under Morshead’s command that afternoon and, with the 24th Anti-Tank Company, had been detailed to hold the left flank near El Abiar, thus freeing the 2/15th Battalion for the new role now allotted to it.
The moves could not be made immediately because the division had no troop-carrying transport; but during the night transport columns were organised by taking first-line vehicles from units. By first light next morning the two battalions were able to move. The 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps on the other hand, being fully mobile, began moving during the night and was in position next morning by 9 a.m.
Of Morshead’s five battalions, four were now holding pass-heads – two on each escarpment. The fifth battalion, the 2/17th, which had been deployed on the escarpment north of Er Regima, with one company at a distance of 17 miles by a track not passable to vehicles, had been assembling throughout the night in an area near El Abiar. Here it was to await second-line transport, its own first-line vehicles having been used to move the 2/15th Battalion. It was to be the first unit to withdraw behind the new line.
Great difficulty was experienced in finding transport for the 2/17th Battalion. Major Barham20 of the divisional staff, just arrived from Cairo, set off in the early hours of the morning for Barce, whence the divisional transport had been operating while employed by force headquarters in stocking up supply dumps. Barham found that the transport company was being used to evacuate the 4th Australian General Hospital. He followed Cyrenaica Command headquarters to its new report centre at Maraua, where he eventually managed to obtain 20 Italian lorries manned by Royal Army Service Corps drivers21. Other transport was collected next day by Major Dodds22 at a report centre at Barce. But not until mid-afternoon of the 4th was it possible to begin moving the units who had lent their first-line transport to other units.
Although no sizable portion of the British force had been committed before his departure, Wavell had appreciated that the situation was critical. On reaching Cairo he informed Churchill that the 7th Australian Division, which was about to embark for Greece, would have to remain, that it
must move to the Western Desert, and that the 6th British Division, earmarked for the projected assault on Rhodes, must instead be held in reserve. Meanwhile the British Prime Minister had just telegraphed to Mr Eden, then in Athens, recalling that Wavell had previously given “many cogent arguments for believing his western flank secure”.
Far more important than the loss of ground (he continued) is the idea that we cannot face the Germans and that their appearance is enough to drive us back many scores of miles. This may react most evilly throughout Balkans and Turkey. Pray go back to Cairo and go into all this. Sooner or later we shall have to fight the Huns. By all means make the best plan of manoeuvre, but anyhow fight.
In the early afternoon of the 3rd Rommel went out to the advanced forces of the Ariete Division on the track from Agedabia to the Trigh el Abd, satisfied himself that the going was reasonable, returned, and, at 2.45 p.m.23 ordered an advanced detachment of the Ariete Division to reconnoitre the Trigh el Abd route as far as Ben Gania and also to reconnoitre the track to Msus. At 4.45 p.m., after reports had been received that Magrun had been abandoned, the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit was ordered to advance by the coast road to that place and to reconnoitre forward. In the evening Rommel drove north to the advanced columns of the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit near Magrun. Finding that no contact had been made with British troops, learning also that it had been reported that Benghazi had been evacuated, he ordered the German forces to press on to the city during the night. This they did, entering the town about an hour before dawn.
On his return south to his headquarters, Rommel met Gariboldi, who had just arrived. Gariboldi asked that in future the Africa Corps should report the situation to him and that Rommel should make no forward move except on his orders. “General Gariboldi wanted to get authority from Rome first,” Rommel wrote afterwards, “but that way days could go by unused24.” Rommel contended that as a German general he had to give orders to suit the situation confronting him at the moment. He demanded complete freedom of action. The outcome of the conflict was hardly in doubt but according to both the war diary of the German Africa Corps and Rommel’s own account the matter was clinched for Rommel by the arrival during the conference of a message from the German High Command promising him complete freedom of action.
Undoubtedly Gariboldi was so informed. There must be some doubt, however, whether in fact this was true and whether the war diary records supporting the assertion are genuine; for a directive issued by the German High Command on this very day, over Field Marshal Keitel’s signature, stated that Hitler had “reached the following decisions on 2nd April”:-
1. For the time being the main task of the German Africa Corps is still to defend positions reached and to hold down as great a part as possible of the British forces in North Africa.
The resultant offensive operations with limited objectives may not be expanded further than weak forces permit before the arrival of the 15th Panzer Division. Above all an endangering of the open right flank, which would necessarily arise in the case of a pivot movement in a northerly direction on Benghazi, must be avoided.
2. Even after the arrival of the 15th Panzer Division, an extensive operation with Tobruk as the objective cannot be undertaken for the time being.
The commitments in other theatres of operations of the bulk of Fliegerkorps X and of Italian forces which cannot be further motorised at present will not permit an extension of objectives before the autumn of 1941.
A change in these plans could be considered only if the bulk of British armoured forces were withdrawn from Cyrenaica. New measures are being kept in reserve for this eventuality.
3. Cooperation with Italy will remain limited for the time being to the subordination, if necessary, of an additional motorised division (102nd) to the German Africa Corps, in addition to those forces already under Africa Corps command.
New coordination is being held in reserve for a large scale offensive later.
4. The German general at Comando Supremo is requested to obtain Italian High Command agreement to these principles.
Is it not possible, indeed likely, that the message received by Rommel during the conference with Gariboldi was in fact that conveying these decisions?
That evening Rommel wrote to his wife:–
The “brass” at Tripoli, Rome and possibly Berlin will gasp. I took the risk against all orders and instructions because I saw an opportunity. No doubt it will all be pronounced good later and I am sure that anybody in my position would have done the same thing. The first objective set down for the end of May has been reached. The British are in flight25.
It is a tribute to the efficiency with which the engineers of the 2nd Armoured Division and the 2/3rd Australian Field Company had carried out their program of demolitions that the Germans were unable to keep their armour sufficiently supplied to maintain the momentum of their advance. On the afternoon of 3rd April the 5th Light Division reported that it would require four days for refuelling. Rommel thereupon ordered that the division should be grounded for 24 hours, with the exception of the reconnaissance group on the coast road and one protective detachment, and that all vehicles should be unloaded and used to bring forward the supplies and ammunition needed. Thus the British forces were to be vouchsafed at least one more day of freedom from major assault by the German armour.
At 6 a.m. on 4th April, most of the force Rimington had taken under his command at Esc Sceleidima, including two squadrons of the King’s Dragoon Guards and what was left of the three tank regiments, commenced the advance on Msus; the remainder made its way direct to El Abiar. About 8.30 a.m. two squadrons of Dragoon Guards leading Rimington’s force entered Msus, but found no sign of the reported enemy. However they did find a “most excellent” ration dump undestroyed, which met an urgent need of food. Soon afterwards enemy aircraft bombed them and signalled their presence by dropping a flare. The rest of the armoured
brigade followed, moving very slowly and continuing to shed tanks because of mechanical failures and overheating caused by shortages of water for radiators26. The 6th Royal Tanks did not arrive until early afternoon. Ironically Rimington was rewarded for his initiative and bold action by the discovery that though the reported enemy occupation was false yet the fuel dumps had been destroyed. Although some 250 gallons of petrol were actually found at Msus and used mainly to refuel some of the wheeled vehicles, the tanks were now precariously short of fuel. Colonel Fanshawe27, the brigade second-in-command, was sent north to organise more supplies.
At 8 a.m. Cyrenaica Command issued an order which stated that it was apparent the main enemy column was making for Benghazi, and prescribed that the task of the 2nd Armoured Division was to protect the flank of the 9th Division by moving to Mechili by the El Abiar-Mechili track. Later O’Connor set out from headquarters to contact Gambier-Parry while Neame reconnoitred the Wadi Cuff, which appeared to be a good delaying position.
By mid-morning the elements of the Support Group that were not with the 3rd Armoured Brigade had finished moving through the defiles at the Wadi Gattara and Er Regima and were now dispersed between Er Regima and El Abiar. Stragglers coming up the pass at Er Regima reported that the enemy was in Benghazi and that the Italian flag was flying above the town. Both Gambier-Parry’s and Latham’s headquarters were now established at El Abiar not far from Morshead’s. By early afternoon the 1st and 104th RHA, “J” Battery (less one troop) of the 3rd RHA and one company of the French Motor Battalion were concentrated there. The 9th Division lacked transport for quick moves. And against a thrusting enemy Morshead was dependent for the protection of his flank and for early warning if the enemy came on in strength or broke through, on a formation of which the dwindling combatant units were to a large extent out of communication and short of fuel.
At midday O’Connor called an orders conference at Gambier-Parry’s headquarters. Morshead attended. Although Gambier-Parry was still uncertain of the exact condition and location of the 3rd Armoured Brigade, Morshead’s impression was that the headquarters of the armoured division were not unduly alarmed at the situation. According to Morshead’s report, Gambier-Parry expressed the view that, having taken Benghazi, the enemy had secured his final objective for the present. General O’Connor was apparently of the same opinion, for his orders were that the 9th Division should halt its withdrawal. The division was to continue holding the Tocra–Er Regima line on the first escarpment with the 2/24th and 2/13th Battalions “until forced to withdraw by enemy action”, but was not to become committed28. The 2/17th Battalion, however, would not return to the first escarpment but would take up a position on the second escarpment east of Barce.
An army that had failed to maintain contact with its enemy was in no position to assess what that enemy would do. Not only had ground contact been lost; air reconnaissance was also temporarily unavailable. The supporting air force, with but a handful of aircraft, had been making a maximum effort but was hampered by being constantly on the move29, and No. 3 Squadron R.A.A.F., on which the army depended for tactical reconnaissance, had spent the latter part of the night and most of the morning moving back from Got es Sultan to Maraua.
At the conclusion of the conference, O’Connor returned to Cyrenaica Command headquarters and confirmed with Neame the orders he had given. Morshead went immediately to the headquarters of the 20th Brigade, near the 2/17th Battalion, to convey the new orders to Brigadier Murray, only to discover that Murray was himself on the way to divisional headquarters. Morshead was relieved to find that the 2/17th Battalion was at last ready to move, a transport column having just arrived. The battalion was ordered to occupy a position behind the 2/15th, on the Barce pass. Morshead now returned to his own headquarters at El Abiar. When he arrived there, he learnt that reports were being received of an impending attack on the 2/13th Battalion at Er Regima.
The escarpment east of Benghazi is a wall of hard, shaly rock rising some 400 feet above the maritime plain. In some parts covered with a shallow layer of dun-coloured earth, for the most part bare rock, devoid of vegetation save for a low, stunted shrub known as camel-thorn, its slopes and re-entrants offered little cover or concealment to the men assigned to hold it. Unable in many places to dig down into the hard ground in the time and with the equipment available, the Australians had erected sangars of stones for section posts. These offered some protection from machine-gun and rifle fire, but not from artillery.
In several places the escarpment face was broken by wadis. Of these the one at Er Regima, through which ascended the road and narrow-gauge railway to Barce, offered the easiest ascent. Near the top of the escarpment there was an anti-tank ditch which, however, had been constructed by the Italians to check an enemy approaching from the east. In rear was a second anti-tank ditch, also facing east.
Lieut-Colonel Burrows had only three companies of the 2/13th Battalion available for the defence, since Major Chilton’s30 “C” Company, which had been detached on the battalion’s arrival in Cyrenaica, was still at Barce on internal security duties. The front was too extended to be defended for its entire length. Burrows had two companies forward: “D” Company (Captain Handley31) on the right, astride the pass, “B” Company (Captain Hill32) on the left, covering likely avenues of encirclement, including some ground passable to tanks; between them was an
undefended gap. Captain Fraser’s33 “A” Company was in reserve. Burrows had prepared alternative positions for the reserve to occupy according to the point of enemy attack. He had under command four 4.5-inch howitzers of the 51st Field Regiment and a machine-gun company of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers; an additional battery of 25- pounders had been promised. Although he had been under orders to withdraw as soon as transport could be made available he had kept the whole battalion in battle positions. He was as yet unaware of the decision just made that his battalion, and the 2/24th in the north, should continue to hold their ground.
The 4th of April was a tense day for the men guarding the pass. On the preceding morning, they had waved their hats in farewell to the Hurricanes of No. 3 Squadron as they took off for the last time from Benina airfield on the plain just below the pass; all that day they had heard explosions, as demolitions at Benghazi and elsewhere had been fired; then they had watched the transport of units from the plains and the desert go past, for a while densely packed, then thinning out and hurrying away. But for some time all traffic had ceased. The Germans were thought to be in Benghazi, about 15 miles across the plain. Smoke still drifted above the distant white city, from which a road ran out to the foot of the escarpment. All eyes were on that road.
In the early afternoon, a column of vehicles came out from Benghazi towards the pass. The Australians moved into battle positions. As the column approached the Benina airfield, the vehicles fanned out: tanks and armoured cars could be discerned and behind them 30 to 40 troop-carrying lorries. It was judged that the force was about 3,000 strong.
Sixteen tanks came to the fore in line abreast, in two waves, and moved up towards the pass, with trucks following. As the tanks reached the point where the road crossed the railway line, howitzers of the 51st Field Regiment and two salvaged Italian mortars manned by the Australians engaged them. Some direct hits were scored, one mortar putting a light tank out of action. The tanks and armoured cars withdrew, but the infantry dismounted, and deployed to assault. The prepared demolitions in the pass were fired. Unfortunately they detonated before the enemy had reached the mined area; yet more unfortunately the concussion set off part of the minefield by sympathetic detonation and caused some of the 2/13th’s sangars on the left flank to fall away. A third misfortune was that the 20th Anti-Tank Company, which had been under orders to move back to the second escarpment as soon as the pass was blown, then withdrew with its guns.
