Chapter 10: Ed Duda
Tobruk on its desert coast had been enveloped in dust by every land-wind for centuries before the heavy transport and armoured vehicles of two armies had ground its arid fine-clay hinterland to light powder. Airente was the dustiest corner in Tobruk. There, after having been brought back from the embarkation point, the men of the 2/13th Battalion, some of whom had bedded down where they could – but most had not troubled – were greeted on 26th October with the densest dust-storm suffered since the siege began. Visibility was only a few feet. The Durham Light Infantry Battalion did its best at short notice to serve the Australians with a hot breakfast.
At midday Brigadier Murray attended a conference with General Scobie to discuss the disposition of the remaining Australians. It was agreed that the two companies of the 2/15th Battalion would remain in the Pilastrino area and could be called upon to provide working parties. General Scobie proposed that the 2/13th Battalion should take over the perimeter in the western sector along the Wadi Sehel near the coast, to carry out the role which he had intended to assign to the Polish Officers’ Legion, which was to have arrived in Tobruk in the ships that were to take the last Australians out, but now was not expected to arrive until destroyer convoys were resumed in the November moonless period. Brigadier Murray raised no objection.
Soon afterwards General Scobie visited Colonel Burrows at Airente and offered him a choice between the operational role indicated and a non-operational one. Burrows made the only choice a soldier could. Moreover he knew from his long experience that to have his men at work was the best way of keeping them out of mischief.
The battalion had handed over to the Yorks and Lancs all its equipment except what had been ordered to be carried on the man on embarkation: rifles, pistols and personal accoutrements. It was therefore directed to take over the equipment that had been drawn for the Polish Officers’ Legion by the Polish Cavalry Regiment. When it moved forward it was to come under the command of the Polish Brigade, which was responsible for the western and Salient sector. The defences to be occupied constituted a two-company or squadron position; there was also a reserve squadron locality. It was decided that nucleus parties would go out that night to the Polish Cavalry Regiment then holding the area and that three companies would effect the relief on the succeeding night while the fourth waited until an area for it to occupy had been reconnoitred.
Some reorganisation was taking place to strengthen the western sector, in which the front-line units had always been very fully extended. After the Salient line had been shortened, this sector had been held with two battalions in the Salient, one battalion and a cavalry regiment on the western perimeter and one battalion in reserve. It had been planned that
on the arrival of the Polish Officers’ Legion, which would slightly augment the holding-unit strength beyond that in Morshead’s day, the front-line strength would be increased by disposing the cavalry regiment in the centre of the Salient and extending the right flank of the Polish Battalion at the Salient’s northern corner, thus removing the inter-battalion boundary from a very vulnerable region overlooked by the enemy positions around S7. By relieving the Polish Cavalry Regiment in the Wadi Sehel, the 2/13th would enable these redispositions to proceed. The perimeter between the Polish Battalion on the right of the Salient and the Wadi Sehel positions to be taken over by the 2/13th Battalion was held by the recently arrived Czechoslovakian Battalion.
The coast sector on the western perimeter was quite unlike anything the 2/13th had known in Tobruk. In other sectors in which it had done front-line duty, the perimeter had opened out onto a terrain which though ridged and uneven in parts was rather flat and featureless, but here the perimeter posts were cut into the cliff-face of a gorge, just below its rim. The wadi they overlooked was about 150 feet deep, with a wide, normally dry watercourse at the bottom.
There were a number of wells in the wadi bed and a pumping station that provided – notwithstanding that it was in no-man’s land – a substantial proportion of the fortress’s potable water. That the garrison had for so long drawn water from beyond its supposed confines was probably a result of the intensely aggressive patrolling of the Indian and Polish Cavalry Regiments which had kept the enemy on the defensive and deterred him from establishing a defence line or outposts close to the wadi.1
Additional protection to the sector and in particular to the pumping station was provided by five outposts: Cocoa 1, 2 and 3, Big Cheetah and Little Cheetah. These were situated on the plateau on the enemy side of the wadi but close to its verge.
The 2/13th advanced parties went out to the sector on the night 26th–27th October. Next morning Major Colvin,2 Colonel Burrows’ second-in-command, went forward to the Polish Cavalry headquarters. Although the preceding day’s storm had to some extent abated, dust still shrouded the western perimeter. Major-General Kopanski visited the cavalry headquarters about 10.30 a.m. and informed Colvin that a prisoner captured on the night of the 25th–26th in the Wadi Sehel had stated that an attack would be made on the sector in the early hours of the next morning, the pumping station in the wadi being one of the principal objectives. This prisoner, a Libyan, was a civilian enemy agent – the first apprehended at Tobruk – and had been accompanied by another Libyan who, he said, had come straight from the Italian military Intelligence department at Beda Littoria. The captured Libyan said that he had been ordered by a Captain Bianco of the Italian Intelligence department to ascertain the dispositions in the western sector facing the Wadi Sehel.
Kopanski came back to Airente with Colvin to discuss this information with Burrows. Soon afterwards Scobie arrived and the conference considered whether the relief should proceed as planned at the risk that the Australians might be attacked on the night of their arrival, before they knew the ground. Scobie concluded, however, that an attack on a large scale was improbable, and decided that the relief should take place. Burrows decided that as well as manning the positions to be taken over he would detach a platoon from the reserve company to guard the pumping station. In the early afternoon he went forward to the headquarters of the unit sector.
The relief, in accordance with normal front-line routine, was due to be effected after darkness fell; but at 3.30 p.m. Burrows ordered that the battalion come forward at once under cover of the dust storm then raging. The transport summoned without notice while the drivers were taking their meal arrived in driblets but by 5.45 p.m. battalion headquarters and the forward companies had arrived in the forward sector. The relief was completed by 10 p.m., and soon after midnight the last convoy of outgoing troops departed. The men stood to arms throughout the night to face the predicted attack, but none eventuated.
The 2/13th now held the perimeter from the sea to S33, with the Czechoslovakian Battalion on its left. Two companies were forward: Captain Daintree’s on the right, also manning the three Cocoa outposts, and Captain Walsoe’s on the left, also responsible for the Cheetahs. Captain Graham’s3 company was in reserve. In the evening of the 28th Captain Handley’s company came into a deep reserve position in the Wadi Magrun.
So the men of the 2/13th Battalion settled down to weeks of front-line duty, mercifully uneventful, in the best sector they had known. The rugged gullies and headlands afforded plenty of cover. Moving up and down the wadis and hilly tracks the troops got beneficial exercise; all except those who could not be spared from perimeter defence bathed freely from the beaches of the Mersa Pescara and Mersa el Magrun. The weather cooled; the sun ceased to scorch. The men lost the languor and pallor that had seemed to afflict most of them at the height of the summer But the élan in patrolling that had characterised their early action days was not in evidence, nor did Burrows press his men so much to offensive embroilments as he had in other sectors. Nevertheless they executed a number of deep night patrols, and some in daylight, particularly to the Wadi Bu Dueisa.
The 2/15th Battalion’s two companies near Pilastrino, though not exposed to the front’s dangers or the strain of night patrolling, were given some burdensome tasks and for a time subjected to less pleasant living conditions than the 2/13th; at the end of October, however, they moved to the Wadi Auda, known as Tobruk’s most verdant place but, because of its water-installations, one of the most bombed. The 20th
Brigade headquarters and the attached rearguard details from the 9th Division headquarters established themselves in the next wadi to the west, the Wadi Tberegh, which was more peaceful.
The Australians left in Tobruk accepted their disappointing situation philosophically. A soldier in the 2/13th wrote these verses which became the unit song-
O, we’re Bull Burrows’ Bomb-Happy Boys
Back up the line we must go!
Once we were heading for Alex so fair,
Something went wrong and we didn’t get there. ...4
And a ballad writer of the 20th Brigade headquarters wrote:–5
“The last of all to leave Tobruk” –
We felt like heroes – donned our packs,
We gave away our primus stoves
And strapped equipment on our backs;
We said: “It’s something to achieve
To be the very last to leave.”
We waited gaily on the wharf
The inky darkness peering through,
Some thought they saw the ships arrive
Before they’d even passed Matruh;
But soon we learned the game was crook –
It seemed we wouldn’t leave Tobruk. ...
Sometimes we even start to think,
When in depression’s deepest throes,
That we are doomed to stay in here
Till Angel Gabriel’s trumpet blows,
And Peter, taking one quick look,
Says: “Enter! Last to leave Tobruk!”
The enemy’s activities on other sectors and the conformation of his newly developed localities were evidence of the continuation of trends apparent in the last weeks of the 9th Division’s command. The shift of operational pressure from the west to the south and east continued. On the last day of the divisional relief it had been reported that the small outpost at Cooma had disappeared and must be presumed lost. On the night of the 27th the party reappeared after an absence of nearly 48 hours, but also on that night enemy infantry accompanied by tanks were seen advancing on foot on the left of the Essex Battalion, which had replaced the 2/17th in the El Adem Road sector. The enemy approached within 300 yards and were then engaged by the infantry. Another party of enemy infiltrated through the wire at R51 and were inside for half an hour; no such penetration, so far as was known, had occurred since the full-scale assault on Medauuar in May. A few hours later two enemy were observed tampering with the perimeter wire close to R47.
Before the 9th Division departed, it had been presumed, from observations of the different behaviour by the troops opposed to the Polish
Brigade, that an enemy relief had taken place in the Salient. It was now thought that Italian troops might have replaced Germans there. This seemed to be borne out when it was observed that German artillery units had left the sector while batteries of similar guns had appeared in the south-east.
On the 28th the 1st RHA reported that the enemy was busily registering targets – various forward posts – elsewhere than in the Salient while simultaneously the Salient was heavily shelled. Reports of these developments and particularly of the new patrolling pattern in the south-east caused Brigadier Murray concern. He suggested to fortress headquarters on the 28th that the 2/13th Battalion and the companies of the 2/15th should be organised into a composite reserve force and stationed at the vital junction of the El Adem and Bardia Roads, where they could serve as a back-stop against irruption from the south-east. The suggestion was rejected.
The first fortnight of November brought no notable change in the situation. One night the Polish Brigade staged a demonstration assisted by an artillery bombardment and an effective smoke-screen. It evoked an attractive display of flares of all colours from the enemy and a return fire of most satisfactory volume from guns firing from all angles. Special arrangements had been made to plot battery positions by flash spotting. On the night of the 9th the 1/Durham Light Infantry made a courageous attack on Plonk, but with a sad outcome. Though supported by three regiments of 25-pounders and a squadron of tanks, the attackers were handicapped by a difficulty experienced in earlier attacks: sufficient artillery was not available to neutralise both the objective and its flanks. The infantry were caught by flanking fire on the approach and, failing to keep up with the barrage, were badly cut up by small-arms defensive fire and booby-traps at the wire, which they failed to get through. Eight men were missing and fourteen wounded.
The enemy continued his close reconnaissance of the south-eastern perimeter. On the night of the full moon an infantry party 30 to 40 strong approached the wire between R63 and R65, a region in which the anti-tank ditch was only four feet deep. Some got into the ditch but withdrew after being engaged by the infantry on the perimeter. Six nights later, on 10th November, about 40 Germans were discovered inside the perimeter near Post R53. They were contacted by two platoons of the 2/Queens and driven off. One of the enemy patrol was killed and another captured. A week later the German 2Ist Armoured Division was reported to be due south of the south-eastern perimeter at a distance of less than nine miles – as the diarist of the 1st RHA recorded, “presumably to watch Tobruk more closely, possibly to launch an attack”.
By the second week in November it was generally known in Tobruk that another offensive from Egypt with the object of raising the siege would be mounted very soon. On 7th November the 1st RHA was withdrawn from sector defence responsibilities into divisional reserve and was made fully mobile; many other units had to hand over vehicles to make this
possible. Preliminary reconnaissance and engineering work indicated that, as in the plans for BATTLEAXE, a garrison sortie in the south-eastern sector was projected.
To the Australians still in Tobruk the garrison’s role in the offensive was of less interest than the enemy’s intentions in the meantime. On 5th November sub-unit commanders had been informed that the remaining units and sub-units would be leaving in the convoys of the November moonless period. The 2/13th was warned that half of the battalion should be ready to leave by the 13th – a date which some of them did not deem well chosen; the remainder, including the forward companies, would leave two or three days later, after their relief by the Polish Officers’ Legion had been effected.
During the succeeding week there was a revival of enemy high-level and dive-bombing attacks on artillery positions and forward defences and there were more reports of probing enemy patrols near and within the perimeter, which contrasted sharply with his normal conduct at night as experienced over six months. Apprehensiveness grew as to what he was plotting. Then one day Burrows was summoned to fortress headquarters. On the next, the 13th, he called a conference of his company commanders and informed them that the battalion’s departure from Tobruk had been deferred till the night of 19th–20th November. In the meantime the battalion would have a role as part of the reserve in operations connected with the offensive from the frontier. When the garrison’s sortie was made, the battalion was to be split in two – one half to remain to defend the perimeter by the coast, the other to go to Pilastrino to take up a back-stop position. The battalion was to leave Tobruk not by sea, but by land, it appeared, after the garrison had linked up with the frontier forces. The clock-like precision of the predicted timing was received with some scepticism.
Whereas the general outline of the projected operations was accepted readily enough (wrote an historian of the unit) dates had ceased to be significant; the “push” that had been promised for so long would have to be seen to be believed.6
On that night, and the next, all Australians remaining in Tobruk except the 2/13th Battalion were taken out.
Some mystery still surrounds the decision to leave the 2/13th in Tobruk for the CRUSADER operations. One of the few certain facts is that General Sikorski, the Polish Prime Minister and Commander-in-Chief, who was then visiting the Middle East, requested that the two companies of the Officers’ Legion with which it had been planned to man the sector of the perimeter where the 2/13th was rendering vicarious service should not be sent to Tobruk. Sikorski desired that they should be held at base where the officers would be needed because of plans to form new Polish divisions in the Middle East. General Headquarters had the request under consideration by 8th November.
Hence the Poles who were to relieve the 2/13th did not come to Tobruk. It may be presumed that General Scobie would have been unwilling to release the 2/13th Battalion until a replacement was forthcoming. Morshead’s advice that the garrison should be reinforced with an additional brigade group if it was to make an offensive sortie had not been heeded or, if heeded, not accepted by the General Headquarters; to have adopted it would have created other supply, transportation and order-of battle problems for the Middle East Command which, however, were not insuperable. The result, whether the reasons for not reinforcing were sound or unsound, was that Scobie’s forces would be fully extended to effect the proposed sortie and his reserves depleted, as indeed his plan to block the key Pilastrino pass-head with but two companies of the 2/13th abundantly illustrated. It was decided that the 2/13th should stay.
There is no record that AIF Headquarters was consulted about that decision or agreed to it. If there was such a reference, it is curious that G.H.Q. did not preserve a record of it. It would be even more curious if any officer of the AIF had granted authorisation on a question that had been negotiated between governments at the Prime Minister level, without carefully ensuring that the decision, and the circumstances in which it was taken, were fully recorded. General Blamey was not in Cairo, having been recalled by the Commonwealth Government to Australia for consultation. The better inference, but only an inference, is that General Headquarters decided not to seek Australian concurrence but to present AIF Headquarters with a fait accompli.7 After all, the deferment of the battalion’s departure was for only a week.
Only a week! There is no reason to suspect General Scobie of being insincere when he informed the 2/13th that it was to be sent out by road on the night of the 19th–20th November. That he should have thought there was a reasonable prospect of this reflects the optimism imbuing the British higher command with which Scobie had doubtless been infected in the course of the deliberations in which he had taken part before coming to Tobruk. The reborn army’s confidence in the likelihood of success was never again surpassed – not even before El Alamein; fortunately so, for it was dangerous over-confidence.
Some explanation must be sought for such excessive optimism. Paradoxically it appears to have been born mainly of past failures. It had become the custom to attribute British defeats in the many reversals hitherto suffered by Allied arms to the fact that battle had always been joined in inferior force, that it had not yet proved possible to confront and fight the enemy on equal terms because he had started so many laps ahead in the armaments race. How often had it been said of the
Tommy, the Digger, or the Kiwi, that man for man, he was the equal of his opponent, if not superior! When such had been proved the case, as often it had, it had been important for the maintenance of morale to stress the fact; when such had not been the case, it had still been found expedient to explain failure by attributing it to the arms, and not to the man.
This sentiment pervaded a message published to all troops who were to take part in the offensive – whether from Egypt or from Tobruk – in which the British Prime Minister said that he had it “in command from the King” to express His Majesty’s confidence that they would do their duty “with exemplary devotion” in the approaching important battle, in which the Desert Army might “add a page to history” which would rank “with Blenheim and with Waterloo”. “For the first time,” declared the message, “British and Empire troops will meet the Germans with an ample equipment in modern weapons of all kinds.”
The word “ample” was a modest description when the British forces’ equipment and administrative resources were compared with the enemy’s. Did not the British have twice as many medium tanks as their adversaries – sufficient tanks, in fact, to allot infantry support roles to the cumbrous Matildas and Valentines and still leave the armoured divisions with a comfortable majority of fast tanks for the engagement and defeat of the enemy armour? In artillery, did they not have a like superiority in the number of guns?
At midnight on 26th–27th September 1941, General Cunningham’s Western Army Headquarters became Headquarters Eighth Army. Simultaneously Western Desert Force went out of existence and XIII Corps, its successor, was born. Within a few days a new armoured corps was established which, on 21st October, became XXX Corps. Thus a command structure of one army headquarters and two corps headquarters was established.
General Cunningham produced his first plan for operation CRUSADER on 28th September. The plan was much debated and to some extent redrawn before the Eighth Army moved forward into battle seven weeks later; but its main conceptions changed little.
Cunningham was not one to write “approved” to somebody else’s plan. “There are two courses open to us,”8 Auchinleck had earlier written: one, a main thrust along the line of the inland oases, bypassing Tobruk, to the enemy’s rear, “whilst maintaining pressure and advancing as opportunity offers along the coast”; the other, a main thrust near the coast south of the escarpment, with two feints “from the centre and south”. Cunningham chose a third course; historians and critics have suggested others. Cunningham’s plan was to isolate, pin down and cut off the enemy positions by the coast, to feint along the line of oases towards Benghazi and to thrust with the main striking force south of Maddalena – which was perhaps about the direction of thrust Auchinleck earlier had in mind when he wrote of feinting “from the centre”.
The 1st Army Tank Brigade of Matildas and Valentines – approximately 145 of them – was assigned to the northern or coast force, to work in conjunction with two infantry divisions, the New Zealand and the 4th Indian. This force was the XIII Corps, commanded by Lieut-General Godwin-Austen.9 It had the pedestrian role of prising out the enemy ground troops expected to be left stranded in the forward defences by the battle-tide’s ebb when others had won the victory.
Cunningham’s plan allotted the decisive roles to the three armoured brigades10 equipped with 500 fast medium tanks – American Honeys, British Crusaders and older British cruisers – whose ingress into enemy-held territory was to be made well to the south of Rommel’s fortified line that stretched from Salum to Sidi Omar. Lieut-General Norrie,11 then commanding the 1st Armoured Division in England, had succeeded Lieut-General Pope as the commander of XXX Corps (which was to be the armoured striking force) after the plan had been framed.
The command structure bestowed on Cunningham, comprising an army headquarters, an armoured corps headquarters with a specialist signals organisation for communication with armoured formations, and an infantry corps headquarters with normal signals organisation, almost invited, if it did not predicate, a separate employment of the armoured and infantry formations. The decision to employ the infantry corps near the coast and the armoured corps in the south after outflanking the Salum-Sidi Omar line in itself divided the army’s strength. But the fact that the two corps were to be deployed so distantly from each other that they could not be mutually supporting induced a further subdivision. Cunningham’s plan provided for three forces: a northern force, as already described; a southern force, under the command of the armoured corps, to consist of the 7th Armoured Division (including two of the three armoured brigades), the 1st South African Division of two infantry brigades and the 22nd Guards Brigade, with additional anti-tank artillery and medium artillery; and a centre force comprising a reinforced armoured brigade, which was to operate between the northern and southern forces.
In Cunningham’s first plan the centre force was to be initially under the command of the XIII Corps. This revealed its primary purpose: to protect the flank of the infantry corps. General Norrie was a contemporary critic of this detachment. There have been many critics since. Norrie pleaded that the armour should be freed from the obligation of protecting the infantry corps. Neither Norrie nor Cunningham’s other critics, however, had to take the responsibility (political as well as military) of making and executing a plan which might have exposed the New Zealand Division or the 4th Indian Division, or both in turn, to the concentrated assault of two as yet unmauled German armoured divisions. To avoid splitting
his armour Cunningham had either to run that risk or to devise a plan that would entail employing the armoured corps and the infantry corps closer together; but the course urged upon him – to concentrate his armour astride the enemy communications in the El Adem-Sidi Rezegh area – would have meant employing them farther apart. Cunningham’s solution in his final plan was to restore the third armoured brigade to the armoured corps but to give to that corps the additional task of protecting the left flank of the infantry corps.
The conclusion General Cunningham drew from the staff’s estimate of the relative tank strengths of the opposing armies (“about 6:4 in our favour”) was thus stated in his “appreciation of the situation”.
It should be our endeavour to bring the enemy armoured forces to battle under conditions where we can concentrate against them a numerical superiority in tanks. Our armoured division [i.e. of two armoured brigades] will not have this superiority if faced with both the enemy armoured divisions, and one of our armoured brigades is weaker than one enemy armoured division. In order, therefore, to produce a superiority of tanks against the enemy, as long as the enemy divisions are within inter-supporting distance of each other, a similar condition must apply to our armoured division and our remaining armoured brigade.12
This states the principle Cunningham planned to follow more accurately and less unjustly than the impromptu statement attributed to him in a British narrative which it has become the fashion to quote in derogation of the general:
[The enemy] must either concentrate his armour to defend Bardia or Tobruch, or divide his forces. If the enemy split his forces we could split ours.
The comment was no more than a recognition of the truism that if from each of two unequal quantities the same amount is taken away, the disparity of the remainders is increased (to the advantage of the stronger), or in the instant case that two British armoured brigades against one German armoured division gave better odds than three against two combined; but it is hardly just to quote it as implying that if Rommel were to employ his two armoured divisions in different directions, Cunningham intended as a matter of course to divide his own armour. Rather he was arguing that the enemy could not gain an advantage by splitting his.
Cunningham’s final plan called for a triangular deployment of the three armoured brigades around Gabr Saleh, a convenient name on the map near the junction of the track from Bardia with the Trigh el Abd. An armoured force so disposed behind the enemy fortified line from Salum to Sidi Omar could strike north-west to Tobruk, north-east to Bardia or due north to cut communications between the Tobruk and Bardiafrontier zones, seizing supplies stored between the two fronts.
If the object of the excursion was to fight the enemy on ground of one’s own choosing, Gabr Saleh may have appeared a curious and indifferent choice; but the real reason for selecting it seems to have been that to be disposed there was the most threatening posture the armour could take up and still meet (or meet half-way) Cunningham’s requirements
that the three armoured brigades should be kept “within inter-supporting distance of each other” while simultaneously protecting the flank of an infantry corps charged with the task of containing the enemy’s frontier forces.
Of no less importance than the dispositions postulated by the plan which, if they had been adhered to, might have served well enough, were the basic concepts that underlay the thinking of the commanders and which were to exert a more potent influence on their actions than Cunningham’s “appreciation”. First there was the confident assumption that the destruction of the enemy armour would readily result from its engagement. “If all enemy armour is brought to battle,” wrote Cunningham, “the conquest of the rest of Cyrenaica should not be difficult or slow.” Hence “the essentials of a plan” as Cunningham saw them were not what a Tobruk defender would have expected:
(i) The enemy armoured forces are the target.
(ii) They must be hemmed in and not allowed to escape.
(iii) The relief of Tobruk must be incidental to the plan.13
Another opinion expressed by Cunningham was that “the relief of Tobruk would mean much more to [the enemy] than the loss of Bardia-Salum”. From this observation the conclusion was drawn that the way to bring to battle the reluctant German armour seeking “to avoid meeting superior armoured forces” was to develop a threat in the Tobruk area. This belief was very widely held. “What will make enemy move out to meet us?” asked General Auchinleck, and answered his own question: “An obvious move to raise siege of Tobruk.” It seems to have occurred to nobody that General Rommel was not one to abandon his own forces to destruction and that a serious threat to his frontier garrisons might have been no less efficacious.
Evolving naturally from the premise that “the enemy armoured forces are the target”, the “seek out and destroy” terminology employed to denote the task of the armoured corps exerted its own influence. Writing later but echoing words Cunningham had used in his written instructions to Norrie before the battle, General Auchinleck thus described the initial role of the armoured forces:–
The three armoured brigades were concentrated in the 30th Corps and General Norrie was instructed to seek out and destroy the enemy’s armour.
The phrase may have induced a happy hunting mood. It was hardly likely to call forth the restraint and imperturbability needed to bring the enemy to battle on ground one has both chosen and got ready.
The exercise of military command becomes real when the commander passes from stating a general purpose to determining courses of action that will accomplish it. But the proposition that the enemy armoured forces were the target was a notion from which neither a plan nor a guiding principle could be derived for the very reason that the target was mobile.
Although Cunningham may have intended not only to stage-manage the first clash but also to provide a new formulation and fresh impulse at every turn of battle, the possibility that his forces might be committed as a result of decisions neither of his own making nor impressed with his will was inherent in the way he conceived the “essentials of a plan”. With the precept “seek out and destroy” ringing in their ears, subordinate commanders were hardly likely to wait upon definitions of a master plan before engaging.
To exhort subordinate commanders to seek out and destroy their enemies might not have worked disastrously if they and the formations they commanded had been more than a match for their opponents, but experience was to prove that they were outmatched. Comparisons of the quality and quantity of each side’s equipment, showing for example that the British had more but the Axis heavier guns or that the British were the stronger in tanks, the Axis in anti-tank guns, do not provide the main reason, which was that the Germans had, but the British lacked, a sound tactical doctrine for the employment of armoured forces. A separation of the operations and training functions at the higher levels of the British command structure may have contributed to this lack, for in the employment of armoured forces the commanders consistently failed to practise what the training staff had preached. The cardinal difference was that the Germans fought their tanks in close conjunction with guns and other arms whereas the British, notwithstanding that their tanks mounted a lesser variety of weapons than those of their opponents, for the most part expected their tanks to fight with little aid from other arms, except in set-piece operations. What this meant in practice is well illustrated by some comments made by the South African historians:–
The artillery of the British 30th Corps comprised one hundred and fifty-six field-guns. ... Even if the infantry formations be excluded – and if their artillery is not to be taken into account, why were they in the Corps? – 7th Armoured Division alone could muster eighty-four field-guns against sixty 105 and 150-mms of D.A.K.14 However, when the Crusader operation came to be fought out in November of 1941, each British armoured brigade was committed separately, and 4th, 7th and 22nd Armoured Brigades went into action with twenty-four, sixteen and eight field-guns respectively. The sixteen mediums of 7th Medium Regiment R.A. were not with the armour at all, but had been assigned to 1st S.A. Division. ... 7th Armoured Brigade had sixteen field-guns and four 2-pounders, and in the critical midday battle of 21 November this Brigade, less a regiment of its tanks, was called upon to engage the whole of D.A.K., which controlled forty field-guns, twenty mediums, sixty-three 50-mm and twenty-one 37-mm anti-tank guns – to say nothing of the 88s and the lighter anti-aircraft artillery.15
Not only did the Germans bring more guns to the fray. They had better anti-tank guns, they used them to better advantage and, as in operation BATTLEAXE, they used 88-mm anti-aircraft guns as anti-tank weapons, which could destroy a British tank from well beyond the reach of its 2-pounder gun.
