Chapter 8: The Frontier Operations Begin
THE operations of 13 Corps were conducted against a background of misconceptions of which the most important was that the damage inflicted on the enemy armour in the early days was greater than 7 Armoured Division had suffered. The history of later phases has for this reason an odd air of unreality. Truth was not only stranger than fiction; it was incredible. Had the true position been known no responsible commander in 13 Corps would have accepted the commitments which led to the relief of Tobruk and took Eighth Army to the far corners of Cyrenaica. The fiction that the enemy armour no longer existed as an effective force was the foundation of planning in 13 Corps, and particularly in the New Zealand Division, from the 22nd onwards.
This state of affairs arose from many causes, of which the hardy optimism of Eighth Army was not the least. In 13 Corps there was no disposition at all to take a gloomy view of events, estimates of enemy losses were accepted as a routine and could not be checked, and severe fighting took place before some units were even prepared to concede a proper respect for the enemy. Indeed the first two or three days were something of a trial for men who had crossed the frontier on the 18th in expectation of sudden and violent action and then a headlong pursuit of the enemy, and had found instead that they had to cool their heels in some nameless area of desert while the critical battles were being fought elsewhere. When highly-coloured reports came in of first engagements, these men itched more than ever to start their own tasks.
It was not until ten o’clock at night on 18 November that the New Zealand Division began to pour through gaps in the frontier wire at El Beida, after an uneventful day on the Egyptian side. The cold of the night pierced greatcoats, mufflers and balaclavas, and men travelling in the open shrouded themselves in blankets as the 2800-odd vehicles followed their leaders at four miles in the hour to their new assembly areas. The ‘concertina effect’ when local
obstacles slowed down a column and vehicles hurried afterwards to catch up with the others gave rise to speeds of 12 m.p.h. or more, which the gunners in particular found hazardous and exciting. In 4 Brigade, which veered off course and made a three-quarter turn to rectify this, the move ended in considerable confusion which was not overcome until dawn.1 In the new area 4 Brigade was forward to the north, with 5 and 6 Brigades to its right and left rear respectively and Divisional Headquarters Group tucked in behind the three of them, while Administration Group remained just east of the Wire. The 7th Indian Brigade was already at Libyan Sheferzen, linked by patrols of B Squadron, Divisional Cavalry, to 4 Armoured Brigade at Bir Gibni on the Trigh el-Abd.
Daylight revealed mainly domestic matters (congestion at Divisional Headquarters, too great a dispersion in 5 Brigade) and no sign of enemy. Men looked curiously about them but found little change in the smooth face of the desert. Here, as on the Egyptian side, it was firm shingle with patches of sand and a thin sprinkling of scrub. It was nevertheless enemy territory and slit trenches were dug, as General Freyberg noted, on a more enthusiastic scale’.
As the day progressed the absence of enemy aircraft provoked much comment. The RAF liaison officer, Wing Commander Magill, told Freyberg he thought the Division as an air target would provide ‘poor bombing’ but would not be ‘too bad for strafing’. At about 2.30 p.m. a few Me.109Fs machine-gunned Advanced Headquarters of 13 Corps just to the east and a nearby landing ground and then flew back over the Divisional area, where they were quickly engaged by 41 Light Anti-Aircraft Battery – the first New Zealand shots of the campaign. Shortly after midday word came that 7 Indian Brigade had occupied Bir Bu Deheua without opposition and Corps soon afterwards ordered the Division to move up to the Trigh el-Abd, some 12 miles north, which it did in the late afternoon without incident. The desert was smooth and flat, lorries could drive quite fast, and units were able to take up defensive positions before it got properly dark.
Each brigade was now allotted a squadron of 8 Royal Tanks, though C Squadron did not join 6 Brigade until much later. The troops were reassured to see the heavily armoured Valentines driving slowly through the laagers, some of them still carrying their ‘sunshields’, meant to look from the air like the canopies of lorries. Freyberg had discussed the capabilities of the Infantry tanks with Lieutenant-Colonel Brooke of 8 Royal Tanks in the morning. They could travel 60 miles across country and carried in first-line transport fuel for another 90 miles, to which might be added a ‘good quantity
of fuel’ on tank transporters if these were not required to carry tanks. The purpose of this exploration of technicalities is revealed in a diary entry this day:–
My feeling is that ‘I don’t care what the Boche is doing. I would go slap for Tobruk. If we wait he will get his air [force] up. I don’t think he knows where we are.’
Freyberg went ahead with preparations for the tasks already allotted in the frontier area; but when Hargest came in to discuss them he warned him of a ‘possible move to Tobruk’. The relief of this fortress, he was convinced, was the key to victory and not merely a consequence of it. Hints in the afternoon of an enemy withdrawal westwards from Halfaya added weight to this opinion, and in any case made it even more likely that 13 Corps would soon be ordered to start major operations. Freyberg telephoned Corps after dark and was told that this would be next morning but probably not ‘very early’, and he passed this on to his brigadiers as a warning order.
The next morning, 20 November, dawned bright and good news soon came in. Ariete had lost 45 tanks and 200 prisoners and 21 Panzer had also been hard hit. Five miles to the north 4 Armoured Brigade had joined battle with some 180 tanks and Freyberg, expecting quick results, got ready to move. Brigade commanders were warned they might have to advance at short notice north-eastwards to Hafid Ridge or straight to Tobruk. Divisional Cavalry2 would lead the way, with a 25-pounder troop attached, and then 5 Brigade.