As the German advance began, one light tank came up the pass ahead of the infantry and a few moved out on either side. An Arab, or possibly an enemy scout in Arab clothing, was now seen to be signalling on the left flank by flashing a petrol tin in the sun. Hither four armoured cars made their way to the mouth of an unguarded and unmined wadi. They attempted to get in behind the Australians guarding the pass, but were halted by the Italian anti-tank ditch.
The first assault came in at the pass itself against 18 Platoon, commanded by Sergeant Simmons,34 a born leader; 16 Platoon was on the right, 17 on the left, but not within supporting distance. To the right of Simmons’ platoon, the road wound tortuously down the pass to cross the railway line, which, making a more gradual descent, came in from a wider sweep still farther to the right. Behind Simmons’ positions ran the anti-tank ditch. On a knoll to the left, Simmons could see the men of the mortar platoon, under Sergeant McLaughlin,35 firing at an unorthodox rate; one of the weapons was almost shaken to pieces, requiring one man to steady the barrel, another to lie across the base-plate.36
Simmons’ platoon was better equipped than most. Yet their British equipment comprised but 30 rifles, one Boyes anti-tank rifle and one light machine-gun among 32 men. (These were supplemented by two Italian machine-guns, unofficially acquired.) The Australians waited until the enemy were within range, then gave them all the fire these weapons could provide. The enemy took cover. Down the road behind Simmons’ platoon came four 18-pounder guns of the 51st Field Regiment, one of which
swung into action at lightning speed, fired, and knocked out the leading tank of three light tanks coming up the pass. Another tank then engaged the gun and put it out of action; three other guns soon suffered the same fate but a second tank was knocked out. Two of the “characters” of 18 Platoon were “Little Bill” Andrews’37 and “Big Bill” Andrews.38 Simmons sent “Little Bill” Andrews back to company headquarters to inform Handley of the strength of the opposition. “Big Bill” Andrews meanwhile was effectively engaging the enemy tanks with the Boyes rifle. The enemy was beginning to work round Lance-Corporal Weissmann’s39 section on the left flank.
In the meantime the other two platoons, in their sangars on the escarpment, had come under heavy fire from machine-guns, tanks and field guns (75-mm) and from mortars. The two remaining tanks, after the 18-pounders had been silenced, came up to the top of the pass and cruised up the anti-tank ditch. Although the enemy fire tore through the sangars, the Australians replied with their rifles, their few Bren guns, and their Boyes anti-tank rifles. The men clung to their positions but, gradually encircled, were forced bit by bit to yield. Lieutenant Wilson’s40 platoon on the right flank was outflanked by tanks which came into the rear of their positions. While well-aimed and courageously sustained fire forced the leading tank to close down its observation slits, the platoon moved round the side of a feature and gradually returned along a wadi.
Lieutenant Burrell’s41 platoon, on the left flank, was soon in difficulties because some of the sangars of its section posts had been shattered by the detonation of the minefield. Burrell contested each enemy advance, but unable to prevent infiltrations was forced to withdraw gradually to the anti-tank ditch.
To hold a front of some seven miles with three companies of lightly-armed men against attack from a well-equipped force 3,000 strong might well dismay the most confident commander. Colonel Burrows had just the qualities needed. Aged 43 years, a sales executive in civilian life, he had served in the ranks with distinction in the first world war at Gallipoli and in France, where he was commissioned in 1918, and had retained his interest and enthusiasm for soldiering between the wars by service in the militia At the outbreak of war, he was the commanding officer of the 36th (New South Wales) Battalion, from which he was appointed to form the 2/13th Battalion. Thick-set, of rather pugilistic features, with an erect carriage and alert, roving eyes, he enforced discipline with a caustic tongue and often a resonant command, a characteristic that earned him his nickname, “the Bull”. His attributes as a battalion
commander included aggressiveness and, as events were to prove, a cool head in trouble.
Burrows had been informed at midday that the transport being collected at Barce to move the battalion back would not arrive until at least 7 p.m. He was expecting his missing company to arrive at any moment from Barce, but in the meantime Captain Fraser’s company, which was not centrally disposed, was his only reserve. When Burrows reported the impending German assault to Murray, he was informed that, in order to enable the troops in rear to be cleared, he was to hold his position at all costs until after dark; then the battalion would be withdrawn according to the original plan. Morshead had in the meantime directed that the recently-cancelled plan of withdrawal should now be adhered to, since the intention of the latest conference had been to delay the withdrawal only so long as this did not involve becoming committed.
Handley had given Burrows by phone a running commentary on the approach of the enemy. When Burrows heard that the Germans were beginning to infiltrate through Handley’s company, he sent the carrier platoon to a position on the right flank at the head of the wadi north of the railway line and used his small transport reserve to bring one platoon (Lieutenant Peterson’s42) of Fraser’s company to the fort near battalion headquarters. The rest of Fraser’s company set off on foot in the same direction while more transport was being mustered to fetch them; and Fraser went ahead to report to Burrows.
When Peterson’s platoon reached the fort, Burrows already knew that Wilson’s platoon had been encircled. Therefore he sent Peterson to the head of the wadi to block and reinforce the carrier platoon. This would safeguard the fort against infiltration from the left as well as protecting the rear of “D” Company.
Some transport which had been lent to the 2/15th Battalion for its move, but had returned without having been employed for this purpose, was now used to bring up the remaining two platoons of “A” Company and Captain Fraser was ordered to take them to the area already held by Peterson’s platoon. The two platoons, however, missed the way and went into position immediately behind “D” Company, where they soon became involved with the enemy thrusting in that area.
Communications between Burrows and Fraser soon broke down. It was evident that both Fraser’s and Handley’s companies were becoming disorganised Burrows therefore sent Major Turner43 forward to coordinate the action of all the troops that had become involved.
When the two platoons of Fraser’s company had taken up their positions, one of the enemy tanks came within range. A man from Lieutenant Watch’s44 platoon, firing from the anti-tank ditch, knocked it out with his Boyes rifle. The crew jumped out. Firing his Bren gun from the hip
Private Eland45 dashed forward, mortally wounded one of the crew and captured the rest – three Germans. Meanwhile Burrell’s platoon, completing its withdrawal, had linked up with Watch’s platoon.
Burrows now ordered Captain Hill’s company, which had not been engaged, to come in to the fort from the left flank in order to cover the withdrawal of the forward troops. No. 10 Platoon was to be brought in by transport; the rest on foot, north-eastwards across country, on a compass bearing.
In the meantime Simmons’ platoon was being encircled round its left flank, where there was dead ground behind a knoll. Simmons had sent a runner to Handley suggesting that the platoon be withdrawn behind the anti-tank ditch. Handley replied that he was to “work on his own initiative”. By the time that this message reached Simmons, his platoon’s position had become precarious, casualties had been incurred and he had been compelled to withdraw behind Weissmann’s section. On receiving Handley’s message Simmons decided to withdraw the whole platoon at once behind the anti-tank ditch, sending back Private Easter46 to inform Handley of his intention. Easter came under heavy fire as he ran back after crossing the ditch, but succeeded in reaching Handley’s headquarters.
Simmons now strove to withdraw his men, but as they went back towards the anti-tank ditch they were caught by fire in enfilade from the left, where the Germans had occupied some old Italian sangars. Casualties began to come fast. Private Thompson47 and Private Morrice48 were killed; others were wounded. The platoon fought back, Simmons shouting encouragement, but were overrun by Germans emerging on their left at the end of the anti-tank ditch. Only five men got away. These reached the anti-tank ditch and escaped along it to join Burrell’s platoon.
Enemy were also closing in on Burrell’s and Watch’s platoons. Watch sent Corporal Leach49 and his section forward of the ditch to silence a harassing machine-gun post; but as they emerged, an enemy party came in behind them, calling “Hände Hoch!” This party was quickly engaged, but another party of enemy came down the ditch from the other side. Watch’s entire platoon had now perforce to withdraw down the ditch at the double towards the fort; the three German prisoners showed a tendency to linger until Private “Scout” Love,50 at Sergeant Robinson’s51 command of “Stir ‘em along Scout”, prodded the rearmost with his bayonet.
On the right some hundreds of enemy had moved up out of the wadi head that Burrows had intended to be held by the whole of “A” Company.
Here Peterson’s platoon and the carrier platoon, which had taken up positions between the railway station and the fort, were hard pressed. Behind them some guns of the 51st Field Regiment came into action, with, however, only 17 rounds remaining of the small amount of ammunition allotted to them. They fired their rounds and departed.
It was becoming dark. Captain Fraser received a message from Lieutenant Watch, heavily involved with “D” Company, asking for help. Fraser decided to make a blind but bold assault on the enemy party. But, just as his men were moving off, an enemy group – more than a company strong – emerged from the wadi on the right and completely surrounded Fraser, Peterson and many of their men. Corporal Kinder’s52 section, following behind, then encountered this body head-on. Peterson, with his runner, Private Spooner,53 escaped to rejoin the Australians and immediately organised a bayonet charge, those men with automatics firing from the hip, with terrible effect; the enemy were “falling around us like ninepins”, as one Australian prisoner of the German party later wrote. In the mêlée Captain Fraser escaped and with Sergeant Robbins54 rejoined Peterson, who was continuing to advance, moving sections forward alternately in bounds. But this gallant action served only to take the platoon deeper into the midst of the enemy. Peterson took up a position in rear of the anti-tank ditch; the enemy, less than 50 yards away, began using a knocked-out tank as a strongpost.
Meanwhile in the gathering dark the area around the fort had come under heavy fire: red and white tracers cut trails of light across the ground, while shells fired from the plain below burst with a red glow. The English howitzers replied tirelessly (their flashes illuminating more Germans coming over the escarpment) until, their last rounds expended, they fell silent and departed. At headquarters a report was received from
“D” Company stating that it had been compelled to withdraw. Burrows, whose promised reinforcements had not arrived, then decided to retire behind the second anti-tank ditch in rear of Er Regima village and to establish his headquarters down the road, where it would meet the transport as it came forward.
The leading section of Hill’s company, which had now reached the fort, was sent to clear the ditch in front of the railway station, where a party of enemy threatened to cut the route of retirement. Corporal Boreham55 took the section forward and drove out the enemy. As the remaining sections of this platoon arrived, Major Turner sent them across to consolidate the battalion’s hold on the area Boreham had cleared. The rest of Hill’s company were met by Captain Walsoe56 where they struck the road at the ditch-crossing east of Er Regima fort, and there began
to take up a blocking position through which the rest of the battalion might be extricated. Meanwhile, about 9 p.m. Burrows himself went to the anti-tank ditch, collected the forward sections as they were falling back, and ordered them into position astride the road 400 yards in front of the ditch to allow time for Hill’s company to organise the defensive position behind.
Two companies of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, with the 24th Anti-Tank Company under command, arrived almost an hour later; but the officer commanding the machine-gunners informed Burrows that, as a daylight reconnaissance had not been made to lay down fixed lines of fire, the guns could not be effectively employed. Burrows sent one company back to block the road behind the battalion in case the unit should be overrun. The remainder were held with the battalion, one platoon being placed in rear to cover the withdrawal.57
“B” Company got into position without more trouble and by 10 p.m. the rest of the troops had withdrawn behind it. The enemy had apparently paused to reorganise. But there was still no sign of the troop-carrying transport Burrows had been expecting since 7 p.m. Could it have become lost? Had it been ambushed?
At 10.15 p.m. the anxious Burrows ordered all troops except those holding the covering position to move off down the road. About half an hour later an English transport company with Cypriot drivers met them. The battalion was withdrawn without further engagement. The dejected men were packed tight into too few trucks. Some travelled on running boards, a few on a gun tractor. The convoy carried them back across the plain and through the town of Barce, whose shops and dumps were ablaze, to a point some 10 miles past the town, where the men were dispersed in scrub cover for some rest as the next day began to break.
Peterson’s platoon and some others, including Captain Fraser, were not in this convoy. They had waited by the anti-tank ditch for over two hours, had repelled with grenades an enemy party calling on them to surrender, and about 10.30 p.m. had managed to extricate themselves; but they were too late to make contact with the battalion before it withdrew. They moved on into the hills that night. In succeeding days Fraser and Peterson and their men continued moving eastwards, never catching up, however, with the retreating forces. Eventually this party of 2 officers and 23 men, helped continually by Senussi Arabs, reached Gazala in a body, having lost but a few of their number. Here they split up. Most were captured between 29th April and 4th May, some on the verge of the Tobruk perimeter. One man, Private Jenkins,58 succeeded in rejoining his unit in Tobruk; he came into the perimeter along the coast with two English soldiers on the night of 10th May, almost six weeks later.
The 2/13th Battalion suffered 98 casualties including three officers in this engagement. Five men were killed. The 51st Field Regiment suffered one man killed and 5 (including an officer) injured. One officer was missing.
The thrust towards Er Regima was the only important action undertaken by the German forces that day. While the 5th Light Division remained grounded, the 2nd Armoured Division had another day of misfortune. Efforts were made to take fuel to the 3rd Armoured Brigade near Msus. Colonel Fanshawe set off with a petrol column, met another on the way and took it too, only to be attacked by 18 German fighters and bombers and to lose the entire convoy of 21 vehicles carrying 1,600 gallons of petrol. During the afternoon, the brigade moved some distance to the north-east in the direction of Bir el Melezz. Orders were later received from 2nd Armoured Division headquarters (based apparently on a report of dubious accuracy that there was a strong enemy column between Bir el Melezz and Mechili) cancelling the brigade’s move by the Mechili track; instead the brigade was to strike north to the El Abiar-Maraua track.