In the first phase General Godwin-Austen’s XIII Corps (New Zealand
Division, 4th Indian Division, 1st Army Tank Brigade) was to prevent the enemy frontier garrisons from moving east or south while General Norrie’s XXX Corps (7th Armoured Division, 4th Armoured Brigade Group, 1st South African Division and 22nd Guards Brigade) was to destroy the enemy’s armoured forces, employing the armoured brigades, or at least two of them, to do so. In the next phase, after the hostile armour had been destroyed, the XXX Corps, using the South African division (of two infantry brigades) as well as the armoured brigades, was to break the siege of Tobruk by joining up with a sally force from the fortress; it was intended that the South Africans should seize Sidi Rezegh and the neighbouring ridges, the Tobruk forces Ed Duda – while the XIII Corps cleared the enemy from between the frontier and Tobruk. All would then be set to complete the capture of Cyrenaica, reduce the abandoned garrisons on the Egyptian frontier and proceed to the capture of Tripolitania.
That was not the way the battle went. In the first phase the British armoured corps, far from destroying the German armoured divisions, was itself almost destroyed. Moreover, before the German armour had even been encountered, Sidi Rezegh was seized with only one armoured brigade (plus a weak support group) and without the South African division. Soon the area became a battleground on which the German armoured divisions soundly defeated the British armoured formations and overran a South African brigade caught up in the mêlée. The British were thrust from the ground seized.
In the second phase the German armour charged around the battle arena and expended its strength in attacks on the XIII Corps. The latter took over the carriage of the offensive, fought its infantry in conjunction with its tanks (Matildas and Valentines), maintained pressure at the frontier and proceeded to effect a junction with the Tobruk garrison while the XXX Corps for the most part watched from the side-lines, rebuilding its tank strength.
In the third phase, the advance from Tobruk to recapture the whole of Cyrenaica, the British armour which had meanwhile re-established its superiority in numbers of tanks was again defeated. Operations intended to pave the way for an invasion of Tripolitania in fact so depleted British armoured strength that subsequently General Rommel was able to regain the initiative and retake the whole of Cyrenaica west of Gazala, where for a time a stable line between the two armies was established.
If the time spent by the German commander on reconnaissance in strength in mid-September (Operation “Summer Night’s Dream”) was not entirely wasted, it may be doubted whether his planning was any the better for it. Nothing was discovered to cause any modification of his plan to crush the British outpost at Tobruk which, as a symbol and a legend, was developing a moral significance to match its tactical importance. Nothing, it appeared, but his own intractable supply situation threatened to thwart his ambition to encompass its downfall.
It may have been more than a coincidence that Rommel issued his operational directive for the capture of Tobruk only three days before Hitler, on 29th October, made an announcement foreshadowing German naval and air reinforcement of the Mediterranean theatre and the appointment of Field Marshal Kesselring as Commander-in-Chief South. The German High Command made a serious attempt to achieve Axis supremacy over the seas across which the Germans and Italians supplied and reinforced their African front and the British provisioned Malta. In course of time the Axis supply situation in Africa was to improve to some extent, that of Malta to worsen greatly – a change resulting as much from the diversion of British resources from the Mediterranean and Middle East to the Far East as from German reinforcement of the region. But it was a gradual change, and for the rest of that year, when the supplies received by either army would influence the outcome of British efforts to raise the siege of Tobruk, the rate of delivery to Rommel’s army was not increased but on the contrary halved. During the summer and autumn the supplies reaching the Axis forces in North Africa had averaged approximately 72,000 tons a month; of those sent about 20 per cent were lost on the way. But in November only 30,000 tons were received; more than 60 per cent was lost. In December, a month of almost continuous ground fighting, only 39,000 tons were received. British aircraft, ships and submarines all contributed to that result.
The striking British successes in November were due mostly to sinkings by surface ships, in particular by Force K (the cruisers Aurora and Penelope and the destroyers Lance and Lively) operating from Malta, which sank the seven merchant ships of a convoy on 9th November and a large tanker on 1st December; in December most sinkings of Axis shipping were effected by submarines.
The German submarines in the Mediterranean, as already noted, achieved early successes against British shipping on the Tobruk run. Soon they made their mark against bigger quarry and sank the aircraft carrier Ark Royal on 14th November and the battleship Barham on 25th November. These developments greatly intensified the urgent strategic need for the British land forces to secure ground for air force bases in Cyrenaica and Tripolitania.
Rommel’s orders for the capture of Tobruk followed in the main his outline plan. It was hoped to make the attack between 15th and 20th November. The Africa Division (soon to be known as the 90th Light) was to secure the sector of the perimeter bounded on the north-east by the Bardia Road and on the west by the boundary between the Pilastrino and El Adem sectors (which boundary was heavily overprinted on Italian maps of Tobruk then in use by both sides), including a supposed strong-point at the junction of the Bardia and El Adem Roads. After the Africa Division had breached the perimeter, the 15th Armoured Division (100 gun-armed tanks, including the 5 captured Matildas, and 38 light tanks) was to push on to the coast, also to seize the road-pass of Fort Solaro (so-called). The Italian XXI Corps was to “advance to the high ground
west of Tobruk” to prevent a westerly or south-westerly escape of the foredoomed garrison. In deference to General Halder’s requirement that the frontier flank be guarded, the 21st Armoured Division was to be stationed south-west of Gambut, an ambivalent position that did not rule out its employment as a reserve for the attacking force if the assault did not prosper.
Notwithstanding the accumulating evidence of growing British strength and the deterioration in his own supply situation General Rommel adhered with single-minded purpose to his intention to mount this attack. He refused to regard the build-up of the Eighth Army as a ground for cancelling it, and his arguments in general were sound enough. An operation to subdue the fortress, if it succeeded, should be completed in three days, within which time, he maintained, the British could not effectively intervene. In thus limiting himself to only three days of grace Rommel seems to have allowed for the possibility that the British had a proper plan to intervene. But if the British command had such a plan, it was one of its better kept secrets.16
Rommel’s calculation that the unwieldiness of the British forces would vouchsafe him three days free from serious interference was reasonable except in the contingency that the British began to move forward from their holding positions before the attack began, which could happen in either the not unlikely event that they had discovered or inferred that his attack was imminent or the most unlikely event that they had chosen to mount an offensive of their own on the same day or a day or two earlier. What was mathematically so improbable almost occurred. Early in November Rommel was planning to open his attack on Tobruk on 15th November, the very date on which the British forces were then scheduled to cross the frontier for the CRUSADER offensive. On the 11th, two days after the loss of the convoy destroyed by Force K but perhaps not because of it, Rommel’s Quartermaster-General produced a curious document the purpose of which seems to have been to demonstrate that enough supplies were on hand-20,700 tons of ammunition in addition to that held by the frontier garrison and 4,609 tons of fuel (sufficient to last the 28 days ending on 12th December) – to mount an attack on Tobruk, but not enough for a big advance with distant objectives; moreover, because of the British neutralisation of the shipment of Axis supplies the army would have to live on its reserves. Presumably the conclusion to be drawn was: strike while you can; there is enough for a strike against Tobruk but for nothing else.17 Simultaneously Rommel’s Intelligence staff reported that no British preparations for attack, such as the establishment of supply dumps, had been discovered and that the enemy situation had undergone no significant changes. The possibility that the British might
be about to make a serious attack was considered but discounted with the reassuring deduction that they could not get their main bodies forward before the second night or attack decisively before the third morning. The Intelligence staff in Germany also issued an appreciation denying the likelihood of an early British offensive.
Whether by coincidence or not, this flurry of German paper-work coincided with a report by Rommel’s nominal superior, General Bastico, to the Italian Supreme Command drawing an exactly opposite conclusion from the results of ground and air reconnaissance. Bastico’s opinion was that the British were ready and indeed only waiting for the Axis forces to become involved in an attack on Tobruk to launch “a heavy offensive aimed at forcing a final conclusion”.
On 14th November Rommel flew to Rome to attend high-level discussions about the Tobruk attack with the Italian and German staffs. There he appears to have won his point by shouting down his opponents and other doubters, such as Field Marshal Jodl, to whom he spoke by telephone. The formal authorisation of the attack was conveyed to Bastico’s African headquarters and received there on 18th November. The 21st of November was fixed as the date for the assault.
The British offensive, however, had also been postponed. Otherwise the Eighth Army might have crossed the frontier while Rommel was still in Rome. In the months of the summer and autumn the South Africans had found, as had the Australians and New Zealanders on other occasions, that of all the army’s needs few were accorded lower priority by the Middle East staffs than training; greater priority had been given to digging fixed defences in rear areas. At the end of October, the commander of the 1st South African Division, General Brink, reported that he could not be ready for an offensive before 21st November and demanded 21 clear days for training. A few days later he repeated this request to Auchinleck himself, in a conference which the latter held with Cunningham, Norrie and Brink on 3rd November. Auchinleck and Cunningham agreed to defer the opening of the offensive from 15th to 18th November provided that Brink would then be ready. General Brink asked once again
for three more days of training to bring the date of the opening of the offensive to 21 November, but agreed, if this was impossible, to advance into battle on the 18th.18
Thus it happened that the British advanced before the Germans attacked. If Auchinleck had agreed to the further deferment requested by Brink, he might have had to do much explaining to Churchill.
Although the British plans and outline orders prescribed close coordination between the forces from the frontier and those inside Tobruk, no one seems to have informed the headquarters of Tobruk fortress that the onset of the offensive had been postponed for three days. Yet the garrison had a part to play and, by 6 p.m. on the day on which the Eighth Army would cross the frontier, had to be ready to start preparatory moves for
a sortie at next first light. These timings were based on the optimistic assumption that the British forces might decisively defeat the German armoured divisions in one day, their first in Libya, though it was not really expected that an opportunity to do so would be presented or created before the second day.
Tobruk fortress came under the command of the Eighth Army on 30th October but was to be transferred to the command of the XXX Corps as soon as Operation CRUSADER started. The garrison’s sortie was to be made at dawn on a day XXX Corps would nominate and notify by code word. On every day after the start of the offensive the XXX Corps was to send a code word to fortress headquarters before 6 p.m., which would be either “Tug” (“Don’t attack tomorrow”) or “Pop” (“Attack tomorrow”).
Scarcely a unit in Tobruk was unaffected by the sortie plan, for according to the fashion of the day every combatant formation had either to fight or to feint. Orders were passed down to subordinate commanders in time for them to get their units ready by the appointed day but without time to waste. Command and staff problems were thrashed out over a sand-table model. On 13th November a rehearsal of the main sortie was conducted over similar ground. The infantrymen were inspirited to see the tanks that were to support them in the real show charge through to overrun the imaginary enemy. They were further encouraged when next day the fortress commander addressed them and told them that the sortie, though hazardous, would not be ordered until the relieving British forces had got the better of the German armour.
By 15th November all preparations had been made and from 4 p.m. many were at one hour’s notice to move. But the day brought neither the promised code word (“Tug” or “Pop”) nor any other news of the “push”. On the contrary through the communications network grim warnings were passed that an Axis attack might be impending, in which parachute troops and seaborne troops in rubber boats might be employed. The information received at fortress headquarters indicated that the assault was likely to be made in the western sector near the coast.
At 4 p.m. Lieut-Colonel Zaremba, General Kopanski’s chief of staff, called on Lieut-Colonel Burrows and informed him that divisional headquarters had received information suggesting that an enemy landing on the western beaches supported by parachute troops was possible. The 1st RHA, now fully mobile for the CRUSADER operation, was placed in support of the 2/13th Battalion for the night. Burrows stood his battalion to arms at dusk and established six fighting patrols along the beaches and headlands for almost three miles east of the perimeter. If an enemy force made a beach landing in the battalion’s sector, a code word was to be passed. Captain Graham’s company would at once occupy a defensive position to block penetration.
The night passed without alarms, the next day without news of the Eighth Army’s advance. At dusk there was a similar stand-to, followed by similar protective measures, except that the 1st RHA was withdrawn from the sector to stand by for its part in the CRUSADER sortie, which
the fortress command had to be ready to mount as from that evening. The night was again uneventful except for some rain showers.
Next evening – the 17th – the 2/13th was again required to act as beach night-watchman. There was still no information of either the British drive or the German combined operation. A few more postponements, a few more nights of standing to arms, should suffice, it seemed, to make the 2/13th Battalion utterly miserable. The fact that there was no news from the frontier added to their discouragement; fortress veterans remembered that practically no information of BATTLEAXE had been passed down to them before that offensive’s failure had been announced. But the elements themselves were to complete their discomfiture.
That night above Tobruk the skies which throughout the summer had shed not a drop of rain and had since bestowed only a few token showers were murky with heavy cloud. Lightning sporadically illuminated them. In time, with an accompaniment of thunderclaps, drenching rain fell, wadis quickly became coursing torrents – “letti di torrenti temporanei” as the Italian military maps described them – and crawl-trenches, weapon-pits, dug-outs, and other entrenchments, deep and shallow alike, were soon water-filled. Fieldworks had made no provision for drainage. At the Wadi Sehel pumping station men of the 2/13th Battalion carrier platoon who provided the standing patrol withdrew quickly but not according to plan, while their warning flares and rockets, triggered by torrent-borne debris striking the trip-wires, shot to the sky. Dawn brought a scene that seemed funny to some but not others when Australian patrols were discovered on the enemy side of the Wadi Sehel, waiting for the torrent to subside.
That morning in many of the frontal areas soldiers on both sides abandoned the holes in which they normally took shelter from each other’s shell and shot, and stood about or sat around in scattered groups sprawled across the defended localities like ants flooded out of their nests. If the ethics of war required them to kill off their exposed enemies, a simpleminded solicitude for their own survival induced some deviation from first principle. In the Salient the Poles, fearing that daylight’s disclosure of their plight would invite disaster, were determined to get the upper hand by shooting first. With machine-guns set up in improvised positions, they harassed the enemy as soon as they could be discerned in the dim light.
The enemy did not respond by fire but began to hoist white flags asking for peace. When fire ceased the work of draining their positions and drying their clothes began and enemy went so far as to kindle fire in improvised blanket tents. We took advantage of it to make some warm tea for our troops.19
Some officers of the RHA also made the best of the situation, visiting the Salient as observers “to make some observations which under normal conditions would have been impossible”.
This was the opening day of the Eighth Army’s postponed offensive. One would not have thought so in the western sector of Tobruk where the 2/13th Battalion, like most other units, awaited receipt of the code
word signalling first action to be taken. As the compiler of the Polish Brigade’s Intelligence summary remarked next day:–
The day of 18 of November was marked by exceptional inactivity of the enemy and own troops. Artillery shelling almost nil. ... During the day a sort of truce was established, each side trying to remove the effects of the rain and subsequent floods. After dark the normal conditions became re-established.
On the 20th, however, it was reported in the same publication:
The conditions on the salient yesterday were the same as on the previous day but this morning the old habits became re-established.
Old habits: one shoots to kill, that is.
In Tobruk the relief operations had no dramatic beginning. The garrison did not see the Eighth Army’s westward advance on wheels that caught the imagination of those who took part, firing them with the eager confidence of men who believe they belong to an invincible army. One heard of a flare-up in another region. In the course of days the wind changed, the conflagration drifted closer; then one’s own ground was threatened; there was real danger suddenly; one was in the fight, in the midst of it. But what was really happening out there beyond the perimeter nobody knew. The prescription for confidence was faith, hope and luck.
To the forces in Tobruk the offensive was an operation which from the start seemed behind schedule and always confused. Knowing their own tasks but not the master plan, conceiving the proposed link-up at Ed Duda with the Tobruk sortie force not as a merely incidental sequel to the planned destruction of the German armour but as the chief objective of the first phase of the offensive, they read the first situation reports with some puzzlement and judged the early progress more halting than audacious.
The code word “Tug” meaning “Don’t attack” was received from the XXX Corps on the 18th and again on the 19th. The 2/13th received its first battle situation report on the evening of the 19th. It gave the dispositions of the armour as at 10.45 a.m. on the 18th (and even then inaccurately, by confusing Bir Taieb el Esem with Gabr Taieb el Esem). So far no British tanks were reported within 30 miles of Ed Duda.
A situation report received on the morning of the 20th purported to depict the situation on the preceding morning. The 7th Armoured Brigade was moving to Sidi Rezegh, the 22nd to Bir el Gubi. The 4th Armoured Brigade had engaged 60 tanks, which had retired northwards. The puzzling part of that report was that the South African division, which was expected to capture Sidi Rezegh at the same time as the garrison sally force snatched Ed Duda, was still deep in the desert south of El Gubi. In the early afternoon the garrison witnessed a fighter sweep by 40 British aircraft; the 104th RHA’s diarist remarked that it was the first time they had seen anything like it. Gun flashes and tracer fire were subsequently seen from the Tobruk perimeter in the direction of Sidi Rezegh. It was reported that a big tank battle had occurred on the preceding day, the British having destroyed 27 enemy tanks for the loss of 20. British forces
from the frontier were obviously in the neighbourhood and it seemed as if the offensive’s objectives were being substantially achieved.
No further report came from the Eighth Army or XXX Corps; but a satisfactory outcome of the tank engagements could be presumed, for the code word XXX Corps sent that afternoon was not “Tug” but “Pop”: the sortie was to be made on the morrow. Through the Tobruk telephone network other code words were passed to set in train all required action.
There was a close resemblance in the routes and final objective chosen and some similarity in the associated deception schemes between the plan devised by Morshead and Wootten for a sortie in BATTLEAXE and that put out by Scobie and Martin for the sortie of the 70th Division in CRUSADER. In fact the decision to seize Ed Duda with a sally force from Tobruk appears to have been adopted (or reborn) at an early stage of the CRUSADER planning. General Cunningham discussed some details of the project at a staff conference on 15th October which General Scobie attended before going to Tobruk to take command there. General Scobie is reported to have agreed to place a squadron of cruisers at General Brink’s disposal for any westward move of the South African division20 after the link-up at Ed Duda. This was advanced planning indeed, perhaps without full knowledge of the mechanical condition of the cruisers Scobie was to inherit or the clairvoyance to foretell that by the end of the first day of the sortie only eight of them would be runners.
The best that can be said of the sortie plan is that in some fashion it worked. Two of its features seemed to commend it rather as a course to take after defeating the enemy than as a way of defeating him. One was the necessity to detach part of the garrison force including practically all its tanks and an indispensable artillery regiment and to employ the detachment so distantly that if it was endangered the garrison would be unable to lend effective aid. The other was the requirement to open up a corridor through enemy-held territory and keep it open; this involved exposing to the enemy two flanks of almost maximum extension defended at almost minimum depth. By simple logic holding the corridor open necessitated later secondary operations to make the flanks safe, in fact a greater commitment than nominally undertaken.
It was assumed that surprise was unlikely to be achieved. The chances of obtaining it were diminished by plans for ancillary operations to precede the main thrust, which were intended to divert the enemy’s attention from the sortie zone to other sectors but, if keenly executed, held promise of alarming and alerting him all round the perimeter.
The plan for the main sortie, like many ambitious projects, was in two parts; the first required much doing, the second much daring. In the first phase the striking force was to punch a gap through the encompassing enemy defences, converting the enemy strongpoints to its own use; in the second a mixed column of infantry and armour – the armour leading – was to sweep on to Ed Duda, seize that feature and hold it.
The composition of the main sally force, its order of advance and axis are shown in the diagram. The operation was not just a short attack across known ground to the front of that held. The main objective of the first phase, the strongly held and fortified locality called Tiger, was two miles and a half from the perimeter. The plan required that secretly by night men, tanks, guns, other weapons, stores and vehicles should be got across the perimeter’s anti-tank obstacles and formed up for battle in no-man’s land. For this eight bridges over the anti-tank ditch would be needed. Moreover Tiger was but one of a number of mutually supporting enemy localities. So before Tiger could be attacked, Butch had to be subdued, Jill overrun, and something would have to be done to neutralise Tugun, Lion, Cub and Jack. Then to reach Ed Duda a further advance of about five miles would have to be undertaken.
The first feint, to be carried out by the Polish Brigade in the western sector at 3 a.m., was a series of raids combined with an artillery bombardment. In this operation the 2/13th was to participate with a patrol of one officer and 12 men, which was to demonstrate against a strong Italian defensive locality known as Twin Pimples as though threatening attack while concentrated fire was laid along the front by mortars, medium machine-guns and light machine-guns. Other sorties – one of company strength and two of platoon strength – were to be made on the left of the 2/13th by the 1st and 3rd Polish Battalions. A second diversion was to be carried out by the 23rd Brigade in the area of the El Adem road-block.
The Tobruk garrison’s great assault began with these diversionary operations in the early hours of 21st November. The Polish Brigade’s operation went to plan, woke up everybody, deceived nobody and attracted a satisfactory if not lavish volume of retaliatory fire. The 23rd Brigade’s diversion was quite successful to the extent that its purpose was to make a noise and stir up the enemy; but Plonk, the piece de resistance of the brigade’s task, was not captured.
The sally force’s difficult forming-up outside the perimeter was achieved without interference from the enemy; the roar of supporting gunfire and enemy counter-bombardment from the 23rd Brigade’s false strike drowned the clatter of its assembly. Zero hour for the infantry to advance in the most formidable attack ever made by the Tobruk force was 6.30 a.m. On the left of the sally port and not far out was Butch, which had to be neutralised or the route to Tiger would be murderously enfiladed. It was to be taken by the 2/King’s Own. The centre strike, by the 2/Black Watch, was to be directed at Tiger through the smaller outpost Jill. The left prong was to reach out to Tugun, far to the left flank – an operation assigned to the 2/Queen’s.
At 6.20 a.m. a bombardment of Butch began. Within 10 minutes the 2/King’s Own supported by a squadron of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment (19 Matildas) announced its capture. They reported that the enemy, of whom there were 30 dead, were German and they sent back 10 live ones to prove it. And it soon became evident that this was no isolated
pocket. A region thought to lie along the boundary of two Italian divisions and expected to be defended mainly by cross-fire from a few strong-points proved to be a German defensive area held in some density by unyielding and determined defenders. Most of these had moved in BqR six days before. Moreover the localities called by code names and delineated in the plans accompanying the operation orders proved to be parts of a more extensive, unmapped and well-concealed defensive system, interlaced with unmarked minefields. Thus an area just to the north of Butch which was not one of the operation’s objectives remained in enemy hands for several days.
At 6.30 a.m., sustained by a regimental tradition reaching back for more than 200 years, the infantrymen of the 2/Black Watch’s assault companies stood up, all to face death, half to die. The tanks were not there, except for a squadron of cruisers not to be employed in the main assault. The time required to get them over the bridges crossing the anti-tank ditch had been underestimated. The infantry commanders made the right decision: to press on alone, making best use of what protection the timed artillery program would provide.
The action developed into a muddle redeemed by great leadership and utmost bravery. Jill, treated in the plan as a small detached post to be easily smothered in the advance of the leading company, proved a strong locality. Each effort of the Black Watch to get forward was murderously cut down until the lately arrived infantry tanks came across from Butch with a company of the 2/King’s Own following. When Jill had been overrun, “there was nothing left of [the leading company of the 2/Black Watch] to carry on to Tiger”.21
When the tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment were assembled on the battlefield, they were unable to proceed because of a minefield to the west and north of Tiger. They were told to make “merry hell”, which they did, with a resounding accompaniment from the guns of “A/E”
Battery. The defence seemed momentarily neutralised and Captain Armitage, who had nosed his armoured command post forward, reported at 8.30 a.m. that he was “on the back of Tiger”, which comprised 1,000 yards of infantry positions dug flush with the ground. The Black Watch were too extended, however, to make the concerted rush needed to exploit a fleeting opportunity, but continued to probe forward to the stirring but melancholy skirling of bagpipes.
Brave work was then done by sappers and men of the King’s Dragoon Guards in clearing minefields. At last a sufficient gap was made and, while “C” Squadron of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment under the brilliant if unorthodox leadership of Major Goschen of “B/O” Battery attacked centres of supporting defensive fire to the east, the tanks of “B” Squadron surged through the gap and right through Tiger. Then, about three hours after the attack had started, the 200 men still remaining of the Black Watch charged forward and captured their objective at the point of the bayonet. Yet there was still work for the Black Watch to do. Machine-gun hail beat down intermittently directed from Jack to the north-east. A weak company was collected and with tanks of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment assaulted and took the place. When Captain Jones of the 104th RHA reported there a little later to establish an artillery command post, he found only a handful of men, sent for reinforcements and personally took charge until a company of the 1/Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire arrived. In another operation, Lion – a defended locality to the south-west of Tiger – was bombarded by artillery and overrun by tanks, but not seized.
Jack was found to be a German battalion headquarters and communications centre. Captured documents showed that the sortie force had struck at the heart of the infantry of Rommel’s assault force, who were all set to go and expected to assault on the morrow;22 the 70th Division’s attack had driven a wedge between the Africa zbV Division on the left and the Bologna Division on the right. There was also evidence that the enemy had been forewarned of the British attack. The warning, it now appears, had emanated from Rommel himself, who had called for three-hourly reports; which suggests that his excellent intercept service may have gathered some clue as to what was afoot.
A subsidiary operation by the 2/Queen’s against Tugun on the right flank, planned concurrently with the main sortie but in insufficient strength, had not succeeded. The 2/Queen’s, reinforced by a company of the Beds and Herts, later mounted a second assault in conjunction with a squadron of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment and managed to secure the eastern end of the locality, but the enemy hung on to the western end.
That morning’s situation report from the Eighth Army, detailing its situation at 9 a.m., had said that the 4th Armoured Brigade was at Gabr Taieb el Esem and the 22nd north-west of Gabr Saleh, both “following up the retreating enemy armoured forces” in a north-westerly direction and that the 7th Armoured Brigade which, with the 7th Support Group,
was at Sidi Rezegh had been ordered to intercept the retreating enemy. An encouraging message from XXX Corps received later in the morning, which indicated that the 5th South African Brigade was ten miles south of Sidi Rezegh, and confirmed that its support of the sortie operations would be forthcoming that afternoon, emboldened General Scobie to proceed with the second phase, the seizure of Ed Duda, notwithstanding the unexpected casualty rate suffered in the first.
The start-time was set first at 1 p.m., later at 2.30. By then the task force had assembled on its start-line, but Brigadier Willison, commanding the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, asked for more time to enable the participation of a number of tanks which had become embroiled in resisting local counter-attacks and in mopping-up operations in the corridor. Even after a postponement, he would only be strong enough, he said, if the attack were synchronised with operations by the South Africans. The postponement was agreed to. Shortly before 4 p.m., just as Willison’s force was making ready for its delayed start, another message came from the XXX Corps suggesting that the operation be postponed because it would be impossible to provide support for the operation against Ed Duda owing to an armoured battle 16 miles to the south-east. Scobie, impressed no doubt by the apparent resilience of the retreating German armour, cancelled the sally.
It had been a day of great achievement. A wedge three miles deep had been driven through one of the strongest sections of the encircling defences. To secure the corridor against sniping and cross-fire, further operations would be required, but it was already possible for garrison forces to debouch into the open desert, whatever perils might lie beyond. Five hundred and fifty German prisoners (including 20 officers) and 527 Italian (including 18 officers) had been taken, but at great cost in loss of life. In the 2/Black Watch alone, there were 200 dead.
Next morning (22nd November) another message was received from the XXX Corps stating that their own troops at Sidi Rezegh were being heavily attacked. “Please attack Ed Duda as soon as possible,” the message importuned, “and shoot up enemy tanks now on Trigh Capuzzo.” This was not the kind of sortie General Scobie’s planning had envisaged. He signalled that his heavy tank strength was much reduced and that if the operation failed, the safety of the fortress would be endangered, but added: “Will attack Ed Duda if you wish. Request immediate orders.” The XXX Corps replied just after midday “Do not attack”, adding with inverted logic “Situation improving”.
In the CRUSADER planning the prerequisite for the sortie to Ed Duda was the defeat of the German armoured forces but on that day the British 7th Armoured Division was staring defeat in the face. The execution was to take place on the morrow.