Then came a puzzling hiatus. From 5 Brigade shell bursts could be seen to the north-east and Divisional Cavalry heard the hammering of guns to the north-west and had an anxious few moments from eight tanks, which luckily proved to be Stuarts of 4 Armoured Brigade. Hopes rose with reports that the enemy in front of this brigade was retreating. But Freyberg felt the Germans might move through the frontier line to counter-attack from somewhere north-east of the Omars, or they might come against the right flank of 4 Brigade. He spoke to Corps about helping 4 Armoured Brigade if needed:
I said we were ready to go out and help. Only way to move bodily, cannot take guns without denuding ourselves. Alternatively they could come on to our flank to rally or go to our rear. If the 4 Armd Bde is ordered to rally we can take a strong bump. ‘We are omnipotent. If you want us to advance let us know. If they ask for help, we will have to consider how best we can do it.’ Strong Cav patrol of ours is going over to contact 4 Armd Bde.3
A little later, when both panzer divisions were identified and located north of 4 Armoured Brigade, 13 Corps suggested to Army and 30 Corps that Gatehouse might rally if necessary ‘on left flank NZ Div who are strongly posted in present area.’ The patrol of Divisional Cavalry duly got in touch with Gatehouse and offered New Zealand help, which he rejected. Later in the afternoon the dual role of 4 Armoured Brigade was dropped with Godwin-Austen’s consent.
Freyberg was anxious to help and pressed the matter. He was in ‘a terrific fighting mood’, according to the Divisional Cavalry commander, and pointed out to the BGS 13 Corps that the New Zealand Division could be invaluable to 4 Armoured Brigade ‘if they are in difficulties’, particularly against 21 Panzer Division which was wrongly reported to have four infantry battalions as well as its tank regiment and artillery. Hargest watched 7 Indian Brigade engage enemy to the north-west and came in at 2.40 p.m. to report on this. All was favourably construed and Freyberg remarked to his GSO I, ‘Can’t help feeling he [the enemy] is on the run and we should help’, but Gentry4 disagreed: ‘No Sir; I think he is obviously contemplating some dirty work, coming forward with a view to breaking our communications’, he replied. ‘Our plan may be to let him come as far this way as possible before giving him a knock.’ Then came a warning order from Corps that the Division might have to move 10–11 miles forward at first light next day. This was disappointing and Freyberg rang Brigadier Harding again to say he was still willing to move this night. Harding was more cautious and asked if the Division was a little nervous about the large number of enemy tanks in the neighbourhood, to which Freyberg responded vigorously: ‘Oh, Good God, we are frothing to go! There’s no nervousness here.’ To those around him he added, ‘We are not frightened of a few tanks.’5 But 13 Corps was more cautious and he was told at dusk to stay where he was in the meantime and be ready to meet attack from the north. The Division, as a matter of routine, was ready for this and so Freyberg went straight to bed.
The GOC’s confidence was founded like that of other senior officers on the belief that the British armour would prove too strong for its opponents. Even with both panzer divisions in the frontier area and 4 Armoured Brigade released from its protective role, there seemed no great cause for concern, though local and temporary difficulties might arise. But the morning of 21 November brought relief from even these minor anxieties. When all the German armour made off at an early hour towards Tobruk, General Godwin-Austen gladly availed himself of the discretion vested in him the previous morning by the Army Commander. Quickly reassessing the situation, he ordered the New Zealand Division to advance to the Trigh Capuzzo and the Indian division to prepare an attack on the Omar forts.
BATTLEAXE had given hints of what the New Zealanders might have to meet on their march north and in the light of that campaign Freyberg and Hargest briefly surveyed the possibilities. Hargest suggested he might ‘do a Sidi Clif’ on Fort Capuzzo, moving up at night; but Freyberg was not at all sure that 5 Brigade would meet opposition there. Though eager to get under way he was reluctant to engage in heavy fighting until the situation cleared. ‘If there’s anything in it’, he concluded, ‘Capuzzo will have to be left until next night.’ ‘I am quite happy’, Hargest replied. ‘We shall be busy after our idleness.’
The situation as understood at Divisional Headquarters was highly favourable and was reported at 11 a.m. to brigades in the following terms: ‘4 Armd Bde were attacking 30 enemy tanks and remainder were pursuing enemy northwest. 22 Armd Bde was moving along enemy south flank. Intercept of enemy message stated situation one “of extreme urgency”.’ But Freyberg was dissatisfied with the vagueness of reports from Corps and telephoned Godwin-Austen to make sure no ambiguities had crept into the various instructions passed and to provide against needless delay in unfolding the Divisional plan.6 Hargest’s brigade would be on its way by 11.30 a.m., preceded by Divisional Cavalry. If it reached Sidi Azeiz and the next bound from there to the escarpment west of Bardia seemed open, Freyberg would report back to Corps by wireless at 2 p.m. for permission to send 4 Brigade to block the Via Balbia. At the same time 6 Brigade with 44 Royal Tanks, less one squadron, would drive to Bir el-Hariga, west of Sidi Azeiz, in readiness to go on if needed to Gambut or Tobruk. To all this Godwin-Austen readily agreed; but there remained one irksome possibility against which 13 Corps could not guard. The enemy in the Omar forts
might choose to break out westwards and the link between 5 Brigade and 7 Indian Brigade would be too weak to hold him. ‘If he does that’, Freyberg remarked, ‘the long stop at TOBRUK will have to be informed and they will have to round them up.’ Thus the major operations of the Division began in an atmosphere clouded only by the fear that some of the enemy in the frontier area might escape westwards.