The 5th Royal Tanks, now having only nine cruisers, halted for the night 15 miles north-west of Bir el Melezz. To the south-west the 6th Royal Tanks (who had not received the order cancelling the move to Mechili) were reorganising by scrapping the less serviceable of their Italian tanks and keeping the nine most serviceable to form a headquarters and two small troops, while the 3rd Hussars, with two squadrons of the 6th Royal Tanks (now possessing only four light tanks) under command, were undergoing a similar process 14 miles north-east of Msus. Farther south in the desert, “A” Squadron of the Long Range Desert Group had moved south to the Trigh el Abd and along it to Bir Ben Gania; they reported that no enemy were to be seen. In the evening a single German reconnaissance aircraft flew over this column.
It was on this day, 4th April, that the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade commanded by Brigadier Vaughan moved to Mechili. Mechili’s only building was the old Italian fort, a stone and mud structure useless for modern war. Old trenches surrounded it but were silted with sand. The importance of Mechili was that it contained good supplies of water, which would be invaluable to the enemy if he attempted to operate a force across the desert south of the Jebel Achdar.
Vaughan’s brigade consisted of three lightly-armed but fully-mechanised Indian cavalry regiments – the 2nd Royal Lancers (Gardner’s Horse), the 11th (Prince Albert Victor’s Own) Cavalry and the 18th (King Edward VII’s Own) Cavalry. Brigadier Vaughan had been making a reconnaissance of the Barce escarpment on 3rd April when Neame and O’Connor decided to send his brigade to Mechili. Vaughan ordered the brigade (less the 18th Cavalry Regiment, which was to remain at El Adem to guard the airfield) to come forward immediately by night to Tmimi, where he would meet it next day.
The 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment (Lieut-Colonel Munro), less two batteries,59 had been stationed at El Adem with Vaughan’s brigade. Before the decision to withdraw from the Er Regima-Esc Sceleidima escarpment was made, Neame had decided to bring the regiment forward and place it under Morshead’s command. In the afternoon of 3rd April the regiment had begun moving towards Derna; a bivouac was made for the night near Gazala. When Munro arrived at Barce for orders, he was informed that his regiment was now to accompany the Indian brigade to Mechili. Munro met Brigadier Vaughan that evening and arranged to meet the brigade next morning with his regiment at Tmimi.
Air reconnaissance reports had indicated an enemy force in Mechili so Vaughan decided to move from Tmimi in fighting formation. Munro allotted one battery to the command of the 11th Cavalry for the move, one to the command of the 2nd Lancers. One of the battery commanders, Major Nehl,60 afterwards wrote of this move:–
And so the brigade group was ready to move and at the allotted time the signal code was hauled up above the Brigade Major’s vehicle and the group moved off as one vehicle; the sight of a thousand vehicles of all types moving in formation across a fairly level plain was a sight that one could never forget. Down through the years before the war whilst training in the Militia I had worked out exercises and manoeuvres on sand tables and blackboards, but never did I imagine that such a huge force could be controlled as perfectly as was the 3rd Indian Motor Brigade and its attached troops on that morning.61
The brigade left Tmimi airfield at 10 a.m., arriving at Mechili at 3.30 p.m. Here they met Rajendrasinhji’s squadron, also the patrol of the 18th Cavalry Munro had sent out to investigate movement near Msus. Because of wireless breakdowns no messages had been received from either of these squadrons since their departure. They now reported that no enemy had been seen. Another squadron of the 18th Cavalry (commanded by Captain Barlow62) had been sent to the track junction at Gadd el Ahmar, where the track from Mechili to El Adem joins the Trigh el Abd. (Thereafter it sent in a patrol each day to Mechili for supplies.) In the evening, “M” Battery of the 3rd RHA (an anti-tank regiment which had arrived at Derna from Egypt only that morning) came in to Mechili to join the force.
Mechili fort was in a flat, sandy depression sunk in desert that was rough and broken except to the west. An irregular perimeter to conform with the ground, enclosing about 1,200 yards from east to west, and 800 yards from north to south was established around the fort. To the south of the perimeter was a primitive landing ground. The eastern portion of the perimeter was held by the 11th Cavalry in whose area were sited the guns of the 10th Battery. The 2nd Lancers held the western sector, with the guns of the 11th Battery in the north-west.
As soon as Neame learnt of the enemy assault in force against the 2/13th Battalion, he authorised a withdrawal from the lower escarpment. The new orders were issued at 8.30 p.m. The 9th Division was to withdraw to the Barce escarpment, which it was to hold until forced to withdraw by the enemy. The 2nd Armoured Division, other than the units which had accompanied the 3rd Armoured Brigade to Msus, was to retire to Tecnis, some distance farther east. The portion of the 2nd Armoured Division with the 3rd Armoured Brigade (now in the Bir el Melezz region) was to move north to Charruba. These orders were in fact confirmatory of moves which, as we have seen, had already begun to take place in both the 9th Division and the 2nd Armoured Division.
While the 2/13th Battalion had been delaying the German vanguard at Er Regima, all units and sub-units of both divisions located on the plain between the two escarpments had been withdrawn behind the second escarpment. To avoid congesting the 2/13th Battalion’s axis of withdrawal, Brigadier Latham sent part of the Support Group (including his headquarters and the 1st RHA) back by a country track to near Ghedir esc Sciomar, where they deployed just before dawn. Nevertheless, the diarist of the 2/17th Battalion commented:
The road is choked with military vehicles of all kinds which hurry ceaselessly along through the night. The dust is almost unbearable and the sense of general confusion on the road terrific.
One of the last units to receive the withdrawal orders was the 2/24th Battalion, which had been holding the northern passes on the lower escarpment while the 2/13th held that at Er Regima. There were three passes on this flank, but only one was now blocked by the 2/24th. Early on the morning of the 4th, “A” Company had been withdrawn from the most northerly and “C” Company from the central pass, leaving only the main pass at Tocra guarded by Captain Andersen’s63 “B” Company. “A” and “C” Companies concentrated at Baracca, where the 370th Battery (51st Field Regiment) came in to support them. Here they waited until, at 5 p.m., an English transport company arrived to “move the battalion to another area”. Major Tasker, however, had received no orders to withdraw and requested the transport officer to stand by. The latter refused because he was due to report again at El Abiar at 9 p.m.: probably his was the convoy required to move the 2/13th Battalion. So the column moved off with vehicles empty. Shortly afterwards two armoured vehicles were seen to be approaching Tocra pass. The pass demolitions were then blown and the battalion, except for rearguards, was concentrated at Baracca.
The withdrawal orders reached the battalion just before 11 p.m. The rearguards were then withdrawn and the battalion assembled to await the arrival of the additional transport needed to move it complete with stores. Major Gehrmann64 of the 2/13th Field Company pressed Tasker
to withdraw at once to permit time for the blowing of the bridge between Baracca and Barce. Eventually, at 3.15 a.m., with less than three hours of darkness remaining, Tasker complied. He ordered the destruction of blankets and surplus gear, crowded the men on to the few vehicles available and moved off, whereupon Gehrmann’s sappers carried out some very effective demolitions. At Barce the battalion met 20 trucks sent to meet them by Tovell’s headquarters; the journey was continued in greater comfort. Tasker’s destination was the Wadi Cuff; but before dawn he halted the convoy to bivouac beside the road.
Meanwhile Morshead had organised the defence of the second escarpment. The 2/48th Battalion less one of its own companies still in Derna, but with Captain Spier’s and Captain Rattray’s65 companies of the 2/23rd under command and Major Ingledew’s battery of the 51st Field Regiment in support, had moved back during the night and taken up a position guarding the pass at Maddalena by which the northern road from the Barce plain mounts the escarpment, and also a smaller track to the northwest. The southern pass, to the east of Barce, was held by the 2/15th Battalion; about three miles behind, the 2/17th deployed into a defensive position at first light on the 5th. To give depth to the defence, it was planned that the 2/24th and 2/13th Battalions should move, after their men had been rested, into positions behind the 2/48th and 2/15th; the 2/24th Battalion to the Wadi Cuff (where demolitions were being prepared to destroy a road the 2/1st Pioneer Battalion had just laboriously constructed to replace the demolished Italian road); the 2/13th to a position astride the southern road near Slonta, south of the Wadi Cuff. The 104th RHA, which had so far been with the Support Group, had just been placed under Morshead’s command. Having now two field regiments, Morshead allotted one to each brigade: the 104th to the 26th Brigade, and the 51st to the 20th. The 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps again came under Morshead’s command; its task would be to watch and safeguard his left flank.
On the evening of 4th April Neame and O’Connor had received information from Middle East Command that reinforcements were being dispatched: these included portion of the 11 th Hussars, with 32 armoured cars, the 1st Royal Tanks with 33 tanks, the 18th Australian Infantry Brigade, and the 107th Royal Horse Artillery.
On the morning of the 5th Neame left command headquarters to visit the forward formations while O’Connor went to the Wadi Cuff to superintend the occupation of the position there. Before his departure O’Connor sent Wavell a message commending General Neame’s conduct of operations and recommending that Brigadier W. H. E. Gott, who had commanded the 7th Armoured Division’s Support Group in the first offensive, should be sent forward to command a Support Group now being formed from 7th Armoured Division units.
Meanwhile Neame had met Morshead on the track between D’Annunzio and Tecnis about 11 a.m. Neame told Morshead, who had been left under the impression that O’Connor was in command, that O’Connor had declined the command because he thought the proposal to replace Neame at the onset of operations was unfair. Neame, Morshead was informed, would continue as commander while O’Connor would perform liaison work with subordinate formations. Morshead asked for an assurance that any orders given by General O’Connor would carry the authority of the commander-in-chief.66
At this meeting Neame endorsed Morshead’s plan to move the 2/24th and 2/13th to the Wadi Cuff-Slonta position. Orders to this effect were accordingly given. The 2/24th went into position at 2 p.m., the 2/13th three hours later. O’Connor met the 2/24th as they were about to occupy the position originally selected for them near the western entrance to the gorge and directed them instead to another blocking the eastern exit.
Nothing of moment occurred in the morning. In the afternoon the 3rd Armoured Brigade, still dangerously short of fuel, travelled north and reached the El Abiar–Charruba track (whereupon the Tower Hamlets rejoined the Support Group) while Gambier-Parry’s headquarters moved to a position farther east. The two squadrons of the King’s Dragoon Guards that had been operating near Msus followed the armoured brigade northwards. Meanwhile Gambier-Parry sent a message to the Mechili garrison asking for the dispatch from there of “M” Battery of the 3rd RHA to give his headquarters anti-tank protection while moving to Mechili. The German Air Force heavily attacked the armoured division this day and destroyed a subsidiary supply dump between Maraua and Msus, adding to its supply difficulties.
Command headquarters’ main problem was to ascertain what action the enemy was taking. The RAF reported much enemy movement on the coastal plain and on the two tracks leading across the Jebel Achdar from Benghazi. Some confusing reports in the early afternoon and information that the armoured brigade was in a still more weakened state and short of fuel caused Morshead great concern. He left his headquarters to visit the 2/13th Battalion, then moving into the Slonta area – an idyllic place in a pine forest – and commended them for their stand at Er Regima. When he returned he called in at the forward command post of Cyrenaica Command at Maraua and learned that the latest reports from the air were of a large enemy column moving eastwards from Msus.
Early on the morning of 4th April, the day on which Rommel had grounded the main force of the 5th Light Division, a detachment of the Brescia Division was sent forward to Benghazi to relieve the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit there, while other advanced units of the main Axis force began moving across the desert south of the Jebel Achdar. It is evident from the orders given that morning that Rommel, after his brush with Gariboldi, had determined to attempt the recapture of the whole of
Cyrenaica by striking with his main force across the desert towards the British rear. The Fabris unit, a motor-cycle company with motorised artillery which had set out the previous day along the Trigh el Abd, was ordered to press on to Ben Gania – and thence to Mechili – as advanced guard of the Ariete Division, which was to follow as soon as possible by the same route. Another, stronger force was to follow by the same route as far as Ben Gania, but then to cut through to the coast at Tmimi with Tobruk as its ultimate destination. This force, which was to be the advanced guard of the main body of the 5th Light Division, was placed under the command of Lieut-Colonel von Schwerin, who was already on the Trigh el Abd with an Italian battalion and a small German force originally intended to capture Gialo oasis. The headquarters of the 5th Light Division with a machine-gun battalion, an anti-tank company and a squadron of tanks was ordered to follow behind the Schwerin Group.
At midday Rommel drove to Benghazi. There he gave orders to the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit to make for Mechili by the route through Er Regima as soon as its relief by the Brescia detachment had been completed. It set off early in the afternoon but encountered opposition, as we have seen, at the Er Regima pass. Later it reported that it had been unable to break the British resistance until next morning and that its tank squadron had suffered such severe casualties in the minefield that it was unable to proceed.
The Italian General Staff had advised Rommel against using the route from Agedabia to the Trigh el Abd; but Rommel preferred to base his decision on his own observation of the day before. By nightfall, the 5th Light Division was convinced that the Italians were right; it had suffered severe vehicle casualties, outrun its supplies, and covered only about two-fifths of the distance to Ben Gania. The Schwerin Group with the advantage of a day’s start was close to Ben Gania but had also outrun supplies and was immobilised. Rommel himself flew above the advancing columns. He thought he could identify the foremost about 12 miles east of Ben Gania (but this was probably Mitford’s squadron of the Long Range Desert Group).