As the great British army of the desert had set off westwards on wheels to cross the frontier, the storms that had caused torrents to flow in the wadis of Tobruk had swept towards the advancing forces, flooding air-
fields and grounding aircraft in the operational zone. No aircraft had reported to the German armoured group commander (General Rommel) the size of the British force coming towards him, or even detected its presence. The British formations moved on the 18th to their designated first objectives unopposed except for one or two skirmishes with light enemy screening detachments. Never in a large operation had tactical surprise been more completely achieved since Gustavus Adolphus crossed the frozen Baltic; never had it been achieved to less purpose. So well had the British command and the elements concealed the move intended to provoke a disconcerted enemy to self-destructive reaction that none ensued. The old campaigner Rommel was not put about by early, scary reports of the magnitude of the British incursion and declined to authorise any counter-measures that might interrupt his advanced preparations to assault Tobruk.
The wait-and-see, your-turn-next tactic implicit in the Cunningham plan had brought the Eighth Army to a halt. What to do next? Seek out and destroy! While Cunningham deliberated subordinate commanders took the initiative. Late on the 18th General Norrie indicated Bir el Gubi and Sidi Rezegh as likely objectives for the next day’s operations and early on the 19th General Gott, commanding the 7th Armoured Division, ordered the 22nd Armoured Brigade to attack the Ariete Division at
El Gubi, which was ground of the Ariete’s own choosing, and well-prepared at that. Honours were about even in the battle. The British lost 25 tanks, the Italians 34, but when the action was broken off the Italians held the ground. Gott also ordered the 7th Armoured Brigade to reconnoitre towards Sidi Rezegh and later to seize a position there, which it did at good speed, overrunning the airfield and capturing 19 Italian aircraft.
Meanwhile the 4th Armoured Brigade had sent the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment with armoured cars of the King’s Dragoon Guards on a foray, cavalry-style, to the north-east. The excursion, which developed into a chase of the German 3rd Reconnaissance Unit, stung the German command into the sort of reaction the CRUSADER planners had visualised. At the instance of General von Ravenstein (commanding the 21st Armoured Division) General Crüwell (commanding the German Africa Corps) obtained General Rommel’s permission to send a reinforced tank regiment (the 5th) to strike at Gabr Saleh. Here was presented the first opportunity of inflicting defeat in detail on the German armoured forces. But at Gabr Saleh there was now only one British tank regiment, the 8th Hussars, with little more than 50 General Stuart tanks, a 12-gun battery of 25-pounders and four 2-pounders. The 5th Royal Tanks were not far to the east, but not exactly within inter-supporting distance. The divisional artillery was not to hand. The battle was joined about 2.30 p.m. and the 5th RTR.
came across in time to join in the fight, which was not broken off until night began to fall. The British armoured brigades, then slightly outnumbering their opponents in tanks, were not disgraced but the German group with its stronger artillery had had the best of it.
The armoured engagements had so far been inconclusive but in the next three days the battle moved swiftly to a calamitous climax. The 3rd Royal Tank Regiment’s jaunt had convinced the German command of the necessity for strong counter-measures, though misleading it as to the purposes of the British and the location of their main strength. The 15th Armoured Division on the coast east of Tobruk was directed to link up with the 21st Armoured Division. Thus concentrated the armour would strike towards the frontier from Sidi Omar northwards, which was not in fact the region threatened by the British armoured force. The 15th Armoured Division’s move would inevitably postpone Rommel’s attack on Tobruk, thus precluding the near chance that the German assault would be launched on the day Scobie made his sortie, an eventuality in which (it is safe to say) the operations of neither side would have gone according to plan.
While the German armour was concentrating, the dispersion of British mobile forces was continuing. The 7th Support Group was directed to move up to Sidi Rezegh next day to join the 7th Armoured Brigade and the South African division was sent to Bir el Gubi to release the 22nd Armoured Brigade so that it could also join the 7th. Before the latter move was executed, however, perturbing reports received by Eighth Army headquarters required a change of plan.
On the morning of the 20th Brigadier Gatehouse23 ordered the 4th Armoured Brigade to advance and engage their adversaries of the evening before. A spirited action ensued, which was broken off by the German commander in conformity with orders for the concentration of his division at Sidi Omar. Then General Cunningham learnt from his intercept service that both German divisions had linked up and were planning to attack the 4th Armoured Brigade at midday. He summoned the 22nd Armoured Brigade to come across from El Gubi, a move which was not completed until late afternoon. At that moment of crisis help from another quarter was proffered to Gatehouse. General Freyberg, whose excellent New Zealand division was at Bir Gibni some seven miles away, could see no reason why it should be kept out of the fight. With General Godwin-Austen’s approbation he offered the division with its complete artillery and its battalion of heavy tanks to Gatehouse, but Gatehouse preferred to fight his battle unencumbered by infantry. So the 4th Armoured Brigade, kept – in Rommel’s phrase – pure of race, made ready to meet its sternest test alone. The attack, delayed and diminished in strength to one division by German supply difficulties, came in at 4.30 p.m. and again the fighting continued until nightfall stopped it, with the 22nd Armoured Brigade joining in before it ended. This second battle between British and German
armour was as inconclusive as the first but at its end the enemy camped on the battlefield, recovering his damaged tanks – none had been destroyed. The 4th Armoured Brigade, which had crossed the frontier with 164 tanks, had 97 left.
That night General Rommel, believing the 4th Armoured Brigade to have been accounted for, ordered both German armoured divisions to proceed at once to the Tobruk front to deal with the British armoured force at Sidi Rezegh. The Germans were no longer doubtful of British plans. The BBC had obligingly informed them. The British command had meanwhile transmitted the code word requiring the Tobruk garrison to break out on the morrow. If the Tobruk garrison and the German forces had both fully carried out their orders next day, Scobie’s small sortie force would have reached Ed Duda about the same time as two German armoured divisions.
When the British irruption from Egypt had been first reported, Major-General Sümmermann had prudently ordered the zbV Division to form a front facing south. The front was a wide one necessitating the establishment of defended localities at widely-spaced dominating points. East of the Sidi Rezegh airfield, the 361st Infantry Regiment established itself around Trig 175 on the escarpment running parallel to the Trigh Capuzzo and overlooking it from the south, while south-west of the airfield the 155th Regiment established itself at the second escarpment which overlooked
the steppe on which the airfield was sited. A powerful artillery group, with a battalion of Italian infantry of the Bologna Division for protection, was established on the escarpments near Belhamed; throughout the 20th it harassed the British.
General Gott visited Sidi Rezegh twice on the 20th. Between visits, he arranged with General Brink to send forward one of the two brigades of the 1st South African Division from El Gubi. Brink, who (it will be recalled) had earlier protested the need for further training refused to allow a night march, so when night fell the 5th Brigade, the one selected, halted some 17 miles from Sidi Rezegh, where they were due at 7 a.m. next morning. The XXX Corps’ only medium artillery regiment had been allowed to remain at El Gubi. The South African division, then only one brigade group strong, was also to stay near El Gubi with the peculiar role of “masking” an armoured division, the Ariete.
On his second visit to Sidi Rezegh, made in the evening, Gott ordered the 7th Armoured Brigade and Support Group to clear the ridge north of the airfield with an infantry attack and thus open a way to the Trigh Capuzzo and Ed Duda, where a junction was to be made with the 70th Division’s sortie force next day (the 21st). The attack was made next morning at 7.45 (simultaneously with the early stages of the Tobruk sortie operations) without waiting for the South African brigade, which had been held up in muddy country. Three companies of the 1/King’s Royal Rifle Corps and one of the 2/Rifle Brigade wrested the ridges from the enemy and the 6th Royal Tank Regiment passed through, all set for Ed Duda. There was an important observer of the engagement in the person of the German armoured group commander. With customary decisiveness Rommel mustered four 88-mm guns and sent them with the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit to block the way. The 6th Royal Tank Regiment was shot to pieces; it saved only sufficient tanks to field one composite squadron. Meanwhile Gott had caught up with the South African brigade and halted it 10 miles short of Sidi Rezegh. Gott spent most of the day with the brigade, but curiously, to judge from the narrative of the South African historians, did not inform the brigade commander of the plan to employ it that day at Ed Duda in conjunction with the Tobruk sortie force.
The 7th Support Group’s capture of the Sidi Rezegh ridge and the capture of Tiger and Jack by the Tobruk sortie force later that morning were the high-water mark of British success in the first phase of the offensive. The ebb set in swiftly. Farther east, about Gabr Saleh, the
day had also seemed to begin propitiously. General Norrie thought the enemy had taken a hard knock the previous evening, and when the German armour disengaged that morning bent on smashing the British foothold at Sidi Rezegh, the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades followed up the seeming retreat, as Scobie had been told. The Germans made better pace at first, but the British caught up with the German rearguards and a running fight ensued until the British, having outrun their supplies, paused to refuel. The German divisions pressed on. By about 8 a.m. the van of the German armour was approaching the Sidi Rezegh area. Before the Black Watch, not far to the north, had taken Tiger, the gunners and infantry of the Support Group were fighting with their lives to hold their ground.
Meanwhile Norrie had suggested to Cunningham that the time was propitious for operations by the XIII Corps to reduce the Axis frontier positions. Norrie’s optimistic interpretation of the previous day’s armoured battles and of the German armour’s westward move induced Cunningham to receive the suggestion favourably. Cunningham authorised but did not enjoin Godwin-Austen to start, but Godwin-Austen needed no prodding. So, impelled by a sure instinct that the cause could be advanced better by fighting than by standing idle, a corps commander exercising a delegated discretion set in train the operations that were to provide a fatal distraction for Rommel when victory was within his grasp, operations which were to be pertinaciously and staunchly prosecuted until the Eighth Army’s fortunes had been retrieved.
Soon after the 7th Support Group had secured a lodgment south of Belhamed on the Sidi Rezegh ridges beside the Trigh Capuzzo, its eastern elements and its artillery group came under attack from the 21st Armoured Division. For the rest of the day the 7th Armoured Brigade and the 7th Support Group fought both German armoured divisions in a confused battle in which the legendary Brigadier Campbell’s bravery and resource helped stave off utter destruction, but not severe defeat. The stark result was that the ratio of British tank losses to German for the day was of the order of 15 to 1 and when night fell the 7th Armoured Brigade was left with only 28 tanks in running order. The 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades had not pursued the enemy with sufficient alacrity to join the battle.
At his remote headquarters General Cunningham had a false picture of the situation, partly because many reports were slow to reach him, partly because many of them were wrong; most of his interventions in the swiftly moving battle were based on a view corresponding little with the actual contemporaneous situation but representing rather an erroneous conception of an earlier situation. The salient features of the battle situation that afternoon, as he conceived it, were that the German armour was in retreat and the Tobruk sortie force about to make for Ed Duda; his forces at Sidi Rezegh, he feared, might be insufficiently regardful of the critical importance of linking at Ed Duda with the sortie
force. He told Norrie that evening that he must join up with the sortie force if it got to Ed Duda; to Cunningham (as he informed Norrie) this appeared to require only a short night march. Norrie and Gott, however, attached prior importance to clearing the German infantry from the escarpment south-west of the Sidi Rezegh airfield, which was a more realistic first step, if a bit one-sided. The 5th South African Brigade was moved up for that purpose.
On the night of the 21st there were divergent views in the enemy camp on the best course to take. Becoming aware of the convergence of more British armoured forces on the Sidi Rezegh front, the German commanders were cautious. The upshot was that one armoured division – the weaker 21st Armoured – was ordered to Belhamed, to form, in conjunction with the 155th and 361st Regiments, a defensive front there which would block a British advance from Sidi Rezegh to link up with the Tobruk sortie force, while the other (15th Armoured) moved off into the open desert about 7 miles south of Gambut, under the erroneous impression that it would then be well-disposed to attack the British in flank. Unfortunately for the British it found the going difficult and so by chance was to be given an opportunity to strike a damaging blow.
On 22nd November the Eighth Army’s great armoured force, which in the CRUSADER plan had been cast for the role of destroying the Axis armour, was itself decisively defeated. In the early morning there were desultory skirmishes and gunfire duels. The 7th Armoured Brigade and the Support Group’s artillery sparred with the 21st Armoured Division as it went into position near Belhamed; the 4th and 22nd Armoured Brigades with the 15th Armoured Division’s rearguards as it departed. In mid-morning the message asking Scobie to attack Ed Duda and shoot up the enemy tanks on the Trigh Capuzzo was dispatched. The situation was hardly suited to such an enterprise, which Gott’s force was not poised to support, but in general the trend of operations seemed not unpropitious for the forces around Sidi Rezegh. Orders had just been passed to the 4th Armoured Brigade (which meanwhile had expended some energy and fuel in a wild goose chase) to advance to Trig 175 on the northern escarpment, and to the 5th South African Brigade to advance to Trig 178 on the southern escarpment. Later the 22nd Armoured was also directed to the Trig 178 region. Thus all were set for clearing the Sidi Rezegh area though not yet for getting to Ed Duda.
When Scobie was told, about midday, that the situation was improving, and that therefore he need not attack Ed Duda, there was nothing in the local scene at Sidi Rezegh to belie the message. The British plan for the afternoon provided that the 5th South African Brigade should clear the enemy from the southern (Trig 178) escarpment west of the British positions. But Rommel had made a different appreciation. In the early afternoon he ordered the 21st Armoured Division to launch an immediate counter-attack to regain the airfield. The division’s armoured regiment (the 5th) was to attack from the west while its infantry (Knabe Group)
attacked from the north and the operation was to be supported by the powerful Army Artillery Group behind Belhamed.
The result of the afternoon’s operations may be briefly told. The South African attack did not succeed but the German did. The Knabe Group struck direct at the Support Group and thrust it from the escarpment above the tomb of Sidi Rezegh. The emasculated 7th Armoured
Brigade took the first brunt of the armoured encounter: the 22nd Armoured Brigade counter-attacked, but while the British fire was directed mainly at the German tanks German 88-mm and 50-mm guns shot the British tank force to pieces. The 4th Armoured Brigade arrived too late to retrieve the disaster. By nightfall the 7th Armoured Brigade was reduced to 10 tanks, the 22nd to 24 and most of the Support Group had been overrun. Worse was to come. Crüwell had ordered the roving 15th Armoured Division to the escarpment east of the airfield, which it did not reach before dark; but one tank regiment, sent ahead while the rest bedded down, bumped into the night leaguer of the headquarters and one regiment (the 8th Hussars) of the 4th Armoured Brigade, which it boldly surrounded and overran. The Germans captured the entire headquarters of the 4th Armoured Brigade except the brigade commander (Brigadier Gatehouse) who had the good fortune to be elsewhere, also 35 tanks and several guns. After the destruction of its command and communications system, the 4th Armoured Brigade became “temporarily useless as a fighting formation”.
Meanwhile General Godwin-Austen had not been dilatory in setting in train operations by the XIII Corps. General Freyberg needed no spurring. On his initiative the 6th New Zealand Brigade (not the whole division
as Scobie had supposed) had been dispatched along the Trigh Capuzzo on the 22nd to reinforce the British hold on Sidi Rezegh and, despite some delay caused by a direction from Norrie to change its attached Matildas for a squadron of Valentines, the brigade had made good but hard progress. In the meantime the XIII Corps had begun operating offensively on the frontier. One New Zealand brigade took Fort Capuzzo and Musaid, another mopped up around Bardia and cut its pipe-line while a tank and infantry attack by the 7th Indian Brigade captured Sidi Omar and most of Libyan Omar.
While the 6th New Zealand Brigade was pressing on, Cunningham and Norrie began to experience anxiety for the 7th Support Group at Sidi Rezegh and to perceive the need for infantry reinforcement there. Also Freyberg soon conceived that, rather than have only a detached brigade in that quarter, it would be better to get his whole division to the Tobruk front except what had to be left to hold the gains made at Bardia and Capuzzo. Godwin-Austen readily agreed with Freyberg.
Next day, 23rd November, known in the Lutheran calendar as Totensonntag – Sunday of the Dead – the German command employed about 160 tanks, several battalions of infantry and assault engineers to launch a massive attack against the depleted Sidi Rezegh force, of which the main components were the composite 22nd Armoured Brigade of 34 tanks (formed from what was left of the original 7th and 22nd Brigades) and the 5th South African Brigade. The British force was overrun and the British armour reduced to a few broken remnants no longer capable of challenging the Africa Corps to battle. The 5th South African Brigade ceased to exist as an effective formation. But the enemy victory was not won without cost. The Germans began the day with about 170 tanks; they ended it with about 100. They could not afford many such victories. And although next day the 7th Armoured Division’s most effective tank formation could muster only 15 runners, the infantry of XIII Corps and the Matildas and Valentines allotted to their support still had a part to play.
Neither of the two messages sent to Scobie on the 22nd – first calling on him to attack Ed Duda to relieve a critical situation at Sidi Rezegh, then agreeing to a deferment of the attack because the situation was improving – had fitted his preconceptions of the CRUSADER plan. Knowing something was amiss, but not what it was, he decided to consolidate his outlet, mop up enemy remnants close to the corridor, extend his hold by capturing neighbouring strongpoints and maintain continuous pressure.
On the afternoon of the 22nd the 32nd Army Tank Brigade and the 2/Yorks and Lancs, with the 1st RHA in support, took the strongpoint Lion, to the right of Tiger. In the evening Scobie heard that the enemy had recaptured Sidi Rezegh but other messages led him to believe erroneously that the whole of the New Zealand Division was proceeding to the Tobruk front. Next day consolidation west of the corridor continued. Dalby Square was captured and a counter-attack there withstood;
300 prisoners were taken. In another attack the western end of Tugun, to which the enemy had clung tenaciously, was captured.
The 25-pounders of the sortie force had fired about 400 rounds per gun on the 21st and again on the 23rd. That day Scobie asked for an ammunition ship, but was told that one could not be sent and he should conserve ammunition. Because of this and the necessity to husband his tank and infantry resources for an operation against Ed Duda he decided to limit field-gun action and curtail further exploitation. The fortress anti-aircraft guns, however, were used for a counter-battery shoot.
On the morning of the sortie the 2/13th Battalion had been split, battalion headquarters and two companies moving to the head of the Pilastrino road-pass, there to establish a back-stop defensive position, while the other two companies continued to hold the Wadi Sehel perimeter. Next day the battalion provided a grave-digging party on the Tiger battlefield, and on subsequent days guards at the neighbouring prisoner-of-war compound. On the morning of the 23rd a wrecked ship could be seen on the coast some distance to the west of the Wadi Sehel. It proved to be the Maria Giovanni which so often during the siege had brought canteen goods, wet and dry, and other comforts to Tobruk; this time the schooner had overshot the harbour and run into the shore. As the wreck was beyond field-gun range, efforts were made to shell it and destroy the cargo with anti-aircraft gunfire, but without success.
On the night of the 24th November the two 2/13th companies on the Wadi Sehel were relieved by troops from the Polish Brigade and joined the rest of the battalion at Pilastrino. No significance was attached to the reunion and for two days the men had little to do except ponder sceptically the reports of an offensive that seemed to have become bogged down. The course of the battle was viewed more optimistically at fortress headquarters, however, where it was inferred on the 24th from a study of intercepted messages that “the enemy’s position was becoming extremely critical” and this seemed to be confirmed by a message received early next morning directing Scobie to get ready to attack Ed Duda in conjunction with the New Zealand Division. Stocks of 25-pounder ammunition were low – only 554 rounds per gun – but a ship provided in response to further urgent pleas was due to reach Tobruk on the night of the 26th with 600 tons.
By the morning of the 23rd the reports of British tank losses had forced Cunningham to acknowledge the stark truth that he had lost the armoured battle, and that the armoured force facing utter destruction was not the enemy’s but his own. Whether to maintain the offensive or halt it was the one decision he could not take himself; there is little doubt, however, to which course he inclined. He asked General Auchinleck to come to the front. Cunningham’s staff was presenting him with totals not only of British tank losses but of supposed German losses, based on grossly exaggerated reports. The situation was even worse than Cunningham thought.
In four days Eighth Army had lost some 530 tanks while the enemy lost about 100. Of 500 cruisers 7 Armoured Division retained fewer than 90, whereas the three enemy armoured divisions still had 250 tanks (170 of them German) of the 356 with which they had started the battle.24
Perhaps the exaggeration of enemy losses was just as well, for otherwise General Auchinleck might have found it more difficult to make the great and courageous decision which brought victory after defeat and for which he will always be famous. On 24th November he directed Cunningham to continue to attack the enemy relentlessly, using all his resources, “even to the last tank” Seldom in the annals of war has a single tactical decision been fraught with such great consequences. That the situation was not exactly as Auchinleck, for good reasons, conceived it is of less consequence than that his decision proved the right one for the situation that did evolve. No criticism can ever detract from his nobility in unequivocally declaring the grave risks his decision entailed and openly taking the whole responsibility for their acceptance.
Auchinleck issued a directive which re-affirmed that the immediate object was to destroy the enemy tank forces, the ultimate, the conquest of Cyrenaica, as a prelude to an advance to Tripoli. When one passes from his statement of the objects to his prescription of the method of achievement, one is arrested by the magnitude of the risks he took. The main method indicated was to recapture the Sidi Rezegh–Ed Duda ridge and join hands with the Tobruk garrison; in its practical application this meant that two New Zealand brigade groups and a small force of Valentines were to attempt what the XXX Corps had been defeated in attempting. But Auchinleck’s indication of method merely endorsed what the field commanders were already doing. General Cunningham’s preconception of the battle had been shattered; what he had originally regarded as only an incidental to the plan, the relief of Tobruk, was the only part of it that remained unattempted. This the formation commanders began to carry into effect almost as a matter of course, and as though unmindful that the prior destruction of the German armour had been declared a pre-requisite to its accomplishment.
The 6th New Zealand Brigade, pressing along the Trigh Capuzzo, had reached the vicinity of Sidi Rezegh airfield by the 23rd; New Zealand field and anti-tank gunners accounted for some of the German losses suffered in the Totensonntag battle. The 26th New Zealand Battalion at Garaet en Nbeidat was on the fringe of the battlefield, and that day the 25th and 24th Battalions had hard fighting with German infantry of the 361st Regiment for possession of Point 175.
Godwin-Austen was told by Cunningham early on the 23rd that on the 24th he was to take charge of all operations to relieve Tobruk, including command of the fortress troops. Having little to spare from frontier commitments with which to help the New Zealand brigades advancing along the Trigh Capuzzo, Godwin-Austen thought of the two-brigade South African division, of which one brigade had not yet been committed. But
there were others who had wanted the brigade’s services. Norrie had summoned it to Sidi Rezegh; Cunningham had interfered to send one battalion group back to El Gubi to help the 22nd Guards Brigade “mask” the Italian Ariete Division. By sunset on the 23rd that brigade – Brigadier Pienaar’s25 1st South African – was the only one that remained of the 1st South African Division.
The desolate scene at nightfall on the Totensonntag battlefield, south of Sidi Rezegh – the drifting smoke, the flickering fires, the sad groups of dejected men waiting to be gathered and imprisoned – symbolised the shattering of General Cunningham’s CRUSADER dream. At dawn on the 24th the outmatched and battered 7th Armoured Division was all but defenceless. Nothing the British had left could try conclusions with the Africa Corps’ armoured divisions or dispute their mastery of the desert between Tobruk and Salum in which both armies had their forward supply centres. The enemy could exploit the victory almost at will.
The German exploitation plan and its execution were both typical of Rommel. Relying on speed and surprise to unsettle and dislodge his enemy, he intended to drive the Africa Corps south-east at maximum speed, cross the frontier south of the Omars and then take in rear the British forces investing the German and Italian frontier garrisons.
By the evening of the 24th, leading elements of the 21st Armoured Division were across the Egyptian frontier and making for the Halfaya Pass, though the 15th had halted some distance west of the frontier and the Ariete Division was still not far from Bir el Gubi. On the 25th, the 21st Armoured Division’s tactical headquarters near Halfaya (under von Ravenstein) plotted an attack on Capuzzo but was unable to make mobile a sufficient force to mount it; the division’s 5th Armoured Regiment expended itself in unavailing attacks on Indian troops in the Omars. The 15th Armoured Division, short of fuel and under air attack, probed into the rear areas of the New Zealand Division near Sidi Azeiz but accomplished little. The Ariete Division tried conclusions ingloriously with the 1st South African Brigade near Gabr Saleh.
Next day, the 26th, the Africa Corps did little but wrestle with its own supply difficulties until late afternoon and early night, when the 15th Armoured Division operating from Bardia, and the 21st from Halfaya, sent motorised battle groups against the two New Zealand battalions – the 23rd and 28th (Maori) – in the Capuzzo–Musaid–upper Salum area. The New Zealand battalions were not dislodged from their main holding positions.
So far the British command and troops had proved strangely unreactive and phlegmatic in face of the German commander’s deep armoured thrusts. Though still hopeful of first snatching an easy prize or two on the frontier, Rommel realised by the morning of the 27th that it had become urgent to take his armoured formations back to the Tobruk front, whence Colonel
Westphal, left in command there by Rommel, had been sending a stream of increasingly apprehensive messages supplicating their help.
Norrie and Gott had admirably sustained their offensive outlook in face of the incredible decimation of their armoured regiments. The XXX Corps was organised into a number of “Jock” columns. This helped keep people’s spirits up for a few days when the side was not winning, but later a continuation of the same policy was to allow the mobile forces to be satisfied with light sparring when some good slogging and close-in fighting would have better suited the New Zealand infantry advancing to Tobruk.
At first it was the obstinate British command’s perverse tendency to underrate Rommel’s power and belittle his efforts that robbed him of the success his enterprise deserved. So greatly had British reports overstated German tank losses, so greatly had Auchinleck’s Intelligence service therefore under-stated the remaining German tank strength that he could not help but under-estimate the threat to his supply bases and lines of communication. But ultimately it was Rommel who robbed himself of that success by being blind to his enemy’s Achilles heel. His threat to the vulnerable British supply and administrative areas did not become real because he sought other quarry, and Auchinleck’s appreciation in his message to Cunningham and the Eighth Army (quoted below) “His position is desperate, and he is trying by lashing out in all directions to distract
us from our object”, though far from true, provided an interpretation with which Rommel’s actions did not seem inconsistent.
One of the many paradoxes of the CRUSADER battle is that, while each army commander gave his striking forces tasks close to his enemy’s forward supply and maintenance area, neither thought of his enemy’s forward supply services as a primary target or went to special pains to discover their location. Rommel ordering the Africa Corps to make attacks on Capuzzo and Sidi Omar was no more mindful of the exposed British field maintenance centres than was the Eighth Army’s staff, following on maps the New Zealand Division’s progress towards Ed Duda, of the Africa Corps’ vulnerable supply areas on the New Zealanders’ northern flank. Yet both Auchinleck and Rommel gave much time and distracting thought to secondary operations along the line of oases from Giarabub to Gialo developed by the Eighth Army as a threat to Axis lines of communication in Cyrenaica.
Auchinleck spent two days at Eighth Army headquarters while Rommel was developing his eastward thrust but held steadfastly to his opinion that the Eighth Army had “only to persist to win”.
His position is desperate (he told the army in a message before returning to Cairo) and he is trying by lashing out in all directions to distract us from our object, which is to destroy him utterly. ... Give him no rest. The general situation in North Africa is excellent. There is only one order: ATTACK AND PURSUE. All out everyone.26
He returned to Cairo on 25th November, by which time he had decided that he could no longer repose confidence in General Cunningham who, in Auchinleck’s opinion, had “begun to think defensively instead of offensively, mainly because of our large tank losses”.27 He chose his deputy chief of staff, Major-General Ritchie, whom he promoted to the rank of Lieut-general, to replace Cunningham as army commander. Next afternoon General Smith, the Chief of the General Staff in the Middle East, arrived with Ritchie at Cunningham’s headquarters bearing two letters from Auchinleck to Cunningham, and Smith informed Cunningham that he was to hand his command over at once to Ritchie. Never to be dismayed by misfortune was the theme of Auchinleck’s substitution of Ritchie for Cunningham, which precept seemed to epitomise Ritchie’s ill-starred exercise of command in the ensuing seven months.