Divisional Cavalry had duly moved off at 11 a.m. with its three squadrons in line on a front of some ten miles, driving northwards over flat desert, past a few wrecked aircraft and on to the Trigh Capuzzo. A Squadron soon came upon Sidi Azeiz, and its carriers with 2-pounder support drove off two staff cars and a handful of lorries and captured four Germans and fifty Italians, among them an officer who had been taking a bath and preferred to wave his towel in surrender rather than to cover his nakedness. A Breda gun which might have offered stern opposition had it been manned was also captured and the regiment had every reason, as Freyberg noted in his diary, to be ‘very pleased with themselves’. But the Cavalry had to push on northwards, and the element of farce in their first encounter was soon followed by a comically serious ‘attack’ on Sidi Azeiz by 22 Battalion in ignorance of what had gone before. This was also unopposed but uncovered more booty in the form of four more Bredas, much ammunition, seven lorries and two motor-cycles.
In the course of its advance 5 Brigade was authorised to undertake all the tasks tentatively allotted by the Divisional plan and Hargest was in a tremendous hurry to get as much done as possible before dark. When Lieutenant-Colonel Allen7 of 21 Battalion, who was sent on ahead to reconnoitre Hafid and Bir Ghirba on the right flank, halted to brief his company commanders and the hastily-attached supporting troops,8 Hargest drove up at high speed and ordered him to keep the battalion group moving. Allen therefore had to pass orders to his subordinates one at a time as they rode in turn in his car. He halted for the night just west of Hafid and the troops dug in facing east, while the rest of the brigade group settled down between there and Sidi Azeiz.
Lieutenant-Colonel Leckie9 of 23 Battalion was then told to send out a reinforced company to patrol the approaches to Fort Capuzzo and, if possible, cut the water pipeline between Bardia and Sollum.
With reasonable luck this company might be able to test the defences of the Fort to pave the way for a full battalion attack before dawn on the 22nd. But luck was even more plentiful. By a miscalculation the company set out from a point a mile and a half nearer the fort than it supposed and soon found itself inside what had been regarded as outlying defences without sight or sound of enemy. The company commander, Captain Thomson,10 saw no reason to draw back and with quick precautions against ambush marched into the heart of the fort and captured it with scarcely a shot fired. The small Italian garrison was surprised not by stealth but by noise: Thomson’s company, thinking itself out of enemy earshot, had given such loud warning of its approach that the handful of defenders had no thought of hostile intrusion. Two 105-millimetre guns and their crews were captured. Thomson brought up his carriers and anti-tank guns and soon laid out his own defences. He now possessed the main telephone exchange of the frontier area and within a few minutes (with the help of a co-operative Italian officer) the water pipeline was cut. At 5 a.m. on the 22nd two lorries loaded with
rations drove in from Bardia and three Italians were killed and a dozen captured. Further exploitation of the seizure of this track junction and communications centre followed after dawn, the enemy on the northern hinge of the frontier line taking some time to grasp what had happened.
Meanwhile an instruction was signed at Brigade Headquarters at 10.35 p.m. allotting Leckie, with a supporting squadron of I tanks, the tasks of capturing Capuzzo, blocking enemy movement in the area, and patrolling the road to Musaid on the way to Sollum. At 1.30 a.m. Leckie got word that the first and most important of these was already accomplished. The whole battalion would nevertheless be needed to hold the large area specified and carry out subsidiary tasks, and the remainder moved forward in the early hours of the morning, reaching Capuzzo soon after dawn.
The brigade staff was also planning another operation against an objective which was to prove in the event undefended, Hafid Ridge, a slight feature which had been the scene of heavy fighting in BATTLEAXE. The instruction was signed at 11.15 p.m. and 21 Battalion Group was to be ready to attack any time after first light on the 22nd. The defences as known up to 6 November and overprinted on current maps showed only a few scattered diggings and a little wire in the area, with some transport to the south-west, and there was nothing to suggest that enemy might be found there in strength; but it was better to be sure than sorry.
While 5 Brigade swung right to face Sollum, 4 Brigade, at first meant to halt short of the Trigh Capuzzo, was ordered while on the move to carry on northwards to the escarpment west of Bardia. This promised to be an easy journey of five or six miles, but it proved very different. After dark units struck soft ground and patches of bog. North of the Trigh Capuzzo the guiding lights veered off course and some detachments followed them while others kept to the correct bearings, only to come upon a deep and muddy trench which crossed the route. In black night and drizzling rain men sought to extricate vehicles and get past obstacles as best they could. Carriers and four-wheel-drive lorries towed less versatile vehicles across the ditch or through the mire and units sorted themselves out bit by bit south of Menastir. Enough order had been restored by 5.30 a.m. on the 22nd for battalions to move off on their allotted tasks, 18 Battalion probing to the right along the lip of the ridge towards Bardia, while 20 Battalion drove north to cut the Via Balbia and 19 Battalion opened out to the west to cover Brigade Headquarters.