In the early morning of the 5th, Rommel ordered his headquarters protection unit on the road to Ben Gania. Two more detachments of the Ariete Division were ordered to follow the Fabris unit. At midday, after having made a further reconnaissance of the columns on the march, he ordered a strong force of tanks, including the 5th Armoured Regiment, less one squadron, and part of the Ariete Division (40 Italian tanks), with supporting field and anti-tank artillery, to advance on Msus by the southern route from Antelat while the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion simultaneously approached from the west by the road from Soluch through Esc Sceleidima. The whole force was placed under the command of Colonel Olbrich. The departure of these columns was reported, as mentioned, to Neame and O’Connor by the RAF.
On hearing that enemy columns had passed Msus and were advancing east, skirting the Jebel Achdar, Neame decided to withdraw immediately
to the line of the Wadi Derna. He realised that the 3rd Armoured Brigade was in no state to intervene effectively (only nine cruiser tanks remained) and that his entire force was therefore in imminent peril of encirclement. Morshead received oral orders to this effect while at Cyrenaica Command, returned immediately to his own headquarters, and there, since line communication was unreliable, dictated orders to liaison officers requiring an immediate move to be made that night to the Wadi Derna region. As the liaison officers were about to set out, Brigadier A. F. Harding telephoned from Cyrenaica Command to inform Morshead that there was considerable doubt of the accuracy of the air reports and that it was thought from reports of the 1/KRRC (which had recently reverted to the command of the armoured division) that the movement seen was our own armoured brigade. Morshead was instructed to hold his present positions, but to be prepared to withdraw at any moment.
Later Harding telephoned a second time and ordered the withdrawal to proceed. Liaison officers set out to units, food and petrol dumps were fired and very soon unit columns were setting out along the roads. Just at this moment, Command headquarters telephoned once more to order that the move be stopped and the positions on the Barce escarpment be reoccupied. With some difficulty the columns were halted and turned round on the narrow roads. Major Barham, who had been on the move almost continuously for 48 hours, was met on the road by Lloyd and sent to stop the destruction of supply and petrol dumps near Tecnis. Fortunately Barham met Burrows and Crawford on the way just as their battalions were moving out, and told them of the withdrawal’s cancellation before the orders reached them by the normal channel of command. Such frequent changes in orders sapped confidence.
It was the 1 /KRRC that had contradicted the false rumour concerning enemy occupation of Msus. This battalion – later described by Morshead as “well disciplined, well commanded, well trained; a first-class unit” – was patrolling in the area south of Tecnis and Maraua. They had heard with amazement that the enemy were supposed to be in that region and were quick to report that the information was false. The 9th Division’s withdrawal had then been temporarily deferred. Not satisfied with this, they sent their forward company commander, Lieutenant Hornsby,67 to Cyrenaica Command headquarters, and it was on the basis of his unequivocal reports that the 9th Division’s withdrawal, which had again been set in motion, was finally reversed. Meanwhile “A” and “C” Squadrons of the King’s Dragoon Guards, who had been patrolling in the Msus region but had found difficulty in maintaining wireless communication, had come north with the 3rd Armoured Brigade and rejoined their regimental headquarters 20 miles south of Maraua. They too confirmed that no enemy had been seen near Msus.
The enemy had not in fact reached Msus that evening but at the end of the day the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, advancing from the west, was not far away. It planned to link up early next morning in Msus with
Olbrich’s main tank force coming up from the south. Meanwhile Rommel had also received erroneous reports from air reconnaissance. In the afternoon of the 5th he had flown to Ben Gania, where he was informed that reconnaissance aircraft had seen no British at Mechili. Rommel signalled Schwerin’s force (which, as mentioned, had been directed to make for Tmimi on the coast) : “Mechili clear of enemy. Make for it. Drive fast. Rommel.”68 He now planned to dispatch a force to Mechili by air, but later air reconnaissance reports that a British force was there caused him to cancel the project.
By the end of the day, Schwerin’s advanced party had reached Tengeder, with units of the Africa Corps strung out at wide intervals along the Trigh el Abd. That night Rommel and his staff drove forward along this track with headlights blazing. A bombing attack by British aircraft was the condign reward for this rashness; afterwards the journey was continued with lights extinguished.
At Mechili on the morning of the 5th Brigadier Vaughan and Lieut-Colonel Munro, while on reconnaissance, came under fire from an enemy party on some high ground outside the defence line. The Indians quickly dispersed the enemy, whose presence at Mechili does not appear to be recorded in German documents unless they were members of a small party whom Rommel had sent to mine the tracks to the east.
The day was spent in improving defences. In the afternoon a German Storch aircraft flew over (in which was Lieutenant Schulz, Rommel’s ADC, making a reconnaissance). The message from the 2nd Armoured Division asking for Major R. A. Eden’s “M” Battery to be sent forward was received but its authenticity doubted. Vaughan asked that the message be repeated, mentioning Eden’s nickname for identification. A reply was not received that day. One 25-pounder gun of the 104th RHA arrived – the fort’s only artillery. In the evening patrols reported dust in the direction of Tengeder; the brigade’s field squadron, which had been at Tengeder, came in and reported having had a brush with an enemy party. During the night there were many reports of activity outside the perimeter.
Towards dawn on the 6th several Very lights were fired from the direction of the landing field south of the fort. Just on daylight two aircraft landed there. Vaughan sent a troop of the 2nd Lancers to investigate, but the aircraft made off. The troop then noticed an enemy column approaching from the south. Other patrols sent out at the same time returned with prisoners. After 9 a.m. two light field guns began shelling the fort. Another gun soon afterwards opened fire from the north-east but was driven off by a patrol of the 11th (Prince Albert Victor’s Own) Cavalry.
About 11 a.m. two lorries filled with infantry made a charge at the eastern sector held by the PAVO, coming straight up the road towards an anti-tank gun of the 11th Battery, 2/3rd Anti-Tank Regiment manned by Bombardier Rayner69 and a crew of four. Fire from the Australians’ gun stopped both trucks and enemy troops jumped out to take cover. Major Glover70 and Lieutenant Mulgrue71 went out in a breakdown truck, and a German officer and 20 Italian soldiers surrendered. Their equipment included a 47-mm gun.
Mitford’s squadron of the Long Range Desert Group, which had spent the night some miles to the south-west of Mechili, now arrived on the outskirts of the fort. Mitford came in with a party to fetch petrol and reported to Vaughan, who arranged that he should operate from outside the perimeter. Mitford split his force into two parties. One of these, which Mitford himself commanded, soon captured the Italian officer in charge of the two guns shelling the fort, which then stopped firing. Meanwhile confirmation of the orders to “M” Battery had been received. Since the enemy had not yet closed in on the west, the battery set forth to meet the armoured division, escorted by a troop of the Lancers and taking with it the solitary 25-pounder of the 104th RHA
The two aircraft which took off from Mechili airfield after having evaded the patrol of the 2nd Lancers flew south for about 15 miles to the head of Schwerin’s column, with which Rommel’s column had caught up during the night. Here they put down their passengers – a party which had been laying mines near Mechili. From the officer-in-charge Rommel
received a first-hand report of the presence of a substantial British force. His reaction was characteristic. “There was now no time to lose,” he wrote afterwards, “otherwise the bird would be flown. As we were still 12 miles from Mechili, I instructed Lieutenant Behrend to push forward at top speed to the Mechili–Derna track and close it at a suitable point. Lieut-Colonel Ponath, of whose force72 there were unfortunately only 15 vehicles with us, was dispatched to Derna, where he was to close the Via Balbia (the main road) in both directions.” Ponath noted the incident laconically in his own diary.73 “Rommel bellows and chases us forward out of touch with the battalion across stony desert. Only 10 vehicles with us. With these against the rear of the enemy at Derna.”
Rommel now directed that all forces should be concentrated against Mechili. When a message to this effect was received at Africa Corps headquarters, the operations officer, who had deduced from the presence of shipping in Tobruk Harbour that the British intended to evacuate by sea, noted in the war diary: “Tobruk would, however, have been a desirable target, in order to block the coast road and prevent embarkation; screening operations only at Mechili.”
Rommel planned to attack Mechili at 3 p.m. that day.
The 6th of April was a day of important events and decisions. The invasion of Greece in the morning by German troops marked the beginning of a new campaign, while the appearance of Rommel’s forces before Mechili caused the British command to abandon the entire Cyrenaican peninsula. That evening Wavell and the other commanders-in-chief in Cairo decided that an attempt would be made to hold Tobruk.
At first light on 6th April the King’s Dragoon Guards sent a patrol back to Msus to investigate the accuracy of the reports that had caused so many changes of orders. The patrol found a large enemy force moving east from Msus and stayed in the vicinity, reporting direct to regimental headquarters, until discovered and forced to withdraw. But communications through the 2nd Armoured Division had been for days in a state of chronic breakdown. Neither the King’s Dragoon Guards’ reports, nor those of the RAF, who had been bombing enemy columns on the Trigh el Abd during the night, could have reached Neame before he set off that morning to visit Morshead and Gambier-Parry. Neame was in a confident frame of mind when he arrived at Morshead’s headquarters at Tecnis. He told Morshead that the previous day’s reports had been misleading and that it was now his intention to undertake a protracted defence of the Barce escarpment, combined with offensive patrols on to the Barce plain, and he instructed that the 2/24th and 2/13th Battalions should be brought forward from the Wadi Cuff–Slonta positions, where they had been preparing a second line of defence. Neame then left Morshead’s headquarters to go in search of Gambier-Parry.
Morshead immediately dictated orders to his liaison officers in accordance with these instructions. Just when this had been completed, and not
more than half an hour after Neame’s departure, O’Connor telephoned from command headquarters that the enemy had shelled Mechili that morning and was advancing across the desert in strength: the 9th Division was therefore to be prepared to move back to the Wadi Derna. Morshead urged that the division should go back forthwith to the Gazala area, where the withdrawal routes could be less easily blocked, but O’Connor was reluctant to agree in Neame’s absence. O’Connor was in an awkward situation. The command arrangements actually operating were the converse of those Neame had outlined to Morshead: O’Connor was at the command centre, Neame performing liaison duties – with unsatisfactory results.
Meanwhile the 2nd Armoured Division was in an unhappy state. Rimington had gone from his headquarters in search of Gambier-Parry. An order was issued to units to treat any vehicles to the west as enemy. A troop of the 5th Royal Tanks heard the order and, scouting to the south-west, fired on the 6th Royal Tanks’ only remaining squadron where it had halted the night before, having experienced trouble from overheating of engines in the heavy uphill going. The regiment’s commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel Harland,74 had gone forward to brigade headquarters and was still there. About 10 a.m. brigade headquarters were told that enemy columns were approaching from the direction of Msus and that the armoured brigade was to withdraw east. Harland then sent one of his officers to bring up the squadron of the 6th, while the 5th Tanks waited to cover their withdrawal. But the squadron did not appear, and about 11.30 a.m. the 5th Tanks moved off. Eventually the officer returned and reported to Harland that the squadron was not to be found.
It is not easy to make sense of the accounts of 2nd Armoured Division’s movements for the rest of 6th April. Reports emanating from the various command levels are irreconcilable. What is certain is that in the late morning the whole of the armoured division was moving eastwards in the direction of Mechili but in the early afternoon both the Support Group and the armoured brigade turned north towards Maraua and Derna while the divisional headquarters continued the journey alone.
About 10.45 a.m. Cyrenaica Command received a report from Mechili that a light German thrust of less than battalion strength had been repulsed. This information was passed to the 2nd Armoured Division, which issued orders for all its units to move to Mechili forthwith. Divisional headquarters itself then set off for Mechili. So neither Rimington, nor Neame – freshly planning in his mind a prolonged defence – succeeded in seeing Gambier-Parry that morning. Divisional headquarters’ orders were passed to the 3rd Armoured Brigade by the Support Group. By 11.30 a.m. the 5th Royal Tank Regiment was withdrawing east in conformation.
When O’Connor received the reports of the enemy advance on Mechili, he went to the Derna landing ground to obtain first-hand information from the pilots who had been out that morning, a prudent course after recent experiences. He learnt of three enemy columns moving eastwards, one
from Msus, one from Agedabia and one in the far south towards Gialo. Within a short time another report from Acroma, near Tobruk, indicated that at least some enemy bodies had gone far beyond Mechili. An enemy patrol had attacked a Royal Air Force post at Acroma. A squadron of the 18th Cavalry, then at El Adem, had come to the assistance of the RAF, driven off the patrol, and captured 18 Italian prisoners, who had stated that more troops were on the way.
O’Connor returned to his headquarters and sent out orders in the early afternoon (according to the Cyrenaica Command war diary) to the 2nd Armoured Division that it was to move immediately to Mechili with the Support Group, and that the 3rd Armoured Brigade should move in the same direction more slowly; he then informed Middle East headquarters that this might involve withdrawing the 9th Division to the Derna line.