The New Zealand Division (less the 5th Brigade) which with the 1st Army Tank Brigade (less one regiment) was advancing towards Tobruk by the Trigh Capuzzo route was too occupied with its own problems to be over-troubled by the disasters that had overtaken the 7th Armoured Division and 5th South African Brigade. On the 23rd the 25th New Zealand Battalion and part of the 24th and of the 8th Royal Tank Regiment (47 Valentines), were involved in heavy fighting with the German 361st Africa Regiment in the 6th New Zealand Brigade’s attack on Point 175, the capture of which was gallantly completed next day. On the
25th the 4th New Zealand Brigade began clearing the enemy from the escarpment north of the Trigh Capuzzo on the right flank of the 6th Brigade and took Zaafran, while the 6th captured the Blockhouse and established two companies on the eastern edge of the Sidi Rezegh airfield.
To General Freyberg the situation seemed propitious for a resumption of the plan to form a link at Ed Duda between the British frontier-based forces and the Tobruk sortie force. He heard from Godwin-Austen that Scobie had been preparing a sortie north-east of the “corridor” but had been told by Godwin-Austen that any sortie plan must include a “definite firm and secure junction” with the New Zealand Division at Ed Duda. Infected by the fantastic optimism of the intrepid but wishful-thinking British command and staff, who were incapable of recognising the battle signs of defeat, Freyberg sent Godwin-Austen a message to the effect that by first light next morning (26th November) the New Zealanders would be on a line from Ed Duda to Point 178 on the southern Sidi Rezegh escarpment. It was from the latter feature that as recently as the 22nd the 5th South African Brigade had been thrown back and counterattacked by the German 155th Infantry Regiment. In the admirable but incredible spirit of the day it seemed as if little more was needed than the order “fix bayonets, charge!” for the commanding Belhamed-Sidi Rezegh-Ed Duda triangle to fall to two brigades of New Zealand infantry and a few dozen army tanks.
It is surprising how long the comfortable official opinion that Rommel’s armoured thrust to the frontier was “a last desperate effort” continued to colour the thinking and impair the judgment of commanders not only at the very top but also at command levels not entirely cut off from contact with the real situation. Scobie isolated in Tobruk could not fail to be misled, having no voice other than the biased and closely censored wireless traffic to tell him of what was occurring beyond the vision of his own forces’ observation posts. His signallers, however, helped fill in the gaps left in official situation reports by intercepting signals not intended for his information.
Having learnt early on the 25th that his division would be expected to cooperate with the XIII Corps in capturing the Ed Duda-Sidi Rezegh area, Scobie ordered that a task force to comprise the 32nd Army Tank Brigade and the 1/Essex with supporting arms and to be commanded by Brigadier Willison should assemble that night. Soon after midday the fortress signallers intercepted a message from the army commander to the XXX Corps which indicated that the situation outside Tobruk was “very favourable”. The army commander was quoted in the action log at fortress headquarters as saying “Enemy tank strength most frightfully low and getting worse; he is at his last or approaching last effort.” A later message from Eighth Army headquarters said that 52 enemy tanks had been knocked out on the preceding day.
The situation outside as seen that day from within the fortress is thus depicted in a report issued from Scobie’s headquarters at 6.45 a.m. on the 25th purporting to describe the state of the battle on the preceding day:
7 Indian Brigade and 42 RTR, Sheferzen area where small pockets enemy believed holding out. 5 NZ Brigade and 2 Squadron 44 RTR, area Bardia-Sollum-Capuzzo. Enemy still hold Bardia and Sollum villages. 4 NZ Brigade and 8 RTR Gambut–Bir Chleta. 6 New Zealand Brigade and 1 Squadron 44 RTR area point 175. 4 NZ Brigade engaging enemy in Gambut area. Small pockets enemy between 4 and 6 NZ Brigades. ... 30 Corps situation this evening very confused. Gabr Saleh attacked by two columns each of 17 tanks. ... Commander 13 Corps ordered to proceed with plan for relief of Tobruk. ...
The Ed Duda force assembled at 8 p.m. and at 10.30 Scobie placed it on one hour’s notice to move. A misunderstanding now sprang up between Godwin-Austen and Scobie that might not have occurred if the two commanders had previously been closely associated in jointly planning the relief operations or if their communications with each other had not been restricted to brief enciphered messages.
From the time of BATTLEAXE to the evolution of the CRUSADER plan, a junction at Ed Duda between frontier-based and fortress-based troops had been the keystone of all planning in Tobruk for garrison forces to participate in an operation to relieve the fortress. Every variation of the plan had made the garrison responsible for dispatching a mixed tank and infantry force to seize and hold Ed Duda. On the other hand, the planning both for BATTLEAXE and CRUSADER had also taken into account the possibility of other siege-raising operations by the garrison force, including a further sortie on the western sector. These were conceived, however,
not as substitutes for the Ed Duda operation but as supplementary. Such a plan was made on 23rd November for a sortie by the Polish Brigade and one squadron of the 7th Royal Tanks to form a corridor through the enemy lines south of the Derna Road on the western sector. Its purpose is thus described in a 70th Division report.
It appeared at this time that great success would be achieved ... by passing any troops South African or New Zealand who might join hands on Ed Duda through the perimeter and out through a second corridor on the Western sector to cut the bypass road in the Acroma area.
For the junction at Ed Duda with troops from the frontier, however, Scobie and his staff had only one plan – Phase 5 of the set-piece sortie operation – which required the tank brigade to charge from the end of the corridor for about 7,000 yards to seize Ed Duda, and an infantry battalion, following soon afterwards, to hold that feature.
From the moment that he was given responsibility for the Tobruk front, however, General Godwin-Austen thought of the capture of Ed Duda as a task for the relieving force, not the Tobruk garrison. On 23rd November he wrote to General Freyberg concerning the sortie from Tobruk:–
I do not consider it has the reasonable chance of success we should offer it until we are ourselves firmly established on the Ed Duda position. I would ask you to let me know instantly when you are so disposed, using the codeword CURATE.
On the 24th Scobie signalled Godwin-Austen of the possible advantages of staging a sortie in the west where he thought that an easy success might be achieved that could unhinge the enemy. A message from Godwin-Austen crossed Scobie’s message, the deciphered copy being received early next morning. Though partly corrupt Godwin-Austen’s signal indicated that the New Zealand Division hoped to secure a given area (described by a corrupt group) on the morning of the 25th and that “the advance would then be on (1) Bir Amud28 Sidi Rezegh (2) Ed Duda”. Scobie was directed: “Be prepared to continue your operation to create a diversion.” To its sender the message implied that the New Zealand Division would be responsible for taking Ed Duda, but Scobie was unlikely to read it that way and in fact appears to have construed it as a requirement to continue his sortie operations with the object of creating as much diversion as possible. He informed Godwin-Austen that, since it did not seem practical to attack Ed Duda without the certainty of cooperation from other troops in the Sidi Rezegh area, he had decided to undertake operations to widen the corridor as much as possible.
Next a long message, also corrupt, brought Godwin-Austen’s reply to Scobie’s earlier message and expressed Godwin-Austen’s fear that the proposal to debouch near the Derna Road might prejudice the Ed Duda sortie. This message did not help remove the underlying misunderstanding about who was to take Ed Duda. It explained that Freyberg hoped to reach Ed Duda next night and that Scobie was to be ready to advance
on Ed Duda at any time after first light on the 26th. Corps headquarters would send Scobie the code word and the date but the time would be at Scobie’s discretion.
Hard on this message, to keep the cipher sections busy, came another long one from the XIII Corps,29 in which Godwin-Austen (probably taking Scobie as replying to his second message, not his first) was at pains to explain that he had had no intention of ordering Scobie to advance to Ed Duda till Freyberg had reached it, but that thereupon Scobie was to join forces with Freyberg “at all costs”. In the meantime, subject to its not weakening his power to join forces, Scobie was to do his best to assist Freyberg by creating a diversion as soon as he received through corps headquarters the zero hour for Freyberg’s attack on Ed Duda. Scobie replied that his forces were all set to cooperate. The corridor would be open if the New Zealanders got Ed Duda and a mobile mixed force would be ready for further cooperation next day.
Scobie had in fact settled the diversionary tasks at an orders conference at 8.45 a.m. The Polish Brigade had made a feint attack in the western sector early that morning; the enemy was not unnerved but on the contrary counter-attacked from the Twin Pimples area. It was therefore decided that the diversionary operations would be carried out in the corridor area and would be directed to mopping up on the corridor’s eastern side, from which the enemy could direct fire against the flanks of a force advancing on Ed Duda.
Tobruk Fortress headquarters learnt in the evening that the New Zealand Division was to open its attack at 9 p.m.30 Simultaneously the garrison forces launched tank and infantry operations with artillery support in the corridor to mop up enemy pockets at Butch (on the east of the corridor near the perimeter) and at Wolf.31 Operations by a company of the 2/Leicester and a squadron of the 7th Royal Tanks in the wrecked plane area were partly successful, capturing two out of five sangars but the attack on Wolf by a company of the 2/Yorks and Lancs and the 4th Royal Tanks encountered much opposition; 150 prisoners were taken but the enemy strongly counter-attacked and recaptured part of the locality. About 7 a.m. next morning a second British attack recaptured Wolf and many prisoners were taken, but about 300 enemy escaped up the escarpment. From the corridor sounds of battle to the south and south-east had been heard after midnight and when it became light some shelling thought to be from 25-pounders was observed on Belhamed, and farther west, towards El Adem.
About 11 a.m. on 26th November the long awaited code word for the attack on Ed Duda was passed through Tobruk. It seems that the decision to mount the attack was Scobie’s own and was made after interception of two messages from the New Zealand Division to the XIII Corps, the first stating that the 6th New Zealand Brigade had captured Sidi Rezegh
and was on the way to Ed Duda and the second asking what time the Tobruk garrison would attack. Scobie replied immediately to the second that he had already made his diversionary attack. One can only conjecture that on further consideration he concluded that the basic principle of Godwin-Austen’s instructions to him was that he should at all costs effect a junction with the New Zealand Division when it had reached Ed Duda and that inquiries from each division to corps headquarters about what the other was doing were not likely to promote this. Zero hour was fixed at five minutes after midday.
According to the Tobruk Fortress action log a message was received from the New Zealand Division before the Ed Duda force crossed the start-line to the effect that the New Zealand Division’s forward troops were “held up at Sidi Rezegh and hill 2 miles NNE”32 but (states the divisional narrative) it was too late, even if desirable, to postpone the attack.
Matildas of the 4th Royal Tanks (Lieut-Colonel W. C. L. O’Carroll), followed by the 1st Royal Tanks (cruisers and light tanks) and supported by the 1st RHA charged across the four or five miles of flat desert separating the start-line from Ed Duda and climbed to the top of that feature; but as they went over the rise to descend to the by-pass road they found themselves facing enemy guns firing point-blank. The closer guns were silenced by the Besa machine-guns mounted on the tanks and the 1st RHA did their best to neutralise others.
About 45 minutes later Brigadier Willison called forward the 1/Essex. Led by their carrier platoon, they “made a fine spectacle”.
The advance was carried out across the plain without interruption until the leading troops were about 200 yards from the near edge of the escarpment, where they were heavily bombed. This bombardment destroyed half the Carrier Platoon, about one platoon of “D” Company, killing the Company Commander (Major C. H. Robinson) and the Carrier Officer (Lieutenant C. H. Lawrence, M.C.), and inflicting about 35 other casualties. This did not check the advance, and all companies, on reaching the escarpment, debussed according to plan and went forward rapidly to seize their respective objectives.
At this time the whole Tank Brigade had withdrawn to the left flank, and was formed up ready to support the battalion if required.33
The bombing resulted from an attack made by the RAF in response to calls for support by the 4th New Zealand Brigade (then at Belhamed) which had nominated a bomb-line that placed Ed Duda in the target area, the raid being described as “most successful to date” in that evening’s situation report.
The Essex soon dug themselves in for all round defence. The situation became most unpleasant when some German 210-mm guns, at first unable to traverse far enough round, were re-sited and then engaged both tanks and infantry with very damaging fire. Several local German counter-attacks were made before dusk and repulsed with the capture of about 70 prisoners.
After dark several groups of Germans and Italians were ambushed while travelling along the by-pass road unaware that it had been cut.
At 1.30 p.m. Scobie’s signallers had intercepted a message from Freyberg to Godwin-Austen which stated that the situation demanded that the Tobruk garrison exert its strongest pressure and that the New Zealand Division would endeavour to “reach Ed Duda” after darkness, which in the context of Godwin-Austen’s instructions placed the onus on Scobie to dispatch his junction force at that time. But by 1.30 p.m. Willison’s tanks were already on top of Ed Duda. The success of the operation was reported to Scobie at 2.45 p.m. Scobie then sent Freyberg a brief message. “We are on Ed Duda. Ensure not bombed.”
Freyberg’s plan had provided for a night attack on the 25th–26th by the 4th and 6th New Zealand Brigades to capture Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh, after which a force was to be pushed through to seize Ed Duda. The two brigades were to thrust westwards on either side of the Trigh Capuzzo, the 4th on the north side to take Belhamed, the 6th on the south to secure the Sidi Rezegh plateau. Because Belhamed was thought to be the more strongly held, the 6th Brigade was allotted the further task of dispatching a force to Ed Duda.
Even with their best will and utmost effort Freyberg’s battalions could not be ready by 9 p.m., the zero hour he had over-optimistically prescribed. They got away to a late and ragged start to carry out plans too hastily made. The 4th Brigade meeting less opposition than expected overran Belhamed, which was not strongly held. The 6th Brigade had a confused and troublesome night, all the more so because the enemy was effecting a relief on the ground attacked in the course of a reorganisation of his front. The plan was to establish a firm base on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment plateau above the Trigh Capuzzo from which a force of two battalions (the 21st and 26th) with supporting arms would descend to the “Trigh” en route to Ed Duda. The 24th and depleted 25th Battalions managed to establish themselves in a defensive “box” on the plateau above the escarpment south-west of the Sidi Rezegh mosque, but the route of the Ed Duda force to the Trigh Capuzzo had not been cleared of enemy and confusion attended efforts to get it married up and started before dawn. So with Freyberg’s approval the advance to Ed Duda was cancelled.
Dawn on the 26th found the New Zealanders at Sidi Rezegh disorganised and exposed to the close fire of an enemy ensconced on most of the ground of vantage but although many detachments had soon to be extricated and others were lost the New Zealanders clung throughout the day to their foothold west of the airfield and south-west of the mosque.
When Freyberg was told that a force from Tobruk had taken Ed Duda, he ordered his 4th Brigade (Brigadier L. M. Inglis) to effect a junction with the garrison force and his 6th Brigade (Brigadier H. E. Barrow-dough) to complete the capture of Sidi Rezegh. A composite squadron of tanks of the 44th Royal Tanks set off for Ed Duda at 9.30 p.m.; fifteen minutes later the 19th Infantry Battalion followed, accompanied by 6 more
tanks. The leading tanks approached Ed Duda just before midnight firing green Very lights for recognition. The infantry battalion arrived about an hour later after some light skirmishing on the way. In the meantime the weary, overtried battalions of Barrowclough’s brigade, in bitter bullet-and bayonet night fighting, slaughtered or winkled out most of the remaining enemy pockets on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. But one German strong-point remained on the escarpment, to the east of the mosque; another German locality lay midway between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh.
Thus by dawn on 27th November the junction at Ed Duda between the Tobruk garrison and the frontier-based forces to which Godwin-Austen, Freyberg and Scobie had ascribed pre-eminent importance had been achieved. Yet the other pieces on the battle-board were oddly slow in arranging themselves into a pattern of victory. Scobie sent two “senior staff officers”34 to Ed Duda in an armoured car hoping to make contact with the New Zealand Division only to find that despite the preceding night’s consolidation by the New Zealanders there was no free passage across from Ed Duda to the rest of the New Zealand Division.35
Early on the 27th Godwin-Austen sent a message to Tobruk Fortress, the New Zealand Division and the 22nd Armoured Brigade directing that as soon as the position at Belhamed, Sidi Rezegh and Ed Duda was established the westward advance to the line Tobruk-El Adem-Bir el Gubi track would be continued. The New Zealand Division was to continue the advance along the escarpment, the Tobruk garrison to conform on the north. The interdivisional boundary, prescribed as inclusive to the New Zealand Division, was to be the escarpment running from Ed Duda to Point 162. The message continued:
TOBFORT will organise and dispatch mobile columns to clear areas between Tobfort and Gambut and establish strong picquets east of the road and track Gambut-463414 and will secure all landing grounds.36
Scobie sent Freyberg a message requesting that in view of these instructions his troops at Ed Duda should be relieved as soon as possible. Later Scobie signalled Godwin-Austen pointing out that he was much extended and stating that it was essential that this relief be arranged as soon as possible if he was to comply with Godwin-Austen’s instructions. Soon afterwards Freyberg signalled Scobie:–
We are holding firmly Ed Duda and Belhamed. Must know your forward troops and general line you hold. ...
which created an unhappy and unfavourable impression in Tobruk, as if the New Zealanders were unsure of their bearings, and Scobie rather tartly rejoined:–
Your infantry are not repeat not on Ed Duda which is feature in square 424409. ... My next forward posts are in 419414 and 426415. ...
Freyberg’s message about holding Ed Duda firmly is difficult to understand. It is unlikely that he knew just where his 19th Battalion was. Probably his purpose was only to find out where Scobie’s forces were. Perhaps some misreading of code names is at the root of the confusion and this possibly explains Scobie’s next message to Freyberg:–
Confirm you hold Sidi Rezegh and the hill to the north. ... Confirm your tanks and infantry are under my command. ...
to which Freyberg replied that the 44th Royal Tank Regiment would have to return to the New Zealand Division but the 19th Battalion was available for the continued defence of Ed Duda.
These messages reflect their authors’ blind spots for battle situations beyond the vision of their own forward troops, Scobie being unaware of the rigours endured by the New Zealanders and their near exhaustion and Godwin-Austen and Freyberg not comprehending how Scobie’s resources had been stretched to the limit in holding a front of more than 40 miles even before he was given the superadded tasks Godwin-Austen had just ordained.
Though rightly wary of dangerously weakening Tobruk’s defences by undertaking excursions, Scobie thought the enemy was cracking and suggested to Godwin-Austen late on the morning of the 27th that a general retreat could be imminent. But the rosy view of the battle was beginning to be dispelled by irrefragable evidence. Godwin-Austen visited the New Zealanders for lunch. First-hand reports of their heavy losses and recurrent warnings reaching him of the German armoured divisions’ approach from the frontier region induced him to adopt a more cautious tone than the exuberant “all-out-for-the-chase” theme of his early morning directive, which had drowned his simultaneously sounded warning note. He now told Scobie that the New Zealand Division could do no more than hold the ground it had gained and that Scobie would therefore be responsible for “establishing the corridor and holding it open at all costs”. Scobie replied that the corridor was already open and the garrison would do its best to maintain it so.
The 2/13th Battalion ensconced in the last ditch at Pilastrino while everybody else was advancing could not help but feel that its masters regarded it as unemployable except for such tasks as guarding prisoners, collecting dead and digging graves. About 12.30 p.m. on the 27th divisional headquarters instructed the battalion to send armed parties to the perimeter in the only two light vehicles it possessed and there to take charge of incoming prisoners. Soon afterwards this order was cancelled and a message from Scobie’s battle headquarters stated that the deputy fortress commander, Brigadier Martin, was on his way to the battalion and directed the commanding officer to call his company commanders together. Martin arrived 15 minutes later and explained that the battalion was to be prepared to move on one hour’s notice with the surprising role of issuing from the perimeter and advancing to Gambut along the Bardia Road.37
It was believed that about 1,000 Italians had given themselves up in that region and were being escorted into the perimeter and others in the east were gathering together as though waiting to be collected. A kind of mustering and picketing operation seemed to be in prospect.
About 5 p.m. Colonel Burrows was called to Scobie at his battle headquarters. Scobie told Burrows that the garrison had been warned to expect a German counter-attack from the direction of Bardia. Burrows’ battalion was his only reserve and was to be ready to counter-attack any penetrating force at half an hour’s notice. It was to take up a back-stop position blocking the Bardia Road. This would be convenient for another reason. If the German attack did not materialise, there would be an eastward thrust next day by the 32nd Armoured Brigade and 2/Queen’s south of the Bardia Road and the 1/King’s Own north of it. The 2/13th was to follow the 1/King’s Own and continue the advance from Sidi Bu Amud to Gazala. This operation would start at 7 a.m. unless the dawn tactical reconnaissance indicated that a German attack was brewing.
When Burrows came out from Scobie’s office he was told that while he had been conferring with Scobie his battalion had been moved up to a covering position astride the Bardia Road and in front of King’s Cross; but Burrows arrived there in time to dispose the main body of the battalion. The next 24 hours were miserable, not because of any action but because it rained before the ill-equipped battalion could get comfortably settled.
The CRUSADER battle took a new turn on 27th November when Rommel reluctantly turned his back on the frontier and returned to the Tobruk front. For three days the great Eighth Army’s offensive had dwindled to small-scale, mixed infantry and tank attacks by the equivalent of about three infantry brigades and three tank battalions, yet the pressure exerted by these forces had strained the Axis front at Tobruk so near to breaking-point that a large part of the combatant strength of both armies was soon drawn to the area of stress.
The German command was not single-minded that morning of the 27th. General Crüwell wanted the armoured divisions to return as quickly as possible to the Tobruk front; General Rommel, who had the last word, desired to win some quick successes first at the frontier. Typically the day’s work for the German armoured formations began two hours before dawn. Soon after daylight the 8th Armoured Regiment overran the headquarters of the 5th New Zealand Brigade at Sidi Azeiz. The main body of the 15th Armoured Division (but less the 33rd Engineer Battalion) then made its best time westwards along the Trigh Capuzzo; on this course, if its progress was not contested, it would take in rear first the rear headquarters of the XXX Corps and then in succession the respective headquarters of the XIII Corps, the New Zealand Division and the 1st Army Tank Brigade. Meanwhile the main body of the 21st Armoured Division, issuing from Bardia by the main coast road, had bumped into the 22nd New Zealand Battalion at Menastir. The New Zealanders held on, forcing the
German formation to lose valuable time; next day it proceeded by another route. The 33rd Engineer Battalion and supporting detachments, under Rommel’s direct observation, daringly assaulted the 23rd New Zealand Battalion’s positions at Capuzzo in the afternoon and drove a deep wedge into the New Zealanders’ positions but failed to thrust them from their ground. After dark the attackers went west to rejoin their parent formation.
Each army was following the course of the battle largely by intercepting its opponents’ signal traffic. The British knew that the German armour was returning to the Tobruk front and higher commanders and headquarters gave Freyberg and Scobie and the other field commanders every warning. But the British command was hoist with its own petard. Eighth Army headquarters could not alert its people to the reality of a threat it had itself dismissed as unreal. So long had the Eighth Army’s reports been nonchalantly depicting the two German armoured divisions operating on the frontier as roaming “columns of tanks and MT”, not to be contemplated with undue alarm, that the warnings now issued failed to induce the infantry formation commanders to see the German armour’s return to the Tobruk front as the grave and potent threat it was. Worse, practising self-deception, the British command itself saw the German westward move as prompted not by its real purpose of crippling attack but by an imagined one of evasion. The German columns were no more in retreat than on
that earlier occasion when in presumed flight they had driven westward to Sidi Rezegh with the foolishly optimistic British armoured brigades in pursuit.
In the three days taken up by the Africa Corps’ frontier foray the 7th Armoured Division, left to its own devices, had substantially reconstituted its strength by battlefield recoveries, workshop returns and new deliveries. The 22nd Armoured Brigade, which had been protecting the New Zealand Division’s inland flank, had more than 40 British cruiser tanks, the 4th Armoured some 77 Stuarts; the 7th, also being re-equipped, had been temporarily withdrawn from battle. Gott had been forewarned of the German armoured divisions’ westward moves by the intercept service. When he was told about noon by scouting armoured cars of the King’s Dragoon Guards that a column was approaching Gasr el Arid, he ordered the 22nd Armoured Brigade to “stop the head” and the 4th Armoured Brigade to attack the flank.
The 22nd Armoured Brigade intercepted and blocked the German 15th Armoured Division near Bir el Chleta about 1.30 p.m. In numbers of tanks the two formations were about equally matched but the British with only one battery of 25-pounders and one of 2-pounders were outgunned. The 7th Armoured Division was still employing its armoured brigades separately from its support group, whose artillery had been dispersed among a number of light-raiding Jock columns.
Later in the afternoon the stronger 4th Armoured Brigade joined in, giving the British equality in gun-power and superiority in tanks, and the RAF intervened effectively with several bombing strikes. The battle honours were about even, but the British armour thwarted the German commander’s attempt to get a foothold on the escarpment overlooking the Trigh Capuzzo from which he could attack the British forces opening up the Trigh route to Ed Duda. When it became too dark for another chukker, however, the British armoured brigades, having virtually won the day, quitted the ground and returned to their congenial leaguers. The oft-repeated injunctions “Attack”, “Pursue”, “Destroy” contained nothing about fighting for a tactical advantage. General Neumann-Silkow pushed on after dark to seize and secure the pass up the escarpment at Bir Sciafsciuf.
While in the 2/13th Battalion’s command post in Tobruk the lie of the ground from Sidi Bu Amud to Gambut was being studied that night by lantern on the Gambut map, Rommel and Crüwell were in conference at Gambut, and Rommel according to the Africa Corps war diary was proposing to attack west or south-west from the area south of Sidi Bu Amud. That was where General Sümmermann had his headquarters; his infantry would join in. On this day a new name had been given to Sümmermann’s battered Division zbV Africa, which its own performances would soon make famous: it became the 90th Light Division.
If an illustration were required to give point to General Blamey’s criticism of the British command for lacking a sense of organisation and failing
to recognise the importance of employing formations complete, none better could be found than the use of the New Zealand Division in CRUSADER. When Freyberg asked for the return of his 5th Brigade, nobody went to much pains to see that his wish was granted. If another brigade were needed, then Ritchie, it should seem, was content that the 1st South African Brigade be sent.
It was decided on the evening of the 27th that the South African brigade should join the New Zealand Division, but the marriage was to prove difficult to consummate and from this arose some of the difficulties with which the New Zealand Division was soon to be beset. In the meantime the division lacked the manpower and the fire-power to consolidate on its vital ground and liquidate the remaining enemy pockets nearby.
There was hope in Tobruk on the 28th, expressed in the planned operations to clear the enemy from the Bardia Road, that after ten days of battering since the offensive began the hold of the Axis forces on the surrounding desert was breaking. Rain and misconstrued reports from Ed Duda of enemy tank activity, however, delayed the start of these operations. At dawn Ed Duda was found to be quieter; the enemy had withdrawn from holding positions on the west side. Two companies of the 19th New Zealand Battalion were sent out to establish an outpost on the escarpment south of the Trigh Capuzzo and west of Sidi Rezegh where the Essex had maintained a patrol on the previous day and to ascertain whether some troops nearby were hostile or friendly; but the patrol was recalled before its mission was completed.
For two days the 1st RHA had suspected enemy on Belhamed despite the reported capture of the feature by the New Zealand Division. This morning the crystal clear vision afforded by the first light left no doubt that there was an enemy pocket on the north-west side of the feature, from which a grand-stand view would be had of the proposed sweep by the 2/Queens from Bir Belhamed through enemy positions east of the corridor to the Bardia Road.
About 11.30 in the morning Tobruk Fortress headquarters received a message from the XIII Corps to the effect that it was “vital to the advance of the New Zealand Division” that an area which was designated by map reference should be occupied and held from 2 p.m. that day. The area included the ground where the pocket had been observed. Probably the message intended no more than to ensure that the 4th New Zealand Brigade’s northern flank should be looked after while the division concentrated on mopping-up operations to the south. The 19th New Zealand Battalion (less the two companies patrolling from Ed Duda) and a squadron of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment were detailed for the operation and the two patrolling companies were recalled to take their place. After a late start this force occupied the Belhamed escarpment in the early afternoon; a mixed group of Germans and Italians surrendered when the tanks got close. Subsequently the forces at Ed Duda lost contact with the Belhamed assault force and tank patrols sent out in the evening could not find them. Brigadier Inglis had sent the 19th Battalion detachment
back that night to Zaafran. It was typical of the confusing liaison by the XIII Corps in this operation that after Scobie had responded to the corps’ request to secure this area, the New Zealand Division was permitted to take under its command the troops Scobie had sent there for the purpose, without so much as a “by your leave”.