Despite this muddy ordeal, however, the brigade gained an even greater measure of surprise than 5 Brigade. The 250-foot escarpment dominated the coast road and the ground to the north and opened up as day dawned a peaceful panorama of unsuspecting supply and service units, mostly of 21 Panzer Division, which were scattered along both sides of the road. First success went to a German detachment which decamped from alongside 18 Battalion at first light and made off rapidly towards Bardia with an FOO of 4 Field Regiment, though a few Germans, much loot and some 100 vehicles were later captured in the deserted camp. B Company explored eastwards to within 200 yards of Bardia defences and noted manned posts every two chains along the perimeter and a few small working parties outside. At point-blank range 4 Field Regiment meanwhile shelled clusters of vehicles at the foot of the ridge and caused the numerous cameos of camp life below to break into violent animation. When ‘the Germans to the north discovered we were upon them’, says Brigadier Inglis, ‘the stretch of country we overlooked resembled a disturbed ants’ nest.’ A Company of 20 Battalion rushed down the escarpment on foot to form a road block, then Lieutenant-Colonel Kippenberger committed B Company to attack a camp of sixty tents to the east, and finally D Company to help. B Company pushed on 500 yards north of the road with the carriers another 500 yards farther on, and the mortars took full advantage of the sweeping view from the top. By breakfast time some seventy prisoners had been taken, the rest of the enemy was roused and in full flight, and firing died down, though the Bardia guns soon began a slow bombardment of the crest in the area of 18 Battalion. Inglis began thinking of attacking Bardia and at 9.32 a.m. suggested to Divisional Headquarters that he might start to do so at ten o’clock; but Freyberg was not at hand and the matter was deferred.
On its journey to Bir el-Hariga 6 Brigade met even worse going than 4 Brigade and floundered through the mud in increasing confusion until, at 1 a.m., Brigadier Barrowclough decided to halt for the night six or seven miles short of his destination. A vehicle-repair detachment of eight vehicles with two German officers and eighteen other ranks was captured on the way without a shot fired. On the way, too, Barrowclough heard that 44 Royal Tanks with two squadrons of Matildas was coming up to join him. For some time he was out of touch with Divisional Headquarters, since the wireless-link vehicle had joined 4 Brigade by mistake, and therefore could not learn what was in store for him. All he knew was that for the time being he was in divisional reserve awaiting further instructions.
These had reached Divisional Headquarters, as it happened, from Corps at 6.30 p.m. in the following bald signal:
One Bde Gp will definitely be required to move west-wards 22 Nov to pass to comd 30 Corps. Location to which Bde is to go will be signalled later. Ack.
Then came further details, timed 8.45 p.m. and received at 12.50 a.m. on the 22nd:
As situation north of escarpment is still obscure 6 Inf Bde Group will move south of line BIR EL CHLETA 454403 and point 175 438404 destination follows later. Maximum AG 9311 will be taken for VALENTINES.12 Second line transport will accompany Brigade group. Ack.
No urgency attached to either message and 13 Corps seemed to confirm this in reporting at 8.10 p.m. on the 21st that 170 enemy tanks were thought to have been hit and that the Italians were ‘rapidly withdrawing BIR HACHEIM true to form’. In this setting the move of 6 Brigade to join 30 Corps could occasion no alarm and was linked in the eyes of 13 Corps with no crisis in the battle to the west. On the contrary, the circumstances under which such a move had been envisaged in the CRUSADER plan were favourable and the ordering of the move by Eighth Army was taken as a good omen.
Breakfast time on 22 November therefore saw the Division’s operations developing according to plan and with good auguries. Soon afterwards a heavy shower of rain ‘made conditions unpleasant’, as the Divisional Cavalry diarist noted, and clogged rifles and Bren guns with sand. A mile or two to the south 7 Indian Brigade moved into position for a midday attack on the three linked strongpoints of Sidi Omar Nuovo, to be followed through to Libyan Omar, a mile to the west; but 5 Brigade knew little about this important operation.
Hargest had been refused permission to attack Musaid during the night because of 6 Brigade’s impending departure for 30 Corps; but it was occupied in the afternoon without fighting and with no sign of enemy until next morning, when sixteen Italians emerged from a cellar and surrendered to the platoon of 23 Battalion which was in occupation. B Squadron of 8 Royal Tanks followed through to the escarpment overlooking Sollum and there lost two tanks before dusk on the 22nd.
Bardia was approached from three directions. Eighteenth Battalion investigated its defences from the west, then a company of 22 Battalion advanced from Sidi Azeiz in mid-morning, and in early
afternoon another came from 23 Battalion with I-tank support. The defences, far from being lightly held and in a state of disrepair as had been believed, were strong and active and three men were killed and fifteen wounded before the company of the 22nd could be extricated in the late afternoon. The third probe ran into such heavy shellfire that the tanks and infantry beat a hasty retreat. The capture of Bardia would evidently call for an operation much larger than any at present contemplated and so the Division looked for other ways of exploiting the situation. There was already much profit from the activities of both brigades at no great cost to either; but not many ripe plums now awaited picking.
Hargest and Freyberg were both delighted with the capture of Capuzzo and had no idea how easy it had been. In this optimistic atmosphere another operation got under way with less than usual care and guidance from above. Patrols of 21 Battalion soon after first light on the 22nd found Bir Hafid unoccupied and Allen decided to seize it and probe towards Bir Ghirba. While a strong patrol was being assembled for this purpose he reported to Brigade Headquarters and there received orders to attack Bir Ghirba, to capture it if possible, and in any case ‘definitely to contain it’.13 One object, and perhaps the only one, was to divert attention from the Indian attack on the Omars, of which few details were known.
Allen’s plan must be inferred from what happened. The fighting patrol already in being, 15 Platoon with a section each of carriers and mortars, as the spearhead was to attack what was thought to be an outpost of the Bir Ghirba position. A and B Companies and supporting arms were then to mount the main assault south-eastwards while the rest of C Company took over Bir Hafid and D Company guarded the vehicle park.
The ‘outpost’, however, proved to be the main position and the fighting patrol spent a miserable hour or so establishing this fact. Under Captain Ferguson14 it approached soon after 9.30 a.m. and ran into heavy mortar fire, the infantry dismounted, and their vehicles were sent back. The platoon made ground to the left, where there was slight cover, but lost a dozen men and could get no closer than 150 yards from the enemy. A sudden heavy shower of rain soaked the infantry to the skin and left them lying shivering in puddles, their small arms useless for the time being.