About 1 p.m. the Support Group headquarters, with the 1st RHA and the Tower Hamlets Rifles, had halted near Tecasis when orders were received by radio to withdraw by the main coast road instead of by Mechili, because enemy forces were near. Brigadier Latham and his staff were convinced that the voice giving the orders was that of Gambier-Parry’s senior staff officer, Colonel G. E. Younghusband. Younghusband was captured at Mechili. His immediate subordinate (General Staff Officer, Grade 2) who was not captured stated in a report written soon afterwards that the headquarters of the armoured division ordered the 3rd Armoured Brigade to follow it to Mechili but Cyrenaica Command ordered the Support Group to withdraw north to Maraua. Whatever the explanation the fact is that the Support Group set off for Maraua, and the armoured brigade headquarters took the instructions to withdraw by that route as applying also to itself, for it passed orders to its tank units to retire to the El Abiar-Maraua track “as enemy columns were thought to be close to the south-west”.75 But Gambier-Parry and his headquarters continued to expect the brigade to follow them to Mechili; so did the Germans. The operations officer of the Africa Corps noted in the war diary that there were indications that the tanks which had been at Msus would “put in an appearance at Mechili on the morning of the 7th”. Meanwhile O’Connor had ordered the 3rd Indian Brigade to send out a petrol convoy from Mechili to meet the 2nd Armoured Division.
On the way north Latham encountered Neame, who instructed that the Support Group was to take over the outpost line from the 1/KRRC Meanwhile Brigadier Rimington, who had spent much of the day unsuccessfully trying to see Gambier-Parry, had received orders from O’Connor that the armoured brigade was to proceed to Mechili by the Got Dreua track.
O’Connor had again discussed the situation with Morshead and, though reluctant to permit any move in daylight, had now agreed with Morshead’s suggestion that the 9th Division be withdrawn immediately to the Gazala area. Since the armoured division was not available for flank support, it
was decided to send ahead the 2/13th Battalion to Martuba and the 2/48th Battalion to Tmimi to hold these two key points on the withdrawal route. The rest of the division would withdraw through them, while the 1/KRRC, once more transferred to Morshead’s command, would provide rearguards for the engineers carrying out the demolition of bridges and defiles and the destruction of supply dumps.
With widely dispersed units, poor communications and a paucity of vehicles, it was no easy matter to organise the movement of all units of the division at short notice, carry out all the demolitions, and yet ensure that no unit was left without transport or cut off. To muster sufficient transport required much improvisation. Urgency precluded arranging a time-table; in the circumstances some mixing of units was inevitable. The division was to withdraw by the two parallel roads across the Cyrenaican massif. These converge about six miles west of Giovanni Berta; from the junction a single road proceeds to Giovanni Berta, where it turns north to Derna. But Morshead feared that the two tortuous passes by which the main road descended to Derna and climbed the escarpment again beyond the town might prove a dangerous bottleneck. Brigadier Kisch, who happened to be at 9th Division headquarters when authority to withdraw was received, suggested to Morshead that the division should proceed from Giovanni Berta to Martuba by the inland track which had been improved during the British advance earlier in the year. Morshead decided to send the division by this route.
The withdrawal orders were sent out to units at approximately 4 p.m. and by 5 p.m. the first columns were on the road. Just as the orders reached the forward units, the enemy made his first attempt to probe the defence on the Barce escarpment. At 4.15 p.m., at the pass east of Barce, Captain Peek’s76 company of the 2/15th Battalion shot up an enemy reconnaissance patrol attempting to drive up the pass; every member of the party was killed. About 5 p.m., at the northern pass lorried infantry escorted by a light tank and armoured cars drove across the right flank of the 2/48th Battalion, just after the commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel Windeyer,77 had given out orders to withdraw. The enemy dismounted and opened fire. It appeared that the disengagement might become a difficult rearguard action; but good firing by the machine-gunners of the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers deterred the enemy from pressing the assault home and enabled the infantry to withdraw without casualties. The Fusiliers were less fortunate: one man was killed and two wounded. The author of a narrative of the 2/48th Battalion’s experiences commented:
The troops started out tired and unshaven and unwashed. They seemed to be abandoning an ideal position for a stand and running away once more – contrary to everyone’s wish to “have a go” at the enemy. They piled into overcrowded vehicles amid rifles, Bren guns and gear and equipment where no position offered comfort yet no move was possible. The sleep they needed was unattainable. Some
strange conveyances were used, too. A number of men travelled a great part of the journey on an Italian table-top lorry which was hitched behind a truck and towed along.
About 5 p.m. command headquarters heard from the Mechili garrison that the enemy force surrounding them was growing larger. An attack was expected next day; Vaughan asked for assistance.
The investment of Mechili was not yet in fact sufficiently close to prevent parties from operating outside the defence perimeter and PAVO patrols brought in several prisoners during the day. The road was closed to the east, but not to the west. A patrol from the squadron at Gadd el Ahmar, which had come in for replenishments, found the way blocked when it attempted to return. On the other hand, in response to Cyrenaica Command’s request, a petrol convoy was successfully dispatched, under escort of a troop of the 2nd Lancers, on the route by which the 2nd Armoured Division was expected.
Towards the end of the day a German officer came in with a flag of truce to demand the garrison’s surrender. He was brought before Brigadier Vaughan without being blindfolded; but the brigadier sent him back blindfolded by a different route with, of course, a categorical refusal.78
For Rommel, 6th April had been a frustrating day. His main forces had made disappointing progress and could not be mustered at Mechili in sufficient strength to attack. Some units were halted for want of fuel, others by mechanical difficulties caused by the excessive heat; others again had received no rations for four days. Many were lost or out of touch. But the Fabris unit reached Mechili in the evening and was placed in position to the east. Rommel planned to attack at 7 a.m. next day.
After receiving General O’Connor’s orders, Brigadier Rimington returned at once to his brigade at the old fort south-east of Tecnis and called a conference of his commanders, at which “owing to the present shortage of petrol and the difficult nature of the country”79 it was decided to move back into Derna via Maraua and then to proceed to Mechili by a track that left the main road four miles east of Derna. Rimington had some reason for lack of confidence in the command; some reason to doubt whether any of his tanks would reach Mechili if he took the more direct route. But if his decision to act independently had the virtue of husbanding what was left of the armour, it had the vices of delaying the arrival of reinforcements at Mechili and deranging the withdrawal plan for the rest of the force. It meant that his brigade’s axis of withdrawal would merge with, and then cross, the withdrawal route Morshead had chosen (without Rimington’s knowledge) for the 9th Division.
The armoured brigade began to move soon after 5 p.m. Rimington and Fanshawe went forward to arrange fuel replenishments and sent an
officer to command headquarters to report the decision, which caused some consternation there. Soon afterwards Morshead arrived, having seen his columns on the road. Neame, recently returned, told Morshead that “3rd Armoured Brigade was in fact moving on Maraua and urgently needed petrol”.80 This was likely to disorganise the Australian withdrawal, but there was nothing Morshead could do.
When about 5 p.m. Lieut-Colonel Burrows received orders to take his battalion immediately to Martuba, he left at once with his adjutant, Captain Kelly,81 to reconnoitre the area and ordered the battalion to follow; it was on the road 20 minutes later. “What we were not told,” he wrote afterwards, “was that the enemy might be there before us.” Burrows and Kelly arrived at Martuba about 8.30 p.m., having travelled by the better road through Derna, where they had “found everybody in panic. They just dropped everything and cleared for their lives, with motor vehicles going everywhere.”82 Burrows learnt that an enemy column had cut the inland track from Giovanni Berta to Martuba where it was intersected by the track coming up from Mechili and the south. Another enemy group was leaguering three miles south of Martuba. He went to Cyrenaica Command headquarters to report these developments.
The 2/13th reached Martuba soon afterwards and deployed defensively in the dark. The ground was hard and open and the men, dispirited and exhausted, built themselves shelters of stones. The German party that had cut the road had apparently moved on, for the battalion had not encountered it; but the other party to the south of Martuba remained.
In the absence of traffic control, units travelling on the overloaded southern road became intermingled when vehicles from the side tracks joined the main traffic stream. Most unit convoys, except the first away, became split up. At the junction of the two roads and at the refuelling points at Maraua and Giovanni Berta confusion grew worse. At Giovanni Berta most of the Australian vehicles left the bitumen road to take the desert track. The heavy pounding by hundreds upon hundreds of wheels broke down the road surface to an uneven stony bottom, over which, head to tail, and at times three vehicles abreast, the long line of transport crawled through a pall of dust at a speed of about six miles an hour, halting repeatedly as one vehicle after another broke down or was compelled to pause by overheating.
The Support Group came into the southern road from Tecasis; the 3rd Armoured Brigade and King’s Dragoon Guards came in from the El Abiar-Maraua track (the 5th Royal Tanks with a strength of only seven cruisers, the 3rd Hussars with only six light tanks) and halted awhile off the road as Australian units passed. Meanwhile the unfortunate squadron of the 6th Royal Tanks, who had not seen the officer sent by Harland that morning, and whose wireless link had broken down, was slowly
climbing up to the abandoned plateau, nursing its few remaining tanks, and travelling too slowly to reach the main road that night.
The last Australian battalion to move was the 2/24th. The staff of Morshead’s headquarters experienced great difficulty in mustering transport to lift it. Major Dodds went for help to the 2/17th, where Lieut-Colonel Crawford told him that he had already made five lorries available to move other forward units. Nevertheless Crawford unloaded his blankets and reserve rations to provide six trucks. Eventually, at 9.30 p.m., Dodds arrived at the 2/24th with 14 vehicles (most of the rest had been provided by the engineers). Major Tasker managed to get his men aboard these and a few unit vehicles. He set off about 9.45 p.m. Near Cyrene, about 11 p.m., Major Barham met the battalion with two more trucks. The convoy became irretrievably broken up after passing the road junction west of Giovanni Berta, where the two withdrawal axes merged; further separation occurred at Giovanni Berta. The battalion arrived at its destination, Tmimi, in small separate groups about two hours after sunrise next morning.
Although the crossroads at the intersection of the Giovanni Berta–Martuba and Mechili–Derna tracks had earlier been blocked by an enemy column, later traffic passed along the east-west desert track without interference. The enemy column was undoubtedly Ponath’s group. It would appear that Ponath did not linger at the crossroads because his orders were to close the main coast road at Derna and his forces were too small to close both routes; his group proceeded on towards Derna, near which, according to his diary, a disturbed night was spent in some caves, known as the “Rocknest”, close to where the main road issued on to the plateau after climbing the escarpment east of Derna. An ambush was established on the north-south track, probably more with the object of protecting the resting column at the Rocknest than of collecting prisoners.
The 9th Division’s provost section, which had at last arrived in the forward area, was ordered to establish traffic points at Giovanni Berta and on the inland track. The traffic control at these crossroads, however, appears to have operated very strangely. Afterwards the belief was almost universally held in the 9th Division that the Germans had captured an English provost at this point, donned his uniform and then misdirected the traffic towards the German ambush; but there is no reliable evidence that this occurred. (Similar unfounded stories circulated through France after the first German offensive.) Major Fell,83 on liaison duties for divisional headquarters, took the inland road from Maraua just before 9 p.m. and found the traffic control very bad and all units thoroughly mixed up. His diary records his arrival at the crossroads:–
Eventually got to Derna X roads. Saw traffic in front take left turn – no police on turn. Got out and looked at sign board – straight ahead to Martuba so feeling a bit bothered got in and went straight on. ... No other traffic. Passed one police half asleep but found oasis Martuba.
Morshead bade farewell to Neame and O’Connor at Maraua about 8 p.m. and, travelling by the main coast road, passed through Derna just as the Germans were arriving. Neame, O’Connor and Combe departed soon afterwards, taking the inland track. At the Derna-Mechili crossroads, following a line of vehicles in front, their car turned left. The column – possibly the very one seen by Major Fell – ran into the German ambush. The generals were captured.84
Later during the night a small group of trucks in charge of Lieutenant L. K. Shave came down the same road, bearing members of the Intelligence, operations and cipher sections of the 9th Division. They came to a halt behind other vehicles. The occupants at the back of the cipher section van, which contained ciphers and other secret documents, found themselves facing a German with a sub-machine-gun, who ordered them from the vehicle. Shave, in the front seat, heard the guttural voice, got out of the truck on the opposite side, went round to the back of the vehicle and shot the German soldier, saying “Take that you ...”. The men returned and the trucks drove off without interference.
Major Risson85 and Lieutenant Moulds86 with a section of the 2/7th Field Company and some vehicles of the 2/3rd Field Company were travelling along the inland track in the early hours of the morning. At the crossroads, where the traffic was still undirected, they also turned left and took the track to Derna. After travelling about six miles, they came up to a deserted convoy, which included staff cars (probably those in which Neame’s party had been travelling). They attempted to bypass it, but were halted by fire from in front. Risson decided to wait until dawn to see whether the rescue of any men taken prisoner could be attempted. About 6.45 a.m., before it was fully light, the Australians came under heavy fire; several vehicles were lost and many men wounded. The party managed to get away in four trucks and proceeded to Martuba, where the 2/13th Battalion’s medical officer treated their wounded.
About 5 a.m. Corporal Dunn87 of the 2/7th Field Company had arrived with his subsection at the halted tail of Risson’s convoy. Firing opened up just after his arrival. Dunn organised a getaway of about 30 men in the rearmost trucks. The party got back to the crossroads, where Dunn arranged with an officer to prevent other traffic from using the northern track and then went on towards Martuba. Dunn soon came across the 2/15th Battalion, to which he reported the enemy ambush.
That several groups had chosen the wrong road in the darkness is not surprising. No maps had been issued to unit commanders; there were none available. One commanding officer guided his battalion using a rough map in a press cutting his wife had sent to him from Australia.