On the 28th the New Zealanders in the Belhamed-Sidi Rezegh-Ed Duda triangle operated to mop up the two German localities near the Trigh Capuzzo that were still troubling them. In the afternoon part of the 18th New Zealand Battalion and a squadron of the 44th Royal Tanks overran the pocket between Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh, and the troublesome strong-point on the escarpment east of the tomb was taken in a two-platoon attack by the 26th New Zealand Battalion.
Overlooking the Sidi Rezegh airfield and plateau from the south was the second escarpment on which the New Zealanders had of necessity left the enemy in undisturbed possession. Here the powerful Artillery Command 104 (ARKO) of Major-General Boettcher had established itself after the reorganisation necessitated by the New Zealand advance. While the 18th and 26th Battalions were attacking the last two enemy pockets, a German attack from this escarpment was launched on the 24th Battalion and, by various ruses, achieved surprise and substantial success. Subsequent counter-attacks by tanks of the 8th Royal Tank Regiment did not fully restore the situation.
In the early part of the day the German armoured formations were scattered, and some grounded by supply difficulties, but they were not much troubled by their adversaries. The 7th Armoured Division spent a futile day, nor did it accomplish its main task which was to deliver the 1st South African Brigade to the New Zealand Division at Trig 175; it suffered much in unprofitable skirmishing with the 15th Armoured Division but unknowingly secured some advantage to the New Zealand Division by enticing the German formation southwards. Some elements of the German division overran the New Zealand main dressing station in the afternoon but allowed it to continue functioning. As the daylight was failing German advance-guards briefly clashed with a local defence group of the New Zealand divisional headquarters. By nightfall the 21st Armoured Division had closed up on the headquarters area of the New Zealand Division and the XIII Corps; with the latter were headquarters elements of the XXX Corps. Godwin-Austen and Freyberg decided to move their headquarters into Tobruk that night and so notified Scobie. Freyberg kept with him outside Tobruk only the minimum staff for a battle headquarters. The 7th Armoured Division leaguered not far away to the south, by the Trigh el Abd, with the 1st South African Brigade nearby.
The wishful belief that the besieging force might soon disintegrate was belied by the resistance encountered when the garrison’s delayed operation to break through to the Bardia Road was launched. The operation was to start with the capture, on the east of the corridor, of Freddie and Walter, two posts in a chain of strong-points developed for the protection
of the German by-pass road; but Freddie, to quote the diarist of the 1st RHA, “proved a hard nut”. The attack was made by two companies of the 2/Queen’s and “D” Squadron of the 7th Royal Tanks. The attacking infantry were disorganised by hostile fire. An enemy force on the right flank from which fire was disrupting the assault was attacked by nine cruiser tanks and some light tanks of the 1st Royal Tanks sent across from Ed Duda. Twenty enemy were captured and eleven enemy tanks driven off. Some of the tanks of the assault force then got onto the top of Freddie and circled round it and about 300 prisoners, mostly German, were taken. But five tanks were lost (mainly on mines), the artillery forward observation officer was killed, the exploitation operations were cancelled and towards dusk the assault infantry were withdrawn. The mere fact that the garrison was continuing to press the enemy, however, was a contribution to its prospects; it must be realised that the German infantry constituted the steel in the enemy’s siege girdle round Tobruk. Those attacked were some of the few elements of the 90th Light Division hitherto unmauled.
The development of the battle that afternoon made Scobie apprehensive about the situation at Ed Duda. There, after the cruiser squadron of the 1st Royal Tanks had been sent off to support the attack against Freddie and the one remaining squadron of Matildas of the 4th Royal Tanks had accompanied the 19th New Zealand Battalion to Belhamed, the 1/Essex had been practically unsupported. Late in the afternoon enemy activity had been observed on the Sidi Rezegh escarpment. On receiving a situation report from the New Zealand Division just before 6 p.m. Scobie gave instructions that the 16th Brigade would move the 2/13th Battalion to Ed Duda (the 2/13th having no transport of its own) and ordered Burrows to report to him for orders. Scobie told Burrows that the primary purpose of the battalion’s move was to strengthen the defence of Ed Duda; the battalion was not to be employed without Scobie’s authority, except in an emergency. Burrows returned to the battalion, gave orders for the move and then departed in his staff car to meet Brigadier Lomax at his headquarters at Post R69. Near the gap in the perimeter Burrows’ car was intercepted by Brigadier Willison in another car, who told Burrows that Scobie was coming to meet him there. Scobie arrived about 15 minutes later and at the back of a truck which shielded the light from no-man’s land produced a map and outlined the situation in the Belhamed-Sidi RezeghEd Duda triangle which, he said, had the “double virtue” of dominating the enemy lines of retreat westward and affording strong-points in the link-up with British forces from the frontier. Corps headquarters was coming into Tobruk that night, which made it more necessary than ever to keep the corridor open and to ensure that Ed Duda was not cut off. There had been a disturbing report that the enemy might have taken Sidi Rezegh that afternoon in a counter-attack. There would probably be a New Zealand attack next day to recapture Sidi Rezegh and the 2/13th might have to assist. Orders would later be sent about that, but the main responsibility was Ed Duda.
I can remember, when that conference was over, the General’s last words to us as we were standing there, before he turned to go away. “Whatever happens we must hold Ed Duda. Ed Duda must be held.”38
By that time the unit convoy had arrived and was waiting at the gap. Soon it moved on, shielded by armoured cars in front and on the flank. Most of the men later commented on the strangeness of the emotions they experienced as they were driven out that night through the imprisoning wire into his territory, as though something that had unconsciously weighed on the mind had been lifted and an unbelievable freedom had suddenly become real. The convoy halted at Tiger (then officially called Sneezy) where the 32nd Army Tank Brigade had a headquarters or communications centre. Here a warning was received that the 2/13th Battalion was to support an attack next morning on Sidi Rezegh by Willison’s armoured brigade and a New Zealand battalion, for which orders would be given after the battalion reached Ed Duda. The project is thus described in the 70th Division’s operations report:
A plan was made during the night by which the 19th New Zealand Battalion, assisted if necessary by 2/13th Australian Battalion, should be established on the spur which runs east from Sidi Rezegh with the support of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade.
At Tiger a supply column going to the New Zealand Division and a stronger escort joined the convoy, which moved off after a wait that was not as long as it seemed, for the battalion reached Ed Duda soon after midnight. The men jumped down from their trucks and were taken by guides to areas they were to occupy on Ed Duda’s eastern slopes. The night was too cold for most to sleep. The besieged garrison’s link through Ed Duda with the British forces operating outside seemed very real that night as long British and New Zealand convoys from headquarters and administrative units, emerging from the desert, came up the by-pass road, turned off at Ed Duda and proceeded in the direction of the Tobruk corridor.
At 4 a.m. Burrows attended a conference at Willison’s tactical headquarters held to decide details of the attack on Sidi Rezegh. Here it was ascertained that the commanding officer and half of the 19th New Zealand Battalion were not available and a plan was made for the 2/13th to make the attack and moreover to establish itself on the ground to be taken. Burrows emphasised the need for daylight reconnaissance before attempting what seemed an ambitious enterprise and the 1st RHA pointed out that the guns would have to be moved forward before the attack could be supported, so it was decided that it could not begin before 11 a.m. Concise orders for the operation were formulated:
Enemy is in occupation of SW slope of Sidi Rezegh. Own troops 2/13 Battalion under command of 4 RTR for operation and will have tank support. New Zealand troops are to occupy remainder of Sidi Rezegh. Intention 2/13 Battalion will seize and hold high feature in squares 425405, 425406 and 425407.
The orders went on to prescribe the method and to indicate the forming-up place, start-line, a start-time (11 a.m.), and limit to the depth of the attack.
The guides who showed the 2/13th companies to their bivouac areas on eastern Ed Duda that night warned that there would be shelling in the morning but the incoming veterans, thinking they had little to learn about shell fire, were insufficiently regardful. Just before dawn, as the escarpment ridges began to be outlined by a paling sky, a column of New Zealand heavy transport vehicles, reluctant to proceed to Tobruk without a guide, halted about the Ed Duda pass. Well dispersed, the trucks began moving. The report of a heavy gun and the shatter of an exploding shell sent muttering echoes travelling down the long line of the escarpment. Other bursts quickly followed. Huge lurid billows of black smoke mushroomed from the desert floor around the now fast-moving vehicles headed for Tobruk. These awe-inspiring explosions came from heavier artillery39 than the Australians had become accustomed to in Tobruk. When the last vehicle disappeared, the enemy guns began with murderous effect to bombard the slopes on which the light of dawn had disclosed the 2/13th companies not properly dug in. To escape, men began making for the lee of the escarpment on the other side of the pass. The quick-thinking Burrows indicated to Lieutenant Maughan40 an area some distance to the east, at the foot of the escarpment on its northern side, and told him to intercept the men there and direct them into defensive positions facing south, the headquarters to be at the foot of the escarpment, two rifle companies forward, two in rear. The rest of the men were then told to get moving in the same direction. The battalion was soon properly formed up and Maughan was both surprised and impressed on plotting the battalion’s new map location, to discover that Burrows had utilised the impromptu movement engendered by the enemy, which could easily have become a rout, to get his battalion assembled in correct formation at the forming-up place designated for the Sidi Rezegh attack. The movement took the battalion temporarily beyond reach of shell fire, but within a short time the enemy had the area covered by an extraordinary variety of artillery weapons.41 There was some cover, however, in diggings left by previous occupants, also in the deep tracks left by “I” tanks which came up to “marry” with the infantry; and many shells were duds.
About 7.30 a.m. Burrows reconnoitred the route to Sidi Rezegh in a light tank and, while doing so, captured two wounded Italians. The battalion’s task looked a forbidding one; the objective seemed far away, the approaches to it bare and flat, with no cover. Some of the intervening terrain looked boggy from the recent rain. Soon, however, it was learnt that the 2/13th Battalion was not to make the attack. About 10 a.m. company commanders were told at an orders conference that the attack
would not take place for four hours and would then be carried out by the 19th New Zealand Battalion,42 the 2/13th Battalion to be “in support”.
The corps commander appears to have prompted this change of plan. Godwin-Austen had arrived at his newly established headquarters on the El Gubbi airfield in Tobruk at first light that morning and thereupon had sent off his much quoted (and misquoted) message to the effect that Tobruk was as relieved as he was. The seriousness of the situation, however, hardly justified poetic licence or misleading puns. Godwin-Austen was not slow in giving Scobie the benefit of the greater wisdom with which a commander of higher rank is necessarily endowed. Consequently Willison had been informed that Godwin-Austen wished to extend the corridor from “Grumpy to feature north of Prince Town”43 and that the 2/13th was to be used for the purpose; therefore that battalion was not to be committed more than absolutely necessary in the Sidi Rezegh operation. In the meantime a report from the Eighth Army headquarters had stated that the 1st South African Brigade was moving north to secure Sidi Rezegh.
Soon after the changed orders had been conveyed to company commanders, observers on the escarpment saw vehicles and tanks moving on the ridge to be attacked. These began to advance towards Ed Duda. The squadron of Matildas moved out to meet them and the enemy drew back. The British tank commander, believing this a ruse to draw his tanks onto enemy guns, also withdrew.
Enemy activity at Sidi Rezegh continued and about 11.30 a.m. a large mobile force including tanks was seen descending the Sidi Rezegh ridge more than a mile to the west of the feature the 2/13th had earlier been planning to capture. Soon it seemed that the force was heading for the escarpment to the west of Ed Duda. Simultaneously warnings were being received from Eighth Army headquarters that the enemy was planning to attack the New Zealand Division from all sides.
The Eighth Army headquarters, as though enacting a compulsive ritual, persisted in interpreting the daily events of the battle as the thrashing out of a maimed and beaten enemy, and Ritchie’s conception of the Africa Corps’ activities this day was that it had become for the enemy a matter of life or death to drive the British from their positions astride his communications. Rommel and Crüwell, however, were thinking not so much of saving their own forces as of crushing Ritchie’s.
A wrong interpretation of the enemy’s motives would not have mattered, however, if the right action had been taken to counter his moves, for the problem of meeting the threat of an attack on the British force outside Tobruk was much the same, whether the enemy’s designs were offensive or escapist. To make his attack costly to him it was necessary first to prepare the ground for defence and secondly to bring the maximum number of available men, guns, tanks and bombers into action. In preparing ground for defence – in the use of minefields, the placing of anti-tank guns in
relation to them and the siting of field-guns for effective anti-tank rolesScobie’s operations had compared favourably with those of other British commanders. But the reports and comments and exhortations emanating from the headquarters of the Eighth Army and from its commander did not induce the commanders in the XXX Corps to get their guns, tanks and infantry up to the battle zone nor did they encourage Godwin-Austen and Freyberg to link the two New Zealand infantry brigades and one British army tank brigade under Freyberg’s command with the Tobruk garrison force in an interlocking and mutually supporting scheme of defence.
Keeping open a corridor for the passage of troops in and out of Tobruk was still for Freyberg, who loyally accepted Godwin-Austen’s policy declarations, the paramount operational requirement and this necessitated that the New Zealand Division should continue to hold an east-west corridor (including the Trigh Capuzzo) to Ed Duda by retaining the two ridges running parallel to and on either side of the trigh: the Ed Duda-Belhamed-Zaafran escarpment, and the Sidi Rezegh-Point 175 escarpment. On the night 28th–29th, after the returning German armour had made its aggressive appearance to the east and south, the New Zealanders were redisposed to meet a threat from this direction; rather than getting closer to the Tobruk garrison’s corridor strongpoints, the New Zealanders moved part of their forces away from it to establish defended localities on the eastern end of the escarpments at Zaafran and Point 175. Freyberg was encouraged to occupy this extended line by the belief that the 1st South African Brigade would join him next day.
The new commander of the Eighth Army had begun to make his wishes known but was far from getting them carried into effect. He wished the 1st South African Brigade to join up “as soon as the situation permitted” with the New Zealand Division; being thus contingently expressed, the wish was unlikely to be – and was not – realised. The situation did not “permit” the two British armoured brigades of the 7th Division (with at least 100 tanks) to get the 1st South African Brigade across to Freyberg and “circumstances” later prevented the armoured brigades from carrying out orders to protect the New Zealand Division from attack. Ritchie also wanted the excellent work of the Jock columns to be continued, which would increase the likelihood that the armoured brigades would operate with minimal artillery support, since on this score the field commanders agreed with him. In fine, despite Ritchie’s exhortations and Norrie’s and Gott’s orders, the XXX Corps and 7th Armoured Division brought no effective help to Scobie and Freyberg on a day of developing crisis.
The German forces began operations on the 29th to a plan made by General Crüwell for a two-pronged attack on the British salient, his object being to drive the British troops operating south of Tobruk inside the perimeter. General von Ravenstein’s 21st Armoured Division was to attack through Belhamed to Jack, and General Neumann-Silkow’s 15th through Ed Duda to Tugun. The operations developed quite differently. Von Ravenstein was captured by the New Zealand Division in the morning near Point 175 and the 21st did nothing effective for the rest of the day.
The 15th Armoured Division drove west to Bir bu Creimisa on the escarpment to the south of Sidi Rezegh, then north-west to Bir Salem. This was the movement seen and reported from the Ed Duda escarpment just before midday. The plan to which the Germans were now operating, however, was a different one from General Crüwell’s. Rommel himself was at Bir bu Creimisa and had taken charge. The plan was now to cut the New Zealand Division off from Tobruk and from the east. The 15th Armoured Division was to capture Ed Duda and to drive thence eastwards by the northern edge of Belhamed. It was hoped that the 21st Armoured Division would make a westward thrust by the northern edge of Zaafran to meet the 15th and that the Ariete Division would capture the eastern edge of Sidi Rezegh.
The 15th Armoured Division, which was to carry out the thrust through Ed Duda, contained the main tank strength of the Africa Corps.
The principal formations taking part were the 8th Tank Regiment (both battalions), the 115th Infantry Regiment and the 200th Infantry Regiment. The transport of about half the 115th Regiment got bogged near Bir Salem, however, and the 200th attacked “Doc” (previously Dalby Square) instead of Ed Duda, so that only about a battalion of the 115th participated in the attack on Ed Duda.
About 1 p.m. the 15th Armoured Division began forming up to attack Ed Duda from the west. Captain Salt of the 1st RHA’s Chestnut Troop broadcast a running description of their deployment and approach, and of the early development of the battle. The first German assault on the westernmost positions of the 1/Essex was thrown back by the infantry and anti-tank gunners. Colonel O’Carroll of the 4th Royal Tank Regiment ordered all tanks to the top of Ed Duda and those at hand went with
him; about eight, including some acting as armoured command posts for the 1st RHA, went on to the main feature.44 For a time the German tanks stood off and bombarded the pits and sangars of the Essex infantry, neutralised their machine and anti-tank guns and cleared the minefields with patrols. Captain Salt’s tank was hit and he was killed. Major Goschen’s tank was also knocked out; Captain Armitage rescued him and his crew. This disorganised the artillery support, and about 4.30 p.m. the enemy started closing in from the west.
It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was behind them. Three of our tanks came up on the side of our position, later joined by a fourth. They were Matildas. They started withdrawing in pairs, firing as they went. As the heavy tanks got nearer the position, the German light Mk. Its moved up on our flank, and swept the area with machine-gun fire. ... Some posts continued firing. The German tanks, twenty of them, fanned out and formed a line right across the middle of the battalion position. Our four tanks had cleverly withdrawn behind us to a hulls-down position. ... It was starting to get dark ... they had halted just short of where our tanks could engage them.45
The loss of Ed Duda was reported to Burrows about nightfall when he was called to a tank in direct communication with Willison’s headquarters. The possibility of a counter-attack by the 2/13th Battalion was discussed. Burrows indicated that he was prepared to attack infantry but not tanks. The issues were hammered out at a conference at Willison’s headquarters about 8 p.m.; it was conceded that 2/13th would not be expected to attack against tanks without tank support. The 2/13th Battalion was to counter-attack at Ed Duda with two companies and provide one company to protect the 1st RHA’s gun area near Belhamed. The rest of the battalion was to be organised to hold the escarpment where the battalion was then situated.
The 2/13th headquarters were on the escarpment about 1,000 yards north-east of the Ed Duda pass. “C” and “D” Companies were detailed for the counter-attack, but when it appeared that the outlying “D” Company would not reach battalion headquarters by the time prescribed for leaving, Burrows issued a last-minute order that “B” Company (Captain Graham) would take its place and move off with “C” Company (Captain Walsoe). The two companies were then assembled by platoons in column of route at the foot of the escarpment on its northern side. A troop of 25-pounders was firing directly over their heads from behind a ridge to the north-east but the night was otherwise quiet. The guns stopped firing and almost as they did so a shell landed in the middle of a closely-bunched platoon of Graham’s company, killing or wounding almost all.
It was necessary for Burrows, so as to be on time at the rendezvous, to order the rest of the column to march past. As the men did so with exemplary discipline, heart-rending cries from the stricken platoon assailed
them. They were then led in silence round the foot of the escarpment to a start-line laid for an attack south-west on both sides of the “pimples” of the Ed Duda feature. The forms of enemy tanks could be identified through binoculars on the objective some 500 yards away. Burrows refused to allow the attack to proceed. The start was postponed while he went back to Willison’s headquarters.
Only one conclusion was possible. If Ed Duda was to be retaken, the German tanks would have to be dislodged; if Willison’s tanks could not do this, there was no other way. It was decided that it would have to be a close-in tank-to-tank and man-to-man fight without artillery support.
This may have been influenced by the fact that the 1st RHA’s “A/E” Battery had withdrawn to Tiger after dusk and Colonel Williams had ordered “B/O” Battery back in the belief that the by-pass road was not blocked. The 4th RTR, however, was maintaining a block just forward of the 2/13th with three tanks and the 44th RTR was maintaining another to the east. It was decided that the battery’s departure could no longer be delayed.
So, while in the desert not far to the south Gott’s armoured brigades again spent an untroubled night in a leaguer off the battlefield, Willison’s tanks, which had been in the thick of the fight for nine days, came forward with devotion and pluck to try conclusions with the main tank force of the Africa Corps.
Accounts of the battle are difficult to reconcile. Some misunderstandings have arisen because descriptions of incidents have been read as descriptions of an entire engagement, which was a long one. The tanks fought for about three hours, the infantry for about fifteen minutes. The battle began when eight Matilda tanks approached the Ed Duda escarpment from low ground in front and fought the German tanks skylined above. The contest provided a most spectacular fireworks display. Streams of small-arms tracer fire, which seemed to issue from holes in the hill, and fiery marbles spat out by automatic cannon converged on the British tanks’ hulls and ricocheted from them like splashing molten metal. The Matildas stabbed back with rapid Besa machine-gun fire. Sharp exchanges of 2-pounder or 50-mm shot rang out; some tanks and vehicles on either side caught fire. The British tanks outnumbered by about three to one continued to engage, but the worrying question was whether all or most
had been immobilised. Soon it was answered when some were seen to advance a short distance. Then it was puzzling to observe the same tanks withdraw. But they returned to the fray. In the end the puzzle of the battle was that the German tanks, after having appeared to have the upper hand, withdrew and did not come back. The Germans later blamed the receipt of a wrongly coded message purporting to recall the 8th Armoured Regiment, but the battle had been decided before the message was received. British tank crews had for once fought German tanks in an action in which the Germans could not employ their guns to weight the odds against the British; at the end the outnumbered British were there, the Germans gone.
At one stage it had been planned to delay the infantry attack until the moon set behind the western ridge but when it appeared that the German tanks had departed Willison and Burrows decided to attack at 1.30 a.m. German war diaries make it plain that complete surprise was achieved because the attack was made without artillery support (as though an offence against the ethics of war had been perpetrated). Burrows, however, was more interested in frightening than surprising the enemy and told the men to call out “Australians coming” as they assaulted. In the same spirit the Matildas advancing on the flanks soon had their tank engines roaring at full throttle and were firing wildly when on the move. Unfortunately battles often do not proceed according to plan. Soon the enthusiastic British tank gunners were shooting up the charging Australians, mistaking them for retreating Germans, and the ignorant Germans, despite the Australians’ shouted attempts to identify themselves, were crying out “Englander kommen”.
The following are extracts from an account written by a soldier about two months after the battle:–46
Captain Walsoe fired a green Very flare and the attack started with two platoons of B company on the left and C company on the right. C company had first to ascertain whether the men to their front belonged to the Essex Battalion or were Germans. ... Soon however a German was captured. Colonel Burrows moved with the men telling them to call out “The Australians are coming” when they charged. The men went forward at a steady walking pace until they sighted the enemy. There was no need to advise them to shout when they went in: shouting, yelling, coo-eeing like madmen, they charged with the bayonet. The enemy seemed stupefied. There was no concerted resistance. Those who did not run either threw themselves on the ground or held up their hands. ... As the attack progressed through the enemy’s positions Germans could be heard running in front ... calling out “Englander kommen”. ... The advance was continued to a distance of 500 yards beyond the top of the opposing ridge, but though Germans were heard running and shouting in the distance the men were recalled, since it would have been unwise to have gone further. Small pockets of enemy were soon mopped up and the companies withdrew to the southern slope of Ed Duda. B company sent out a patrol and took another 15 prisoners from a post on the left flank. ...
Enemy motor transport was heard moving about in confusion but could not be captured in the darkness, but a motor cyclist was stopped by a burst of TSMG fire and captured.
Although at the moment of assault the men charged with vigour and elation, Walsoe and Graham kept their companies in hand and platoon commanders and section leaders maintained control. Organised resistance was met only on the fringes, and there, by initiative and with confidence in night fighting based on patrol experience, the Australians kept on top. On the right, for example, Sergeant Searle47 put in a quick charge and subdued a pocket of enemy that opened fire when challenged. Two men nearby who were slow to stand up and surrender were about to be dispatched with the bayonet when they identified themselves as Australian stretcher bearers captured by the enemy that evening. On the other flank Private Ferres48 firing his Bren gun from the hip and leading three other men assaulted a troublesome enemy post and took the surrender of 25 Germans. The prisoners taken in the attack – almost all by the Australians – numbered 167. Only 7 Australians were wounded, two mortally.
The Australians were quickly reorganised to form a compact two-company front in the centre of the Ed Duda position, where they prepared for an immediate counter-attack. What was needed was to get below ground at once and be concealed as much as possible by dawn, but only one or two picks or shovels could be found. Infantry could hardly have been placed with less protection in a more vulnerable position than these men on Ed Duda at the very hinge of the Tobruk corridor; but no immediate counter-attack was made.
Meanwhile the main 2/13th Battalion defensive position on the ridge to the east, which had been depleted by the dispatch of two companies to the counter-attack and a third to protect the artillery, had been strengthened by the acquisition of the two companies of the 19th New Zealand Battalion that had remained with the Ed Duda force. They now came under the command of the 2/13th and moved into position alongside the Australians.
Thus about two squadrons of tanks and two companies of infantry had snatched back from the Africa Corps almost the only important acquisition it had won by its exertions at Rommel’s direction in the six days since it had trampled exultantly on the armoured brigades and infantry battle-groups of the XXX Corps. The commanders of both sides continued fighting the battle under strange misconceptions, Rommel imagining the British to be aware how roundly they had been beaten and believing that the New Zealanders would therefore be withdrawing into Tobruk, Ritchie still imagining the German armour to have been so weakened that it was trying to escape to the west. Rommel suffered from a further misconception that the British armour might soon intervene in force, so the German commander decided to press on quickly next day with plans to cut off and destroy the New Zealand forces on the ridges south of Tobruk. Ritchie shared his illusion. “Stick to them tonight,” he had enjoined Gott, but Gott’s armoured brigades, conforming to their convenient routine, had returned to a night leaguer at a reasonably safe
distance from the battle. The two brigades were being organised into one composite brigade under Brigadier Gatehouse’s command.
Rommel’s orders for the 30th were “to complete the ring” round the New Zealand Division but oddly enough, and fortunately for the 2/13th Battalion, completing the ring did not include retaking Ed Duda. The main task was to capture Sidi Rezegh. In the meantime, Major-General Boettcher, who had been commanding the German heavy artillery at Bir bu Creimisa, was appointed to command the 21st Armoured Division in succession to Major-General von Ravenstein.
Ritchie’s overnight orders to the 7th Armoured Division for the next day were to “chivvy the rear” of the German 15th Armoured Division. Later orders to General Gott required him to harass and destroy the enemy “as opportunity occurred’ so as to protect the 1st South African Brigade, which was to recapture Point 175. Just before first light, the orders were changed so far as the 1st South African Brigade was concerned, when Pienaar was told to take his brigade farther west, in the Ed Duda direction, to the area south of the Sidi Rezegh airfield and not far east of the region from which Rommel was planning to launch his main attack. Later, however, Norrie told Pienaar to go to Sciafsciuf far to the east of Point 175 before mounting the escarpment, then to attack 175 from the east.
Godwin-Austen’s proposals for the 30th were cast in strangely similar mould to his suggestions on preceding days. From outside Tobruk he had asked Scobie to create diversions to help Freyberg; from inside he now called on Freyberg, after Ed Duda had been attacked, for diversionary operations to help Scobie; but later when the insecurity of Ed Duda appeared to have been redressed, he reverted once more to the old BATTLE-AXE plan of advancing from Ed Duda to El Adem. As soon as Freyberg had made contact with the South African brigade and was satisfied that the present position could be held, the New Zealand Division was to advance to the El Adem-Bir el Gubi road.