Ferguson spoke to Allen by R/T and the latter at once came up by carrier, heedless of the fire he attracted. A quick study of the ‘buildings, concrete emplacements, dugouts, native houses, wire and petrol dump’15 ahead convinced him that this was indeed Bir
Ghirba, and Allen ordered B Company up to attack on Ferguson’s right. Shielded from the enemy’s view by rain, the lorries took the infantry to within 600 yards of the nearest barbed wire. Then the men pressed forward on foot until the mist lifted suddenly and the fortifications stood out clearly ahead: minefields marked by low wire and behind them concrete emplacements and one or two hull-down tanks. From these came fierce fire against which no more than 150–200 yards could be gained in short dashes and at considerable cost in men. Then B Company was pinned down still 300 yards short of the enemy.
Allen now committed A Company and its lorries drove up quickly between B Company and Ferguson’s detachment. As the vehicles drove boldly forward, however, they were hit one after the other by anti-tank and small-arms fire and put out of action. The riflemen dismounted roughly level with B Company and splashed through puddles of water in a series of charges until they, too, could get no farther. Many were hit in vehicles or in the act of vacating them, and the slightest movement from those on the ground attracted keen enemy attention. The 25-pounders of 47 Field Battery gave continuous support and scored several successes but were too few to subdue the MG fire, though they hit an ammunition dump which went up in several explosions, one of them heavy enough to shower A Company with fragments.
There was little Allen could now do with his own resources and when Major Straker,16 the Brigade Major, arrived on the scene in mid-afternoon Allen asked him for another company. Brigade Headquarters refused, but authorised him instead to relinquish Hafid Ridge, thereby making the rest of C Company available. With the lesson of A Company’s experience in mind, C Company was stripped to troop-carrying vehicles only and these were introduced with care to avoid exposing the loaded lorries to fire of the kind which had swept through A Company. By this means the two fresh platoons got forward on the left, near Ferguson’s detachment, with comparatively few casualties, though part of 15 Platoon came under fire from both sides in the process and Ferguson eventually got permission to withdraw it a short distance. Four more 25-pounders17 were added to 47 Field Battery at this stage but made little difference.
At dusk C Company had almost reached the wire, but was faced with some thirty MGs in strong positions. Against such opposition only a well-prepared assault offered hope of success, and after dark the possibilities of a battalion attack by night or at first light next morning were canvassed. Allen in the end settled for an attack two
hours before dawn. Meanwhile the wounded received the attention denied them in daylight, ammunition was brought forward, and hot food was prepared. In the midst of this activity, against a background of burning lorries and the still-exploding enemy ammunition dump, an order came from Brigade about 12.30 a.m. on the 23rd for the battalion to withdraw.
The 25-pounders continued to fire and by their flashes and the light of a burning A Company lorry the companies disengaged and withdrew to the B Echelon area, the lorries coming as far forward as they dared to pick up their loads. There a hot meal awaited the men and was eagerly eaten. Bir Ghirba had offered far sterner resistance than they had been led to expect and they were not sorry to see the last of it.
Losses in this abortive action are given in the unit diary as 13 killed and 65 wounded; but the question of why such heavy losses were accepted for such a minor (and in the end fruitless) action remains unanswered. One officer concerned remarked that General Freyberg was ‘not enthusiastic’ when he heard of Allen’s heavy losses. Freyberg obviously intended no such costly operation and he probably wanted no more than a show of force to distract attention from the Indian attack to the south. Allen certainly acted within his instructions and, since the Brigade Major spent two or three hours with him in the afternoon without calling a halt, the misunderstanding must have been at brigade level. At all events, the headquarters of 55 Savona Division at Bir Ghirba, with 600 men to defend it, was not seriously endangered by an infantry attack across flat desert in daylight without tank support and covered by very few field guns. With no anti-tank guns the attackers were throughout highly vulnerable also to a tank counter-thrust, which was by no means unlikely. Of all the New Zealand attacks in CRUSADER this was the most unrewarding.
The hasty and haphazard mounting of the Bir Ghirba attack stands in sharp contrast to the careful and thorough preparation of the Indian assault on the Omar forts, which it was meant to assist. This had been the subject of study for some weeks at many levels and entailed close combination on the battlefield of many arms, including the RAF bomber and fighter forces. The plan was to descend from the north on the three linked strongpoints of Sidi Omar Nuovo (‘Frongia’) and then carry on two miles westward into the heart of Libyan Omar (‘Sidi Omar’ as the enemy called it), a compact and even stronger position with five main segments. Omar Nuovo was manned by III Battalion of the Italian 16 Infantry Regiment, with supporting arms which included several Italian
75-millimetre HAA guns in anti-tank roles, while Libyan Omar contained I Battalion and Regimental Headquarters reinforced by 12 Oasis Company and other German detachments, including the crews of 88-millimetre guns which could fire with deadly anti-tank effect at ranges upwards of 2000 yards. Anti-tank minefields of great depth and complexity covered southern and western approaches, some had even been hastily laid in the north which it was hoped might be free of them, and there was much barbed wire. Five miles north-east of Omar Nuovo was a similar position, ‘Cova’, against which 4/11 Sikh Regiment carried out several feints as the rest of 7 Indian Brigade assembled. Slit trenches which formed the infantry posts were flush with the ground and very hard to locate, making the strongpoints ‘almost invisible’.18
The Omar Nuovo operation was in essence an infantry battalion attack, carried out by 1 Royal Sussex, but with a weight and quality of support which might have made 21 Battalion (had they known of it) green with envy. First two formations of Marylands sprinkled the target with bombs, followed by twenty-three low-flying fighters with blazing machine guns. Twenty minutes later, at noon, the 4.5-inch guns and 6-inch howitzers of 68 Medium Regiment and the 25-pounders of 1 and 25 Field Regiments, RA, fired timed concentrations and laid a thick smoke screen to shield the right flank from the Libyan Omar guns. Two carrier platoons led off at 12.20 p.m., but the two squadrons of Matildas which were meant to be right behind them were twenty minutes late and lost much of the benefit of the artillery programme. Next came two companies of infantry in lorries, then the reserve squadron of I tanks, and finally the rest of 1 Royal Sussex, an anti-tank battery, and another field battery.