When command headquarters heard of the cutting of the inland track by the enemy, orders were sent to the traffic control points at Giovanni Berta to divert all traffic by the main road through Derna. Most unit convoys had already been split up before this was put into effect. The result was that parts of units proceeded by the one route, parts by the other. Most of the 2/48th Battalion, going to Tmimi, travelled by the inland track, but the tail of their column, including parts of “B” and “C” Companies, was directed through Derna. The 2/15th Battalion suffered similarly, the head of the column, including battalion headquarters, the headquarters company and part of “B” Echelon proceeding by the inland track, the rest following through Derna. The battalion headquarters’ convoy of the 2/15th halted by the roadside between the Derna crossroads and Martuba just after dawn to wait for the rest of the battalion and re-form the convoy. The commanding officer, Lieut-Colonel Marlan, who had stayed at the old position until the last of his companies had departed, was to join them there about half an hour later.
While all this traffic was moving eastwards, important demolition work was being done behind the withdrawing units by both British and Australian engineers, under the efficient direction of Brigadier Kisch, and with the reliable protection of the 1/KRRC None had worked more continuously in the last few days than the engineers, many of whom had had practically no sleep since 3rd April. It was at first arranged that the Australian engineers should fire all demolitions, but when it later became apparent that they would be unable to complete the task, Kisch arranged for much of the rearward demolition to be undertaken by the 295th and 552nd Companies, RE, under the direction of Lieut-Colonel Boddington.88 Water points, pumping plants, and abandoned tanks and armoured cars were destroyed, dumps demolished, bridges blown, roads cratered; all carefully timed to avoid cutting off portions of the retiring force. Firing parties (including Lieut-Colonel Mann,89 Morshead’s chief engineer officer, with some of his staff, and Major Gehrmann with some of his staff) took over each demolition in turn from others who had prepared them.
Lieutenant Roach’s90 section of the 2/3rd Field Company had prepared extensive demolitions in the ammunition dump at Ain Mara, west of Derna, the largest in Libya. They handed them over to Boddington soon after 11 p.m. Later in the night, Roach and his men ran into the German ambush and were captured, with the exception of one man, Sapper Ryan.91 Sergeant Greasley92 of Lieutenant Faine’s93 section of the 2/7th Field Company blew the pass east of Barce and the bridge. Notwithstanding that
the enemy had earlier approached, he and his men reconnoitred the damage done, re-mined the foot of the pass and then the pass itself. Later, four sappers of this section were also ambushed.
Meanwhile Gehrmann’s company was busy on the northern route. At midnight the Tocra pass was blown, two large craters being formed across the road. Extensive demolitions were then effected in the Wadi Cuff. At 2 a.m. more demolitions were carried out at Cyrene and Apollonia (from which the Australians evacuated an English engineer unit that had not heard of the withdrawal order). Between 4 a.m. and 4.30 a.m. further demolitions were effected along the road in rear of Apollonia. In the forenoon the work of destruction continued: at 9.30 a.m. a bridge west of Giovanni Berta; between 10 and 10.30 a.m., after the last troops of the 2nd Armoured Division had passed through, dumps of mines and explosives near Giovanni Berta;94 between 11.30 and midday, the ammunition dump at Ain Mara and a bridge nearby.
With the exception of some water points near Maraua, nothing in the demolition program was missed. Germans who later advanced by this route reported that at every turn obstacles and mines were encountered.
Cyrenaica Command headquarters arrived at Tmimi soon after midnight on 6th April but moved on again to Gazala when it was learned that the enemy was in the vicinity. About 4 a.m. Morshead arrived at the Tmimi roadhouse to find Brigadier Harding there, very worried because Neame and O’Connor had not arrived. As time passed, Morshead and Harding concluded that the two generals must have been intercepted and were probably captured, and that they must themselves determine the immediate action to be taken. They decided to organise the next line of resistance at Gazala, where the escarpment defining the northern edge of the Libyan plateau rises from the desert and to order the force at Mechili to withdraw immediately to El Adem; but the message conveying that order appears to have been addressed only to the 2nd Armoured Division and 3rd Armoured Brigade and does not appear to have been received by the Mechili garrison. Harding’s and Morshead’s headquarters and the reconnaissance wing of the RAF were withdrawn to Gazala.
At dawn on 7th April, the road that descends the pass into Derna and climbs the tortuous second pass east of the town was chock-full of crawling vehicles. For some hours all traffic had been diverted this way from the inland desert track. A long line of vehicles, in many places three or four abreast, stretched from Giovanni Berta to Derna, thence south-east into the desert. “A” Company of the 1/KRRC was blocking the track coming into Giovanni Berta from Mechili and the south, the Tower Hamlets guarding the western pass-head at Derna. The 3rd Armoured Brigade was extended over a great distance, the foremost elements near Derna, the rearmost (including most of the tanks) almost as far west as Slonta.
During the night trek Brigadier Rimington’s command vehicle had fallen down a steep bank. About 4 a.m. he woke Lieut-Colonel Drew,
whose 5th Royal Tanks had halted for a rest on the southern road near Slonta, to inform him that because of the accident he might arrive late at a conference beyond Derna arranged for next day. Rimington and Fanshawe later tried to bypass the traffic stream by taking the desert route to Derna, drove into the German ambush and were captured: Rimington was mortally wounded. Thus, with the exception of Gambier-Parry, almost every senior British commander in the desert had fallen into Ponath’s trap. Gambier-Parry had arrived meanwhile at Mechili, the garrison of which was now encircled.
Many units of the 2nd Armoured Division had halted during the night to rest. They included the headquarters of the Support Group, which had leaguered off the inland track near Giovanni Berta, the King’s Dragoon Guards, bottled up in the traffic queue approaching Derna, and the 1st RHA which had made a brief halt at 5 a.m. five miles west of Derna. Near them, breakfasting, was a company of the 1/KRRC, another company of which was passing through Derna. A third company and the headquarters group were moving out across the desert by the main road from Derna to Mechili: ahead of them were the 51st Field Regiment, most of the Northumberland Fusiliers, most of the 2/15th Battalion and, farther ahead, close to Tmimi, split-off portions of the 26th Brigade, diverted from the main body at the Giovanni Berta turn-off. On the southern inland track, the 2/17th Battalion was travelling eastwards towards the Mechili–Derna crossroads, near which it later passed Lieut-Colonel Marlan and his staff at breakfast and, soon afterwards, the 2/15th Battalion headquarters. The 2/13th Battalion was still at Martuba. Farther to the east the leading elements of the 2/48th Battalion were approaching Tmimi, followed by leading elements of the 2/24th.
Major Batten95 had preceded the 2/48th to Tmimi and was ready to direct it into position. Meanwhile Morshead had sent Major White96 of his operations staff there to intercept the foremost groups arriving. White had collected a mixed group of engineers and elements of the 2/48th Battalion to man the buildings there and armed them with anti-tank rifles.
Major Loughrey’s97 company of the 2/48th, returning from protective duties at Derna, reached Tmimi before the rest of the battalion. Batten directed it into position about 1,000 yards south of the road. The company’s foremost truck (in which were travelling Warrant-Officer Stewart98 and four men), breasting a small rise, ran into three vehicles in a slight depression. They were enemy reconnaissance cars, one of which opened fire. In the skirmish Stewart was wounded, two enemy were killed, and two wounded, Private Searle99 firing most effectively. By a strange chance,
a British cruiser tank was passing through Tmimi in the column of withdrawing vehicles at this very moment.100
It was directed to the scene of the skirmish, whereupon the other two enemy vehicles made off while Searle bailed up with his rifle the occupants of the one that had fired on the Australians. Six prisoners (two of whom later died of their wounds) and two light machine-guns, as well as the truck, were captured.
Brigadier Tovell soon arrived at Tmimi with his headquarters, which he established in the roadhouse now vacated by Cyrenaica Command; the main body of the 2/48th with Lieut-Colonel Windeyer in command followed. A quick-spoken, dynamic Irish Lieut-colonel arrived soon afterwards and approached Windeyer. “Can you tell me the object of the exercise?”, he asked. It was Windeyer’s first meeting with Lieut-Colonel Martin,101 commanding the 1/Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, which had been delayed by the congestion near Derna, but was to support the infantry at Tmimi.
Meanwhile orders had been sent to the 2/13th Battalion to withdraw from Martuba to Tmimi and take up a defensive position on the right of the 2/48th Battalion, while the 2/24th, 2/15th and 2/17th, as their columns passed through Tmimi, were told to proceed to Gazala, where the next line of resistance was being organised by the 20th Brigade.
Lieut-Colonel Marian caught up with the 2/15th Battalion headquarters group, halted by the inland track, just before 8 a.m. and was surprised to find that the rifle companies, which had left before him, had not arrived. He also learnt from Major Barton102 that there were enemy in the vicinity. Marian decided to wait for his rifle companies, expressing the view that the battalion would then be better able to fight its way clear if intercepted. About 9 a.m., fearing that the other companies might have travelled by the coast road, he sent his Intelligence officer, Lieutenant Gemmell-Smith,103 to see if traffic was still using the Derna Road. Marlan himself made a reconnaissance and saw that his headquarters could safely make its way to the east but he continued to wait for his rifle companies. Soon afterwards a mixed German force, including three or four armoured cars, bore down on the halted column and began shelling it. The Australians brought into action the few weapons they had, mainly rifles. Four anti-aircraft guns of the 8th Light Anti-Aircraft Battery mounted on Italian lorries engaged the armoured cars. Two guns were hit and burnt; the other two fired until they exhausted their ammunition.104 Eventually the German vehicles completely encircled Marlan’s men. Judging that escape was impossible, Marian capitulated.105
It is surprising that with their superior air power the Germans had not managed to inflict greater damage on the columns of the retreating forces packed tight along the roads. For this, much credit must go to No. 3 Squadron R.A.A.F. and No. 73 Squadron RAF, who had kept their Hurricanes almost continuously in the air in the last few days. On this morning, however, the German Air Force struck in considerable strength at the Derna defiles, inflicting much damage and seriously delaying the withdrawal.
About 10 a.m. the 1st RHA, having moved through Derna and ascended the eastern pass beyond the town, arrived at the Dem. airfield. There a halt was called to reassemble the regiment so that it could proceed properly organised. Near the landing ground “B” Company of the 1/KRRC had also halted to gather its scattered sub-units into proper order. Just as the Chestnut and Rocket Troops of the 1st RHA were forming up to move on, an enemy column consisting of three vans, an armoured car and one gun appeared from the south; it began to machine-gun and shell the road, catching some elements of the Tower Hamlets in the open. Both RHA troops were in action in a flash, engaging the vehicles over open sights; one vehicle received a direct hit. An Australian anti-tank gun and a Bofors anti-aircraft gun came into action alongside. The enemy column made off rapidly, but no British armoured cars or tanks were at hand to give chase. The 1st RHA moved on, leaving Captain Loder-Symonds106 with “B/O” Battery to keep the road open. Latham’s headquarters and a company of the French Motor Battalion passed through and the 104th RHA, whose 339th Battery had a brush with an enemy column, joined the main coast road from the Mechili track. Then the King’s Dragoon Guards (less one squadron still west of Derna) arrived at the airfield, and a squadron was detached for local protection while the rest of the regiment continued to march. While one troop of this squadron was detailed to protect Loder-Symonds’ guns another was sent southwards in an attempt to outflank the enemy column, but was halted by shell fire.
Lieut-Colonel de Salis,107 commanding the rearguard companies of the 1/KRRC, had come forward on hearing the firing. He ordered Captain Mason’s108 company into a covering position west of the main road, instructing them to remain there as long as possible but to withdraw if the position became untenable. The riflemen were attacked by enemy infantry almost as soon as they were in position and for more than two hours they kept the enemy at bay. Unfortunately “B/O” Battery and the Australian anti-tank gun had moved on just before the action commenced.
Meanwhile the 5th Royal Tanks, reduced to seven cruisers, were beginning to climb the escarpment. The steep ascent was too much for three of the tanks; after being stripped they were left for the demolition parties to destroy. One caused great difficulty, completely blocking the road for some time. Only four tanks now remained. Their commander, Lieut-Colonel
Drew, with Lieut-Colonel Petherick109 of the 3rd Hussars (whose last tank was abandoned in Derna), had gone forward in search of Rimington. As the two officers approached the airfield, they were fired on from a small fort and could see the armoured cars of the King’s Dragoon Guards engaging an enemy force. Drew spoke to the commander of a platoon of the Tower Hamlets Rifles holding a ruined building near the road and then. returned to the pass to organise assistance from the rearguard parties.
“A” Company of the 1/KRRC (which was supported by a section of “J” Battery of the 3rd RHA) had been withdrawn from its position covering the approaches to Giovanni Berta at 10 a.m. and was in Derna. By 2.30 p.m. the last of the armoured division had passed through the town, where the demolitions had meanwhile been completed by Lieutenant Barlow110 of the 2/1st Pioneers. During the next half-hour the engineers fired two craters in the western pass and four in the eastern, and destroyed the abandoned tanks. The rearguards then withdrew up the pass. At the top they were met by Colonel Drew, who took the rearguard commanders to reconnoitre the enemy road-block. More enemy vehicles were seen to be approaching on a broad front from the south. A staff officer of the 3rd Armoured Brigade unfortunately chose this moment to authorise the withdrawal of the armoured cars and this order was wrongly passed to one of the platoons of Mason’s company of the 1/KRRC without Mason’s knowledge. Soon afterwards another of Mason’s platoons was cut off; then the remaining platoon and his headquarters were surrounded. Mason refused a demand for his surrender and succeeded in withdrawing his men into a neighbouring wadi. Here they played hide-and-seek with the enemy for two hours.111
On his second reconnaissance Drew therefore found the enemy in complete possession of the aerodrome area. He had a small but effective mixed force, which included “A” Company of the 1/KRRC, one rifle company and other elements of the Tower Hamlets, a section of anti-tank guns of “J” Battery, 3rd RHA and four tanks. Drew ordered the three motorised platoons of the 1/KRRC to a position covering the road, with the tanks on their left, while their scout platoon was sent to reconnoitre to the east. The riflemen went into position with skill and great dash, while the Tower Hamlets company took up a position in reserve behind them. But the KRRC scout platoon became heavily engaged and could not be extricated.