Norrie’s activities this day were almost solely concerned with getting Pienaar’s brigade to the New Zealand Division. It had been the intention on the 28th and again on the 29th that Pienaar’s brigade should join Godwin-Austen’s and Freyberg’s force, but the Axis armoured forces coming back from the frontier region had been operating across the desert to the south of the New Zealanders that Pienaar would have to cross if he was to go to them by a reasonably direct route. The orders reaching Pienaar had been chopped and changed but none of them had adequately coped with the problem of effecting the junction without exposing Pienaar’s thin-skinned forces to armoured ambush. Norrie may have felt that he bore some responsibility for the failure. “I decided,” he subsequently reported, “to make myself personally responsible for ensuring that there was no repetition of the two previous days.” So as to be free to concentrate on this himself, he even went so far that afternoon as to place Gott temporarily in command of the rest of the corps. To have got Gatehouse’s composite armoured brigade to intervene might have been more useful.
To have got both brigades up to the battle together might have been one way of “ensuring that there was no repetition of the two previous days”, but apparently was not considered.
So on 30th November, one week after the Totensonntag battle, the day on which Rommel was to bring to bear against Freyberg’s New Zealanders all the strength, armoured or otherwise, the German Africa Corps could muster, Ritchie told the 7th Armoured Division to “chivvy up” the rear of the 15th Armoured Division, Norrie told the 7th Armoured Division to protect the South African infantry brigade while it regained Point 175 (and later personally conducted the brigade to the eastern part of Freyberg’s front), Gott told Gatehouse to “maintain the corridor” to the New Zealand Division near Point 175 and to protect the South African brigade and Godwin-Austen told Freyberg to start a westward advance as soon as the South African brigade joined him and he felt secure.
When the defence of Ed Duda was reorganised after the successful counter-attack, Walsoe’s and Graham’s companies were left under the command of Lieut-Colonel Nichols49 to form a composite battalion with the headquarters and “C” Company and the remnants of “A”, “B” and “D” Companies of the 1/Essex. Burrows returned to command the rest of his battalion on the ridge to the east of Ed Duda and was told that the two companies of the 19th New Zealand Battalion would be under his command.
Although the Australians had been reading the battle reports rather sceptically they had not expected to find on going out to Ed Duda that the German armour was still traversing the desert at will, as it had throughout the siege. Now the battalion had been made responsible for developing defensive localities on exposed ridges in the face of a boldly thrusting armoured force. Although the 1st RHA had come forward again and its Rocket Troop, which Captain Daintree’s company was protecting, was sited in an anti-tank role, there were no anti-tank guns with the Australians and Burrows and his staff were worried at the lack of defence against tanks.50 Importunate demands were made for mines to be provided. The staff at Scobie’s headquarters, though at first taken aback at the number sought, were sympathetic and helpful.
When dawn came on the 30th the Australians with the Essex battalion were astonished to see a busy German bivouac on the desert flats to their front.
There were bell tents, repair shops, field kitchens sending up their smoke, soldiers marching about in small groups, panzers moving about the encampment and staff cars coming and going (wrote Major Colvin some years later.)51
It took a little time for everybody to make sure that this apparition was not of British origin while an impatient forward observation officer,
Captain G. C. Etches of the 1st RHA, fretted and waited. When fire on the camp was authorised, it was quickly laid low in smoke and dust and flame by a bombardment from “A/E” Battery. The enemy artillery (Mickl Group, previously the Boettcher Group) at once retaliated against both the 1/Essex and the 2/13th positions with heavy and punishing fire, which had to be endured for a good part of the morning. In the meantime about 40 tanks began approaching from the west. Twelve came up to within 3,000 yards, were shelled and withdrew. At 8 a.m. about 35 medium tanks were reported to be “standing off watching”; about ten minutes later they were bombed by the RAF. Later two enemy tanks came forward, probably to inspect four damaged tanks which had been left on Ed Duda when the enemy had fled during the night. Harassed by the British artillery as they approached, the tanks nosed their way into Walsoe’s company’s positions and called on the men to surrender. This was one ruse that could not succeed against siege-trained Australians. A cat-and-mouse game began but the two tanks suddenly made off as though sensing that they were being trapped. Subsequently the German tank force moved off to the south, then round to the east, in the direction of the New Zealand Division.
Two or three vehicles were captured on the by-pass road in the morning. At “B/O” Battery’s position covering the road, which it had occupied at 9.30 a.m., the British gunners and Australian infantry protecting them captured a mixed bag, including an Intelligence officer of one of the German armoured formations and a lorry well stocked with enemy canteen stores. A section under Corporal McKellar52 ambushed an artillery command vehicle with useful maps, plans and instruments.
In mid-morning Burrows attended a conference at Willison’s headquarters at which it was decided that the two companies of the 19th New Zealand Battalion would change places with the two 2/13th Battalion companies then at Ed Duda under command of the 1/Essex, and that the 2/13th Battalion would maintain the localities previously held by the New Zealand companies. Orders were given for a very complicated relief operation devised to ensure that no locality would be left vacant during the change-over. Later in the day a feature in rear of the 2/13th called Bir Belhamed (not to be confused with Belhamed, which was on the same escarpment as the 2/13th but farther east) was occupied by advanced parties of the 1/Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, who completed the occupation after dark and also placed a company on either side of the road below the escarpment.
The tragic fact that no single-minded purpose was activating the British mobile forces lying in the desert to the south of the ridges on which Freyberg’s two infantry brigades and the foremost battalions of Scobie’s sortie force had been so boldly but dangerously disposed enhanced the very danger of their situation. Not only did the expectation or hope (however slight it was becoming) that the 1st South African Brigade might recapture Point 175 fatally tempt Freyberg to maintain an insecure arrangement
of his forces and Godwin-Austen to sanction it; the mere possibility that the South Africans or even the legendary 7th Armoured Division might do some of the things known from intercepted messages to have been suggested to them left the defenders on the escarpment uncertain whether forces manoeuvring in the desert to the south were friend or foe. Thus the diarist of the 1st RHA, which that day had about 48 guns under command including batteries of the 104th and 107th RHA, complained of a confusing general “sitrep”53 which had ended with the statement “It is not safe to shoot south of Duda unless we can identify; quite safe to shoot east” and commented that a large force which at 3.50 p.m. was moving east towards Ed Duda but at nightfall put in a damaging attack on the New Zealand brigade near Sidi Rezegh had received “little opposition from our artillery” because it was not certain that they were not British.
Observers on the ridges around Ed Duda saw and heard the signs of a distant battle about Sidi Rezegh but nobody could tell what was happening. Nothing was discerned to dispel vague premonitions that an enemy who was palpably displaying such initiative was in the ascendant. So menacing seemed the extensive movement as night approached that the proposed change-over on Ed Duda between the two companies of the 19th New Zealand Battalion and Walsoe’s and Graham’s companies was cancelled. The night was devoted to mine-laying and energetic digging to improve prospects of survival. Up to midnight nothing was known in Tobruk, not even at XIII Corps headquarters, of the course of the fighting near Sidi Rezegh.
Gatehouse’s composite 4th/22nd Armoured Brigade spent 30th November, the first day of its existence, in shadow-sparring with the Ariete Division and with figments of the German Africa Corps. Its activities, which hardly seemed to conform with Gott’s order that it should maintain the corridor to the New Zealand Division near Point 175, did not interfere with German preparations to encompass the New Zealand Division’s destruction nor deter the Italians from shelling the New Zealanders from Point 175. In the morning Pienaar experienced the usual changes in his orders until Norrie decided about midday to take the South African brigade under his personal command and to see it personally onto the Trigh Capuzzo escarpment at Bir Sciafsciuf, the route to which lay well to the east of the battle area. There it was to turn west and attack Point 175. Later Norrie reported: “I more or less personally led the 1st S.A. Brigade with a flag in my Recce Car and got on the escarpment ahead of anyone else.”54 The escarpment was reached just before 4 p.m. No further advance was attempted before dark, though preparations were made for two columns to begin an advance at nightfall with the object of retaking the dressing station near Point 175 against possible light opposition.
The German 15th Armoured Division had started late on its mission of capturing Sidi Rezegh as the next step towards cutting the New Zealand
Division off from both Tobruk and Egypt. By somebody’s blunder the whole division had started to move to El Adem in the early hours of the morning but was later halted at Bir Salem.55 In the late morning, as observed from Ed Duda, the division moved round to north of Bir bu Creimisa.
The headquarters of the Africa Corps had been established near Bir bu Creimisa and there in the early afternoon Rommel issued his final orders for the assault on the New Zealand Division. The Mickl Group with five tanks from the 15th Armoured Division was to attack Sidi Rezegh; simultaneously the Ariete was to close in from the east. The 90th Light Division was to attack Belhamed from the north and the 15th Armoured, at Crüwell’s suggestion, would advance to the so-called “saddle” between Ed Duda and Belhamed with the object of linking with the 90th Light on the northern side of Belhamed. In other words the 15th Armoured was to pass along the plain just at the foot of the ridge on which most of Burrows’ battalion and the two New Zealand companies under his tactical command had made their precarious lodgments and establish itself astride the ridge to the east of them, where the by-pass road crossed it. Destiny seemed to be plotting an exciting evening for the two 2/13th Battalion patrols being briefed at that time to patrol during the night to the by-pass road.
Undistracted by the British armour’s over-cautious skirmishing, the Axis armoured forces closed in on the New Zealand Division between 4 and 5 p.m. Neumann-Silkow, however, with a sound tactical instinct for the kill, joined in the attack on Sidi Rezegh on the left flank of the Mickl Group instead of advancing into the “saddle” east of Burrows’ positions. This saved the Australians but sealed the fate of the 6th New Zealand Brigade around the Sidi Rezegh mosque. The 24th and 26th New Zealand Battalions were overrun and the 25th Battalion near the blockhouse was hard-pressed by the Ariete Division. Brigadier Barrow-dough wished to bring what was left of the 6th Brigade including its artillery and machine-guns behind the shelter of the Tobruk sortie force’s established positions.
The New Zealand Division’s situation was indeed perilous. The overrunning of Barrowclough’s infantry had left the way unbarred to most of the divisional artillery lying south and east of Belhamed and to Belhamed itself. In the east the German 21st Armoured Division had exerted pressure and was closing up astride the Trigh Capuzzo; behind the Ariete Division but farther east the 1st South African Brigade was now on the escarpment. After dark a mobile striking force of two companies with a third as flank protection set out from the South African Brigade for Point 175 but the force ran up against elements of the 21st, including the 3rd Reconnaissance Unit, and did not reach its objective.
That night several Eighth Army commanders of high rank made decisions and issued orders influenced by varying degrees of awareness of the
calamitous possibilities indicated by the day’s set-backs and vacillations. Some messages sent evoked a corresponding action, some did not.
To Freyberg whose homespun philosophy imposed on every soldier, every unit and every commander a simple duty to accept sacrificial losses when necessary for the common cause, it was plain that the New Zealand Division remained under an obligation to fight for the ground it held, across which the link with the Tobruk garrison was to be maintained. Thus Barrowclough’s withdrawal proposals were not accepted. On the other hand Freyberg’s close view of the situation’s hard facts told him that both the South African infantry and the British armour would have to join battle at once alongside the New Zealanders if the aim was to be achieved. He sent Brigadier R. Miles, his chief artillery officer, on an urgent mission to Tobruk to explain this to Godwin-Austen. He sent two liaison officers to Pienaar, whom he believed to have been placed under his command, with the following message:–
Sidi Rezegh was captured by the enemy this afternoon. Our position is untenable unless you can recapture it before dawn 1 December. You will therefore carry out this task at once.
Miles did not reach the XIII Corps headquarters in Tobruk until after midnight and the officers sent to the 1st South African Brigade headquarters did not arrive until 1.40 a.m. Norrie had camped for the night close to Pienaar’s headquarters and soon Pienaar woke Norrie to discuss Freyberg’s message. Norrie and Pienaar agreed that to recapture Point
175 before dawn was not practicable. The attack would be resumed at dawn.
Soon after Miles reached the headquarters of XIII Corps in the early hours of 1st December Godwin-Austen began to convey his thoughts and orders by slowly transmitted wireless messages. The headquarters of both the Eighth Army and the XXX Corps (of which Gott had temporary command) heard from him that it was essential that the 7th Armoured Division should concentrate every effort on destroying the enemy tanks east and west of the New Zealand Division. Freyberg was told that the XXX Corps had been asked to concentrate the 7th Armoured Division’s efforts on this, that if the South African attack for Point 175 and Sidi Rezegh succeeded the gains were to be consolidated; if not, the New Zealand troops were to be withdrawn behind Ed Duda while the division continued to hold Belhamed. In effect this meant: “Hang on while the South African brigade tries to re-take the lost ground and 7th Armoured Division sets about destroying the enemy tanks. If they can’t do this, hold on to Belhamed but give up whatever else is necessary beyond the reach of the Tobruk fortress guns.” The alternative to such an instruction would have been to order the New Zealand Division to withdraw immediately (which there was hardly time to do before the next blow would fall); but Godwin-Austen had no real option to order thus. How could he have taken the responsibility of assuming that the 1st South African Brigade and 7th Armoured Division could not, or would not, intervene with decisive effect? Godwin-Austen had perceived that his dilemma had wide implications affecting not only the New Zealanders but also the forces Scobie had thrust out beyond the tank defences of the Tobruk perimeter. At 7.55 a.m. on 1st December he sent this message to the Eighth Army headquarters:–
If 1 SA Bde fail secure firm footing on Pt 175-Sidi Rezegh escarpment and if our armd forces continue be unable prevent enemy armd forces from attacking tps holding corridor defs, situation may shortly arise in which decision will have to be taken whether or not essential withdraw to original perimeter rather than continue expose tps holding corridor to tk attack on both sides. Unable give accurate figures, but our total “I” tk runners now most unlikely exceed 20. Further offensive action by 70 Div would dangerously weaken garrison and incur serious risk total loss of Tobruk as long as enemy tks able operate in strength on my front. Request Staff Officer able give decisions on behalf Army Comd on above points be sent here soonest possible. Meantime intend continue hold Ed Duda and Belhamed.56
The tale of the morning’s orders is completed by a message sent at 4 a.m. by Gott to Gatehouse telling him briefly that the enemy had captured Sidi Rezegh, the New Zealanders were being attacked by tanks from east and west and the South Africans were “south-west” of Point 175, and giving him this order:–
You will reconnoitre Sidi Rezegh area first light and counter-attack enemy tanks at all costs, subsequently rally south of Point 175.
But time was running out. The enemy was already stirring, the dawn very near.
There was some fuss in the early hours of 1st December about infiltration in the corridor between Butch and Tiger, but at first light this proved to be an isolated enemy party, which was quickly mopped up by the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. At dawn ground mist hid the plateau to the south of the Ed Duda ridges and before it cleared heavy artillery fire began to fall around Belhamed. It was soon evident that the New Zealand positions there were under attack. The 1st RHA did their best to send officers to the battle area but two tanks ran onto an enemy minefield and another was stopped by anti-tank fire. Major Goschen went out in a truck but, after it had run onto a mine, was hit in the shoulder by a bullet. About 8.30 a.m. Major Loder-Symonds reported that the infantry on Belhamed were without tank support and being overrun. He asked regimental headquarters to try to have some tanks sent up.
Godwin-Austen had called a conference at his headquarters at 9 a.m. to consider Miles’ report of the New Zealand Division’s situation and his own instruction to Freyberg to withdraw the New Zealand Division to the area north of Belhamed if the South African attack on Point 175 failed. By that time reports of the 1st RHA’s unhappy observations of events at Belhamed had been received. It was decided that if Belhamed was lost, plans would have to be made for withdrawing in darkness from Ed Duda and the forward posts in the corridor.
About 9.30 a.m. it was learnt at Scobie’s headquarters that the New Zealand infantry on Belhamed had begun withdrawing towards the garrison’s posts in the corridor and instructions were given to rally them and employ them in the forward posts. Meanwhile an enemy attack from the east on the left shoulder of the corridor (on the post known then as Dopey, previously Butch) had been repulsed and it was reported that about 50 enemy had been killed and 50 captured.
The 18th New Zealand Battalion, on the side of Belhamed facing the Ed Duda ridge, withstood the German assault for some time, but later gave ground and began to withdraw westwards. By this time Loder-Symonds had two mobile observation posts operating and was able to cover its withdrawal; the guns of “B/O” Battery quickly turned back some German tanks that moved round to the New Zealanders’ western flank, trying to cut them off. As the New Zealanders came back through his battery positions, Loder-Symonds sought out their commander, whom he found to be a spirited leader, told him that the guns would stay and give his men good protection against tanks provided that they “remained just in front of the guns” and pointed out that the enemy minefield “was now well placed for our own use”.57 The New Zealand colonel took Loder-Symonds at his word, reconnoitred the ridge west of Belhamed with him and established his battalion there. Soon afterwards a convoy of remnants of the New Zealand Division’s artillery including a troop of the 6th New Zealand Field Regiment came down the by-pass road. According to the diarist of “B/O” Battery, “Loder-Symonds then got the N.Z. guns into action alongside ‘B’ Troop, making eight guns in line, and they
were shot by Captain Hay as an eight-gun troop”. Next, in case the RHA’s “B” Troop should be forced to withdraw by an attack from the open flank, the Rocket Troop were ordered to take up a position at Bir Belhamed from which support could also be given. This they did. They were later heavily shelled, a gunner being killed and five others wounded, but the guns remained in position until after dark.
From the 2/13th Battalion’s positions on the Ed Duda-Belhamed ridge, part of the German tank assault on Belhamed could be observed through field-glasses. The 18th New Zealand Battalion’s subsequent withdrawal was watched. At 10 a.m. an enemy column at the foot of Belhamed was reported to be moving towards the 2/13th area. Later some movement – then thought to be of German troops – was discerned on the ridge beyond the by-pass road. The battalion’s position seemed precarious, being overlooked not only from the Trig 157 ridge on the west but from Belhamed in the east and also to some extent from the south. At 10.30 a.m. the battalion was notified that the enemy had taken Belhamed and that a conference was to be held at 11 a.m. at Willison’s headquarters to consider the situation.
The crisis of CRUSADER had been reached. The offensive that had been almost smashed on Totensonntag, but which the spirited fighting of Scobie’s and Freyberg’s infantry and army tank brigades had kept going, was now verging towards pitiful and ominous failure. The dangerously exposed New Zealand Division had been stripped of most of its outer defences. The armoured divisions of the Africa Corps were closing in to crush it.
By a custom that had often helped them win battles the Germans had made their preliminary moves in the dark, striking at Belhamed at 6.30 a.m. before the sun’s warm touch dissolved the morning mist. Had Gatehouse reconnoitred Sidi Rezegh at first light as, with scarcely adequate notice, he had been ordered to do, he would still have been too late to strike the Germans in the back before they attacked. About 9 a.m., by which time he had completed a dismal visual reconnaissance from the Sidi Rezegh plateau’s southern edge and the Germans had secured Belhamed, Gatehouse’s leading tanks (of the 8th Hussars and 5th Royal Tanks) were coming over the edge of the northern Sidi Rezegh escarpment to contact the most southerly troops of Barrowclough’s 6th New Zealand Brigade. “Attack the enemy relentlessly using all your resources, even to the last tank,” Auchinleck had written. “Counter-attack enemy tanks at all costs,” Gott had ordered. Gatehouse told Lieut-Colonel Drew, commanding the 5th Royal Tanks, to get in touch with the New Zealand commander and make a plan to attack against the enemy tanks.
In war many must fight and many die to the orders of a few. The stage had been set, orders given, first moves made for British and German armour to clash in the climactic battle of the campaign. Yet there was no such battle, no last fight at Sidi Rezegh between the armoured forces for better or for worse, with tanks burning, men dying, blood draining
into sand. In the main, what the British tanks did and did not do that day was what Gatehouse ordered them to do and not to do. It does not seem right, however, to judge his orders or their performance in terms of correspondence or non-correspondence with Gott’s initial instruction to counter-attack the enemy tanks “at all costs”. One must first ask whether that instruction meant what it said.
To demand the performance of a task “at all costs” (which involves disregarding the loss of precious life) is a commander’s prerogative which should be used only sparingly and in an extremity, but commanders in the Eighth Army were developing a loose habit of ordering tasks to be carried out “at all costs” in circumstances in which to be entirely unregardful of losses would not have been justified. Such orders unfairly placed responsibility for any non-performance on the recipient, who was still expected to exercise his command prudently and with a proper discretion that was ostensibly denied him. Thus, despite Gott’s categorical orders, Gatehouse, the armoured commander on the spot on 1st December, was not really expected by Gott to counter-attack at all costs. That Gott intended to allow him some discretion, though perhaps not as much as in fact he exercised, is evident from the published messages that passed between them.58
It is also evident that Gatehouse did not regard himself as under obligation to commit his tanks to blind charges at the enemy wherever seen but rather as personally responsible for saving both his men and their equipment from rash enterprises seemingly enjoined by the literal sense of orders written for execution in a situation no longer pertaining. The situation when Gatehouse’s tanks descended the escarpment north of the Sidi Rezegh airfield to the battle zone offered many opportunities for engagements of doubtful outcome. The New Zealand Division had already been thrust from its ground at Belhamed and Sidi Rezegh. The 1st South African Brigade’s second and stronger attack on Trig 175 had failed to penetrate to that feature through the 21st Armoured Division’s screen blocking the approaches from the east. To Gatehouse’s immediate north, across the Trigh Capuzzo, was the hastily improvised defensive position taken up in the dark by the remnants of Barrowclough’s brigade (excluding the 25th Battalion still at the blockhouse). North of them again were the 8th Royal Tanks (five “I” tanks) and farther north the 44th Royal Tanks (seven “I” tanks). This extremely thin red line covered a field and anti-tank artillery screen in a wadi. Mainly there, some forty 25-pounders were still in action and stoutly manned, a force to be reckoned with, but the New Zealand Division had little else – the battalion at the blockhouse, half a battalion at Zaafran (the 19th less the two companies near Ed Duda), divisional cavalry, engineers and other staunch but small bodies.
Against the battered and depleted New Zealand Division Rommel had concentrated almost the entire strength of the Africa Corps. The ring was relentlessly closing. Rommel called the area within it the Kessel – the kettle,
or cauldron – thus appropriately symbolising his intentions. In the west, opposite Barrowclough, and now Gatehouse, were the 8th Armoured and 200th Infantry Regiments north of the Trigh Capuzzo and the powerful Mickl artillery group and the 115th Infantry Regiment south of it. The great strength of this force lay not in its tanks but in its numerous and varied artillery, which the staunch New Zealand field regiments and whatever guns Gatehouse had brought with him could not oppose on equal terms. To the north was the 90th Light Division, with a part to play in exerting pressure; in the east was the Ariete Division. Behind it, astride the Trigh Capuzzo and under orders to take up positions of all-round defence, the 21st Armoured Division “closed the ring”.
Not all this, nor very much of it, was known to Gatehouse; but once in the kettle he did not like its simmer. The record of his messages to Gott shows that he was impressed with the number of enemy guns “of all sizes” and particularly with the “very large stuff” and also that he soon concluded that it was too late to halt a New Zealand withdrawal or to reverse the battle’s course. Gatehouse did not choose to counter-attack the German tanks in the face of such gun-power. Barrowclough had no option but to withdraw to Zaafran and Freyberg had independently decided that the withdrawal of what was left of his division was inevitable, a course which (he inferred from a message) was endorsed and expected by higher formation. Gatehouse’s brigade at first covered the New Zealand withdrawal, which Gott had indicated to him was Norrie’s wish. Later, however, Gatehouse signalled Gott:–
Starting evacuating leaguer as arranged. After 2 miles on a point just E of aerodrome we were attacked by Italian tanks from in front, German tanks on right flank. Column we were protecting disappeared NE, could not protect them as had no contact. Consider responsibility over towards column. ...
The German 15th Armoured Division got ready to meet a counterattack by Gatehouse’s force with its numerous tanks. After midday the British armoured brigade moved off to the south and replenished but did not return to the Kessel that day. The New Zealand historian has commented:–
To the men of 6 Brigade the whole episode was puzzling. They were thankful for the timely help of the Stuart tanks when capture had seemed inevitable and full of admiration for the tank crews who lingered under heavy fire to escort them to safety. But they were mildly surprised that the British armour disappeared so quickly from the scene and disappointed that such a strong force made such a small impression on the battle as a whole. They had expected the tide to turn, but it continued to flow against them.59
No doubt the British “top brass” had put Gatehouse in “a nasty position”, as he called it. No doubt a counter-attack would have been costly. But CRUSADER could not be won if everybody drove off the battlefield yielding the initiative entirely to the German armoured divisions and permitting them to concentrate superior force against the British infantry battalions one by one. The Germans had been scraping the barrel to find
forces to attack the British and New Zealand forces in the Ed Duda-Sidi Rezegh-Belhamed triangle. The 90th Light Division was organising a battalion from men rescued from the New Zealand prisoner-of-war compound and was able to do nothing effective. The depleted 115th Regiment had not recovered from its defeat at Sidi Rezegh. For some days the 21st Armoured Division had been in poor condition and the day before had been looking on the situation “in an unduly pessimistic light” and sending “alarming reports”, as the diarist of the Africa Corps noted. Apart from his well-sited and influential medium and heavy artillery, the only battle-worthy assault troops of much account available to Rommel at the beginning of this critical day were the two tank battalions of the 8th Armoured Regiment, with about 40 tanks, the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion and the 15th Motor Cycle Battalion. Before the British armoured brigade had arrived on the scene, these had fought a strenuous action against the 20th New Zealand Battalion and 6th Field Regiment. Probably the 15th Armoured Division could not have mustered two dozen medium tank runners. The British armoured brigade with its 115 tanks left this force free to continue bringing pressure for the rest of the day on the ill-used and over-tried New Zealand Division.
About the time when Gatehouse ordered his armoured brigade to resume its return journey, Crüwell directed the 15th Armoured Division to continue its attack eastward through Zaafran. To allow time for the 8th Armoured Regiment to refuel and replenish and for the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion to withdraw from western Belhamed opposite the 18th New Zealand Battalion, Neumann-Silkow fixed the start-time at 4.30 p.m. So the New Zealand gunners, who had planned to withdraw from their wadi and from Bir Sciuearat at 5.30 p.m. as twilight darkened to full night, were attacked about 50 minutes before that time. In the wadi, standing by the guns in their last fight, were the five Matildas of the 44th Royal Tanks; at Bir Sciuearat, a few Valentines of the 8th Royal Tanks also fought in the last action. The guns were under close attack and continued firing, some at point-blank range, up to the moment they were withdrawn. Most were extricated but some had to be abandoned, the sights only taken. Then the weary German 8th Armoured and 200th Infantry Regiments settled for the night on the field of their second won battle, only to receive a sharp rebuke from General Crüwell who said that he had named Zaafran as the objective and knew of no order to halt. He told Neumann-Silkow to “move on to Zaafran at daybreak and capture it”.
At 6.45 p.m., after the main body had waited for more than an hour for the rearguards, the survivors of the New Zealand Division, assembled in orderly columns, crossed their last start-line in the CRUSADER campaign in a disciplined withdrawal, passed through a gap in the rearward enemy screen, and went east and south to Bir el Chleta. General Norrie saw them there. Thence they drove south-east on the first step of their journey back to Egypt to rest, rebuild, and refit. They reached Bir Gibni by 3.30 a.m. next day. By that time the 1st South African Brigade was at Taieb el Esem, the 4th Armoured Brigade in its night leaguer at Bir Berraneb,
some 24 miles from Ed Duda. There was no substantial British force closer than that to Scobie’s corridor. The Kessel had been emptied, the attempt to relieve Tobruk smashed.
The Eighth Army had been dealt a telling rebuff but Rommel had not restored the situation to what it was before the British offensive began. The Tobruk garrison’s protrusion from the perimeter to Ed Duda remained. In the frontier region British troops were besieging the Axis garrisons from Salum to the Omars, and at Bardia. A substantial British force about the Trigh el Abd threatened the Axis flank. Whether the German commander could continue to attack the outlying British infantry battalions and brigades with his armoured divisions and to confront British armoured formations with a superior power of artillery on the battlefield would depend as much on his opponent’s decisions as his own.