Several tanks and perhaps some carriers came to grief on minefields, some of which were unmarked. Then there was a brief pause as anti-tank guns, including 88s,19 engaged the tanks. The infantry debussed at the minefields and burst into the enemy positions in the face of heavy fire, the tanks and carriers pressed on, and by 1.50 p.m. Omar Nuovo was captured except for a few posts. The tanks and carriers rallied to the north to form up for the assault on Libyan Omar while the Royal Sussex rounded up prisoners, attended to their many casualties, and occupied the defences.
In rallying the tanks struck more mines and the new assault was thereby delayed until 3.15 p.m. It went in on a narrow front, as minefields dictated, with B Squadron, 44 Royal Tanks, leading with troops in line ahead. Driving through the narrow neck between minefields, B Squadron found itself heading straight towards two 88s, and the leading troop, having no alternative, increased speed to close with them, making it impossible for the following tanks to open out into more effective order. Thus the squadron tackled a powerful anti-tank position ‘practically line ahead’,20 a disastrous method, and lost thirteen of its fourteen Matildas. The remnants of 42 Royal Tanks, formed into a composite squadron, deployed more widely in an effort to escape this deadly fire and in so doing lost tanks on a minefield to the north. The infantry, this time 4/16 Punjab, were again too far behind the covering artillery fire and had little or no tank support; but they nevertheless carried on as the Royal Sussex had done with great gallantry and overran
many posts, taking numerous prisoners. The greater part of Libyan Omar, however, remained in enemy hands, with the menacing 88s, 12 Oasis Company, and well over a thousand Italians still resisting. By infiltration during the night the Punjabis were able to tighten their grip and gain a thousand more prisoners next day; but the western part of the fortress was stubbornly defended (and was not captured, as it happened, until the end of the month).
Omar Nuovo was thus seized and the even stronger Libyan Omar breached in the afternoon of the 22nd, and 7 Indian Brigade proceeded to consolidate its gains. Some 1500 prisoners were taken, all told, at a cost of a third of that number of casualties.21 Both infantry battalions were hard hit, but the really crippling loss was in tanks: 42 Royal Tanks lost 35 I tanks out of 42 and only seven I tanks and seven light tanks were left in fighting order. The heavily armoured infantry tanks had fared no better than the cruiser tanks of 30 Corps against enemy anti-tank guns, and the 88s had given terrible evidence of their power in terms of blazing and gutted Matildas. The minefields had served them well by disabling tanks for later destruction or by channelling the attack to suit the guns. Much comment was made at the time and later about the lack of a tank gun which could engage such powerful anti-tank guns to good effect;22 yet a battery of 8 Field Regiment, RA, had followed the tanks into action with the express purpose of giving close support against opportunity targets, and proper co-operation between Matildas and 25-pounders could have done much to overcome the danger.
Messervy’s striking power was now greatly reduced and it was out of the question for some time to eat any farther into the frontier line. ‘Cova’ was strongly held, as 4/11 Sikh found in the course of its covering operations, so a Corps plan of 7.20 p.m. to take this next day and Bir Ghirba as well had to be shelved. Moreover, 5 Indian Brigade was still scattered along the L of C, leaving a wide gap between 7 and 11 Brigades which Central India Horse did its best to patrol. It was an odd twist of fortune, however, that this scarcely favourable situation of 13 Corps gave rise to acute anxiety in the mind of the man who had designed and supervised the extension of the frontier line to Sidi Omar: General Rommel. This attack and the operations of 5 New Zealand Brigade farther north were to provoke a reaction of such unreasoning violence that it robbed Rommel of the fruits of victory at Sidi Rezegh.
Good news meanwhile flowed continuously to Hargest’s headquarters from 23 Battalion during the 22nd, outweighing any misgivings the 5 Brigade commander may have felt about the Bir Ghirba attack. Carrier patrols had by 9 a.m. taken 38 Germans and 80 Italians using the Bardia-Sollum road, and this traffic yielded by the end of the day more than 250 prisoners. After dark Leckie was told to co-operate as closely as possible with Lieutenant-Colonel Dittmer23 of 28 Maori Battalion, who would pass through in the night to capture Sollum Barracks at the top of the pass, the main concerns being to cut off traffic between Sollum and Bardia and patrol the pass road to prevent its demolition, thereby retaining this route for later use in supplying Eighth Army.