Although the Germans had gained control of the airfield zone, they had been slow to exploit by seizing the pass. Now they made a move to do so. About 4 p.m. a force of five armoured cars, five lorries of infantry and two anti-tank guns, supported by two gun-howitzers, attacked round the right flank, south of the road. A section of three 2-pounder guns did some fine
shooting, setting all the vehicles afire. One blew up. Soon afterwards three armoured cars came round the left flank. The British gunners quickly changed position and set these afire too. The enemy was driven back south of the road, but his machine-guns still covered it at fairly close range. The diarist of the company of the 1/KRRC later remarked drily that the enemy “had almost unconsciously thrown us on the defensive”.
By 4.30 p.m. the firing had ceased and the gun-howitzers had retired. Drew now planned to bypass the enemy by a fighting move in force at 5.15 p.m. under cover of the four remaining tanks of his regiment, nearly all that remained of the 2nd Armoured Division’s tank force.112 At 5.20 the cruisers advanced line-ahead up the east side of the landing ground, engaging the enemy machine-gun posts. Behind them came some 50 vehicles, the 1/KRRC leading. Among them were the Australian demolition firing parties: Lieut-Colonel Mann with Captain Smith113 and Lieutenant Overall114 (his adjutant and Intelligence officer respectively), and Major Gehrmann with Lieutenants Young115 and Moodie;116 also Lieutenant Barlow and some pioneers who had had charge of the demolitions in Derna.117 The charging column created a cloud of dust, which impeded the German firing. The tanks fought magnificently until all were knocked out. Many vehicles were hit, but others always stopped to load up with stranded men until they could take no more. Unable to penetrate by the way planned, the column, after a hurried conference, made a circular movement to the left near the sea; but there it was halted by a deep wadi. At this point Gehrmann, Young and Moodie, with six other vehicles, made a dash south across broken country to reach the open road; the exhaust silencers were smashed, and the roar of the fleeing vehicles’ engines dramatically announced their progress across the desert. Mann’s party took a different route; their car became stuck in the bottom of a deep wadi. They abandoned it, and set off on foot.118 The rest of the column, though much diminished in size by casualties,119 reached the main road about an hour and a half later, then journeyed without further incident to Tobruk, which they reached late at night.
By coincidence Rimington’s decision to route the 3rd Armoured Brigade through Derna had brought the 5th Royal Tanks to the place where they were most needed and could be most effectively employed that day. It was
a fitting end for a regiment that had acquitted itself well throughout notwithstanding that its equipment, its supplies and its communications continually broke down. It had lost 38 tanks in Cyrenaica. Of these one was destroyed by running over a thermos bomb, nine in action with the enemy. The rest were lost simply because they had reached the end of their useful life. At what great risk and cost had these tanks been shipped across the seas from England to the Middle East! Churchill’s courage, energy and determination in sending munitions to Wavell had been frustrated because others failed to ensure that the equipment sent was at least battle-worthy.
The units of Drew’s force were not the last to leave Derna. A group of the armoured division’s “B” Echelon had allowed themselves to fall behind and from Giovanni Berta onwards were everywhere confronted by the engineers’ demolitions. Working strenuously they gradually cleared their way through to reach Derna by 8 p.m., where, after an interchange of fire, they laid up for the night.120 They managed to get away at 4 a.m. next morning – the 8th. But one small group of the armoured division – “C” Squadron of the 6th Royal Tanks – was still west of Derna. Having failed to reach the southern road the previous night, they found next morning that troops wearing the bluish-grey uniform of Axis forces were passing by their southern flank. By evening they still had not reached the road. Later in the night their last tank broke down.121
While the rearguards near Derna had been seriously embroiled, the 9th Division farther east had been having a comparatively peaceful time. After leaving Martuba, Burrows’ battalion came back to a position on the right of Windeyer’s battalion near Tmimi, on the edge of a small escarpment by the sea. When the first company to arrive went out to their allotted area they found that there were five German armoured cars on a ridge some 2,000 yards away. These were engaged by some men of the 2/48th with Boyes rifles; some appeared to have been disabled. Two cruiser tanks arrived from somewhere and moved forward. The Germans did not attempt to try conclusions with them. Meanwhile Burrows, carrying a Tommy-gun, and his pockets bulging with grenades, stood by the road and intercepted groups of supporting arms as they came back, deploying them to thicken the defence. Anti-tank gunners of “J” Battery of the 3rd RHA willingly
lent their aid. The 51st Field Regiment came in behind, and the 104th RHA later paused to lend support. The enemy kept his distance.
At Gazala, about 25 miles in rear, the 20th Brigade had organised a defence perimeter on the escarpment south of the road with the 2/17th and 2/24th Battalions and the rifle companies of the 2/15th Battalion. Enemy armoured cars approached during the afternoon of the 8th, but did not come within firing distance.
Early that afternoon Morshead drove back into Tobruk, where to his surprise he found that, as well as the 24th Brigade (Brigadier Godfrey), the 18th Brigade (Brigadier Wootten) was in the fortress. The two brigades were manning the perimeter defences under Wootten’s competent direction. After a discussion with Harding, who had moved command headquarters to Tobruk earlier in the afternoon, Morshead decided to withdraw closer to Tobruk that night. He returned to Gazala and ordered a general withdrawal of the division to the Acroma area, about 20 miles west of the Tobruk perimeter.
About 5 p.m. the 26th Brigade group withdrew from Tmimi to Acroma, rearguard duty being performed by a company of the Northumberland Fusiliers supported by a troop of the 51st Field Regiment. Two hours later, after the 26th Brigade had passed through, the 20th Brigade withdrew from Gazala. This withdrawal, coming after a period of 48 hours with no rest, was most exasperating to the men and was in many cases ill-executed. The diarist of the 2/15th Battalion noted that difficulty and delay were caused by the weariness of the drivers, who fell asleep at every halt.
Near Acroma, the division took up position with the 26th Brigade (2/13th and 2/48th Battalions under command) on the right and the 20th Brigade (2/15th, 2/17th and 2/24th Battalions under command) on the left, with left flank refused. Morshead’s headquarters had meanwhile moved just inside the Tobruk perimeter. The area occupied by the 26th Brigade was near a white house, known as a landmark to all soldiers of both armies who came that way. One of its walls had been decorated two months earlier by Sapper Dawes122 with a huge painted sign extolling the virtues of an Australian beer. Within a few days Rommel was to make it his headquarters. There Windeyer’s battalion took up a position covering the road. The 2/13th Battalion had been instructed to take over the area from north of the road to the sea, but Burrows judged it impracticable to do so in the dark. About midnight the 20th Brigade came in on the left of 26th Brigade. Meanwhile what remained of the Support Group had moved into Tobruk, with the exception of a company of the French Motor Battalion, which went to El Adem to strengthen the force there.123 The 1/KRRC also leaguered in Tobruk.
When Gambier-Parry arrived at Mechili late at night on 6th April, he immediately called a conference at which it was announced that he would
take command of the garrison force. Vaughan had informed Gambier-Parry that the enemy did not yet appear to be in sufficient strength to threaten the garrison and that he judged the enemy demands for surrender to be bluff designed to obtain quick access to the water-supplies of Mechili. Gambier-Parry had brought with him Major Eden’s battery of the 3rd RHA and their escort, whom the garrison had sent out to meet him, but he had brought no other combatant units. He told the conference that the rest of his division should reach Mechili by the following night but he disclosed that most of its tanks had been jettisoned. He decided to await their arrival; he could hardly have adopted any other course. In the desert not far away Rommel, meanwhile, had reconsidered his plan to assault next morning and decided to wait until his main force arrived.
The British garrison had observed an enemy force going into leaguer east of Mechili on the afternoon of the 6th and Lieut-Colonel Munro had arranged with Brigadier Vaughan to raid it at dawn on the 7th with the guns of his 10th Battery escorted by a troop of Indian cavalry. Major Glover was put in charge. The raid was not a success but at least established that the enemy was German and very much alert. One of the two guns was lost, one man – Gunner Humphries124 – was killed and one wounded. Later, about 11 a.m., a battery of enemy guns opened up from a ridge to the north-east. Warrant-Officer Cowell125 went out in a truck with a Vickers gun attempting to capture these guns, but was unable to get sufficiently close under cover. The shelling continued, causing some damage to vehicles but few casualties. Soon afterwards an emissary brought a second demand for surrender, which was rudely repulsed.
No word was received that morning from Cyrenaica Command, itself on the move, but in the early afternoon communications were re-established and a message was received which stated that the 104th RHA had been dispatched to Mechili on the preceding day and ordered that the garrison should withdraw if it was in danger of encirclement.
Late in the afternoon Italians in lorries made a half-hearted thrust towards the sector held by the 2nd Lancers, who were supported by the Australian 11th Battery; the Italians were easily repulsed. One gun scored a direct hit on an enemy lorry; more prisoners were taken and a second 47-mm gun captured. Munro now had two of these anti-tank guns and he decided to organise them into a section. He took one to the perimeter to test its sights and chose as target a group of enemy seen to be moving into position. This proved to be an enemy battery which, in retaliation, shelled the camp for half an hour. Meanwhile “A” Squadron of the 18th Cavalry Regiment (Captain Barlow) had come into the perimeter from Gadd el Ahmar, having had a skirmish with enemy armoured cars on the way.126
Late in the evening Rommel sent another emissary to demand surrender, offering on this last occasion “the full honours of war”; but the reply was
no less brusque than before. As soon as the emissary had returned to his own lines, about 14 guns began shelling the garrison. Machine-gun fire was also brought to bear and continued for more than an hour, though not with damaging effect. Just before dusk enemy armoured cars forced the withdrawal of a standing patrol of the 2nd Lancers in the south-western sector near the landing ground, but the enemy later drew back and the position was reoccupied.
Rommel had first intended to attack on the 6th but had still not done so by the evening of the 7th. He spent most of the day waiting for Olbrich’s force, which was coming along the track from Msus; towards evening he set out to search for it in his Storch. The defenders saw the small aeroplane circling above the perimeter before it made off west but did not guess that it bore the German commander. Rommel found Olbrich’s column still some 30 miles from Mechili; but he now felt himself strong enough to attack without it. Various groups, including a mixed unit of the Ariete Division, had reached Mechili during the day and been put into position, and the main body of 5th Light Division’s advanced force (the Streich Group), which had originally been instructed to advance on Tobruk, arrived as darkness fell. He ordered his forces to assault at daylight next morning.
Gambier-Parry, on the other hand, had waited in vain for the reinforcements he expected. At dusk on the 7th he sent a message to Cyrenaica Command asking where they were. It was after 10 p.m. when he received the disconcerting reply: the 104th RHA was not coming to Mechili; the location of the 3rd Armoured Brigade was uncertain. Gambier-Parry sent at once for Brigadier Vaughan, informed him that Cyrenaica Command had ordered a withdrawal and directed that Vaughan’s brigade was to break forth at first light next morning and move to El Adem, providing protection on the way to the 2nd Armoured Division’s headquarters.
Vaughan gave out his plan at a conference about midnight. The move was to be executed in box formation. Captain Barlow’s squadron of the 18th Cavalry, together with the single cruiser tank of 2nd Armoured Division headquarters, were to form the advanced guard. The headquarters of both the brigade and the division were to follow and, behind them, the engineers and other services, protected on the flanks by the PAVO with the headquarters and one squadron on the left, and the other squadron on the right. Behind them, as the main guard, were to come the 2nd Royal Lancers, less two squadrons; the latter, under Major Rajendrasinhji, were to form the rearguard. Munro was ordered to provide two troops of antitank guns with the advanced guard and brigade headquarters, one troop with each flank guard, and two troops for the 2nd Lancers. Major Eden’s battery of the 3rd RHA was to protect 2nd Armoured Division headquarters. Munro assigned the three troops of the 10th Battery to the advanced guard and two flank guards. To find the additional troop for the advanced guard he withdrew Lieutenant Browning’s127 troop from the 2nd
The break-out plan required the advanced guard to charge the guns to the east of the perimeter before it was light enough for them to fire by sight. This was timed to start at 6.15 a.m. The whole force was to debouch to the east, where the enemy was in greatest strength; any other course would necessitate taking a circuitous route through more difficult terrain and running the risk of later interception, which appeared to outweigh the advantage of light initial opposition.
It was a strenuous night for the men; few slept at all. In the early morning the noise of preparations seemed sure to warn the enemy of what was afoot. A gusty wind blew up, as though the desert itself shared the restlessness.
If the original plan had been adhered to, if it had been boldly executed, a great measure of success might have been achieved. But the operation miscarried badly. The cruiser tank did not arrive on time at the starting point. Vaughan, expecting it at any moment, held up the departure of Barlow’s squadron for 15 precious minutes, during which the darkness lifted inexorably from the desert. It was light when they set off; yet they appeared to achieve surprise. They passed the guns, turned, and charged straight at them, all 24 vehicles in line. As they reached the gun-line the squadron divided – one troop to the left, one to the right – and halted; the men jumped down, attacked with the bayonet, threw the entire battery of 12 guns and their supporting infantry into confusion, then returned to their vehicles and drove off. They had lost 17 men, of whom two were known to have been killed.