“Ritchie has gripped battle completely and is thinking far ahead,” Auchinleck told Churchill on 30th November. Ritchie had now been in command of the Eighth Army long enough to take full charge of the battle. It is a measure of the archaism of the army’s command methods that on 1st December he went to the XXX Corps headquarters to see Norrie not knowing that Norrie was elsewhere and that the big decisions that day were made without reference to him, such as that the 4th Armoured Brigade would counter-attack to help the New Zealand Division, then that it would not counter-attack, that the New Zealand Division would withdraw from the battle and that the 4th Armoured Brigade would leave the battle zone before the New Zealand Division had been extricated. A decision on the further question whether the Tobruk “appendix” (as the ground seized in the sortie operations was called) should be abandoned had been referred to him early in the morning but his reply was not sent for twelve hours.
It appears that Ritchie spent most of that critical day at XXX Corps headquarters, where he studied the situation map and framed an outline plan for future operations. The map must have been fairly up to date – no doubt more so than at his own headquarters – because it showed the enemy armour lying surrounded by anti-tank guns in what Ritchie called “the valley between Sidi Rezegh and Belhamed” and Ritchie made the observation, as though the armour had not just gone there, that it was important to draw it out into the open and “never leave it alone”. The last part did not exactly fit the day’s actual program for the 4th Armoured Brigade or any other formation. The main features of Ritchie’s plan, which with a covering letter he left in an envelope for Norrie, were to attack El Adem with a brigade of the 4th Indian Division and to raid enemy supply lines between Tmimi and Acroma with armoured car columns.60 Another point stressed was that an imagined but non-existent enemy supply line from Bardia to enemy forces west of it should be blocked. (Rommel’s main concern on the same day was to get supplies
into Bardia, not out.) When Ritchie got back to his own headquarters he signalled Godwin-Austen that to continue to hold the Ed Duda appendix would assist “future operations for relief of Tobruk ... being planned now”, but he did not encourage Godwin-Austen to think he would get much help from outside Tobruk in the immediate future.
You are however sole judge of whether any such positions are too exposed to offer reasonable likelihood of successful and prolonged resistance for at least a week and you may therefore adjust the defence of the appendix as you consider necessary even so far as to withdraw to the original perimeter.
The voice of Auchinleck seems to ring out in this well-phrased, lofty declaration, which is perhaps not surprising, since Auchinleck had arrived at Ritchie’s headquarters that day. He stayed for the next ten.
Other decisions made were to recommend continued use of the equipment of the 7th Support Group in Jock columns, and to place under the command of the XXX Corps the 1st South African Brigade, 22nd Guards Brigade and, as soon as their relief at the frontier by the 2nd South African Division could be arranged, the rest of the 4th Indian Division.
At 11 a.m. on 1st December Burrows, Nichols (of the 1/Essex) and O’Carroll (of the 4th Royal Tanks) attended a conference at Willison’s headquarters to review the defence arrangements in the light of the loss of Belhamed. It was a meeting of practical men who briskly reached the decisions they deemed appropriate. None thought that the enemy’s occupation of the ridge and hill to the east so changed an always dubious prospect of successful defence as to necessitate a less bold stance. It was decided to proceed that night with the projected reorganisation and relief, twice ordained, twice cancelled, by which the two 19th New Zealand Battalion companies were to change places with the two Australian in Nichols’ composite battalion force on Ed Duda. The Australians would then assume undivided responsibility for all defended localities on the escarpment between Ed Duda and the by-pass road. The main anxiety was the width of the front and the increasing risk of attack in rear. Plans were made to withdraw the mortar detachments and carriers from support of the 1st RHA so as to free them for employment in a mobile role to thicken up the positional defence. The New Zealand battalion was to provide two mortar detachments and the crews of four carriers to come under Burrows’ command and operate with Australian-manned mortars and carriers. Burrows announced these arrangements and plans for the night relief at a conference at 11.30 p.m. which was attended by the New Zealand company commanders as well as Burrows’ company commanders (other than Walsoe and Graham who were still under Nichols’ command).
During the morning three more half-hearted enemy attacks – one against Jill and two against Jack (renamed Happy) – were made against the eastern side of the corridor. Subsequently, probably about midday, the 1/Essex received a warning order directing the battalion to prepare to withdraw from Ed Duda after dark if Belhamed fell to the enemy. Colonel Nichols’ soldierly inclinations were affronted. True, Belhamed had been seized, but
enemy attacking troops encountered that morning had been reported as having shown little offensive spirit. More determined troops had previously been ejected from Nichols’ territory. He deplored any suggestion of withdrawal. The duty officer at the 70th Division battle headquarters noted that he reported at 12.40 a.m.:
Troops at Ed Duda are ready to resist attack from any direction. Defences getting stronger every hour.
Other units, according to the 70th Division’s report, made suggestions for further operations to restore the situation outside. Scobie told Nichols that he admired his spirit and “informed Commander XIII Corps that he proposed to hold on unless ordered to withdraw”.61 Godwin-Austen concurred.
Thus a step Ritchie was ready to authorise was not taken and Godwin-Austen, encouraged if not actuated by the resoluteness of Nichols and other forward commanders, decided not to withdraw after dark from Ed Duda but to remain steadfast at the end of the corridor and to accept the risks entailed in maintaining an offensive and defiant posture. Rommel had already ordered an advance to the Omar-Salum-Bardia front next day and if Ed Duda had been given up it is hard to believe that he would not have subsequently concentrated his main forces on the frontier, with imponderable consequences, instead of splitting them as he did between the frontier and the edge of the Ed Duda salient. Perhaps no other action by a British battalion commander during Operation CRUSADER so decisively affected its course and outcome as Nichols’ protest.
Shelling of the ridge and flats occupied by the 2/13th Battalion intensified after the enemy had captured Belhamed, where presumably he had established observation posts overlooking the battalion’s ground. The mortar platoon’s return about midday and the withdrawal through the battalion area of a troop of New Zealand field artillery both attracted enemy attention and provoked strafing. About 1 p.m. Burrows went across to Bir Belhamed to contact the 1/Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire there, acquaint them with his situation and discover theirs and that of the 18th New Zealand Battalion nearby. Then as a result of enemy movement on the north and west sides of Belhamed a warning was given that an attack on Ed Duda was expected. Burrows returned but the attack did not develop. Later in the afternoon enemy infantry and three tanks advanced from the east as though to cut the corridor in rear of the battalion and a heightening of artillery fire in the west indicated a possible converging thrust from that quarter, but the force attacking from the east did not press on when shelled. Soon afterwards, while Burrows was speaking to his second-in-command (Major Colvin) and acting adjutant (Lieutenant Maughan), a 210-mm shell hit a rock nearby and although the detonation failed to fragment the projectile, which continued bouncing down the hill, Burrows was severely wounded and Colvin, who had been thrown down by the blast, momentarily dazed. Maughan believed both
Burrows and Colvin to have been incapacitated and, after making arrangements with Captain Goode,62 the Regimental Medical Officer, sent for Captain Daintree to take command; but when the anxious Daintree reported to battalion headquarters, not a little perturbed by the lurid message summoning him, he found an outwardly confident and completely recovered Colvin in charge. In view of enemy threats to the rear, Colvin made some dispositional changes and called Captain Gillan forward from rear battalion headquarters in Tobruk to take charge of Headquarters Company fighting troops which, in addition to the mobile detachments, included a substantial group built around the anti-aircraft and pioneer platoons and others released from specialist functions because of lack of equipment.
As soon as it was dark the changeover of companies at Ed Duda took place without incident but not far to the east there was troublesome infiltration between Belhamed and Bir Belhamed. A German infantry advance against the 1 /Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire, supported by a heavy volume of small arms fire, was checked, and the New Zealanders drove off a party that simultaneously approached their headquarters. One company position at Bir Belhamed was penetrated, however, and isolated English pockets anxiously held to their ground throughout a confused night. At first light some Germans were captured but the enemy reorganised and about 9 a.m. a sizable force of infantry assault engineers and antitank gunners made a crude attack. The Beds and Herts showing cool discipline held all fire until the enemy were close and then engaged them with crippling effect. The Germans turned and made for the ridge to the north only to run into sharp fire from the New Zealanders, who effectively disrupted a none too orderly withdrawal. Once again a German assault on the Tobruk sortie force had gained nothing but had cost the German command many killed, wounded and captured. Some had been taken prisoner twice within a fortnight. Many of them belonged to a newly formed infantry unit of the 90th Light Division, called after its commander the Kolbeck Battalion, which was composed largely of men released from the New Zealand prisoner-of-war camp overrun in the German counter-offensive on 28th November.
Throughout the rest of 2nd December not a little anxiety was experienced by units in the corridor, on the fringes of which the enemy’s armoured battle groups had been operating almost unchecked for three days with momentous success. Reports of enemy excursions and tank movement coming in first from one quarter and then another kept commanders and their staffs on edge. What a different picture clairvoyance would have given of the enemy on the other side of the hill – broken-spirited infantry, tanks grounded for overhaul, and a desperate commander lacking reserves to follow up his success with strong blows. So the day brought no crisis. Never since he had come to Africa had Rommel so greatly needed to be unmolested for a few days.
When the XIII Corps headquarters had telegraphed Eighth Army headquarters on 1st December “Request SO able give decisions on behalf Army Comd ... be sent here soonest possible”, Godwin-Austen doubtless intended to suggest that Ritchie should himself come, for the decisions required were well beyond the authority of a mere staff officer; the irony in the wording of the request, we must presume, was unintended. Ritchie duly came on 2nd December. He had received meanwhile a message from Godwin-Austen who expressed disappointment at the 7th Armoured Division’s failure to attack the enemy armoured forces which were thus free to operate against the “appendix” and suggested that he would be better placed to exert pressure “in direction of El Adem” if only the 7th Armoured would attack the enemy tanks.
Neil flew into Tobruk yesterday and cleared up future plans with Godwin-Austen very satisfactorily, I think (wrote Auchinleck on 3rd December to his chief of staff in Cairo, General Smith). Godwin is quite confident he can hold the “appendix” without undue risk of its being pinched out, which is good news. He says it is very strongly held, and they have wire and mines, besides quite a number of “I” tanks. In fact, he is starting at once to work forward from its western face towards El Adem, which is good. He is relieving some of the more tired troops in the salient by the Poles.63
Ritchie’s planning with Godwin-Austen had an impact on the 70th Division late in the evening of 2nd December when
orders were received from 13 Corps to effect that 70th Division would soon be required to carry out an advance along the Northern edge of the escarpment from Ed Duda and that one Brigade Group must be prepared for this eventuality.
13 Corps were informed that 70th Division was already more than fully committed and that it was not possible to disengage a Brigade Group for this further operation. The thinning out of the perimeter by the withdrawal of one more battalion was however considered a justifiable risk and consequently it was decided to withdraw one battalion from the western sector and relieve 4 Border by it. The Polish Brigade, therefore, with II. E Czechoslovak Battalion under command would then hold half the perimeter – nearly fifteen miles of front. The 4 Border were to relieve 2/13 Australian Battalion at Ed Duda who in turn were to relieve the 1 D.L.I. in the southern sector. The latter were to come into reserve at the North of the corridor ready for this further advance.64
Scobie’s plan, elaborated in the 70th Division Operation Order No. 24 issued next day, was to cooperate with the XXX Corps in attacking El Adem by mounting two operations from Tobruk on the night on which the XXX Corps force, advancing north from the Trigh el Abd, was to attack El Adem. One of the operations was to be a westward advance along the line of the escarpment from Ed Duda to El Adem by a force comprising two battalions, a squadron of tanks, a field regiment, an antitank battery and a machine-gun company; the other, a sortie from the perimeter to Bir el Azazi to capture the strongpoint previously known as Plonk65 and exploit as far as the “walled village”. The latter was to be
carried out by the 2/13th Battalion “employing not more than one company, with one squadron of ‘I’ tanks to be provided by 1 Army Tank Brigade”. These two localities on the old boundary between the Trento Division and the Bologna Division were the main supports of an enemy north-south defence line covering the Tobruk-El Adem road. The preliminary arrangements included an extensive reorganisation of brigade responsibilities, the original perimeter being divided into two sectors. The Polish brigade’s responsibilities were extended to include the perimeter from the sea in the west to posts R3 4 and R35; the rest of the perimeter was the responsibility of the 16th Brigade. This released the 23rd Brigade which, with the 104th RHA in support, was to take command of all troops on the Ed Duda feature as soon as the 4/Border had relieved the 2/13th Battalion. The 14th Brigade with four battalions (including the 18th New Zealand Battalion) under command and the 1st RHA in support was to remain responsible for holding the corridor, excluding the Ed Duda feature.
“Abnormal lull on front still prevailed” was the 2/13th diarist’s entry for 10 a.m. on 3rd December. As the day progressed the enemy became more active and in the late morning his tanks appeared to be reconnoitring near Bir Belhamed. But they withdrew when tanks of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade moved towards them. Moreover the Australians were developing a feeling that victory was in the air, which came from seeing plenty of evidence of British air superiority for the first time in the battalion’s nine months of service in forward areas – another instance in which a wider vision might have modified the impression, for the most striking recent event in the desert air war was a damaging Stuka attack on the 5th South African Brigade made on the preceding morning. The Ed Duda ridge had been reconnoitred by two Me-109’s in the evening.
Soon after midday a message received through the 1/Essex instructed 2/13th Battalion to send advanced parties (“to include down to platoon representatives”), to the 1/Durham Light Infantry as soon as possible; the unit was warned to be prepared to move by 4 a.m. next morning. There must have been some failure to direct this message to the commanding officer for nothing appears to have been done until a party from the Borders arrived at battalion headquarters at 4 p.m. The 2/13th Battalion advanced party left at 5.30 p.m. and arrived at 7 p.m. at the headquarters of the Durham Light Infantry on the left of the El Adem Road sector of the perimeter.
Soon after the Borders’ advanced party arrived, artillery activity around the extremity of the “appendix” was stepped up by both sides. The enemy shelling was concentrated on the strongpoint Doc on the outer right flank of the sortie salient. Colvin and his staff
watched another attack on our right rear but unfortunately this time Dalby Square [Doc] fell to the enemy. For sheer temerity and bold enterprise one had to credit the enemy with his success. About three companies bowled along in vehicles, almost concealed by their own dust, dismounted, and went into action immediately.66
The main party of the 4/Border arrived at 1.45 a.m. on 4th December and immediately relieved the 2/13th Battalion, which then left in the transport that had brought the English battalion.
Never did we think during all those months (a soldier of the 2/13th wrote soon afterwards) that we would ever wish to return to Tobruch but we were very ready to climb on the trucks which at 0300 moved off towards the perimeter.67
The convoy slowly threaded its obscure way back and arrived at its destination at 5.30 a.m. The men, miserable with the cold of a wind that had penetrated clothes to chill raw flesh, were at once taken by guides to their defensive positions. The battalion was to hold the perimeter from Post R37 to Post R59 with three companies forward and one in reserve. The divisional operation order required the 1/Durham Light Infantry to move to its dispersal area in the convoy that brought the 2/13th. This it did not do but remained in the forward area, which became undesirably congested for the amount of cover available.68 Probably this situation resulted from some indecision or late change of intention in relation to a plan for an early advance to be made westward from Ed Duda towards El Adem by a battalion of infantry accompanied by tanks. An order had been issued assigning this task to the 2/13th Battalion but it was subsequently decided to use the 1/Durham Light Infantry. Then mounting enemy activity at Ed Duda as the 2/13th was moving to its positions on the perimeter necessitated a postponement of the plan.
On 30th November Rommel had been visited at his headquarters at El Adem by his nominal superior, General Bastico. They agreed that the battle was developing into one of attrition, that their scope for effective action was limited by shortages of equipment, supplies and men and that quick replenishment was essential. Although they had been told they could expect no early deliveries of tanks and other vehicles, both subsequently sent requests to Rome for urgent deliveries of heavy equipment.
The point of the discussion noted in the German battle report, however, was an assertion by Rommel that his troops had “also” suffered severely and one may surmise that the necessity for the comment arose from remarks directed to the plight of the Italian and German garrisons on the frontier, to whose relief the discussion about supply problems was also pertinent. In fact Bastico had recently been wrestling with the intractable problems of supplying them by air lift or submarine to Bardia. That Bastico and Rommel discussed their unhappy situation there can be little doubt. Early on 1st December, when Rommel called at Crüwell’s headquarters just after the German attack against the New Zealand Division had begun, he spoke of the British trying to starve out the Salum front, which had food “for only two days” and of the necessity “to make a push, at least with a strong advance-guard”.69
Messages sent out from Rommel’s headquarters in the late afternoon and evening indicated that hard on the heels of the advance-guard Rommel intended to launch a two-pronged eastward advance, with the Africa Corps in the north and the Ariete and Trieste Divisions in the south, the latter spearheaded by the 33rd Reconnaissance Unit. Rommel came forward in the evening to Point 175 with the reconnaissance unit. He impressed on Crüwell that the advance was to start as soon as the Kessel had been emptied out. “Take food to Bardia,” he said. Next day the kettle was empty. That the forces sent east were so small and so late in moving off is indicative of how close the Germans were to exhaustion. They were confident, from the tenor of British signals intercepted on 1st December, that an attack by the British armour was unlikely before the 3rd. Crüwell urged that only by committing the whole force, not detachments, could a quick and decisive success be gained by thrusting east, though he agreed with Rommel that the tanks could not be used since they had to be grounded for maintenance. Overruling as usual the protests of his underlings, Rommel adhered to his decision that the operation would commence with parallel thrusts by two German advance-guards, one advancing by the Via Balbia, the other by the Trigh Capuzzo. The northernmost column, to be provided by the 15th Armoured Division and commanded by Lieut-Colonel Geissler, was to comprise a battalion battle group of all arms based on the 15th Motor Cycle Battalion, fresh from its victory at Belhamed. The southernmost, to be provided by the 21st Armoured Division and commanded by Lieut-Colonel Knabe, was to be of similar strength, except that it was given three tanks. General Neumann-Silkow was given overall command of both advance-guards. A “reinforced regiment” was to follow, but not the whole corps, because the remainder, including the 90th Light Division and the army artillery, was to join with the Italian ground forces (XXI Corps) “in the elimination of the enemy in the Ed Duda position”. Geissler’s and Knabe’s forces assembled on their respective routes on the 2nd and set out at dawn on the 3rd.
The Eighth Army’s forces in the region into which the German columns were advancing had been reorganised in the preceding two days. On the morning of 29th November Lieut-Colonel L. W. Andrew, commanding the 22nd New Zealand Battalion, received orders from General Messervy of the 4th Indian Division, who was in command in the frontier region, to form a headquarters and assume command of the 5th New Zealand Brigade. This was not as a preliminary to meeting Freyberg’s (and Godwin-Austen’s) request for the brigade to be returned to the New Zealand Division, then about to face attack on the vital ground of Sidi Rezegh. The underlying reason was Ritchie’s anxiety to intensify measures to prevent the enemy from getting supplies from Bardia to the Tobruk front, and the appointment was a preliminary to a redeployment of forces for that purpose. Two brigades (the 5th Indian and 5th New Zealand) instead of one were committed to masking the Bardia perimeter, which task was thus accorded a higher priority than the reinforcement of Sidi
Rezegh or the release of a second Indian brigade for operations on the Trigh el Abd axis. The reorganisation on the Bardia front took place on 1st and 2nd December, 5th New Zealand Brigade covering the northern perimeter and the main coast road with two battalions forward facing east and one in reserve. The divisional cavalry was to patrol to the west. Similar westward patrolling was to be done farther south about Sidi Azeiz on the Trigh Capuzzo by Goldforce, a mixed force of cavalry and artillery from the Central India Horse and the 31st Field Regiment, with other arms. East of Goldforce was the 5th Indian Brigade.
On the morning of 3rd December a New Zealand mobile column of cavalry and infantry sighted the approach of Geissler’s force and gave the alarm to Andrew’s brigade. Similarly a column of the Central India Horse reported the approach of Knabe force. The Geissler force, flushed with victory, under-estimated its enemy, deployed, and confidently attacked but was disastrously defeated. What was left of the 15th Motor Cycle Battalion was reorganised into one company and took up a blocking position. Knabe force was more fortunate but became locked in long-range duels with Goldforce and the Support Group’s Jock columns. Knabe felt too insecure to move to Geissler’s help and in the evening was ordered to break contact and withdraw to Gasr el Arid.
The New Zealand Division’s total contribution to the defeat of Rommel’s army in Operation CRUSADER has not always been adequately acknowledged. Not least of the New Zealanders’ achievements was the rebuff administered to Geissler’s force just when it lay in the balance whether the centre of the fighting would shift to the east or west. It is of interest to consider how much of the depletion of the fighting strength of the 15th and 21st Armoured Divisions and the 90th Light Division between 18th November and 4th December was due to losses inflicted by the New Zealand Division and the Tobruk garrison.
That evening the German staff decided to reinforce the drive to the frontier by sending the rest of 15th Armoured Division to Gasr el Arid early next morning to join the Ariete Division and Knabe force; but part of the 21st Armoured Division’s artillery together with 8th Machine Gun Battalion and an engineer battalion were kept back for a second attack on Ed Duda. The junction with Knabe was duly made and the force, though bombed on the way, drove on to the east, forcing Goldforce to withdraw. In the north the 5th New Zealand Brigade was now ideally situated for destruction by the usual German tactic of isolation and attack in superior force and Neumann-Silkow planned to advance against the brigade’s positions in the afternoon.
At the Eighth Army headquarters from which Ritchie (Auchinleck with him) was directing the British operations by remote control, the appearance of this sizable force near the frontier was not regarded with equanimity. The 2nd South African Division which had relieved the 4th Indian Division at Sidi Omar at 9 a.m. that morning was warned and at 11 a.m. an order was sent to Norrie’s headquarters that the 4th Armoured
Brigade was to be withdrawn. To ponder this stroke of cautious generalship, it will be necessary to advert to the situation on Norrie’s front.70
As soon as Norrie returned on 1st December to resume command of his corps after his hapless tour of duty as South African fugleman, he acquainted himself with Ritchie’s plan to regain the initiative by attacking El Adem. His first reaction was to seek assurances that this was to be no “half-cocked show”71 by which presumably he meant that the show should have more backing than had been given to Godwin-Austen’s and Freyberg’s push to Sidi Rezegh. Having received assurances on this point he allowed the 4th Armoured Brigade a day of make-and-mend at Bir Berraneb after its day’s excursion to the Tobruk arena, cancelled Gott’s less ambitious plans for flank-threatening moves and began to get units ready for the thrust. Norrie planned to secure the Bir el Gubi area first and then to attack El Adem from the south.
El Gubi was held by a battalion of Fascist Youth and a reconnaissance unit armed with Italian light and medium tanks and light artillery. On 3rd December the 11th Indian Brigade was moved up to Bir Duedar, southeast of Bir el Gubi, and the 1st South African Brigade sent out a number of harassing columns. At short notice the Indian brigade with a field battery, a regiment of medium artillery and a squadron of “I” tanks executed a difficult night march of 47 miles and at dawn on 4th December launched a surprise attack from the west and south-west over necessarily unreconnoitred ground. The 2/5th Mahratta successfully captured one strong-point but an attack by the 2/Camerons on another held by the battalion of Fascist Youth was repulsed. Simultaneously the 4th Armoured Brigade using 98 of its 126 tanks clashed with a detachment of the Italian reconnaissance unit two or three miles north of El Gubi, claiming 11 M13 tanks destroyed, and armoured cars of the King’s Dragoon Guards and of South African units raided dumps and columns of vehicles northwest and north-east of El Gubi.
A further attack in the evening on the stubborn locality defended by the Fascist Youth failed. Norrie had meanwhile received Ritchie’s request for help against the tanks approaching the frontier from the direction of Sidi Azeiz. Norrie protested against conforming to Rommel’s every movement, but was told to move back the 7th Armoured Division’s “centre of gravity” to where it had been; so the 4th Armoured Brigade returned for the night to its favourite leaguer at Bir Berraneb, which was some 20 miles from Bir el Gubi.
Perhaps nobody was better placed to weigh the emergent risks than General Messervy who had relinquished command in the frontier region as late as 9 a.m. that morning but who now had one of his brigades (the 11th)
fully committed at Bir el Gubi at the other extremity of the wide battle arena. Norrie came to discuss the perplexing developments with him and together they motored to Gott’s headquarters. Norrie and Messervy, like Scobie, Nichols and O’Carroll, preferred accepting risks to stepping back, and they chose to accept them with even more temerity, for their troops at El Gubi were less firmly placed than Scobie’s at Ed Duda. The move-back instruction had referred only to armour; only armour went back. And the efforts to complete the capture of El Gubi by the infantry were intensified. An attack at dawn was ordered.
At 2.30 a.m. on 5th December Ritchie signalled Norrie that he had changed the policy for future operations and that, owing to enemy movements towards Bardia, he had decided that it was essential to “reduce frontier area prior to tackling Tobruk, thus reducing possibility of enemy refuelling from Bardia and operating in our rear”. Norrie was to discuss with a staff officer, who would arrive that day, a plan for carrying out this policy, which had been substituted for previous orders. It may be doubted whether Auchinleck, who had earlier formed the opinion that “the situation was really in hand”,72 approved of this nocturnal enunciation of a startling reversal of priorities. Be that as it may, nobody with the Bir el Gubi force called “halt” or “about turn”, and it was soon discovered that the danger to Ritchie’s lines of communication had passed. In fact Neumann-Silkow’s menacing force had been withdrawn some hours before Ritchie sent the signal announcing his pessimistic change of policy.
By daylight on 5th December the German threat to the frontier had vanished. The guarded stance the Eighth Army had adopted to meet it still seemed good, however, at least until Rommel’s armour made its next appearance. Auchinleck commented to General Smith at Cairo:–
... his thrusts towards Capuzzo seem to have been half-hearted and to have petered out under the attacks of our “Jock columns” These “Jock” columns of which more and more are being organised are just what we want. ... I am pretty sure Rommel will use the last of his armour in an attempt to throw us off our balance. He tried before, you remember, and very nearly succeeded. If he tries again he will find us very much on our toes I think, and not up against the ropes. Neil is very wisely keeping the bulk of our armour centrally placed ready to counter-attack north, north-west or north-east. It is not being tied to the infantry. I am very glad that the 4th Indian Div is now leading the offensive.73
The Indian division was indeed leading the offensive, and by a good 20 miles too, and though the 4th Armoured Brigade at Bir Berraneb was to be ready to counter-attack in any direction, whether the brigade would arrive anywhere in time if it left the initiative to the enemy was a question to which its past performance might have suggested that a yes answer could not be given with assurance.
Gott had command of the 11th Indian Brigade as well as of the 4th Armoured. The Indian brigade made its third attack at Bir el Gubi at dawn on the 5th and again failed. A fourth attack in the early afternoon also failed. In the meantime reconnaissance reports received by Gott
indicated that something might be afoot at Hagfet en Nezha, between El Adem and El Gubi. Gott wished, however, to leave the 4th Armoured Brigade at Bir Berraneb “for administrative reasons” – a euphemism to cover the desire of the armoured commanders to be freed at that juncture from participation in the fighting so that they could practise a new system of leaguering.74 Norrie deferred to Gott’s wishes although, now relieved of embarrassing supplications to deal with enemy columns in rear, he pressed Gott to begin the advance to El Adem with the 4th Armoured Brigade early next morning; to which Gott agreed. Thus Norrie, to borrow his own phrase, was allowing his show “to go off half-cocked”.