The Maori attack went smoothly according to plan. The rifle companies dismounted at Musaid and advanced on foot at 3.30 a.m. on the 23rd, with C Company on the right and D on the left, each with an added platoon. Coming upon the rough circle of barrack buildings from the north-west, they surged through light rain in the stillness before a cold dawn and were soon joined by the ten
Valentines of B Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, under Major Sutton. A few rifle shots heralded light skirmishing among the buildings which led to the capture of dozens of willing Italian prisoners. The few Germans were less obliging, but fifty-four Italians in a cave gave themselves up to one Maori. The tanks silenced a mortar which opened fire near the water tower and helped to overcome the crew of another to the north. A troublesome machine gun on the edge of the escarpment was taken at the point of the bayonet by a section of B Company. Other gun positions identified from aerial photographs proved to be empty, though an anti-tank gun fired several times before D Company charged it. Local opposition soon collapsed and C and D Companies spread out along the escarpment to isolate the barracks from Lower Sollum, while A and B Companies, using existing defences and digging more where required, settled in to the north and west.
Among the few casualties of this early fighting was Dittmer himself and for the time being Major Sutton took command, succeeded later in the day by Captain Love.24 Guns on the escarpment towards Halfaya began to range accurately throughout the area and the tanks, attracting much fire, lost some of their popularity among the infantry near them. The Vickers gunners were also shelled as they carried out their characteristically thorough preparation of MMG positions, with one section facing Halfaya and the other Bardia. The German company in Lower Sollum kept the pass road and its environs under small-arms fire, which killed Captain Tureia25 of C Company and discouraged further exploitation thereabouts in daylight. Slowly the enemy in Bardia and Lower Sollum perceived what was happening and began to react.
Casualties in the actual assault were few, but shellfire on inhospitable ground caused several deaths and wounded many men. By dusk the dead numbered 20 and there were 34 wounded, Captain Harvey26 of A Company among them. These losses were not light in relation to the poor quality of resistance offered, and would doubtless have been fewer had some of the Maoris restrained their high spirits and investigated their new surroundings more cautiously. Booty included several 75-millimetre guns, one 25-pounder, and many German and Italian machine guns with much ammunition, as well as numerous vehicles (most of them out of order) and large quantities of food, cigarettes, and other comforts.
The capture of Upper Sollum sealed off the large Halfaya-Sollum position from Bardia, at least so far as the non-mobile frontier garrisons were concerned, and seemed to 5 Brigade Headquarters to offer opportunities for exploitation, particularly by artillery fire. From the top of the pass ‘gun-positions, trench systems, dug-outs, cookhouses, groups of vehicles and the enemy himself were easily discernible to the naked eye and most of this was within range of our 25-pdrs at MUSAID’.27 It seemed a gunner’s paradise, and the Brigade Major, himself a gunner, was much impressed. But the long haul to stock Musaid with gun ammunition made a heavy artillery programme impracticable and the Sollum-Halfaya defences were in any case less vulnerable than they looked.
For the enemy the greatest embarrassment from 5 Brigade’s operations was that the frontier strongpoints could no longer get water and other supplies from Bardia, and the Italian official historian blames Major-General Schmitt, commander of the East Sector, for neglecting to put Capuzzo, Musaid and Upper Sollum in a proper state of defence. At Panzer Group Headquarters the impression gained ground that the British meant to capture Sollum and Halfaya Pass, ‘which would have given ... [them] command of the coast road most important for ... [their] supply’, and when the latter remained in German hands anxiety abated. ‘Only Upper Sollum was lost’, the Panzer Group battle report states, with evident relief. But the presence of strong British forces in this area could not be viewed lightly and the situation at Sidi Omar was anything but reassuring, as Panzer Group learned in the following signal from Savona Division received at 2 p.m. on 23 November:
A reconnaissance force must be pushed straight forward to Sidi Omar as Bir Ghirba is not threatened at present. If possible provide immediate air support for Sidi Omar where the position is critical as a result of heavy attacks in superior force.
This had profound consequences; but General de Giorgis failed to indicate that Omar Nuovo and half of Libyan Omar (‘Sidi Omar’) had already been lost. This, too, had its repercussions. At the very time he sent the message, 4/16 Punjab was in course of ejecting the last of the defenders from the eastern half of Libyan Omar and adding a thousand to the total of prisoners taken the previous day. De Giorgis was nine miles away at Bir Ghirba; but Panzer Group somehow gathered that his headquarters had fallen into British hands.
In the morning of the 22nd Freyberg went to all three brigade headquarters and heard nothing but minor problems. At lunch time he learned that the Tobruk sortie had gained ‘some success’ and 1100 prisoners had been taken, and he took it that the garrison had by that time linked up with 30 Corps. Soon afterwards he discussed the tasks of 4 Brigade with Brigadier Inglis. The road block on the Via Balbia seemed secure and 18 Battalion and units of 5 Brigade were keeping a close watch on Bardia, which was too strong for Inglis to tackle unaided. The attack which the brigade staff was preparing was therefore called off. But Freyberg was uneasy about Inglis’s third task of dominating the escarpment crossings for 15 miles west of Menastir. Divisional Cavalry with added field and anti-tank guns now had this role; but Freyberg felt it would be too much for them after dark and thought Inglis should send 19 Battalion. Divisional Cavalry could then withdraw into reserve. Inglis agreed and 19 Battalion under Lieutenant-Colonel Hartnell moved off at 3 p.m. and took up its new duties two hours later.
Twentieth Battalion had had a busy morning at Menastir. B and D Companies had duly climbed back up the escarpment at midmorning, having cleared several encampments. Then enemy were seen west of A Company’s road block and C Company was sent
down to attack them. A heavy mist blotted out the ground below and when MG fire from the direction of C Company was heard, mingled with the sound of heavier calibres, Colonel Kippenberger had to hurry half a mile westwards along the crest before he could make out what was happening through a break in the mist. It looked as though C Company, which had no anti-tank guns, was faced with half a dozen tanks and a mobile gun, two mortars and ‘some scores of infantry’.28 He soon got 4 Field Regiment to fire at the ‘tanks’ and his 3-inch mortars at the infantry, while Captain Fountaine29 withdrew C Company in good order. By noon the enemy had halted a mile west of the road block and was lightly shelling A Company.