Perhaps a great part of the garrison might have made good its escape if it had followed hard and fast in the wake of Barlow’s squadron. But the 2nd Armoured Division headquarters, which was to have followed after Vaughan’s, had not appeared at the starting point; the others held back waiting for them. Just as the enemy was recovering from Barlow’s assault, the tardy cruiser tank130 set off; the PAVO flank guards now moved out, widening the gap, and were followed by Brigadier Vaughan and his headquarters. Munro, his acting adjutant, Lieutenant Sharp,131 and his orderly, Gunner Weirs,132 followed Vaughan. The solitary tank then charged straight for the guns and engaged them valiantly until it met with its inevitable destruction, not long delayed: the entire crew was killed. But it was now the zero hour for Rommel’s attack. As Vaughan’s group set out, guns to the east, south-east and south opened a rapid bombardment,
machine-guns raked the break-out route, and German tanks approached from the south and east. Greatly helped by the cruiser tank’s action and by clouds of dust put up by their own movement, Vaughan’s headquarters and a good part of the PAVO broke through the enemy cordon. But the enemy continued to close and the troops heading the main body halted as they approached the fire-beaten zone and saw enemy tanks ahead. They pulled back.
The wind that had earlier stirred the desert became intense as the sun rose up, and swirling dust clouds made it impossible for the men within the perimeter to see what was happening or for their commanders, awaiting their turn, to gauge when they should sally forth.
Major Anderson had placed one of the two troops of Australian antitank guns (Lieutenant Browne’s)133 under the command of Captain Dorman of “A” Squadron, 2nd Royal Lancers. The guns of “G” Troop (Lieutenant Gill),134 with Rajendrasinhji’s rearguard, were to remain in action in dug gun-positions until the rearguard’s movement began. Only then were the portees135 to be brought to the guns. German tanks now approached the perimeter from the south-east, paused near a re-entrant that crossed their path and there formed up in line; then one tank pushed on towards the perimeter. This was just opposite Bombardier Rayner’s anti-tank gun of “G” Troop, manned by Lance-Bombardier Ledingham136 (gunlayer), Gunner Howe137 (loader), Gunner Galvin138 (ammunition number) and Gunner Gros139 (driver). Writing since the war, Rayner has described the action:
Then suddenly I saw our convoy coming back in at a fairly smart pace, and next thing about half a dozen enemy tanks lined up a few hundred yards away. One tank which appeared to be much larger than the rest moved away to the right, turned and came straight at us. ... We fired shell after shell at this tank and still it came on. We fired at it side on – must have been only fifty yards away – followed it around, and I can remember the last order I gave. All thoughts of army drill were forgotten. I just gave the order: give him another one, the last one in the tail.
At this moment, a shell from one of the German tanks blew the gun to pieces, wounded Rayner (badly in the legs) and Galvin, and so seriously wounded Howe that he died later where he lay.
Other German tanks had followed the leading tank. These were now engaged by another Australian gun, in charge of Sergeant Kelly,140 a former international Rugby Union player. Since the tanks were not within the
section’s zone of fire, Kelly had first to move his gun to fire in their direction. As the tanks crossed the re-entrant, Kelly engaged them. His crew comprised Bombardier McIntosh141 (layer), Gunner Coppock142 (loader) and Gunner Campbell143 (ammunition). McIntosh has written an account of their experiences:
As the first one came up the bank we had our first success with a shell right into the belly. We lined up three tanks almost side by side as they attempted to come up the bank. We kept firing as they came to the wadi hitting some going down the bank, some coming up. I have no idea what damage we did or how many we stopped or disabled but we did notice that some of those we stopped moved off again up the wadi away from us.
During the action Sergeant Kelly was wounded by a burst of machine-gun fire and became paralysed. McIntosh took charge.
The tanks were closing in rapidly and one at about 50 to 60 yards away stopped. I was directing Ted Coppock to fire at it when I saw the barrel of a gun swing round on us and evidently it fired before we did because, when I regained my senses, Ted Coppock had been blown right from his seat back on top of me.
The shell had killed Coppock, wounded Campbell and given McIntosh concussion. Of the eight men forming these two gun crews with the rearguard only one man had not been disabled by fire.144 No tanks approached the troop’s other two guns dug in to the west of where the break-in occurred.
Within 45 minutes of the commencement of the German attack the heavy tanks had reached the old Italian stone and mud fort, near the centre of the perimeter, where the headquarters of the 2nd Royal Lancers had been established. Meanwhile Vaughan and his party, accompanied by Munro, had successfully broken through the enemy ring. About two miles out Vaughan halted on a small hill to observe the progress of the sortie; but could see no forces following. He spoke to Gambier-Parry from an armoured command vehicle, and asked him why this was so. Gambier-Parry replied that the fire had become too heavy to take the soft-skinned
vehicles through. Vaughan suggested that an endeavour should be made to break out to the south and told Gambier-Parry that he would return. As Vaughan went back to his truck, he told Munro the gist of the conversation, and added: “I am going to get my rearguard out.” Munro followed the brigadier back, but his car broke down; he then transferred to his adjutant’s truck, in which both succeeded in running the gauntlet back to the fort. On reaching Mechili, Munro found the blown-out guns of the 11th Battery with two or three disabled light tanks nearby. He discovered Anderson at regimental headquarters of the 2nd Royal Lancers, with their commanding officer and second-in-command. The three officers were sheltering in a donga, which the heavy tanks were striving to break into. Later this party of officers (including Munro) retired to a near-by depression, where they were captured. Meanwhile the force Vaughan and Munro had left outside the perimeter proceeded to El Adem, which was reached in due course.145
When the main force failed to debouch, Gambier-Parry ordered the 2nd Lancers to remain in position to cover the withdrawal of divisional headquarters, which would now be made to the west. When Vaughan returned to Mechili, he found Gambier-Parry’s vehicles west of the fort and facing west. Vaughan suggested that they break out eastwards by the original route. The vehicles were turned round and the column set off, Vaughan accompanying Gambier-Parry in his armoured command vehicle. Almost immediately they were subjected to heavy machine-gun fire. Gambier-Parry, who had to think of the men behind him in open trucks, put up a white handkerchief out of the roof of his command vehicle, and the following vehicles of his headquarters were quick to follow suit. Not so “M” Battery of the 3rd RHA escorting them. “M” Battery had to avoid the surrendering as best they could,” noted their diarist.
Dorman’s squadron (with whom were Browne’s troop) and Rajendrasinhji’s squadron, having been detailed as rearguard under Rajendrasinhji’s command for the latest move, were following “M” Battery. Rajendrasinhji was fortunate to run across Eden just at that moment. They decided to break out westwards and passed the order on to Dorman. The plan was simple: to charge on as broad a front as possible and at full speed. Its execution showed what determination can do. Few, if any, vehicles that made the dash were hit, though in each squadron some did not venture. An enemy force in some strength, with field guns, barred the way; but Eden’s columns drove straight through their positions. The gun crews were observed with their hands up. A long wadi led away from the centre of the axis of their advance. Most of the vehicles, including Browne’s troop, kept to the right of it, but part of Dorman’s group, including Dorman himself, went to the south, only to find that the wadi continued west interminably. The party could not get back north – only one truck later reached Tobruk.
The rest proceeded some 20 miles to the west, turning north in the early afternoon, to a lonely wadi, where Major Eden decided to lie in
concealment until dark. His force now comprised his own battery,146 Browne’s troop, some 90 sappers of the 4th Field Squadron, and some 60 men of the Lancers under Rajendrasinhji. In the late afternoon an enemy scouting force approached but did not find them.
At 9 p.m. the force moved off slowly over most difficult ground, choosing a wide circular route; south-east for 50 miles, then east for 100 miles, then north, close to an enemy encampment. It halted for a rest about an hour before dawn. As the next day (9th April) broke, Eden’s column was just on the point of resuming its march when the sentry noticed some shapes looming up through the morning mist. The column made straight for the enemy party, a mixed German and Italian supply group about 30 strong,147 who surrendered, were searched and disarmed. The column proceeded with its prisoners, some of whom had to be abandoned when their trucks failed. Later a lone German scout car was captured. About 5 p.m. some armoured cars were seen and engaged. Eden’s battery and Browne’s troop had each fired one round when Eden ordered the fire to cease. The supposed enemy was the 11th Hussars; they led Eden’s force back to El Adem, which was reached at 2 a.m. next morning At 10 a.m. on the 10th Browne and his men, escorting four German and Italian prisoners, arrived in Tobruk.
Because of the sand-storm, Gambier-Parry’s act of surrender was seen only by the troops nearest to him The others, waiting for orders to move, learnt only gradually, as the word spread around, that there had been a capitulation. Fighting at Mechili ceased about 8 a.m. on the 8th. Some 3,000 prisoners were taken by the Germans, including 102 Australians. Scarcely less serious, was the loss of vehicles and of the dumps of undestroyed supplies – which had been built up on a scale sufficient to maintain the armoured division for 30 days.148
After the conclusion of his desert campaigns, Rommel, summarising the rules of desert warfare, had this to say about encircled garrisons:
The encirclement of the enemy and his subsequent destruction in the pocket can seldom be the direct aim of an operation; more often it is only indirect, for any fully-motorised force whose organisational structure remains intact will normally and in suitable country be able to break out at will through an improvised ring. Thanks to his motorisation, the commander of the encircled force is in a position to concentrate his weight unexpectedly against any likely point in the ring and burst through it. This fact was repeatedly demonstrated in the desert.
The experiences of Barlow’s squadron, of Vaughan’s headquarters and of Eden’s and Rajendrasinhji’s forces support Rommel’s conclusion. It is a fitting comment on his own tactics, which achieved undeserved success.
Around the White House near Acroma, on the morning of the 8th, the Australian infantry stood wearily to arms at first light in a strong khamsin and peered through the swirls of ochre dust, half expecting the
shapes of an enemy force to loom up. Some units that had not attempted to take up their assigned positions in the dark moved across to them as soon as daylight broke; others improved their dispositions. The British artillery came into action behind, the 1st RHA facing south, the 51st Field Regiment west. An occasional vehicle carrying stragglers came along the road, but no enemy.
Late in the morning Morshead visited Cyrenaica Command headquarters and found that General Wavell had just arrived from Cairo by air, bringing with him Major-General Lavarack. Wavell was already in conference with Lavarack, the chief staff officers of Cyrenaica Command and the local naval and air force commanders. Morshead, the senior military commander of the field force, had not been invited but was at once shown in. He reported that his division had had few casualties and was in good order, deployed defensively near Acroma. Wavell announced that General Lavarack had been appointed Commander-in-Chief of Cyrenaica Command and proceeded to give directions for the future conduct of the campaign: Tobruk was to be held, if possible, for two months.
Nine days had elapsed since the Africa Corps had attacked at Marsa Brega. In so short a time had the force to which Wavell had committed. his western flank’s defence been driven from the field and entrapped; so soon had the prestige the British had won by victories against the Italians been lost in retreat before a predominantly German force. Nor were British losses in trained men, equipment, vehicles and stores of little consequence.
A wrong presumption that Germany was unlikely to risk any sizable force in Africa; an unwillingness to recast plans when it was learnt that a formidable expedition had been dispatched; a disinclination to retract the undertakings given to Greece, so eagerly, if not rashly, pressed upon her; too little regard for the consequences of equipment shortages and mechanical deficiencies; a fatal tendency showing up to employ infantry and armour apart and separately; a failure to maintain control when telegraphic communications failed; hesitancies at Mechili, born of inexperience: all these had contributed, in great degree or small, to the catastrophe. Tested by results the main decisions had been proved wrong; the prime cause was too much daring. “War is an option of difficulties”149 had been Wavell’s pithy comment upon reading a staff paper pointing out some he was incurring. Disdaining a cautious role appropriate to slender resources, disliking a comfortable “safety first” policy while Greece fought alone, inspirited by the British Prime Minister’s distant exhortations, goaded a bit beyond prudence, perhaps, by his irony, Wavell and the other commanders-in-chief had called on men who did their faithful best to attempt too much with too little. That a large share of the responsibility was his, Wavell never sought to deny. He had given the British Government the advice it wanted. But it may be questioned whether any other would have been acceptable in London.
Rommel, not a more modest man than Wavell, later wrote with some appreciation of his own part in the denouement. He was astray in imagining that his deceptive measures had led the British to believe his force to be stronger than it was. Their estimate was nearly right. But his assessment that “it was principally our speed that we had to thank for this victory”150 may be accepted. His own vigour, his urgent passion to clutch the dangled trophies of war had more than anything else encompassed the British collapse.
A sure tactical instinct had told Rommel it was the time to strike; but the charge was later brought against him that by striking when he did he had frustrated German higher strategy. His unauthorised advance, it was said, had caused a premature withdrawal of British forces from Greece.151 That was not literally correct. Had Rommel bided his orders, however, both the 7th Australian Division and the Polish Independent Brigade Group would have been sent to Greece – the departure of the former, due to embark on 6th April, was cancelled only on the 4th. A later and perhaps stronger and perhaps better prepared German advance might have found Wavell with perilously few forces to oppose it.
To Wavell it was never given to operate with any but the scantiest resources. His decision to hold the western front so lightly should not be condemned by the verdict that later events proved him wrong but rather judged in the light of the situation at the decisive moment and on the evidence then available. Nor must it be forgotten that although the Germans intervened sooner and in greater strength, and were opposed less effectively, than Wavell had expected, although defeat was suffered, prestige lost, territory yielded, yet the German advance was soon stopped; and Tobruk was held.