While the Australian troops were journeying back to the perimeter on the night of 3rd December, shelling could be heard in the direction from which they had come. At first light a heavy assault on Ed Duda developed from the west, south and south-east. The 4/Border found themselves under attack on terrain they had never seen in daylight. A thrust from the west against the 1/Essex was made by enemy approaching above and north of the escarpment, but was broken up by defensive fire, and the mobile defence with carriers manned by crews provided by the New Zealanders proved its worth in mopping up. Soon afterwards enemy attacks against the Bir Belhamed positions from the north and against the 18th New Zealand Battalion from the east were also driven off but a thrust from the south-east to the left flank of the 4/Border secured a foothold across the by-pass road. The Essex and one company of the Borders counter-attacked in conjunction with the 4th Royal Tanks. All ground lost, down to the foot of the escarpment, was recovered and the company of the 4/Border accompanying the tanks drove through the enemy positions to a depth of 1,000 yards; but 15 Matildas, which represented most of the remaining “I” tank strength of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade, were knocked out by 88-mm guns that had been brought forward to within effective anti-tank range, and thick machine-gun fire from the flanks then pinned down the Borders, prevented anybody from approaching, or escaping from, the tanks and gave the enemy control of the ground. The Germans seemed to be preparing to thrust from Belhamed along the ridge with the aim of linking up with the force attacking the 4/Border. The 18th New Zealand Battalion was bombarded by mortars and two tanks advanced against the New Zealanders’ positions; but both were knocked out, one by the minefield and one by a New Zealand gun, and the attack was not pressed home.
Ed Duda and the salient of which it was the shield were the most important gains the British had managed to retain against Rommel’s counter-offensive. When Ed Duda came under attack, Godwin-Austen deemed the time appropriate to issue an order of the day to “General Scobie and all ranks engaged in the establishment and defences of the Tobruk corridor”.
You are fighting the battle which will result in the reconquest of Cyrenaica. Your magnificent efforts ... are beyond all praise. ... This is a bitter fight which will
be won by those who stick it longest. We must if it is humanly possible continue to hold Ed Duda. We shall then be able to cooperate with 30 Corps and help to turn the scale in the decisive battle shortly to be fought.
For the garrison force the loss of tanks was very serious and indeed dangerous, reducing its mobile reserve’s strength to the perilously low state of early siege days. When another counter-attack by the 4/Border failed to overcome the enemy’s echeloned machine-guns, it was decided to launch a two-battalion attack as soon as it was dark, using the 4/Border and the 18th New Zealand Battalion. The report of the 70th Division comments:–
In the heavy fighting that had taken place communications to these distant battalions had been cut and consequently many hours were spent in arranging the details for this coordinated attack, which it was hoped to start early, so that the majority of the tanks might be recovered during the hours of darkness. By 2000 hours it was realised that the enemy was withdrawing from the forward slope and this enabled tank recovery to start at once. Commander 14 Brigade decided that the attack as originally planned would not be necessary and only strong fighting patrols were sent forward. These achieved the object and by first light 5th December the enemy had vacated his positions and many enemy wounded were taken prisoner. The anti-tank guns which had caused so much damage to the “I” tanks the day before were captured.75
On 4th December and the succeeding night, the 2/13th had what would have been called in more normal times a quiet day of perimeter duty: a little shelling, normal protective patrols at night and two special patrols reconnoitring for future operations. But next morning opened with two hours of what the battalion’s diarist called “fairly heavy shelling”. The battalion’s shelling report for the day indicates that as accurately as could be estimated between 1,500 and 1,700 shells fell on the battalion, whose Intelligence officer thought this was counter-preparation fire against an expected attack on Bir el Azazi.76
The rest of the day was uneventful until late afternoon when the 1/Durham Light Infantry was ordered to leave at once and these orders were associated with the usual rumours that there were signs of an enemy withdrawal. It was also said that the English battalion was to take part next morning in an advance to El Adem.
Hard upon the Durham Light Infantry’s summons came an order to the 2/13th Battalion to launch a company attack on Bir el Azazi, reputed to be the enemy’s strongest outpost. The Australians were not very pleased that the attack previously planned to be made in conjunction with tanks was now to be made without them. A bombardment program arranged by the garrison’s artillery and aimed principally at the guns responsible for the morning strafe was the occasion for the order, which was a typical example of the unduly rosy view of a demoralised enemy sometimes taken by headquarters staff.
16 Brigade (said the divisional instruction) will take advantage of the artillery concentrations to send a strong fighting patrol from the 2/13th Battalion to Plonk
to inflict casualties and take prisoners and if enemy withdraws establish an OP at Plonk.77
The neighbouring Bondi (or Queen) was also to be raided but not occupied, by another battalion. Major Colvin made a plan to give his assault parties maximum support, using his mortar and carrier platoons with all weapons available from his support company, but the acting brigade commander, Lieut-Colonel R. F. C. Oxley-Boyle, cancelled the operation about 7.30 p.m.
The day had been a memorable one for the garrison and particularly those who had been in close contact with the enemy from Ed Duda eastwards. At Ed Duda not only had the force which had attacked on the preceding day been withdrawn, but the defences previously held by the enemy had been abandoned. Soon from all round the perimeter, but mainly from the east, reports were received of unusual enemy movement, most of it from east to west. A patrol with anti-tank guns and a platoon of machine-guns was pushed out to the Trigh Capuzzo. All enemy columns coming within range of the garrison’s artillery and machine-guns were engaged.
Great damage was seen to be inflicted as [the enemy columns] tried to pass through the bottleneck between Ed Duda and the next escarpment, and at times it was reported that complete confusion reigned.78
The 23rd Infantry Brigade took command of all troops at Ed Duda and plans were completed for the 1/Durham Light Infantry, 104th RHA and other units allocated to the westward thrust to assemble during the night so that by first light they would be ready to start the advance along the escarpment running west from Ed Duda to be made in cooperation with “the advance of 4th Indian Division from the south towards El Adem”.
Just before dark a Polish officer who had been commanding a troop of anti-tank guns in the corridor reported that he had driven as far north as the Bardia Road and had found Freddie and Walter unoccupied. It was decided to send out fighting patrols during the night to these and other localities and occupy them if the report proved correct.
Everything was set for a busy night of patrol activity, artillery bombardment and preparation for the El Adem push, when at 8.30 p.m. the headquarters of XIII Corps instructed Scobie to cancel the advance to El Adem. The reason given was that enemy action had necessitated a cancellation of the attack by the XXX Corps.
On the morning of 4th December Rommel’s army divided its efforts, as we saw, between an eastward thrust by the main strength of the German and Italian mobile forces and an assault on Ed Duda by what remaining force he could muster. Neumann-Silkow’s force quickly brushed aside Goldforce and made ready for its unenviable task of destroying British frontier detachments one by one until it became too weak to continue the process. The attack on Ed Duda, however, did not prosper. It was
a four-pronged affair: from the west the infantry of the Mickl Group, from the south engineers from the 200th and 900th Engineer Battalions, from the south-east the 8th Machine Gun Battalion and from the east little bits of infantry from the 90th Light Division. The concerted attacks from such diverse starting points were ill synchronised. Only that of the 8th Machine Gun Battalion (against the 4/Border) had any success. As against this puny gain the Germans had been unsettled by aggressive raids made by a Jock column (Currie column) from Bir bu Creimisa to Sidi Rezegh, in which several anti-tank guns and a number of prisoners had been taken.
There is nothing more remarkable or puzzling in the CRUSADER story than the extent and suddenness of the change in Rommel’s plans between the morning and evening of 5th December. Within so few hours the commander whose intention, when the day was young, had been to lop off the Tobruk garrison’s ill-protected protuberance at Ed Duda, smash through to Bardia and open a way to Sidi Omar, had decided not merely to abandon both enterprises so as to concentrate the German and Italian armour against the British forces threatening his flank, but also to give up the whole territory between Tobruk and the Egyptian frontier including the defence line opposite the eastern face of the perimeter. What seems astonishing is not so much the retraction of the administrative and maintenance organisations while there was yet time as the sudden withdrawal of the holding infantry on the eastern siege front. Rommel’s decision to concentrate his mobile forces – both Italian as well as both German armoured divisions – near El Gubi seems to have been made about midday. An intriguing if unlikely explanation of the sudden haste to join battle at El Gubi is that the German intercept unit had provided him with up-to-date reports on Ritchie’s message to Norrie. As soon as Norrie was pressed to draw his armour back from El Gubi, Rommel drove all his armour in that direction as fast as he could. The German battle report does not support the surmise but the timing does. Ritchie and Rommel each reacted to each other’s threats but Ritchie had reacted first.
The first instructions for the withdrawal of artillery and other operational units from east of Tobruk were given about mid-afternoon. No doubt Rommel had ruminated on the rehabilitated British armour’s dark purposes after its brief appearance at Sidi Rezegh, learnt of the British attack at El Gubi, received Intelligence reports of the 2nd South African Division’s arrival at the frontier and the 4th Indian’s on the Trigh el Abd; but a decision so final and symbolic as to lift the siege, if only temporarily, requires more explanation. Perhaps he had contemplated his own forces’ pusillanimity when attacking the weakly held Ed Duda ridges. But probably the explanation must be found in the arrival that day of a staff officer from the Italian High Command (Lieut-Colonel Montezemolo) to inform Bastico and Rommel that the only supplies they could expect before the end of December would be limited to deliveries of petrol, food and medical stores. Rommel did not see Montezemolo until next day but may have learnt the gist of his bad tidings.
However Rommel probably heard at the same time of Hitler’s “Directive 38” of 2nd December which had placed an air fleet and defences to be transferred from the Russian front under Field Marshal Kesselring’s command and given them the prime task of achieving mastery of the air and sea across the narrows so to ensure the safety of communications between Italy and North Africa. His current shortages might necessitate a withdrawal, but steps now being taken held promise of a brighter New Year.
Orders recalling the forces operating against the frontier were issued from Rommel’s headquarters to the Africa Corps at 12.50 p.m. and to the Italian Mobile Armoured Corps ten minutes later. Neumann-Silkow received his order at 1.45 p.m., in time to save the 5th New Zealand Brigade from attack. At 7.30 p.m. the 90th Light Division was ordered to “the sector Bir Salem-Ed Duda-Belhamed”, which seems to have been liberally interpreted as authorisation not only to withdraw from the eastern perimeter (including Freddie and Walter) but also to break contact in most of the sector named to be held. The Bologna Division also evacuated the eastern sector during the night.
By dawn on the 5th Neumann-Silkow’s division was two to three miles west of Ed Duda and the 21st Armoured Division was five miles west of El Adem. In mid-morning Rommel indicated that his intention was to push on to the Fascist Youth Battalion north (sic) of Gubi. There contact was to be made with the Italian Mobile Armoured Corps in preparation for attacks next day against British supply dumps south of the Trigh el Abd. In view of the weakness of the German armoured formations (tank strength about 50 tanks), Rommel intended the Italian Ariete and Trieste Divisions to join up with the German armour before it advanced into contact with the British formations.
Rommel as usual wanted to strike with speed but the Italian armour kept him waiting. After three hours and a half the Africa Corps advanced to El Gubi without the Italians, and to the Germans’ surprise encountered the hapless 11th Indian Brigade, which was overrun just before dusk, while the “centrally disposed” 4th Armoured Brigade left by Gott’s choice 20 miles away addressed itself to another night of trouble-free and well-practised leaguering.
Thus the XXX Corps was constrained to postpone the dawn attack on El Adem, as Scobie had been informed. The night of 5th–6th December at El Gubi, moreover, was one of great confusion for both the British and the Germans. At first light the partly reorganised 11th Indian Brigade withdrew and was pursued by most of the German armour into the area of the 22nd Guards Brigade, who might perhaps have met the same fate but that Crüwell received an order from Rommel at 8.30 a.m. telling him to go over to the defensive until the arrival of the Italian armour. The British 4th Armoured Brigade was not encountered, as it had shrewdly moved to the area where Italian tanks had previously been engaged and then took up a defensive position north-east of El Gubi behind an armoured car screen. For the rest of the day there was some skirmishing, each
side being wary of the other, but nothing much of importance occurred except that General Neumann-Silkow was killed. The British artillery bombardment and air attack, however, were taking a steady toll. The Germans’ and Italians’ battle prospects, heavily weighted against them by the bleak supply outlook, would deteriorate further unless a quick success was gained.
Early on the morning of 7th December Ritchie directed Norrie to begin an advance as soon as the situation seemed favourable and to let Godwin-Austen know so that he could cooperate with his thrust from Ed Duda to El Adem. “Our armoured brigade standing off ready to go in if opportunity offers,” wrote Auchinleck to Smith. But the enemy did not offer the opportunity and later in the morning Gott said he thought the enemy was thickening up. Norrie informed everybody concerned that he could not continue with the advance to El Adem.
At 9.30 a.m. on 7th December Rommel announced at the headquarters of the Africa Corps that he would have to abandon the Tobruk front and go back to the Gazala position if the enemy was not beaten that day. No orders or plans likely to have that outcome were given out, however, whereas several arrangements connected with withdrawing were put into effect. In the early afternoon orders were issued for a disengagement after dark, and in the late afternoon supply columns started moving back. At nightfall the 4th Armoured Brigade, adhering to its convenient custom, drew back to a leaguer 5 miles south-east of El Gubi. Contrary to German expectations, the disengagement of the Africa Corps, according to the German narrative, passed off without incident and according to plan.
In mid-afternoon Ritchie ordered Godwin-Austen to proceed with the Tobruk garrison’s thrust against El Adem, whether the XXX Corps took part or not.
On the Tobruk front car patrols went out at dawn on 6th December to clear the road-block on the Bardia Road and infantry patrols occupied the strongposts Freddie and Walter. Other patrols probed south-east to the Bu Amud area. There was no news from outside Tobruk and Scobie was restless, feeling that the enemy was slipping away and valuable time being lost.
In mid-afternoon armoured cars of “C” Squadron of the King’s Dragoon Guards made contact near Ed Duda with a column of the 11th Hussars and a meeting took place between Major Loder-Symonds and Brigadier Campbell of the Support Group. Loder-Symonds’ battery engaged targets in conjunction with the support group column. Another Jock column achievement this day was the liberation by Wilson column of the captured New Zealand dressing station near Point 175, which had been left stranded by the battle-tide’s westward ebb. After dark a small column from the 2nd South African Division arrived in Tobruk, having journeyed from Menastir by the main coast road.
It had been laid down that the clearing of stragglers from the coast and hinterland between Bardia and Tobruk would be the responsibility of the 70th Division west of Gambut, and of the 2nd South African Division
east of Gambut. On the morning of the 7th Scobie sent out a mobile column to mop up between Tobruk and Gambut. The column was out all day and returned at 6 p.m. with much valuable information and 50 prisoners. Other salvaging parties went out.
In particular “Bardia Bill”, the heavy gun which had so constantly shelled the harbour in the past month and had become a by-word among the garrison was discovered intact together with the German Master Gunner who had refused to leave his gun. ...79
When it was learnt that Norrie did not intend to attack El Adem on the morning of 8th December, Godwin-Austen called a conference at which it was directed that the 70th Division would carry out its advance to El Adem alone “in order to create a diversion and so reduce pressure in the area south of El Adem”.
The 2/13th Battalion’s reconnaissance patrols on the night of the 5th–6th indicated that Bir el Azazi was still held by an alert enemy. During the morning of the 6th enemy movement was observed in rear of the strongpoint. An order was received to mount the attack that night, and tanks were to be provided, in accordance with the original orders; but later the operation was again cancelled. At 10 p.m. harassing artillery fire was laid down in rear of Bir el Azazi and for three hours after midnight the enemy responded with intermittent shelling of the 2/13th’s positions.
Sitnor80 was the comment made next morning when once again the battalion received an order to proceed that night with the attack on Bir el Azazi. The day was uneventful but not cheerful, for the history of assaults on Plonk was mainly of failures. The start-line was laid on time at 8.30 p.m. but nothing else was on time. The transport arrived late and then was inadequate; one company had to hasten forward by foot over a great distance. The infantry were not in position at 9 p.m. when the supporting machine-guns and artillery opened up, nor had the tanks even reached the minefield gap on the perimeter from which they were to be guided forward. So the attack was postponed until 9.30 p.m., then to 10.30 p.m. and, when the tanks had still not arrived, until a time to be fixed. The tank commander did not arrive until 1 a.m. and his tanks were then at the wrong gap – Gap L instead of Gap 23. The action log kept at 70th Division battle headquarters had the following entries:
2230 Reported that because of the failure of the tanks to arrive, 2/13 Bn attack had not taken place.
2240 GOC told Commander 16 Brigade that the attack was to take place later in the night, as soon as tanks could be found, but without artillery support.
2345 Tanks still not arrived. GOC tells 32 Brigade urgency of finding them. Tanks now arrived. Zero hour for Snowwhite 0200.
0120 Brigade Commander to Division. Tanks had not arrived but the officer was there and the tanks were at Gap L. Told attack was to proceed with a still later Z hour.
Lieut-Colonel Oxley-Boyle arrived at 2/13th Battalion headquarters at 1.30 a.m. with orders that the attack was to proceed at 3.30 a.m. in
conjunction with the tanks but without artillery or machine-gun support (presumably because this would endanger operations of the 2/Queen’s against the outpost Queen, previously known as Bondi). The effect of these many changes on morale was not tested in action because the brigade commander decided at 2.15 a.m. that a start-time of 3.30 would be too late; an earlier start would be impracticable because the tanks were still some 5,000 yards from the start-line. A reconnaissance patrol was sent out and reported later that there had been some movement at Bir el Azazi. The fighting patrol of the 2/Queen’s was driven off from the neighbouring Queen with the loss of nine men.
Next morning there was a complete absence of movement from the direction of Bir el Azazi. Two patrols sent out soon after midday on the 8th approached the strongpoint from either side and found it unoccupied. Soon afterwards a standing patrol was placed there. The Queen’s similarly occupied Queen but then patrolled north towards Bir el Azazi without notifying the 2/13th whose standing patrol had to exercise much restraint.
It had been intended that the 2/13th Battalion’s attack on Bir el Azazi on the Trento Division’s left flank would synchronise with the collision with its right flank by the force advancing to El Adem. The advance mounted by the 23rd Brigade was timed to start at 8.30 p.m. with an advance of the 1/Durham Light Infantry to Point 157, whereupon the 4/Border was to pass through and secure Point 162. The operation proceeded without opposition until the 1/Durham Light Infantry had advanced some 5,000 yards. Here the Pavia Division had established a rearguard position which was tenaciously defended but overcome after midnight by an attack made in conjunction with tanks of the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. The 1/Durham Light Infantry took “150 prisoners and many guns but lost 11 killed and 25 wounded”. The 4/Border, with some New Zealanders attached, then advanced to Point 162, which was taken without further opposition. Thus it was the Tobruk Fortress garrison itself that in the end broke the enemy’s hold, though this was only made possible because the XXX Corps had drawn away the enemy’s main force.
The night of 7th–8th December marked the end of a phase not only of Operation CRUSADER, but of the war. With the seizure of El Adem the cautious Auchinleck was willing for an announcement to be made to the world that Tobruk had been relieved and so 7th December is usually regarded as the last day of a siege which is commonly said to have lasted 242 days, though as we have seen it had ceased to be effective before that date. Tobruk was not relieved; rather, the siege was abandoned; it does not seem of consequence to determine the precise moments when it began and ceased to be effective or to define its duration more accurately than a few days less than eight months.
The disengagement of the German and Italian mobile forces on the night of the 7th–8th as a result of the German commander’s decision to abandon the Tobruk front and stand next at Gazala changed the character of the desert campaign. But contemporaneous events far from the desert had even more far-reaching consequences. When Hitler had attacked
Russia, Britain had acquired an ally, but not a sympathetic one. On the morning of 7th December she had no other; by the morning of the 8th, after Japan had almost simultaneously attacked Pearl Harbour and British territories in the Far East, the British had acquired a new strong ally with common ideals. But although Britain’s ultimate victory had by that one stroke become almost assured, the immediate consequence to the war in Africa was a worsening of Auchinleck’s supply position in comparison with that of his adversary.
By dawn on 8th December the 70th Division was very much extended. Scobie did not know that a general retreat had started; indeed the situation report he received from the outside world told him that the El Adem line was very strongly held. He decided that the safest course would be to keep the initiative by maintaining the offensive on all fronts. On the 8th and the succeeding night the main operations were directed to clearing the El Adem Road; on the 9th, having heard that the 5th New Zealand Brigade was to take part in an advance along the by-pass road, he sent out the 2/Leicestershire to occupy Point 156 “so that at least the reconnaissance parties of the 5th New Zealand Brigade on arrival could view the ground for their subsequent advance from this commanding feature”. There contact was gained with the 7th Indian Infantry Brigade of the 4th Indian Division. On the night 9th–10th December the Medauuar Salient was captured in a night attack. Next morning the Polish Cavalry Regiment advanced along the Derna Road to the junction with the by-pass road and by noon that day Acroma had been taken.
The 2/13th Battalion played a minor part in this vigorous exploitation. On the evening of 9th December the battalion took over the perimeter from R17 to R40. At first light on 10th December it occupied the enemy locality south of the Salient known as Bir el Carmusa and on 11th December moved again to take over the Twin Poles area – in daylight!
During this period we experienced a feeling of great relaxation – pass-words, situation and shelling reports, stand-to’s and restrictions on lights being dispensed with. ... It was now possible for the troops to take time off to visit, in daylight, their patrol objectives.81
Late on 13th December the 2/13th received the first of several warning orders to leave Tobruk. It was intended that the battalion, departing at first light on 15th December, should escort 1,800 prisoners of war to Egypt. At 3 p.m. on the 14th December a parade “as regimentally correct as circumstances would permit” was held to enable General Scobie to farewell the battalion. Standing orders forbade unit parades owing to the risk of air attack, so the assembly was limited to officers and NCOs; no doubt somebody commented that in the circumstances the choice of the personnel to attend was apposite. Though small it was an impressive parade. In an address of some length General Scobie paid tribute to the 9th Division’s services in the defence of Tobruk, recounted the course of
events that had necessitated the battalion’s employment in the battle, described its counter-attack as “brilliant and masterful” and expressed his deep regret at the wounding of its gallant colonel. The General’s tribute and courtesy were then acknowledged by the traditional general salute. The felicity of the occasion was slightly marred by an incident at 3.15 p.m., drily but concisely recorded by the battalion’s diarist:
Message received while G.O.C. was addressing battalion cancelling proposed move.
The battalion eventually left Tobruk at 7.30 a.m. on 16th December, issuing from ‘the perimeter by the El Adem Road and proceeding to a point on the escarpment south of El Adem. The convoy then traversed the recent battlefield to a gap in the frontier wire at K62 which was reached at 4.15 p.m., Lieutenant Martin’s navigation taking it to the gap with absolute accuracy. The battalion bivouacked at the frontier and proceeded next day to rail-head. Soon after 9 a.m. on the 18th the battalion entrained”30 men to a goods van” – and 60 hours later it reached camp at Hill 69 in Palestine.
Casualties suffered by the 2/13th Battalion while under the command of the 70th Division were 39 killed and 36 wounded.
Australian ground forces did not take part in the desert campaign after the end of the siege until more than six months had elapsed, by which time Tobruk had fallen to the enemy. In the intervening months of mainly unsuccessful endeavour the desert fighting recedes into the background of the Australian story.82
Despite its prestige value Tobruk, like Bardia, was little more than a military outpost in a barren province destitute of crops or good pasture, but Cyrenaica supported a prosperous Italian colony whose protection was in fact the prime reason for these outposts’ existence before the war.
On 7th December the Italian Supreme Command had agreed that the siege should be given up but had suggested to Bastico that an attempt to defend Cyrenaica should be made and that if some of it had to be given up, at least Benghazi should be retained, covered by a force holding Agedabia. A retreat to Tripolitania should be considered only as a last resort. The decision, however, was correctly left to the man on the spot who, in Bastico’s eyes, was Bastico. He visited Rommel on the 8th and they agreed that an attempt would be made to stand at Gazala where a defence line had been developed from the coast at AM el Gazala to Alam Hamza. Next day the 90th Light Division began to move back to Agedabia and the Brescia and Trento Divisions to withdraw from the western perimeter of Tobruk.
When on the morning of 8th December it became apparent that the Axis forces were in general retreat, Norrie directed the 7th Armoured Division to the track junction south of Acroma, known later as Knightsbridge, and ordered the 4th Indian Division to advance along the escarpment
west from El Adem. On the 10th, as we saw, the Indian division made contact at Acroma with advance-guards from the Tobruk force.
It was decided on the 9th that as from the 11th Godwin-Austen’s XIII Corps would take command of the advancing forces while Norrie’s XXX Corps (though better equipped, as he pointed out, to control mobile operations) was to be in charge of operations to reduce the abandoned Axis garrisons on the Egyptian frontier. In the pursuit the British commanders did not drive their forces very hard – not as hard as Rommel would have driven them had the commands been reversed. The 5th New Zealand Brigade (though without Freyberg’s knowledge) was brought forward from the frontier on the 9th to spearhead the next stage of the advance and married for that purpose with the 1st RHA and the 32nd Army Tank Brigade. After some brushes the New Zealanders reached Gazala on the 13th. They closed up on the right of the line. The Polish Brigade came up in the centre before Bir en Naghia. Arriving by the inland route the 5th Indian Brigade was directed at Alam Hamza from the south-east, while on its left flank was the 7th Indian Brigade. The British armour, despite its superiority, continued to eschew head-on conflicts; the German armour, despite its attrition, to deal out heavy blows. The 17th Indian Brigade was attacked by tanks on the 13th and part of its artillery overrun.
A tussle began between Godwin-Austen and Gott, Godwin-Austen calling for the German armour to be attacked and destroyed, Gott wishing to influence the battle by threatening the German rear. Gott was to have his way. The plans for the 15th December were for a frontal attack by the infantry on the Gazala line and a left-hook by the armour in rear of the enemy. The upshot was that the infantry as usual bore the burden of the day. Their attack – made by the Maoris and Poles – succeeded, but south-west of Alam Hamza the Africa Corps counter-attacked and overran the 1/Buffs. The 4th Armoured Brigade moved to Bir el Eleba. Godwin-Austen continued to exhort Gott to get to grips with the enemy. But Gott and Gatehouse did nothing that day or the next likely to involve trying doubtful conclusions with the enemy, though on the 16th raids made at Gatehouse’s bidding by two detachments from the 4th Armoured Brigade on the enemy’s rear caused the enemy considerable alarm.
The moves of the 4th Armoured Brigade convinced Rommel, who believed it to be making for Mechili, that he could no longer stand at Gazala. Since Rommel and Bastico were at loggerheads on this issue General Cavallero and Field Marshal Kesselring flew across from Rome to resolve the disagreement. On the morning of the 17th, after two meetings with Cavallero, Rommel agreed to attempt to form a front at Derna and Mechili but warned that if this line were by-passed, he would have to go back. When that afternoon a column of the 7th Support Group was observed from the air to be moving towards Tengeder, he ordered a general retreat to western Cyrenaica.
If Gott and Gatehouse had intended to force Rommel’s withdrawal by keeping the 7th Armoured Division in being and unmauled as an ever-
present threat to his flank and rear, the outcome justified their judgment. But the German armoured force had also been kept in being. When the next encounter took place, it would fight at less of a disadvantage.
British occupation of a string of airfields of which the most eastern was that at Mechili was the most important immediate reward for the army’s victory. The German Air Force’s planned reinforcement of the Mediterranean theatre, however, was beginning to take effect with the arrival of Fliegerkorps II. At sea German U-boats continued their sinkings though British ships sank three U-boats in the Mediterranean in November and December. Small ships sunk on the Tobruk run in the same two months were the HMAS Parramatta, HMS Salvia, Chantala and Chakdina and the merchant ships Shunten, Warszawa and Volo. Others were damaged. On 14th December a cruiser was sunk by a U-boat off Alexandria and on the 19th a cruiser and destroyer were lost and another cruiser badly damaged in a minefield near Tripoli. Almost simultaneously the battleships Valiant and Queen Elizabeth were put out of action in Alexandria Harbour by explosives placed by Italian “human torpedoes”. Losses on this scale would have been serious at any time. Just after Japan’s entry into the war they were virtually irreplaceable. For example between 9th December and 3rd January all Australian ships in the Mediterranean were recalled. HMAS Hobart was first away on the 9th, the day after Pearl Harbour.
About 600 men were aboard the Chakdina when she was sunk on the night of 5th December. They were mostly wounded British, New Zealand and Australian troops and included some prisoners of war. About a third were rescued. Among the lost was Major Goschen of the 1st RHA; among the rescued, Major-General von Ravenstein.