This called for further action and Kippenberger proposed a battalion attack with I-tank support, to which Inglis readily agreed. A Squadron of 8 Royal Tanks therefore descended, formed its Valentines up facing westwards, and attacked under short, sharp concentrations by 26 and 46 Field Batteries. C Company followed 500 yards behind, while Kippenberger took B Company along the crest to seize whatever chance was offered of committing it below, only to get driven back in error by fire from the Valentines. But no harm was done. The enemy ‘tanks’ were driven off easily and 230 prisoners brought in by C Company, together with a few mortars and two infantry guns. This brought the total of prisoners in this area to about 320, including 18 Germans, while casualties in 20 Battalion were only two killed and five wounded.
A brave and resourceful German officer, Captain Briel, CO of 606 Anti-Aircraft Battalion, was Kippenberger’s opponent in this action. Briel’s 20-millimetre platoon had been stationed a few miles west of Menastir to protect the B Echelons of 21 Panzer Division, and it was this platoon with supply personnel, mostly Italian, who supplied the opposition, reinforced later by men from Briel’s headquarters. The immediate object was to cover the evacuation of the dumps of 21 Panzer and lorries shuttled backwards and forwards throughout the day taking supplies westwards. By evening the dumps were almost cleared, though enough remained for Briel to order his little group to hold on until next day. It was lucky for him that observers mistook his armoured half-tracked gun carriers with their automatic 20-millimetre dual-purpose guns for tanks, and that they were unaware of the intention behind his stubborn and skilful delaying action. Both sides were, as it happened, in the happy position of being able at the end of the day to
congratulate themselves on a local success; but Briel’s was the greater achievement and the course of the campaign might have been very different had 4 Brigade captured the bulk of the supplies of 21 Panzer, opening the way to those of the rest of Africa Corps in the Gambut area.
The methodical exploitation of the surprise gained in the night move to Menastir, however, was rudely interrupted by a signal from Corps at 1.40 p.m. which Freyberg thought ‘extraordinary’:
Leave minimum Tps to observe enemy BARDIA and send remainder your tps clear up area North road BARDIA-TOBRUK and advance on GAMBUT which enemy aircraft still using. Advance West will best assist VZV [not deciphered] plan.
Gentry thought Godwin-Austen intended a brigade raid to Gambut airfield and back. ‘Rather cunningly’, he added, ‘they [Corps] have put the responsibility on us of deciding what is the minimum number of troops to police Bardia.’ Freyberg was at the time preoccupied with ‘bottling up’ Bardia and sent a liaison officer to 13 Corps to explain how strong the enemy was in this area. ‘Area held by 20 Bn is terribly weak’, he noted in his diary. ‘We don’t want these people to get out and when they find a Bn instead of a Bde they will try. They counter attacked from the North of Bardia this morning. Corps Comd must know we are up against a good number of troops.’ In a signal of 2.30 p.m. to 13 Corps he expressed this as follows:
6 Inf Bde now under comd 30 Corps. Presume you NOT wish take all Tps other than those guarding BARDIA. Propose leaving minimum guarding western exits from BARDIA and send two bns two sqns I Tanks and Div Cav to clear up area incl GAMBUT and North of rd BARDIA TOBRUK west to 46 Grid Line. Will you say if this meets Corps order. Enemy Tps on present Div front active. Do NOT recommend weakening the block South of BARDIA at present. Reply immediate.
Grid 46 was a north-south line just west of Gambut and the broken country north of the Via Balbia up to there still held many enemy troops and facilities; but the airfield was evidently the chief objective, as Gentry had perceived. At 4 p.m. 13 Corps signalled agreement.
Gentry went to 4 Brigade about 3.30 p.m. and in the absence of Inglis left orders for the brigade (less 20 Battalion) to move to Point 220, eight miles westwards above the escarpment. This was in line with the CRUSADER operation order and caused no surprise. The brigade staff seem to have understood that they were to take over from Divisional Cavalry, and Inglis assumed that all that was intended was to strengthen a move already ordered. Nineteenth Battalion had gone to relieve the Cavalry and now the
18th was to follow, which it did, with Brigade Headquarters and supporting arms, at 4.25 p.m. To Gentry it was the first stage of a move to Gambut; but he was not ready to order the second until Corps agreed to Freyberg’s proposals. Freyberg wanted 44 Royal Tanks (less a squadron) and the attached field battery to go too, but they had not yet reached 4 Brigade and steps were therefore taken to inform them of the new rendezvous. For the time being 20 Battalion at Menastir would retain A Squadron, 8 Royal Tanks, as well as one field battery and other support.
Fourth Brigade (less the 20th) deployed around Bir el Baheira soon after dark. Divisional Cavalry had gone before 19 Battalion arrived and could not therefore detach the squadron which Freyberg also wanted to go with 4 Brigade on the Gambut ‘raid’. Some time in the night Brigadier Inglis received a cyclostyled message from Divisional Headquarters ordering him to go to Gambut at first light and clear the enemy from that neighbourhood and from a 20-mile stretch of broken country north of the Via Balbia. This was an interesting assignment, but still no radical departure from the CRUSADER plan, and it carried no hint that all was not well on the Tobruk front. On the contrary, it seemed to suggest that things had gone better than expected and that the Division could undertake even more ambitious tasks than the plan had laid down.